| Catapult Alumni
Fiction Excerpt from ‘Cravings’
This novel excerpt was written by Katelyn Kiley in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator.
Thirty-three-year-old Alanna is adrift. All of her friends have moved on through respective life milestones—marriages, children, promising careers—while she remains unmoored: unpartnered, lonely, and lacking purpose. Even her sister, who upended Alanna’s adolescence with her heroin addiction, has passed Alanna by, stable and functional with several years of sobriety under her belt. When Alanna meets Justin through a dating app, she feels a surge of hope for her future despite the inconsistency of his interest in her. She becomes even more fixated on him after her parents announce they are divorcing and will be selling the family home—a chaotic turn of events that sucks Alanna back into childhood patterns and causes her to face memories she would rather keep buried. In the midst of this tumult, Alanna’s own house is invaded by bees. As she undertakes a series of attempts to deal with the intruders, Alanna questions whether she will ever find a place for herself as an adult that feels like home.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about men and women. When my mother met my father, she was nineteen years old. When I was nineteen I spent a Thursday night pounding shots of rail whiskey in a basement with some frat guy I’d just met. Straddling him on a filthy couch I’d said, you’re not as handsome as the guys I usually hook up with, thinking he’d take it as a compliment. I guess what I meant was, you don’t need to be handsome because you have other appeal. I don’t know what I thought he’d understand the other appeal to be. I don’t even know what I thought the appeal was, honestly. Whiskey? He looked at me, puzzled, for a moment and a friend who happened to be standing nearby said, Alanna! Chastising me. Was that rude, I asked him, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just saying, everyone knows men don’t need to be handsome. He cocked an eyebrow at me. Look, I’m sorry, I said, and kissed him again with tongue.
I had an astronomy midterm the next morning and even though I’d brushed my teeth twice when I woke up, little chunks of vomit kept getting knocked loose from my molars and I kept having to swallow them, gagging a little in a way that I hoped no one noticed. Even though I’d showered the smell of whiskey hovered around me. I got a 68 on that exam—my lowest grade ever on a test, in a class I’d taken specifically because it was supposed to be easy. Months later, I pulled a more traditional all-nighter, one during which I actually studied, before the final. I got a 97 on that exam, enough to pull my grade for the semester up to a B-plus. Which is how I’ve always done things: spinning out, reeling myself back in.
Now, I’m thirty-three. When Jesus was my age, he’d achieved all the spiritual growth he was going to achieve, founded an entire religion and died for it. When my mother was my age, she had the cleaning and the shopping and the cooking all set in an elaborate choreography, attending to the needs of the household and caring for my sister and me—both of us fully established children, at ten and eight. When my sister was my age, she was five years clean and newly engaged to her now-husband. I live alone in a small house that I only own because my parents helped out with the down payment, in a city neighborhood full of college kids and eccentric professors and tattooed chefs and musicians. I’m unsure how everyone else managed to transform into adult versions of themselves, while I remain just me.
I only ever had vague visions of adulthood. As a kid I assumed I’d probably have some kind of house in a nice neighborhood, and a husband who put on a suit before he went to work each morning. Who knew what he’d do at work—sit at a conference table and make deals I guess, calculate numbers at a big desk, take other men in suits out to lunch. I had similarly vague ideas about my imagined life at home, raising children. The only thing I was sure of was that when I had kids I’d do a very good job of paying attention to them. I wouldn’t just love them, I thought—I’d see them. For who they were. I’d understand them. I’d know them. In my imagined adult life, everyone in the family would belong.
And now here I am, sitting alone in front of a basket of chips and a margarita, waiting for a stranger to arrive. Needless to say, everything is going according to plan.
I open the dating app to check his photo, prompting myself to be sure I’ll recognize him. Justin—his name is Justin. He has a friendly, open face. Reddish-brown hair and broad shoulders. Freckles. I notice he has blue eyes and feel a little surge of hope before I can stop myself—I always pictured my children having blue eyes, and can’t seem to rewire my desire for a blue-eyed baby, though I’m ashamed of it now and rightly so. Where did it come from, this tiny eugenicist that lives in my heart?
Dating apps didn’t figure into my childhood imaginings of adulthood, because they didn’t exist yet. At most there were car phones—which felt then like magic. Even though my dad had one in his car, we were never allowed to use it because it was too expensive. I got in trouble for playing with it once. Funny to think about now, car phones. Impractical seeds of a future that, even then, was rushing toward us.
I wish it felt more reassuring—the way you can always depend on time to keep moving forward, each moment giving way to the next moment no matter what you do. But it’s less a carnival ride and more an endless conveyor belt to nowhere. I take a sip of my marg and laugh at myself. No use thinking about it so darkly.
I’m starting to regret arriving fifteen minutes early. I don’t know why I did—some stupid idea about feeling more secure if I’m already settled in a seat instead of coming in all flustered and trying to find him at the bar.
I was the one who picked the restaurant—they have excellent tacos and some arcade games in the back that might be fun to play after a couple of drinks. It’s a trendy Mexican restaurant staffed by white people, most of whom have tattoo sleeves and hairstyles my mother would describe as “creative.” I’m reminded of a time in my early 20s, home from college for the summer, when I went to lunch with my father at a restaurant downtown and as we were waiting for our sandwiches to arrive he’d said, what’s with all these people dressing like nerds on purpose? And I couldn’t figure out how to explain to him that what he was reading as “nerd” was, for a lot of people, cool.
They never were great at making room for the possibility that someone might choose to live differently from how they would, my parents. Other people were to be agreed with or else pitied. Or overlooked.
I look up to the TV, which is playing some action movie I don’t recognize. The kind of movie I would watch only if a boyfriend put it on some hungover Sunday early enough in the relationship for me to be putting real effort into being easygoing, and then I’d fall asleep a quarter of the way in. The dating thing is such a drag, and sometimes I thank my lucky stars that my ex Ben called me crazy and blocked me, because if he hadn’t it would probably feel easier to stay caught in that cycle of breaking up and getting back together. Both choices are bad, I guess: two wonky rides at a deranged state fair. Step right up! Which will you choose! The dysfunctional relationship tilt-a-whirl! Or the disappointing first date drop tower! Both will unsettle you, and if you end up nauseous that’s your problem. Fun for the whole family!
The man in the movie is trying to disarm a bomb. I watch him blankly for a minute and use the cocktail straw to stir my drink, even though it doesn’t actually need to be stirred. The margaritas here are great, done with a house-made sour mix comprised of real citrus, rather than whatever chemical mass-manufactured store-bought stuff a lot of places use. I watch the bartender bring a can of craft beer to a couple sitting catty-corner to me. The man seems pleased with the selection, picks up the can to examine it, and the woman tucks herself into his side and says, Oh that’s such a pretty label. They seem less like two people, obviously a single unit. He pours the beer into a glass and offers her a sip first.
I pick up my phone and my hand automatically opens the app and begins swiping. As I progress through the stack I somehow forget that I’m waiting on a date to arrive.
A man named Chad with neck tattoos, left. A bald man named James whose photos are all of him with different women, left. A man named John with a picture of him standing in front of a Range Rover, another of him cooking dinner, much too performative, left. A man named Tim whose profile warns: I’m EXTREMELY well endowed so prefer dating someone who has previously dated/experienced or will not have any issue with an endowed guy—I almost swipe right out of curiosity (like come on, how big can it possibly be) but no, left. A man named Nick whose profile in its entirety reads, Destiny is all—left. Can’t tell what Will looks like, really, and he has nothing in his profile. Left. Chris is hot but in his profile he instructs: if you don’t work out honestly let’s leave it at that. I do work out, but fuck you, Chris. Left. Randy is naked except for the confederate flag he’s holding in front of his dick, left. God help us all.
I remember where I am and think to myself: For the love of god please let this man be different from those men, and save me from ever having to open that goddamned app again. On the television, a man is running from an exploding car. The couple down the bar has ordered another beer to split, alternating sips from a single glass. I knock back the last half-sip of margarita, more melted ice than anything.
The restaurant has big windows out front, and I notice him as he walks briskly toward the door, clearly a man who is late for a date. He looks solid in a reassuring way, tall and broad and taking long steps. He’s wearing a maroon crew-neck t-shirt and dark jeans and shoes that don’t draw attention to themselves. The door jingles as he walks in. He scans the room, notices me, gives a little half-wave. When I wave back to confirm my identity, his face expands into a smile and he walks toward me.