“He was wearing a dinosaur costume,” she said. She was fifteen and the therapist her parents had sent her to smelled like honey-lemon cough drops and didn’t know the right questions to ask. She found a button sewn into the couch that was coming unraveled and she tugged at it and turned it in circles. After a month of twice-weekly sessions, she finally got it torn off and put it in her pocket, and that was what Britta Perry got out of therapy.
She spent a lot of time saying that she didn’t want to talk about it. Then she spent a lot of time saying that her parents didn’t understand her, and she cried. She wore extra mascara so the crying would have a greater effect. It was fine: she always kept a pack of Kleenex in her purse so she could wipe it off in the car.
She had that cough-drop-sucking cheeseball in the palm of her hand, so when he asked her about the animals, and she said she didn’t know what he was talking about, he believed her.
Men, Britta decided, were sheep, and everyone knew what happened to sheep.
How Britta dropped out of high school: she was driving there (late) when she heard Radiohead’s “Creep” on the radio.
She never even went home. There was nothing there she wanted. She took what she had on her and she drove past the school and past the state line, and she sold her textbooks at a used a bookstore that paid her half in cash and half in McDonald’s coupons. She drank chocolate milkshakes until she got to Arizona, where she ran out of money and colored slips of paper. She parked at a Wal-Mart.
There were about a dozen people walking around the parking lot carrying signs about Wal-Mart’s business practices. They gave Britta a hot dog and a sign when she strayed closer, so she walked with them until the police came.
Britta didn’t like cops. Neither did the protesters, so it seemed they had something in common.
She was at a World Trade Rally when she cracked just a little further and swung her sign at someone’s face. It was wooden, homemade, heavy—she waited for the crunch of broken bone or cartilage—but one of the pigs tear-gassed her first, so she went down, pain delirious in her eyes. For some reason, that was almost as good. She rubbed her hands against the broken glass on the ground until she cut herself. Her face was still hot with tears.
She dated Blade for three months when she was twenty-four and he taught her everything he knew. She learned how to stretch almost-invisible plastic wrap over half the goldfish cups, she learned how to run the cotton candy machine, she learned how to stay rootless, how to drift from spot to spot, how to leave in the middle of the night, how to change her name, how to turn everything off.
“Never care what people think,” Blade told her one night, when he’d been out late. He had blood spattered across the tops of his shoes and he was scrubbing the stains out of the canvas carefully: there’d been no expectation that she would do it for him. Whatever else Blade was, he was a twenty-first century guy. “There’s no point in caring what people think if you can just—take care of everything, later. Lie to them if you want.”
“I lie to people all the time.”
“I know you do, babe,” he said. He touched her face. There was blood underneath his fingernails, too, and she put his fingers in her mouth and sucked on them slowly, trying for the taste. He closed his eyes. “You’re already doing so much right. You move around, you don’t connect, you stay off the grid. All you have to do is make up your mind.”
Britta didn’t want to talk about her decisions and when she would make them. She laid back on the bed. “Tell me what it was like,” she said, and he told her.
She didn’t know what made her leave the carnival.
She didn’t think it was the red hair on the collar of Blade’s jacket, but she wasn’t sure.
“Why do you go by Blade?” she’d asked him the first time they’d slept together. When he had told her—the truth, he’d emphasized, not what he said to other people—she had felt hot at the center of her body.
The red hair was the most noticeable, but then she picked off blonde hair that wasn’t hers, and black, and brown. There was a lot of it.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t known, but still, in the morning, she was gone. She didn’t know what it made her, that she didn’t like seeing what was left of the bodies, even though she tied the strand of red hair around her finger like a ring and watched it glittering the sunset all the way back to Colorado.
“All you have to do is make up your mind,” Blade had said, but she didn’t have to do that yet.
She called the police from a pay phone outside of Denver, but even though it dragged out for months, she avoided watching Blade's trial on the news. He never mentioned her name, but then again, he didn't know it.
Greendale Community College: she registered for classes when she was drunk. When she got to understand Greendale a little better, she would see that could have been part of their commercial. She didn’t think she would be there long enough to have to declare a major. She was there for other reasons than her education.
“Above all else, honesty,” she said to Jeff Winger, and she tried to be the kind of person who would mean that. She tried on types of caring like they were pairs of shoes in a store and she was trying to fuck with the attendant and really make them work for their money; she imitated the protesters she had followed around, all that misdirected intensity. She bought cats and actually found herself liking them. They left her bloody mice carcasses and they liked themselves and they stayed away from each other. She identified.
She didn’t know if she wanted to fuck Jeff or kill him.
“You look pretty comfortable putting on panties one-handed while holding a gun,” he said.
She had sex with him and then she won at paintball and later she jerked off to how it looked when the paintball pellet burst across his chest like a flower. She’d loaded her gun with red. She liked, in paintball, which she started playing a lot after that, to only use red.
“Jeff Winger, do not get back with Slater! I love you.”
She saw how she could be that girl. For two seconds, her mouth caked with (red) lipstick, she looked at him and saw someone who would never see past her surface. She would be beautiful hand-carved Italian faucets to him, she would be an apartment he could never live in, and he would be satisfied with that, and she would love him—or try to love him—because she could tell that he would have rubbed his hands on any broken glass he’d found, too.
But Jeff ran. For all his slacker posture, he always was one of the smartest of them, and maybe he saw more than she thought. He left her—he left Slater, too—and he grabbed the nearest doe-eyed eighteen year-old, so innocent she would have bled pink roses, and hooked himself to her at the mouth, breathed in the taste of bubblegum lip gloss.
To get back at him, she almost married him: she could see how a life hooked to her, wedlocked to her, would be damage enough to matter. Spouses also couldn’t testify against each other, and some part of her liked the idea of being able to tell him everything, to help herself or to hurt him. In case of emergency, break Jeff Winger. But when Abed said he wasn’t as good as TV, his eyes fluttered in a way that he’d never recognize signaled that he was as vulnerable and Disney-princess breakable as Annie, and the next day, a necklace of bruises on his throat, he looked both too much like her and too much like the people she saw in her dreams, sometimes. She relented.
She didn’t marry him, she just started sleeping with him, as many times and in as many positions as she could think of. She got fascinated with a crooked white worm of a scar on his side and when she pressed her tongue to it, he always shivered.
“Where did it come from?” she asked him once.
“Sometimes,” Jeff said, “I feel like maybe you ask me questions for the wrong reasons.”
She pushed herself up on her elbow. “What’s a wrong reason, Winger?”
“And sometimes,” he said, his voice level in the dark, “I’m kind of scared of you.”
“Because of vagina dentata?” she said, to be the girl he used to think she was.
But Jeff just said: “Don’t do that.” He took her hand and ran it along the scar until she couldn’t stop up the small whimper in her throat, the one that said how much she liked it, and then he moved her hand away, though he didn’t let it go. His hands were hot: Jeff always burned at higher temperatures than the cool exterior could have suggested. He didn’t say she was fucked up and he didn’t say that he was, either.
He said, instead, “I thought no one loved me,” and it took her a moment to realize it was in relation to the scar.
“I love you,” Britta said. She waited in the darkness for him to say he loved her back, but he didn’t. That was fine. “As much as I love anything, anyway.”
“We probably shouldn’t tell people about this.”
“Duh-doy,” she said, pleased that in the end she still hadn’t said anything that gave too much of herself away. She could still, if they ended, take everything back: what happened in the dark, with a catch in her breath, wasn’t an admission.
She wasn’t allowed in Abed’s head on Christmas. He found her later and apologized, his face with that seamlessly blank cast that she had always envied. “It’s just that in order to let people onto Planet Abed, I had to be able to understand them, to see them in my head. And I don’t understand you, Britta. It’s like knocking on a door where no one’s home. Unless that’s rude, in which case I’m sorry.”
Over the years, he would say things about her: vacuous, mannequin face. A wild card from my perspective. When Annie asked them all to tell ghost stories, he described Britta’s character as just shiny hair and facial symmetry, a beautiful door with no one at home behind it.
But she still had scars on her hands from the times she had made the choice to stay still and she still redirected whatever was wrong with her, whatever misfire inside her brain there was, into slips of the tongue and explosions set off in the desert—she shaped her mouth around I am angry about Guatemala and I am angry about oil spills and I am angry about society’s treatment of women.
“Abed, do you think if you’re a bad person, you have to do bad things?”
He licked his lips. Abed would taste like chapstick, but if Britta were going to be Jeff, and attach herself to the nearest scrap of innocence to avoid her own longing, it would have to be Troy: Abed saw her too clearly to be pure himself.
“How bad are we talking about? Like the characters on Gossip Girl or like Dexter on Dexter?”
Britta didn’t have cable, but Jeff did. “Like Dexter.”
“Dexter suppresses his desire to harm innocent people by killing bad people. It’s like the morality version of a snake eating its own tail.”
Britta didn’t know any people who were the tail to her snake. She suppressed her desires by singing her awkward song, by smoking until the haze filtered through every nerve ending of her body, by almost marrying Jeff again inside a funnel of tulle. She thought about how she’d almost given him up, but how impossible that had proven, how he had become—in the words of 1984, which she’d read on the road, her mind cued in so urgently to Winston Smith and Julia, to the possibility of being human despite everything—a “physical necessity” to her. It would be Jeff, she understood, if it were going to be anyone; it would be Jeff because the world for her would be easier without Jeff in it.
In bed, she asked him, “Do you think people can change?”
“Depends. I mean, I used to be a lawyer, so obviously anyone’s life can get worse.”
She traced his scar. “I mean, do you think you can ever not be who you’re made to be?”
You’re like the dark cloud that unites us.
Is that you, Death?
Some monsters cannot change.
She never wanted to be the kind of woman stupid enough to let a man define her, but there she was, terrified, flattened to the bed by fear, her heart racing, waiting for him to tell her whether he thought she was a monster because of the things that scampered around inside her head like rats. She looked at the way the moonlight through the window fell across his arm and she listened to his heartbeat—three years he had known her, two years he had slept with her, and he still had a heartbeat, wasn’t that proof of something? She hadn’t done anything, not to Jeff, not to anyone—and she thought of all the things she would tell him, marriage or no marriage, spousal privacy or no spousal privacy, if he would just say what she wanted him to say. If he would just love her, if he would just prove it, if he would just follow through with it all and lie well enough for her to believe him.