Devil’s Lake

Fall 2014 Issue

Winner of the Driftless Prize in Fiction Learn more >

Jenny Xie: If You’re Reading This

Lulled to sleep by the lazy progress of her pink inflatable lounge chair, Iris drifts to the center of the pool. She wakes up to palm fronds waving in a cloud-stippled sky, their dark silhouettes like eyelashes in her periphery. Everywhere above her, half-dissolved contrails describe the mysterious paths of aircraft. Iris sits up. Her hair has dried into crunchy tendrils behind her ears, having been bleached blonde and dyed a blue ombré.

“Shit.” She leans forward to fish her book out of the water, the skin of her thighs squeaking against the plastic. The waterlogged volume—a debut fiction collection from some B-list celebrity she doesn’t recognize—spins out of reach, and she paddles after it with one leg, squawking. When she finally plucks the paperback out of the water, the pages have fused into thick and fleshy slabs. The book belongs to her English professor, Dr. Sana Singh, for whom she’s housesitting this weekend. Iris found it during her first spelunking of the empty house: it was on a shelf in the garage, tucked between bottles of laundry detergent and covered in a film of dust. She was attracted to the cover illustration; it reminded her of the Little Golden Books she used to read as a shy and happy child.

Perhaps hearing her cries, her boyfriend Ant lowers himself into the pool using the steps at the four-foot mark. He’s naked save for a backwards five-panel cap, and tan where his sleeves and shorts usually end. He keeps his head above water as he crawls closer, the swells rocking Iris in her chair.

“You’re burnt,” says Ant in his raspy voice, catching the arm of the chair to steady himself. “Like a little hothouse tomato.”

“I hope she wasn’t attached to this book,” says Iris, peeling back the cover.

Ant snorts. “Watch—it’s, like, some super rare signed copy.” He reaches under his cap and retrieves a small Bic lighter and a joint. He lights up, sucks daintily at one end, and hands it to Iris.

She doesn’t usually smoke, but she’s been feeling out of character. In fact, all throughout campus and the capillaries of Los Angeles, students are turning, curdling under the stress of final exams. They strip to their underwear and parade through the halls; they swallow Adderall until their eyes pop out of their sockets and dangle by their chins like joke glasses. Iris, taking her time with each drag, imagines her lungs as twin glass vases filling and swirling with smoke. “That’s not bad at all,“ she croaks, and coughs against her shoulder. Already the world seems trickier.

“Dank, right? I swiped some from Nathan on my way out.”

Anthony.” A pang of anxiety shoots through her at the name.

“What?” Ant closes one eye against the sun. “What’s another forty bucks on top of the million dollars he’s trying to extort from me?”

“It’s not extortion if you owe him. You did pretty much wreck his bumper.”

“That’s what bumpers are for!” He flashes his teeth, white and perfect as a picket fence, like he’s won.

“Also, stop treating this like your parents’ vacation house.” The joint sticks slightly to her wet lips. “You’re not even supposed to be here.” Iris pauses, debates the question. “Has he tried calling you?”

“Nah, my phone’s off. Once he cools down we’ll work it out. Nathan’s a pretty level-headed guy.”

Iris pours a handful of water down the front of her shins. She thinks back to the party at Ant’s and Nathan’s shared apartment and tries to string events together, but all she remembers from last week are three-second increments—her Solo cup overflowing with foam from the keg, a girl from her honors seminar fondling her necklace—then the inside of Nathan’s bedroom, and the glow from the terrarium where his snake was swallowing mice. She remembers the door closing, muffling the party; she remembers the mouse twitching its sharpened pink tail. They undressed each other with a mindless lizardness, seemingly absent from their own bodies until they were bared to each other.

“Maybe you should go over that book with a hair dryer,” says Ant.

Iris shrugs, rolls her shoulders back. The knot of her halter-top bikini digs into the nape of her neck.

Ant wraps a hand around her calf and tugs. “Let’s go, chair hog!”

Iris allows herself to be pulled under. She wriggles to right herself. As she surfaces, she pauses with her eyes just skimming the water, unblinking into a field of drowned bugs.

The Singhs’ house in Santa Monica is sparsely furnished and smartly decorated with photographic prints. In the master bedroom, a plush white comforter enwraps the California king mattress in a way that Iris has to resist disturbing. It’s strange to think about her professor here, perhaps in a cotton pajama set, her round face smeared with a mint green pore-cleansing paste. Sana Singh wears wrap dresses in bright geometric prints, and her hair is neatly pinned to frame a forehead that crinkles during lecture, during poetic arguments about Pre-Raphaelite literature. The word specimen often comes to Iris in class, as in the perfect specimen, though of what she isn’t sure.

The photograph above the bed shows a crushed watermelon rind at the bottom of a dry riverbed. The same artist’s work is hung in the guest bedroom where she and Ant have flung their bags. Iris stares at the image, feeling infantile and illiterate. She misses the room that she’s claimed by way of discarded underwear and body spray.

Iris steals into the bathroom and lays the book on the marble counter. She rifles through the cabinets until she finds the hair dryer. Its hollering, its heat, massages Iris into the task, and she fans out each page with a stoned diligence.

The weekend was supposed to provide some distance from Ant. She wanted to examine, in private, the contours of the protest that grew inside her as they packed their belongings, bought their graduation gowns, and planned a road trip to New York, where he is determined to live. “With or without me,” said Iris when he brought it up. “It’s not like that,” said Ant, but his tone sounded apologetic. These days, Iris imagines losing him in the steam that rises from manhole covers, to girls in severe black trench coats. She dreams that he disappears amidst the sliding yellow bodies of wet cabs in the rain.

Ant has always been in her life: in childhood, as the gremlin who darted between adult legs whenever her mother hosted her book club; in high school, as the pimply skateboarder who filled the awkward silences in class with fart noises. Except for one kiss soaked in spiked punch in someone’s backseat, they were just friends. When they were both accepted to UCLA, Iris assumed they would run in separate packs. In college, however, she had a mousiness that she thought she’d left in childhood. She clung to Ant: his fearlessness, his easy crownings of joy. She tried to resist him, too, reasoning that her mother had made that mistake already—fallen in love with the familiar. Settled for partial happiness. Her parents are still married, but just for show. With Ant, though, it hasn’t been that way at all. Iris thinks of them as long-distance runners, catching wind after wind and pounding forward into some ordained, euphoric future.

Her mind travels back to the party. Nathan. The thing inside her stretches, pushing at the walls of her stomach. She resolves to keep it to herself, out of mercy for everyone involved.

Something wet glances the back of her calf, and Iris yelps. “Jesus, Maggie,” she sighs, bending to ruffle the fur of the Singhs’ black Scottish terrier. “You snuck up on me.” Maggie shakes her stubby tail and huddles close to the girl’s feet.

In prying the pages apart, Iris dislodges a white notecard. She flips it over and glances at the runny blue ink, recognizing Sana Singh’s neat, capitalized font. Iris is about to tuck it back between the pages when the words “so sorry” catch her eye. It’s a note, she realizes, addressed to her husband, Priyam. She scans the card, straining to read the diluted ink:

Dearest Pri—
I’ve tried being happy, but I can’t. I’m so sorry. If you’re reading this, then I’m at my parents’ house in Saratoga, and I need you gone by the time I come back.

Iris meets her own gaze in the mirror: heavy-lidded eyes and straight, dark eyebrows. She looks misleadingly calm, unmoved by her discovery. She shuts off the hair dryer. It’s a breakup letter, she thinks, like every one she’s ever written, cousin to the gel pen notes she wrote in sixth grade, the rehearsed texts she sent in high school. She runs through it again, and the edges of the card sharpen against her palm. Maybe Sana never intended it to be discovered, or maybe it’s an artifact from a cruel time in their marriage. Or, it’s something her professor returns to again and again, whenever she brings the laundry to the garage, whenever she reaches for the spring-scented detergent and drizzles it over their intermingling clothes. Iris jams the notecard back into the book and holds it shut, as if to smother it.

They order pizza and eat it on the couch, propped up on either arm with their legs entangled on the center cushion. Iris is in one of Ant’s black muscle shirts; he’s pulled on a pair of jean cutoffs. Maggie scampers from room to room, throwing a rope in the air. On television, Barbara Walters shakes her blonde halo at an actress trying to squeeze her face into a wad of tissues.

The living room’s high ceilings, at first so appealing to Iris, now seem eerily sentient, like a cathedral’s God-eyed archways. There’s intelligence in the way the house has been constructed: tall windows allowing views of the pool, and one day children kicking balls across the lawn; large, open rooms that stage dinner parties and sunny potlucks. Iris imagines the house strewn with goodbye letters. They’re snuck under potted ferns and rolled up in porcelain vases. Sewn into the lining of winter coats and taped over the instructions on bottles of household cleaner. Folded up into the size of pills, to be taken with the daily vitamins.

“I didn’t love your father the day I married him” was something her mother told Iris when they shared a hotel in Tallahassee. They were visiting Iris’s grandparents, who were hoarders and had filled up their guest room with dusty magazines.

“Then why did you marry him?”

Her mother swept her short hair up into a ponytail and held it with one fist. “Because he loved me. And I didn’t think that anything like that would ever happen to me.” She let her hair fall. “He knew it, too.”

Iris was fourteen and just beginning to understand—really understand—that her mother had existed before her, and these gradual insights into her mother’s life both awed and saddened her. It was like being the elder and watching her mother lose her innocence. “Don’t you think that’s a little unfair to Dad?” she asked.

“Why?” Her mother pulled the covers back and climbed into bed. “He got what he wanted, and it made my parents happy to see me married off. I was thirty-two, which I guess is thirty-eight nowadays, with inflation.”

“Okay,” said Iris, slowly. “Then why are you still together now?”

Her mother blinked up at her from the pillow. “Would you really like to see us split up?”

Iris picks a piece of sausage from the greased surface of her combo pizza and pops it into her mouth. The book, irrevocably warped, lies by the delivery box on the coffee table. Its presence is menacing, daring Iris to find a place for it. She doesn’t know which is more likely—that Sana will notice the book’s water damage, or its absence from the shelf in the garage.

Unable to focus on the TV, Iris studies the side of her boyfriend’s face. She says, “Have you ever cheated on me?”

Ant reaches toward the coffee table. Skin and fat form small rolls over his waistband as he peels another slice of pizza for himself. He settles back into the faux fur throw that blankets his arm of the couch.


“Huh? Did you say something?” Ant turns his pinkish eyes to her.

“Have you cheated ever? Is what I asked.”

His eyes widen just slightly. “You mean on you?”

“On whoever. But yeah, on me.”

Ant grins through a mouthful of cheese. “This is like an extremely poorly disguised trap.”

“Just answer.”

No,” he says, knitting his eyebrows.

Iris feels her eyes go hot and soggy in their sockets. Guilt brings the blood to her cheeks. She blurts out, “I found this note that was stuck in the book. Sana wants to leave her husband. But I don’t know if she’s given it to him yet. Or if she’s ever going to, or what.”

“No way. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s like, ‘If you’re reading this, it means I’m leaving you.’”

“That’s heavy. Are you crying?”

“No. Yes.” Iris smears her tears across her face with the back of her hand and takes a deep breath. “I don’t know. It’s just stressful. You’re looking for jobs in New York.”

Ant doesn’t say anything. The doorbell chimes, and they stare at each other for another second before Iris rises.

Scooting Maggie away from the door with her foot, Iris leans into the peephole. She stiffens: Nathan’s on the doorstep, tugging the cuff of his beanie. Brown hair has begun to sprout on his long chin, which is usually clean-shaven. She places both palms on the door and strains against it, as if she can shove him away, and then gently unlocks and opens the door. They haven’t spoken since the party. She pulls at the hem of her shirt, suddenly cognizant of her underwear beneath it, her bare breasts against the cotton.

“Hey,” says Nathan. He bends to offer the dog his palm to sniff.

Iris grips her elbows. “Why are you here?” She wonders how he found out where she would be this weekend, but then again, it would have been easy; they share so many people in common.

“Well, uh, two reasons.” Nathan rocks back on his heels. “One, to see you. You’ve kind of been MIA, and I wanted to apologize in person.”

She glances behind her for signs of Ant’s approach. “You don’t have anything to apologize for.” Then, seeing the hopefulness steal across his features, she adds, “Not that it wasn’t a huge mistake, but I had an equal hand in it. Look, let’s just—it never happened, and it’s never going to happen, okay? We fucked up. End of story.”

Nathan gives a short chuckle and says, “Wow. So my feelings don’t even factor in, huh?”

“Not really, no,” says Iris. She takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you thought. I had so much to drink, I hardly remember what happened.”

Nathan gives a quick lift of his eyebrows and says, “Hm.” It makes Iris feel heartless, but that can’t be, because here her heart is, shaking in her chest and flushing her ears with blood.

She misses what they used to be, she and Ant and Nathan. When Iris first hung around the twosome in their freshman year, theirs was an easy, buoyant friendship, all flung arms and bruises from booze-fueled dares. Iris liked being with them, the cocoon of activity they spun around her. Together, they went camping at Joshua Tree and yipped gleefully through the nighttime terrain, and they sobered together in the blinking heat of campfire embers. It wasn’t until this spring that things changed. Echo Park, sitting cross-legged in the tamped grass. She and Nathan sipped diluted iced coffee and waited for her boyfriend to arrive. In leaning back, he covered her hand with his, and it stayed there long enough that she glanced over; the look on his face surprised her, the surprise like a hot needle sliding between her ribs.

“What was the second thing you came for?” prompts Iris.

Nathan’s eyes alight on something over her shoulder, and his jaw clenches. “Here he comes.”

“What’s good, man?” says Ant as he nears the door, wiping his fingers on his shorts. “Crazy seeing you here.”

“Listen,” says Nathan. “I’m done playing cat and mouse. You’re coming back to the apartment right now, and you’re gonna cut me a check.”

A smile creeps across Ant’s wide mouth. “You serious? I’ve got, like, eighty dollars to my name. I paid for that keg, remember?”

“Then we’re gonna call your parents,” says Nathan, a fist forming where his hands are jammed in the pockets of his hoodie, “and they can handle it for you.”

“I’m not doing shit until we set the story straight.” Ant clutches the doorknob, working the long muscles in his arm. He glances at Iris for corroboration. “You asked me to run to the store to re-up on liquor. I wouldn’t have touched the wheel otherwise.”

“Bullshit,” says Nathan. “I mentioned that we were low, and you sprang for the keys.”

The terrier, sensing abrasive words passing above her, begins to growl, her lower teeth a white snarl in her black snout. Nathan leans into the doorway to speak again, but Maggie interrupts with urgent barking, harsh reports that end with a whine.

“Okay, you need to go,” says Iris, herding Nathan out of the house by slowly closing the door on him. “Ant’ll get you back, I’ll make sure of it.”

“I don’t trust him,” spits Nathan. He stays the door with the toe of his sneakers and juts his chin out. “Neither of you. You’re a pair of cheats, that’s all.”

“Goodbye,” says Iris firmly. She secures the door. Her armpits are damp with sweat.

“What a dick!” says Ant, scooping Maggie into his arms. “Isn’t that right, Maggie? Straight out of Dick City.”

In her head, Iris returns to the party, to finding her deflated jeans and turning the legs inside out again. Her head pounded in time with the dull thumping of music. The shrieks of girls came to her weirdly, like rodents wailing. Nathan bounced off the bed, his hand striking the lampshade on his nightstand, and mumbled something about Ant being out. At the time it didn’t register—she was so stricken, her senses so slurred—but she realizes now that Ant, perhaps at that very moment, was swerving into a vehicle as it parallel parked.

Ant is not an overconfident drunk, and he’s been cautious ever since his brother got a DUI one New Year’s Eve. Iris watches Maggie’s tongue flick over her boyfriend’s face, stunned by the idea that maybe Nathan pressed the keys on him to get him out of the apartment.

Her thoughts vanish, however, as something surges through the window and shatters the glass. The sound, crisp and violent, makes Iris scream, and she covers her head as bits of glass pelt her body. When it’s over, Maggie is howling and Ant is helping her to her feet. He’s holding the sides of her face and saying her name.

“Yeah, I’m okay, I’m okay,” she says.

“Don’t move. I’m going to find a broom. That son of a bitch!”

Ant leaps clear of the glass on the floor, picking a safe path toward the garage. Iris sees his shape reflected in each shard. She spots the dirt-caked garden gnome that has rolled to the other side of the living room, its complacent smile now facing the wall, and cups a hand over her mouth.

To calm Maggie down, they bring her to the trails that run along the sea cliffs. Her elongated shadow floats on the edge of the paved walkway. To their left, a wooden fence divides hikers from hills textured with succulents, their bulbous petals tipped red, or blanched white by the coastal sun. A salt-tinged breeze brings goosebumps to Iris’s skin.

“Yeah, I don’t know what’s happening with Nathan. That’s gotta be a low point, though,” says Ant, gesturing with the handle of Maggie’s retractable leash. “Imagine if that had hit you? In the head?”

Iris takes his free hand. She feels weakened by a slippery panic, uncertain if Nathan assumed something would come of their sleeping together, disturbed by the idea that he manufactured the opportunity. Here, in the golden lawn of the oceanside and the dark waves creeping below, it seems easy to pretend it didn’t happen. To feel distinct from any past or future action.

“You okay?” Ant studies her face. “Flying gnome scare you senseless?”

“No,” says Iris, giving his hand a squeeze, “I’m just thinking, you know, maybe it would be easier to pay him and be done with it. You’re both moving out in a couple weeks, anyway. Kinda wash your hands clean, you know?”

“Whoa, whoa, whose side are you on?” says Ant with exaggerated disbelief. Then after a while, he shrugs, taps the bill of his cap. “I guess I’m waiting on that last paycheck to come through. What’d he mean, though, ‘You’re a pair of cheats’?”

Here it is, Iris thinks. Her opportunity for truth and cleanliness. “Ant,” she says slowly.


She struggles for words as if for air, the silence that ticks by building pressure in her chest. Maggie’s name tag tinkles as she trots along. It would be nice to be a dog, woofing and puffing through life with impunity. Iris glances upwards at the houses that crest the hill. Their windows are filled with light, their balconies outfitted with American flags and furniture of pebbled glass. It reminds her of a game she and Ant used to play. Just before falling asleep, Ant would mutter humidly in her ear, “In our house, we’ll have a working fireplace. And we’re not allowed to use Duraflame logs.”

And she would shift her head on his chest to displace sleep. “Okay,” she said. “In our house, we’ll have potted plants on the fire escape.”

“What kind of house has a fire escape?”

“Our house is a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco.”

“That’s no fun. New York.” Even back then, that’s where he wanted to move. Both his parents had gone after college and spoke of that era with a rakish enthusiasm.

“We’ll see,” she would say.

Iris takes a deep breath and swings their hands into the air. She points to the houses and says, “In our house, we’ll have a wall that’s just a big window.” And she laughs out of relief, out of gratefulness that she doesn’t have to tell Ant the one thing that would break him, that she’s elected to be perfect in love from this moment forward. Suddenly, moving east seems like no hurdle at all; she was a coward before. She feels fizzy and light, like her body is evaporating.

“What a throwback,” says Ant. “I forgot all about that game.”

The next morning is Monday, and the Singhs come home earlier than expected.

Ant has found a cardboard box in the recycling bin and is flattening it against the window when the car pulls into the driveway. Iris, ripping a length of duct tape from the roll, sees it through a flap in the cardboard.

“Shit,” she says. “They’re back already.”

Ant groans. “Come on.

Vague shapes move behind the windshield, and then Sana emerges from the passenger side. She’s saying something, digging in the patent leather tote that hangs from her shoulder. Her husband steps out of the car, shuts the door, leans over the car roof and makes her laugh. Iris examines Sana’s face, her large features shining. It’s impossible to divine any kind of unhappiness. Quickly, Iris flips through the catalogue of husbands and wives she knows. Hardly any of them seem safe.

Iris remembers the book with a shock. She shoves the duct tape at Ant—“Hold this”—and dashes into the family room. It’s still on the coffee table, which oddly surprises her. She rifles through the pages until she finds the note again. The dried ink is even weaker than before, its message bleeding across the card. Iris doubts that she would have been able to decipher it now, this dissolved missile. She pictures her professor’s pen moving across the paper, the ink connecting to form its terrible runes, Sana’s features grotesque with the pain and fear of writing them, and shudders at the precariousness of it all. Iris slips the card back inside the paperback, runs a finger over the raised lettering. Here it is: the innocuous object. As the key turns in the front door and Maggie skitters to greet her owners, Iris stands with the book in her hand, learning the dimensions of adult perseverance.

JENNY XIE is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where she also teaches creative writing. Winner of the 2014 Narrative 30 Below Story Contest, she has writing in Riddle Fence, Bound Off, Front Porch Journal, and Ninth Letter Online, among others. More from this issue >