Below is a reading from YOU PRIVATE PERSON by Richard Chiem, out now in a brand-new edition from Sorry House Press. Somewhere between short stories and a novel. A book that makes you feel things.
Some parties are forgettable, Alyssa says, how many parties have we had this week? She turns on the bathroom faucet but does not wash her hands or look down, staring at herself casually in the mirror, listening to the water. Her big lips crack as they smile. Alyssa feels the edge of the sharp blade of her pocket knife with her thumb, and winces just before it breaks the skin, before she hears a knock on the door. If you’ve been through hell, keep going, she says. She walks outside still holding the knife. She walks a straight line in one direction, because one direction is consoling, softening her focus, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her other hand before descending downstairs. The person in the front of the line, waiting for the bathroom, a girl wearing a bikini, says, Winston Churchill. The girl in a bikini says, That girl walking away holding the knife is quoting Winston Churchill.
Everyone is staring at Alyssa as she is walking to the kitchen, almost tripping and falling, still visible to everyone upstairs. Alyssa says, I keep going. Her face looks peaceful but distracted. Almost immediately, she throws the pocket knife in the sink, and grabs another drink from the mini-bar. Oscillating fans blow in her face and hair, cool her skin. Dipping her hands into the ice cooler, she takes a shot of whiskey before grabbing a beer. Usually drinking too much makes her stomach ache, but right now she is making an exception: she has seen some unbelievable things, sucking the blood from the small cut from her thumb.
Chloe is rubbing an ice cube against Alyssa’s neck, suddenly appearing from behind her in the kitchen. Alyssa barely trembles. Chloe says, The people upstairs are all chanting Winston Churchill, I don’t know why. Alyssa and Chloe exchange silent, shocked glances at each other for fun, something they do sometimes in spite of each other, for force of habit. Sitting together on the last step of the soft carpeted stairwell, they share the beer in tiny gulps, in shocked glances. They ask each other at the exact same time, both smiling, Guess what?
Alyssa says, I am not going to kill myself anymore.
Chloe says, I think I want to quit my job.
I can be someone who, all the time, ignores omens. I have seen things I would not know how to explain in the least bit. A girl offers her bare stomach for the lines of cocaine and pulls up her shirt. She swallows vodka like water and unhooks her bra. I watch a reflection of the ceiling fan on the glass coffee table before she lays down. Another girl leans down and kisses her bellybutton, taking a line. Feeling strangely calm, I don’t join the cheering that happens around us, or the tensed hurried way everyone is scooting closer. The girl laying down says, Everything in moderation. Although this is my house, this is my party — we are all sitting together in my guest room and there are burning candles on the carpet — I don’t know anyone intimately in the circle. Everyone here is a stranger.
Someone jumps from upstairs, a girl in a small bathing suit, right into the hardwood floors. She falls so hard she dislocates her shoulder, gasping and out of breath. Getting up, she pops her shoulder right back into place and waves to Alyssa. The girl says, Winston Churchill.
Once I tried to kill myself in front of my webcam to preserve the moment; I broadcasted trying to hang myself live on the Internet. The feed went viral in less than an hour, in about a dozen countries, in four different time zones. When I was still breathing through my nostrils, more and more people logged on and watched me swinging. I woke up dehydrated and Internet famous, and then police and paramedics arrived at my door in the morning. I remember saying, I lived, I lived, as an answer to every question that came to me. I wanted to announce tonight that I made a mistake, and feel so happy to be alive, but I haven’t found the right moment to speak. I have been lingering and locked in for the past few hours, unsure of myself.
Chloe walks over to the ice cooler and grabs another drink, before smiling brushing past me. I try and mimic her face, and our two smiles grow larger when there is eye contact. I wonder how far our party can be heard in the neighborhood and turn to look out the porch. I can see dozens of open lit windows and people framed inside their houses.
She says, I’ve seen your video. She says, I’ve sought you out. I am falling in love with this Internet thing.
She looks at me in a way that causes me to blink first, before Alyssa comes to join us from the kitchen, wrapping her arms around me. Alyssa says, There was a girl that dislocated her shoulder. I look at Chloe before answering, I think I saw everything from here. Both girls are biting their lips and I am wearing down. Chloe mumbles, Maybe we should kick everyone out and just be here by ourselves, just us three. It is as though I had forgotten how to nod when I finally do, when Alyssa squeezes tighter, when Chloe keeps looking at me, the entire house still vibrating with music and strangers, and I keep nodding.