Under the Influence
November in Florida. I drive alongside the ocean at three in the morning because, in Florida, I give into every desire. I lay out by the community pool and burn my skin raw. I glue on acrylic nails, long and red, and make it a habit to stroke everything. Tonight I stroke the steering wheel of my mom’s car and a can of Red Bull Zero. I want my heart to go all night long. I pull into the parking lot of a 24-hour CVS and park under one of the halogen street-lamps, just as my dad taught me to do. To protect yourself, he said, and I nodded dutifully. Once in the store, I fill a red basket with everything I want. Nothing is off limits. Strawberry-scented nail-polish and Dr. Pepper-flavored lip balm. Gummy vitamins that promise me thicker hair, longer nails, clearer skin. Barbecue chips, mini Twix bars, caramel hard-candies that turn my threat into a silk blanket, another Red Bull Zero. It’s been over a decade since I’ve taken a road trip with a group of girls that I refer to as my girls but tonight I’m making purchases as if my girls are waiting out in the car, radio on, engine running.
I head to the magazine rack. Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue. On the bottom rack, a magazine I’ve never seen before. Women Who Kill. Like fried alligator and boiled peanuts, this appears to me as the kind of item sold only south of the Mason Dixon Line. I buy it and spend the rest of the evening on the pink carpet of my childhood bedroom, reading about all these women who have killed. So many of them murdered for love. From the magazine’s introduction: Jealous lovers, money-hungry-man-haters. There’s Pamela Smart, who conspired with her 15-year-old lover to kill her 24-year-old husband. Aileen Wuornos, who killed seven men in central Florida. Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove nine-hundred miles in a diaper to get revenge on her husband’s mistress.
I consider the women who might be missing from the magazine. My sixth grade English teacher, for one. She murdered her husband after finding out he cheated on her with a barely legal teenager. There was a video of her on the news getting arrested. She looked right into the camera and said, Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. I used to get so angry when the acned boys of my middle school made fun of her, repeating that line of hers ad nauseum and then collapsing into a cackle. Maybe he deserved it, I told those cackling boys. I didn’t believe what I said, but it made them stop cackling.
Now, years, later, I flip through the pages of a magazine she could be in and try to understand these women as if they were my girls. Pamela, I imagine myself saying. I love you. You can tell me what happened. Pam. It’s me.
I do not remember the first time a man called me crazy. I remember the first time he did. By then, Jacob and I’d been sleeping together on-and-off for six years, since we were teenagers. Just when I thought we were done for good, something would yank us back together. Or no. That’s not fair, is it? To make it seem as if there was some external force at work. A more accurate statement would be: Just when I thought we were done for good, I turned back around. It wasn’t that my instincts were off. I knew he was bad for me and I kept moving towards him.
We were deep into our last period of on when Jacob called me crazy, having the same fight we always had. Did he care about me? And how much? And if he did care about me, as he promised he did (Profoundly, is what he said. I care about you profoundly), what did that care amount to? What was the sum of its parts?
I was looking for affirmation, validation, love. Jacob had little to offer me. He was afraid of commitment. He hated himself, he told me. He was, he felt, a loner at heart. But none of that meant he didn’t care about me.
But maybe it means you don’t care about me enough, I said. We were sitting on his bed. Outside the room, I could hear his roommates in the kitchen. I wondered if they could hear us. I wondered what Jacob told them about me when I wasn’t there.
Jacob sighed, bored. You’re crazy.
Well, that shut me right up. He had told me before that I sounded crazy, that I was acting crazy. This time was different. I was crazy, plain and simple. I excused myself to use the bathroom and turned on both the sink faucet and the shower head. I was not going to let him hear me cry.
The next morning, Jacob curled his body over my body, holding me in the same thoughtless way a child grabs on to their favorite toy. He kissed the back of my neck. He bit down my earlobe, hard. Lips soft, teeth sharp.
I know you’re not actually crazy, he said.
Back then, that counted as an apology, and I always forgave. We met as teenagers, and, when it came to Jacob, I still behaved as one—driven by emotions, ignorant to facts, under the belief that the more dramatic a relationship is, the more it matters. The phrase ‘crazy for you’ is used to describe people who are madly, passionately, furiously in love.
Okay, then. So I went a little bit crazy.
Crazy is acceptable if you’re beautiful. Crazy is acceptable just so long as you’re not crying. Crazy fun, crazy in bed, crazy hot. Crazy is a game of Poker and you must never overplay your hand. Men love crazy until it turns against them. Men love crazy for a Saturday night out on the town, but come Sunday morning they want crazy out of their bed. In middle school, the most popular girl in my grade had the AOL screen-name craZZZychica3o5. In Hollywood, there’s a strip club named Crazy Girls. The neon sign flashes over Sunset Boulevard. CRAZY GIRLS. LIVE GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. Girls can be crazy. Women can’t. Crazy should always be playful. A little wink. A little game.
I found myself at Crazy Girls over the summer, for the bachelor party of a friend of a high-school friend. The only other strip cub I’d been to was in Florida, and I only went because I was 17 and it was the only bar in town that didn’t card.
Late into the night, the groom-to-be leaned across me to speak to my friend. He pointed to one of the women, a brunette writhing in a red lace thong.
I like that one, he said. She’s got that crazy look in her eyes.
The first night I slept with Jacob, he kissed me moments after I told him not to. We’d hooked up once, early in our friendship and I’d had a crush on him since, but he never pursued anything more. He had a reputation as something of a lothario, and I considered it smart to keep a safe distance.
I watched him date other women. I watched him fuck and fuck over other women. Do you love her? I once asked about someone I knew he saw and slept with regularly. He looked at me as if I were insane. Not even a little, he assured me. She’s the kind of girl you fuck, not the kind of girl you love. Why this answer didn’t appear to me as a red flag, I cannot say. It didn’t send me running in the other direction. It had me wondering what kind of girl I was.
We were both home in Florida on summer break, nineteen, aimless, bored. We sat on the sidewalk outside Jacob’s childhood home, sharing a poorly rolled joint.
We should fuck, he said. His bluntness startled me. I didn’t know what to say
Don’t you want to? he asked.
I don’t want to ruin our friendship, I said carefully, slowly, and he nodded. The next thing I knew, he was on top of me. I wanted that, too.
Years later, when both of us lived in New York, we disputed over the facts of that night.
No, he insisted. You came on to me.
That’s not how I remember it at all.
Well, you remember it wrong.
It was not uncommon for Jacob to tell me that I remembered the events of my life wrong. It was not uncommon for him to tell me that I remembered myself wrong. We once got into a fight on the subway over the color of my eyes.
Green, I asserted, My eyes are green.
But Jacob shook his head. Blue. Your eyes are blue.
We went back and forth like this for a little while until finally I’d had enough. They’re my eyes, I nearly shouted. I know what color they are.
Exactly, Jacob said, his voice cool. They’re your eyes. You can’t see them. And they’re blue.
I was exhausted. I conceded. I had blue eyes. My eyes were blue.
I loved him, then, but that was near the end and the magic was wearing off. We weren’t really fighting about my eyes, I knew. I wanted to be told that how I viewed the world was how he viewed the world. I wanted to know our memories of one another corresponded. I wanted to know why he always got to be the one to decide what was truth and what was delusion.
Recently, I received a text from my dad. He told me that he had run into a former neighbor of ours at the supermarket. I remembered this woman. When I knew her, she was a tidy mother and wife, always fixing snacks and pitchers of lemonade for the neighborhood kids.
She looked much older, my dad’s text read. She had aged badly. I could tell she was struggling with life. She said she had screwed up her life. Her husband left her. She was half-crying as she told me the situation. She seemed depressed. And worst of all she seemed crazy.
The first tried to leave Jacob on a July afternoon in Crown Heights, days after my twenty-second birthday. We stood outside his apartment. It was raining, but I refused to go inside. My sneakers filled with water. My t-shirt became heavy, like the vest draped over you before an X-Ray. I told him that I could not continue seeing or even speaking to him. It was too painful for me. At first, Jacob pulled me into his chest.
It’s okay, he told me. Everything is going to be okay.
Then I cried so hard that people on the street turned their heads to look, and Jacob became exhausted with the situation, with me.
You look insane, is what he said to me. I didn’t care. If I looked crazy, it was because I felt it. After three hours of a looping conversation, Jacob still wouldn’t let me go.
Let’s do this thing for real, he said. Let’s date. Let’s be together.
I knew it was a false effort. I knew saying no was the right thing to do. But I did not know how to say no. We kissed in the rain. I was so happy then.
Two days later, Jacob emailed me to tell me that he had made a mistake. We agreed to never speak again.
A dictionary definition of insanity: Thoughts and emotions lose contact with external reality. A clinical definition: A loss of reality. A popular definition: Doing the same thing repeatedly, each time expecting to yield a new result. I recently spent an afternoon at the library looking over the origins of the phrase ‘crazy in love.’
But what do definitions and roots matter? I knew what I wanted and I knew it was bad for me. And I went after it. I was determined. At times, the way I’d gone crazy for Jacob felt like proof of my affection, of my loyalty. See how much I love you? Enough to ruin my entire life.
Seven months after promising to never speak to one another ever again, I was back in Jacob’s bed. I was getting him a glass of water. I was running my fingernails down his back in that way he once liked.
Our first night back together was New Year’s Eve. He showed up to the restaurant where I worked, and when I saw him from across the room, leaning against the bar, I knew instantly that every button of my dress would be undone. No resolutions, no fresh starts. The next morning, I began to cry as soon as I processed my surroundings. Jacob’s calendar on the wall, Jacob’s forest green quilt over my body, Jacob’s cat at the foot of the bed, Jacob’s book on the bookshelf. Jacob. How could I have been so careless?
He tried to soothe me. It’s okay, he said. I’m right here. Stop being crazy.
I blamed him for inviting me back to his apartment. But it was me who had had invited him to come to the restaurant. It was me who emailed him, wondering if another time had passed for us to start speaking again.
People have wondered what it was about Jacob that kept me so rabid for so long. I’ve written essays about him and when each of those essays have been workshopped, the class collectively wonders, But why this guy? Why did you fall in love with him? That’s a question I’ve never had an answer to because it’s a question I’ve never understood. I never fell in love with Jacob. I fell under a spell that took years to break. A sort of delusional consciousness, let’s call it. I have considered burning all the journals that contain Jacob, or perhaps something less dramatic. Throwing them in the trash. Sticking them in the recycling bin. But they are my evidence. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened.
After New Year’s Eve, the same question did appear to yield new results. In the morning, Jacob would make me eggs and toast. He would juggle forks and knives for me. He let me kiss his eyelids, a gesture he once told me was too gentle. Still, I didn’t tell anyone in my life that I was seeing Jacob again. When I’d last ended things, I’d been so adamant that, no, really, this time is different. My friends knew all about what Jacob did to me, what being with him did to me. What kind of person would keep returning to someone who hurt them? I didn’t want to answer that question.
Then little things started to return with Jacob. A joke at my expense. Changed plans. Canceled plans. Then everything returned.
You’re acting crazy, he said one evening in late June. He’d recently returned from a trip to Alaska, where, he told me, he learned that he did not need other people. He did not need a single person. I found it impossible not to take this revelation personally. I did not point out that everything I knew about Jacob pointed to him being one of the neediest people I’d ever met. He seemed, to a nearly pathological degree, incapable of being alone.
That night, we went back to my apartment, I clawed my nails into his back as he moved over me. When we were done, he used a mirror to see what I had done to him. Bright red lashings appeared in horizontal lines down his back. It felt good to, for once, be the one who caused the pain, not the one who experienced it.
In the morning, I replayed his accusation in my head. You’re acting crazy. He was wrong to call me crazy, I knew, but was his accusation really, fully wrong? I’d gone deep into my imagination, perhaps to the point of delusion. I’d decided that the coffee me brought me in the morning meant love. Jacob made me go insane. I let myself go insane. Which one was it? Even now, years later, I still do not know who should burden the blame.
Part of my understands what might motivate someone to become The Crazy Bitch. I get the appeal. The Crazy Bitch thinks, If I can’t be The One, at least I’ll be remembered. She’s been denied by the one she loves—denied love and, then, denied authority. She’s been told, It didn’t happen that way. She’s been told she remember her life all wrong.
The Crazy Bitch is misunderstood. All she wants is to be remembered. She wants to at least know that she served a purpose.
I want to know I served a purpose.
I became undone. I developed an eye twitch. Migraines, acne, a slight case of agoraphobia. I could feel him pulling away from me. Come back, I would think. Stay. I put myself on mute. I made myself smaller. If I could be perfect, he might love me. He might stay.
There was a girl who lived in the same dorm as me freshman year who no one really liked. Midway through the year, she and her boyfriend broke up and she broke down. She made a blog dedicated to her pain. On it, she wrote long daily posts detailing her relationship and her heartbreak. We all read it. We all laughed at her. A few months after the breakup, she was caught by an RA wandering our dorm halls at four in morning, naked and murmuring about her ex. To my great shame, I don’t remember her name. I only remember what we called her. Crazy.
One of the last times I saw Jacob I told him that I would have killed myself three years earlier if it weren’t for people like my mom, and my best friend, and him. I detailed to him the way I imagined doing it, but told him that knowing I would cause the people who loved me pain stopped me.
Oh, he said, leaning back on my bed. I’m sure we’d be fine.
I should have kicked him out of my house then. I should have deleted his number, forgotten his name. I stayed silent. Moments later, he removed my tights with his teeth.
Sexual encounters were once considered a cure for hysteria. Marriage, too.
On an August afternoon, near the end of summer, we took the Metro-North to Cold Springs. It had been eight months, and my friends still did not know that Jacob and I were back together. I missed a good friend’s birthday party in order to take the trip. Sorry, I texted her from the base of a mountain. Won’t be able to make it tonight! Love you! We’re no longer good friends.
You’re perfect, Jacob whispered into my ear on the train ride back to the city. I pretended that I had not heard him, so that he could say it again. Everything felt restored. It was a day of light.
Exactly a week later, we broke up. In an email, Jacob wrote, We need to not rely on one another anymore. You need to solve your problems without me. In the end, there was nothing cinematic, nothing romantic. No sobbing on the street, no tears in the rain.
I counted how many days it had been since we’d spoken, as if I were an addict in recovery. On day one-hundred, I found myself at a bar in the East Village when Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” came on over the speakers. I’m crazy for trying, sings Patsy. For so long, I took a great pride in how hard I’d tried to win Jacob. Then, I took pride in how hard I tried to stay away from him. One-hundred days. It felt like swimming against the current. Eventually I confess to a friend that my staying away no longer feels like anything to be proud of.
I’m not even really staying away, I tell her. If he were to contact me, I would respond.
She shrugged. Well, lucky for you he’s not going to contact you.
In the years since I’ve seen Jacob I have learned that very few people in his life knew that we were together—not just during our last year together, but ever. At times, this knowledge has made me feel delusional. I have come to learn that people can mean different things to one another. There are times I am able to accept this. I know what he meant to me. I know my version of the story. I know what was real. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened. Don’t call me crazy. I know what happened.
Michelle Lyn King was born and raised in south Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. She is the Managing Editor of Joyland magazine, where she also edits stories and essays for the South and New York sections. Her writing has been published in Bodega, Catapult, Hobart, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, amongst other places. Michelle is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Brooklyn College, and is currently at work on a novel set in Florida during the height of the Great Recession.