Tehachapi was a rugged area parched for water and education and jobs and a million other things. Her father was a construction worker and her mother was a veterinarian. Soon after she was born her mother lost the practice and took to spaying and neutering local pets on the kitchen table. One of Francesca’s earliest memories was the geyser of piss that resulted when a scalpel nicked a cat’s bladder. Since then she had never been squeamish in any way. Though her father was a committed alcoholic he loved his family and never laid a hand on them. The finances were another matter. They stayed put in Tehachapi since they’d inherited the house outright and couldn’t afford the gas and motel rates to look for opportunities.
Her older brother left for the military when he graduated high school. Though jealous, Francesca accepted her fate: waiting. She was a good student and an athlete. There’s always one girl like Francesca who haunts the school hallways alone. The one who gains a woman’s body and a woman’s constitution far too young and has no idea what to do with it. Boys were terrified of her and let her know it through a campaign of words scrawled on lockers and tearful walks home from school. It didn’t matter that she looked like them and came from the same ‘socioeconomic bracket’ as everyone else at the school. One couldn’t expect kids that age to embrace a concept they couldn’t spell.
She met Norm her sophomore year. He was so small and sick that even the bullies left him alone. Norm lived with his mother and rarely left the house. These were the days of dial-up internet, and the screeching sound that greeted each connection was music to his ears. He spent all day online using public chatrooms. Norm viewed his room as a sort of inner sanctum, where he could conduct an entire social exchange without a phone. He could be anyone he wanted. By fifteen years of age, he’d already spent a lifetime locked away with humidifiers and televisions and various other reminders that his body was a frail, broken-down machine. Norm Spalanki had had enough of being Norm Spalanki. Anyone and anything else would do.
Eventually his mother forced him out of the house and out into the world. His commitment to make-believe led him to LARPing. It was here that he spied the redhead with the killer ‘gams’ and the sad smile. It was a small fringe group, the sort who dress up in costumes and adopt personas to alienate themselves even further from the rest of youth culture. They’d gather in an abandoned industrial yard and act out an ongoing fantasy about dungeon masters and wizards that they cared about deeply.
He got her screenname from one of the other members of the group and started sending her jokes and one-liners, nothing too creepy or personal. Nothing threatening. He told her that he was part of their little group. He told her to guess who he was. There was no fear in this. Norm was a true original. He’d been locked away so long that he had no real sense of how others viewed him. The pixelated world was infinitely more real to him than the flesh and blood teenagers he had to fight through every day in the lunchroom. He never thought of her as a face filled with disgust or scorn on the receiving end of these messages. No, she was flattered. He knew it. He also knew that he’d marry her one day.
Francesca knew who it was right away. Norm was the bearer of that most common nerd trait: he typed exactly how he spoke, right down to the punctuation errors. God, she could even imagine his high-pitched snickering between sentences. And she was flattered. Really, she was. Because Norm didn’t snap her bra strap as he passed by or write offensive words on her locker or stare at her up and down like she had a pair of eyes in her crotch and another on her chest. He was nice to her. And it was nice to be spoken to like you were really, really there, even if that only meant a couple words on a computer screen. When she approached him, he was shaking all over—not from nerves, mind you, but from this tic he had, but that’s a long story—and she told him one of his little jokes. It was something about mushrooms and bars, ‘fungi’ was the punchline, and then she asked him what he did when he wasn’t playing dress-up in the industrial yard. He was ready for it. Metroid. Two-player. Vintage games were pure class. The ladies loved that kind of thing. She said yes. He kicked her ass the first time but then let her win. Eventually, he didn’t have to ease up on her. Turns out she was as fierce a competitor in the digital world as she was in the industrial yard.
It wasn’t just that Norm was nice. He truly did not care what others thought of him. Francesca marveled at that. There was a force-field around the boy. He walked the hallways and grounds of the school like a king, his bird-like shoulders thrown back, his pock-marked face held high in the air. Nothing could touch him. He’d spent a lifetime battling asthma attacks, anaphylactic scares, not to mention the heart defect that almost did him in. What more could the universe do to him? Norm told Francesca about the latter during a Mountain Dew break one Saturday afternoon. They’d just defeated Mothula as part of a five-hour Zelda: Link to the Past marathon. Francesca shot an arrow right through the chest for a final coup-de-gras and Norm blurted: “That’s just like me.”
So it went for the rest of high school. They tended not to think of themselves as ‘inseparable.’ They were ‘unstoppable.’ Norm had taken to downloading copies of games both new and old. They started by burning through the basic Nintendo titles, planning to work forward in time until they were tearing through Halo and the entire Half/Life series. After enacting a veritable genocide of the Koopa population, they upgraded to Super NES and then N64 and beyond. Replacing side-scrollers for polygonal worlds did little to slow their rampage. Whether the weapons were pixelated fists or guns or airplanes or a cursor, they cut a swath of destruction previously unknown in the gaming universe. He kissed her for the first time that summer. It happened at the conclusion of a grueling six-hour Medal of Honor kick. When the final scroll took place and the programmers were listed like the closing credits to a movie Norm just couldn’t contain himself. The kiss was sloppy and about as far from romantic as you can get. But he kissed her. And she kissed him back.
After graduation she moved to San Diego for college. They talked every day. In between these conversations Francesca tried her best to go about the important business of creating a life. LARPing was no longer about setting oneself apart but about community. There were three clubs operating out of the Jewish fraternity alone. It only took a week for every overgrown wizard and dungeon master at SDSU to fall hopelessly, ineptly in love with her. The dry erase board outside her freshman dorm room became a breeding ground for dirty limericks and quotes from Dr. Who. Midway through spring term, the pimply scion to a tupperware dynasty downed sixteen cans of Mountain Dew and flung himself from a third floor window of the library, declaring his undying love for her shortly before his plunge. He landed in an overgrown juniper bush. Francesca became the stuff of legend.
When the sororities came calling, Francesca began to find her presence in high demand. The dances and social events and fundraisers all blurred together after the third or fourth invite. Slurred pickup lines, cheap rum, the burning of mascara ground into weary tear ducts; Francesca liked the attention on some level, but it also made her guilty. She found herself imagining Norm’s lonely existence without her. There would be the squalor of his small room. Piles upon piles of garbage, emblems to the lonely and unloved. Upon a half-eaten bag of Jolly Ranchers would sit a single game controller. It would be her’s, right where she left it after their last session together.
After eight weeks Norm showed up on her doorstep in tears. He’d made the drive from Tehachapi to San Diego in seven hours—no easy feat. His hands were frozen in palsied agony from gripping the steering wheel. In a wheezing voice, he told her he hadn’t spent more than a week away from her in four years and that he couldn’t stand it. The phone calls weren’t enough. Games didn’t have the same allure they once did without a co-pilot, a hired gun to watch your back. He wanted his partner-in-crime back, his accomplice, his fellow assassin. She stepped back from the door and he fell in.
That night they had sex for the first time. She didn’t enjoy it and she definitely didn’t come but he seemed happy. It was a gift, a gift for five years of friendship, five years of always having a number to call when she was lonely or unhappy or when her father passed out drunk in the living room and she couldn’t watch TV because it would wake him up. It was a gift and he appreciated it and that was all that mattered. For a while things remained as they were except for the bouts of short, vaguely meaningful lovemaking. Eventually Norm asked his mother for a few thousand dollars—giving her a strict timetable for when and how he planned to repay it—and bought a ring. She said yes.
Norm was broke and unemployed at the time, so his mother paid for half of the ceremony. Francesca paid for the other half. Eventually he found fairly steady work as a freelance videogame tester through his connections in the LARPing community.
It was during this period that Francesca took her first lover. She’d had many chances since moving to San Diego, but never wanted to hurt Norm. Now that they were living together, however, certain aspects of the situation were intolerable. In high school she found his tendency toward clutter and mess charming. Cleaning up after him was just one more way to stave off boredom. She didn’t realize how ingrained the problem was to his nature. Norm was an agent of destruction. Within a week of moving in,dust seemed to congregate in the little one-bedroom apartment seemingly of its own accord. They had enough pizza boxes to build a house with. He duct-taped them together into a pair of makeshift armchairs. The joke promptly ended with the smell of rancid cheese and tomatoes. Over Norm’s protests, Francesca brought the pizza-chairs into the back alley.
It wasn’t the chairs themselves that bothered her. He wouldn’t touch a single morsel of what she cooked. Over the years she’d taken the time to perfect many family recipes and learned dozens more. She could marinade pure gristle and make it melt like butter. Still, Norm would have none of it. His was a purely processed diet. If it didn’t come in a box, carton, or wrapper, he wouldn’t touch it.
Sometimes when Francesca cooked she looked at her husband sitting on the couch. What little hair Norm had left was sparse and gray—the hair of an embalmed corpse. His clothes hung off him like tent flaps and though his face had cleared up considerably since high school it still had an ever-present sheen of grease. It wasn’t that Norm was too ugly for her. By then their lives were far too intertwined for Francesca to even consider such petty matters as looks; it was that he looked like a man who could die at any moment. She made no secret of the fact that she wanted to make a home with Norm, to have children and a house and vacations in the summer and all the things she felt like an upstanding citizen should have. Her husband’s premature death wasn’t in the cards.
And so, with all these varying doubts and stresses weighing on her 23-year-old mind, she took a lover. They met at a bar. He took his time with it; asked her out to coffee the next day. She said yes. It was a place far enough away to be inconspicuous, not that Norm would know either way. He was a shut-in. Driving to the rendezvous, Francesca knew what was going to happen. The mixture of excitement and guilt was intoxicating in its unfamiliarity. In the end, it was the moments before that she came to long for. Francesca took the liberty of forgetting his name by around the third or fourth tryst.
Instead, she recognized him as a series of bodyparts. There were the arms thick as Norm’s thighs, the barrel chest almost as wide around as the stand that held Norm’s precious entertainment center, the face that gritted its teeth in manly exertion mid-thrust instead of warbling like a turkey. His apartment was neat and orderly, with a guitar propped in a far corner and a living room dominated not by a series of surge protectors and gaming systems but by a weight bench. He was a mature 28 while Norm was a shrunken, infantilized 22. Did she resent her husband in these moments? At first, yes. Then came the moments in between when she was first introduced to the indifference of the sexually sated male. As soon as he finished he was quick to excuse himself to the bathroom. Watching him wash the last remnants of her from his body through a crack in the door, she felt a whole new appreciation for Norm. He never stared out over her shoulder when he spoke to her. He didn’t answer with grunts and canned responses designed to end conversations. He laughed at her jokes.
Still, it felt good, and that was reason enough to spin things out to their inevitable conclusion. She kept it up with the guy for three months before calling him one day and asking, “What exactly are we doing?” There was silence on the other end of the line, and Francesca could imagine him shrugging or rolling his eyes or mouthing the word “whatever” but all he said was “I dunno.” And that was the end of it. And that was fine with her.
Norm knew on some level, she was sure. Maybe he checked the phone bill or the gas mileage. She wasn’t sure how exactly, but she could feel it. There was a change in his behavior. A deep heaviness overtook his actions, as if the most basic tasks were nearly impossible. He sunk deeper and deeper into himself, spending entire days without leaving the couch. His touch was clammy and fleeting, as if she might disappear into a mist at any moment. For the first time in their relationship, she became the aggressor in bed, trying to coax him into some kind of contact. He wanted it, she knew that much. But Norm seemed preoccupied. He spent more and more time looking at himself in the mirror, trying to maneuver his sparse hair so that it camouflaged his bald spot.
One day, he told her he loved her. It came out of the side of his mouth as he played something or other in the main room. He wasn’t even looking at her. Still, there was a catch in his voice when he said her name. Something inside him seemed to cave in. Francesca could sense the effort it took for him to truly mean it. She said that she loved him too. That night he was back to his old self, insistent and filled with wonder at her body.
A month later she dropped out of college in order to find work. Her financial aid stipend wasn’t paying the bills any more than Norm’s feeble game testing gig. They packed up what little they had and moved to Los Angeles. She took a job shoveling jelly beans into bags at a candy store while Norm sent out hundreds of resumes. They lived in a furnished room in the home of an Armenian couple who fought every night. They never talked about the infidelity.
When it came to his marriage, Norm was impervious to boredom. Francesca knew this. He’d never tire of her, never step out, never leave, never thirst for something greater out of life. The more she discounted the thought, the harder it was to deny how different she was. The old resentment came back. She tried her best to tamp it down with guilt, shame, love, anything at all. It wasn’t enough. Bit by bit, resentment eroded away the dam she had built up after her first infidelity. How much longer would she have her looks? How many more chances would she have to do all of the stupid things she was too scared to do as a teenager?
The break-up was a sort of test, a trial run of a new and frightening life. His movements instantly took on the familiar heaviness as he asked if they could still be roommates.
The day she left the room in Koreatown it was cold and overcast—unseasonably so for Southern California. She half-expected to see Norm watching from the window, but it was vacant. No doubt he was burying his emotions in World of Warcraft. Maybe he even changed his handle to something vindictive and angry: FUBITCH666 or HRTLSSSLUT187. The true gamer expresses his rage via text and symbol.
She moved to another furnished room a few miles away. Again, it didn’t take long for her to find another lover. He was everything she thought she wanted. Handsome. Urbane. Witty. Seemingly well-off. She maintained an air of calm superiority throughout the next six months. This was a gift, a vacation. This was all the good things she owed herself after eight years of domestic servitude.
Physical satisfaction, though nice, didn’t have the allure that she’d been led to expect. This much she already knew. Turns out every man became Norm eventually: a rigid set of obsessions, hobbies, and phobias, occasionally interrupted by the desire for sex and food. Beyond the fleshly shape in which these characteristics manifested themselves, there wasn’t much of a difference. At least this one liked her cooking.
They went to art openings, marathons, fundraisers, and warehouse raves. They ate food from Ethiopia, the Himalayas, and beyond. They tried tantra, kama-sutra, the Swedish marriage manual (don’t ask), and something called ‘Venetian Breathing.’ He paid for everything, saying that he got a weekly allowance from his parents by telling them he was studying to be a Dramaturg. Francesca knew what that was. This turned him on.
Still, when the pickup broadsided her compact at the intersection of 5th and Flower, the novelty of it all diminished considerably. The first thing she felt was warm liquid flowing from the back of her head—a nasty laceration behind her left ear. There seemed to be smoke in the interior of the wrecked car but it was just powder from the deployed airbag. Through an untouched windshield she saw the driver of the pickup wandering around the intersection in a haze. Beyond him, the lights of an oncoming ambulance.
Francesca, good old matronly Francesca. Through it all her thoughts were only of Norm. Who would make sure he fed himself, clothed himself, bathed himself? Who would reassure him that his seasonal gig was sure to go full-time once the summer had ended? Who would love him? When she finally made the call—the first time they spoke in nearly twenty weeks—she told him what happened in a calm, level voice. By now she’d already declined a ride to the hospital and had found herself pacing among shattered glass and twisted metal. Norm listened intently before hanging up. No joke. No one-liner. Just a click.
Fifteen minutes was all it took him. Koreatown to Downtown in fifteen minutes. In the heart of rush hour. When his ancient Fiesta pulled up to the accident site all she could think was: “This is love.”
Four hours later, after a grueling round of police interviews and half a dozen phone calls to and from relatives and insurance agents, they lay side-by-side in bed. For the first time, she allowed herself to look at Norm. The changes were slight, but they were there. Six months without her had aged him. More hair had fallen out. He no longer made any attempt to hide the bald spot. The greasy sheen of his skin had given way to a sallow grey.
“Don’t go away again,” he said. “Do whatever you have to do. But don’t go away anymore.”
Though he left off the ‘please,’ it was there in his eyes.
She felt the laceration behind her ear before nodding. Much like the borders formed by her torn flesh, the future would seal itself off, bit by bit, millimeter by millimeter, until all that was left of who she might have become was the ghost of a scar. Decision made, she felt a great rush of comfort. There was no going back.