“Uh-oh. You pissed somebody off.” This from my neighbor, John, a grizzled South Boston townie who stands in front of his house all day with his arms folded. John is younger than me, but he could easily pass for sixty. Maybe it’s his missing teeth, or his limp, or his slurred speech. Or maybe he seems older because of his 20-year old daughter. She and her boyfriend hang out in a red Mercury Sable that never leaves the driveway. It sits parked, the engine running, the windows fogged with pot smoke. In seven years I’ve never seen his daughter leave that car, at least not without the help of a warrant or an EMT.
I turned to John, removing my ear buds. “Come again?”
He pointed at my Jeep, parked across the street. The windshield had been smashed in three places. From where I stood they looked like bullet holes, evidence of a gangland-style execution: two above the steering wheel and a third on the passenger side, slightly lower, as though intended for someone shorter. Like my wife.
I crossed the street to take a look. They weren’t bullet holes, but dents in the glass, each one surrounded by a spider web of cracks. The work of a hammer, or a baseball bat, or a boot heel.
“That looks like some kinda message.” John again.
“It’s probably just junkies,” I said. I rarely locked my Jeep at night and hardly drove it during the week, and as a result the neighborhood heroin addicts used it as a safe haven to cook and shoot their dope. Some mornings I’d open the door and find my seat tilted all the way back, along with some minor disarray, like an open glove box or a misplaced CD case. I pictured the addict getting high, reclining the driver’s seat and reading the liner notes of my Phil Collins CD before peacefully nodding off. It warmed my heart, this rapport I had built with the local junkies. My Jeep was a form of public welfare, like clean hypodermic needles or free chicken soup.
“Yah, you’re prob’ly right,” John said. But deep down I knew I was kidding myself. This was a kinda message. And as I pieced together a possible explanation, one that became more certain with each thudding heartbeat, my body got colder. If my theory was accurate, then this was just the beginning, and my life could be in unholy danger.
* * *
Who would send me a message by smashing my windshield? Well, since I began posting stories online, I can name at least two-dozen culprits off the top of my head. But the one that stood out was a woman I met online nearly eighteen months earlier. Let’s call her Jane.
On our second date, Jane suggested we visit some of her friends at an underground goth party, held in the back room of a Boston bar. I was surprised. Jane had rosy cheeks and light hair, a departure from the black lipstick and pale complexions that are typically associated with goth culture. “My friends are really laid back,” she assured me. For me, laid back means three middle-aged men on lawn chairs, drinking cans of Miller High Life. Not a room full of people dressed in hooded cloaks. Still, in the spirit of adventure, I told her I’d be happy to go.
To my surprise, it was just like any other party, only with heavier music and meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The people were polite and welcoming, not aloof like the garden-variety Boston assholes I encountered in my former club days. I had an enlightening conversation with someone named Glamboy. For forty minutes we discussed climate change, not the kind of subject matter you’d expect from a 20-year old kid wearing mascara and plastic fangs.
The next day I wrote about the experience in my journal. Of course I did. It’s not everyday that I meet someone who sleeps in a coffin in his parents’ basement. I titled the entry “My Night With Glamboy”, closed the journal and felt a creeping doubt about my future with Jane.
We went on one more date, a day trip to the Liberty Tree Mall, where we browsed through leather accessories in a store called Hot Topic. I felt uncomfortable there, mainly because the target demographic seemed to be adolescent girls with sadomasochistic tendencies. “You should get this,” Jane shouted from three aisles over, holding up a codpiece that looked like it was made for a 12-year old. I bent down and scratched my head, avoiding the cashier’s stare.
I liked Jane, but, in the end, we weren’t on the same page. Whenever I suggested typical date fare, like lunch, she’d counter with, “Maybe, but Sunday is fetish night at Club Hell. I sorta told some friends I’d go.” I wanted to get to know her in a quiet, relaxing environment, one that wasn’t encumbered by industrial music or Nazi propaganda films projected on the walls. Finally, after three dates, I called it quits, citing my early sobriety as the main reason. She respected that. There was no ill will and she told me I could always call her when my recovery reached sturdier ground.
Months passed, and in December of 2014, while scanning through my journal for a story idea, I came across “My Night With Glamboy”. I expanded it to 3500 words and used Jane’s character as the access point, making the story less of an exposé on goth subculture and more about the lurid adventures that await us on the other end of dating sites. And while I changed Jane’s name, virtually everything else was taken verbatim: her job, the town where she lived, her physical description and mannerisms, and nearly all of our dialogue, including the vulnerable moments, like when she revealed her compulsion to self-mutilate.
The one detail I changed was inconsequential: the dating site. Jane pointed this out when she eventually read the story, nearly six months after I posted it. I was at my office late one day in June of 2015—two months before the smashed windshield—when I got an email from Weebly, the server that hosts my blog, alerting me of a reader comment.
That’s funny. I thought we met on OK Cupid. Not Tinder.
Gooseflesh spread across my body. How did she find my blog? Not by Googling my name, that’s for sure. I do this at least once a week and am always disappointed by the six pages of Daniel Pellegrini I click through before arriving at the Greater Fool website. Even my father, Daniel Pellegrini Sr., appears before me on a Google search, and he’s been dead for thirteen years.
Jane must have visited my Facebook profile and found one of my more recent posts relating to my blog. We’re not friends on Facebook, but apparently that doesn’t matter. If a post is labeled as “public”, anyone can view it. Still, even if she got to my blog she’d have had to scroll through six months’ worth of stories to find hers, and back then I wrote two a month. That’s twelve stories at an average of 3500 words each. A total of forty thousand words, half the length of the average novel.
Suddenly I felt like I was being watched. I shut down my computer and hurried out the door.
On the walk home, I thought about the story, wondering what else was in there and how damaging it might be. Maybe it’s not so bad, I thought, and then I remembered one passage, early on, that described Jane’s face as “…permanently disdainful, as though wincing at a foul smell…a fresh cadaver who was deeply unsatisfied with the way in which she died.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, pulling at the few remaining strands of hair on my head. I didn’t want to think about what else I had written. I wanted to climb up onto the expressway overpass and let the traffic pulverize me. Instead I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. My wife Amanda was waiting for me at a restaurant, and I wanted to let her know that I was running late. Normally I am not this thoughtful, but I had to do something considerate to feel like less of an asshole.
There was a text waiting for me from an unknown number. “Please let it be a collection agent,” I said, and then unlocked the phone and read it.
Hello. This is Jane. Do you remember me? It certainly appears so. I came across your website and found a story you wrote about me. I suggest you take it down. Right now.
My bowels filled up with water. This is my body’s natural response to fear, as though there are copper wires that run directly from my brain to my rectum. I picked up my pace, power-walking over the West 4th Street bridge into South Boston. I kept enough composure to reply to her text.
I’m sorry. I’ll take the story down. Give me ten minutes.
Something told me not to cave in, that I was protected by the first amendment, but then I pictured Jane sitting at the center of a pentagram with a book of spells in her lap. So I admitted fault and agreed to her terms, hoping that would be the end of it.
It was not. A moment later my phone buzzed again.
You wrote about my personal life. Things I revealed to you in confidence. To me they are real but to u they are entertainment. That entire story was a judgment on my character and my life. You are so low. You must really hate yourself.
I was two blocks from my house. I could have waited and put some thought into my response, but I desperately wanted to resolve this matter.
You’re absolutely right. I do hate myself. I’m sorry. The story will be down in five minutes.
A minute later, she replied. To think some drug addict is passing judgment on me. Ha. That’s the real humor. Maybe I’ll write a story about that, on my own blog. The loser drug addict with Crohn’s Disease who sits at home shitting his pants and writing terrible things about people. Wouldn’t that be funny?
I was tempted to tell her I’d already covered that topic ad nauseam, but instead I unlocked my front door and ran up the stairs to my condo, went straight for my laptop, and deleted the story from my website. The story’s gone. Again, I’m truly sorry. My intent was not to hurt you or pass judgment on you in any way. I write about life experiences, that’s all. Besides, no one reads my blog. J Anyway, I deleted the story. It’s over.
I hit send and waited a few minutes while I calmed down. Then I splashed cold water on my face, changed my shirt and headed out for the restaurant to meet my wife for dinner.
Ten minutes later I arrived at Loco, part taqueria, part oyster bar. Amanda sat at a two-top by the back wall, a half-finished margarita in front of her. She saw me and smiled, and I immediately felt at ease.
“Do you want to start with something from the raw bar?” she asked.
“Sounds good,” I said, and then I felt a buzz against my leg. Another text. I looked down at it.
Nothing is over.
“Let’s get six Island Creek oysters and six of these other ones,” Amanda said. “Danny? Why do you look pale? Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I feel great,” I said, grabbing a menu.
The server took our order, and as soon as he walked away the phone buzzed again. I tried to ignore it by engaging Amanda in constant conversation, broaching topics that normally didn’t interest me, anything to keep her talking and me distracted. “So, tell me more about your spinning class,” I said. “Who’s your favorite instructor?”
I listened and nodded and asked more questions, my leg buzzing sporadically throughout our entire meal, these tiny electric shocks reminding me what an asshole I was.
After the server cleared our plates, Amanda excused herself to use the restroom, leaving me alone with a cache of unread hate mail. They can’t all be from her, I thought, but when I checked I saw eight texts from Jane. I unlocked my phone. There were pages of texts, some short, some infinitely long. I scrolled through them, noticing certain phrases and keywords. A few that stood out: …I’m not mad. A pussy-ass like you could never make me mad…I knew there was something cowardly about you…no wonder you’re old and single…you’re a degenerate junkie…How’s it feel knowing you’ll be wearing diapers in a few years?...Your bulge is pathetic…
And the last one, which I read in its entirety: Watch out. You have no idea who the fuck you messed with. Hahaha.
I deleted all of her texts and blocked her number. Then I kindly asked the server for the check.
Though I didn’t mention any of this to Amanda, she noticed my increased concern for home security in the following weeks. At first I took sensible measures, like locking both doors at night and keeping a Louisville Slugger next to the bed. Soon, however, my actions became more paranoid. The cat was no longer allowed outdoors, which resulted in twice the amount of scratched walls and furniture. I burned sage throughout our rooms, giving the entire condo the fresh odor of hot garbage. After that I made some décor changes. “What’s with all the crucifixes on the walls?” Amanda said.
I lashed back at her. “You’re the one who always says we need more artwork. Now I show an interest, and you criticize it.”
I worried about potential legal implications. The story had been removed from the internet, but what if Jane copied it to her desktop as evidence? Could she sue me for defamation of character? I asked my friend, Eric, a litigator. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “There is something called the Freedom of Art Act. It grants leeway to artists who use real life experiences in creative ways.” This gave me some peace of mind, though I doubted that my stories qualified as art, considering half of them are about bowel disease.
Then there was the ethical dilemma. On this I consulted my therapist. “What am I supposed to do?” I said. “I write about my life. Sometimes that involves other people. Surely I can’t be the only person who deals with this problem.”
“Hm,” said my shrink, staring off into his infinite wisdom. “Maybe you could ask their permission before writing about them?”
I thought of how I might pose this question to Maggie, a former girlfriend who was currently the subject of a three-part series. “Hey Maggie. I know it’s been a while, and the last time we saw each other you threatened my life, but I’m writing a story about our relationship and I’m wondering if you’d be comfortable with it. It includes details about your alcoholism and multiple venereal diseases, as well as the Xanax I stole from your underwear drawer. The story will live on the internet and will be promoted on social media. Oh, and the title is Trainwreck.”
There were others, a supporting cast of ex-girlfriends, former drug dealers, employers, neighbors, CCD teachers and childhood friends. I pluck our relationships from the real world and render them in a way that will best serve a particular story, molding their characters for the sake of theme and structure. And while the light shines harshest on my own folly, these other characters become paper targets, defenseless against a one-sided assault that I call truth. Is this ethical? Is it art, or is it cyber-bullying? Am I telling stories or am I exacting revenge?
“Why do you write these stories, Danny?” my shrink said.
I thought about it for a minute. “Because I’m insecure, and angry, and small, and sick. And I guess I just need to talk about it.”
“Interesting,” he said, yawning and checking his watch.
In spite of this epiphany I kept writing, and two weeks later I posted Trainwreck: Part One, the first of three stories about my incendiary romance with “Maggie”. Maggie was a loud, obnoxious drunk that craved attention and often got it in the tackiest ways, like staggering into a room full of people and lifting her dress over her head. Or dry humping strangers at parties. Or sobbing at a breakfast café until the server brought her Bloody Mary. Whether consciously or not, this was someone who wanted a story written about her. I was just the investigative journalist, observing her erratic behavior while hooking up with her and stealing her benzodiazepines.
Writing Trainwreck pulled my attention away from Jane, and by early August I had forgotten all about her. It’s funny how quickly a short amount of time can totally change one’s mindset: in the days following her texts, I was certain I’d get a subpoena in the mail, or, worse, a giftwrapped cow’s tongue. But after a month it was as though nothing happened, the whole incident flypapered from my consciousness. Until of course that lovely August morning when I stepped out of my house and saw my Jeep’s windshield smashed. Then it all came flooding back into my bones.
“Danny, we live in the city. People get their cars broken into all the time. It’s not personal,” said Amanda, later that evening.
“Okay, Sherlock. Why would someone smash the windshield instead of a side window? Or better yet, why would they smash anything at all seeing as that my top was down and my doors were unlocked?”
“Then it was drug addicts,” she said. “They probably went through your car, looking for something to steal, found nothing and then smashed your windshield because they were pissed!”
“Always quick to blame drug addicts,” I said, wagging my finger. “Leave the drug addicts out of this. They wouldn’t do this to me. We have a mutual understanding. Besides, drug addicts want to get high, not vandalize.”
“Fine,” Amanda said. “Then it was kids doing stupid kid things. The point is this kind of shit happens all the time. This city is filled with idiots and life is filled with random coincidences. It doesn’t mean someone’s after you.”
I needed another opinion, so I called my friend, Dave, and told him about the windshield. “Jesus,” he said. “You think it was Trainwreck?”
I hadn’t even thought of that. Before I could respond Dave listed off six other possible suspects, all people I had written about in the last year. Among them were Justin, a childhood friend who now lives in his parents’ attic, like Boo Radley; Bill, the pedophile Home Depot employee with the incontinent dog; Carol, the married woman I did mushrooms with back in 1999; and Luis, the drug dealer and El Salvadorian gang member, who I’ve described in detail, should any DEA agents stumble onto my blog.
The point: it could be anyone. Every story unearths a new reason for someone to hate me. Take for instance Tommy Donovan, a kid from my neighborhood. Even as a child, Tommy was a sociopathic animal. He sexually harassed the elderly woman who collected cans on his street. He routinely broke into his neighbor’s house, using their phone to call 900 numbers. On summer nights he’d walk through the high school baseball field, fully nude, boasting about it the next day, telling people how he took a shit on third base or masturbated in right field. I haven’t written this story yet, but I will. I have to. And I can’t imagine the real Tommy Donovan reading it someday and looking back fondly on his childhood.
“Why don’t you write about nice things?” my mother says, every time I see her. “Like Maeve Binchy. I just read a wonderful book of hers about aging and finding love later in life. It takes place in a small town outside Dublin. The characters are wonderful. Why can’t you write stories like that?” Then she adds, “Stories that aren’t so hurtful.”
There’s a long answer to this question, one that includes Freudian self-analysis and literary buzzwords like absurdist and artistic expression. But when I start talking like this I sound like a jerkoff. So instead I say, “I don’t know, mom. I just think that stuff is funny.” That’s the extent of it. Things happen in life, and I like to curate them. It may be unethical, or trashy, or cheap, or ugly, or whatever. But it’s the way I do it, and will continue to do it as such, so long as there are priests that can bless my condo once a month, and pepper spray that fits into my wife’s purse.
* * * *
A week later, I saw my neighbor standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. His arms were folded, as usual, but there was something different about his face. He looked distant instead of watchful. I said hello and asked how he was doing, and he shook his head.
“My daughter got arrested last night,” he said.
I looked at the red Mercury Sable. It was quiet and still, not vibrating with the bass of some hip-hop song, as was usually the case. “Jesus,” I said. “What happened?”
John spat out a wad of phlegm. “Her and that fuckin’ asshole boyfriend. Cops busted them for possession. They were walkin’ up and down West 6th Street, with a baseball bat, smashing in car windshields. When they searched her they found two grams of meth. That’s her third drug charge in two years. Now they got her on destruction of property, too.” His jaw trembled, and he started to cry. “Dumb fuckin’ asshole,” he said, covering his face.
I wanted to tell him how relieved I was to hear this, that for the last seven days I thought I’d been targeted by a satanic cult, when it was his daughter all along. But it wasn’t the right time. Instead I walked over and stood next to him on the sidewalk. “It’s all right, John,” I said. “Some people have to hit bottom, but she’ll make it back. She’s going to be fine.”
I didn’t believe a word of this. The fact is that most people don’t make it back, and John’s daughter was no exception to the rule. But who am I to say this? Sometimes honesty isn’t that important. Sometimes it’s as bullshit as everything else.