Salt, Sex, and Big, Red Trucks: A Night in Dallas with Melissa Broder

I parked my silver hatchback at a meter in front of the bookstore with twenty minutes left of The Pisces audiobook to complete. Is it weird to sit in your car on a city street, listening to a book read at two times speed? Is there are way to do it without looking like a stoned creep?

I considered driving around Deep Ellum until I was done but opted to practice self-care instead. Keeping my prime parking spot meant I wouldn’t have to stumble down the cracked, uneven sidewalk with my cane or walker, and that was more important in the moment than any shred of comfortable dignity I had left.

Once in the store, I was greeted by a familiar smile buoyed by a cloud of black curls. I have only known Cristina for eighteen months, and she already knows me better than some of my family members. We have bonded over grief and a love for good writing, which is why she told me about this event months ago, as soon as it was first announced – she knew I would not only know of Melissa Broder but love her work and want to hear her speak in the quiet intimacy that only Deep Vellum Books can offer.

After we caught up and I splurged on a glass bottle of Topo Chico, I retreated to a chair in the corner to finish The Pisces. I hadn’t known what to expect when I first picked up Broder’s debut novel, but it promised a combination of some of my favorite things – feminism, self-loathing humor, an unlikable/unreliable narrator, and mermaids (or merman, to be more specific). I have followed @sosadtoday for years, since back when it was anonymous, and I trusted Broder to guide me through whatever near-real-but-not-quite world she had rendered on the page.

At the first mention of “cock,” I was less sure I would jive with the tone or the voice; however, after the first few chapters, I felt like I understood what Broder was trying to do with the language, with the raw, cringeworthy vulnerability of it all. I felt the book challenging me to pay attention, to lose myself in Lucy’s story of obsessive love and desire for the mythic, to become obsessed with the language and narrative itself. Her writing forced me to confront the ways in which I participated in obsession, in perpetuation of a magical love story (heterosexual or otherwise).

The Pisces also forced me to laugh at myself, at the ways I laid myself bare in the most horrific, desperate ways. It brought up memories of high school and university, from the days before I met my spouse, when I would scream when a crush left a message on my answering machine – something I’m 100% sure I would still do today were I in pursuit of love. To acknowledge that I am still that person, however far removed by my marriage, was jarring and strangely validating, like I was finally accepting some part of myself I had long tried to bury, to hide underneath my wedding band.

The “nothingness” as Lucy calls it is something I, as someone who has struggled with depression since 2002, contend with daily, and I felt at once ashamed and affirmed as I listened to Lucy struggle to crawl her way out of it. There is something about isolation that makes you desperate for touch and yet somehow never fulfilled by it for long, the assurance as fleeting as warmth in the winter.

By the end of the book, I was tender and emotional, which are not feelings I particularly enjoy experiencing whilst in public. I threw myself into talking with a fellow attendee, a young woman named Anna, who had never been to Deep Vellum before. I extolled its many virtues, asked about her writing, invited her to the open mic happening at Deep Vellum next week. We talked about Broder and @sosadtoday, Pop Sockets and trying to find fulfillment in our day jobs.

The room filled up quickly. Cristina and Fatima, another friend I’d made (in part) through Deep Vellum, brought more chairs from the back of the store. A local poet I know came in just before the event started and had to sit on a retaining wall beside my soft, cushioned chair. I felt guilty, but not enough to offer to trade seats.

Broder crossed Commerce with the confidence of a former New Yorker. She seemed to bounce as she came through the open door, passed the mass of attendees, and bee-lined behind the coffee bar. She wore a white top and chic, high-waist mini skirt of black leather and silver metal. I couldn’t help but think, I will never be that cool, which is both unusually fanatical and typically self-deprecating of me.

She opened her reading with expected charm, gesturing to the street and saying, “That huge red truck out there is mine!” Explaining that the insurance was the same for a Kia or the pickup, she opted for a true Texan experience and rented the big red monstrosity for her three-city Texas tour. We couldn’t help but grin in the wake of her pride, even if we weren’t the target audience for it – the literary crowd in Dallas, myself included, are typically hipster-like in their lifestyles, opting for all things anti-Texan in stereotype. Many of us are transplants from elsewhere, and those who aren’t seem to largely reject their roots, instead seeing aspects of the Texan aesthetic through the lens of the world beyond and deeming them incongruous with a liberal arts life. This is a fallacy, of course, but we embrace it all the same.

Broder read from a late chapter in the novel, an uncomfortable scene in which Lucy propositions and has sex with her Uber driver on the way home from a particularly upsetting group therapy session for sex and love addicts. Having just read the scene an hour earlier, I was mercifully prepared for the brutal reality of it, for the way that Broder refuses to romanticize or otherwise soften the unsatisfying encounter.

As she read, I couldn’t help but admire the steadiness of Broder’s performance. There was no uncertainty, no hesitation as she unnerved us then opened the floor for us to speak. She forced us to join her in vulnerability then took a step back, waiting to see what we would do with it. I can’t say that I’ve experienced that at an author reading before – it was dizzying, like being taken outside of myself while also compelling me to viscerally experience my body in a room full of mostly strangers.

The questions ranged from the personal to the process. I asked about her approach to the various genres she writes in (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), and she explained her dictation method of finishing rough drafts, how that keeps her from getting lost in editing the same line over and over and never finishing the project. Others asked about her creativity in sobriety (Broder is many years in recovery from alcoholism) and how she transitioned from the famously clipped, sharp style of @sosadtoday to the more complex style she employs in The Pisces.

She was generous in all of her replies, looking the question-asker in the eye as she responded. As she spoke to me, it was as if we were two friends sitting across a small table at a sidewalk café, getting to know one another better over steamed milk and bitter espresso. This honored the courage it took to ask a question at all, made us feel special, like we weren’t just another mob of fans asking a celebrity probing questions as a form of entertainment.

Once our questions had been answered, Broder moved back to the coffee bar to sign books and share hugs and take selfies. The queue snaked across the concrete floor, humming with secret-sharing and laughter.

Standing in line, I struck up a conversation with a young woman named Priya. We talked about tattoos and politics, books and poetry and getting out of Texas (she lives in New York but grew up in a Dallas suburb). Her hair was gorgeous, thick black curls cut above the shoulder, and as she walked away after meeting Broder, I instantly regretted not exchanging information to keep in touch as we went our separate ways.

Stepping up to meet Broder one-on-one, I was inexplicably tongue-tied. I showed her my journal, which features a stunning image of a mermaid on the cover, and rambled about my love of mythic sea creatures as she signed the first page for me. We joked with Cristina and Fatima about the neighborhoods in Dallas, but I felt on the fringe, a non-citizen that spends most of her time in Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff when in the city. The encounter ended with my awkward silence and shuffling retreat to the other end of the coffee bar, where I caught up with Fatima and pretended like everything was normal until the event was over.

As I walked back to my car, I played the three-minute interaction over and over in my head, at two and three times speed, anxiety and self-loathing distorting my memory – I was worse than awkward, I was weird, I was inept, I had made a fool of myself in front of someone I admired, I had ruined my opportunity to connect with another writer in the way only writers can. I was furious with myself and on the verge of a breakdown – until I thought about The Pisces and Lucy and the ways she replayed her conversations with lovers, analyzed responses for potential rejection or acceptance. Her insecurity threatened every exchange – and so did mine.

I took a deep breath, synced my phone with my car, and called my husband.

“How did it go?” he asked, his voice like that of a god in surround sound as I pulled away from the curb.  

“Great,” I said. “I’m so glad I came.”

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