Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader and former MQR Social Media Coordinator Lauren Champlin on why she recommended “Harm Reduction” by Thea Chacamaty for the Summer 2023 issue. You can purchase the issue here.
“Harm Reduction” is a story that captivated me upon my initial reading and stuck with me long afterword for its sharp moments of introspection, its cast of characters who feel alive and distinct in their own voices. Thea Chacamaty situates the reader in conversation at the dinner table, and later folded between bedsheets, with Rose, Sahar, and Danica, like the fourth member of their inner circle, active in their animated conversation, playful debate, and moments of deep sincerity. As these three women mull over what type of people they are—childless camper van-dwellers or domestic parents-to-be, victims of violence or sitcom archetypes who won the “girlhood lottery”—we come to know them through their shared sense of responsibility, what they feel they owe to themselves, each other, and their community at large.
Chacamaty seamlessly balances humorous dialogue with insightful exploration of the personal and societal effects of violence against women. Rose’s unspoken past trauma emerges in the wake of the very public tragedy dominating their current news cycle, when she sees her high school attacker in the features of a shooter in a police sketch. The tie between girls and between women in this story transcends space and time, rooted not only in a sense of universal violence looming over us, but also in the instinct to protect one another as a result of it. We are Rose, at the end of the night, unraveling in the arms of her closest friends, Sleeping Beauty reassembling a life after tragedy. We are the pain that buries itself in our fatty tissues, and we are the strength necessary to expel it from our every pore.
The day that David moved out of the apartment, his brother backed the truck on to the curb for easy loading. Rose carried the last box down three flights of stairs and dropped it on the sidewalk.
“Careful,” said David from the truck bed, where he was wrapping the ugly antique glass globe lamp in a wool blanket.
“It’s just books,” Rose said. “Heavy books.”
In their trial separation, the division of possessions had been fair. Though David was a lawyer, he hadn’t used his negotiating skills to his own advantage. Rose took the blender, David took the toaster oven. Rose got the mattress, he got the corduroy armchair. While they were apart, Rose and David would decide if they would get married given Rose’s revelation that she wasn’t sure she wanted children. David hadn’t taken it well.
Rose did not not want a family, exactly. She couldn’t picture carrying a baby inside her body and, later, outside of it in a neck-cramping sling. And they didn’t seem to her like those kinds of people. They had met five years ago in the bathroom line at a punk show above the McDonald’s on 24th and Mission, where David offered Rose a bump of cocaine off the key to his bike lock. She had assumed that she and David were to be one of those happily unmarried, childless old San Francisco couples with a camper van full of yippy chihuahuas. Now, as she watched David position the woolen cylinder of the protected lamp inside a laundry basket for safe travel, fastidious as he was with all things, Rose didn’t doubt that if they did have a baby, he would be careful and tender with it.
“I changed my mind,” Rose said. “I do want the lamp.”
David looked up, startled. “You said you hated it.”
She did hate the lamp. They’d found it at a yard sale shortly after he’d moved in with her, when they were both drunk on lunchtime margaritas.
“I hate the overheads more. I won’t have anything to read by if you take it.”
David’s brother ducked between two stacks of boxes, hiding.
“Fine.” David freed the lamp from its blanket and set it on the tailgate. “It’s yours. I don’t care.”
“Thanks,” Rose said. I’ll bring it to Paul’s once I’ve found something else.”
He heaved his backpacker’s pack over his shoulder before entering the cab, squinting in the early afternoon sun. “You’re going to call Irene, right?”
During one of their blow-out fights, Rose had promised to go back to therapy, but she hadn’t started yet. Irene was the latest therapist Rose had fired, but she had been Rose’s favorite. Unlike David, Irene didn’t say that Rose was “emotionally stunted” and “serially noncommittal.” Rose wasn’t noncommittal. She had been happy to have David move in with her. She still wanted the van, and the dogs.
“I’ll try,” Rose said.
Once the truck was packed, David did not kiss her goodbye. Rose felt like a prairie bride in a spaghetti western as she watched the taillights burrow into the fog.
Later that week, Sahar invited Rose to dinner at her place. Sahar’s husband would be on a business trip, and Danica’s wife was taking her two young sons to visit family back east. That night, they would be unencumbered by men and boys. When Rose arrived, Sahar and Danica were sitting around the marble kitchen island with their wine and their phones. As usual, Danica and Sahar were charged up, a little drunk, yelling their mirroring political opinions at each other. They were not murmuring types.
“I’ve had it up to here with all the misery,” said Sahar, hugging Rose. “Danica won’t stop jabbering about all this grizzly murder business.”
“Murder?” said Rose. “This is supposed to be my pity party.”
Sahar’s apartment felt like a magazine spread for how grown-ups lived. Un-childproofable, all angular furniture and echoey hallways. New fragile objects had appeared since Rose’s last visit, glass orbs that shone paranormally on otherwise spare shelves. Sahar’s husband Jonathan owned a gallery and was always switching out one gorgeous thing for another.
That spring, he’d had an affair. Once they’d reconciled, Sahar had begged Danica and Rose to forgive Jonathan, but sometimes a little resentment seeped out. They couldn’t help but protect one another. When they were young, the three women had lived together. First in a college dorm, and later in the same crumbling flat in an Ocean Beach storybook-style building covered with climbing vines, where Rose still lived. David had wanted to buy a place. A condo in a modern building without a mouse problem or a leaky dishwasher. Rose couldn’t picture this either.
“The world does not revolve around you and your break-up,” said Danica. “We’ve been talking about the mass shooting on the peninsula.”
“I don’t know much about it.”
“You’re joking.” Danica gave Rose one of her best “you’re bullshitting” looks.
“You know Rose is sensitive,” said Sahar from the stove.
“I am not. Which shooting? That shooting at the picnic area a few weeks ago, or the one at the college?”
“The one at the college,” Danica said.
Rose had seen the headline on her phone’s screen as she rode the MUNI to work. Twelve dead in dorm room bloodbath. As the train lobbed itself through the tunnel, her thumb hovered over the words as if held by an unseen hand, but she couldn’t bring herself to read the story. That was a week ago, the day after David had moved out.
Sahar tapped the lid of a red pot simmering on the stove. “I want to check my rice, but I know I shouldn’t.”
“Tell me what happened on the peninsula,” Rose said. She tapped her glass. “Pour the wine. Jesus.”
Danica cleared her throat and recited the details. The shooting at the women’s liberal arts college had happened while Rose was enjoying the lovely loneliness of her empty apartment, eating a baked potato for dinner and watching a crappy modern soap. The shooter stormed the dorm rooms with a bump stock AR-17. The doors weren’t locked because girls moved freely between the buildings and one another’s rooms. The man killed girls who were studying or painting their toenails orange. One girl was writing a poem. There was a photograph of the poem, dotted with the girl’s blood, and Rose was glad when Sahar insisted that Danica not read it. A whole pile of girls was found shielding the youngest among them, a fifteen-year-old genius who had survived and now lay in an induced coma, blue-lipped, her breathing synced to a machine’s mechanical cadences.
“Like Sleeping Beauty,” Rose said. “Sleeping Beauty” had been her favorite fairy tale. Before she’d started working at the needle exchange downtown, she’d studied literature of the early modern period. She’d once written a paper comparing various versions of the tale: the French and the German—all murder, rape, incest—against what she’d read as a child, that watered-down, happily-ever-after version by the Brothers Grimm. A kiss, a prince. A curse, a prophecy. The baby, gold flax, fairies, dancers. A sleep lasting one hundred years.
Danica was flushed from telling the story. Sahar wrenched the oven door to remove the lamb.
“It has to rest,” Sahar said.
Rose wasn’t hungry anymore. “Did they catch the guy?”
“They found him in the campus rose garden. He shot himself in the head. There’s only a police sketch. They haven’t identified him because, you know, what happened to his face. They’re calling him the Girl School Killer. Because he killed all those girls. At a girls’ school.”
“Whoever names these killers is not very creative,” said Sahar.
“He published a manifesto online,” said Danica. “It’s fucking twisted.”
Danica spent too much time on the internet, enraging herself with distant tragedies and then writing angry essays about those tragedies for her blog. She listened to true crime podcasts and read books about murderers and rapists. Rose wondered if taking in all that horrific violence might burn the content into your brain. She used to make David read the news aloud to her, acting as a human filter. He had always skipped the gory stuff. What now?
Rose touched Danica’s wrist, a gentle warning. “I don’t want to hear the manifesto.”
“Put the phone away, Danica,” said Sahar. “No more gloomy talk.”
They were halfway through the camembert when the door rumbled. The chandelier quivered, scattering dollops of light across their faces. The three women held their breath.
It was only Jonathan, standing in the doorway with a silver suitcase. “Sorry ladies. Key jammed in the lock.”
“You’re home early!” Sahar’s palm spread across her chest.
“I wanted to surprise you. Didn’t mean to interrupt your slumber party.”
Rose and Danica shared a glance. This was supposed to be their night, not his. Since Sahar had gotten married, they hardly spent any time together. Jonathan dipped his bearded chin toward Sahar and kissed her. Could you tell by looking that they had recently survived an affair?
“How was your trip?” asked Danica, her voice chilly. “Make any new friends?”
Rose nudged Danica. “Shh!”
“It was long.” His humorless dark eyes rested on hers. “I did pick up a few good pieces.”
“We were just talking about the Girl School Killer and then stopped because Sahar’s no fun,” said Danica.
“We’re supposed to be cheering Rose up,” Sahar said sternly.
Jonathan turned to Rose. “Why so sad, Rosie?”
Before Rose could answer, Danica interjected. “Just have a kid. What’s the big deal? Put your career on hold. Never have sex again. Watch your life stall out.”
On nights when she was without the two appendages of her children, Danica seemed animated by her temporary freedom, charged up and wanting to exploit every second of it.
“So dramatic,” Sahar whistled through her teeth.
Rose sighed. “I told him, I don’t know what I want. My body hasn’t sent out any kind of biological distress signals. You know, beep beep, time for baby.”
“I don’t think it works like that,” said Sahar.
“Oh, it does,” said Danica. “Anyway, I was going to read the manifesto, but I’m having trouble finding it.”
“I read it on the plane,” said Jonathan. “What they charge for WIFI in the air is criminal.”
Sahar gestured to make room on the island for the rice’s unveiling. The pot lid was wrapped in a dishtowel, the corners tied in a knot over the handle. She tugged the knot and peeled back the cloth, carefully turning the pot over to dump the rice onto a plate. The crust atop the squat yellow mound was cratered as if it had been punched.
Sahar’s face fell. “The rice!”
“It’ll still taste good,” said Jonathan as he massaged her shoulders.
“That’s not the point,” said Sahar, removing his hands.
“I found the manifesto!”
“I don’t want to hear it,” moaned Rose.
Sahar glared at Danica. “All your murder conversation cursed my rice.”
“I don’t believe in curses. Don’t pin your failed rice on me,” said Danica. “Rose probably cursed your rice. She used to be goth.”
“Our Rosie?” Jonathan raised his eyebrows.
“I was into spooky stuff in high school,” said Rose, blushing. She didn’t want to talk about it, had always avoided it. But it was a better topic than having to hear Danica read the Girl School Killer’s sick manifesto aloud. “I did think I was cursed, once. It’s kind of a funny story.”
“Do you have any photos from this period?” said Jonathan. “Seeing is believing.”
Rose ignored him. “More wine. I’ll tell you about my curse. Sahar, you want me to dish up the lamb?”
Sahar’s body heaved with drama. “I guess.”
Rose cut into the flesh and slid pink slices onto the plates with the rice. “Anyway, when I was a goth, I started a coven with a boy from school.”
“Was he goth too?” asked Sahar.
“No. He was a Morrissey boy. You know the type. Pompadour, white t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. He wrote vaguely suicidal poetry and Moz lyrics on his Converse. Heaven knows I’m miserable now,” she sang, waving the knife around. “And all that crap.”
“Morrissey is cancelled,” said Danica. “He’s xenophobic.”
“And racist,” said Sahar.
“As I was saying, he got into the witch stuff with me. We held seances in his basement.”
Rose’s young life ran on the fumes of fantasy. She longed to escape her dry concrete reality in Palm Desert, with its sunburned palm trees, flat outdoor malls, Costco, and golf courses that drank up all the water. Some things helped feed the fantasy: slack thrift store dresses and ripped-up band t-shirts, 12-eye Docs she saved two months of Cinnabon paychecks to purchase. She avoided the sun and wore pale makeup. She checked out books on paganism from the library and informed her parents that she had become a Wiccan. They didn’t know what to do with this new Rose, who had set up an altar in her bedroom. The altar was just a rotting picnic bench where she displayed the bleached animal bones she found in the Mojave on school trips, crystals, and tarot cards from the new age shop where the clerk had once called her a poser.
Rose described the night that Morrissey Boy cursed her: how they held hands in the ambiance built by candles and Nag Champa, and spoke the gibberish demanded by the ritual he had printed out from Yahoo. “Next thing I know, he’s convulsing. Sweating. Eyes rolling all over the place. I thought he was having a seizure or something. I was worried, but I was also excited. I thought, is this it? Is this the real thing, what I’ve been so desperate to experience? Communing with the dead, some other world?’
“Did you make contact?” Sahar’s mood seemed improved from the wine.
“Seemed like it.” She passed a plate to Jonathan. “He was faking it. He started speaking in a low, creepy voice and said he was receiving a message from some dead lady. A medium from the Gold Rush. It was wild. But then he started getting handsy.”
“Wasn’t he your boyfriend?” asked Jonathan.
“We were just friends. Or I thought we were.” Rose paused, thinking back. “I had a little crush on him, maybe. Nothing serious.”
“Then what happened?”
“I told him I wasn’t buying his Gold Rush widow bit. He didn’t take it well. Kept trying to kiss me and feel me up. He sort of lost his mind.”
“Did he . . .?” Sahar said.
“No,” said Rose firmly. “He tried, but I fought him off with my spiky goth bracelet.”
Jonathan frowned. “I thought you said it was a funny story?”
“Why didn’t you tell us before?” asked Danica.
“I guess I forgot. It was a long time ago.”
Danica’s lower lip trembled. “You don’t forget something like that. We’ve told you everything that ever happened to us.”
“Nothing happened though, in the end.”
“I just wish that you told us something almost did,” insisted Danica. She knuckled tears in the corners of her eyes. “That’s what best friends do.”
Danica and Sahar had, many times over, made themselves vulnerable to Rose. In college, during drunk nights out. In front of the bar, back when they still smoked. In their shared apartment, up all night watching the sitcoms they loved as teens, they would reveal their sad histories after revisiting the episode when Tiffany got roofied at the unchaperoned party, or when Amber got into an older boy’s car after the football game. TV girls always escaped unscathed. Real girls did not. Rose was sympathetic when her friends shared their experiences—rape (Danica), and something close to it (Sahar). She listened. Nodded. Hugged. Danica and Sahar had assumed that Rose won the girlhood lottery. She let them believe it, had even led them to that conclusion. She felt lucky, and superior. She wanted, still, to feel as if she had won a prize.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what almost happened,” Rose said. “Please don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying,” Danica sniffled.
“Maybe we’ve had enough wine.” Jonathan was pale. He was of an older generation, one that did not talk about rape at dinner parties. “The food’s getting cold.”
Rose got up to wash her hands at the sink, her back to the island where the others had settled into their seats to eat. She took deep quiet breaths. Irene had taught to her do this when confronting unpleasantness, to keep from sinking into the fuzzy, in-between feeling that was like waking in the middle of the night. The truth was, she didn’t want to confront it—the unpleasantness—at all. For it was unpleasant, what had happened in the basement that night after the seance, but it didn’t warrant the dread that still sometimes struck her cold. The dread came as she whisked eggs for an omelet, or while inputting data into the computer at work. The whisk would clang the side of a metal bowl, or the keys would stick as she typed, and she would be transported back into the basement. Her memory erupted in flashes. The tops of his sneakers with their dumb writing. The cracked basement wall. The smell of cheap incense, her junky mallrat perfume. His mouthwash and deodorant. He had been pushy, and she had consented out of exhaustion. Stop me oh-ho-oh stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before stuttered in the tape player. He turned the music up. He loved her, he said. She berated herself for not losing her virginity the summer before, when she had the chance, to Punk Dylan with the homemade CALIFORNIA, UBER ALLES tattoo on his calf.
At school the next day, Brian seemed genuinely shocked when she ignored him, passing him blank-faced in the hall, while inside her body every nerve vibrated on a new frequency. She had trusted him and had, in a way, loved him. She still hated the Smiths.
“It’s ugly,” said Sahar of the rice. “But it tastes pretty good.”
“To Sahar.” Jonathan raised his glass. “My beautiful wife for this beautiful meal.” They clinked glasses.
“What about the curse? You impaled Morrissey Boy with your bracelet. Then what?” Danica had recovered from her tears, but the tense line of her mouth made Rose aware of the need to tread lightly.
“We didn’t talk after that night. I ignored him at school and went back to eating lunch with the normies.”
“You retired from goth?”
“I didn’t have anyone cool to hang out with.”
“What a snob!”
“Where does the curse come in?” asked Sahar.
“Dead pigeons appeared on the steps of my parents’ house. It happened five, maybe six times. They were just lying there with their necks broken. It was horrible. Ants marching all over them. I thought the birds predicted some dark future. My own death. I was so gullible.”
“Sick little fucker, wasn’t he?” said Danica.
Jonathan asked, “Did your rejection cause him to hate all women everywhere?”
Sahar jumped in. “Rose didn’t reject him.”
“She did.” Jonathan refilled Rose’s glass. He was thoughtful like that, even while interrogating her. “Of course it was your right to reject him.”
“I have no idea how Brian feels about women.” Rose had never considered this, never wanted to. “He moved away that summer.”
Danica said, “You reported him, right?”
She didn’t like the expectation in Danica’s voice, or her wide searching eyes. “I didn’t.”
“But,” Danica said quietly, “he tortured you.”
“Rose made the decision that was right for her at the time.” Sahar got up to start the dishes. “Pass your plates.”
“Who knows what he did to the next girl?” Danica puffed out her chest. “Boys like that are the ones who shoot up dorm rooms. You have a responsibility, a civic duty, to prevent him from doing harm.”
Rose’s face stung as if she had been smacked. “That’s ludicrous.”
“What’s the statute of limitations?” Danica continued. “Did you ask David?”
“It is ludicrous, Danica,” said Jonathan. Rose felt briefly grateful that he’d taken her side She had never told David about Brian, for the same reasons she’d never told her friends. Rose remembered David’s sunken expression the day he left in the truck. She figured if she told him, he might look at her like he did then. Hurt. Disappointed that she had withheld another sliver of her inner life from him.
“It doesn’t matter what David thinks,” said Sahar.
“Well, they are getting married—” started Jonathan.
“They were talking about getting married,” Sahar said.
“Or breaking up,” said Danica.
“You should tell your spouse everything,” Jonathan said. “A marriage requires, above all things, honesty.”
“Oh, is that what it requires?” Sahar snapped. She slammed the skillet she had just begun scouring onto the counter. Drops of oil and water jettisoned through the air in a fine mist, like the far-reaching, invisible fingers of Jonathan’s affair.
“Can we talk in private?” Jonathan said.
From the bedroom, their voices bled through the shut door. It was impossible not to eavesdrop. Sahar was audibly crying, and Jonathan was saying something that sounded like, “Nothing happened in New York.” Or maybe, “Something happened in New York.”
Danica was stubbornly quiet and childlike, hunched over the phone as if concealing a forbidden toy.
“What’s going on in there?” Rose gestured to Danica’s phone. Danica didn’t look up from her phone or acknowledge her. Rose was sensitive, but so was Danica. She expressed it in grand explosive tantrums, whereas Rose turned inward, tucking into her nest of private shame. Rose summoned some smothered strength. “Let me see.”
“Fine.” Danica slid the phone across the island. “Here’s a police drawing of the Girl School Killer.”
The forensic rendering showed a strangely familiar face. If they hadn’t been talking about Brian O’Connell, would she have seen the likeness? A box-shaped head. Light eyes with thick, feline lashes. Shaved eyebrows that gave the face an unfinished, alien quality. His nose was the same. He looked older than he should look, skin mottled with sunspots and scabbed-over acne.
“It looks like him,” said Rose. “My Brian.” She hated that she thought of him that way. Hers. As if he belonged to her, or she to him. As if they were married, or related.
“Can’t be,” Danica said.
“It really, really looks like him.” Her voice quaked.
“It’s a drawing, not a photograph. He looks like someone everyone knows.”
Rose soaped the wineglasses in Sahar’s abandoned dishwater. She slid her hands in and out of the water, in and out, her vision blurring as she felt herself sucked back into her own brain.
“You know you’re not allowed to wash the wineglasses,” said Danica. Rose always broke them. Rose backed away from the sink.
“Maybe you’re right,” Rose said. “I should have reported him. I didn’t, and now look what’s happened.”
Danica’s face softened. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Danica wrapped her arms around Rose. “If it is him, he’s dead now.”
Rose’s blood rushed in her ears and crashed into a wave of grief. For herself, and for him, the boy he was before he had hurt her or anyone else.
Sahar emerged from the bedroom with puffy eyes and reached for the car keys. “Let’s go.”
As they climbed into the car, Rose looked up and saw Jonathan on the balcony, a dark figure cut against the bright light that shone through the sliding glass doors. She wondered if he was considering what he could say to keep Sahar from leaving. That’s what Rose had done as she watched David drive away, while holding the globe lamp and drumming her fingers against the glass. She would call Irene in the morning, she decided, before she called David. She missed him. He was a good man. He had never killed a person, had never (she prayed this was true) tried to rape anyone. She saw, then, an addendum to her previous fantasy: a child napping in the small bed beneath the camper van’s canvas roof tent. The child’s soft face was placid with peacefulness until it became agitated when wakened by the van full of wiry chihuahuas. No, revise that. Just one dog, barking at some sound in the forest. You couldn’t have five or six dogs when you had a kid. Too much work. David would calm the child, and Rose would shush the dog. When the dog was finally quiet, they would eat chili con carne with corn chips, then curl up together for the night, like foxes in a den.
At Rose’s apartment, they turned on the globe lamp and cracked a window to let in the humid sea air before climbing into Rose’s bed, Danica in the middle and Rose’s legs dangling off the edge, just as when they were young. Sahar lay on her side and rested her face on her folded hands, big dark eyes watching Rose until they closed. Danica rolled over onto Rose’s outstretched arm. Sahar muttered something incoherent. Beneath Danica’s weight, Rose’s arm had gone numb. Her fingers tingled. The arm wanted out, but she would not wake her friend.
As Danica dozed, sleeping like the dead, Rose felt around her nightstand with her free hand. The white glow of the phone screen burned itself into her vision as she travelled through a network of information about the shooting. There were profiles of the dead young women. Their faces were bright and clear, gorgeous and plain, alive and not. Sleeping Beauty, the fifteen-year-old in a coma, still slept in a Santa Clara Hospital.
What would Sleeping Beauty do when she woke? She would go back to school, hopefully. Find a job. Get married. Have children. Rose wished for Sleeping Beauty to not remember what had happened to her. To suffer from a mostly harmless brain injury. Selective memory. Partial amnesia. But she also knew that violence buried itself in your fatty tissues. It would return to Sleeping Beauty, perhaps, while washing a wine glass after a dinner party, sponging lipstick off the rim. The pulse of loss might come, suddenly, halting her movement. She might search the recesses of her erased history to locate the event. A trigger pulled, released. And then the loss would return during sleep. Wake up, the girl will tell herself. Wake up. You’re only dreaming. ■
Thea Chacamaty earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, and her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review and The Southern Review. She is a recipient of scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Writing By Writers, and her writing has also been awarded the Henfield Prize, a Hopwood Award, and the Kasdan Scholarship. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is at work on a short story collection and a novel.