"What Doesn't Kill Me," by Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz's stories have been published in such magazines as Tri-Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Mademoiselle; their awards include the Pushcart, the Nelson Algren and the Katherine Ann Porter. Her novel Bloody Mary (Sarabande, 2003) received a starred review in Booklist. Her collection Blood and Milk (Sarabande, 1996) received the 1997 Carl Sandberg award and the Midland Author's prize for adult fiction, and was a finalist for the 1997 National Jewish Book Award. She teaches at Purdue University in W. Lafayette, Indiana and lives in Chicago with her son Seth and her husband, poet Barry Silesky.

What Doesn't Kill Me

The sun was coming up on Collins Av, Miami Beach, Florida, and a young woman pushed through the swinging doors of a 4 star hotel, unaware till she stooped to pet someone's cute poodle that her socks didn't match. They were both black but one was cotton (algodon), from a pair she had swiped from Whole Foods. The other was a man's dress stocking of ribbed silk. They neither belonged together nor with her high, teetery black heels. She rubbed her neck, which ached at what seemed to be the root. Did necks have roots? She pulled her hair out of the back of her cocktail gown. Behind her, the twelve-story frosted glass face of the Mirador rose into the blue brilliance like a space launch.

There was recent history to review, if she cared to. At this point she did not.

She smiled at the doorman, an elderly, elf-like person. He didn't smile back. But the air held a dewy flower smell; the cries of gulls and children came in from the beaches. Fluid on her heels she turned and blew him a kiss. He looked embarrassed, but hey. Did she care, strolling Hotel Row like a slut-slash-bag lady? She was eighteen and unflappable. She was Mia Lieb, only daughter of Suzanne Lieb, a deliberately, powerfully, pleasurably single woman with a recent Ph.D. While Suzanne wrote her dissertation they had lived on Food Stamps. Cool, said Suzanne. Cool, said Mia.

Mia was thus, matrilinearly, wired for incongruities. At twelve she was reading books from her mother's exam list, but earned low grades in school by quitting halfway through a test or skipping dull questions. Sometimes she felt the world exploding in her head but her class had voted her "Sunniest Disposition." Even her body was a mixed message. She had a small waist, big hips, long blond Marilyn Monroe hair—along with a flat chest, a round, middle-school face. Guys who passed on the street would turn to check her out then look confused. But did she care this early morning, walking Hotel Row with a sock on her left foot that didn't come from her underwear drawer? And a thousand bucks in her purse that didn't come from her checking account? She did not care, her goal since third grade when Seth Rivers said her desk was radioactive. At twelve, contemplating a week at sleep-away art camp she told her best friend she planned to come back cynical.

Now, having (intentionally) graduated high school in the bottom quarter of her class—now thoroughly cynical—she located her car in the parking garage. A secondhand Toyota Corolla, the car was a graduation present from Suzanne. Suddenly a hole formed in the fabric of her mind. She lowered the seatback, lay back and called home like a dutiful daughter who'd drunk too much last night and ended up crashing at her girlfriend's. "I'm alive. You can call off the tri-county search.”

"I'm glad you're alive,” Suzanne said, yawning. It was 6:30 AM, early for Suzanne, whose first class (The Theory of Theory) started at eleven. Ten o'clock was her office hour. "You're the best thing in my life, sweetie. But you know you don't have to check in. I have faith in you.”

"That's nice. Where would you say it comes from?”

Suzanne laughed. "I'm glad you were having a good time. I was up late last night grading. Kids can't write at all these days. Except you, of course.”

Enraged as usual by her mother, Mia called Annaliese, her cohort at the North Lauderdale Citibank where they manned adjacent windows. Annaliese would be awake exercising to National Public Radio. "I feel crappy this morning,” Mia said. "I'm staying home. Tell Bruce I have food poisoning.”

Annaliese sighed like a middle-aged woman, though she was only five years older than Mia. "I've been dying to talk to you.”

Mia produced a fake cough, laboring to keep from laughing wildly. "It might be bronchitis. I don't want to infect anyone."

Her friend gave a shriek. "Don't toy with me, girl. Did you actually—! Last night—?!”

Mia heard her gasping over the phone. But her neck really hurt. On the inside, oddly. "I'll call you later. Tell Bruce I'll be in tomorrow. Thank you!"

Annaliese was still bubbling. But Mia had more pressing business. Instead of going home for some real sleep, though she could use sleep, she planned to nap in the car, then drive up to Boca Raton, pop in on her mother's office hour and interrupt a student conference. It was a good place to show off her outfit. Of which the unmatched socks were the coup de grace.

There's no such thing as a bad experience, Suzanne had said. Mia hoped to set her straight.


Suzanne Lieb taught Rhetoric and Composition at Florida Atlantic University, a tenure-track appointment she had secured six years ago, when it became clear—finally! thought Mia—that as an Adjunct in Chicago she couldn't retire till she was dead let alone feed and clothe her daughter. But even tenured, as she was now, she was mired—petrified (thought Mia)—in the Sixties. Despising all Republicans and most Democrats, she worshipped her notion of creativity in the face of money, power, television and conspicuous consumption. Tree-hugging hippie, Mia called her—as a joke but it gave an accurate picture of Suzanne. Who wouldn't "bind herself" to a man and thought unimpeded access to the world was the best gift she could give her daughter. Other mothers opposed their daughters then caved in to logic or emotional blackmail. When Mia wanted something, no matter how pointless or dangerous, Suzanne said Yes, why not? And made her feel (or at least provided the conditions in which she was made to feel) that her quest for selfhood wasn't sufficiently persistent or courageous or even imaginative. This spring Mia was caught drinking at a high school basketball game and suspended for three days, and Suzanne had laughed. "It's about time. When I think of the trouble Jerry and I got into . . .”

Jerry, Suzanne's one true love, had fallen to his death in Alaska while climbing a mountain. Mia's father was biological only: a medical student in Colorado, 5'11”, played racquetball. That's all they knew of the man four states away who had ejaculated his half of Mia into a test tube, a venue Suzanne at forty had elected, to skirt custody problems.

"I have no problem being alone," she would say to Mia, not that she was often alone. Summer nights on their second floor porch just behind the Lakeview branch of the Chicago Police Station, Suzanne had smoked weed with her many friends, a pastime she enjoyed now in the Florida room of their pink stucco house in Boca, and when Mia brought people over, she'd invite them all to join her for a "nightcap." Her slogan for the D.A.R.E. acronym: Drugs Are Really Expensive. She told Mia she'd tried every drug on the market except crack and asked her to get her some. If Mia ever started shooting up, Suzanne would probably say, "That can be pricey, darling.” If Ted Bundy had asked Mia out, Suzanne would have said, "Be careful. Don't bring him home unless I'm here.” Instead of a mother Mia lived with a droll, fearless twin sister.

Before starting the car Mia pulled off her socks. The silk one had a gold monogram, RRH III. "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger,” she said to herself, "as Mama would say.”


What hadn't killed her yet began as a challenge from Annaliese yesterday during their lunch break. They liked each other and guarded each other's secrets—that Annaliese was bulimic, that Mia didn't know her times tables (she used a calculator). Between bites of fruit salad Mia read to Annaliese from the phone sex ads in the back of The Beach Comber. Lip Service. Intimate Connections! Cheap Sluts 49c/min. "I like TruCourtesan,” she said. "It's so nineteenth century.”

Annaliese rolled her chair toward Mia's and began breathing heavily. "I'll bet Cheap Sluts gets the most hits. From those dudes who eat the Early Bird.”

Mia laughed, then scanned down to Employment and read aloud, "Hiring Beautiful Ladies (white, asian, hispanic) for full-service escorts. Must be reliable, outgoing. Flexible hours. Earn $2000-$3000 weekly. Call Donovan.” There was a local number.

Annaliese snorted. "Are you thinking of a job change?”

"If the price is right. I could move out of Mom's. I could save for a condo." She reread the ad. "Donovan doesn't like African Americans. Yuck.”

"Yeah. Who'd want to turn tricks for a racist?"

Mia checked TruCourtesan for any violation of affirmative action then dialed. Annaliese's mouth opened as Mia rendered unto voice-mail her honest-to-god cell phone number.

"Guess what they mean by full-service?”

Mia stuck her chest out, pulled a lock of hair down over her eye. "They want brains and class in their ladies. I do hope I measure up.”

They hugged, laughing hysterically.

Of course, funny as it honestly was, the idea of touching or being touched by a strange man made her stomach turn. And, though she wouldn't mind having more money, living at home she didn't really need it. The real purpose of the venture—as in her choice of job (menial), friends (underachievers) and future plans (she had no plans), was to explode her mother's illusions, a goal whose irrationality Mia was well aware of, along with the fact that awareness had very little impact on a person's behavior. Mia's grandfather had died early. Her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was silently angry and eventually hospitalized, leaving her daughter (Suzanne) a caricature in the opposite mode—Ms. Peppy Encouragement, who didn't trust a man enough to marry him and still behaved as if everything in her life, and Mia's too, was exactly what she'd ever dreamed. Mia suspected her mother of secretly wanting her to go to college, and at her school counselor's behest Mia had filled out one application, to Suzanne's school where she would receive free tuition. If she were accepted (she didn't expect to be) she could always turn it down. A win-win. But when the letter came, with congratulations and instructions, and Mia tore it up in her mother's presence, Suzanne was serene: Her daughter was in a fallow period in her personal development—essential, so that her gifts could reach their full potential.

Now Mia drove toward the Interstate, wondering how Suzanne would embrace last night's adventure. "Men can be pigs, honey. Now you know firsthand.” Or "One day you'll write about this!" She might even say, sincerely, "I envy you!" At which point Mia would have to leave the room in order not to barf.


The proprietor (if that's what he was) of TruCourtesan gave his name on voicemail as "Mr. Lawrence." When he called back that very afternoon he said, "This is Mr. Lawrence,” and Mia, who became giddy when more than one person was listening to her, had actually giggled into the phone. "Do your friends call you Mr?" She turned it into a cough, her back to Annaliese because if she caught her eye she was going to lose it. Not that Mr. Lawrence was heavily vetting her. He was a robot voice asking her age, height, weight, measurements. Did she have a web page? He wanted two photographs, one a full body shot. "How about my sign?" she offered. "I'm Aquarius. Air. Things go right through me. My mother does charts, she used to live on a commune."

"Excuse me?"

"But I'm highly intelligent," she said.

Silence reigned a long moment, time for her dementia to register on her interviewer, but he remained unfazed. Ditzes and psychos available here at TruCourtesan. An equal opportunity employer.

"I'll need those photos," he said. "Can you scan them in?"

She promised, though the only recent picture of her was her yearbook photo, in which she looked about twelve. She found a wallet-sized photo, dog-eared in the bottom of her purse. She and Annaliese made a composite, pasting the cut-out yearbook head onto Angelina Jolie's body in People Magazine. On low resolution it looked fairly authentic. They captioned it Eve.

Mr. Lawrence called back as they were packing up to go home. He already had a client for her. He sounded warm now, almost fatherly. "He's a professional man looking for sincere companionship. He was impressed with your photo, Eve. How old did you say you were?"

"Eighteen?” she said, uncertainly though it was her real age. It sounded false on her lips.

"You look younger."

"Do I look sincere?" Giggling to defuse the mockery. She felt him nodding over the phone.

He gave her the address of a Miami hotel and a room number. When she arrived and dialed the room, she was to give the code word "melon.” Her client would take care of dinner and entertainment, and give her five hundred dollars in cash. Minimum. Grateful, generous folks often paid more. The bill was hers to negotiate. Did she have any questions?

He had a trace of a stammer, which inspired her. She donned a Southern accent. "Yes, please. What do I call my new beau?”

His name was Randy.

"Randy? Y'all are making this up!"

Mr. Lawrence went on. Randy was forty-three. He sold office equipment. If his behavior bothered her in any way (not that it was likely, as the man had gone, like all their clients, through their rigorous selection process), she was free to excuse herself. "Your safety is our primary concern."

Mia, who loved puns, was dying to know whether or not Mr. Lawrence appreciated the man's absolutely miraculous name but Mr. Lawrence had hung up. When she called back she got his voice mail. Was Randy indeed randy? How randy was Randy? She said aloud, "Mr. Lawrence, are you by some chance related to a Mr. D.H. Lawrence?” She sat in her cubicle, laughing into her hand. Annaliese didn't know what to make of her.


On the on-ramp to the Interstate stood a young man with long brown hair and a pack on his back. Mia was about to pass him by—Suzanne still picked up hitchhikers (and came home with interesting or heartwarming stories)—when he looked her directly in the eye. His hair blew in the wind, John Lennon hair, like the guys who hitchhiked when her mother was young. On his T-shirt was a picture of four dressed-up cows standing on their hind legs, one with a camera around its neck. She stopped and backed up.

Suzanne had stories from her cross-country hitchhiking days. She had ridden with a truck driver who cried when she wouldn't sleep with him. Real tears; she almost changed her mind. A guy in a rusted-out convertible kept changing the radio station to find more gory details on the same local murder. She'd reveal the end of that story on Mia's 21st birthday. Now Mia rolled down her window and addressed her prospective passenger, "Are you a rapist or a serial killer?”

He laughed. "I am a simple terrorist.”

He had a Latino accent. She smiled warmly. "What privileged group are you oppressed by?”

"By my own mind, bonita, that is all. And—como se dice?—by lady luck?”

She looked at his pupils, cogent pinpricks. The caption on his shirt read: The Holsteins Visit the Grand Canyon.

"If you are afraid,” he said, "why do you stop for me?”

"Who's afraid?” Her voice box still hurt when she spoke. She said louder, "Where do you want to go?"

"West Palm Beach, please, chica. The Jai Lai stadium." He smiled politely. Possibly the smile of a serial killer with social skills. A product of the latino upper middle class, who killed to impress his father or maybe Penelope Cruz?

"I'm going up to Boca,” she said. "Will that help?"


Her passenger dozed while she drove. It made her sleepy. To stay awake she reviewed the events of last night, looking for errors in judgment (that her mother would notice but not mention).

Framed in the doorway of his 4 star hotel room, Randy, AKA Randolph Hare III, had looked meek and unimaginative. He was no taller than she in her high heels, and slight even in his business suit. If she couldn't overpower him she could at least escape, not that such a measure would likely be called for. He extended a hand; they shook like business friends. Furthermore, he gazed at her with what seemed genuine pleasure, so that instead of Eve she gave him her real name. He took her arm as they entered the dining room, holding it as he introduced her to their dinner companions, a pair of middle-aged men with dates who, despite heavy make-up, looked no older than she.

When Mia was comfortable in a group, she was the comic, the "funny one,” and that evening, despite the less than comfortable situation, she assumed the role. Maybe it was the wine, or the fact that the men were fairly drunk and thus congenial, but she seemed to herself witty the way her mother would have been. Afterwards they went to a topless lounge, and Mia found the dancing erotic. In between acts a man told very funny jokes; at least she thought they were funny. Or maybe it was she who was funny. The laughter was so continual it was hard to determine its source.

Back at the Mirador, she had trouble walking to the elevator. She stumbled twice, grabbed her companion's arm. The thought of sex with him, however randy he might be, seemed no worse than with guys she'd dated in high school when she slept with anybody who didn't specifically repulse her. Besides, his hand shook with the room key, a sign of anxiety she found endearing. She might be his first escort, as he was her first "date.” He wore a wedding ring; she imagined his wife repressed and overbearing. On the heavy side. Older-looking than her years. He would fall in love with Mia.

Inside the room, though, romantic thoughts foundered. He watched from a chair while she took her clothes off, a leg crossed over his knee, and asked her about her fantasies. She obliged with one of Annaliese's—doing it, you know, on a restaurant table, while the other diners watched nervously. When he at last undressed, he turned out to be fit and neatly muscled; not disgusting. He put on a condom. Then, irrationally, she was terrified. They assumed appropriate positions with regard to one another. But she was dry as dust, squeezed shut, no entry, out to lunch. Even with K-Y on the lubricated lambskin she was closed for business.

At first he seemed puzzled. "I'm sorry. Are you a virgin?"

"Of course not!"

"Are you really eighteen?"

She explained that everyone thought she was younger than she was. In bars she invariably was carded. She and Randy sat side by side on the quilted bedspread, not looking at each other.

If he'd dismissed her then, she'd have been happy, even without the money. Should one receive payment for goods (some assembly required) that can't be assembled? When he remained staunch in his sexual hopefulness, she offered him assistance in its many forms. To no avail. The heavy drapes of the Mirador blocked all evidence of dawn.


Mia was nodding, head drooping over the steering wheel, when a nauseating vibration jerked her awake. The ribbed shoulder of the road thudded through her tires, up her legs, into her spine. Her teeth clacked together. It was morning rush hour on I 95. A hand held her arm; another steadied the wheel. "Chica? Senorita? Please, I will drive."

"No thanks," she said to her hitchhiker. She sat up straight, her heart knocking around the empty space in her chest.

"Are you okay?" he said. "Maybe you want to stop?"

"I'm fine." He buckled his seatbelt. "Sorry," she said.

He smiled. "Last night has been—how do you say—for you a hard night?"

Another nauseating jolt shot through her body. She pulled at the hem of her dress. Long white expensive cars streamed past with their senior citizen drivers. She wanted to stay in their midst, in the solid white heart of them, borne along by their solidity and their speed while she rehearsed what she would tell her mother about last night. I thought I knew the kind of guy he was. A weak willie. A kindly schoolmaster with a midlife crisis. In her mind's eye she saw Suzanne's face, persistently non-judgmental. But there was this "trick" he had up his sleeve. That's what he said, Mama, "a trick up my sleeve, to make it better for you." He turned the light out. Put a skinny arm under my head. I tried to relax. I sort of liked the smell of his cologne. I wanted someone to be tender to me. Then he put something in my hand and closed my fingers around it—the two ends of a stocking. A man's knee-high. Tied around his neck like a scarf.

I didn't understand but he was excited. "Pull it tight. You can pull harder than you think! Use both hands, there's nothing to worry about.”

Who's worried, I was about to say, still trying to be funny. I gave his sock a little yank. But he'd wrapped his other sock around my neck. He was lying on top of me. My sock was kind of tight, actually, and I tried to loosen it, to pull it away from my windpipe. I tried to get out from under him, and I managed to roll off the bed, but he was still on me, like he was attached to me, and I couldn't catch my breathmy breath, my heart like a little rabbit thumping across a field, Mama what do you think? Did that happen to you when you were my age? Should I write a story about it? Will you cry then?

Mia drove in the center lane, slowly, lifting her eyebrows to keep her eyes open. Cars passed left and right. Her passenger leaned toward her. "I have an international driver's license."

"If you don't like my driving," she said, "you can get out right here."

"If I get out, chica, who will keep you on the road awake?"

"Please cut the chica shit.”

"I'm a nice guy," he said.

She smiled unhappily. She felt inclined to torment him. "Men are pigs."

"Some men," he said. "Also some women, no?”

She didn't insist. She was still woozy from last night, in her recall of which yawned a small gap. Had there been pleasure? She couldn't even remember putting the unmatched socks on her feet, though she must have, or he must have. She pictured him dressing her like a doll, rolling one of his stockings up her ankle, a perverted gift to her. A memento. She wanted to gag. "Watch out!” cried the hitchhiker.

What ensued could have been a lot worse. To her left and close behind her the driver of a white Buick failed to notice the little Corolla wavering in and out of its lane. The Buick's speed, on cruise control, was exactly nine mph over the limit, the top speed a Florida state patrolman would overlook and faster than the Corolla—which it sideswiped with a barely perceptible jolt, continuing north slightly scratched, chassis intact. The driver registered the metallic screech and crack of the smaller car as a new problem with his hearing aid, resolving to replace it ASAP.

Inside the Corolla there was a nightmare spin, as if a giant finger had given the car a careless flick. There came a long, ululating honk then an onslaught of horns of all pitches and ranges, bellowing seemingly at them. The first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth played over and over as by a deranged piano student. Mia opened her eyes. They were stalled perpendicular to the median strip in a sea of large, angry, stopped cars. She looked at her passenger, who was fingering the gold charm on his necklace. He had a cut on his cheek. "Oh, my God," she said. "Is this my fault?"

"You want an answer that is honest?"

Luckily the car started; she gave him the wheel, and sat in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, waiting while her breath came back. But she couldn't be silent for long with another person. She learned his name, Jorge, that his mother lived in Cuba, that his father had been working as a waiter in South Beach for the past six years. She started to feel better. "Do you miss your mother?"

"Yes,” he said. "She is beautiful and sad."

"Do you want to bring her here?"

"Yes, of course, but it is not possible.”

"How do you get along with your father?"

"Okay if he let me to live my life.”

She nodded enthusiastically and said in a version of his accent, "You must not to gamble away all his hard-earned dollars!"

Her voice was light in this danger zone. He eyed her then turned back to the road. "I play the sport of Jai Lai. I am an athlete, not a gambling tourist."

"Chill. It's cool.” She worked to soothe him. "If I came out to West Palm I could bet on you!”

He didn't respond.

"You know, it's ironic. You have irony in Cuba?" She made a stab at a cognate, rolling the r. "Ee-rrro-nee?" She had a good Spanish accent, she had been told, though a small vocabulary. She tried not to be silly. "You came to America to be free and you aren't free in your mind. I understand exactly." A line came to her from her 11th grade course in English Literature: "The mind is its own place." He nodded, eyes on the road. "Jorge, tell me the truth. Am I a spoiled American girl?"

He smiled. She felt slightly warmed, grateful.

"Jorge, really, what was it like in Cuba?"

There were so many things to say to him. Her brain was mile-a-minute flashing her life before her. She used to defy her mother. Now she complied spitefully, self-destructively, like a Jewish-princess suicide-bomber, a feeble member of Generation X against the whole puffed up Baby Boom. Neither mode satisfied.

It wasn't a real insight. But it was more than small talk.

She looked at Jorge's profile; he had a long, definite chin. Her own chin was on the small side, a feature she disliked. Sometimes she even thought about lengthening it with plastic surgery. Not that she had money yet. But she could picture the child born of her genes and Jorge's. His perfect jaw. "Let's get married!" she said.


"Seriously. We'll get you your green card and bring your mother over. I'll do it as a favor. We don't have to stay married unless you want to. Un favor!" She pictured introducing him to Suzanne. This is my husband. Suzanne would act thrilled of course, but would she in fact be thrilled? All would come clear! "So, Jorge. Are you ready to meet your mother-in-law?" She laughed uproariously.

"You're kind of a strange person, aren't you?"

She continued to laugh, liking the idea of herself as strange.

"Oh god," he said, "you're serious. Shit. I feel bad."

She looked at him. Something was different.

"I'm sorry,” he said. "I was screwing around. It was a creepy thing to do.”

His voice had changed. Lost its accent. She felt dizzy for a moment.

"I'm a graduate student," he went on, "in linguistics. I'm Jewish."

"You're not from Cuba?"

He shook his head. "Long Island. Great Neck."

Her face burned. She wanted to slap him. "That was a sucky thing to do."

"I know."

"Why should I believe you now? I don't know what to believe!"

"I'm a shit. I know. I got carried away."

"I bet your name isn't even Jorge, is it?" He shook his head. He was trying not to laugh. "You're a pig!"

"I know."

"Stop saying that!” After a moment, though, she regained some of her aplomb. "So, asshole," she said, "where are you really going? To a bar mitzvah?"

"Au bout de la nuit!" He smiled, a total asshole. "That's from Celine," he said. "Journey to the End of Night."

"Fuck you."

He should be ashamed of himself, she was thinking, but he didn't seem ashamed. His eyebrows were arched high like Seth Rivers' eyebrows. His mouth was moving as if to a song in his head. She alerted him to the approaching turn-off, Glades Road. Five miles north along a stretch of traffic lights and strip malls was Florida Atlantic University. Suzanne's office was on the third floor, the door cracked open. She could almost hear the murmuring, the student's discomfort, Suzanne's fierce encouragement. Professor Lieb.

Then Glades came into view and she waved him past. Journey to the End of Night? The words fizzed sweetly on her tongue. And the guy's hands were steady on the wheel, at two and ten o'clock as was taught in driving school. It was her favorite time of day, the sky bright blue, just past its early-morning tenderness. There was the contented hum of the fat white cars alongside them, and the eager jiggle-hum of her car, essentially unharmed by its misadventure. On the subject of car repair she agreed with her mother—if it ran, that's what counted. She felt lucky and brave, as Suzanne must have felt when she was her age, as a person feels to whom nothing bad has ever happened.

No, that wasn't it: Like one who has faced the devil, stuck her tongue out and lived to tell the tale.