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EXCERPT FROM American Narcissus - "Free Shit" photo

“I get so exhausted with all the wealth in this town,” Lyssi was telling Ryland. She stood before her full-length mirror in her bra and panties, teasing her hair, examining her face.

They were at her place for once; Kyle was in Vegas performing at some sort of charity event for which he was being paid handsomely. Ryland reclined on the bed in his underwear, watching Lyssi, listening to her. He’d listened to her a lot over the past few days, having spent Friday night and all of Saturday with her. It was now Sunday morning, he was out of coke, and he was exhausted.

“This whole city is a tribute to capitalism,” Lyssi went on. “It fetishizes it in the grossest of ways. I get so sick of it. Kyle and I are going to this party in Calabasas when he gets back tomorrow, and I’m dreading it. All the parties, all the drugs. Everyone with their fancy cars and their designer clothes and their gaudy jewelry. It’s disgusting. I grew up with basically nothing. Both my parents are drug addicts. I never imagined I’d be where I am, and sometimes I think I was better off poor. I wish the communist revolution would hurry up and get here already. I hope it comes to LA first.”

Ryland breathed in, bit his tongue. He tried to focus on Lyssi’s exquisite beauty, the smooth, proportional perfection of the shape of her. The way she made him laugh, the way she made him come. The compliments with which she lathered him. How safe he felt when she ran her fingers through his hair.

She was a kid, he reasoned. She’d grow out of her ridiculous ideology. It wasn’t worth a confrontation.

Lyssi turned away from the mirror, facing him. She put her hand on her hip and studied him, her fingers drumming against the fringe along the hem of her panties. “Don’t you get sick of it?” she asked. A cruel malice flickered in her eyes. The grin she wore had bloodlust in it. “I mean, you’re technically the worst kind of rich person. You’re not creating anything. You’re a corporate prostitute. You whore yourself out to Big Business, and you don’t care that you’re being used as a chess piece as long as they keep stuffing your bank account with the ill-gotten spoils of their sick game.”

Ryland shut his eyes. “Lyssi,” he said, controlling his breathing, measuring his tone. “Why are you doing this?”

Her evil smile could have cut through glass. “Doing what, darling? What is it that I’m doing?”

“Why are you picking a fight with me? We’ve been having such a nice weekend.”

She laughed her frayed hyena’s cackle. “Oh, have we? That’s news to me. You think I don’t notice how distant you’ve been? You think I don’t know what it is? Its guys like you, you all have this thing. It’s this thing that makes you incapable of staying satisfied. You’re so used to getting new things, shinier things, so you get bored too easily. You’re getting bored of me.”

Despite his efforts to remain calm, Ryland could feel his blood pressure rising. His pulse chugged in his temples. “Lyssi, this is ridiculous. I’m not bored of you. I think the way you romanticize communism is a little immature and it can be irritating, but that doesn’t mean—”

“Oh, Im immature? That’s good. That’s hilarious. Enlighten me, Daddy. Tell me about all the ways I need to grow up.”

“It’s not all the ways, it’s just…look, you’re very mature. But the whole ‘capitalism is evil’ thing is where your age betrays you a bit. It’s naïve. That’s all.”

“Oh, God, if only you could hear what a condescending prick you sound like right now.”

Ryland massaged his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. “Christ, Lyss, let’s not argue about this.”

“Too late, boss man. You opened the door, now come on through. Tell me all about how naïve I am, Mr. Cor-po-rate Ex-ec-u-tive.”

Maybe it was the petulant way she called him boss man. Maybe it was the goading wickedness in her eyes and in her smile. Maybe it was his faint hangover or the nagging coke withdrawals. Something in Ryland snapped.

He leaned forward on the bed, gritting his teeth and narrowing his eyes and balling his hands into fists, and he unleashed. “You kids,” he snarled, a little taken aback by his own savagery. “You all talk about communism like it’s some kind of merry fucking carnival, but it’s not. It’s desolation and depression, and it’s the eradication of everything you love. All this stuff you have—your clothes, your accessories, your jewelry—all of it, you think you get that in a communist state? Is that honestly what you think? How about all your streaming services with your stupid Japanese cartoons? Which, I’m sorry, but tell me how it is you can tolerate subtitles when you’re watching nine straight hours of pastel-colored kids’ shows about magical eighth graders with gigantic breasts and dead parents, but you can’t stomach a hundred minutes of Kurosawa? Never mind, don’t fucking answer that.”

His eyes fell upon her bookshelf as he rubbed his aching bicep, his chest heaving. “And that Eastridge guy you get off on—you think a guy like him would even exist if it weren’t for capitalism? Do you think he’d even fucking bother? Or your phone, your phone that you’re always on—you can thank capitalism for that one too, baby doll.”

He spread his arms out, wincing at the pain in his left one. “Everything in this goddamn room, everything in your life—it’s all from capitalism. You don’t know what you’re saying when you talk about communism. You’re parroting the juvenile blowhards your age who think they have all the answers. Honey, sweetheart…you think you want communism. That, I believe. You think you want it, but you don’t. You just want free shit.”

Lyssi could have been a statue. Her regal poise as she stood still, eyes unblinking, the marble quality of her skin that, for all its yielding softness, appeared hard, impenetrable—Ryland had the absurd urge to take a picture of her. Even in her silent, seething rage, even as he steeled himself for her inevitable outburst, she was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

The outburst didn’t come. Not at first, and not in the way he was expecting. After staring him down like an opponent in a duel, she bit her lip and nodded. Her fingers moved a lock of hair from her face. “You think I care,” she said in an almost whisper. “You think I care about stuff. You think I care about any of it. This is…” She nodded again, as if realizing something. “This is funny to me.” The calm in her voice was unsettling, a distant shape lying across a path; it could have been a branch, it could have been a snake.

Ryland wished she’d start yelling.

She pivoted on her heel and strutted into her walk-in closet. A rustling, and then a pair of Prada shoes came flying out, landing on the carpet in front of the bed. They were followed by several more shoes, a number of dresses, some purses, a pair of jeans, a handful of blouses, some more purses, still more shoes—all designer. Lyssi exited the closet, and then the bedroom. When she returned, she held a long, curved chef’s knife in her hand.

Shes going to kill me, Ryland decided, surprised at how readily he accepted this. He felt no panic. What he did feel wasn’t quite relief, but it was close.

Instead of killing him, Lyssi got on her knees and began hacking the clothes apart. Fabric shredded like flesh. Shoe straps came untethered, their bases sawed in half. The dresses fell to ribbons. Blouses were reduced to strips of tangled string, the jeans to bands of frayed denim. Her face remained calm but there were smudgy black tears running down her cheeks.

It all struck Ryland as theatrical—she possessed dozens of additional outfits—but then she went again into the closet and came out with her jewelry box, which she carried to the window and set on the floor. After unlatching and opening the window, she hurled the jewelry box outside. She pulled the TV off its stand, and it crashed onto the floor with a snap and a spark. She left the bedroom again and came back carrying the Wi-Fi modem. Her arm drew back, and the modem sailed into the wall. It broke into several hunks of plastic and left a small dent.

Turning to Ryland, her eyes streaming, she screamed, “I don’t care about any of it. I don’t want any of it.” She sat down on the floor and sobbed.

Ryland’s eyes moved again to the Chandler Eastridge novels on the bookshelf, which she had left untouched. He rejected the impulse to call attention to this.

He got off the bed and went to her, kneeling beside her amid the mess on the floor. She at first flinched from his touch like a small, frightened animal, but then she folded into him. She wrapped her arms around him and wept into his chest. He stroked her hair. “What do you want?” he whispered.

She murmured something unintelligible against his skin. He gently drew her away from him and wiped sooty tears from her face with the backs of his fingers. “Tell me what you want,” he said.

Her eyes shifted away. They fixed on something distant and unseen. “I want to belong to someone,” she said. “I’ve never belonged to anyone.”

Ryland could think of nothing to say to that. He could only hold her.