from the new collection
Girls in Trouble: Stories
Douglas Light

“You’re ridiculous,” the girl tells him. Her hands are full of bags from shopping and her face glossy with sweat. “I mean, really, it’s not a big deal.”

He says nothing, unlocks the apartment door and allows her in first. It’s Saturday, early August, late afternoon. The hallway smells of boiled cabbage, old tea. It smells of burnt plastic. The boy closes the battered door behind him, bolts both the locks.

The apartment is a sixth-floor walk-up railroad on Mott Street, south of Canal. The floors slope. The lighting is faulty. The water takes nearly a minute to warm, rising slowly from the boiler in the basement, pushing its way upward, past all the apartments, to the top. Their drains are sluggish, the spent water pooling in the sink and tub. They’ve tried plungers. They’ve tried Drano. They’ve tried harsher things, products with labels that warn not to pour on the skin or in the eyes or directly into the mouth. Nothing’s worked.

“Why do you waste money on these newspapers and magazines?” the boy asks, picking up the copy of the Amsterdam News on the coffee table. He studies it a moment then tosses it down, then picks up a copy of Elle. “I never even see you read them. Do you even read them?” He has recently turned twenty-four, has a tattoo he no longer likes, and fears he’s losing his hair.

The day’s warm. The windows are open. The air outside is heavy with haze, thick odors of fried foods, and the noise of foreign languages. In the street below, Chinatown thrives, a crush of shoppers, overweight German tourists, and Chinese boys handing out fliers advertising long-distance phone services.

“Come on,” the girl says. She isn’t upset, won’t allow him to upset her. Her teeth are small and staggered, a pearl necklace misstrung. She sets a bag of blue crabs on the kitchen counter, puts away the other items they’ve bought. “You’re really making way too much of it,” she says. “I didn’t tell her anything.”

From inside the bag, there is movement, sound; a dozen crabs wrestle about in the tight, dark space, their claws scraping against the thick paper, against one another.

The boy and girl have been a couple nearly a year. They met at a cat costume party on Ludlow Street in early autumn. They liked the same bands, liked the same shampoo. They liked each other, and, after two dates and a weekend on the Jersey shore, he moved in with her. He took the bottom dresser drawer and half the bedroom closet. Now they split the rent, the chores, the cable bill.

Filling a large, stainless-steel pot with water, the girl explains: “When I said we weren’t getting married, I only meant we weren’t getting married right now. We aren’t rushing things. That’s all I told her, that we felt no rush.” She finds the issue, the fact that he’s pursuing it, sad. “That’s all I meant,” she says. “And that’s how she understood it. We’re not rushing.”

“Please, again,” the boy says, “explain to me why you were even discussing this with her, a woman you don’t even like?” The sky clouds. The room dims. He sweats.

“We should have gotten more crabs,” the girl says, turning on the stove’s burner. A blue flame jumps, igniting a gas halo below the pot. “Okay, I agree,” she says. “She is kind of an idiot. Still, it’s not like I told her anything important. It’s not like I told her a secret about us. And I do like her. Kind of,” she says.

“That isn’t the point,” he tells her.

“That is the point,” she says, taking a stick of butter from the refrigerator and cutting it into four pieces. She licks her fingers.

The crabs, cramped together, continue to claw at the inside of the bag, claw at one another.

“The point is, listen—if you feel this isn’t working,” he says, then breaks off. He sits, then stands. He’s confused, like he’s exited a house on fire, frightened by the immediate. The girl’s evasiveness, her lack of a solid answer, riles him. “If this isn’t what you want.”

The girl clicks her tongue, turns her back to him. She opens the bag and peers in. “Should we have gotten more crabs?” she asks, thinking of how she typically gets what she wants and the disappointment it brings. It’s never what she envisioned. “I’m not unhappy,” she says, “if that’s what you’re asking me.”

The boy moves to the kitchen, stands next to the woman. The water in the pot breaks into a boil. He takes hold of the bag of crabs, shakes it. The crab’s claws open and close in search of purchase, something to hold.

“That’s not really the same as being happy, is it?” he asks. He looks to her. She’s silent. He touches the back of her neck with his fingers, then touches her hair. He leans in close to her and touches her and says, “It’s not the same, is it?”

In the sink, stale water stands. A church bell rings, marking five p.m. The refrigerator needs cleaning, has a strong odor of rotting strawberries.

The girl lifts the bag, shakes the crabs into the pot, into the boiling water. “No,” she says, watching them move until they stop moving. “It’s not.”

"Prenuptial" is from Douglas Light's new collection, Girls in Trouble: Stories—buy it here.

Douglas Light is the author of the 2010 Grace Paley Prize-winning short story collection
Girls in Trouble. His debut novel, East Fifth Bliss, received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. He co-wrote the screen adaptation ("The Trouble with Bliss"), which stars Michael C. Hall, Peter Fonda, and Lucy Liu. It will hit theaters in March 2012. Douglas Light's stories have appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies, and in the literary journals Narrative, Guernica, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Failbetter. For more information, visit

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