Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In January, we're reading Danielle Evans's The Office of Historical Corrections, a collection of six mesmerizing short stories and a novella centered on race, grief, love, and identity. Read an excerpt from the book, below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs, and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one. The whole ocean for one man. Not that she knew much about the ocean; Lyssa had been born in a landlocked state, and at thirty it seemed the closest she might get to the sea was her job working the gift shop in the lobby of the Titanic. It was not a metaphor: it was an actual replica of the Titanic, with a mini museum on the lower level, though most of their business came from weddings and children’s birthday parties hosted on the upper decks.
The ship-shaped building was a creation of the late nineties, the pet project of an enterprising educational capitalist who wanted to build an attraction both rigorous in its attention to historical detail and visually stunning. To preserve history, he said to the public; to capitalize off of renewed interest in the disaster, he said to his investors. He had planned to build to scale, but that plan hadn’t survived initial cost estimates. They’d only ever had a quarter of the passenger rooms the actual Titanic had, and most of those rooms were now unfurnished and used as storage closets, their custom bed frames sold secondhand during the last recession.
At the end of the summer season, a second-tier pop star rented the whole structure for a music video shoot, shutting down normal operations for three full days. Lyssa had been planning on having the time off, but when the video’s director came to finalize the plans for the space, he’d stopped in front of the shop glass, stared for a minute, then walked in and said, “You—you’re perfect.”
She agreed to remain on-site for the filming and canceled the doctor’s appointment she’d already rescheduled twice, giving herself in her head the lecture she imagined the doctor would have if he answered his own phone. Her coworker Mackenzie sulked around the ship for the rest of the afternoon, flinging herself into the director’s line of vision without success. Mackenzie sometimes worked the gift shop counter with her, but only sometimes. Whenever there was a princess party, Mackenzie wore the costume dress and chaperoned as the princess-on-deck. Lyssa never worked parties; the one time anyone had bothered to give her an explanation for this (she hadn’t asked), it was a supervisor who mumbled something about historical accuracy, meaning no Black princesses.
“We’d hate for the six-year-olds having tea parties on the Titanic to get the wrong idea about history,” Lyssa said, so straight-faced that the supervisor failed to call her out for attitude.
“I guess they must want diversity,” Mackenzie said after the director left, using air quotes for diversity even though it was the literal word she meant.
The next day, and, as Mackenzie went, genuinely conciliatory: “Maybe he wants to fuck you? He was cute, in a New York way. I bet he thinks you’re exotic.”
Exotic, not so much: the theme of the music video was sea monsters; everyone in it, including the pop star and Lyssa, would be painted with green body paint and spritzed with shimmer and filmed through a Vaseline lens that would add to the illusion that they were underwater. The pop star didn’t want a ship; she wanted a shipwreck. Lyssa was just supposed to wear her regular uniform and work the counter and be herself in costume makeup.
Most of the real action took place on the upper decks. In two days of shooting, Lyssa only saw the pop star from a distance, through the glass, but a longtime backup dancer gossiped about her during a coffee break. The pop star dedicated this video to an ex who told a tabloid she’d let herself go and looked like a monster in recent photos. The video was about letting herself go, appearing on screen green and fat and nearly naked. The pop star was thinner than Lyssa had ever been in her life. Lyssa understood why she’d been picked and not Mackenzie; they needed someone in the store who could look like she knew what she was doing behind the counter. She was backdrop.
But the director did, apparently, also want to fuck her, though it seemed as much an afterthought as anything, the kind of whim that came to the kind of man who always wanted to fuck somebody. When they weren’t filming, the pop star and her assistant and her dancers traveled together like a swarm of fireflies, and the director and the tech crew and the hair and makeup artists were left to less glamorously fend for themselves. After they’d shut down for the second day, Lyssa’s last day of filming, the director appeared as she was locking up the store and asked if she wanted a drink.
“OK,” she said.
“I haven’t been here long enough to find a good bar, but I’ve got a great bottle of Scotch back at the hotel,” he said.
Lyssa saw the opening. She had been here all her life. She could tell him where a good bar was. She did not. In the hotel bathroom she scrubbed off the stubborn lingering bits of the green makeup and tried to look as respectable as a woman about to fuck a stranger could. When she came out, he had poured them drinks and didn’t seem to notice she was fully human colored again. She took a sip and put the drink down and he reached for her hand, turned her palm over, and began to trace something in it.
“Are you trying to tell my fortune?” she asked.
“I wasn’t,” he said. “But I have a lucky guess that you’re about to make a man very happy.”
It was so gross it was almost endearing.
The first time, they used the condom in the hotel’s romance kit, which consisted of a single condom and a package of after-dinner mints in a tin adorned with a rose sticker. The second time he pulled out, and the third time he didn’t.
“Was that OK? I mean I know I’m safe,” he said, a sentence that in her experience, men who were in any capacity actually safe never had to say out loud. “But are you on something?”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “I don’t have ovaries.”
“My mom died of cancer. So they took mine out. To be safe. See the scar?”
She turned onto her back and pointed to the faint line across her abdomen.
“I’m sorry,” he said, placing a palm on her stomach.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“You don’t have to pretend it’s OK,” he said.
“We don’t have to be friends,” she said.
THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans. 288pp. Riverhead Books. $27. Copyright 2020 © by Danielle Evans. Reprinted by permission.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, narrated by a full cast. "Happily Ever After" narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt.