Excerpt from Alexandra Tanner’s “Worry”

By Alexandra TannerMarch 17, 2024

Excerpt from Alexandra Tanner’s “Worry”

Worry by Alexandra Tanner

POPPY GETS an invitation to a college friend’s birthday dinner at a small-plates restaurant in Cobble Hill. She hasn’t been out much in a few weeks—her face has bloated like a kabocha thanks to the extra prednisone, and she feels embarrassed and ugly.

“I hate small-plates group dinners,” she says. “You always end up paying eighty bucks for five bites of, like, ceviche. But it’s so gauche and unremarkable to be the one complaining about the portions or the prices or the splitting of the check or any of it. There’s no way to win, they get you both ways.” She asks if I’ll go with her.

“I don’t have eighty bucks to spend on ceviche,” I tell her.

“I’ll pay for us both,” she says. Something in her seems activated, like in spite of it all she really wants to show up for this dinner, and so we do. I’m excited to see some of Poppy’s college friends—I liked them when I visited her in Durham a couple times during her senior year, when she was living in a giant house off-campus with six or seven roommates. The building was officially owned by the Duke Chapel board, a group of Methodists who gave cheap housing to religious or religion-curious students. Poppy got a spot in the house after she wrote a long beseeching essay about how the core of Judaism was learning, and about how what she wanted to learn about at this particular juncture in her life was Methodists. The house worsened Poppy’s hives: she lived in the basement, which teemed with black mold. You could smell it. I remember sleeping on her floor one weekend, dreaming that I was eating green bread. The year Poppy graduated, the place was condemned.

At the restaurant, Poppy and I sidle into a rigid leather booth with three people: Will, down for the weekend from Harvard Divinity; Nic, a second-year MFA poet at Brown; and Rajan, the birthday boy, visiting from med school in Chapel Hill. Will is engaged to a woman who wants to be a housewife, Nic doesn’t put labels on their gender or their sexuality, and Raj is studying too hard to be involved right now. All of them are Poppy’s age, only a few years younger than I am, but talking to them somehow feels like talking to children; all the things they’re going through are things I went through three years ago. I drink a glass of sangria and dispense advice. Poppy stares big-eyed at the menu for most of the meal. The restaurant is hot and sticky and the booth is hot and sticky and I can tell that Poppy is nervous that the temperature will worsen her flare. She communicates with the waiter in Spanish about what plates are coming to the table and when. She lets her friends pick over the dishes first, then divvies up what’s left between her plate and mine, her mouth set in a weak line. She doesn’t drink anything; “I’m Cali sober,” she tells everyone, but I know alcohol makes her flare. Raj passes around molly capsules for later; Nic talks about the plans they have to take mushrooms at Storm King when the weather starts to get fallish in a few weeks. I move a fork and knife around over some tough octopus that’s been dumped on my plate. It doesn’t feel safe to eat octopus right now.

“Oh my god,” Poppy says loudly, laughing at how I’m holding my utensils. “This is a nice place, Jules. The food’s not poison.”

“I know,” I say, feeling sweaty.

“Jules has this insane thing,” Poppy says to Raj, “about food.”

“Oh, like—bulimia?” Raj asks.

“No, like—she thinks practically everything at every meal she ever eats is gonna give her food poisoning.”

“I don’t,” I say. My voice sounds high and desperate. “I don’t, I’m just not that hungry.”

Poppy makes a square with her elbows on the table and leans toward me. “She throws out half the food we buy because she says it looks bad. And she never eats in restaurants because she thinks they’re all filthy.”

“This place is Zagat-rated,” Nic says, pronouncing “Zagat” wrong.

“Take a bite of the octopus, Jules,” Poppy says. “Take one bite.” I look at the octopus. I look at Poppy. Then I get up to go to the bathroom and look at my phone on the toilet for fifteen minutes; I’m fed a Twitter thread about Caroline Calloway, a TikTok about how women can relieve constipation by sticking their thumbs into their vaginas and pressing backward against their rectums. When I return to the table, someone has cleared away all the plates to make room for the next round of tapas—all except my octopus.

“We kept it for you,” Poppy says, “just in case. We weren’t sure. The waiter was saying what a shame it is to waste octopus.” She smiles at me. Now she’s having a good time.

Another Duke guy named Fletcher shows up in a tie, coked out. “I’m so coked out,” he says. Fletcher is working on his MBA at Columbia. He orders fried chickpeas and monkfish crudo and tells the waiter he wants to be on his own check, since he didn’t participate in the first chunk of the meal.

Poppy’s friends talk about their studies. Raj tells a story about a doctor who had a patient wake up in the middle of surgery. Nic says the modes of poetic expression available to us are insufficient and classist. Fletcher asks Will if Will is at war with what it means to be a Christian in the United States right now and Will says he isn’t. Poppy mentions wanting to rescue a dog. Fletcher tells her she’s an idiot if she doesn’t go through a breeder and have the breeder train the dog for six weeks minimum before sending it home. He pulls out his phone to google a Bernedoodle ranch in Virginia. Raj says he’s thinking about getting a dog too. Will says he’s not a dog person or a cat person but a bird person. No one reacts. Fletcher and Poppy coo over hybrids.

“You should totally get a dog,” I say, spooning a tiny bite of blackened brussels sprouts onto my plate because vegetables, in my mind, are always safe to eat, “when you live on your own.”

“You love dogs,” Poppy says. “You’d love it if we had a dog.”

“Those aren’t the same thing,” I say. “I think it’s really cruel to keep a dog in a small apartment.”

“So you’re saying all dog owners in New York are by definition cruel people?” Nic asks.

“Pretty bold statement,” Will says, forking some oily broccolini into his mouth. “Ontologically speaking.”

“No,” I say, “no, that’s not what I’m saying.” I always thought I wanted smart friends, but after being around Poppy’s smart friends, I’m reminded of why I don’t have any. “I’m just saying, like: dogs deserve space to run around, they deserve to poop on the grass.”

“So animals have basic inalienable rights,” Nic says, “like humans?” I don’t respond. Nic keeps talking. “That’s a deeply radical stance. And I’m not saying it’s wrong, just radical. To my mind, animal lives are essentially human lives, because humans are animals themselves.”

Why, I wonder, is everyone who’s ever gone to Brown like this? “Obviously,” I say, “I don’t think that an animal life is the same as a human life.”

“It’s not obvious to people who don’t know you,” Poppy says. “Or to people who have different opinions from you. They’re just trying to learn about what you think.”

“I don’t know what I think, like, existentially about dogs having rights. But I think in an apartment as small as mine,” I say, really leaning into the “mine,” “it would be unfair to the dog. And if you’re rescuing a dog to give it a better life, you have to be able to actually give it a good life.”

Poppy’s mouth becomes furious. It reminds me of our mother’s mouth when our mother is furious.

“At the end of the day,” Nic asks, “what is a good life?”

“Anyway,” Poppy says, “I’m thinking about moving and getting a dog. I found this one I love on Petfinder and I went to visit her at the shelter.” She looks right at me, then she pulls out her phone and scrolls through it as she talks. “It’s this no-kill place. She’s been there for months. No one wants her because she has three legs. They told me she sits with her nose sticking through the wire all day, like she’s desperate for someone to pet her snout.” She holds up her phone, showing us all a picture.

A few weeks ago, Poppy showed me the Petfinder profile of a small black-and-white dog with a fluffy face, some kind of corgi-Jindo mix whose name was listed online as “Amy Klobuchar”; her littermates, sideways copies of her, were all listed as Democratic primary candidates, as well—there was a Kamala Harris, a Mayor Pete, a Bernie Sanders. But this photo isn’t from Petfinder; it’s a photo Poppy took herself, at the shelter where Amy Klobuchar lives. In the picture, Amy Klobuchar is sitting up against the wire edge of her enclosure, poking her nose through to the world outside. Amy Klobuchar’s eyes are cute, I’ll give her that. Her ears are notched, though, and she has a bald spot just below her nose that gives the ickily humanoid impression of a top lip. She’s missing her right front leg.

Poppy presses her thumb down on the photo, playing the live version; Amy Klobuchar opens her mouth into a smile and sticks her tongue out. Her tail wags. I can’t believe Poppy went to see her without telling me. I stare at Poppy. She stares back.

“Stop,” Raj says, “she’s too cute.”

“That’s fucking tragic,” Nic says, grabbing for Poppy’s phone and zooming in. “I want her so fucking bad. You have to get her.”

“I would,” Poppy says. “But I wouldn’t be able to give her a good life, you know, because I don’t live in the Hamptons and make six fucking figures.”

“You should apply to work at Xavier,” Fletcher says. “I’ll get you in the door.”

“Or Henry could talk to someone at Dalton.”

“His girlfriend went to Saint Ann’s.”

“If you really want to keep working in schools, that is.”

“What do you do all day?”

“What’s on your arm?” Raj asks quietly, touching Poppy’s sleeve. It’s ridden up, exposing a lingering welt on the top of her wrist. Poppy puts her hand on the bench, beneath her thigh, and reiterates that she’s on medication. No one else asks her a direct question for the rest of the night.

The cake comes, a minuscule flan. Raj struggles with his candle. Everyone Instagrams him. At the end of the meal, Poppy offers to put the whole bill on her card and have everyone Venmo her for simplicity.

“Steep,” Will says when she tells him what he owes. “Are you sure it’s that much?”

“Tax and tip,” Poppy says.

Fletcher starts talking about how taxation is theft. Everyone groans. “Fletcher’s a libertarian,” Nic explains to me, picking their nail polish, as if I hadn’t gathered.

Then the moseying from the table, the standing outside the restaurant kicking the sidewalk, the cigarettes, the determination of next moves, the pretending to consider taking the subway, the calling of cars, the see-you-soons. I don’t know why Poppy would bother to see these people again, soon or ever. In the backseat of our Uber, I ask what value they hold for her. She stares into her phone and refuses to answer me, so I look at mine. After several minutes, a text from Poppy arrives, right as she clicks her phone off and puts it into her pocket.

you know i don’t like talking about serious stuff in front of uber drivers, says the text, but it’s pretty shitty for you to say that you don’t see the value in my friends—literally some of MY ONLY FRIENDS lmao????? obviously they’re not the ideal perfect utopian feminist allies i want in a friendship but they’re what i have and its mean for you to imply that just because they’re not your friends they’re not good enough. i have my own friends and i want my own life and i was serious about moving. im starting to feel like im not a real person, like i can’t make my own decisions. like fuck yeah i want a dog and i want to sleep at weird times and i want to not live with someone who’s always looking at me like im fucking crazy and gross. like i hate myself enough without your input lol

My stomach feels like it’s expanding. Poppy hates herself and I’ve made her hate herself more. All the nasty things I’ve thought about her and said to her not just in the last few months but in our entire lives comes back. The first time I ever called her a cunt: in high school, in a Sephora, right in front of the cashier, at full volume, all because Poppy wouldn’t let me use a gift card she’d been hoarding for three years to buy a bottle of Moschino I Love Love perfume. The time I ratted to our parents about Poppy using one of their credit cards to purchase $250 worth of Grey’s Anatomy episodes on iTunes, then sat quietly on my bed listening with delight while our mother dragged Poppy—by her hair, I’d learn later—into the computer room and parked her in front of the desktop, screaming at her to get the money back so loudly I could hear it on the other side of the house. All those times I wouldn’t laugh at a joke Poppy told, just to make her feel lonely. The times when we were small and I’d hold her down and tickle her and tell her that I’d love her only as many seconds as she’d let me tickle her, that she could bank minutes of my love by letting me torture her. The time I gave her the silent treatment so long and got her so angry that she punched our bathroom counter and broke a finger. The time I told her she needed a nose job but that even a nose job wouldn’t save her from how Jewy she looked. The time I took her to the movies with my friends but didn’t let her sit with us and instead set her up a couple rows back with a tub of popcorn buttered enough to be rough on her tummy.

Maybe, if I keep her with me, I can make these things up to her. She has it hard enough. If she moves out, she’ll be alone, unguarded, stuck with some roommate who doesn’t know her or care about her. Someone who won’t watch her for signs that things are getting bad, someone who won’t know how to tell the difference between what she’s like when she needs new meds and what she’s like when she’s just on her period.

i am so sorry, I write, desperate to spin things. you’re totally right. its not right for me to be judging or policing your life and your friends. its not fair to you and it’s not fair to *our* friendship. I delete “friendship” and type out “relationship.” Then I delete “relationship” and “our” and type “us.” Then I delete “us” and type “you or to me.” Then I delete “you or to me” and type “me or to you.” Then I switch back to “you or to me.” all i want, I continue, is for us to make this place a home for both of us. i love you and i want to make this work. i understand if you still need to move but i really hope we can have a conversation about all this and figure it out. i love you. i’m sorry.

Poppy takes out her phone. She reads my text. For three solid minutes, I watch as she seems to type back to me. But when the text comes in, it is brief: that’s a whole lot of “i” statements


I notice a paper towel on the floor near the fridge. I don’t remember dropping it there, so I don’t pick it up. Poppy doesn’t pick it up either. It stays there all week, gathering our hair. Finally I mention it.

“You dropped that, like, two weeks ago,” I say to Poppy, nodding at the paper towel. “I left it there to see how long it would take you to pick it up.”

“I didn’t drop it,” Poppy says. “You dropped it, and I left it there.”

“Just pick it up.”

“You pick it up,” says Poppy, “if it’s such a big deal.”

“You’re saying you don’t care if it stays there forever?”

“Yeah, it could stay there forever and it wouldn’t bother me.”

“So why were you waiting to see if I would get it?”

“Why were you waiting?”

“I can’t do this,” I say, and stoop to pick the paper towel up. “This is, like, the stupidest Beckett play ever, us living here like this. It’s just never going to stop being stupid and petty.”

“Because you’re making it stupid and petty,” Poppy says. “I’m having a great time except for when you’re doing stuff like this. And you’re having a great time when you’re not laying traps for me and making it all harder.”

I crumple the paper towel in my fist. “I’m not laying traps.”

“You’re trying to sabotage our experiences of this, you’re trying to make our experiences of this weird and uneven—”

“Experiences of what?” I ask. “What the fuck are we experiencing?”

“The experience of living together,” says Poppy, looking at the spot where the paper towel was, “of—of having this year together. None of it seems precious to you, it’s like you don’t want me to feel that we’re sharing anything. I keep trying to do things and say things and create things that’ll bring us together, but nothing works, it’s like—it’s like—”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say. “You sound like you’re on crystal meth right now.”

“You do know,” Poppy says. “You do and you’re pretending you don’t. You don’t want us to share happiness and I don’t get why. Why can’t you admit that this is fun, that you have fun with me?”

“This isn’t fun,” I say. “This is fucking torture.”

“Because you’re sick in the head, Jules,” she says, “because you hate everything, because you’re ill and depressed and you have an eating disorder—”

“I don’t have an eating disorder—”

“You have patterns of disordered eating that are incredibly concerning to me, and I’ve thought about talking to Mommy about it, but I don’t want to blow up your shit.”

My throat seizes. “I don’t have an eating disorder, are you fucking insane? I’m on the high end of my BMI, even. I don’t care how I look, I never weigh myself, I love to eat, I just only want to eat the things I want to eat when I want to eat them.”

“Eating disorders are spectrum disorders,” Poppy says. “You can have an eating disorder without stepping on a scale every day.”

“Stop talking about how everything’s a spectrum,” I say, and I throw the paper towel at Poppy’s head. It falls just a few inches from where it’s been sitting for days, weeks, whatever. Poppy reaches out and grabs my wrist. I try to twist away. She doesn’t let me. She grabs my hair. I laugh in her face as she grabs it and pulls. “Holy shit, are you pulling my hair right now? Let go of me,” I say, “let go,” but she has my glory in her hands, and she scrunches her fingers right up close to my scalp.

“You never take me seriously, you never apologize for anything, you laugh at me every day—”

“I did apologize!”

“But not in a real way,” Poppy says.

“You can’t tell people their apologies aren’t real.”

“I can if they aren’t, which yours wasn’t.”

We sound like small children. And eventually, like small children, we go to our rooms and slam our doors and don’t speak for another several days.


This passage is excerpted from Alexandra Tanner’s forthcoming novel Worry, which is available for preorder from Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Bookshop.org, etc.

LARB Contributor

Alexandra Tanner is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the New School and the recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and the Center for Fiction. Her writing appears in The New York Times Book ReviewGawker, and Jewish Currents, among other outlets. Worry (2024) is her first novel.


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