A Talking Cure

by Justin Taylor, recommended by The Coffin Factory

AN INTRODUCTION BY Randy Rosenthal & Laura Isaacman

Justin Taylor has been featured in three out of the four issues of The Coffin Factory, and for good reason. Anyone who’s read Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever is aware that Justin Taylor is one of the best­ — if not the best — short story writers under 40. His novel The Gospel of Anarchy shows that Taylor is an author capable of tackling political and religious philosophies, and that he isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of fiction. Taylor has been able to capture the tone of a generation crippled by privilege and opportunity; his characters belong to a hypocritical society so spiritually depraved that they are existentially paralyzed and often self-destructive. At 30, Taylor is already a master of the craft, using subtle techniques that engage and move the reader in ways that are both startling and sentimental.

In the first issue of The Coffin Factory, we gave Taylor fifty-one either/or questions that only someone with as much knowledge and sense of humor as him could’ve answered. In the third issue, Taylor showed his larger creative vision through his erasure poem of W.G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants, accompanying the text with impressionist photographs by Bill Hayward. Yet it is in the story “A Talking Cure,” featured in the second issue of The Coffin Factory, where Taylor demonstrates his true talent. Drunk, in an attempt to cure writer’s block, the characters in “A Talking Cure” play a game of truth, confessing past sexual experiences. The truth session quickly turns from the past to the present, and they unearth much more than they wanted to know.

We love Justin Taylor because his writing is intelligent, poignant, and scrupulous. After reading “A Talking Cure,” we trust you will, too.

Randy Rosenthal & Laura Isaacman
Editors, The Coffin Factory

A Talking Cure

MY NAME IS LACEY ANNE SCHMIDT. My fiancé’s name — which I still haven’t decided whether I’ll take or not — is as or more plain. He is Zachary Davis, black-haired and lanky with a little beer belly that pooches over the waist of his slacks. If I take his name I will be Lacey Anne Davis, or Lacey Anne Schmidt-Davis, though I think Davis-Schmidt sounds better, though I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to go. I mean in terms of the order of the names when a woman takes a man’s. Meanwhile there remains the problem of my first name. I can never decide if I hate “Lacey” because it’s so white trash or so country club, but one way or the other it sounds terribly unserious, and so when I publish it’s going to be as Anne Schmidt, or Anne Schmidt-Davis, which actually has a decent cadence to it, like Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick or Claude Levi-Strauss.

Forgive me if my references trend obscure. Zachary and I are both PhD candidates at UPenn. I’m New Media and he’s Comp Lit, which means, at the risk of totally over-determining your reading of this story, that the common ground of our respective theoretical apparatuses basically starts and ends with Freud. Zachary’s dissertation is on ideations of Confederate masculinity in late-20th century southern fiction, i.e. post-Faulkner and O’Connor. (McCarthy’s out because the early stuff is still mid-century and the late stuff is too far West.) He’s writing about Barry Hannah’s obsession with J.E.B. Stuart in Airships, and Padgett Powell’s with Nathan Bedford Forrest in Mrs. Hollingsworth’s Men. Also “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason, where the woman leaves the trucker after they visit the hallowed grounds, etc. — though the way things have been going these past few months, it’s not clear Zachary’s writing anything about anybody. He’s been completely blocked.

We live together in a third-floor apartment near campus and are both A.B.D. We’ve been dating for about three years, and engaged for exactly seven weeks. It’s Friday night. We’re just getting home — late — from a reception at the school followed by a few nightcaps with some of our fellow grad students. Both of us are drunk, and I’ve got this idea in my head that we should do our own version of the truth session from “Water Liars,” that Barry Hannah story where the husband and the wife tell each other about their sexual pasts.

At first Zachary doesn’t want to, but I kind of stick it to him so he says, Okay, sure. So I get another set of nightcaps going and we start. But the thing of it is, even though we’re about the same age as the people in the story that couple had been married for ten years already. What I mean is that they had plenty of — how to put this? — distance from what they were talking about. And of course the basic point of “Water Liars” is how the wife’s news sends the husband for a brutal loop anyway — distance nothing. Distance be damned.

Zachary proposed to me in Locust Grove, Virginia, about four hours down from Philly. We were on a kind of vision quest for his project (the truth session hardly our first experiment with voodoo academia), visiting the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm at Ellwood Manor — Jackson himself of course lying in Lexington in a cemetery which bears his name.

I’d looked online and found a couple wineries nearby in Spotsylvania, and a place in town to stay. Not exactly two weeks in Paris, or even a long weekend in the Poconos, but it was something: what we could swing.

The funny thing — well, one funny thing — about the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm is that it is not, technically, a grave anymore, and indeed it may never have been. Nobody’s sure. We’d read online that in 1998 the park service dug up the plot to install a piece of concrete to keep looters out, and discovered that the legendary metal box containing the arm, the very thing they meant to protect, wasn’t there to be protected. But Zachary said this didn’t change his desire to see the site. If it was a fraud, he said, that was just as interesting, albeit in a different way.

Forgive me one last digression, but my inner second-wave feminist thinks it’s obscene that I’ve spent this much time discussing my boyfriend’s — ahem, fiance’s — work without mentioning my own. And who am I to say she’s wrong? So. My work concerns the appropriation of mythological and folk motifs for use in massive multiplayer online role-playing games. I buy high-level characters from burnt-out gamers and these allow me access to the most remote realms of the virtual worlds without my having to spend thousands of hours building up experience points in a dozen different games.

Zachary played Spells of Evermore 3 with me once. I had a barbarian warrior and a wood elf druid, and I needed him to play the druid, backing me up while I fought this one particular dragon. His job was to alternately cast ensnaring vines on the monster and healing spells on me. So basically he had to press two buttons. But the dragon had these minions and one of them was a necromancer and things got out of hand and I admit I may have over-reacted when we both got killed, but that was because I knew it was going to be a fucking week of my life to get all the experience points back when slaying the dragon hadn’t even been the goal in the first place. We were only killing him to get his eyes so we could go see some witch who supposedly had been modeled on Baba Yaga. Zachary said I was no fun to play with and I reminded him that the point of the game wasn’t to have fun, and that was the last time I asked him to take an active interest in my work.

But getting back to our truth session. Because it’s not 1971 or whatever year it’s supposed to be in the Hannah story, we’re having a tough time finding stuff that the other person doesn’t already know. We know each other’s loss-of-virginity episodes and we know each other’s numbers. He knows about my abortion. I know he messed around with guys a few times in college. All very healthy and progressive, I’m sure, but the point is that before we know it we’ve run out of revelations from our pasts, and have stumbled into the veritable present.

So I admit that, yes, I sometimes fake with him. Not very often, I’m quick to add, trying to be kind here, and pulling it off, I think, though this is admittedly something I’ve been looking for a way to talk about.

“Well, when was the last time?” He isn’t looking at me. He’s at the counter, fixing us fresh drinks. Gin and tonics with zests of lime, because even though we can joke knowingly about “the peculiar institution” and “The War of Northern Aggression” we are still the kind of people who live in Philadelphia with their citrus zester. Anyway, I give him the truthful answer about my faking: “Tuesday.”

“I see.” His tone is relaxed. Casual introspection. If he’s hurt he hides it well. Or, also plausible, I’m too drunk to read him.

“Your turn,” I say. It occurs to me that we’re doing our truth session backwards. In the story they have this great night out — it’s the guy’s birthday — and then they get into it the morning after, when they’re sober, after ditching a party and basically re-affirming their love. But it’s too late to offer this observation, with him already in the middle of talking about Bridget, the girl he dated before me. How it only lasted a few months, but was super heavy while it did. I already know all this, I want to say to him. Well, here’s some news. Bridget used to be into some rough stuff — she liked to be choked and held down, tossed around. Your basic rape fantasy, it sounds like. And he’s got his hands in the air, palms out, preemptive defense, saying how he didn’t even want to do it at first — refused to role-play the oppressor, was worried he might really hurt her, etc. But then he came around to the idea that simulating violence in a safe space is a perfectly valid way of gaining psychological mastery over real trauma. (One wonders what ol’ Bridget’s truth session might have sounded like.) Basically he got into the spirit of the enterprise and before long they were both having a blast.

I’m wondering, is this a real story, or is it more like his own roundabout way of asking for — Oh, but I shouldn’t be stupid. Besides, if he wants it, he’s going to have to say so, or else make a move. Not that I’m in a huge hurry to be gagged with my own underwear, but being pinned at the wrists and bent over the coffee table might make for a nice change of pace. What I won’t stand for, however, is this “I’m sending you a signal to make me the offer” shit. Of course, he’s gotten pretty good about asking for what he wants — which, by the way, I credit myself with having taught him, because I remember what it was like when we first got together — so maybe this is just the drunken truth slopping out. Speaking of which.

“I gave Evan Stanz a blowjob,” I say. Evan is Zachary’s best friend. They grew up together, and both did their undergrad at Wesleyan. Now Evan lives in Chicago. He works in real estate and on the weekends plays bass in a grunge nostalgia band. The first time Evan visited after we had started dating, he slept on Zachary’s couch for four nights. We’d been together about three months at the time.

My fingers are drumming on the table. Zachary drains his drink. Would you believe that I did not engineer this whole conversation to lead up to betraying myself in this way? At least not consciously. But it’s worth stressing that even in retrospect my confession does not feel inevitable — it has taken us both by surprise.

“That night was the first time I was ever really, like really mad at you,” I say, exponentially more amazed with myself every moment that words keep coming out of my mouth. “You remember how we fought? And I was thinking I was going to break up with you, that’s how mad I was, and — oh, fuck it, I just wanted to.”

“Were you trying to get caught?”

“God, no. I waited until you were asleep. Evan was asleep too. I had to wake him. I told him to be quiet, and that if he ever breathed a word of it I’d deny the whole thing. We didn’t fuck. He didn’t touch me at all. I just did what I wanted to, and then it was over.”

“Did you swallow?” he asks, trying to do the ice-cold thing, though to really sell it he’d have to be able to look me in the eye.

“You’re taking this rather in stride,” I say. “And also, fuck you.”

“Just tell me if you did.”

“You’re being disgusting.”

“I’m curious.”

“Well I wasn’t going to spit it on the floor, was I?”

“Lacey Anne,” he says, and it’s like, Okay, so we’re done being hard-asses now.

“If I had it back, I mean if I could do that night over — ”

“He told me.”

“Excuse me?”

“He told me.”

“Told you.”

“When I told him I was going to propose. He said he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t.”

I feel the bottom drop out of my stomach. Here I’ve been keeping this terrible secret close, nursing it with my guilt. And then it turns out that the boys have long since settled the matter among themselves. How nice for them.

“Well did he think I was good?” I ask.

He ignores my question. We bask in our silence, maybe zone in on the green of the microwave display clock — if you squint hard you can make the LED quiver, the numbers swimming apart into fragments before your blurring vision, your watering eyes. I can hear cars idling at the light. Someone’s blasting dance music.

Then he breaks the silence, says, “You want to know something funny?”

“Something funny? Oh, yeah. I mean, you bet.”

“Maybe ‘funny’ isn’t the word. I don’t know, I never expected to actually say this, but since we’re talking I guess I might as well tell you that when you told me the thing about you and Evan — well, I mean when he told me the thing, but then, seriously, again when you said it just before, both times the first feeling I had wasn’t anger or hurt. I swear to God, Lacey Anne, it was straight-up jealousy. I was in love with him for a long time. The whole time we were growing up, I guess. I’d have done anything for him, I really would have, or with him, not that I ever tried, or, I mean there was never any question of — but it’s just like, if just once, you know, like if I could have ever just put it out there and really had to own it maybe my whole life would have been different. I don’t know. And not that there’s anything wrong with my life now, but — well, it made me feel bad for that past version of myself, that’s all. That kid. He just ached so fucking much.”

“Baby,” I say, meaning it.

He stands up and so I do too, though I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be going. It’s as if I’m watching myself — watching us — from somewhere else, not like the God’s eye view from the ceiling, but maybe like a pervert on the fire escape peeping through our living room window. As Zachary rounds the table I grab my dress by the skirt and in one fluid but graceless motion pull it over my head and off my body. I ball it up and chuck it at him. He catches it and throws it down. We end up on the couch, tangled, neither one of us speaking but both of us thinking the same thing: Is this the spot where it happened? Is this?

There are several competing theories about where Stonewall’s arm might be. Marauding Union men is the popular one, though considered unlikely by serious historians. It may have been stolen in the 1920s; there’s a whole school of thought about that. The notion I find most compelling postulates that the first marker erected here was never meant to designate the exact burial plot, but rather the field of battle where the injury was sustained. Everything else, says this theory, has been one long misunderstanding.

At the winery we took the tour and then spent some time tasting. There was a cabernet with a blackberry thing happening that I really liked. A couple of reds and a Riesling. We paid for our bottles, asked the sommelier if he knew of a decent place in town to eat. Zachary would propose to me the next day beneath an oak on a green slope at noon, and I would of course say yes and we would kiss and start ourselves, our lives, careening toward everything that I’ve already shared. But let’s stick for a minute with the night before the proposal. In our suite at the Red Roof Inn there was a little coffee maker by the sink. I took the two plastic cups out of their plastic packaging while Zachary opened one of the reds. We shut off the overhead light then turned on both bedside lamps and the shower. We left the bathroom door open and the bathroom light off. The water was warm, then all of a sudden too hot. I wanted to get it perfect. A little steam’s okay, but nothing scalding. We climbed in. Zachary worked the soap between my legs, exploring me as if for the first time, as if he didn’t already know me by heart. I reached back. He said, “Lacey Anne.” He loves to breathe my name when he’s inside me, and it is the only time that I genuinely enjoy hearing it said, because it’s like everything I love and hate about myself somehow comes together, and I feel exposed and completed, named and found.

Which is a good line to end on, though it must be obvious by this point that neither Zachary nor I are the type to leave well enough alone, so I may as well tell what happens next.

He picks the boy out — a student from the 201 class he taught last semester. He says there were hints dropped, inklings. They’ve kept in touch.

The boy, Blake, comes on a Wednesday. He knocks on our door even though we cracked it open for him when we buzzed him into the building. Zachary is sitting on the couch, watching something on TV he doesn’t care about. A sport. I’m checking the spaghetti sauce. It’s sauce, all right. “Nearly done,” I say as I turn toward the knocking, which has nudged the door fully open. He stands in the doorway, obviously nervous, but trying hard not to show that he is. I do not try to hide that I’m sizing him up. He ought to know it. He’s taller than either of us, and somewhat bedraggled-looking in dirty white jeans and a pair of beat-up Converse All-Stars. He wears a thin yellow t-shirt with a mud-colored corporate logo, a red bandana tied loose about his neck. His beard is patchy. He’s holding a six-pack of PBR in a plastic bodega bag with a black-eyed smiley face above the blue words THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. The smiley face is the same color as his t-shirt must have been when it was new.

“Hi,” I say to Blake as I approach him. I open my arms and we briefly embrace. He smells clean and fresh; not like cigarettes. For some reason I’d thought of him as a smoker, which maybe is my way of saying, Kids these days. Zachary hustles over but I let the boy slip from my arms to his. A sort of hand-off. I’m back at the stove. Let them have this moment, if they can wring a moment out of whatever is happening. I keep my back turned, one hand holding the wooden sauce spoon, stirring.

The boys sit. I serve dinner. We drink ourselves comfortable. Together we move to the increasingly storied couch, undressing each other, but Blake can’t seem to get in the mood. Finally, he reaches down and eases Zachary’s head from between his pale legs, his flaccid penis shiny like a wet white slug. “Really, it’s okay,” he says to Zachary, as though he were the wiser of the two of them, the three of us. “I’ll just do you,” he says, but then instead of switching places with Zachary scoots over to the far end of the couch. He draws his legs up under himself like a nesting animal. I reach out and take Zachary’s hand. I draw him up off the floor and onto the couch. Blake watches us as though we were a reasonably compelling foreign film. He waits until we finish then gets dressed and says goodnight.

“It’s better like this,” Zachary says when we’re alone again.

“I think you’re right,” I say, and take him into my arms. As we rock slowly back and forth, heads on shoulders, I glimpse our reflection in the dark glass face of the TV. We look like we’re bobbing in a rowboat on a lake or out to sea. It occurs to me to wonder: Is this what a marriage is? And then a related question: So what if it’s not?

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