Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Paul Dalla Rosa’s charismatic and self-deprecating “An MFA Story,” contends with the twin threats against all writing: time and money. (There are other threats that plague Paul’s protagonist, such as laziness, lack of talent, and delusions of grandeur, but time and money are all but universally guaranteed.) The fictional Paul is an Australian MFA student in upstate New York, where he observes, “People were routinely assaulted, the population was heavily armed, and New York State was in fact very, very far from New York City.” The summer is upon him, and his graduate stipend has run out until it can be replenished in the fall. His student visa won’t allow him to get proper work, so he must make ends meet by taking under-the-table jobs on Craigslist.
As for time, Paul has plenty of it, but it turns out that too much time can also be bad for writing. That his roommate Zhen was awarded a teaching fellowship and has published in places like The Paris Review and Harper’s doesn’t help matters. Paul (the fictional one) is what you might call uninspired.
Dalla Rosa, on the other hand, has written a piece of incisive, clear-eyed satire that revitalizes the familiar genre of fictionalized writers. He offers some delicious parodies of the writing workshop, and yet most of the story takes place outside of the classroom. With the rest of Paul’s cohort away for the summer and Zhen busy working on his novel, his burgeoning friendship with his neighbor Cyndi is his only relationship. This town and gown dynamic is complicated by the fact that Paul’s gown is tattered; Cyndi is gainfully and legitimately employed, though she won’t tell Paul where she works. She even finds excuses to give him money for help with a project she could do herself, for free. Still, any false sense of superiority Paul has held onto will be punctured by the time the first leaves begin to fall.
You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy this story. The tenderness and humor and unexpected plot turns will delight readers of all professions and aspirations. But if you do happen to be a writer, perhaps one pursuing an MFA, get ready to be owned.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-chief, Recommended Reading
MFA vs. GDP
“An MFA Story” by Paul Dalla Rosa
The summer before the summer I was meant to graduate graduate school I had a short story collection to put together and one hundred dollars left of my stipend. I had not been awarded a teaching fellowship, which would’ve paid me to teach “advanced” high school students short fiction over the break, and my F-1 visa meant I could not be employed outside of the university or I could face immediate deportation.
I explained my situation to others. In the last week of workshop, my friend Lydia and I went to our local dive bar that had no windows, smelt like sweat, and wouldn’t allow people in if they wore backwards-facing caps. We were day drinking and Lydia was deciding which books she would take with her when she left for the break. A gay couple her mother knew had a house in Maine. They were travelling and didn’t want the house to be broken into by teenage drunks. Lydia would house-sit. She knew my predicament but did not invite me. I asked her anyway. She said no.This reluctance characterized most people I knew; writers and poets who were taking Greyhounds south and either sunbathing in Williamsburg, or waiting tables in their hometowns where they didn’t need to pay rent. Lydia would take the summer to write three stories, one per month, and luxuriate sleeping naked atop strangers’ sheets.
With another three stories, at least as full drafts, we would each have a collection, the rough object of our masters’ theses due in seven months’ time.
We made a pact to spend our summers writing and hugged each other outside the bar. The sky turned gold with the slow beginnings of dusk.
I was being paid to be in graduate school but only for the months graduate school was in session. I was lucky. My position was fully funded, student debt would not bury me, and professors on the program’s faculty had appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Only five fiction writers and five poets were admitted to the program each year. I wasn’t an American national. I had applied from Melbourne, FedExed a stack of fiction along with my personal statement, my letters of recommendation. I got in and it was a big deal.
When I found out, I burnt bridges. I told my boyfriend who I thought was holding me back that he was holding me back and that he wouldn’t hold me back, or really hold me at all, any more. I said similar things to my family. I boarded a flight, flew over an ocean, and read through a seven-hour layover in Dallas. Then I arrived in the city and realized by my taxi driver’s monologue and the number of boarded-up storefronts that the city was in a decades-long depression. People were routinely assaulted, the population was heavily armed, and New York State was in fact very, very far from New York City.
The workshop was challenging. Though my application had said I viewed criticism as an avenue for growth, it was a lenient version of the truth. I had lied but only about the things everyone lies about. When criticized, I first resent the speaker and then, afterwards, writhe sunken and alone, on my bedroom floor.
But I was fine. I was not the worst in the class nor was I the best, which didn’t worry me. I knew that a writer could be defined by their potential work, that is, even at twenty-nine, the work I hadn’t yet done.
My contemporaries dealt with the stress of the workshop in different ways. A man lifted stories of muggings, forced evictions, and suspicious property fires from the local paper and said he was writing the first great novel of the opioid crisis. When a book came out that winter that was hailed “as the first great novel of the opioid crisis,” he stopped coming to workshop. One woman baked elaborate things she took into class, ensuring, I believe, that the feedback on her novel would be gentler and more kind. Another woman rarely shared work, had possibly stopped writing, but cultivated a Twitter following of seven thousand and would underline sentences in people’s work she found problematic and then tweet those sentences to her followers. There were complaints to the faculty. The administration did not want to be tweeted about by those seven thousand followers and so stayed out of it altogether.
Now, with a hundred dollars, well, after the bar, seventy dollars, I walked home, avoided crossing directly through the darkening park, and thought about the months ahead. I didn’t have the money for a ticket to Melbourne. But even if I did, I feared that if I went back to Australia I would not come back, that something would detain me; money, immigration officials, a realisation or epiphany. Instead, I would spend the three months here living with my housemate, Zhen. Zhen, a poet from China, who often wore slide-on sandals with gym socks, had published work in The Paris Review and Harper’s, and so had been the subject of faculty-wide emails with photos of him sheepishly smiling, the journals held up under his chin. His poems were everything I wanted my stories to be. Beautiful. Surprising. Alive.
Our flat was actually the second story of an old Victorian the owner had converted into a duplex. A rickety wooden staircase attached to the house’s side led to our deadlocked front door. Zhen and I lived there together for one reason; we were both foreign. Two years ago, the program secretary had cc’d us together in an email with the details of the vacant flat. From Melbourne, I’d typed the address into Google and hit street view. I’d thought the elms of the park looked pretty. Even with its peeling white paint, in its own way, the house was too. In the image, there was broken furniture in the front yard and a man sitting on the front stoop. I zoomed in. Though his face was blurred, he was waving, like he was saying, “come in.” I said I would take the room.
Once I arrived and attended a campus orientation, I heard, infamously and semi-regularly, that there were rapes and muggings, often to the same victim at the same time, in the park across the road. I only went there if I was running late to workshop, only in daylight, moving fast, cutting straight through.
Our next door neighbor was a trans woman named Cyndi who smoked menthols in her yard wearing a dull and fraying, peach satin robe. The downstairs tenants were a young white family who fought constantly, believed Zhen and I were lovers, and once threw a small television through their front window.
That afternoon, I sat at the top of the steps and felt the summer before me, its prospects. I took my shirt off, opened Zhen’s laptop on my thighs. Zhen had a teaching fellowship for the summer and when he was out I used his laptop because I felt anxious, like I should be writing, when I used my own. I scrolled Craigslist. Some listings gave phone numbers though most gave an option to contact the lister through relayed email addresses. I sent messages to posters with jobs that were largely variable, both in what would be required of me and what I would be paid.
Sitting there, I watched the mother from downstairs, in denim hot pants and a tank top, pushing her twins’ double-stroller back and forth. There was no sidewalk, so she walked up and down by the edge of the road, she often did this, never going inside the park but walking adjacent. The twins looked past the age they should be in a stroller and lay mute, one putting his hand completely into the mouth of the other. I didn’t interact with them because once one of the children had waved at me and I waved back, and the mother spat at the ground and called me a kiddie fucker. That was our relationship.
I looked at my replies. I had responses from listings for Mighty Taco, a caretaker for an aged care village, and an attendant who would help take groups of trained corgis to summer weddings. I called the number for the dogs.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” a woman said. “I don’t run a business. I just want six corgis at my wedding.”
“I need to go now; my child is crying.”
My only regular work came from Cyndi, who paid me five dollars a week to stop by her house every morning and take photos of her breasts. She had begun hormones and each day her breasts developed slightly larger than the day before. She stood in her kitchen, undid her robe then I would take a photo with a disposable camera and she would say, ‘keep going.’ Cyndi posed. She did pirouettes. Then she would say, enough, and retie the robe.
I liked Cyndi. She was beautiful with dark hair, green eyes. Every morning she had a stale croissant and coffee like she was Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
As she ate, she liked to hear about the things I had to do. She was interested in the creative writing program, mainly, I think, because she found the university and its students impractical, partly unreal. I gave her the wifi password to our network and emailed her my stories, though we didn’t speak about them.
I told Cyndi how I’d read an interview with a writer who said he paid his rent in the seventies by giving his landlord blow jobs in the stairwell. I myself had been having disappointing sex in America for the past two years but had gotten little from it. “He was living in the Village,” I said. “I don’t think that’s so bad.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but have you ever met your landlord?”
Neither of us had. I wasn’t sure I had one. Every month I deposited rent into an account. When there was a problem, Zhen and I lived with the problem. Above Cyndi’s kitchen, there was a room she had barricaded shut with a chest of drawers. Inside was a broken window and, sometimes, a racoon. She didn’t contact anyone about it. I said, “I guess that probably wouldn’t happen anymore.”
“A blow job doesn’t make sense now,” she said. “I mean, economically.”
When she finished her croissant, she put on a white shirt with a mandarin collar, tied her hair back. She was younger than me, but how young was difficult to say. She was dressing for work though she wouldn’t tell me what she did. When I asked, she’d evade. “I work with animals.”
Sitting in her kitchen, I knew I wasn’t making enough money and she knew it too. I said she didn’t have to pay me, but she slipped five one-dollar bills into the elastic of my shorts and said, “This is America, baby.” Then she walked to the bus stop.
The listing was simple; “Night Work. Pays in Cash.” I had grown to like simple ads. Even when they lacked an actual description they were at least simple as advertised and the listers weren’t fussy. The word “work” in the listing sounded promising. The things I had been doing prior were difficult to define as work and thus I believed the pay for the job would be larger and possibly more regular. I sent my number.
Cyndi thought night work sounded like the mob or maybe a serial killer and when I said a serial killer wouldn’t advertise on Craigslist, she shrugged her shoulders and replied, “Actually, that’s factually incorrect.”
We were sitting in her kitchen. Sitting there, my phone rang. I had a short interview. A man asked me if I was the kind of person who said yes to things. I said, yes. Then he asked if I could move furniture. I said, yes. He gave me a time and address. I had the job.
That night, Zhen came home from teaching and sat, shirtless and in basketball shorts, writing in the living room. The living room was a kind of communal space neither of us used. I wanted to ask him to write in his room. I didn’t like seeing him write, his fingers hitting the keyboard like he was having a great time, like he was having the best time in the world, but I didn’t say anything because I was going out.
I left the house in trainers, shorts, a grey American Apparel Paris Review T-shirt I felt self-conscious wearing around Zhen. To get to the address I took a bus to an apartment on South Avenue. When I arrived it was close to ten.
The apartment looked a lot like my room. That is, bare, with cheap wall-to-wall carpeting. The man was maybe a decade older than me or he liked to tan. His skin creased like leather. He wore a singlet. His name was Vince. He walked me to the back of the lot to his van. I didn’t want to get into his van but he asked me to get into the van and I said, yes.
We drove a while in silence and then he put the radio on. I noticed a dream catcher hanging from his rear-view mirror. I asked him if he was Native American. He didn’t say anything to that, just turned up the volume.
We pulled into a parking lot close to the lake. The building there was a series of units laid out in a horseshoe, the concrete courtyard between them filled with plastic deck chairs bleached brittle in the sun. He had keys. He told me to wait in the van. He walked in, came back, and told me to follow him. He gave me a flashlight and told me that, if anyone asked who we were, the only answer I was to give was to shine my light in their face and say, “the police.”
We entered unit 2A. Inside, the rooms were filled with trash—furniture, refuse, broken electronics, boxes. It was like the duplex when Zhen and I moved in. Vince turned towards me. “This is it. We clear it.”
We moved everything into the van, and when we were done Vince walked around taking photos with his phone. He took photos of ripped-out patches of carpet, holes in the drywall, a red stain marring the kitchen’s yellowed, laminate floor.
Then we got back into the van and drove until we approached the city’s municipal dump, driving alongside it until Vince turned off-road and a line of chain-link fencing flashed in the van’s headlights. We got out. Vince approached the fence and pulled. The fencing had been cut. An entire panel of the fence peeled back, like a page. We opened the van and carried shit through. We carried it in the dark until we reached the landfill proper, then we dumped it.
The idea was getting refuse into the landfill without having to pay to put it there. If this was illegal, it didn’t strike me as particularly illegal. I didn’t feel like we were breaking any law that mattered. As we worked, I thought of myself not, as I often did, as a character in a short story, but a character in a low-budget reality-TV show, something that played in the early hours of the morning.
At the end of the night, he dropped me off at my house and handed me fifty dollars. He said come back tonight. It was 4 AM. The next night he told me the same thing.
When I didn’t have money, all I thought about was money, and when I did, I took Cyndi out to get frappes. Cyndi showed me the bus to the mall. We took it.
The shopping mall was on the edge of the city’s lake and seemed designed by someone unfamiliar with the lake, food courts looking out at the water, wide glass windows, viewing platforms. You couldn’t swim in the lake because it was filled with industrial run-off and heavy metals. Anyone could intuit this by looking at it. The water was the colour of shit or sometimes unnaturally bright, pearlescent, its surface slicked with oil. But the mall had some things going for it. Like every summer, this one was the hottest on record and the mall had AC.
Families who couldn’t holiday at the Great Lakes came up to holiday here and I saw them, flesh overflowing bikinis, guts paunched over nylon shorts, children a blur of pink skin and teeth and noise. They couldn’t swim in the lake, but they could at the pool in the mall. They could also drive go-carts. The place confused me on a conceptual level.
Cyndi and I walked into Sephora. When we were in an aisle, alone, no employees watching, Cyndi took a compact case off a shelf, then a kind of blush, a coral-shaded lipstick and put them in her bag. As we neared the security guard she turned to me.
“I know it’s hard for you,” she said, “but act cool.”
At Starbucks, I remembered a reading Zhen had given, a reading organized by the program’s faculty. I had not wanted to go but did. In the bar, he read, “I wrote this in a Starbucks in Shanghai. On the bank of the Huangpu.” It wasn’t an aside or introduction. It was two lines of the poem. I was in a Starbucks and I wasn’t writing any poems. I wasn’t writing anything.
Almost every day I talked to Cyndi about this, and she would say, okay, yes, yes, sure, I get you. I asked Cyndi again if she had read my stories yet and she sipped her frappe and said, “No, not yet,” then changed the topic of conversation. Neither of us said much on the bus ride home.
My only measurement of time was that once a week Cyndi and I took a bus in the opposite direction and went to Walgreens where, under dim fluorescents, Cyndi would drop off a roll of film and collect the prints from the week before.
Whether we went to the mall or Walgreens or Cyndi had work, every morning I took a photo of Cyndi and eventually walked up the stairs to my flat and sat at my desk.
I wanted from the MFA what most people wanted from most things, that is, total fulfilment of the self. It wasn’t lost on me that every day Cyndi became more of herself, realizing her potential, while I did not. Thinking this, I would remember that I was the worst kind of writer, the one who took the stories of others and used them as metaphors to illuminate themselves.
Every night, once the sun set, I took a series of buses to Vince’s place and then we drove to houses, condos, flats, driving on the interstate, sometimes alongside the black water of the lake, the shut-down air-conditioner factory, or through the streets of the city and then residential suburbs, houses pushed back from the street lights, deep in overgrown yards. We’d clear them, head to the dump, doubling back if we needed to. On a good run, we could clear two a night.
We worked as part of an operation, but it took me a while to figure out what the operation was. Vince sent the photos he took to someone and sometimes answered phone calls and gave brief reports. When I asked who he spoke to he said there was a woman in LA with money to make.
As far as I understood, properties foreclosed on years ago were bought from the banks, and then sold and resold through managed funds. People moved or were evicted and left things behind. Stained futons, busted-up shopping trolleys, pieces of drywall, a La-Z-Boy recliner with a blood stain running down its side, Jane Fonda’s Workout VHS tapes, a faded, cotton-candy pink Jacuzzi, a still-warm hibachi grill, faeces, human faeces, a Donald Trump Halloween mask. When the properties lay empty, vagrants circled, then squatted. Often services were still connected. We cleared the properties, Vince wrote up false invoices for the municipal dump, then the woman paid him, labor plus fees, then rented the properties at inflated rents to new tenants, ideally, people like me, students from the university.
I didn’t know if this was all the woman, if she was the owner or just worked for someone else. In a way everyone works for someone else, and if they don’t, they work within something else, something bigger. Systems, I thought. It’s about the systems. The economy.
I felt ambivalent about it. I didn’t feel like I was getting writing material, I was just doing labour. And that was fine by me.
As I took the photo of Cyndi one morning my T-shirt already clung to my back. This was mid-July now. When Cyndi went to work, I went back to my room to write, but the humidity was too much. I conserved energy, stayed inside, placed ice cube after ice cube on the small of my neck, made use of Zhen’s laptop, his digital subscriptions—n+1, The New Yorker—stopped reading and scrolled their online stores, considered a tote bag. I thought about new story ideas but then thought I would be better able to write them at some unspecified point in the future. I forgot the story ideas. I napped.
When I woke up it was the late afternoon. Outside my window, I could see the mother in the front yard, lying on a towel, talking into her phone. She was wearing a bikini. The children sat in the grass next to her, dazed, their skin watermelon pink. I watched her pick up a spray hose, hose one off and then the other, then put the hose down. I thought I saw movement in the park but I looked closer and it was just heat coming off the road.
I went into the living room. I noticed Zhen’s bike was in the living room. Zhen’s bike was not meant to be in the living room until he rode it home from teaching.
His door was shut too, which was unusual. The door was only shut when he was sleeping. Even when he was writing he left the door open like a taunt. He must have come back into the house while I was asleep.
I thought, that’s okay, he’s asleep. I had taken his laptop from his desk and had intended, like always, to put it back there. I slowly crept into my room, picked it up, considered quietly opening Zhen’s door, decided against it (too bold), and placed the laptop on the kitchen counter, where he sometimes used it as he cooked.
Midway back to my room, his door opened and there was Zhen.
We stood facing each other, then he said, “Have you been using my laptop?”
I tried to act cool. “Zhen,” I said, “why would I use your laptop? I have a laptop.”
We looked at each other. Zhen’s eyes narrowed.
I said, “You’re home very early.”
He considered this. Then he said today the teenagers didn’t want to write stories in the heat, they didn’t seem to want to write stories at all but today there was an excuse, so he had sent them home.
“Wait,” I said. “Stories? You’re teaching fiction?”
“But you’re not in the fiction track,” I said.
“It doesn’t really matter what track you’re in,” he said. “I don’t think anyone cares.”
“Some people care,” I said. “Some people care.” I didn’t know what to say next, so I just strode back to my room and closed the door.
Sitting in the passenger seat of Vince’s van I knew, even in the dark, that we were parallel to the park, my park. But it’s a big park that crosses over many blocks, and I didn’t recognise my street until we were in front of the duplex. I asked what we were doing, and Vince said what we always do. He got out of the car but he didn’t walk to my house, he walked to Cyndi’s. He pulled a key from his pocket and opened the front door.
Vince turned on the lights and I hoped Cyndi wasn’t there. Vince walked through the rooms, the front room, the lounge, the kitchen. It was obvious someone was actively living there. An open box of chow-mein sat on the island-bench, noodles congealed in oil, a glamour magazine beside it, a disposable camera. I heard music coming from down the hall. He pulled out his flashlight and walked up the stairs. Each empty room we entered I felt relieved, but I knew she was home.
Then he opened the bathroom door, me close behind. First, we saw four tea-lights flickering on the sink, then a figure in the tub.
Cyndi screamed. Vince swung his flashlight. The beam of light hit her in the face, the light glinting across droplets on her skin. I could see her pupils constrict and felt something, like a dead weight plummeting through my chest and stomach. She raised a hand.
“It’s the police,” Vince said, his voice muffled. “Get out.”
She stood up, water sloshing below. She swallowed, tensed her shoulders, squinted. She looked past the light. She saw me. She recognised me.
“You’re not the police. Get out of my fucking house.”
“This isn’t your house,” Vince said, his voice kidnapper low. “You’re an illegal resident. Put something on, then leave.”
“Turn the light off, mother fucker.” She stepped out of the tub. She nodded at me. “You’re working for a fucking slum lord.”
I didn’t move. She watched me not move. I watched her bite down on her lip. Vince didn’t turn towards me. He didn’t turn towards me because I wasn’t a problem, not even a hypothetical one. He spoke again, calm. “This house isn’t yours.”
“This house isn’t yours. You are illegally squatting.”
“And you’re trying to illegally evict me. Busting in like S.W.A.T., trying to intimidate me. I’m not an idiot.”
She found a towel, walked towards us. Vince stepped away. I stepped away. She walked past us, continued down the hall and into her bedroom, water puddling on the floorboards. She shut the door behind her. We heard a drawer pull open. Vince looked worried, started moving to the stairs. “We have to leave, now.”
I didn’t think she had a gun. I knew she didn’t have a gun. I knew she had a hair straightener and no extension cord, but I didn’t say these things aloud.
Vince started running. I followed. He yelled out over his shoulder, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Cyndi’s voice boomed behind us. “Come, either of you, and I’ll taser you. I’ll taser you right in the face.”
Outside, I crossed the road and vomited onto the lawn of the park.
Vince watched me. When I was done, he said we had another address to visit.
I shook my head, and climbed the stairs to my flat.
In the morning I went over. The doors were locked. Cyndi wouldn’t answer my texts, my calls, so I climbed into the house through the broken second-story window. Climbing the railing, I was worried someone would call the police. I was worried I’d be shot. If there was a racoon inside, it didn’t show itself to me. I jimmied out the chair blocking the door. Cyndi wasn’t there.
In the lounge she had written on the wall in coral lipstick. The message was for me, slick and glossy, the letters the size of dinner plates. YOUR STORIES ARE SHIT.
I read the message, read it again, nodded, and walked into the kitchen. Cyndi’s hormones were gone. Her photos too. I ate the leftover noodles on the bench. I knew she wouldn’t come back.
I called Vince and told him I couldn’t work for him anymore. Vince called me many names and I didn’t say anything back because I felt they were deserved, just not from him. Vince owed me a week’s pay but told me to go fuck myself.
That night a storm broke, far away, past the lake, dry lightning. I could see Vince from my room’s narrow window, walking in and out of Cyndi’s with a man I didn’t recognize. I watched in the dark. It was past 1 AM. I didn’t go outside to hassle them. I looked over the park and towards the lake.
I saw a flash of light and waited for thunder.
Within two weeks I had run out of money and could take comfort in the need to survive. It was easier not to write than confront the fact I was doing it poorly. I had little under three weeks left of the break. There were emails I sent to Cyndi, texts. I told her she could stay at my rental. She didn’t reply. I thought about what Cyndi thought of my stories. Cyndi is not a literary critic, I thought. Even the worst workshop critique would not say that. “Shit.” It was unjustified. Cyndi had a lot to work out.
When I emailed my professors, I got automatic replies or no reply at all. I decided to visit the faculty offices. It was the afternoon. I didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe I could have pled my case. I power-walked through the park, then came onto the campus, approached the limestone bell-tower of the English department. I couldn’t get into the building. Everyone was gone, even the cleaners. I don’t know where Zhen taught his high school students. The only movement I saw was the sudden burst of automated sprinklers across the quad.
I left the grounds. I walked to the supermarket. Inside the air-conditioned aisles I saw one of my teachers, Claire. This seemed like a good sign. This was where I was meant to be.
Claire was an adjunct with dark skin and even darker hair. Her lips were always chapped and in winter she always wore the same chequered teal and red sweater. I noticed her from a distance, down an aisle, and walked towards her. She had gotten her MFA and released her first novel very young. Once she had gotten drunk at a reception for a visiting author and I had asked her age and she had told me, and I left the conversation because we were the same age and I was ashamed. Her cart was filled with two jars of olives and a can of diced tomatoes. We were in the pasta aisle. She spent a long time looking at the prices, her lips pressed together.
“Hey,” I said.
“Oh, hi. You must rent around here too.”
She smiled and looked back at the price labels.
“What did you do for the summer?” I asked.
“What I always do; write, hope I have a job come August.” She picked up a box of spaghetti. It was the cheapest brand. She put the spaghetti back down.
I asked, “Do you know where the faculty are?”
“Probably writing or with their families.”
I nodded. “I’m looking for things to do.”
She said, “Write.”
“I was hoping I was going to teach for the summer, but I didn’t get classes.”
“If you don’t write no one will let you teach. You can stop writing once you start teaching, right, but you can’t get a teaching post without first writing.”
“I guess.” I picked up a bag of rice.
“Anyway, teaching’s overrated.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I think I just need money right now. Do you need anyone to walk your cat?”
“I can’t afford a cat.”
“Oh.” I don’t know why I said it, but I asked, “Do you want to get a frappe?”
She looked up at me. “No, I want to finish shopping and go home.” She pushed her trolley and moved away.
At the register, my card was declined. I was buying the bag of rice. I said, “That’s embarrassing” and sort of smiled at the cashier like we were in on a joke but the cashier did not smile back and I said, “I’ll just be a minute,” and she took the rice and put it behind the counter and I left the store.
Outside, I saw Zhen. He waved. He was across the street wheeling his bike alongside him, holding a brown paper bag gently against his chest. He crossed the street.
I asked what was in the bag.
He opened it and I saw a crinkle of gold foil. It was a bottle of champagne. It was not cheap champagne. I asked what it was for.
Zhen gave a small smile. “My novel,” he said. “I finished the first draft.”
I did not know Zhen was writing a novel. I asked what it was about.
It was about Internet venture capitalists in Shanghai, Zhen told me. It was written in the first-person-plural, spanned a little under four hundred pages, and dealt with the modern legacy of Mao.
I said, “That’s great” and he said, “It is great” and I said, “Great.”
“I mean, it’s okay,” he said. “Maybe the novel isn’t very good.”
“No,” I said. “It’s great.”
We walked like this, me repeating “great,” all the way home.
That night, after drinking the entire bottle alone, Zhen fell asleep in the living room, his laptop open next to him. Slowly, I slid it off the couch and picked it up.
I opened Finder. I did a document search. I typed in, “novel.” It wasn’t there. I typed in “Mao.”
When I opened the file, the light of the screen shifted, became dense with type. I sat there, still, reading one page and then another. I won’t describe them.
In that moment I felt many things. Desolate. Existential. But I had felt all of these things before, and will, I’m sure, feel them again. At one point in my life the MFA had been an escape hatch and I took it, but then I was inside the escape hatch, and it was just like being anywhere else.
I closed the document and loaded Craigslist. I found the interface calming, the empty space. I told myself I had to keep going. I went somewhere I had been avoiding. I went to the personals. Most of the ads were for women and seemed to insinuate sex or the possibility of payment for services. I needed money and felt the need to be bold. The morals of the transactions seemed clear to me. Simpler.
I went into the bathroom, lifted my shirt and looked at myself in the mirror. Even after almost two months of physical labour, I still had the body of a graduate student; nervous, pallid skin, skinny but with fat that had congealed around the back of my hips. I thought, yes, I am prepared to sell my body and I am prepared to lie over the Internet about the state that body is in.
I went back to the laptop. I started typing. I made my own listing. Posted it. I wrote I was a college student trying to make it in the world. I said I played sports I had never played, sports like grid iron, lacrosse, and soccer, and when a forty-six-year-old messaged me an hour later, asking if I wanted “to play” I said yes but that I only played with gifts. He wrote back, okay I’m coming. I sent the address. It was after midnight.
While I waited, lying on my bed, I thought, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gaitskill, and dressed in what I imagined a college student would wear; Zhen’s basketball shorts, my American-Apparel, Paris Review tee.
When the man arrived, he told me he only had a credit card. I nodded and quickly ushered him into my room. The man was black, overweight, had a thin moustache and smelled, not-unpleasantly, of Old Spice. I didn’t know if I should play a part, be naïve, but settled on a business tone. I thought fast. I said the man could come with me to buy groceries, the store was just down the road. He was quiet for a moment and then said okay. I repeated yes. I began pulling down his sweatpants. Neither of us seemed very aroused.
Afterwards, the streets were empty, and the man stared at his feet as we walked or occasionally looked up, apprehensively, at the shadows of the park. It was warm out. I directed us to the supermarket that was further away but sold things in economy sizes. It was shut. We walked to the other supermarket, which was 24 hours. The man seemed nice but out of breath. I noticed wet patches slowly grow beneath his arms. I could feel dried cum on my stomach.
Inside, I filled my grocery cart with full cream milk, bread, eggs, orange juice. The man asked if I could hurry. I should have been sensible, grabbed a five-kilo bag of lentils. Instead, I got what I felt I deserved. Walking to the registers I picked up an on-sale, twelve bottle pack of San Pellegrino sparkling water.
It came to twenty-eight dollars. The man blushed as he took out his card. We left separately. No one was on the street. No one approached me. No one jumped out to stab me from the park.
At home, Zhen was snoring on the couch. I put the shopping away, threw the shorts into Zhen’s laundry pile.
I sent a text to Cyndi. She didn’t reply but I showered, feeling pleased with myself, my ingenuity.
I lay in the dark of my room and drank sparkling water from the bottle.
Four days later I’d run out of food. Again, I went onto Zhen’s laptop, checked my listing’s messages. There was one from a man in his twenties. The guy who came over looked younger, maybe nineteen. He was white, had blood-shot eyes and wore worn-out AirJordans. It was 2 AM. He sat on my bed, fidgeted, watched as I undressed, and said, “What are you, like, over thirty?”
“I’m twenty-nine,” I said.
“That’s pretty old.”
“It really isn’t,” I said.
“I’ll still fuck you but I’m not happy about it.”
I pretended we were being coquettish. I mentioned money, cash. He said we can talk about that later and asked for something to drink.
I held my T-shirt in front of my crotch, walked into the kitchen and filled a glass with sparkling water. I recognize, now, this was a poor decision.
I heard movement. I turned. He was crossing the living room. He was running. Between his hands, he gripped something flat and metallic. It was a laptop. I yelled. I charged. He pivoted and with one fist, jabbed me in the throat. My legs gave way. The glass fell, shattered. He was gone.
I pulled myself up. The front door was open. I ran onto the landing. I could see him across the road, and then he was swallowed by the elms of the park. I stood there, naked. Inexplicably, erect.
Zhen came out of his room. He kept his eyes level with mine. He asked, “Where is my laptop?” I didn’t say anything. Calmly, he told me that I should move. “Also,” he said, “your feet are bleeding.”
The next day we had a long and difficult discussion. Zhen wanted me to leave and was considering reporting my conduct to the university. But I could tell he was conflicted. I told him I was conflicted, too. I said that I was horrified and sorry I had caused him to lose so much work and he interrupted and said he’s not an idiot, the work is all on the Cloud. I told him that I would buy him a new laptop, and that in the interim, while I gathered the funds, he could have mine. His face was hard to read. Then I told him I would give him time to work on his novel. I would mark his student’s papers.
Zhen said, “Okay.”
And so that night Zhen gave me a pile of printed stories and another the next night and the next. The stories were bad. The kind of stories that no matter what was done to them would never be good. I was intimately familiar with this type of story. I wrote notes like, “This image!”, and, “Careful with your tenses.” Next to a line that was just a line like any other I drew a smiley face. I wrote, “This is a great story, you should consider an MFA.”
Zhen didn’t read the notes. He thanked me and let me subsist off packets of noodles from his shelf in the kitchen. At night I heard the downstairs tenants screaming. I lay in bed waiting for something terrible and final to reach me, but the only thing I could think of was the end of the program. The expanse that came after.
And then, lying there, late one night, I looked at my phone. My stipend had been deposited into my account and I felt that life was beautiful. I felt a rush.
Lydia texted me. She was back from Maine. “Where are you? There’s a party.”
Zhen and I went to the party. Bodies moved to music. Someone had gotten a keg. Outside a woman rested on her haunches by the side of the road. She was peeing into the gutter. She looked up. It was Lydia.
The next day, Lydia wanted to do something that would commemorate our summers. She said we should have a spa day, her treat. My hands were calloused, my feet blistered. I wanted a spa day. I felt good about it. Zhen came too.
We took a bus to the mall, Lydia repeating, “Are you sure this goes to the mall?”
I thought it was stupid that Lydia had lived here two years but didn’t know how to get to the mall. Then I remembered I hadn’t, either. I didn’t know if anyone else in the program would. The city wasn’t our city. It was a nondescript setting.
I asked if she finished any stories and she said, “Let’s not talk about stories.” I smiled. Whatever slump I’d gone through over the summer it was going to turn around. I could turn around.
At the mall we went to the nail salon. A woman led us to two large armchairs, then gave us towels, cucumber water. Everyone wore mandarin collars.
Lydia asked, “Can you guys do a mimosa?”
The woman said, “No.”
Lydia turned to me. “We’ll make them later.”
The woman asked what we wanted.
I said I wanted a pedicure.
Zhen said, “We’ll have the most expensive one.” It was forty dollars.
The woman took off Zhen’s slides, held his foot in one hand, then gently placed it in a tub of hot water.
I looked down and there was Cyndi. She nodded at me as she set down my tub. There were a lot of things I didn’t say that should have been said. I put my feet in the water and asked if she had really felt that way about my stories.
She bit her lip and said, “Paul, I didn’t read your stories.”
I said, “Oh.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she said. Then, turning my foot to the side, she said, “No one will.”
This felt right to me. I mean, it was true.