Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity

by Shelly Oria, recommended by FSG Originals

EDITOR’S NOTE BY EMILY BELL

I am not one of those editors who will tell you they always knew they wanted to work in publishing, or wanted to be a capital “E” editor. I had no idea what I wanted to be (still don’t, really) but I always knew who I wanted to be around. I wanted (still want, always want) to be close to people who take risks I wouldn’t dream of taking, people with talent sizzling under their skin, people whose brains are filled with magic, people who can see through to the soul, people who, frankly, scare me. And Shelly Oria scares the shit out of me. Her writing is fierce yet supple, ambitious but controlled, inspired and studied. It is scary brilliant.

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Here, in “Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,” you’ll witness Shelly Oria’s scary brilliance on full display — the beauty in the brashness of the interviewer, the nuance in the guardedness of the subject. Time and space and memory have been altered ever so slightly so something otherworldly can peek through. And yet, Shelly’s work is absolutely rooted in reality, informed by authentic, empathetic, interpersonal interactions. How else could she so accurately convey the irrepressible lust for personal intimacy that haunts her characters, her stories?

I’m not equipped to discuss the technical feats that Shelly Oria pulls off in her writing — I’d likely wind up embarrassing myself if I tried. But I have no doubt she will be studied in creative writing classes for years to come. I do, however, feel comfortable sharing what keeps me hooked on Shelly (this is where I’m cool with embarrassing myself): What impresses me, thrills me, scares me most is that Shelly (let’s call her goddess Kali) is capable of both creating and destroying within a single story — sometimes within a single sentence. This is a phenomenon I search for, long for, in just about everything I consume. If Shelly keeps this up, I’m sticking around.

Emily Bell
Associate Editor, FSG Originals/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity

by Shelly Oria, recommended by FSG Originals

Sometimes after the men leave, Nadine’s body tells her to wait awhile for the water. Make that bath count more. She lies still, and her skin feels too tight on her bones, like someone gave her the wrong size. With a finger that smells of them, she looks for sharpness where she knows she will find it: elbows, knees, shoulder blades. The edges of her bones comfort her, but it’s a feeling that passes quickly, and soon there is need for more, for proof. So Nadine gently touches her cheek with her knuckles; her knuckles are her secret weapon. She thinks: These knuckles could make a peach bleed.
She should probably charge more by now, but she can never figure out what to say, or how to say it.

The men smell of baby carrots, because their five-year-old son mistakes baby carrots for candy, and of sweat, because they are always nervous when they see her, even if they’ve been coming for years. Or they smell of ice cream, because last night their wife tried to revive the marriage with some innovative foreplay, and have Viagra breath, because they stopped trusting their body long before it failed them. It doesn’t matter.

Thursdays are the busiest. She never understood why. On Wednesdays, her BlackBerry keeps buzzing with men’s anticipation until she feels like there are bees inside her ears. So on Wednesdays, saying no is important. I miss you, too, Baby; really wish I could. Every man is Baby, no exception; that she learned early on. Even the sophisticated ones appreciate the gesture: the implicit warmth, the promise of anonymity. But she does know their names, of course, sometimes even their last name, and on a few occasions the name of a wife, a mother, a sister they haven’t spoken to in six years. It pains them, that the sister won’t return their calls. They ask, Why won’t she fucking let it go already? Nadine doesn’t want to look for answers. If they insist on talking, she touches their hair, lets her eyes scroll up and down their torso; she waits for their body to remember what it wants. Really, she waits for the chatter to stop, but the trick is still giving it the space it needs. Once, when it was absolutely necessary, she made tea.

Generally speaking, she remembers more than she should: the bump on the back of their neck, the sweat behind their ear right before they come, the scar on the toe of their left foot and the story behind it. There is always a story behind it. They tell the stories and then retell them. Because, well: if she doesn’t truly exist, surely she doesn’t remember; they desperately need to believe that she isn’t real. But then there are times when she can see sadness in their eyebrows, in their lower back, and suddenly they want her to remember. Temporarily, they acknowledge her presence in the world. It’s funny, but you are the most stable thing in my life, you know? In these moments, she has learned, a nod goes a long way.

The woman, the photographer, Mia, has been dominating her thoughts. Now Nadine even dreams of her. Last night, Mia was elected World President.

Nadine wants to know things like what’s Mia’s favorite fruit, what she looks like when she cries. Mia. She rolls Mia’s name on her tongue until she sounds like a cat. Mia wants to know her, too: the first thing she said was I’d like to get to know you, if you’d let me. But Mia wants to know her the way a painter wants to know her canvas. Besides, there is always a lens between them.

Mia reached her through a friend of a friend of a friend, someone Nadine hadn’t talked to in years. On the phone, Mia sounded aggressive, and Nadine wanted to say, Sorry, I don’t think I’m interested. But for a few minutes she chewed the words like she chews her gum before falling asleep, unable to spit. Finally she said, Okay. She said it softly, and Mia didn’t hear her, so she had to repeat. Okay. Nadine assumed they would meet at some bar or café. I work on the Lower East Side, she told Mia, plenty of places to choose from. But Mia said it would be helpful, for the project, if she could see Nadine’s apartment. She may have used the words natural environment. As in: seeing you in your natural environment.

Nadine cleaned her natural environment even though it was already clean. She bought a new plant for the spot between the TV and the sofa that always looked naked. She made cupcakes, but also got cheese and wine, because she wasn’t sure what the occasion called for. And all the while she was asking herself why she cared so much. People never want to come all the way up to Washington Heights, and there weren’t many people in her life these days anyway, so maybe that’s all it was, she wasn’t used to hosting. But then, in the shower, where her thoughts are always honest, a different answer came: it was the word the photographer kept using. Interview. As in “Last week, Madonna sat down with us for an interview… ” or “In a recent interview, the secretary of state expressed her concern… ”

I’m conducting interviews with a few women — pretty long, thorough interviews, the photographer said in an accent Nadine couldn’t quite place, the words going fast and their ends hard, and then, you know, hopefully I’ll find the best fit for the project, and hopefully she’ll want to go ahead and work together… She laughed what must have been a nervous laugh, but it didn’t sound nervous, and Nadine would later learn that nothing Mia did appeared nervous. If the photographer chose her, Nadine would be photographed and then, if all goes well (Nadine wasn’t quite sure what that meant), the photographs would be on display at some gallery for the world to see. In the shower, Nadine imagined an old Jewish couple, a young babysitter, a professor at Columbia; they were all at the gallery, looking at Nadine’s body in the pictures, and even though Nadine had never met them, they now possessed an intimate knowledge of her, because that’s what photographs do, isn’t it? Reveal.

A photograph: Nadine is standing in her small kitchen, waiting for the water to boil. There’s a yellow and tired quality to the room. Her back to the camera, Nadine is looking to the side, the left half of her face visible. She is about to make tea for herself and for Mia: green ceramic cups to Nadine’s right, empty and waiting. There is nothing suggestive in the picture, nothing that tells the viewer how Nadine earns a living. What you can see is something like disappointment, and this you can see in Nadine’s posture and, if you look closely, in her facial expression. Nadine is disappointed because Mia already has her camera out. All that clicking. How can you talk to someone who just click-clicks all the time? How can you get to know someone who reaches for the camera every time she feels something? You cannot. There is a brief moment in which this understanding sinks in, and the camera captures it.

Sometimes Mia forgets to ask permission. She moves things in Nadine’s apartment to better situate herself — the couch, the seashell sculpture, even the TV. Nadine tenses when Mia touches the sculpture — it was made especially for her, years ago, by a man who could make anything with his hands, a man she hoped to marry — but when Mia lifts the TV with ease, Nadine feels light. She smiles, but another thing Mia sometimes forgets is to smile back. This happens when she is deep in thought. Then she catches herself. The knowledge that she was rude always passes through her like a wave, sudden and tall. By now, Nadine knows to wait for it: something like sadness in Mia’s eyes, and then her spine curves, which looks a bit like she is shaking something off. Then the laughter, quick. Then, sometimes: What can I say, I’m Israeli, aggressive by nature. The only other Israeli Nadine knows is a client, a man who sells rugs on Long Island for a living. He is gentle and weak and likes to be pinched hard.

When Mia pushes the limits, Would you be comfortable taking some of your clothes off, she looks at Nadine with soft eyes that say I will look at you all the way to yes.

Maybe next time, Nadine says, because she doesn’t want the eyes to stop.
One thing she wishes she could explain to Mia: she doesn’t mind the moans. Or more honestly, though this embarrasses her: the moans are her favorite part. When seeing a client for the first time, that is what she’s curious about, and she waits for that one moment, when the animal in him speaks to her. When the moment comes, she listens carefully — through the sound, through the exhale of it. There is information there, knowledge, for her to collect. She does. Later, when she uses this knowledge, the men moan more deeply, openly, air coming out through their throats, their teeth, their pores. This reveals more information, and so on, and so on.

She has something like a playlist in her brain; double-click on a man’s photo and you can hear the sound he makes. How can she explain — to Mia, to anyone — that she understands these moans better than she understands words?

When people speak, they say things like: It is what it is, and I believe her, but I also don’t believe her. Ridiculous, absurd things. But with sound you get something that language can’t hide. With sound, you get the feeling underneath the words.
Feeling, for Nadine, is the place you go to when nothing makes sense. For example: a night spent on a beach, a man with salt in his hair and hands of magic, a man she loved. She said This is the end, right? And he said Not even the beginning, Deenie. As it turned out, they were both right.

All of Mia’s questions are the same question. Something something sex worker something something choice something. Nadine always pauses before she answers. It appears as if she is thinking hard, she knows that. But the pause is the time when she says with no sound, Ask me something real. Every time, she waits for Mia to hear. When Mia doesn’t, Nadine answers.

Would you mind repeating that, Mia asks sometimes; I’d like to record you.
A recording:

No, it’s not that I don’t like the question, it’s just… easy to be seduced by the idea of “what if.” You know? So I try not to do that.

Pause.

Sure I think about it, yes. I’d have made a good social worker if I stayed in school, I think. I’d have helped people. I mean, as I’ve said before, I think I am helping people. But maybe I’d have helped more that way, and maybe I’d have enjoyed that job more. And I wouldn’t feel… I’d be more proud. Of what I do. And I’d have more friends, probably. I had some good friends in social-work school. But when I dropped out and started… working more, we just lost touch.

When Mia is recording, when the camera is away, she is listening. Nadine wants to talk minutes and hours, talk until there’s no way for Mia to leave, talk until the buses have stopped running. One thing she hates about New York — the buses never stop running.
A moment: Mia and Nadine are eating, sitting on the floor. (Can we take a break? Nadine asked. I’m hungry.

Of course, of course, Mia said, but kept shooting.)
Nadine is thinking maybe she should leave the furniture in the other room like that for a while, maybe she should eat all her meals on the floor from now on. Something about it feels like a fresh start. She wants Mia to say nice things about the quiche she made, and when Mia doesn’t, Nadine asks, and the sound of her own voice is soft, too soft. How’s the quiche? Good, Mia says without looking up. Then she nods a few times. What did she expect Mia to say? This quiche has changed my life? And if she said that — if she looked right at Nadine for once and said, Is it possible for a quiche to change someone’s life? Because I think this is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth and nothing will be the same after this moment — what would Nadine do?

How old were you when you moved here, Nadine asks, but she forgets the question mark. She sounds like she’s demanding something of Mia, and, expectedly, Mia asks back, Why? No reason, Nadine says, just curious, and Mia says, Let’s talk later?

Later, while Mia is going over her shots from the day, or that’s what it looks like she’s doing, she suddenly says, I was nineteen, and Nadine doesn’t ask, because she knows what question Mia is answering, but still Mia says — somewhat impatiently, too — When I moved here. You asked me earlier. Nadine nods, tries to think quickly what to ask next. You left school over there to come here? she asks. If she allows even a moment of silence, Mia will announce Back to work, in that voice that’s just an octave too low, the voice of relief.

No, Mia says, I left the army to come here, or really came here because I left the army; I needed to get away. Nadine doesn’t understand, and she instinctively tries to hide it. She’s a pro, there’s a thing that she does with her eyebrows — it’s not a nod, which would feel like a lie, and yet it’s always enough, with the men, to make them believe that she got it, that no explanation is needed. Mia stares at Nadine’s eyebrows.

That’s what kids over there do after high school, she says, become soldiers. Nadine feels heat in her face, she knows she is blushing, although she never blushes, hasn’t blushed probably since fourth grade, but she is blushing now because Mia knew that she didn’t understand, knew that an explanation was needed. And inside her embarrassment she senses a kind of thrill, a thrill she never expected, the thrill of being caught in a lie. There’s a brief pause; what words can follow the word “soldiers”?

So all the kids are recruited, Nadine says finally, girls, too? And Mia nods, says, Yup, keeps nodding. After a few seconds she adds, Women do two years, men three. Oh, Nadine says again. She wants to ask Mia what it means that she “left” the army — how can you leave if you’re recruited, did she escape? But she knows she can’t ask that, and yet she can’t think of anything else to ask, although this silence has an edge to it, the recognition in both of them that this conversation is about to end before it really started.

I need to reload the film, Mia says. Would you mind making some tea?
Nadine wants to find the joke.

The first line is: A prostitute and a photographer walk into a bar. The punch line is: Tea. She doesn’t have the rest yet, but still she laughs every time. For a few seconds she can think, What is this thing, it’s absurd, it’s funny. And it is, just then, for a short while. It is funny, and she feels relief in her muscles. She can move her neck without feeling the stiffness.

This happens only once and happens quickly: Nadine gives Mia a massage. Mia is stiff after a long day’s work — Nadine recognizes the stretching of the neck sideways, a thumb searching for pressure points. What comes over Nadine? She doesn’t ask anything. She crosses the room, stands over Mia, who’s sitting on a chair, says Let me help. Does she wait a beat, give Mia a chance to object? Not really. There’s something in Nadine’s fingers that can heal, and when Mia realizes that, feels that, everything may change. So Nadine reaches for her. Mia’s skin is soft, and she smells a bit like detergent, not what Nadine expected, but Nadine can’t focus on that now, only on the knotted bones. She goes deep, could go deeper if Mia let her, but Mia doesn’t relax into her touch, not completely. Mia is quiet. Nadine wants her to moan, is sure she would if she let herself, and she wants to say something, Don’t hold it all in. But she doesn’t. This is borrowed time, she knows, and anything could make it end faster; better not to take risks. Then, for a brief moment: Mia lets go. Her muscles soften in Nadine’s hands, and this sensation makes it hard to remain steady, but she does. She uses her knuckles, rows into Mia, and Mia makes a small sound then, a sigh so low anyone else would have missed it, but Nadine doesn’t, and into this sigh Mia says, You’re good. Does Nadine imagine these words? No, Mia says them, and right after she says them she realizes what she said, her muscles realize what she said. How long does the whole thing last? No more than four or five minutes, probably. Mia gently moves forward, stretches, says Thank you, that was so helpful. Nadine stands there, her hands holding air, looking at Mia’s back.

Everything/nothing happens once again, she is maybe losing her mind probably losing her mind has probably already lost her mind. Otherwise what is this. Maybe it’s simple a feeling is all maybe just a bit different because it’s a woman maybe a different part in her body flutters maybe the beat of the fluttering is different but is that all that is not all. Everything/nothing is how she thinks of it she has no words not even sound. Everything is right there in your hands but it’s like water so nothing is there in your hands in moments it’s gone and you say was it here? It was here it wasn’t here it was here. One moment here it is I am not making it up not imagining and the next moment is upside down all upside down your hands are empty and you think stop stop stop. But the feelings are so strong so fast so quick they do what they want like: lightning thunder thunder lightning lightning lightning.

She practices, out loud, before Mia’s next visit.

So — how did you get out of the army… ?

Do you ever think about living in Israel again?

You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe if I could ask you some things, if we talked not just about me, this whole thing would feel less strange, more… balanced.

I think it might be good for the project.

So… have you ever been with a woman?

Or, um, even just attracted to a woman?

Do you think it’s possible to be gay for just one person? Or for just a few?

Because, you know, usually I’m not attracted to women, but sometimes I am.

I’m just not attracted to that many people at all, I guess.

So when I am… it’s kind of powerful sometimes.
I think I might be in love with you.
I’ll be gone for a bit, Mia says. I’m going to Israel to shoot. Nadine doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move. This trip was scheduled months ago, Mia says, it’s for another show I’m working on.

Something in Nadine’s body is twitching — it is gentle like a heartbeat and she doesn’t wish to make it stop, only to locate it, only to touch it. She touches the wrist of her right arm, then the left, then her neck in the place where you feel the swallow. She knows this must look strange to Mia, it is strange, but the thing keeps hopping around in her body, or else she has no idea what’s happening. There is a clear sensation, everywhere and nowhere.
You feeling okay? Mia asks. Nadine nods, stops searching though the heartbeat doesn’t stop. Mia is looking for her eyes but Nadine keeps looking away. You know, Mia says, I wanted to thank you. Nadine looks right at her now but keeps her face frozen. This project, the other project, it’s about soldiers in Israel, and I’ve been working on it a long time. It’s been dragging. She pauses now, smiles a smile Nadine has seen before but not often. She is so beautiful. Nadine feels the urge to look away but she knows she can’t, not again, not right now. She doesn’t smile back, and she can see Mia’s confusion clearly, what to do with this new Nadine, where has the eager pleaser gone. But she goes on. Our talk the other day helped me, Mia says. It reminded me why I started this project to begin with — the other project, I mean. You don’t have to keep saying “the other project,” Nadine says. Mia ignores her. It’s so normal in Israel, Mia says, the idea of the military, of everyone being part of that military, a country of soldiers. Eighteen-year-old kids getting M16s, being trained, and no one sees how fucked up it is. It’s, like, “What choice do we have,” “we’re surrounded by enemies,” all that stuff. And for years I’ve been wanting to shout: But can you still see? Necessary or not, can you look at it? Because, well, this is all very personal to me. I’m named after a war, did you know that? My name is the initials, in Hebrew, of the Yom Kippur War. My mother was pregnant with me when my father died, so she named me after the war that took him away. Mia pauses now, looks down. But then… I’m not even sure when, but at some point I stopped seeing it, she says. I mean, I grew up there. It’s all so… familiar. The past few years I’d go and shoot and talk to these soldiers, these kids, and I’d leave every time thinking, What did I want to show again? It was like I forgot. But you — you reminded me. I think it was how shocked you seemed at the idea of mandatory service, Mia says, or maybe it was just talking about it; I don’t often talk about it. So thank you, Mia says, for reminding me that when people hear about it for the first time, they’re disturbed. It’s like I have my eyes back on now.

You’re welcome, Nadine says.

How strange, to hear Mia speak so many words.

It takes some distance from Mia, hours and days spent without her, for Nadine to hear more fully what was said. She’s on the A train home late at night, alone in a fast-moving car, when she understands. Mia was thanking her for her ignorance.

It’s not easy, trying to get rid of a thought like that, and when Nadine tries, the opposite happens, a cramp in her stomach and a new thought, a worse thought, a word: disturbed. That’s what she is to Mia, isn’t it? She’s the soldiers, the thing you see every day but don’t see, the thing you pretend is normal even though it’s sick. The disturbance.

At the end of their last session, Nadine is sitting on her bed, knees to her chest, closing her eyes so as not to hear the clicking. She makes her fingertips remember touching Mia — the back of her neck, her shoulders — while she makes the rest of her imagine how tomorrow will feel.

Nadine’s closed eyes accelerate the clicking; Mia is seeing, it seems, something she has never seen before. And she must be touched, because she is doing what she does when she’s touched — she clicks.

Mia leaves that day like she’s going out for milk. See you later, she says.
Mia’s words on her voice mail months later are garbled. Nadine hears June 5th, hears 6 p.m., hears really, really hope you can make it. Listening to Mia’s voice again, Nadine feels like she’s looking at an old photograph of herself in which she’s wearing clothes she never owned and someone else’s face.

At the gallery, after hours on a Wednesday, Nadine is standing erect looking at herself, and herself is looking right back at her from the wall. The opening was wonderful, I was sad you couldn’t make it, Mia says. And then: Everyone wanted to meet you.

She looks at Mia straight in the eyes then, and there is a feeling deep inside her, the pull of a magnet toward metal. It is hard — physically hard — but she resists the pull. She sees Mia’s need to reach for the camera, to click the moment away.

So… on to the next project? Nadine asks. Not really, Mia says, shakes her head lightly. And then: I’m kind of exhausted. Mia seems to be saying something, and this is the kind of moment that used to get Nadine’s heart beating faster with potential. If only she asked the right thing the right way, if only she managed to open the moment, reveal what’s inside. Well, you’ve been working hard, Nadine says. Mia nods but looks down, says nothing at first, then: I’m never exhausted from hard work. She’s definitely trying to say something. A small voice inside Nadine is whispering, See? It’s always been here, but Nadine tries hard not to listen.

Have you read the reviews? Mia asks. Nadine doesn’t know anything about any reviews. No, she says. Don’t, Mia says, and chuckles, those critics did not go easy on me. Okay then, Nadine says, I won’t. Oh, I’m joking, Mia says, of course you can read them. Nadine resists the urge to take Mia’s hand as she says, These are beautiful, Mia, they’re all beautiful. She feels a bit strange saying this, she doesn’t mean to suggest she herself is beautiful, of course, but Mia is nodding now, closes her eyes, says, I’m very happy to hear you say that. There’s a moment of silence before Mia says, The critics are right, though, that’s the worst part; I’m always reaching for something and not quite getting there. What is Nadine supposed to say to that? Look at you, she wants to say. Dare to look at you, and maybe you’ll get there. But she says nothing.

Outside the gallery they hug, and a car screeches and comes to a full stop for no apparent reason. For a moment they both look at the driver, then Nadine looks at Mia and shrugs, and the car is back on its way. They hug again, because it is easier than saying goodbye, and at the end of that hug Mia grabs Nadine’s shoulders, looks straight into her eyes, says, Thank you. Nadine shakes her head and looks down.

Then there is nothing to do but for Mia to take her hands off Nadine’s shoulders, and when she does there is a sensation between them, a balloon letting go of the air inside it. Nadine wants to stand there with that feeling a bit, but she knows that if she does the next thing that happens will be restlessness, Mia’s restlessness. And she knows this: she needs to leave before the restlessness comes, or restlessness will be the last thing they ever share. Goodbye, then, Nadine says, and Mia says, Bye, and her eyes seem to tear up a bit, but Nadine isn’t sure, it might be from the wind. And on that thought Nadine turns around and walks away, hoping that Mia is standing there looking at her. If she is, she is no doubt noticing the composition — the widening of the street toward the end of the block, the sprawling streetlights and brown skies, Nadine’s back getting smaller — and she is squinting and gently biting her lip, regretting that she doesn’t have her camera.

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