The Long In-Between
Issue No. 90
EDITOR’S NOTE by Heidi Julavits
Last fall someone sent me a link to a New York Times Opinionator blog post called “When Clothes No Longer Make the Man,” the opening paragraph of which ends with this alarming assertion: “the writing of fiction where the device of disclosing the nature of character through clothes seems to all but be destroyed.”
Destroyed! I imagined fictional industries disappearing — ateliers shuttering, textile factories closing down, whole closets of fictional clothing sold on ebay at disrespectfully low prices. The writer, Lee Siegel, goes on to claim that today’s fiction writers no longer use clothing to provide character clues because appearances are increasingly rigged, and thus implicitly meaningless. “Clothes,” he writes, “have become more like costumes, intended more to hide than reveal who we are, or what we would like to be.”
So much is wrongheaded about this argument — not least of which is Siegel’s failure to understand that clothing is and always has been a costume, i.e. that clothing has never communicated a crystalline message but rather a highly complex visual code that, depending on a character’s (or a person’s) place in history (and actual place — are they on the beach? In the boardroom?), requires different keys to crack — but I’m embarrassed to say that, in the midst of my deep irritation, I blamed this wrongheadedness on Siegel’s certain variety of straight maleness. Only a certain variety of straight man, I peevishly thought, would fail to see how even the examples he cites to support his thesis — Zadie Smith describes a character wearing flip-flops and cargo shorts — actually undermine it. Flip-flops are not Birkenstocks. They are not Tevas. They are not Jesus thongs or cork wedges or Dr. Scholl’s or even, in the plainest possible iteration of this category of footwear, “sandals.” This character is probably (I’m guessing — Siegel refuses to give the context — is she at her father’s third wedding? Her first day on the job as a commercial air pilot?) low-key and I-don’t-give-a-fuck or is trying to appear low-key and like she doesn’t give a fuck. The difference between what a character wants us to believe about her (via her clothing), and what we know, from other cues, to be true, well, within that gap is where we’ll find a naked, telling human.
At any rate. I wanted to write a retort, but who has the time? Instead I huffed and stewed. And then I read Adam Wilson’s short story, “The Long In-Between.” This story — written by a straight man! — is the most perfect rebuttle to Siegel’s thesis that now I can now stop worrying about the fate of fictional clothing ateliers; more importantly, I can stop worrying that all those straight men out there are failing to even notice (never mind break) my daily code. Adam’s story is about surfaces and facades, and his characters are quite aware of how they succeed and fail to communicate their intended (or not) identities through the artistic medium of hair, clothing, the “occasionally affected Pan-European patois,” the name-checking of Edward Said and Judith Butler. This is a short story that reads like a psychological and sociological study of contemporary plumage strategies. It is also incredibly funny, and it involves Israel, lesbians, incest, and academics. Mel Gibson makes an appearance. It features Sam Lipsyte-quality sentence art. It features the flaneur-istic architecture of a Deborah Eisenberg story. It is smartly dense while also reading breezily. It is an impressive pleasure — and to this person, currently wearing a highly encoded and incredibly misleading outfit — a great relief to read.
Author of The Vanishers
The Long In-Between
by Adam Wilson, Recommended by Heidi Julavits
In August of 2006, during Israel’s relentless bombing of Lebanon, and days after Mel Gibson said his piece about the Jews, I came to New York City to live with a woman who had once been my college professor. Her name was Elizabeth, and she was staying, for the summer, in a SoHo loft previously occupied by an internationally famous daytime talk-show host. The Host had since moved one flight up to the building’s penthouse, where he threw lavish parties, audible through the floorboards, a weekly reminder of New York’s immutable social infrastructure. No matter how high you climbed, there would always be someone above you.
I knew none of this when I arrived on the Fung Wah bus from Boston. It was a hot day, and humid. The sky was purple-gray, clouds swollen with coming rain. My hair was a mess. My bra clasp dug into my spine.
I dragged my suitcase from the subway, eyeing the women on lunch break whom I’d come here to become: interns in bubble skirts tapping furiously at cell phones, their legs moving in long, deliberate strides. They appeared to be members of a similar but distinctly different species. A taller species.
The elevator opened directly into the apartment. It was an oblong, open space decorated in a series of large abstract paintings accented in gold leaf, and ugly. The furniture looked imported from a Palm Beach condo: white shag area rug with matching throw pillows on white leather love seats and recliners. The walls were cream colored, or crème colored, according to Elizabeth, who occasionally affected a Pan-European patois. The other walls were windows. From certain angles you could see across Greene Street into the Apple Store. A kitchen emerged at the end of the room, complete with two industrial sinks whose gleaming hoses wrapped themselves like long bracelets around the spouts.
I was not particularly impressed. I’d grown up middle class in an upper-class suburb of Boston and had spent countless hours in friends’ McMansions just as tastelessly gaudy as this Prince Street apartment. The décor signified a brand of generic wealth that I had come to find provincial.
Elizabeth appeared from behind the fridge.
“Darling, you’re here,” she said. “Welcome. Isn’t this place hideous?”
Elizabeth walked on tiptoe; she still fancied herself a dancer, though she’d quit ballet in college. She wore a terry-cloth robe that showed off striated thighs and taut, toned calves. She was three inches taller, but otherwise we looked almost the same: flat chests, no hips, prominent cheekbones, “penetrative” brown eyes, Ashkenazi noses, and pale skin caked with foundation. It was a look that had failed me through high school and most of college, but I had high hopes for my new life among the sun-fearing fashionistas. Androgyny was back after an overdue hiatus.
Elizabeth, almost twenty years my senior, was the product of previous boom times for heroin chic. She’d spent the better part of the nineties complementing the look with an actual needle stuck in her arm. After rehab, she’d managed to buckle down and finish her thesis, a sunless tract on AIDS and the American death drive. The published version had earned her a small following in certain academic circles. Now she carried herself with a jaded self-confidence that attracted men and women alike — but mostly men, and mostly gay — and that I did my best to emulate.
During my four years of college I had developed what is sometimes called a girl-crush — though the term sounds too cutesy for what I felt — on Elizabeth. I’d taken her class on late capitalism (the syllabus was divided between Edward Said and Judith Butler) in the second semester of my freshman year. By semester’s end I had already copied her hairstyle (straightened black bangs), clothing style (gothic airline stewardess), and eating style (S.S.S. — soup, salad, sashimi), and was finding excuses to stop by her office on an almost daily basis.
Elizabeth was new to Boston — she’d done her graduate work at Columbia — and seemed appreciative of both the company and worship. I saw her as the epitome of urbanity, and the embodiment of an academic idyll that otherwise existed only in past tense novels by nostalgic baby boomers. Elizabeth and I played out this campus fantasy, smoking imported Gauloises on the library steps and discussing all relevant isms. But mostly we talked about the men in our lives, whom we referred to as our dudefriends.
“Dudefriend thinks it’s his life’s work to sperm up my eggs,” said Elizabeth, once. “If only we were lesbians.”
“If only,” I said, unsure what she meant. Was the implication that we would be a lesbian couple, or just a couple of lesbians?
“I mean, I’m not one of those overpopulation people, or worse, the oh-so-magnanimous doomers who don’t want to subject a future generation to blah blah blah. But what happens when my son is molested by his math teacher?”
“Isn’t that a cross-that-bridge-when-you-get-there sort of thing?”
“Oh, he’ll definitely get molested,” said Elizabeth. “The question is whether to uphold the traditions of our rape-shaming society by telling him his body has been traumatized, or refrain from comment and hope he remembers it fondly, some kind of passionate hug session from the man who taught him Boolean algebra.”
“What kind of school are you imagining this is?”
“School of hard knocks,” said Elizabeth.
When she decided to sabbatical in Manhattan, it seemed natural that I tag along. I was, by then, two years out of college, with no life goal except the vague intention to move to New York as soon as I could afford it. Elizabeth was able to secure me an internship at an ad agency run by an old family friend, so long as I promised to maintain ironic distance from the industry’s consumerist credo, in much the same way that Elizabeth “ironically” bought dresses at Barneys.
She led me to a small room behind the kitchen. The floor was stacked with books and printouts. There was no desk, just a coffee table, couch, and mounted plasma television, unplugged. A week-old Times was open on the table. The photo showed a bombed-out building in Beirut. A shirtless man lay injured in the rubble, trapped beneath fallen pipes. Another man tried to lift him out by the arm, but the injured man appeared limp and immobile, content where he was.
“My office,” said Elizabeth. She cleared space so we could sit. We lit cigarettes. Elizabeth ashed on the couch.
“My cousin’s,” she declared with a wave. “Or his for now at least. He bought it for eight, wants to sell it for ten. Old story. And I get to squat here until fall when the market’s meant to change. The art and furniture are rented, by the way. I did my best to dissuade him.”
I’d heard of this cousin, an I-banker. Elizabeth liked to brag about the non-penetrative experiments they’d engaged in as adolescents in Pittsburgh. The Cousin was tall and handsome, and still felt guilty about these encounters, which he remembered as being only semi-consensual. Elizabeth remembered things differently — in her version, she was the aggressor — but she liked the power position his guilt placed her in. For years he’d been paying off Elizabeth’s Amex.
Elizabeth caught me scanning the Times.
“Hideous,” she said. “Just hideous. Women and children they’re killing. Innocents. It makes me sick. And the macho Republican Zionists like my cousin cheering them on.”
The last part irked her most. Two things Elizabeth hated were Zionism and machismo, though she’d flirted with the former on kibbutz after college (“Yitzhak Rabin and pharmaceutical-grade ecstasy, darling — those were different times”) and the latter was a trait she proudly manifested. I do not mean to suggest that Elizabeth’s sympathy for Lebanese civilians was insincere, but something about the word hideous — the same adjective she’d used to describe the apartment’s art — made me wonder if it wasn’t all theory for her, some kind of ideological chess match unrelated to actual suffering.
“It’s terrible,” I said, and hesitated, resisting a defense of what I knew was indefensible. Israel was a sore subject between us. I’d been indoctrinated early, and there were feelings from my upbringing I had trouble abandoning. Members of my own family had been exiled from Europe, shipped to Palestine for refuge while their parents were murdered. Besides, the Arab treatment of women and homosexuals didn’t seem to mesh with the radical queer feminism we both espoused.
“You’re right,” I said. “Horrible.” Which it was. Israel was behaving horribly with its showy display of firepower, raining bombs over Beirut as if it were a video game. I’d said so to my father when he’d defended the attacks, ranting at the dinner table about Hezbollah, spearing a chunklet of chicken on his fork and waving it for agonizing minutes while he continued to talk. “They want to destroy us,” he’d said, but it was he, with his hate-filled eyes and four-pronged flesh flag, who appeared bent on destruction. He and the young Israeli soldiers I’d seen photographed shirtless on the Internet, holding Uzis in perfect hip-hop posture.
At home, it was easy to argue with my archaic, conservative parents, but out in the world I fought urges to defend their worldview, to fight my leftist friends who seemed to stick up for every minority group except the Jews. There was general agreement that assimilation had happened and anti-Semitism in America was a thing of the past, but I couldn’t shake the sense that this dismissal was its own anti-Semitism, or an excuse for it. Jews were the new WASPS: privileged, powerful, perfect targets for blame.
I sniffed my armpit.
“Take a shower, darling,” said Elizabeth. “The bathroom’s something to believe.”
The fete was held so I might meet prospective suitors. I’d recently broken ties with my dudefriend, Clarke, who’d taken a prestigious gig gofering for the House’s only out-gay congressman. Suitors was the word Elizabeth used. Fete was also her word, though it was only a dinner party. The real fete was upstairs, at the Host’s apartment. His bass shook and rattled the glass table, making music with our tumblers.
Elizabeth leaned into Mike, her on-off, surprisingly all-American dudefriend. The others disdained him and baited him, he of the strong jaw and aggressive heterosexuality. According to Elizabeth, Mike had once been a star PhD candidate in sociology at Yale, but a car accident had rendered him partially brain damaged. He occasionally showed flashes of past brilliance, blurting full-formed ideas after hours of silence, but most of the time Mike fumbled his words, failing to articulate what was there on the tip of his tongue, tantalizingly out of reach. He was also always drunk. Mike was a happy drunk, and treated me with warmth. Elizabeth’s friends brought out the worst in him. “Stop, please,” Mike said, but Nikil kept on talking.
“Michael,” said Nikil. “I am not, as it were, defending Melvin Gibson. I am simply pointing out that, if the situation were reversed — if Mr. Gibson had slurred against Arabs or homosexuals — then no one would be quite so up in arms.”
Mike pressed tumbler to forehead and let out a sigh. We’d been on the subject for most of the evening, but Nikil couldn’t let go. Mo leaned into Nikil and squeezed his partner’s elbow.
“It’s no use,” said Mo, shaking his shiny, shaven head. “He’s never going to understand.” They spoke of Mike like he wasn’t there. It occurred to me that Mike, a protestant from Chicago, was the only member of the ethnic majority in our group.
“Well, if you won’t defend him, then I will,” said Elizabeth. I thought she was talking about Mike. Elizabeth rose from her seat, raised her tumbler.
“Mel Gibson had every right to say what he said,” said Elizabeth. “It’s about time someone did.”
“Salut,” said Nikil, and they clinked drinks. Elizabeth wiggled her butt a little bit.
“If the situation were reversed, then wouldn’t Mel Gibson be the Jewish one?” said Suitor #1, a brunette named Brian Feldstein whom I disliked immensely.
Feldstein was attractive enough, with clean teeth, hazel eyes, and the kind of the cock-clipping skinny jeans that were just coming into style. What annoyed me was his closeness to Elizabeth. He’d graduated a year ahead of me, and was, by all accounts, her first and truest protégé, a whip-smart artist of the sneer and bon mot, in whose shadow I stayed. Besides, I thought he was an asshole. In class he’d always cut down my comments, and at parties he alternated between ignoring me and acting overly familiar, draping an arm over my shoulder and calling me “kid.” I considered Feldstein my nemesis. Not that I’d say so to Elizabeth. There was an erotic element to his idolatry that Elizabeth enjoyed, and that I couldn’t quite provide. I sensed he saw me as some kind of consolation prize. I solaced myself by imaging Feldstein masturbating in the dark, cradling his pathetic penis, resigned to the fact that he would never fuck either of us.
“We mustn’t speak in hypotheticals,” said Nikil, who always spoke in hypotheticals. He himself had been a protégé, along with Elizabeth, of the great Said. “We must approach the reality of the situation, which is this: the Israelites invaded Palestine, brought about apartheid, and enjoy the careless killing of Muslim women and children. To phrase it any other way would be to euphemize, anesthetize, soften the blow. We cannot share sympathy with this murderous regime. We cannot let tribal allegiances get in the way of reason.”
Elizabeth listened intently, still standing, prepped for another salut. I wanted to point out that Palestine and Lebanon were two entirely different countries. Mike refilled his scotch and drank it down in a long gulp without grimacing. Tonight was more of the same — the things he put up with for Elizabeth’s love. Or “love,” as she often reminded us, fingers raised in fangish air quotes. Feldstein placed a hand on my knee. Mo looked at Nikil and said, “Lighten up,” and Nikil’s face broke into a boyish grin, and soon everyone was laughing.
“Sorry,” said Nikil. “I’m so used to trying to fire up my students that it carries over into dinner party zealotry. Jesus, this is good scotch.”
Suitor #2 lit a joint and passed it to Nikil. When their fingers touched, #2 — another old friend of Elizabeth’s from grad school — leaned into Nikil and noogied his head.
“The picture of ethnic harmony,” said Elizabeth. “If only you two were the leaders of nations.”
The evening went as planned. After ten minutes of #2’s valiant but futile cunnilingus, he stroked my hair and said he understood. He’d seen my face; he knew it wasn’t easy to leave the tribe. “Nikil knows he’s a hypocrite. He would be stoned to death in Pakistan. The best thing that ever happened to him was being sent to that boy’s school in London.”
The word lover is ridiculous — perhaps even redonkulous — and it speaks to my state of generational denial that I referred to #2 as my lover, and refused to acknowledge that redonkulous was a word. That fall, when I was sharing a place in Greenpoint with Jenny and the Piñata Artist, I used the word redonkulous to describe, among other things: piñata art, Elizabeth, the Prince Street apartment, and Mr. #2 himself.
My lover was exactly twice my age, and from Omaha, but he lived like a British bachelor, surviving on Heinz beans, bodega tomatoes, and Earl Grey tea. He owned neither mop nor broom, and was constantly reshaping his redonkulous goatee.
The situation wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but Elizabeth seemed so happy about the match, and I liked the way he knew what I was going to say before I said it, and that he read poetry as well as theory, and his furry gut, which I found refreshing after years of envying Clarke’s smooth six-pack. Elizabeth said it was always a good idea to date someone uglier than yourself, though she’d broken her own rule with the objectively hot Mike.
#2 had a poorly self-assembled Ikea bed frame, so we spent most nights that week on an air mattress at Elizabeth’s — the Cousin had rented decorative furniture to display to potential buyers, but not beds. We shared a spare room the Host used for stashing his children when they’d visited from L.A. The rooms had not been repainted, and ours bore a safari mural on all four walls. Giraffes, monkeys, and lions watched over as we screwed and talked and slept.
The sex had improved considerably since Elizabeth and I had bought matching vibrators. I could get off in mere minutes if I used it while he entered from behind. For her part, Elizabeth said Mike refused to incorporate the object out of masculine insecurity. She said it like she was impressed.
In the mornings I would head to my internship, dressed in clothes from Elizabeth’s closet, plus a pair of heels from Barney’s that she’d bought me on the Amex and that raised me to an appropriate height for a SoHo intern.
The work was tedious and brainless — light administrative stuff and the maintenance of a couple Excel spreadsheets — but I was happy there, bitching with the other interns about the idiocy of our bosses and of print advertising in general. None of us planned to stay past summer. Print was dead, digital was here, and these old-fashioned agencies would be razed to make way for start-ups that better appreciated our web-heavy résumés.
I went along with this talk, though I was privately a print nostalgic, fantasizing about using the gig as a gateway to glossy magazines. Anything seemed possible. The others were from Reno, Gainesville, and Iowa City, and I came to understand that the SoHo aliens I’d initially found threatening were only posers like me, that in fact all of real New York was itself a simulacrum of the somehow realer New York of our Hollywood-assisted imaginations.
Happy hour was upon us. Jenny said, “Ugh, I hate my arms,” code meaning either “Compliment my arms” or “Criticize a part of your own body in solidarity.” She was a fellow intern, an F.I.T. grad from Seattle with an upturned Irish nose, prominent American breasts, straight blond hair, and impeccable fashion sense. Jenny complained ad infinitum, but registered these complaints in the knowingly jocular tone of one who understands the relative triviality of her issues. I could tell she thought I took myself too seriously.
“My neck makes me look like a bird,” I said, and waited for someone to disagree. No one disagreed. We sipped vodka tonics, vodka-tinis, and vodka-Tito’s, which were like margaritas, but with Tito’s brand vodka instead of tequila, plus a splash of Red Bull.
“Your guy’s in the news again,” said Jenny.
“What guy?” I imagined #2 on the front page of the Post, led away in handcuffs by campus security. A girl points an accusatory finger. She’s wrapped in a blanket and looks like a less birdlike me.
“The talk-show host. Dude’s been getting crunk since the breakup. Plowing through B-listers. He’s supposedly throwing these parties every night. It’s super sad. You gotta get your skinny ass up there.”
“Perhaps,” I said, and checked my cell. I was supposed to meet Elizabeth, Mike, and #2 for dinner in twenty minutes.
“Can’t you ditch?” said Jenny.
“Elizabeth would kill me. She had to pull strings to get the reservation.”
“Or at least meet up later? Party tonight at Aaron’s. Maybe find a boy your own age, sucka.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Maybe next time.” I pounded my Tito’s and left a twenty on the table.
The line at the restaurant spilled onto the street. Mike stood apart from us, smoking, giving off a moody vibe.
“What’s his deal?” I asked Elizabeth. “Probably his period,” she said. #2 let out a giggle, but I felt bad for Mike. He and Elizabeth got along in private, but she treated him terribly around other people. My favorite night so far was Sunday, when the three of us had watched a movie on Elizabeth’s laptop. The film was plotless and opaque. Instead of paying attention I’d focused on Mike, whose body lay beside mine, Elizabeth’s head in his lap. Mike’s fingers curled around her bony biceps, closing so thumb met fingertips. I could tell that Mike, too, had lost interest in the film — only Elizabeth followed the action on screen — but he wasn’t bored. He looked perfectly peaceful stroking her hair with one hand and her arm with the other, the weight of their bodies sagging the air mattress, making my side rise up like a small, cresting wave.
At dinner, when the plates had been cleared, Elizabeth made an announcement.
“I’ve decided to write a screenplay,” she said. “Get out of academia once and for all.”
“Get out of academia?” said #2. “That’s devil talk, lady. Blasphemy. Universities are the last safe places for ideas in this capitalist oligarchy.”
Universities were also the last safe places for #2. They accommodated his perpetual adolescence — the drinking and fanciful facial hair and impressing girls like me — and he took offense at Elizabeth’s insinuation that his kingdom was a ghetto. That Elizabeth had tenure made it more annoying. #2 adjuncted at Baruch and City College, mostly freshman comp. He blamed his failure to rise on the fact that Jews weren’t the beneficiaries of affirmative action. This was a good thing for society, he made a point of pointing out, but bad luck for him as an individual.
“Academia,” said Elizabeth, “is just so academic.”
“So what’s the screenplay about?” I asked, horrified. Why wasn’t I privy to this information before she’d made the announcement? Why hadn’t she asked me to collaborate?
“Postmodern incest,” said Elizabeth.
“As opposed to the other kinds of incest?” said #2.
“As opposed to bullshit,” said Elizabeth.
“This should be good.” Mike’s tone was sarcastic. He’d finished four bourbons during dinner. Mike slumped in his chair, pulled at his open collar.
“I don’t follow,” said #2.
“It’s the last taboo,” said Elizabeth. “The film is about a brother and sister who announce themselves as a romantic unit. Their parents don’t understand. Their friends don’t understand. Even you all at this table, my closest friends, my most” — air quotes — “enlightened friends, look at me like I’m sick for uttering the word.”
Mike didn’t look at her like she was sick; he looked at her like he was sad. He had a pained wrinkle between his eyebrows that reminded me, for a moment, of the Lebanese man lying injured in the rubble.
“Stop talking,” Mike said.
“No, I want to hear this,” said #2. “Please enlighten us, Elizabeth.”
“The shrink thinks the girl has Stockholm syndrome. That it all leads back to childhood trauma. Truth is, brother and sister are incredibly attractive, and they want each other. They” — air quotes — “love each other. The love” — air quotes — “that dare not speak its name.”
“And what about kids?” said Mike. “What about the… the…” His arm made a circling motion.
“Genetics?” I said.
“Genetics,” Mike repeated. “What about the goddamn genetics?”
“They don’t plan to have children. They see themselves — their lifestyle, really — as the end of the evolutionary line. They are the last generation. It’s a de-evolution, a return to amoeba sexuality, the final frontier for humans.”
Mike made a fart sound with his mouth.
“I think what Mike means,” I said, trying to diffuse the tension and make myself indispensable, “is that it seems unbelievable for them to be American characters. But what if you made them German? Could that work? I think that would make a lot of sense.”
“But I still don’t understand what it’s about,” said #2.
“She wants to fuck her cousin,” said Mike. “That’s what it’s about.”
“And that makes it postmodern?”
“I slept with my cousin years ago,” said Elizabeth. “That has nothing to do with it.”
“You said you only did second base,” said Mike.
“And that doesn’t count? Is that what you’re saying? That the sex act is only complete once the man has come to climax?”
“It’s a joke to you,” said Mike. “Everything’s a joke.”
“Darling,” said Elizabeth. “I’m dreadfully serious.”
“You’re ruining… ,” said Mike. “You’re ruining… and you’re so fucking noncha… noncha…”
“Nonchalant,” I said, though I’d lost the thread.
“Nonchalant,” said Mike. “So fucking nonchalant. You’re ruining your life.”
“By writing a screenplay?”
“You know why,” said Mike.
Elizabeth barred her arms in an X across her body.“This is not your decision,” she said.
In bed I asked #2 why he’d never dated Elizabeth. I’d assumed he wasn’t up to her intellectual standards.
“Are you kidding? She’s a psycho.”
“Psycho. You know she was in the nuthouse, right?”
“You mean rehab. For heroin.”
“That JAP’s never shot heroin in her life. Maybe she snorted it once or twice.”
“Don’t call her that. It’s an ethic slur.”
“But I’m Jewish.”
“That makes it worse,” I said. I rolled over, checked my cell. There was a picture text from Jenny. She posed beside a pyramid of White Castle burgers. A tattooed dude leaned toward the pyramid with his mouth wide open. The way they’d shot it made it seem like he had a giant mouth, big enough to fit all the burgers at once. Jenny looked like she was laughing.
“You don’t like me much,” said #2. “Do you?”
“No,” I said. “I guess I don’t.”
The roof overlooked Manhattan from across the river. A film crew was set up on the street below. A fifty-foot crane lit the neighborhood, sharing long beams of light like a small, near sun, giving the city in the distance a surreal mystic shimmer, as if it weren’t there at all but were only a hologram sprung forth from the crane’s godly glow. Jenny held her phone over the edge to snap a photo. The photo came out blurry, black with a dot of white light at its center. “Ill,” said Jenny.
There were no more dudefriends or lovers. Elizabeth had ignored Mike’s calls for three days. #2 hadn’t even texted.
Jenny took my arm. We crossed the roof and then descended the ladder back into the party. A dozen donkey piñatas hung by tinsel from the ceiling. The piñatas were decorated with Polaroids of battered women. Every hour, the artist would ceremoniously smash one with a Wiffle bat, spilling an assortment of loose pills onto the partygoers. A group sat Indian style on the floor, sifting for Adderall among the Advil and CVS-brand antihistamine. The installation was called Mules.
Some dancers made a circle at the room’s center. Jenny said, “I love this song,” and pulled us in. Her style of dancing approximated jumping. She bounced further toward the ceiling with each upbeat, mouthed the words. It looked like Jenny was speaking in tongues, perhaps in prayer to the great lord of gravity, asking to be lifted, weightless, above us all.
Jenny’s eyes were closed. The other dancers looked around as they jangled, trying to match each other’s moves, or gauge the aptitude of their own. A dude made exaggerated air-humps in my direction, buffering against rebuff by pretending to be joking. I pictured Mike on the dance floor, pre-accident. In my head he was confident, fleet-footed. He wore a fedora, tap shoes, a white tuxedo.
I thought about leaving the party and showing up at his apartment. Mike in a bathrobe and day-old stubble, pleasantly surprised when he opened the door. We would not say a word. He would open the robe, and I would press my body against his, head to heart. He would close the robe around us.
I knew I was not someone who would show up at Mike’s apartment. Not out of loyalty, but because I was afraid. At some point, I let the air-humper hump my leg.
The clinic was just around the corner. The magazines were either in Spanish or stupid, so I stared at the TV while I waited for Elizabeth. The U.N. had urged both states to ceasefire, but Hezbollah refused to stop sending rockets and Israel refused to stop dropping bombs. CNN’s aerial camera circled over northern Lebanon, zooming in and out on devastated areas. From above, the region looked like a beat-up map, with certain sections so heavily creased and worn they’d become literal gray areas, topographical erasures.
In a few days, the current conflict would end, but I remember thinking, as I sat in the Planned Parenthood waiting room, that both parties were too stubborn and hateful to ever truly change, and so were condemned to an eternal cycle of murder and mourning, with occasional respites in between. Sometimes the respites were brief — a month, a year — but occasionally there would come a long in-between, long enough for the people to forget their grief and enjoy the prevailing peace. And I remember thinking that this state of being — the long in-between — was the best life had to offer.
On the walk to the clinic I’d asked Elizabeth if she was sure she wanted to go through with it. I’d seen enough movies to know I was supposed to ask.
“I’m forty-one,” said Elizabeth.
“That’s not too old,” I said, though I wasn’t certain of the science.
Two weeks later I will come home to find Elizabeth fucking my nemesis Brian Feldstein on the floor. He will be on top, arms clenching her neck in a not so gentle strangle. Elizabeth will moan, “Don’t stop.” When Brian sees me, he will turn and say, “Sup?” but he won’t stop strangle-fucking, and Elizabeth won’t even notice that I’m there. Shaking with anger, I will get back in the elevator, ride up to the penthouse, and trail a group of young women into the Host’s apartment. The room will be filled with people I vaguely recognize, and the Host will weave among these people, stopping for handshakes and back-claps before moving on to the next group. The Host won’t stop smiling, as if any change in expression might transform him into another, lesser being. When he approaches me, I will lean in and kiss his cheek as if I know him. His breath will smell of cough drops. His hand will grace my hip. A blogger will snap a photo from across the room, and in the morning I will be referred to as “Mystery Woman.” The photo will make it look as though he’s blushing at something I’ve said. Jenny and my other coworkers will ask for details, and I will tell them I don’t kiss and tell, but say it in such a way — slightly smirking, one eyebrow raised — as to imply that, yes, perhaps I am not so innocent as they might have imagined.
That afternoon, Elizabeth will come into the kitchen and ask if I am angry at her. I’ll lie and say I’m not angry, because I have no real right to be angry. Elizabeth will say, “Well, I’m starving,” and eat peanut butter from the jar with a plastic spoon. She’ll say, “Don’t you get it?” and I’ll say, “Get what?” and she’ll say, “I did it ironically. The whole thing was ironic.”
When we got back from the clinic it was already evening. The Apple Store’s sign lit the street, opulent white, iconic apple frozen in its bitten state.
Elizabeth plugged in the TV. There weren’t any channels, just fuzz. “Shit,” she said. “I never called Time Warner.”
The fuzz was antiquated, analog, a remnant of another era. Elizabeth left the TV on. She laid her head in my lap.
“I have you,” she said. “You’re mine.”
I took a long, deep breath. The A/C was cool against my neck. I wrapped a strand of Elizabeth’s hair around my finger.
“I’m yours,” I said.
About the Author
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and the forthcoming collection of short stories What’s Important is Feeling. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, VICE, and The Best American Short Stories, among many other publications. In 2012, he received The Terry Southern Prize which recognizes “wit, panache, and sprezzatura” in work published by The Paris Review. He teaches creative writing at NYU and Columbia and lives in Brooklyn.
About the Guest Editor
Heidi Julavits is the author of four novels, including the PEN-award-winning The Vanishers. She is the co-founder of the highly influential cultural magazine The Believer, and is currently, along with Leanne Shapton and Sheila Heti, editing a book called Women in Clothes. An associate professor at Columbia University and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she lives in New York City and Maine.
About Recommended Reading
Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing here every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. The Recommended Reading Commuter, which publishes every Monday, is our home for flash and graphic narrative, and poetry. For access to year-round submissions, join our membership program on Drip, and follow Recommended Reading on Medium to get every issue straight to your feed. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.
From the forthcoming book WHAT’S IMPORTANT IS FEELING: Stories by Adam Wilson. Copyright © 2014 by Adam Wilson. To be published on February 25, 2014 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Originally published at recommendedreading.tumblr.com.