Four o’clock in the morning. I’m out again with strange men. Three this time. Gerald, Tyler and Mark. No, Mike. No, Alan. Shit, shit, shit. Mark. I’m sticking with Mark. I haven’t kissed him. He just moved to Toronto from Saskatchewan. He had a book of short stories published last year. No one noticed. Short stories, I told him. Fuck off. Why bother? Don’t you want to hunt the big beast? Don’t you want to rumble with the real men? The poets? he asked. Ha, ha. I sort of like him, but I’m drunk. Of course, I’m drunk. Gerald and Tyler both want to take me home. They’ve both had some success with me, and since the other side of midnight they’ve been competing to make me laugh. It’s sort of sweet, but not really. The laughter, I know, is just postage paid for another package. But I like to laugh. I’m a good laugher. It’s pretty much all I’ve got to live for most days, so I don’t take it for granted. Tyler’s looking at my tits, and now Gerald is, too. I can’t say it makes me uncomfortable, just bored. It doesn’t matter what you start of talking about, it always comes down to boobies. Yes, they’re lovely, and these boys are drunk, too. We’ll be moving on soon. Maybe I should take them both back to my place. Make them share the floor in the bathroom. What was it we were talking about? Mixed martial arts, it was. Factory farming. The oil spill in the Gulf. Fuck me. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got to be getting something out of these late night sojourns. I wish I could say it was an education, but it just seems the same over and over. Whatever is in the news and polarized clichés. Gerald and Tyler are hanging in because they’ve got no better options and in the past I’ve gone home with each of them. And necked. Maybe more. Some digital action, maybe. Something swift, decisive. When I’m drunk, I like to cuddle without being poked. No fucking. I don’t fuck people I work with. I mean, I have, but I don’t. Not anymore. And by work with, I mean people in the industry. Including writers on book tours who tell me how good I look in a strapless black dress. I look great in a strapless black dress. I have a great rack and soulful eyes. Ha, ha. No, I haven’t heard that one before. Why don’t you try me?
Oh, fuck. I said that out loud.
I look at Mark. Do you know any good jokes? Why don’t you try me?
I lean forward and show him some tit.
I’m drunk and close to losing control. Not for the first time.
Cynthia left an hour ago with, oh, what’s his name. Alan. That was Alan. He’s new to the company. He’s going to get fucked. That’s pretty much a guarantee. Cynthia has no boundaries with her colleagues. She looks great in a black dress. All of us do. All the girls. There’s twelve of us. Most of us in our twenties. With Masters Degrees. A year or three out of community college publishing programs. There’s four guys. Two of them here with me. Gerald and Tyler. One is gay. The fourth is the boss. Hammett. Yes, Hammett. Rosedale. Old money. Private schools. The lot. Meanwhile, Mark, my third leg up tonight (ha, ha), in my humble opinion, is just lost. A writer. Looking for work. I mean, money. New to town. Chasing a dream. Fuck. Do I even remember what that feels like? He doesn’t know anyone and is trying to make friends. I remember being there, I want to tell him. I sort of did that, didn’t I? Though maybe it was those early, easy blow jobs that kept me employed. (Just kidding.) And the black strapless dress. And my soft inner-thigh (more on that later). I gave him my card and suggested we have lunch. It was the sort of conversation I thought publishing was about, way back when. I know editors, I said. What are you working on? I hope it doesn’t involve space aliens or the death of the family. Ha, ha. I tried my best to be earnest. I said, I know how to sell books. Sort of. Who does, really? I know how to drink with strange men is what I didn’t say. I save that kind of talk for my therapist. If you work in publishing, the opportunities for compromising situations are endless. Ho, ho. Ho, hum.
Why are you always out with strange men at four in the morning? my therapist asked me last week.
I said, Isn’t that why I come here?
If I knew, I said. I couldn’t finish the sentence.
She knows all about my family and doesn’t think they’re crazy. I can’t figure her out.
Is it me?
Mark says, Four years ago Italy and France met at the World Cup. This year, they met at the airport.
Ba-dum-bum, Tyler says.
I laugh. I’m drunk. I don’t get it.
I’m not twenty-something. I’m thirty-two.
I’m too old for this.
Gerald says, We need to get her home.
I live around the corner, Mark says.
Gerald and Tyler freeze.
You can all come over, Mark says.
I stand, place my hand on Mark’s shoulder.
He says, That’s what I meant.
Gerald and Tyler wait for me to say something.
Excellent idea, I say. I have no strength to divide them.
My plan is to head straight for the bedroom and pass out. I’ve got to get out of this dress, though. Into a t-shirt and boxers. Whatever I can find lying around. Ha, ha. The pun is almost intended.
Like the mighty elephant doth. Boing, boing.
I don’t have much time left.
Let’s go, I say.
We settle, then we’re on the street. I have Tyler on one side and Gerald on the other. Each is holding one of my arms and I’m stumbling. If they chose to rape me, I couldn’t stop them, but I would kill them all in the morning.
Tell me again about Hitchens. I point this at Tyler. He was working on a Ph.D. on Orwell when he ran out of money, is what I know about him. Ran out of nerve, others say. Suddenly, I remember kissing him and liking it. I nearly fall over. We all stop.
How much further? I hear Gerald ask.
Five more houses, Mark says.
I say, Tell me again about Hitchens.
When Tyler doesn’t, Mark says, What about Hitchens?
I tell Mark about Tyler’s half-finished Ph.D. I tell him that Tyler got Hitchens on the phone after his Orwell book came out and they got on like hellfire. I tell him how after the Second Iraq War began – Shock and Awe – in March 2003, Tyler began to write Hitchens a series of letters, but he hasn’t mailed any of them.
They’re explosive, I say.
This is the project I want Tyler to work on, I say.
I say, This is the project I want Tyler to give to me. I don’t even care if anyone pays me. I want to see this happen. I want to be the one who –
Shut up, Tyler says.
We’re outside Mark’s place now.
Shut up, Tyler says again, though no one has said anything.
He pulls his arm away from mine and begins to walk away down the street. I try to call out to him, but I can’t manage a sound.
When Tyler is halfway down the block, Gerald lets go of my other arm and begins to run after him. Less than a minute later, they’ve both disappeared around the corner, and as I’m waiting for them to return, I start to laugh. It starts as a giggle and grows quickly into a belly laugh. It’s four something in the morning and the street is quiet except for my roar.
When I stop, Mark says, What now?
I need to get out of this dress, I say. And I’m not fucking you.
I have to go to work, I say.
Sit down. Eat something.
I’m wearing his dressing gown. I had the bed. He slept on the floor. I lean against the door frame. Pick up a slice of apple.
He asks me what I want in my coffee.
Milk. Double sugar.
Was last night too crazy for you? I ask.
We have bohemians in Saskatoon, too, he says.
We’re not bohemians. We work in publishing.
Whatever you want to call it.
I don’t know what to say. I’m hung over. Of course, I’m hung over.
I don’t say anything. I sit down.
The kitchen is small. There is a tiny, round table beside the window bracketed by two stools. The table isn’t much larger than a plant stand. Mark places a coffee on the table in front of me. The only other item on the table is a framed photograph of a young woman. I stare at it. She’s beautiful.
I pick up my coffee and sip. Yum.
Who’s this? I say.
Jess. My girlfriend.
She’s in Korea.
This is great coffee, I say. I become suddenly self-conscious that I’m wearing Mark’s boxer shorts and t-shirt and I look like shit. I realize also that he has no interest in kissing me and that he’s, omg, a nice guy.
What are you working on again? I ask.
A series of letters to Christopher Hitchens.
No, that’s Tyler.
An epic poem comparing 2001 to 1939.
Oh, shut up.
A novel based on my cousin, who died last year in Afghanistan.
I remember this now, it’s what he told me the night before. A road side bomb is called an IED. Improvised Explosive Device.
Orwellian, I said.
It kills whatever its called.
He cuts open a package of bacon and begins peeling the slices into a frying pan.
It’s easier in the oven, I say.
No response. I need a shower. I need a refill.
Then, Show me, he says.
He takes my mug. I stand.
Do you have a baking sheet? Tin foil?
I turn the oven on to 350 degrees. He provides me with a baking sheet and tin foil. He sits on the stool opposite mine.
I cover the baking sheet with tin foil and begin to lift the bacon, piece by piece, out of the frying pan and lay them side by side on the baking sheet. When I’m done, I place the sheet in the oven.
Twenty minutes, I say. Maybe a bit more.
Never seen that before, he says.
Why Korea? I ask.
Why is Jess in Korea?
Her friend went first. She wanted to travel, save some money, so she joined her.
What’s your story?
He’s moved the bowl of apple slices from the counter to the table and is eating them two at a time. He’s dressed. Or semi-dressed. T-shirt, ratty. Saskatchewan Roughriders logo. Shorts. Bare feet.
Where did I meet her and stuff?
Depends who you ask, he says.
This brings a cute grin to his face. He looks up at me to see how I’m going to react. I’ve been in enough meetings with writers to know when I’m being played, so I just wait. I like him. He’s solid. It almost makes me cry.
She thinks we met in a previous life, he says, finally.
I think we met in Esterhazy. At a softball game. When we were twelve.
She’s the dreamer and you’re the realist.
I’m Pancho and she’s the Don.
I can’t help it. I smile.
He stands. I’m going to have a shower, he announces. Then he leaves the room.
I wonder if I’ve said something wrong, but I know I haven’t.
I look at the photo of Jess.
I need to read something Mark’s written. I need to look up his book.
Twenty minutes later I pull the bacon out of the oven. I’ve made toast, found plates and butter. I’ve even fried two eggs.
The shower has long since turned off, but Mark hasn’t reappeared.
Dude, I yell. Breakfast.
I stink. I want to eat, shower and get out of here.
I’m late for work, but today everyone will be late for work.
I need to go home. Get some clothes.
This Jess, she reminds me of a girl I knew in Korea, Simone, but that was nearly ten years earlier. She was charming, optimistic, wholesome. I hated her. Ultimately, but not initially. Because I hate nearly everything, if I’m honest with myself. I have a powerful urge to destroy things.
My therapist has led me to this conclusion.
I’m not sure yet that I accept it.
Eros and thanatos, Freud said. Sex and death. We desire connection and fear separation. Books have always made me feel part of something. It’s why I wanted to work in publishing. It’s why I’m terrified of doing anything else. Of losing what I have. It’s why I stay out until four in the morning. Because I’m afraid I’ll miss something. Because I want to be a part of whatever’s happening.
But I’m missing lots, I know.
My friends are having babies. So I know.
I look at this Jess and I know she’s got something I’ll never have. I don’t even know what to it is.
I was in Korea for five years and I came home thinking I’d changed, but I hadn’t.
Oh, the places you’ll go. Dr. Seuss. Remember?
Oh, the places I’ve been.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, people say. Nietzsche said. Bull crap, is what I say.
I came home from Korea, thinking I was different. Grown up, even. I landed at Pearson and my big brother picked me up. I’d expected my parents, but they were waiting at home. I’d written a lot of poetry in Korea. I’d made a lot of money. I’d been celibate for three years and I felt fucking great, if you don’t mind hearing the whole David Copperfield side of it. You grow up learning to please others. You grow up under the jurisdictions of home, school, society, whatever. Do people even think this way any more? Do people think there is an authentic self that you can eventually discover and be?
Life is a state of constant becoming. Who was that? Joyce?
I moved to Korea in August 2001, only two weeks before you know what. My mother immediately wanted me to come home. Forgetaboutit. I was there to cut those apron strings. I was there to make money and move into a new phase in my life. After September 11th we all thought the world was moving into a new phase, too. It was the defining event of our generation. What would it make of us? What would we make of it? It was our 1989. Our 1968. Our 1939, is what people kept saying. I remember Simone passing around that Auden poem about hanging out in the dives of New York as the clouds of war descended on Europe. It seemed, then, for a few days, the most profound thing I had ever read. I scribbled endlessly in my notebook, trying to come up with something similar. No dice. All that came across was fear. Flights had been cancelled all over the world. No one was moving. Everyone was waiting, thinking, paused. What next?
Korea, as you know, is a country that has technically been at war for the past half-century. The northern and southern parts of the country are divided by a DMZ. Demilitarized zone. Ha, ha. It may be the only section of the country without a military presence, but it is the point at which all swords are pointed. I tried to write poems about this zone, this line. I found some beauty in it, in the stark simplicity of the conflict. Us on one side; them on the other. An empty space in the middle. The equation was the same whether you were from the North or the South. My colleagues didn’t agree with me. “You’re either with us or against us,” President Bush said some time around then. “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” was another phrase used to describe folks like me. Bush called North Korea part of an Axis of Evil, and soon enough the tracer bullets were flying. We waited for the tanks, not sure who to blame. What a blast this new millennium was turning out to be. Ho, ho.
Mark, I yell again. Breakfast.
I have the bacon on a plate. Pick up a piece. I’m starving.
I finish off two slices of toast, my egg, and half the bacon before Mark appears. He’s dressed in a suit and tie. Holds a briefcase in his left hand. His book in his right.
Wow, I say.
He hands me his book.
Job interview? I ask.
How’d you guess?
Everyone at work is talking about quitting. Enough of this sexist bullshit. It’s not what we signed up for. It’s not why we got all that education. To show off our legs and our boobies. To suck up to writers and editors and media. (We don’t even call them journalists any more. Even less do we call them critics.) Cynthia was the first to go. Fuck me. I never would have predicted that. She blamed Hammett, and I don’t disagree.
Do you like it up the ass? he once asked me.
Ha, ha. No joke.
I should have punched him. I should have sued him. Walked out. Anything but what I did, which was nothing.
I laughed. I like to laugh.
He frightened me. I wanted to keep my job.
He’s some kind of evil genius. Publishing is a war zone. You do what you have to do to survive.
My first week with the company Hammett told me to buy a black strapless dress. He told me the shop to buy it in. I picked out a hot little number, and I loved it. I felt great. I was working in publishing! Look at that, Mom, Dad. I made it. All that education paid off. That evening we hosted an event at the Four Seasons for a famous writer. I had my hair done. It was someone I’d long admired, though his recent unqualified support for pre-emptive war wasn’t what I would have expected. One of his essays had been in my reading pack for a course on post-colonial literature. I remembered him arguing that the future would be given over to deepening understanding of the Other. All Others. He was getting much press now for changing his mind. We were engaged in a War of Civilizations, and it was either Us or Them. Dominate or be dominated. Hammett thought he was great. A New Imperialist. Not that he agreed with him. He didn’t believe in anything, as far as I could tell. Except controversy, which was good for business. Our marketing materials always played up controversy. It’s the only way to get any attention, Hammett said.
You’re a War Profiteer, I told him.
Later that evening, the Great Author put his hand under my skirt and told me my “soft inner thigh” left him “defenseless.”
I said, How can I fuck you if you support the war?
I thought to tell him that his ideas in his essay had left me defenseless. Their sophistication. Their brilliance. Imagine the power of my inner thigh being able to break down such barriers! Tables turned, I felt flushed.
And I did sleep with him. It was the last time I would do such a thing. It was the source of my no workplace fucking rule.
Cynthia’s new job is with a social media firm. Updating corporate Facebook pages. Twitter pages. Myspace pages. Writing blast emails. She says soon she’ll be managing her own campaigns. She wants to start her own company. Publishing is dead, she told me last week. Get out while you can. No one reads books anymore. There’s no more big ideas to be fought about, decided. Only connections to be made and managed. It’s just networks now. What she said reminded me of the Auden poem – “We must love one another or die” – and I wondered which was the more “dishonest decade,” the Nineties or the Aughts. I’m not going quietly into that good night, though. No. No. Ha. Ha. I’ve been in touch with a lawyer and I’m going to take Hammett down for cultivating a climate of sexual harassment. I told Cynthia my plan and she advised me to give up. That’s publishing, she said. They make it seem like you’re all just friends hanging out, but you’re not.
I told her I would never surrender.
It’s Us or Them, I said. We know what’s right and what’s wrong, and now it’s time to choose.
Four o’clock in the morning. I’m up again with my little man. He never sleeps through the night. I roll over. Pull him tight to me. My pillow. I wake up. I have this dream once a week.
I quit. I’m running out of money. My lawsuit is before the court. It’s inching its way through the legal system, in any case. Prepare for a negotiated settlement, my lawyer says. I don’t want to. I want to win. Unconditionally. My parents say I can move into their basement, and they’re proud of me. My big brother, however, isn’t. He’s always knew, he claims, about my sexual proclivities. Fuck off, Duncan. Meanwhile, my accusations have made headlines as far away as the Huffington Post. Everyone has always suspected, apparently, that publishing was full of sex-crazed hotties. And now it’s confirmed! Ha, ha. Ho, hum. The bloggosphere is triple-x red with gossip and innuendo. The prime products of the digital age. Surprise, surprise. Controversy is attracting attention. Surprise, surprise. My story is not unique.
Mark called when the news broke.
I’m sorry to hear about your job, he said.
Do you care to meet for a drink?
I’d read his short story book, and I told him I liked it. Most of it. The book was dedicated, of course, to Jess, and as far as I could tell the sequence of stories told of the progression of their relationship.
I told him this on the phone.
That’s true, he said. It does. What didn’t you like?
Are you sure you want to hear it?
I can take it.
I’d spent some time thinking about what I would say if he asked me this. I couldn’t figure out what displeased me at first, but I boiled it down eventually.
He’s in love with her, I asked, but why is she in love with him?
The book doesn’t answer that? Mark asked.
I felt anxious, but I answered honestly. No. For me it didn’t.
Do you think maybe she doesn’t?
I thought she likes him a lot, but their feelings were unequal.
I felt bad. I thought I’d hurt him.
Are you okay? I asked.
He sighed. You may be the only one who’s read the book. I mean, really read the book. I think I wrote the book to make her fall in love with me. To persuade her to fall in love with me.
She’s not in love with you? I couldn’t believe it. Why not?!
No. She loves me, but she’s not in love with me.
So she’s in Korea?
To sort herself out and decide what kind of life she wants?
Something like that. To see if I’m good enough for her. To see if I’ll wait for her. To see what kind of life I can put together for her to come back to.
The book made sense to me now. It was brilliant, but unfinished. We’re all in a state of constant becoming, I almost said. Instead, I said, Let me let you in on a secret. Men aren’t the enemy.
Sorry, I said. Didn’t mean to patronize.
We talked about some other things then. I asked him how his job interview had gone. Poorly, he thought, but he got an offer anyway. Now he worked for one of the big banks. He was a statistician. An honest occupation, he said.
I thought you were a writer.
That too. But no one lives on writing, do they?
Some do, most don’t.
My book didn’t get a single review.
Mordecai Richler’s uncle calculated he would have made more money cutting grass for a summer than he did on his first novel.
I’ve heard that story.
So hang in there.
Richler made his money doctoring film scripts, not from his novels.
Which for some reason reminded me of September 1, 1939. The Auden poem. I asked him if he knew it. He did.
He said, Wyston didn’t want it preserved.
What? That was news to me.
He didn’t include it in his Collected. Said it was one of the poems he was ashamed to have written. Found it dishonest or something. I don’t remember. Something about the line about loving one another or dying. It was a false choice. I think he even tampered with the line earlier, so that it read “and die.”
“We must love one another and die”?
Yes. It’s not either/or. We will die inevitably.
A severe criticism, don’t you think?
Speaking as a statistician, he said, Auden got the probability right.
Could we discuss this later? I asked.
He agreed we could.
“No one exists alone,” he quoted.
I laughed. Ha, ha.
I could use a friend right now, I said.
Me, too, he said.
A really good friend. UG
Michael Bryson, from Toronto, has been publishing short stories since the 1990s. He founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review (www.danforthreview.com) and now blogs http://thenewcanlit.blogspot.com. More news and info at http://michaelbryson.com.