Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
As we plow through toward the New Year, we want to thank each and every one of you for sticking by our press as we continue to champion new work!
We're starting off this week with something a little different than we've published before. Adam Berlin's ten is sexy and seductive, but also cheeky sly and cheeky. This piece is perfect for fans of Adele Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. and will leave you feeling a certain way.
We're publishing this series on Intimacy to celebrate the upcoming release of our fiction chapbook in the new year! Preorder your copy today!
She’s doing the same thing I’m doing, sort of.
After rapid back-and-forth emails (biography questions and answers, banter to prove we can banter), she tells me she’s studying writing. I tell her I teach writing. She sends an email with a selfie attached—she’s standing in front of a mirror wearing a summer skirt that shows off thin, strong legs. Her face is smudged by the indoor flash. I send her a jacket photo looking starving-artist moody.
She finally admits it. She posted on Craigslist to get material for a story. She’s taking a Lyrical Essay course and wants to collect as many emails as possible, then make them into a verbal collage. I email her a question. What exactly is a lyrical essay? She emails back, I don’t fully know. I tell her I like Hemingway, Spartan and simple, and she tells me she likes Joyce and David Foster Wallace and Rankine and Jean Toomer and plenty of others in between, which makes her, she assumes, less lyrically-challenged. I ask how her lyrical essay is coming along. She says she’s received too many responses. She asks why I answered her post, beyond the obvious. I tell her I’m writing a story of my own. About the thrills of Craigslist dating? she writes. Thrilled to meet you, I write back. I leave the rest out—that I plan to bed ten different women from CL in ten days. I’m from the write-what-you-know school of fiction. I live it, then tweak it, shaping reality to get across theme.
The only time I write lyrically is when I send emails to Matty Sipser, a college friend and fellow writer whose ability to compose raunchy limericks, haikus, mini-parodies, and short paragraphs of mocking-mean that, alliteratively-lyrically, match mine. We’ll build on each other’s emails, pushing the irreverence, multiplying the filth. And why not? We’re writers, but we’re also straight and White and American and male and, White fragility aside, the publishing business has shunned us because our straight, White, American, male stories are no longer, like the expression, in vogue. So we write emails to each other as a joke, as a way to laugh off our venom, impotently asserting the very power that has rendered us impotent in the real publishing world.
Recently we’ve made the most ungentlemanly gentleman’s bet. I say I can do it. He says I can’t. I tell him I’ll write a story about it. He tells me I’ll be viewed as a sexist and sexism, he reminds me, even playful, is a tough sell these days, especially in the litmag world. I tell him that will be part of my challenge.
For nine days I’ve been sending out emails and getting responses, and I’ve registered nine notches on my proverbial post. I haven’t been sleeping much. The only writing I’ve done is email writing. It takes time to woo women on the net, meet them in person, woo them some more, usually with drinks, and finally, finally!, close the deal. I’m on schedule. I have until midnight to reach number ten and then I’ll start my story.
The lyrical-essay woman and I shoot messages back and forth until, inevitably, the way it happened with the nine before, none of them writers but all possessing vaginas, number ten sends her name and number. I add Natalie to my Contacts, followed by C for Craigslist. When I scroll down names on drunken nights, buzzed close to blackout, I imagine each woman and what she looks like naked and what she does in bed and what I want at that moment, always at-that-moment when I’m drunk, one woman’s name falling into the next, and it’s almost playful, almost joyful, as close to lyrical as I’ll ever get, and maybe I’ll tell Natalie about my found-poem/list-poem/phone-contacts when I see her, after I move in for the first kiss, after I take her to her bed or my bed, after I close the deal on number ten so I can write what I know.
Ten. It’s a story about a bet. It’s a story about a man too old for bets, not a college kid anymore, not a frat boy conquering a sexual challenge, but a man with a job and perspective and history, bored from responsibility, scared of what tenure means, a lifelong job so safe, so secure, it will be his last job, ever, before he retires and dies. I’ve told Matty Sipser about my fucking but not my fear. Our poems and parodies are game, but the fear of never connecting, of fucking until I’m too old to fuck, of teaching until I’m too old to teach, of never again finding a publishing house or a woman to love, a place to house my writing and a place to house me, beyond that warm smooth slit between legs, is never in my words to Matty Sipser.
At the end of the week, our department is moving into a new building. Last week, a man came around with boxes and labels. I assembled the first box, filled it with books just to see how many it would hold. It took so little time, I filled a second box and a third and suddenly the shelves were empty. It was true. I could pack up my life, at least my professional life, in an hour. If I burned the boxes I could move on, me and whatever I could fit in my pockets.
Two of the books I packed were my books. The rest of the books weren’t, but they were the books I liked to read, the books I taught. There were a few how-to-write-fiction books that weren’t good, but when an interested student wanted exercises on plot or character, I’d hand over a review copy like a gift. There were a number of thick anthologies containing identical stories, some solid, some almost too teachable, and some too lyrical for me, though I’d never used the word lyrical when thinking about them. I wasn’t sure how much shelf space our new offices had, but I knew the rooms would be smaller by a few square feet, so I chucked a few anthologies into the giant trashcans they’d put in the hall and heard the weight of pages hitting plastic. I could have stacked the anthologies in the hall for curious students to pick up and read, but in the margins of the stories I hated I wrote mean-spirited notes, vulgar and critical. These notes to myself made it easier for me to read the stories I was supposed to read, so I could speak about the stories I was supposed to speak about to colleagues I was supposed to speak to, colleagues whose tastes were anti-Spartan, who used words like pedagogical and tautological, who talked about outcomes assessments and spot teaching and peer-centered environments, who carried their books to class strapped onto little strollers like old people carting their day’s groceries home, two wheels squeaking. I’d never get that kind of old.
I’m going to call you, I write.
Half a minute later she writes back, Good. But I need to finish my assignment.
I hit Contacts. I hit Natalie. She picks up.
“So when’s it due?” I say.
“It’s due tomorrow. I have most of the pieces I want to use, but there’s no order to them. It still feels random, and I was hoping some sort of through-line would emerge. And I want to work in some threes. My professor told us repetitions in threes make things sound lyrical. It was sort of an aside, but I want to choose some words.”
Her voice is raspy, but not like she’s trying for sexy. It’s the voice of a woman who’s just finished screaming, whose vocal cords are so raw she can only speak quietly, and I like it.
“Tell me what kind of through-line you’re looking for. I’ll write the email, hit the Send button, and your lyrical essay will lyrically fall into place.”
“Then it wouldn’t be honest,” she says.
“No writing is completely honest.”
“The process wouldn’t be honest.”
“You’re taking this assignment seriously.”
“Don’t you take your writing seriously?”
“I used to.”
“Now I don’t write so much.”
“My books didn’t sell. So it’s tough to sell a new book.”
“The publishing Catch-22. I’ve heard about that.”
“It’s brutal. Besides, I’ve run out of subjects.”
“I thought you were writing a new story about Craigslist.”
“Not a lyrical story.”
“Well,” she says, and I wait.
“Well, I’m forcing myself to take this assignment seriously,” she says. “If I told you what to write and you wrote it and sent it to me and I used it, that wouldn’t be true to the assignment. It would be manipulated. My professor told us we shouldn’t manipulate. Assembling words is one thing. Directing words is another.”
“Writing is all about directing words,” I say.
“You obviously don’t teach the lyrical essay in your class,” she says, and she laughs a strange laugh, each exhale separate from the last, and raspy too.
“I’ll never teach the lyrical essay. And I’ll never write a lyrical essay.”
“Never say never,” she says.
“Sag Niemals Nie.”
“You speak German?”
“No. But when I was in Germany, they were showing James Bond’s Never Say Never Again. So I memorized the title. If I send you an email about it, you can use the German Nevers. Yours could be the sole lyrically-bilingual essay in the class.”
“I doubt it,” she says, and then there’s quiet on the line.
And outside it’s quiet too, a rare city time when not one car goes by, not one horn honks, not one person shouts, not a siren, not a single pigeon’s coo. I walk over to the window and look three stories down to the street and there’s no one.
“Are you there?” she says.
"I am. We should meet.”
“Right now. Carpe diem. Where are you?”
“Upper West. Near Columbia. Grad housing.”
“I can be there in half an hour.”
“I didn’t shower yet. And I have my essay to write.”
“Forty-five minutes. The Abbey Pub. On 105th, just east of Broadway. You know what I look like, only I’m not black and white.”
“Too bad,” she says.
“I’ll wear a white T-shirt.”
“It’s freezing out.”
“That’s how tough I am,” I say. “White T-shirt. Abbey Pub. Forty-five minutes. See you there.”
I’ve done my push-ups and sit-ups, so I’m a little salty, a little sweaty. I wash my underarms in the sink, brush my teeth, look myself over. In the commercials they call it a touch of gray, but with my hair almost crew-cut short the gray blends with the blond and unless I’m smiling, I look fifteen years younger than I am.
If there’s one New York City bar I can call my regular, it’s the Abbey. They have a beer and shot special, so it’s a good place to start a heavy night of drinking. One of the waitresses was once my student. She’ll ask how classes are going and I’ll tell her what’s new at the college and she’ll nod at the bartender to fill my glass at least once a night. I never act up in the Abbey. I’ve been kicked out of too many bars and this place, sort of old, sort of dark, a little below street level, its clientele a mix of happy students and morbid drunks, feels like in-between.
The bartender comes over, says hello, familiarly, but not so familiar that he puts down my shot and beer before I’m through the door. My ex-student is nowhere around. Natalie isn’t here either. One of the regulars sits on the stool closest to the door, drinking her usual carafe of red and reading the Times. And there’s a young guy, Guinness in hand, head tilted toward the TV, watching hockey. The Rangers goalie blocks a shot and play is stopped. I order the special, a Bushmills rocks and whatever beer of the day they’re giving out. The bartender pops the cap and puts down a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s one of the beers men drank where I grew up, when I grew up, Pabst and Schlitz and Schaeffer, the one beer to have when you’re having more than one, the jingle still in my head.
Ten. A story about a bet. My idea is that by winning the bet, by bedding ten women in ten days, a pretty good feat at any age, the protagonist will assert his youth and trump his tenure, turning it from a symbolic death sentence to a reinforcement that there’s plenty of life to live and a good life at that. A gig that can never be taken away becomes freeing not suffocating, a recognition that there’s joy in having no pressure to prove. After bedding ten women in ten days, the professor will know, truly know, he’s still virile, still attractive, still has what it takes. I already know the story’s last scene. I’ve written down the details, directed them with such control the scene is already closer to real-memory than invented-moment. The professor walks out of the tenth woman’s apartment, winner of a gentleman’s bet, goes directly to his new office, with its bare shelves and polished floor, and starts to write with renewed energy, his fingers smashing the keyboard, not Hollywood-smashing but real, the lines coming right, the pacing perfect, like when he was a real writer, his first book out, a signed contract for the second, no question about a third, a fourth. A job for life. A lust for life. It’s a loose connection but a connection. Ten. Tenure. The title in the conflict. The conflict in the number.
The door opens and by reflex I check. She’s tallish and thin. Her posture is dancer-straight. Her face, no longer obscured by flash, is beautiful, and only a small, raised scar at the top of her cheek breaks her symmetrical beauty.
“You should be ashamed luring me away from my desk on a school day,” she says, and her voice, like on the phone, is raw.
“Maybe, but I’m not.”
Natalie smiles. She takes off her coat, drapes it over the back of the bar stool, and sits.
“What are you drinking?” I say.
“What are you drinking?”
“Irish whiskey. Bushmills. And a beer.”
“I normally don’t drink whiskey.”
“Try it,” I say and hand her the glass.
She lifts the glass, takes a full sip and her face scrunches, then turns happy, surprised. “It’s very good. I’ll have one too.”
“Do you want a beer?”
“No thank you. I don’t like beer.”
I order another Bushmills from the bartender. I force myself not to drink down the rest of mine for another. I don’t want Natalie thinking I’m a full-fledged drunk, not yet anyway.
“I received eighteen more emails,” she says. “None of them worth using.”
“You’re getting a lot of play from your post.”
“It’s because of the line I wrote at the end.”
“What was it?”
“You don’t remember? How many of these posts do you respond to?” she says, raspy. Then she smiles. Her teeth are a little crooked, but her mouth’s still great.
I smile back. “I respond to dozens. Actually, hundreds.”
“Looking for spontaneity with spontaneous people who know carpe diem is not the fish of the day.”
“Fish of the day. Now I remember.”
“I thought it held the right note for a lyrical essay. Plus, it was sort of a signal for all the men out there to think I’m easy. I wanted to optimize my number of responses.”
“Euphemism. You can title your essay Euphemism.”
“That’s a little stiff.”
“Do all parts of the lyrical essay have to be lyrical?”
“Honestly, I still don’t know.”
She’s a fast drinker. Her glass is empty, and I order two more Bushmills. I watch the bartender pour, count the alcohol going in. I’m enough of a regular that he uses a heavy hand.
“So can I ask you a clichéd question?” she says.
“Do you do this often? I mean honestly. Do you answer Craigslist ads in search of random women all the time?”
“Not random women. Spontaneous women.”
“Okay, spontaneous women.”
“I was bored. I just read an article on CL’s Personals section and checked the site out. Some of the posts are funny and I’m guessing most of them are fakes, but I wrote to some of the posts as a lark. I thought maybe some random meetings would give me some material. Sort of like what you’re doing. So no, I don’t do this often. Your post was well-written, I remember that, so I was curious. I thought maybe you’d say some memorable lines.”
“And here I thought I was using you.”
“We can use each other.”
“Is that a euphemism too?” she says.
“No. When I write, the word usually means just what the word means. I’m all about subtext, but that’s different. I don’t need to hide behind euphemisms.”
“I forgot. You’re a Hemingway fan and a tough guy. Nice T-shirt, by the way.”
I flex my arm for her. It’s what I do when I drink. I flex my arms for women, ask them to feel my muscles, ask them to punch my stomach to feel my abs, all subtext for feel my cock, which they inevitably do at the end of the night. My rocks glass is empty. I don’t ask Natalie to feel my arm. I order another round and she downs the rest of her Bushmills.
“What’s your story going to be about?” she says.
“Of course like me. And he meets a woman from Craigslist.”
“We’ll see how this goes. I have to see if you’re character-worthy.”
Natalie laughs her strange laugh.
“I never thought of myself that way,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d make a very good character.”
“Do you make a very good person?”
“I don’t know about very good.”
“That’s a good answer. It makes you a more layered character.”
“I don’t know if I’d make much of any kind of character, especially in a story with lots of dialogue. I’m usually pretty quiet.”
“You’ll talk when you have to. Or you won’t.”
“Or I won’t,” she says.
Natalie is looking at me and then she lifts her drink and takes a long sip. She closes her eyes for a moment to taste the whiskey and I watch her swallow, watch the burn in her throat. Her mouth purses, then relaxes. No artifice. No protection. Like she doesn’t care, but in the what-others-think way, not the fuck-you, fake-apathy way. She puts the glass down. Then she looks back at me. It’s what I tell my students to do in their stories. Let the character do something and then let the character do something else. It’s why I hate the word as.
“Most people talk,” I say. “It’s all about ego. Most people champ at the bit to enter every conversation. You can see them listening, but what they’re really doing is waiting for the opening to tell you what they did or what they thought or what they felt or who they knew.”
“Isn’t that what a conversation is? A sharing of ideas and experiences?”
“People want to spout, not share. But I’m a cynical man.”
“Are you a good writer?”
“I have two novels published.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
I could lift my drink, drink, pause, feign disgust or arrogance to set up a dramatic delivery. And that’s the problem. I’m aware of everything and so everything feels posed.
“I used to be,” I say.
“That’s what you said on the phone.”
“People in my classes hate me,” she says. “Everyone sugarcoats everything, but it’s college and it’s expensive and they’re supposed to be serious. Half the students can’t write and half of them have nothing to write about. I hate to think I was like that when I was their age. I don’t think I was. The professors always play mediator and that’s their job, I suppose, but I can’t stomach it. In my creative writing classes, if something is shit, I say so.”
“It wouldn’t be so good if I were in your class.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she says. “I am sure.”
“It might be difficult, but I’d enjoy it. You’d say everything I was saying, but you’d say it harshly. When I was a student, I had a writing teacher you would have liked. If something was shit, he’d hold the story up by its corner, like he’d contaminate himself if he touched the whole page, and he’d walk over to the offending student and drop the story on his or her desk without a word.”
“That’s the teacher I’m looking for.”
The door opens and five college kids come in, loud and red-faced from the cold. Three girls, one pretty, two boys, one handsome. When they sit at one of the big booths, the pretty girl and handsome boy sit next to each other, which is how it will always be, smart or not, good writer or not. Ten would be easy for him too.
“So we’re both here for our writing,” she says. “That makes me feel less guilty about drinking on a Monday afternoon.”
“You should never feel guilty about drinking on a Monday afternoon.”
“You obviously have only yourself to worry about.”
“Who else are you worrying about?”
“My daughter. I didn’t mention her in my post. I thought that might ruin the whole spontaneity thing.”
“A conscious choice of omission. How old?”
“Is she a good kid?”
“She’s a difficult kid.”
“That’s not what I asked,” I say, and she misses it and I smile and she gets it.
“She’s too difficult to be good. And I’m a very single mom with questionable parenting skills, I’m afraid. My husband turned out to be bad man. That’s not a euphemism. It’s more a cliché. He’s locked up. So it’s me and my child.”
“That can’t be easy.”
“It isn’t. She’s tough.”
“Write a memoir. Single mother. Difficult daughter. Husband locked up. You’ll sell it in no time.”
“I don’t like my current life. I don’t want to write about it, at least not while I’m living it.”
I raise the glass. “Cheers. To easier times.”
“Sorry. I told myself I wouldn’t mention her. I wanted to pretend I was a free woman able to have a drink on a Monday afternoon with a handsome man.”
“You’re here. You’re free right now.”
“Until four. She’s in the afterschool program. I meet her at the bus stop.”
I have to fuck ten women in ten days. I’m at the ten-hour limit. At midnight the ten days are up. Matty Sipser emailed me this morning.
A writer whose psyche was frail
was relegated to bets about tail.
If he’d just been born other,
the offers—sweet smother!
But his male cock insured he would fail.
I’d write Matty Sipser back when I’d won.
I’m a professor. She’s a student. Not a kid student. She must be thirty, and I look at her eyes, light brown, wide set, and she moves her eyes from mine. And the way alcohol does, magnifying everything, her eyes, my muscles, the need to win this bet, I see right through her, see her weariness, her past, her bad husband, her tough kid, the schoolwork she needs to complete, an older college student years behind. And I see myself inside her. It will be that easy.
“Now,” I say.
“You met me. You have two hours before your daughter’s back. We both need to write. Take me home now.”
She looks at me, looks at me.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.”
I leave the bills on the bar, leave the half-finished bottle of Pabst next to the empty rocks-glasses. Natalie puts on her coat. I put on mine.
We’re out of the Abbey.
We’re on Broadway.
We’re on 109th Street.
We’re in front of a building. She’s turning the key. We’re walking up the stairs. We’re in her apartment.
I’ve done this for so long. I once saw the great boxing champion Roberto Duran running in Central Park. He was too old to be fighting, too fat to be fighting, thirty pounds past his prime, but he was running around the loop. I passed him, saw it was him, turned back and ran next to him for a few strides, raising my own fists in recognition. Roberto Duran. Manos de Piedra. Hands of Stone. One of the greatest fighters of all time. Duran was breathing too hard, struggling, and it was clear he was training for a fight he wasn’t ready to fight. But three weeks later I read in the paper he’d gone ten rounds with a young man and won. Roberto Duran was so comfortable in the ring, so at home, his breathing must have come easy. And that’s me in bed. I have her bra off with a flick of the clasp. I have her jeans off. I have her spread in front of me. She has close dark hair and a beautiful cunt and I open her with my fingers. And like most women, no matter what they say, she lets me fuck her without a condom, which I do. And as soon as the head of my cock is in, then the shaft, one long stroke, it’s official. I have my ten. I’ve won the bet. I could pull out and email Matty Sipser and brag about my bullshit macho prowess, which we’ll write about, as limericks, as haikus, as back-and-forth emails, without any true feelings under the words, the worst kind of writing. I fuck her and fuck her, talking, telling, simple declarative sentences, and when she says she can’t come any more I make her come one more time. And when she’s done, I take out my cock, put it in her hand, and watch her jerk me off. The come comes out and so does any interest I have in anything.
I stand up. I put on my pants. I look around her room. There are pictures of a girl with light brown eyes and an up-to-something smile. I can see this kid causing trouble, so much trouble that a screaming voice becomes hoarse. I look at the woman on the bed and there’s no smile, no sparkle in her eyes, nothing lyrical at all.
“Ten,” I say.
“Ten women. That’s what I’m writing about. I wanted to fuck ten women in ten days from Craigslist. So I made a bet. I’ll write the story and something, the part around the story, whatever I need to say, will come to me. That’s a shortcoming of mine as a writer. I need to live it to write it. I think that’s the opposite of lyrical. I can’t make up stories, not really, not the plots. I’m not even a good storyteller. At parties, at dinners, I can deliver lines, but not whole stories.”
“Telling stories and writing them are two different things.”
“The writers I know all tell stories. They talk in full, descriptive paragraphs. I don’t.”
“Well,” she says and gets off the bed. I watch her put on her panties, more men’s underwear than woman’s lingerie. I watch her put on her jeans, pointing her toes, slipping one leg in, slipping the other leg in. There’s something kid-like in the innocent way she dresses. She must have been a kid when she had a kid. She must have been too young to recognize her husband was bad. There’s the scar on her cheekbone I haven’t asked about. I can’t tell how young she was when she got it.
“That’s ugly,” she says. “This is ugly. What number was I?”
“I see,” she says and stands there, looking like a stranger in her own room.
“You know, you’re older than you think,” she says. “When I saw your picture, the picture you sent me, the black and white, well, when I saw you, you’re older than that picture.”
“It’s my book jacket photo. Whatever. You still went to bed with me.”
“Ten in ten days. What were you trying to prove?”
“That I’m still the man. At least in my own eyes. That I’m still the man even if I can’t get published.”
“But you are published. What were you trying to prove?”
“That I’m as young as my picture and all that means.”
“But you’re not,” she says.
“You’re right. I’m not.”
And if I’d met her when I was her age I might have cared, cared about her, cared about making our first moments together perfect, cared about the way her eyes are suddenly the most beautiful kind of sad, the way she stands there, naked from the waist up, not shy about her body at all. I might have cared. But I’m not even sure if that’s true. I can’t remember. I can’t remember what I used to feel. I can’t even remember what I felt when my first book was published and then my second, not really. I remember what I felt later. I remember it because I’m feeling it. I can’t sell a book. I can’t write a book. It’s why I write stories now, and only now and then. I can make it through ten pages, fifteen pages, sometimes twenty. But I can’t go longer than that. There’s no adrenaline in me, nothing that pushes me forward to write the novel I could have written if everything I wrote had been published, if I’d been taken seriously the way serious writers are taken, if I were, and this is the word that keeps coming to me, significant. But I’m not. I’m insignificant. Insignificant is the word that’s me.
Natalie puts on her bra.
“You don’t have to wait around,” she says. “You can leave if you want.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I don’t want anything.”
And the way she says it sounds the way I feel.
I walk to her. My T shirt is still in my hand. I put it around the back of her neck and bring her head to me and kiss her for a long time.
“What was that for?” she says.
“That was for sounding so young and so old at the same time.”
“That’s you, isn’t it?”
“More old than young. You made that very clear.”
I kiss her again. Mouth. Neck. Shoulder. I take her nipple in my mouth and move my tongue over it, slow and slow, make her brown nipple hard.
“I don’t believe you,” she says and puts her hands on my arms and moves me away. “Even how you put your shirt around my neck. It’s rehearsed. I hope I never get that old.”
I exhale. Loud. For her. For me. Mostly for me. Not because I’m surprised. Not because I’m hurt. I’m not. Not really. Because it’s what I do, punctuating the moment, emphasizing with a breath like emphasizing with a pause, some small movement, a short line on the page.
“Take two,” I say. “I hope you never get that old either.”
“And that sounds like a line too,” she says. “I hope you write better than you play these tawdry scenes.”
“Line,” she says.
Ten. Tenure. If I didn’t get the job when I got it, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. Sometimes, at first when I thought I could really leave the city and teach somewhere else, then when I half-thought it, then when I knew I’d never leave my job, too far in, too settled, and too many bars in Manhattan, I’d send out my CV and cover letter. I just wanted to see, just wanted to know. The number was a non-number. Zero. I never got an offer. I never even got an interview.
“Eleven,” she says.
“You’re already ten. You can’t be eleven.”
“Here’s my bet. Make me feel like eleven, or at least less like ten. I don’t think you can. Bring some layers to it. Make it lyrical. Give me something to write about. Give me something more than a man who’s feeling less than a man, who can’t even make love without pretending.”
“Make love. That’s a fake term. Fucking is what it is.”
“Even Hemingway didn’t write the word Fucking. You’re the fake. Make me number eleven or I’ll write about you and not lyrically. I’ll mention your name and my whole class will look you up, see your two books, see your author photo, read a few paragraphs, but whatever they see, whatever they read, will be tainted by my essay on how pitiful you seem. That’s the best I can come up with right now. It’s as mean as what you did to me and nine others.”
Her eyes are steady. She doesn’t look angry or hurt or sad. She looks tired, as tired as her raw voice sounds. I don’t see anything fake in her eyes, anything pretend.
“Eleven,” I say.
“If I feel you acting, I’ll stop you. I’ll push you off and tell you to leave. I’ll start writing.”
I don’t use my shirt to bring her close. I don’t put my hand on the back of her neck and bring her mouth to mine, a move I do. I don’t stare at her, eyes to eyes, nod my head, another move. I just kiss her. I try to relax into the kiss. I keep my eyes closed. I feel her lips move away. I don’t bring her back.
“Well,” she says.
“Well,” she says again like she’s deciding something.
There’s still time before she needs to pick up her kid.
She stays where she is.
It’s quiet here. Not rare for here. It’s been quiet the whole time.
I move slowly.
Like she’s new.
Like she’s completely new.
Natalie takes me inside.
I just move.
I just move.
I just move.
Adam Berlin has published four novels, including Belmondo Style (St. Martin's Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award), Headlock ( (Algonquin Books), and Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY in NYC and co-edits the litmag J Journal.