I accepted representation from a literary agent for my novel (hi, Erik!), and announce this on Facebook to a tepid reception. No one is a prophet in her own country. But I do receive an invitation from an old friend for dinner. She read some of my early autobiographical stories, the ones where I still used double spaces after periods. I have not seen her since before my mother died in 2013. She and mom are the same age, and I’d wanted to see her then. It was impossible. She’s been laid up with depression for at least three years (by my count closer to five or six) and has only now taken up her mat and walked.
At dinner, she says she believes this is a divine coincidence, that I have an agent just as she’s decided to commit to writing. I understand, but I do briefly wonder, uncharitably, why providence blessed her when she needs me but not when I need her. This is ridiculous of me. Neither of us is fortunate.
She speaks in circles. She has a cough (which she is embarrassed by), exacerbated when she becomes impassioned. There is this story she has told herself her whole life which she now must tell. It is the biography of an alter ego who did and bore what she could not. It is no more complicated than that, but it takes her ninety minutes. She stops to adjust her glasses, to bite her lips, to work through and apologize for her shame and start the loop again. Every attempt has a desperate, rehearsed quality that I hear as pain and desperation to be believed, but I fear others may hear as inauthentic.
The good news: she has written 77,000 words in a month. She must write (as I must write, as I imagine most writers must write), and she is terrified.
“Am I crazy?” she asks.
I hesitate. I remember being 17 and taking a writing class at The Second City, and being told I was talented by a television producer people had heard of. I was desperately ill. I’d lost a hundred pounds in six months, and it was the bright bit of news I clung to and told everyone, including a diagnostician, for weeks. I’d just been kicked out of school for being sick, but (for reasons I don’t understand) my writing teacher, who I thought hung the moon, argued I was lazy rather than ill and had called me fat. I clung to the idea I was still good at something because I’d needed it. Not long after, while cleaning out a family member’s hoarded apartment, I discovered the diagnosis papers: bipolar. My pride that someone thought I was good at something was an example of grandiosity. Officially crazy.
I didn’t write another word of fiction for ten years.
She says, to fill the silence, “Well, maybe we all have to be crazy.”
I give her a wan smile.
I wish I’d told her I still wonder if I’m crazy. I thought of telling her about the epigraph from Dante at the beginning of Prufrock, but I did not. I thought of mentioning having “a rose at one’s mouth” as from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an enchantment that makes an urgent and secret ongoing trauma come out as gibberish if one tries to speak of it (I think of this metaphor almost daily), but I did not.
I did recommend to her The Mothers by Britt Bennet and Call Me By Your Name (the book) as potential comps to study how recent literary authors handle queer stories and stories that span decades. I told her there should be a second draft before anyone (me included) should look at it, and then we will work, she and me, at making it more of what it is.
I didn’t tell her a second draft is about what your audience needs to hear and not what you need to say. I didn’t tell her I believe every story like hers, with that specific urgency behind it, will be told indirectly, if ever, if at all. Many return alive from that abyss, but no coherent stories make it out.
This knowledge can wait. A first draft is not the time to think about such things. I’ve been through a few and must forget each time. Where she was, I have been and will be again.
In 2011, at a tough time in my life, this woman was the only person I showed my very first completed short story I’d written as an adult. It was after many looping, weeping attempts at coherence. She was the only person. Nobody else would look. It was another four years before I attempted fiction again, and then it all came roaring out, five hundred thousand words in a year. I was crazy. I am crazy. Absolutely.
And now I have a literary agent.
It’s time to close this loop. Here is that short story, my very first, minimally edited. It is non-fiction. Names changed to protect the guilty.
My worst boyfriend had friends who hated me. I know they hated me because I told them this story:
At the height of the recession– when we all lived 3 to a studio and 12 to Victorian house festooned with rotting taxidermy, smelling of clove cigarettes, holes in the hardwood floors– there was no Uber. We all shambled out of dive bars, groped one another and for anyone sober enough to drive. More frequently than not we sat on grass medians until someone fibbed and claimed to be good to drive. I did not have a car, so don’t yell at me. I’m but a humble witness.
My boyfriend Georgie (I called him “my boyfriend,” he called me nothing) knew a man named Sam who had a charity. His charity used fold-up scooters that’d fit in the back of most cars for local calls, and a “chaser car” for further distances and more dangerous nights. The service was free, but donation supported. But if you’re stuck and broke and drunk, they don’t want to discourage you from calling.
I met Sam on one of my first dates with Georgie. Georgie asked me out to dinner, and I, enthusiastically, said yes, as we’d both been too broke to go out anywhere. He sent me The Bird and The Bee’s Fucking Boyfriend (Would you ever be my / would you be my fucking boyfriend?) via email, as a cute joke. I was already in love and desperate to hide it, and so pretended it was funny. Wasn’t it funny he was single, and I wasn’t? Wasn’t it funny to audition to be a girlfriend, a relationship so tenuous it can be called off by refusing to return my texts for a week? But we had dinner– a date! I was finally worthy of a whole date! As he’s giving me phone directions (no smartphones yet) and I arrive, he said, “Oh, and my friend Sam is here. Is that OK?”
I didn’t have a choice.
We ordered sodas. It was a shithole Chinese food place overrun by white hipsters. Georgie is a pescetarian. He stole sips of my drink, and we debated whether snails were shellfish. I said “no,” not because I don’t know biology but because I did not want to eat snails. Sam and Georgie insisted mollusks counted.
Georgie’s phone rang, leaving Sam and me to stare at one another. Sam’s a naturally laid-back guy, but my nervous energy was making him fiddle with his straw. He ordered the snails. After half an hour, I stalked out to find Georgie. He was arguing with his mom. When he got back, we ate cold snails. They aren’t good.
Both men had forgotten their wallets when the bill came.
Whenever Sam’s drivers occasionally flaked on him, he’d call Georgie, who did not have a “no” gland. This time it was St. Patrick’s Day and Sam was in desperate need. Again, this interrupted a date night, so I tagged along and brought my little Gameboy. The charity operated out of an office technically, but for the most part, was dispatched out of Sam’s house. Everything was orange and nubby and poorly lit, not updated since the seventies.
Before work, Sam pulled out and showed off a gallon plastic bag half full of something I didn’t recognize by sight but did by smell. It looked like broccoli gone very wrong. It was pungent enough I covered my nose and exclaimed “Oh!”
“Oh, it’s good stuff!” Sam said. Georgie marveled at the amount, so I knew I wasn’t just naive.
“Jesus. Where from?” asked Georgie.
“The roommate. He cuts me a deal.” Then it was time to get down to work. I was told to just crash out on the couch. Georgie would be back when he was back.
Sex Predator Cat jumped on my chest and drooled on me. Great tufts of fur stuck to my fingers as I pet him.
Sex Predator Cat was the cat’s actual name. Sam had a brand new roommate, the drug dealer. His old one was a taciturn man who didn’t blink often. The previous month he brought his cell phone in for repairs, and they’d found a video of him masturbating in the kid’s section of Book People. He told Sam he was being charged with public urination, but when he left the state to pedicab for the New Orleans Super Bowl (which now made him a felon), the news picked up the story. He abandoned all his stuff at Sam’s place and bolted. The cat, having belonged to the old roommate, was re-named Sex Predator Cat in the ex-roommate’s honor.
The new roommate came out to socialize. He had an open kimono like-shirt which only covered his arms and a fringed belt. His hair was very shiny but with frizzy, straggly ends. I do not remember his name, and so I won’t make one up for him. He leaned against the kitchenette bar not far from where I was and gently wafted marijuana funk in my direction.
“Hey, so, I heard your voice from the other room. What’s your accent?”
“Just northern Midwest. Chicago and, uh, Yooper if you know what that is.”
“Cool, cool. I’m from, like, Iowa. It’s good to get out.”
“Bad place to figure out whatcha are, you know?”
“Yeah, I suppose. I think it’s more to do with being independent.” From what, I did not say.
“Ah, ah, let me guess! Aries?”
“Huh? Oh. No, Virgo. Cancer moon, I suppose.”
He lit up. “Oh, I’m a total Cancer.”
“Really?” This was supposed to be the response, so I provided it.
“Yeah! Maybe in another life, eh?” He winked in a way too cheesy to be real, so I laughed.
We talked about an hour about that sort of thing. I didn’t believe in any of it, but the roommate was friendly enough, and I was in an unusually chatty mood. Why not, I figured.
He looked at the microwave. It was two in the morning. “Oh! Aw, I gotta get up early tomorrow, and you’ve kept me up all night!”
“Yeah, I work at this record store, vintage. You should come by.” He gave me the address, which promptly flew out of my head as I nodded and smiled.
“Well, the bathroom is, like the first left. Sorry about the hair and stuff, didn’t know we’d have a lady over.”
“Yeah. But if you, like, need anything, just knock. My room’s the one on the right at the end of the hall.”
I laid back and covered myself up with one of those Mexican striped blankets everyone has and shoved off the advances of Sex Predator Cat. I began to drift off to sleep a little. I had to turn toward the nubby back of the couch because the roommate had left his door open a crack and there was just enough light to be distracting.
Up to that point, I had been oblivious. The roommate was just friendly, you see.
And then I heard the didgeridoo.
It vibrated through the house like a fart in a Coke can, and then I knew I had been mistaken. See, a woman, not knowing what the hell a didgeridoo sounded like, might investigate, bringing her beyond the threshold and right into the place where he patchouli’d his hair. And I would ask him what that was, and he would show me. He would sit me on the bed, in his lap, and he would show me, this helpless ingénue. I would be charmed by his sexual digeridooing.
Not I, oh no. Mr. Hippy-Dippy was not getting his circular breathing anywhere near my girly parts. He gave up on his siren song after twenty minutes. I shivered, my head shoved into the nubby couch cushions, while the cat sat on my hip and sucked on my bell sleeves.
Georgie returned around five in the morning. He threw up in the front yard. One of the apartment complexes he’d dropped someone off at had a motorcycle driver smeared across the road, with the helmet ten feet away from the rest of the gore. Having no impulse control, he’d looked to see if there were contents before calling the police. I drove him home, he was more awake but too shaky to drive well. He cried on my tits, and I thought this was dear. I told him about the attempt to seduce me with a didgeridoo at a much later date to avoid reminding him.
Weeks later, when Georgie was my boyfriend, I met a handful of his friends at a lunch Georgie organized but did not show up to. I decided to recount the sexual didgeridoo story to them. Two or three laughed. Amanda was stone-faced, and Janice confused. They wouldn’t give me an inch.
Amanda said, “Maybe he was just practicing.”
“At two in the morning? Before work? Shirtless?”
“Um, yes?” said Janice.
This is how I knew we could not hang.
M. K. Anderson is a writer from Austin, Texas. Her short story, Grizzly, was be published in Nightscript Vol. III. She recently received agency representation for a literary novel, titled Real Person Fiction, which is set in a fan art community in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. You can find her on Twitter @some_qualia.