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I got there at about four, and the streetlamps were already lit in the blocks of storefronts by the train station. It was still raining a little. The air had the sodden, sickly feeling of everything thawing out and inhaling for the first time in months.
My excuse for never visiting was always implicitly that this was Mindy’s hometown. I didn’t like hometowns. I lived in a town that was functionally the same as this one and I never visited there, either. She could live out here if she wanted to but I need the reassurance of movement in the city, needed to feel like I, too, was going somewhere. The overwhelming feeling out here is of stasis. The small downtown ends on one side on a cornfield, and you can see bloated beige McMansions on the far edge of it through a clump of pine trees. Uglier buildings in clusters around the storefronts and rowhouses, four or five stories of decaying siding and ugly bricks. Occasionally a car passed and made a brittle sound on the wet pavement. I noticed that the cars in places like this were always newer and in better shape than most of the buildings.
She lived in a large and open apartment on the top floor of an old dense brick building bordering a patch of woods just outside downtown. The building was Art Deco-ish and asymetrical, offset from the street by an oddly large yard with bricks scattered around in it. The key was where she said it would be. The stairs were dim and smelled damp, but when I opened the door to her apartment I was greeted with a faint dry smell of lavender and a sort of clean cloth smell under that. I took off my boots and walked around turning on lamps in my sock feet.
I slowly took it in. The kitchen — all chrome and white vinyl — took up one wall and three square windows crowded with houseplants took up another. There was a new table and some old-looking couches, a plush loveseat pushed up against the wall nearby the couch. I pictured people on the furniture. In lieu of a bookshelf, she had piled her books horizontally against the wall in six tall stacks. There was a door (locked) that led to the bedroom off to the side, bathroom adjacent that. Some framed prints on the walls, letterpress stuff I recognized from undergrad next to framed pages from her paper. Every surface bristled with activity. It was hard to tell what she was thinking from the way the room looked: the disorder was somewhere between careless and inviting.
She had left a note on kitchen counter that read: “food in fridge/freezer, help yrself.” After tapping at my phone for a bit while sitting on the kitchen counter I got a lasagna from the freezer and took a brief, numbingly hot shower while it was in the oven. I unpacked all over everything and ate the hot, cheesy mess sitting on the floor with my back against the loveseat, next to her books, looking up reverently at their spines while I chewed. I read the names of the authors: Miranda July, Chris Kraus, Tao Lin, Hilton Als, Ottessa Moshfegh. They all looked new, even if the spines were cracked. They weren’t alphabetized or anything.
She had sent me a lengthy email. She had gone to the Art Institute and the Poetry Foundation; she had attached a few pictures, none of herself. Red and black Bauhaus drawings, a table covered in books, a hall of calligraphy scrolls. The pictures were taken carelessly and were blurry, markers of place rather than an attempt to represent what she was seeing. Like a pin dropped on a map. Her writing style was digressive in a way that I always liked:
...this city always feels to me like someone decided on it ahead of time and the only things I like are the little details, so I wanted to see whether I could find a building that was truly unusual and I think I only found unusual things being done with the usual kind of building.
Her hand was on a glass case in one of the pictures. Her nails were long and sharp and bloody red. Behind the glass there was a tarnished bronze sword with intricate carvings on the handle. The way her hand was placed it was as if her fingertips were stroking the blade. I pictured the sound the acrylics would make on it.
Earlier, when I got out of the shower, I found myself looking carefully at the array of skincare products lined up on a little shelf below the frameless circular mirror, white and pastel pink tubes with fine black writing lining their sides. I wiped a spot on the large mirror and stared at myself, my naked body, ran my steam-soft hand slowly and deliberately across my nose, jawline, neck, breasts; trying, I guess, as best as I could to separate myself into a set of moveable parts like in that one children’s toy, where you could put a nose in place of a mouth if you wanted to. I mussed up my short hair and then combed it, repeated that process two or three times. It was so bright in her bathroom. I couldn’t see myself as a being that held together, was more than the sum of her parts, and I couldn’t separate myself into parts that lent themselves to objective examination.
It got dark quickly. I drafted a response to Mindy on my phone. I attached a picture of my hand on the table next to her copy of My Year Of Rest And Relaxation and rewrote a short paragraph probably three or four times. I fell asleep on the couch with the email unsent, and woke up the next day to a bright white sky and the sound of crows outside in the trees.
I was crashing on Mindy’s couch for a week before I could move into my new place. She would be back from her trip to Chicago in a few days. In a sense, we had traded settings. She had made a joke about staying in my old apartment while I was staying in hers, but I had already found a subletter for the remainder of my lease.
She had found me a job as a contributing editor at the Middlebury Journal on the basis of the freelance stuff I was doing in Chicago. She’s something of a legend in the local-journalism world: right out of college she helped consolidate the Journal from seven other smaller, foundering newspapers that were operating in this particular tri-county area and had secured funding from novel philanthropic sources of the lit-mag type, pushing this corner of Illinois as a fascinating, dynamic place. Something like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which Mindy explained to me was an area full of agrarian radicalism and traditional crafts. I had to admire the energy even if I didn’t believe her exactly. It was an audacious idea that had somehow worked, which was just like her. She was the managing editor of the arts section and she asked me to come work for her when I offhandedly told her I was getting tired of Chicago. I had treated it as the kind of girlish inclination toward togetherness that she sometimes had toward her friends, but a week later I got an email from the EIC that contained a formal offer. I had just gotten some pitches rejected and my lease was nearly up, and I made a snap decision.
I was going to edit and write book reviews. This was ostensibly my wheelhouse, as I had a novel manuscript that was nearly done. This was my own project from the three years after graduation. I was hoping to finish it before I started this new job. I spread my notes out on Mindy’s kitchen table.
I had a faint memory of a version of myself having just begun this novel. I outlined it later, but at first I felt as though I had tapped into something, some sensitivity, that would allow me to tie together all the premises and situations I began with. I remember telling Mindy about it, walking out of some class. I think the analogy I used was a bank of fog rolling out as I was writing, the shapes gradually revealing themselves to me. None of that even sounded like me anymore, although I could clearly recall the contours of the thoughts, the enthusiasm I felt.
For a long time I had just wanted to start over. I had sunk so much time and energy into this manuscript that I couldn’t not finish it, but that was all I hoped for at this point. Almost from the beginning, all my effort went toward shoring up something that was flawed in a more fundamental, structural way than I could really fix. I told myself that it’s okay if a first attempt is terrible, but sometimes I thought it was flawed in a way that went beyond craft, that was instead an issue with the way I looked at the world, the way I processed it, something buried deep down that I could never do anything about. You can’t really think about these kinds of things and get anywhere with it so I didn’t, or tried not to.
I went and stared at myself in the mirror again. I was pale, but had a little blemish on the side of my neck that I hadn’t seen before. A couple shades darker and it would resemble a hickey, but it was earth-colored, not like a bruise. It looked more like a soy sauce stain or a knot in wood. I fingered it, imagined that it was slightly more sensitive than the surrounding unblemished skin. When I sat down again I reread Mindy’s first email, paying attention to how well her written cadences matched her voice. I spoke some of it out loud, heard my voice saying her words in her room. I read my response from the night before and I didn’t send it. I told myself I would in a little while.
An hour later I was pacing around the room because I couldn’t make a sentence work. No matter which way I constructed it, the thought I wanted to convey wouldn’t come through. I gritted my teeth and used one of the misfiring versions, which made it harder to continue.
I always assumed Mindy would have been better as a fiction writer than I was, if for no other reason than she would never let herself be bothered by this kind of thing. She never tried, as far as I know. Poetry, occasionally, which she even won an award for in undergrad. I had another email from her when I checked. More pictures of art: a couple Andy Warhols, pottery, a display case where pieces of delicate jewelry looked tiny against their velvet boxes. Had she gone again? These pictures were from all over the museum. Her email was longer than before:
...it got me thinking about that thing you told me about, a long time ago, about the fantasy of the miniature; how miniature is sort of a contained, controllable version of the world and how all art sort of seeks to create a miniature version of something that really exists, something only really understandable through its containment.
I closed the window, opened it again after a few more attempts to continue writing. For a while, I was sure that the problem with my book was that the main character was a man. After I showered again (cold this time), I remembered that this wasn’t the only problem. It was more probable that the issue was more that I am a woman who wasn’t ready to inhabit the uglinesses that men have, that every single one of them carries around with them, and so I just sort of wrote a neuter character with no core of feeling. To prove this point I reread the first chapter: the first-person protagonist goes to his friend’s house in Chicago and his friend confesses that she’s in love with their mutual friend, who she doesn’t know as well as he does. I had probably rewritten this scene six or seven times, scrapping it and reorienting the narrative angles and descriptions like I was trying to solve a Chinese puzzle box. I had read somewhere that a good piece of writing feels like a lid on a box making a click sound.
At this point, I could see it almost from every angle even as the form that ended up on the page receded from me. I couldn’t see what I had written because I could see everything that I had written underneath it. I busied myself in the kitchen, made tea, sat back down. It was entirely possible that this piece of juvenilia would be the beginning and end of my writing career, that I would end up just devoting myself to Mindy’s wonderful newspaper and would have no time or energy left to become a real writer.
This was cynical and so I stopped myself from continuing down that train of thought. I took the tea I had made to the loveseat by the window, looked around the room. I tried to picture people sitting on all of the couches and chairs, milling about by the windows, having conversations while leaning against the walls.
Right when I was about to stand up again, there was a sharp knock at the door. I waited a few seconds for my heart to stop pounding and answered. It was a tall, blond man with a full beard. His eyes widened a little bit at seeing me.
“Mindy’s friend, yeah. Are you Terrence?”
“Yeah.” He had a deep voice.
Mindy’s boyfriend, who was a furniture maker or else a crafter of some kind; someone who used his hands.
The door was only open a crack. I’m sure he wasn’t used to being greeted at this apartment in this way. “What’s up?”
“I, um, I just thought I would come by and say hi. Mindy told me you would be here.” I saw that he was holding a box. A gift?
He shuffled his feet. “I brought some, um, croissants.”
Suddenly it seemed like we had been standing in the doorway for an improbably long time. I opened it the rest of the way. “Do you want to come in for a second?”
He brightened. “Sure! I can’t stay long, though.”
Before I could say anything else, he strode past me into the room, took off his shoes, placed the box on the coffee table, sat down. I wondered if the spot he chose was the spot he always chose. I tried to hide my surprise and maneuvered into the kitchen to make more coffee. I had left the tea on the floor next to the loveseat. For some reason, hospitality always meant coffee to me.
“So you’re the novelist,” I heard him say from behind me.
I tried not to grimace. “Yeah, nominally. I think Mindy told me you make furniture?”
“I’m a carpenter, I make custom stuff in my free time.”
I realized I had never talked to a carpenter before. I went and sat down next to him, poured him coffee, took a croissant. “How did you two meet?” I asked with my mouth full.
He didn’t take one. “Mindy wanted to talk to me about the furniture for something in the paper and I offered to show her my the workshop I have. One thing led to another, you know.” He spread his hands.
I did not know how one thing would lead to another but didn’t say that. “It must be pretty good furniture,” I said.
He made a kind of apologetic gesture with his shoulders. “Well. Do you want to see some of it? I have pictures.”
He showed me pictures on his phone of tall-backed chairs carved out of pine with ornamental backs. He had made a stately coffee table with proportions that suggested mid-century modernism and Shaker design. They really were beautiful, and I told him so. He was apologetic and modest.
I searched for other things to talk to him about. “It must be nice dating someone who is also so invested in her work. It sounds like you would understand each other well.”
“Maybe, maybe. I think in the early days I was the only one she talked to besides the other journalists. They were all driving her sort of crazy, and she wanted me to show her around, you know.”
“How about you?”
I kept trying to find evidence of something in his speech, but it was really just blank and clear, not affected at all. His body language was the same: easy and unanxious. I was aware suddenly of how bunched-up my body was. Mindy told me once that I kept a lot of tension in my shoulders. I kept trying to look at Terrence’s hands, but he kept them tucked between his thighs.
I finished the croissant and took a sip of coffee. “What do you mean?”
“How do you know Mindy?”
“College. We were both in this creative nonfiction class.”
A pause. I felt the need to fill the space. “She was on the school paper most of the time and wanted me to join, and I can’t help but think about that right now, I guess.”
“But this is still just a day job for you, right?”
“Um, how do you mean?”
“You’re a novelist. Mindy kept using that word.”
“Oh, yeah. For sure.” I tried to sound assured.
Another beat. He was looking at me weirdly intently, but whenever I tried to make eye contact his face aimed away from me. Toward the walls, the kitchen, his lap where his hands were still tucked between his jeaned thighs.
“The paper is definitely Mindy’s baby, though. I mean, I’m sure you know what the first couple months were like.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Yeah, maybe. I would love to hear what it was like for you.”
“For me? I just didn’t see her that much. Once I asked her whether it wouldn’t be better for us to just not be together but she insisted that I was her boyfriend, she said that, but that I needed to let her work.”
I took another croissant. “Mhm.”
“I think this is the first real vacation she wanted in three years, and I asked whether I should come, and she said something about just needing to think.”
“That sounds like her, yeah.”
“Yup. She’s determined,” he said, and sipped his coffee. He made a face and put it down.
I felt this weird twisty feeling in my insides and realized after a second that I was just sort of looking at him. He seemed embarrassed. “Anyway, um, enough about that. What’s your novel about?”
I sat back in my chair and tried very hard to assume a relaxed position. “It’s… it’s sort of a road trip narrative.”
“Oh, like Kerouac?”
“Um. Not really. It’s, it’s about three college friends who drive through the Southwest in the ‘80s. Sort of a love triangle. But it’s really about a lot of other stuff, too.”
“I see, I see. Who’s in love with who?”
“Two of them are, um, sort of a couple, and then the third one is in love with the woman.”
“I see. Who does she choose in the end?”
“She decides to stay with the man. Her boyfriend, I mean. But she’s tempted.”
I took a gulp of coffee. “Yeah. Um, yeah. The, um, the uncoupled character is a lesbian.” I hated that it was so hard to say that word to him, but he seemed nonplussed.
“Ah, I see.” He took a croissant finally. “Is it, um, based on anything? Anything that happened to you?”
“No, no,” I said probably too quickly. “I mean, inasmuch as I don’t really know if I can, like, come up with any situations that aren’t, like, at least sort of based on my life. I don’t know, you know?”
I realized I was talking loudly and quickly. I asked him about the furniture again and he talked for a long time in a detailed, rambly discussion of the tools and techniques that he used, gesturing with his hands. I didn’t really understand most of what he said, but I kept nodding and he kept going. I finished my coffee and looked uneasily toward the bathroom.
At one point he broke off and looked kind of embarrassed, or as embarrassed as someone like him could look. “I’m glad you’re interested in this sort of thing. Mindy never really pays too much attention to it.”
“Didn’t she, like, seek you out that one time, though?”
“Sure. Between you and me, though, she got a bunch of stuff wrong in the article she wrote about me. I didn’t see it until I had gone on two other dates with her.”
“I thought about bringing it up but that day she came over with a bottle of wine and just looked so… cheery. I didn’t want to make her feel bad.”
“Did you ever bring it up?”
“That sounds like her, to be honest. She’s, like, so smart, but she has her own thing, her own way of doing things. And sometimes it’s like she doesn’t see you, and you don’t ever get to get as, like, close to her as you might want to, but it’s like by being around her you can get a rush, just from seeing what her mind is doing.”
I was aware that I was somehow both ranting and not saying much at the same time and so I let myself trail off. I listened to the hum of the HVAC in the walls.
He was giving me a weird look. “Yeah, she’s a remarkable woman,” he said.
I felt vulnerable in a way that made me feel stupid. I wished I had more coffee or another pastry to occupy my hands and mouth with.
He took a second bite out of the croissant and just set the other half down on the coffee table. He leaned forward like he was about to stand up, put his hands on his knees. I was suddenly aware of how wide his shoulders were in the flannel shirt he was wearing. “When were you gonna go over to the office?”
“Friday.” It was Tuesday.
He had stood up at this point and was putting his coat back on. His body language was oddly small on someone with his large frame. “If you wanted to get in there sooner, just to meet everyone, get, uh, a sense for it, you should give Alicia a call. She kinda reminds me of you. I’m sure Mindy mentioned her to you.” He looked at me fixedly, like he was trying to figure something out.
“I don’t know that she ever did.”
“I can give you her number. Do you have any paper?”
I handed him my outline and my red pen. “You can just write it in the margins.”
He did and handed it back to me. “Well, I’ll be seeing you around, I’m sure.” he said.
“Totally.” I remained sitting.
Once he closed the door I reached for the croissant he left on the table and ate it in two bites.
I waited a little while after that but I eventually found Alicia on Facebook. She was tall, blond, her hair even shorter than mine. In her profile picture she was smiling in front of an enormous state-fair pumpkin wearing a red flannel over a tank top, cargo pants. I laughed and then felt gross and then went to look in the mirror again and then sat down at the couch.
I shook myself and went back to it. Writing went better for a while. I felt as though I was skimming my fingers across the surface of a rough object, smoothing it, feeling it repel my touch. It didn’t have to feel like it was mine, even though it was. I tried, sometimes, to read it into my own life, trying to act the critic, but the passing resemblances I saw never became convincing enough. My eyes frequently returned to the piece of paper with Alicia’s number.
It was a weird gesture but it was also kind, given that he probably assumed that lesbians are all lonely and sad. I wasn’t sure where to put it in my mind. I wondered if Alicia knew any more queer women in the area. I had occasionally joked to my friends in Chicago about giving up on living in the city and on dyke drama and moving to a farm, starting a commune, whatever. The politics were vague.
The ending was a mess but I kept up my pace. This book made no goddamn sense, I thought with a kind of giddy ferocity. Even if it would be published no one would read it, and then no one would ever read anything written by me ever again. It was almost a comforting thought. I would disappear into the margins of Mindy’s newspaper.
I returned to the Facebook profile and decided that she was attractive. I considered texting and making some excuse to see her, smiling as she showed me my new workspace, introduced me to everyone. What did she do, write, edit? Something more pedestrian like graphic design or web dev? I would ask cautiously if she wanted to get a drink sometime. I would let her show me her favorite place. The bartender would give us a weird look, maybe someone would make a snide comment, but after all we were just coworkers. We would have things to talk about. I would let her invite me home after that if she wanted to, or maybe it would take a few more dates, I would fall into her arms, sensibly, gratefully, with a sense that I had found something uncommon. I would go on double dates with Mindy and her weird boyfriend. My life would immediately have a settledness to it.
I noticed that I wasn’t focused on writing so I stood up and started pacing the room. There was a little shelf in the kitchen that I didn’t notice that had a basket of colorful fabric in it. I picked up the basket, pulled out one of the long pieces of cloth.
It was a long strand of quilted fabric that was a little thicker and rougher than a scarf. The ends tapered into triangular points and gold tassels hung off the ends of it. The fabric was patterned with bright red and green poinsettas and gold post horns. A table runner. I remembered this from my parents’ house. They were a sort of decorative centerpiece you put in the middle of your table. Trivets for food at holidays would go on top of them. I immediately imagined garish centerpieces and the smell of cinnamon and cloves.
I looked in the basket again. She had four of these things?
I folded it up much less elegantly than it had been initially, sat back down in front of my computer, opened my email absently.
Mindy had emailed me a picture of a mutual friend of ours across from the table of some vegan restaurant. I opened the email window, deleted what I had written before, started typing aimlessly, barely thinking about what I was writing. I mentioned Terrence, I mentioned the novel, I talked about a lot of other things that I was didn’t realize I was thinking about. I hit send without reading it over. I stood up and walked over to the window, looked out at the dormant cornfield that was just barely visible through the trees and houses across the way.
It was nearly five-thirty. If I kept going I could finish this thing before it got dark outside. If it wasn’t raining I could go for a walk. I sat down again, found the page where Terrence wrote the number, pulled my phone out, typed in the number, wrote some stuff in the text window. I returned to my writing with an intensity that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I barely noticed when the screen became the only source of light in Mindy’s cluttered apartment.
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