Seminar. (Remember that play I got really angry about? Yeah, that play.) R. 7K+
Kate wins: the fic. Or maybe just, Kate gets to be angry and use it: the fic. (Plus Kate/Martin—damn Lily and Hamish's forever chemistry.) Set at the end of the show and onward. Canon compliant, too.
“You’re night and day, you’re everything,” he’d said to her, and she looked back at him and thought: Jesus Christ, and you call yourself a writer.
To be fair, that’s exactly the scenario she wrote in her head, maybe in as many words. When she was in tenth grade. And that’s a line she likes to think she would have scrapped by the second draft. Even at fifteen, she thinks she should have known better. Not better than to love the lanky boy with too many words trapped in his stuttering mouth, but better, for sure, than to use that kind of pathetic yin-yang metaphor. Night and day. Sun and stars. When he hits the top of the New York Times Recommended Book List, she’ll remember this specific brand of word vomit, and she’ll think fuck you, Martin about as loud as she’s thinking it now.
She will be able to see through him.
Unconsciously and unbeknownst to herself she’s been honing that skill for years: practicing with her eyes closed, and now they’re open, and his skin’s peeled back. Seeing through Martin—that’s her #2 skill now, second only to rewriting herself.
Call it a survival mechanism. It’s easy to fall out of love with a skeleton, a naked heart.
He shows up to get his shit in increments. Of course he does. Martin is the prototypical slow mover—in so many ways.
He sits in the chair opposite her. She stands.
“Don’t you have shit to move?”
“Come on, Kate.” He shifts uneasily. “Can’t we, like, watch something together? I don’t know, turn on Maury, turn on SyFy, check OnDemand, it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t Leonard have HBO?”
“Leonard doesn’t have a TV.”
She rolls her eyes. Of course he doesn’t. “Sorry,” she says, “didn’t notice,” meaning I’ve been there, remember? and watches him try not to flinch. Petty, of course, but she doesn’t know when she’s going to feel like she’s earned the peace to cancel out the petty urges, when it will feel even between them. And it’s so easy. Martin, who can’t keep his feelings in under his skin, who can’t keep his words tethered to the page.
The literary world’s going to eat him alive.
She crosses her arms. “I’m waiting for you to go. Any time.”
“What’s wrong with us?” he has the gall to ask, and she laughs, throws her head back and her legs over the arm of the chair. She is learning the power of undaintiness, of letting her body take up space—she feels him try not to watch her, eyes tearing away from the casual sprawl of her body. Oh, yes, I have a body, and the knowledge is a weapon, the knowledge is under her skin, and his eyes are on her all the time, and she wanted this, once, so badly. When she would have been willing to nurture his fragile soul, that enormous porcelain vase that is his artistic ego; when she would have lay on her back for him to step on, rather than fuck. When she didn’t feel so goddamn old, so sick of the world.
She’s still laughing, chuckles hitching hoarse in her throat. In fairness to him, it’s not just him. It’s the whole world wide, sick with self-love, staring into its own reflection. The world that picked him because he looked like them.
She’s seen where she’d be picked, the mirror that seeks her. Fuck that. She can do better. But goddamnit if it wouldn’t be easier, looking like Martin in the mirror, being Martin like a means of cheating in this stupid competition of words and souls, all boy’s-club tabula rasa. She can see his future now: from clay to Kerouac.
“I’m a person, that’s what’s wrong.”
“You’d rather be a writer?” He cocks an eyebrow, and she lets her neck fall back, sick of him, sick of listening to him. Closes her eyes so she can pretend to be really sick of looking at him.
“You gonna go anytime soon? I’ve got your number, Martin. I’ll call you.”
Universal language for when you won’t. She says it because they both know as much. A gloat, again. When will she stop doing that, she wonders—it’s just a kick at the empty spaces. A reminder that they’re empty, but damn if it doesn’t feel good.
“I’ll come back for the rest later,” he says and lets himself out.
Riveting dialogue. She promises herself she’ll forget it as soon as possible.
Incrementally, that's what she does, or at least she subsumes the urge to obsess over it in typing like a whirlwind coming back from the prison every day, fingertips banging on the keyboard until they’re sore. She’s a fast typist, has always been, types at the speed of her thoughts, and before she knows it, she has chapters stacking up, books on the make. She grins, doesn’t edit as she goes. The edit’s for later. Rough it out first.
Editing used to feel like picking at the skin around her nails, every word a tiny fringe of skin peeled back. She only had one story, like she only had one body. And it was a temple, too, for a while.
This is a temple, this isn’t her skin and bones on the page, this is fresh blood and someone else’s name. She splatters words on the page gleefully and knows that later she’ll be back to slash them back, like weeds or like limbs, depending on her mood or the scene she decides she’s in.
The Leonard thing ends with vindictive slowness. Not toward him—he is what he is, and she knew exactly what he was at the start; all the offers and hookups and professional elbow-rubs in the world won’t change his essential skeeze DNA. It exists symbiotically with his intelligence, and she counts herself lucky to know this, to know exactly where she is with him at all times. It means something to her, to have wrung respect out of him before she climbed onto his dick—oh, that’s vulgar, she thinks, keeping it, tasting it, relishing the raw brutality of the words. She knows she is capable of five-dollar words, flower gardens of syllables, and she is proud of them, she tends them still, on the page. Of some stories. Not all of them. She’s pruning, now. And it feels different to sling around dick, cocksucker, fuck, cunt when she’s wearing the remnants of it close to her skin, when she’s fresh-fucked every time she feels like it. She’s keeping that. The knowledge that the right fuck in the right place on the page can ignite.
He respected her first, they’re using each other, she has a thousand looping explanations she’s not going to bother to parse out now—now that there’s nobody worth telling. But she wrung intellectual credit from this asshole stone before anything, and that means she doesn’t feel guilty about it, ashamed of herself.
The first time she goes back to him, Martin’s sprawled on the couch, a pretzel around his laptop, and he about falls in on himself when he sees her.
She bites her mouth into a tight smile—Izzylike insouciance doesn’t come naturally to her. Maybe she can get that fucked into her, maybe it comes with the twentieth time, fiftieth, hundredth. Who keeps count these days? Doesn’t matter: she’s smiling and waving as she slips into the bedroom, already peeling the cardigan from her shoulders.
She goes back. Less and less, though. The decrease spreads out over a matter of weeks. God knows he’s not hurting for sex when she’s not around, and she—she’ll make do. It’s never been about the sex for her, not even coming home to type fuck-fuck-shit-fuck on every page of the prison manifesto, not even when she’s walking home with borrowed soap and lingering unscrubbed sweat on her skin. Maybe that’s the grace of not having a dick: you don’t think with it. She has a brain in her head, first and foremost, thanks. Her being there in the apartment: that’s a testament to brainpower.
She walks home conscious of her body, of the sweat on her skin and the lassitude in her bones, and ticking tasks off her lists. This is a victory, every time.
The bus to and from the prison rattles and rattles along the road, and she thinks: who could have imagined that this is who she would become? Nobody expected her to work, to really knuckle down and get into it. She’s rich and blond and they didn’t think she could—the big ambiguous mostly-male they in the back of her mind, that she’s constantly fucking off these days. Look at me, she thinks, fearless.
There is nothing to fear the minute you give up your name.
She looks out the dirty window, catches the edge of her profile reflected in the smudgy glass, and thinks: I don’t stop here. I don’t start.
Five thousand words that night. Eat dust, detractors. Eat shit.
Martin confronts her—well, “confronts”, sarcastic quotes, he’s still Martin—somewhere in the vague middle, not the first time and not the last.
“What’s this about?” he asks her when she passes the couch on her way out—Leonard in the shower, her skirt pulled on hastily and crumpled around her hips. She stops and snorts, leaning against the back of the couch.
“Do I need to draw you an anatomical diagram?”
“Come on, Kate. I know you better.”
“No, Martin. Thing is, you clearly don’t.”
“You’re better than this.”
“Better than—” She raises her eyebrows. “Oh, right, what—smart girls don’t fuck, is that it?” She wonders what would happen if Izzy could hear him now. What a bad ex he is, even without trying to be. She knows exactly how nice he thinks he is, too. “Feminists don’t fuck? News flash, we fixed that in the second wave. In the sixties.”
Martin’s hands wave uselessly, aimlessly in the air. “You don’t fuck—him—”
She can feel her eyebrows climbing on top of her head. “Ask him.”
“Not for book deals. Not for—you don’t do that. You don’t do transactions. You have integrity.”
Jesus fucking Christ, she thinks. Because men don’t fuck girls on pedestals: she noticed, thanks for the life lesson, Martin, she’s been noticing since she was sixteen and the imaginary ceramic was drying on her feet. With an irate, crisp movement, she salutes him, like she’s flicking him off. “Yeah. I do. That's not in question.” She can feel the pedestal cracking beneath her feet. Good.
“Is this about me?” he asks. “About us?” and she laughs, laughs big in his face.
Of course. A bit. The way she walks slow and lazy and proprietal through the center room, creased and unbuttoned and holding her shoes in her hand. She could get ready in the other room: the bare feet and crumpled clothes are a choice. She could bite her lip, could sigh when she’s touched: the way she moans, like she’s sending the sound into the foundations of the walls, that’s a choice. She could stop coming.
She has no goddamn responsibility to stop.
“Jesus.” She shakes her head. “Your ego is amazing. I thought Leonard was going to prune that.”
It’s always the insecure ones who have the hugest egos, secretly. Symbiotic kinda thing, very boy kinda thing. How does she know this? Years with Martin, that’s how.
She’s in Barnes & Noble and she almost trips when she sees the table: every book on the table with Austen in the title, not many of them written by Jane. Almost laughs out loud. The Cult of Austen. She’s seen most of these before, even read her way through them, though she stopped when the heroes started growing fangs.
She grins, biting her lip, and thinks two things that sit uncomfortably back to back:
She thinks, I’m better than that, and it feels like a fallacy.
She thinks, I’m marketable, and it doesn't.
That’s lucky, she thinks, in spite of herself.
Picking one up, she looks at the back, the publisher, takes it in. She thinks about pseudonyms, the whole endless world of things she could call herself. She thinks the disparity in her thoughts feels just that much more like a challenge.
That night, she mails off the story—The Story, capital letters, legendary already—to three editors she picked out of the backs of several pink-spined paperbacks. None of the emails she sends are signed with her own name. These names are brand-new, belonging to no one else, to her alone the way her characters do. Once she’s done with the queries and with the day’s work on the memoir, she spends the rest of the night mulling what it would be like to be an Imogen, a Portia, an Isabella—
Okay, maybe the names belong to Shakespeare, too. Sue a girl. Jane would have been too on-the-nose. (Marianne or Elinor, Elizabeth or Emma—but she smiles to herself, wry, because who’s she being but a Catherine.)
She never knew how easy it would be to write a book. Here’s the secret: all you have to do is just that. Write it.
The Austen anthology comes out first. She holds the book in her hands, real, heavy, and feels a piece of herself lightening: it’s a real book and it’s a secret pyre; the story, in her hands, is finally out of her hands. Her head. It’s left her in increments, and she shakes the last of it off the minute she puts the copy down.
She sends Leonard a signed copy—in the mail, not in person. That way, she can write an epigraph that skirts the phrase “calcified lumps of shit,” though she gives him enough credit to find it between the lines. (Oh, it’s there. It’s there for him to eat.)
Tobias Wolff would hate that book, the whole catalogue of writers-in-residence at Bennington would laugh, but all the same, this is her mirror, as much as Leonard is Martin’s. This is the place on the shelf that beckons her: her harmless, hyperliterate-white-girl self. Come here, it says. We love Austen as much as you do—we love what you love, we know what you know and fear what you fear.You’re a woman, and this is what women write, write for women, for women who understand. Write for us, write a bibliography printed in pink spines, we'll praise you, we'll read you, we'll keep you.
She’s not too good for it. Pseudonym or no, her story belies that, listed neatly there in the index. But she damn well believes that she’s bigger than it. That she is more than a woman-palatable woman. That she is more than a prison ghost, for that matter. That she’s more than any of this.
Her life isn’t exclusively songs for solitude and jailhouse rock, even at her most obsessively hermitlike. Even then, her house is good for dinner parties, drinks, and people are calling her to go out—she spends time with Bennington classmates, artists and women’s studies grads, mostly, the occasional actress or wayward econ major; it’s not that she’s avoiding writers, but—okay, yeah, she’s avoiding writers. Consider this a cleanse.
(And she doesn’t know how to talk about her book deals, or whether even to call them hers—neither gloating nor blushing seems quite the right response.)
All the same she runs into Izzy, which isn’t surprising—Izzy isn’t a writer, that’s her first response, Izzy doesn’t revolve around the written word the way the rest of them did, do, and if Martin hadn’t wanted to fuck her, Kate expects he’d’ve hated her. The way she did.
Did, she thinks, insistently past-tense.
“So,” she says after three gin and tonics, unsteady in new heels—she was that girl and went and bought shoes with her first paycheck for the Austen story, but it went with the story, fuck you, she’d thought, I’m a girl, a woman, for today on my terms I’m Female Incarnate. I am what you made me! she’d wanted to bellow on the street, sociocultural constructs, I’m looking at you! but instead she’d just walked out of the store with a pair of purple plastic heels on her feet, price stickers still on the soles. “So,” she says again and puts a hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “Do we talk about Leonard’s penis?”
Izzy snorts. “Uh, why?”
“I mean, we—” Kate flaps a hand between the two of them. We’re girls, she thinks, isn’t this how we’re meant to bond, over—this? This is the place where they can stand on even ground: neither’s a prude and neither’s a slag and neither has a text in hand to scry for virtue or vice. They don’t need to be thinking about each other’s words. They don’t need to fight about it. That twitchy, under-the-skin fight-picker discomfort is gone, now, and even if it’s replaced by the visceral awkwardness of this silence, of both of them imagining the other spread-legged in Leonard’s bed, at least that’s equal, right?
Shifting her drink into her other hand, Izzy laughs. “Like, Kate, come on. Haven’t you done this before?”
Kate’s mouth hangs open. Izzy puts a hand on her shoulder.
“We’re fine,” she says, she’s smiling, like Kate didn’t already feel like a huge flaming cunt. Easily, Izzy’s always smiled easily, done everything easily, no that’s not a sexual slur, Jesus Christ, like, give her a little bit of credit, she scolds herself silently, not everything you think has to be a veiled comment, get some fucking self-security already. Her face is flushed, she knows, she feels, she’ll pass it off as drunk mess. “Don’t think about it too hard. Just come out with me some time. I’ll text you.”
Kate nods, listens to herself agree, sips at the dregs of her gin trying to cool her cheeks. At least she won’t remember this conversation to write it out in the morning. It won’t make it into the book.
(What book? The next one—the next one—there’s always a next one, another to come.)
The memoir’s in print in winter. There’s no hardcover grace period; this, like the Austen pastiche, goes straight to paperback. Blurbs by authors of whom she’s never heard pepper the back: “visceral,” one says, another “real.” Nobody mentions the prose; then again, it’s not that kind of book. She pruned it of semicolons. He didn’t speak in semicolons when he was talking to her. Straight to the point.
She sees it in mixed shelves: nonfiction, memoir, true-crime. Is never sure where to place it, herself. In the end, she makes a shelf for it, placed right next to Austen. And on its other side, so much empty space: waiting.
Izzy does text her, tells her to meet her in Greenwich—get out of the uws! :) she texts, and Kate laughs when they end up at Sushi Samba; “not really a Village bar,” she says, and Izzy smirks, links an arm with her.
“Didn’t think you’d be down for a dive. You really need to stop fighting your latent princess tendencies.”
“I went to Bennington,” Kate protests, “I spent four years in the country,” and Izzy shivers.
They don’t talk much inside—drowned out by crappy club remixes of Latin dance, that’s the point. Kate gets carpaccio, Izzy gets a blue drink that smokes, and they talk about the weather, the heat, they sit hip to hip looking outward and men come to them. That’s what it’s like being out with Izzy, Izzy who is wearing cutoff shorts and tights even though there’s snow on the ground outside and keeps crossing and uncrossing her legs, stockings zipping audibly against each other.
The man who talks to Kate that night is clean-shaven, smiling, spectacled, wearing a suit but no tie. “So,” he asks, leaning into her, “what do you do?”
She cups the wet glass of her drink in her hand, tilts her head. Next to her, a businessman with the cuffs of his sleeves rolled up to the elbow reaches out to touch Izzy above the knee. She wipes the condensation on her palms against the table and shifts back. “I write.”
“Oh?” he asks. “Children’s books? Romance?”
“Prison memoirs,” she says, smiling with teeth.
She doesn’t go home with him. Alone in her apartment, she begins to outline once more, tipsy and warm and silent in her own company. Her handwriting is illegible in the morning, but she smiles when she sees it, smiles because there’s a story buried in the scribbles, smiles because she has so little to prove.
Martin’s book comes out the next fall, pushed and pushed along by Leonard. When she reads it, she thinks she can see the faintly sloppy traces of that speed, no matter how rigorous his time with Leonard was. (She has her doubts on exactly how rigorous Leonard is with Martin.) Then again, he’s been Emily Dickinsoning it up for years, stacking up the pages in his closet for years. (Though Leonard would have hated Emily, she’s like 90% sure. Too compulsive—and isn’t that shit for girls?)
It gets mixed reviews. She reads the Times one first thing, properly, on a Sunday, sitting at her computer with toast in her hand. She gets jam on her space key, scrolling down, waiting for a verdict: they are carefully neutral, half entranced and half...
He garners Fabergé-egg metaphors, butterfly boxes, similes about careful craftsmanship and bright, carefully wrought images. Images and worlds drawn exquisitely in words.
Exquisitely—and insistently small.
She reads the book, too. Doesn’t hate it. Bad sign, she thinks. For him.
She so doesn’t hate it that she texts him. No review, just: Read it. He texts her back too fast: I was worried you wouldn’t.
Hello? she responds. How petty do you think I am?
Dinner? he asks, and she accepts.
When they were in high school, she showed him her stories every week, fresh pages from the printer, paragraphs in every email. He’d smile, wouldn’t return the favor. Eventually she got used to it, accepted that smile on good faith.
“Are you going to write a story about me one of these days?” she’d asked him. It had been a joke even as much as it had been a desire. He’d ducked his head, smiled, smiled, never showed her a thing, never loved her, never given her a thing.
Turns out he’d never loved her stories and turns out he’d been writing his own all along.
She can see him, the evolution of him, through high school, college, all the way to the present, under the words. Such little words, such little worlds: a boy and his words and the thin window of the city he’s willing to show, the figures dancing mothlike in and out of his life like shadows thrown from his solid body. The sentences are delicate, fine, sharp, and microcosmically small: he is alone on the page. A history, a story, confined to himself by himself.
Except for a few stronger shadows, even if they still feel like tropes: The Academic, for example, and (she sighs, fuck, hell, Martin) The Woman. (Shit, Christ, Martin, haven’t you ever known a woman you didn’t preemptively capitalize?)
Aren’t you embarrassed? she thinks. She won’t ask because she knows the answer—he doesn’t have it in him to be, and hell, he has a blurb from Jonathan Safran Foer on the back, why would it occur to him to be?
“Aren’t you embarrassed?” she teases when she meets him at the step of the restaurant, for it’s the kind of place he defensively wouldn’t’ve been caught dead in before he was the designated Next Big Thing, the kind her parents would take her and he would have given her shit about for a week—a big, hip steakhouse, low light and overpriced meat. Martin, who flirted with vegetarianism out of crabbed poverty, who gave up vegetarianism when he decided he couldn’t afford to take pains. Martin, angry-smug hipster king, degrimed. Showing off. “I’m surprised you’re not wearing a suit, a place like this.”
He’s wearing a jacket, slim pants, new glasses. She came in an ivory coat, sharp heels that click on the pavement. Showing off is less obvious when it’s her. “I wanted to take you someplace you recognized.”
“Asshole,” she laughs. “I’ve never been here before in my life.”
“You get me.” He grins at her, a little awkward. “First paycheck, you know? I mean, I don’t think you do know—not about that.”
She bites her lip, tasting lipstick; she won’t fight him, not yet. No, it wasn’t the money when she got hers: it was the title of the book on the slip, the name in parentheses, the gorgeous impersonal crispness of the paper in her fingers. It mattered in a way that nothing else had mattered in her life. But it had not been the money that mattered, never the money. So she lets him open the door for her, pay for her. She orders mutton—she’s never seen it before on a menu in an actual restaurant—and it sits heavily in her stomach, as heavily as the silence in her mouth.
“How’d you like it?” he asks, and she smiles, sips her wine glass, drains her wine glass.
“That good, huh?”
“No, it is good. It’s nice.”
He leans in, puts his head in his hand. “Fuck.”
“Haven’t you been praised enough, Martin?”
“No.” He looks up, face rawly anxious. “It doesn’t work that way.”
She snorts. “Fuck you. It’s worked that way since the seminar.”
“I’m getting an interview next week. Atlantic Monthly. Leonard has a friend,” and fuck, time for another wine glass, full to the brim, half gone in a gulp. “I just—I don’t know what they want me to say—”
“Stop bleating,” she snaps. “You have to take this part, too, if you want the rest of it.”
“I’m not Douglas. I’m not out for fame.”
“That is.” She puts down the wineglass, heavy and empty, elegantly blown. It makes a soft, expensive-sounding thud against the fabric of the tablecloth. “Literally so much bullshit. Shy writer guy is just as much an act as any of Douglas’s showboating. You know you were exactly his level of asshole when you two were comparing lengths in my living room, and you will be exactly his level of asshole now. Everybody’s level of asshole. Foer’s level.”
“Foer seemed nice.”
She snorts. “Talked to his students lately? The girls in his class?”
“Always the feminist.”
“It’s this problem I have. Comes from being female 24/7.”
“And you need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
“Why, are you offering to be my bicycle?” She cuts her eyes at him. The wine bottle is empty. “You can teach me to ride. Just don’t ask me to get back on Leonard, like you.”
“Fuck!” he yelps, hands slamming into the edge of the table—not even fuck you, just fuck, aimless, Martin’s never known how to direct his anger, his fear. Her heart twinges—a residual eight-year ache. He’s looking down at his hands like he’s baffled by his hands, and now he’s laughing, shaking his head. He takes a slow pull of water, all out of wine, and she watches his throat, his startled eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m glad we’re fighting. I’m glad we’re friends. For a couple of minutes back in the beginning, I thought I’d accidentally asked you out on a date.”
His eyes are a plaintive accident now. Don’t play poker, she thinks; the mean conclusion on the tip of her tongue is, learn and you’ll be a better writer. Learn to be something other than yourself. “Please, Martin, I can do better than you,” she deadpans, and he laughs, blinks, goes back to normal.
“Did Leonard travel the way he does now—like, was he going war-zone-hopping when he was writing for real?” she can’t help asking.
He mulls, shakes his head. “Not sure. I mean, no, don’t think so? I think it was a time thing.”
Small worlds, getting bigger by force when you can’t imagine anymore. She nods. “Okay.”
“Just okay? No explanation?”
“Don’t get on my dick, Martin.”
“Okay.” He surrenders, raises his hands. “Okay.”
Silence stretches between them, and he winces. “Can we go to yours? I just want to sober up some.”
“Yeah?” She arches an eyebrow. She has nothing to prove, she thinks to herself, not by hating him, not by loving him. Not a thing. And even if there was something, there are books on her shelf, now, more than there are of his. “You are sleeping on the couch, mister,” she drawls, and he grins.
“You can’t move back in. Not now that you’re getting paid.”
“Man,” he sighs. “You knew me when I was a bum.”
“I’m not wholly convinced you’ve changed.”
He raises two fingers toward the waiter, ends up flapping them to flag him down. He shoots her a significant look and she bites back a laugh, raises her eyebrows so high she could wear them as a hat. Point proven—maybe not the one you were looking for. He looks like a bird. A bum. A boy, even now. A boy small enough to fit between the lines.
When they get back to hers, he wanders around with false aimless casualness before honing in, as if she couldn’t tell where he was going from the start, towards the bookshelves.
“How’s the ghostwriting going?”
“Good.” She breathes. “Good. It’s just writing, you know.”
“You’re name’s not on it. I can’t say, you know, my friend Kate—”
“And that’s what you need? The name?”
“No.” He turns, moves toward the couch, sinks down there among the pillows. “No, it isn’t.”
Picking the Austen off the shelf, she follows him. “Here. Read this. Page 212. You’ll laugh.”
She watches him turn, watches his face open, shocked. “You made it,” he says.
Not you wrote it, you published it, you did it, even. It’s silly to pick through word semantics now when her tongue is thick in her mouth and she has to forcibly pluck words out of the air when she talks, but even so, she thrills at it. He looks dismayed. Funny thing, once it would have broken her heart. Now she lifts her chin. “Good job, Kate.”
“I thought you buried it.”
“This is buried. Check the byline.”
“Published,” she points out.
He’s got that peeled-raw look in his eyes again; he puts down the book and looks at her. “Am I buried?”
“Jesus Christ, Martin.”
“No one likes the book.”
“Are you playing this game with me?” She crosses her arms and tucks her legs up under her and watches him crumple into his hands and the pillows, face first. She doesn’t reach out to him. She sits on her hands. “Really?”
“Leonard throws parties and everyone’s nice, really nice. Quiet. Elusive. They don’t talk about the book, they talk about me. I hear a lot of ‘promising’ and it’s always me, not the book, just me, just when they’re talking to me. I can’t make head or tail of it but they don’t like the book. It doesn’t make them feel a thing.”
“Fuck Foer. He owed Leonard. They all do. It didn’t make you feel—”
“God, cry more. You’re in the Times.”
“They’re going to forget about me in a year.”
She laughs, then. Laughs because—well, maybe, just maybe. “Yeah, you’re going to be the source of a zillion unread returns at the Strand. Used books with the spines not even cracked. But shit, what’s it matter? You’ll still have more credibility than I’ll ever get.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he has the gall to say. He pushes himself up against the back of the couch, resting his face on his fist, Thinker style. She’d accuse him of doing it on purpose, but maybe the saddest thing about Martin is he thinks it’s all an accident. “What if I never write anything immortal?”
“Dude,” she snorts, “just take a look outside your navel once in a while.”
“I’m looking at you.”
She bites back a raspberry, leaning back against the pillows. “That so doesn’t count. You don’t give a shit about my immortal legacy, anyway. You don’t even try.”
“I’ve been giving a shit for years!” Lifting himself up, he turns himself back toward her, leans in. “Since we were in high school, the whole point was that I could read you and be quiet about me. I gave so many shits, Kate, gave myself to you, and it didn’t even matter what the story was—”
Her mouth is hanging open. Jaw like a door in a storm. “Oh my god.”
“I thought that now it was my time—”
“Oh but fuck you so much, though!” A second too late, she snaps her jaws together, feels her teeth click. “Now it’s your time, as in, time for you on a platter, and you’re bitching and moaning because I’m not waiting at your feet? I’m not waiting, Martin. I’m writing. I’m getting better. Maybe one of these days you’ll bother to read a story, instead of just reading me into a story, and you’ll look up and see that it’s good.”
He is leaning into her, fixed, watchful, and she feels like she’s breathing fire into his face (well, the wine kind of fire, which is a kind of fire, a kind of red fog that amounts to the same thing); he is all elbows and long limbs and hyperextended joints and pretzel shapes, and then his elbow skids off the couch back and he is settling himself against her shoulder. “You’re such a presumptuous asshole,” she says, sucking the fire back, feeling it push-pull a swift rise and fall into the base of her throat. Her breath catches.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “it’s not like how I thought,” he says, “I wanted—”
“What?” she asks, and he leans in, and she thinks, really? and then his mouth is on hers, his teeth grazing her top lip, his tongue running under the ridge of her gums. He tastes the same as she does, wine-soaked and coal-hot, and she thinks, really, and pulls him on top of her, shoulders first, sucking against his mouth. His lips smear past hers, against her ear, her neck, and she gasps.
This isn’t the thing you write when you’re fifteen, she thinks, and the thought settles her, somehow. He is long in her lap and her knees hitch up to his hips, her skirt bunching back. “God, Kate,” he says, and his hand reaches out to smooth along her cheek, to push back against the pins falling out of her hair.
Her blood is racing, but her mind is tired, her tongue sticking to the base of her mouth. “This is what you came for, isn’t it?”
“I just came here,” he said. “Kate, you’re it. The universe could end right now and I’d be fine. Just you. Only person in the universe.”
She shakes her head. “Not fucking fair. You don’t get to be the only person in mine.”
“Are we going to fight again?” he asks disbelievingly, mouth parting, that familiar mouth with its unfamiliar flush, and her heavy, warm lids close and she tilts her chin back up, drinking in the air, drinking in his mouth when it hits hers again, his tongue tipping lightly against her bottom lip, his chin in her hands, the veins of his neck beating against her palms. “Are we going to fight all the time?” He is gasping for air and she bites at the side of his neck; he moans and she twists her hips, astonished as he sounds. As she arches her back, her hand fumbles against the coffee table and she hears the book knock to the ground. She bites harder.
“You’re the patriarchy. Patriarchy of the literary world, d’you know that? Look at what you became when you grew up.”
“You’re a cunt.”
“You’re my best friend,” and she is pushing the jacket from his shoulders, she is sitting up and pushing him back with her knees, peeling down the purple tights she’s wearing under her dress, “and you’re a cunt,” he says, “you should be happy for me—”
“Maybe if you’d written a better book.”
He sucks in a breath—hard—looks at her—shocked and furious—and then looks down, away, like he can’t look at her, but he’s looking between her legs and he’s lowering his head, meticulously, between them.
The room goes quiet between them as he pulls her underwear down to the edge of her tights, where they’re rolled up at her knees, and she does not spread her legs for him, she cannot, not with the tights, but he grips her steadily on the inside of her thighs, thumbs in the divots of her pubic bone. He doesn’t ask—is this all right—doesn’t plead, doesn’t say anything, but he moves slow, meticulous; she knows she could kick him in the head and he’d roll over like a dog. She doesn’t kick him. She lies back and hisses, softly, as he lays his mouth against the skin of her thighs, and up.
She wouldn’t think anger would be good for eating cunt, but he applies himself assiduously, he licks at her measured and slow and as she writhes beneath him, she feels his self-control crystallize as hers falls apart. Her spine is a violin string tense against the pillows of the couch, her elbow digging sharp and uncomfortable into its hard back, and her throat is thrown back and she is moaning, gasping incoherently—she has the brief blink of space in her head to think, thank god she’s not gasping his name. Just opening her mouth and sucking in thick breaths of air, shaking with heat and relentless ticks of pleasure underneath him, under his tongue flicking at her clit and his fingers stroking at her. As she comes closer and closer to the edge, he slips a finger inside her, two, and as she comes, he twists, twists as she twists and shudders as she shudders and when she lifts her flushed head she sees that he is biting a hard line into his lip. His glasses are fogged. She laughs and reaches up, already reaching to take them off, and he slides his hand from between her legs with a wet, slick sound.
“Okay,” she says, “fine,” once she has her breath back, “is that how you deal with all your critics?” and he leans in to kiss her neck again, biting at her skin.
“Maybe he’d’ve picked you if you shut up once in a while.”
“Yeah, shut up and listened to the big man, like a good girl.” She kicks at his hip, knocking her kneecap into the pointy jut of bone there, and he stops kissing her, but he doesn’t get up. Just lies there, long and heavy over her.
“God,” he says, muffled against her ear, “you’re sharp.”
“No, soul. Sharp in the soul.” He sighs deep in her ear, burrows into her neck, and she pushes him back. When he lifts his head, he blinks, vision beneath the glasses looking even foggier.
“Can I sleep on the couch?”
“Can you leave before I wake up?”
He licks his lips absently (she bites her tongue inside her mouth) and nods.
He does. She gets up alone in her apartment too early, shaky and sickish in the pit of her stomach, and watches the sunrise by herself, pouring half-flat prosecco into her almost-empty carton of orange juice for a matted kind of hair-of-the-dog. But first she tucks herself into her office as he burritos himself into an afghan on her couch, and she writes.
Filtering through the hallway outside the door—she didn’t bother to close it behind her—she hears him padding around, coming closer and closer. He comes to stand in the frame of the door, barefoot in his boxers with the afghan around his shoulders. “What are you working on?”
“What’s that going to be?”
She grins back over her shoulder. “You’ll find out when it’s published.”
On New Year’s Eve, she doesn’t go out. Chooses not to—it’s not that she doesn’t have invitations, that Izzy didn’t text her or Ohio, Vermont aren’t calling her names. She’s not going to leave the city and she doesn’t feel like ringing in the New Year getting fucked in a bathroom, or with someone trying to fuck her in a bathroom. So after dinner out she just comes back home and curls up on the couch, the countdown and crowd blaring on the TV in the background.
She types up resolutions, toasts, in a text document (not even a Word: she’ll delete these instead of saving them; it will feel like a pyre). Here’s to you, asshole Leonard. Here’s to my agent. And here—here’s for me. For the author on the true crime shelf and the chick in the Austen anthology. And more to come.
At midnight, her phone rings. She’s making herself a French 75—well, another French 75, another-another, New Year’s is nothing if not an excuse to mix her gin with champagne—and her mouth is wet, hands slippery and cool with condensation, as she picks up, barely digesting the name on the screen.
No surprises, though.
Her mouth twists as she sits down. “Why aren’t you out?” she asks. “I’d’ve thought you’d be being fêted somewhere. Party of the future. This year’s savior of the literary world.”
“Fuck a fête,” Martin says, voice arcing high through the phone, and she tips her head back against the arm of the couch, swallowing laughter.
“Course. You’ve got that patrician latent alcoholism thing going on.”
“It’s a holiday, asshole.”
“Happy new year.”
He’s silent for a while on the other end of the line. “What if,” he begins again, “what if I said to you I—”
“Don’t say shit you’ll regret. Tonight’s about fresh starts.”
She listens to him sigh into the phone, but he shuts up again. For a while.
“Happy new year, kid,” she says to him, and he laughs, rueful and gloomy. It echoes, lonely, down the line.
“It’s really gonna be new, isn’t it?”
Yes, she thinks, tucking herself into the couch. Yes, she types on her computer screen. There’s an email from her agent, a reminder on her task list that she scheduled a meeting tomorrow. She minimizes the screen and listens to people cheer on the screen and to Martin’s silence in her ear. There is a blanket around her shoulders, a glass of gin and champagne in her hand, five unread texts on her phone. And two books with her words in their bindings sitting on her shelf. Her name to come, someday, someday when the words are worth her. She’ll choose when.
“That it is,” she says. “That it is.”