First installment in a series of three. This story was first published at Failbetter.com.
The banker and the poet were friends. They had been roommates in college and, upon receiving their degrees in economics and literature, respectively, they were pulled by the gravitational force of their chosen fields to New York City. The banker had prospered, the poet had not. The banker was happy, the poet miserable; the banker bold, the poet meek. The banker made friends easily, and not just with other bankers: in his circle were bartenders, doctors, new media artists, chefs, prosecutors, jazz musicians, a refrigerator repairman who speculated in real estate. He adored women and, being handsome, confident, and rich, he slept with the ones he found beautiful, interesting, and nice—and sometimes not so nice, that kind of woman could be dynamite in bed, being so connected to her own greed and aggression; which was also the three-word title of a well-known contemporary poem about sex given to him by his poet friend—but not written by him, because the poet had not succeeded in publishing any of his work. The banker, who was 32, as was the poet, had even had a serious love affair in his late twenties, and had suffered when it ended, but only for several months; he now counted his ex among his friends, and looked upon their two-year-long relationship as proof that he was capable of having a serious long-term commitment with a real, complicated human, and of becoming a husband and a dad, roles he aspired to but didn’t spend much time worrying about because right now he was enjoying life and taking it as it came.
The poet made friends with difficulty. He liked people in principle but, he had discovered with dismay, rarely in the flesh. People other than the banker mostly neither liked nor disliked the poet because he was generally too invisible in social situations to make a case for himself as worthy of either position. He’d gone to New York because he’d heard from professors and read in books how vibrant the community of poets was there, and, the writing of poetry being a lonely and thankless vocation, he’d hoped to be supported by the web of sturdy filament criss-crossing from poet’s heart to poet’s heart in that thriving cultural cosmopolis. It turned out, though, that the poets were separated into groups, and though there was a lot of love and support within each group, mistrust and envy and aesthetic disdain divided one group from another: uptown vs. downtown, experimental vs. mainstream, spoken word vs. academic, white vs. of color, and so on. The poet, unable to navigate the alliances and enmities, had few friends, and none beside the banker with whom he felt at ease. Even with the banker he would argue over a great many issues of interest to them both, which the banker found fun and the poet found stimulating but also wearying: after the two had parted company at the end of their evenings together, the poet would go home to his tiny apartment that was too hot in both summer and winter, continue the arguments in his head, and burst into tears, though he was thankful to the banker for giving him new things to think about, new ways to look at the world. As for sex, he had occasionally taken women home over the years, sometimes even the same woman more than once, but was an anxious, halting practitioner of pillow talk, and, as it turned out, even free-spirited bohemian women lost interest fairly quickly in a man who had few prospects of a decent income; at least he thought that was the reason they lost interest.
One warm Saturday evening in September they met for an early dinner in Chinatown and then strolled north on the narrow embankment between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. Much of the embankment was being disemboweled by monstrous earth-moving machines enlisted in the “public-private partnership”—the phrase made the poet’s skin crawl—that had been formed to create a new “mixed use” embankment for the city. The poet, Alec, preferred—loved—the old, dilapidated, mixed-uselessness embankment, and was sure the politicians and the fat cats who advised them were going to replace it with a sleek abomination “used” by far too many people who would walk, bike, skateboard, and rollerblade in reckless crowds to the planned embankment retail shops, whose owners’ gouging of citizens’ pocketbooks politicians would euphemistically refer to as “the park’s financial self-sufficiency.”
“Everything makes your skin crawl,” the banker, Rick, replied, homing in on the weak point in his friend’s argument, which was evidently not his predictable caricature of politicians and businessmen, but Alec’s own biography. “Your skin has been crawling for as long as I’ve known you. It’s time you taught it to walk.”
A man on a lightweight, yellow, expensive racing bike whooshed by at thirty miles an hour and nearly clipped Alec’s elbow, which, if clipped, would have shattered.
“But what I really don’t like is how they moved the pedestrian-slash-bike path right up next to the highway,” Alec said. Their arguments often began—and consisted—in attempts to control the topic to be argued. Alec would not settle into a topic until he’d found one about which he could make an irrefutable assertion. This was his only hope of winning against Rick, whose formidability lay not in his superior command of the facts, nor even in his argumentative skills, but in his being better at winning, it didn’t matter what—money, bets, friends, women, games of basketball, arguments. “The path was so much nicer when it ran along the river and the little swathe of blacktop and weeds made a buffer between you and the noise, smog, and ugliness of the cars. Every time we walk here we shave a month off our lives.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“Oh fuck off with that idiotic platitude.” Only to Rick could Alec so freely express annoyance. It was pleasant for him.
“Anyway, I like it. It’s like standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, or swimming alongside a blue whale. It reminds me of that story about Leonid Brezhnev coming to America. He’s being driven through New Jersey in his limo, he crests the Pulaski Skyway, and there below him is all of northern Jersey in its magnificent, disgusting industrialness: the refineries, the smokestacks, the swamp, the rotten egg smell, the filthy smog. And Brezhnev goes nuts. He goes, ‘I love America!’ Can you imagine? For an instant, this dour, jowly commie apparatchik who’d clawed his way to the top of the Evil Empire is the happiest man alive. So do me a favor, buddy, and cheer up for a second. Love America, in its local iteration of the pedestrian thoroughfare abutting the West Side Highway.”
“You always have to make it personal, don’t you? I’m trying to make a point here about a squandered urban planning opportunity, and the only counterpoint you’ve got is the highly illegitimate one of an ad hominem attack on my gloomy temperament.”
“To be fair, it’s also an ad hominem attack on your knee-jerk anti-capitalism.”
“Well, stop it, it hurts.”
“Okay, this is me stopping it. But, you know, you bring out something in me that I don’t experience when I argue with my other friends. With them, I stay on the level of the facts. It’s only with you that the inflection our personalities give to the facts is explicitly incorporated into the discussion. Okay, you, and maybe one or two of the really finest chicks I’ve dated.”
“Are you saying I’m like a chick?! Because that—”
“No! I’m saying it’s liberating to talk to you, I get to test out ways of thinking that don’t come up elsewhere in my life.”
“So, ‘Ad hominem attacks bring friends closer,’” Alec said gloomily.
Rick laughed. “Yeah. Let’s put that on matching t-shirts and wear them around town together.”
Alec laughed too now, but also suspected he was being mocked, and worse, persuaded; Rick was using even this uncharacteristically bald expression of fondness to win.
“And anyway, I’m not anti-capitalism, I’m anti-abuse-of-capitalism. I’m anti-selling-toxic-bundled-mortgages-to-pension-funds-and-then-also-betting-on-them-to-fail, as you did.”
“Yes, it’s true, Mr. Ad Hominem Attacks Hurt Me Deeply, I singlehandedly brought down the entire U.S. economy.”
“Satirize me as broadly as you want, you did something wrong.”
“First of all, you still have no idea what the fuck I do for a living. Second, I didn’t do anything wrong. The government did. They incentivized massively stupid mortgage lending and derivative trading by making insanely high lending quotas we had to meet. They regulated us into making crazy bets. As I’ve said to you before, capital is like water, it flows downhill, downhill being the direction of maximum profitability, no matter what the long-term ramifications of that profitability are. It’s up to the government to impose regulations that will dam it up, not make it leak out. You can’t blame the water.”
“Money is nothing like water. Water precedes humans and is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Money was invented by us and is controlled by us. Don’t put the responsibility for screwing people over on the government. Your water analogy is a giant rationalization for you holding your capacious wallet open under the ‘leak.’”
Rick laughed again. “Nice one, man. Ouch. I’ve got nothing.”
“Bullshit. You’re letting me win because now you feel sorry for me.”
“Look how orange the sky is over Hoboken.”
Alec looked. They had passed north of Houston Street, where they could finally veer away from the highway and be buffered from it by a strip of planned green space as they walked along the river’s edge. The world here was slightly cleaner and quieter. The sky was indeed a soft orange, with horizontal streaks of white and blue. The air was soft and warm. The two friends were moved by the beauty, and each thought of how many of the poet’s expenses—his meals, his rent, his magazines and books—were subsidized by the banker’s generosity. The banker was made happy by this thought; the poet, unhappy.
They approached Christopher Street, and would soon part company. Alec would walk across town to his airless, lightless East Village hovel for a night of solitude, while Rick would return to the spacious two-bedroom apartment he’d just bought, where the hot and nice 26-year-old he was dating would come and pick him up for a night out with her friends.
“Let’s just sit for a minute and take this in,” Rick said, and guided his friend to a bench facing the water by the pier. As they sat, they heard a rush of boisterous noise. Thirty or more souls had just crossed over to the esplanade from Christopher Street. They were weekend revelers, young people mostly from uptown and the outer boroughs who did not have to hide who they really were when they were downtown.
“Let’s go,” Alec said. “I want to be out of here before the kids arrive in droves.”
“Too late, might as well enjoy them.”
“Ever since I got punched by that big ugly girl whose pretty little girlfriend I evidently got too close to on the sidewalk that one time, I’m wary of sharing space with them.”
“This supports my theory about how hard it is for rich and poor and/or white and black to fraternize.”
“If fraternization between rich and poor is so hard, how are you and I friends?”
“Because basically, while I may have money and you, not so much, you and I are from the same basic socio-economic milieu—the same class fraction, as Professor Evans would say—so you may be poor in the body, but in the head you were and are and always will be middle class.”
“I assure you, I am nowhere poorer than in the head.”
And then Alec saw her. She’d wandered alone into his field of vision, stood a dozen yards from where he sat, and gazed, as he and Rick had been doing, out at the water and the sky. In the time it had taken her to walk from the edge to the center of everything he could see, he knew. She wore a pair of gauzy off-white shorts that hugged her slender hips, and a tight black tank top that left exposed a strip of velvet skin midway in hue between the fabrics that framed it. She stood in profile, leaned on the railing above the river, and sighed. Her hair was a torrent of loose black curls. Her eyes, her nose, her lips… how does one describe beauty one has not seen before? Perhaps by saying that it teaches one how inadequate looking can be, since looking will never be eating.
As if striking the next in a series of poses, she turned to him, looked at him, or seemed to, and pursed her lips into a kiss-shaped pout. In case he had not already been caught looking at her, he pretended to shift his gaze to the ground, but really was scanning her slender and elegant legs from top to bottom. Her feet, he saw, were separated from the ground by mauve sandals with chunky heels of at least four inches. Even the bottom halves of the heels of her sandals were too much for him, so he turned his head to the right and waited in despair for what already had happened not to have happened.
“Wow, really? Her?” Rick was saying next to him, and laughing. How many times a night could a person laugh and mean it? “Dude, take a good look at her. She’s too feminine, like she’s dressing up as the thing she already is. In Des Moines that might just be a pretty straight girl gilding the lily, but in New York it’s a lesbian.”
“Good Lord. Would you just, shut, up!”
Rick did, for a bit, and looked at his friend, bewildered by how so simple a pleasure as sexual attraction could cause the degree of suffering that was evident in every muscle of his friend’s face and each tight angle of his nervous limbs. He didn’t understand how he had this friend, nor why the friend’s unaccountable sadness affected him so, but he knew he had to try to help the guy, had to lift him up out of the depths of his misery, if only an inch or two, which, you’d be surprised how much strength even that took.
The spectacular young lesbian was still standing there. She must have noticed by now that the two white guys were looking at her but this sort of thing no doubt happened to her all the time, so she didn’t make much of it. Just to the south of them, more and more uptown queer kids, of which the remarkable girl was clearly one, poured onto the esplanade and filled the air with exuberant talk and shouts. She stood alone, perhaps waiting for friends.
Gently, Rick said, “Can I talk again?”
Alec glanced at him imploringly.
“I think I understand you now.”
“Those romances we read in Chaucer class. Am I warm?”
“Say more.” Rick’s friend’s body shifted subtly upward on the bench. He wanted to believe Alec was being pulled in that direction by hope.
“Well, those guys, the courtly love guys, the knights, they tended to get pierced through the heart by arrows of the ladies’ beauty, and then they’d spend pretty much the rest of the story suffering. You’re a knight, pal.”
Alec might’ve laughed if he hadn’t again accidentally looked over at Her, who seemed to be growing impatient with her friends’ lateness. “I’m not a knight.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.”
“You mean like you sold short the toxic assets you’d convinced all those saps to buy?”
“But you’re better than those knights. The courtly love was very burdensome for the chick. She’s minding her own business being beautiful, which she can’t help, and he comes along and starts suffering for her beauty, and now it’s her job to assuage his suffering, which she does by agreeing to let him serve her, aka go off to the Crusades and die, which somehow ends up being her fault. Don’t be a drag like that, man. Chicks dig a guy who takes them seriously, but not one who takes himself too seriously.”
“Then I’m shit out of luck.”
“Snap out of it. Go talk to her, flirt with her, quick, before her ‘boyfriend’ arrives.”
“Miss?” Rick shouted, and got to his feet. “Excuse me, Miss, my friend thinks you’re cute. He wants to talk to you.”
“It’s about time.” The girl looked right at Alec and smiled. This was happening.
“I’m not gonna crowd you, man,” Rick murmured. “I’ll be behind that tree, counting cars on the highway.” His strategy was: a quick rejection that would put an end to this before it became another month-long obsession followed by a six-month period of mourning.
Alec stood trembling. The girl, who no longer leaned on the rail, puckered up again, sucked in her cheeks, and raised her brows. She was silhouetted by the tangerine sky. Seeing Alec rooted to his little slab of esplanade, she raised her fist to shoulder height, the back of it toward him, extended her forefinger up to the sky, and furled and unfurled it several times while undulating her wrist.
“Young man, I need you to come here and see my exclusive manicure. I have it done by a Korean lady at the Pinkie Nail Salon on the Avenue of the Americas. Ah calls it ‘A Field of Posies.’ Come on before it falls off ma hand—Korean bitch use cheap-ass glue.”
She had spoken quickly and had played, it seemed to him, several different characters in the course of her short speech. His mouth was dry; his legs, noodly. He walked toward her in a daze and nearly got clipped by another speeding bike. She held her hand out for his inspection, wrist bent, palm down, fingers stretched so they arced slightly upward at the tips. On each nail there was indeed a miniature green-blue landscape dotted with tiny bright pink blooms.
“That is called the professional ice breaker. Are you all right, young man?”
“Breathe. Breathe me in. No—from over there. Conversational distance. You gots to be polite till you pays me. Plus the po-lice is out here.”
Alec heard and understood each word and phrase this woman said, but because she continued to move through a series of accents and registers, rapidly trying on and casting off costumes in a linguistic dressing room, he had no idea how much truth to assign to any of it.
“Am I what, honey?”
“Serious about me paying you?”
“Oh, no, did you just ask me that?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well let me see now I don’t know. Are you serious about not owning uh iron or uh ironing board?”
“Okay is right.”
Alec’s mouth wasn’t dry anymore. He felt sturdy on his feet. He was not halting in his speech. This was just an event in his life as normal as any other event. And time was passing normally, except that it was passing twice simultaneously. An understanding was coming into him all the while about her, too, he’d think about it later with actual words but he was sure it would be fine.
“Can you pay me?”
“Probably not. Unless my friend over there behind the tree gave me money, which he probably would.”
Something was happening to her, too. If he didn’t know better he’d say it was curiosity, and not just of the pragmatic information-gathering kind necessary to her trade. He was heartened by this.
“A smart white boy like you don’t have no money? What you do for a living?”
“Not quite for a living, I work in a bookstore, but really I’m a poet.”
“Like, you spit rhymes?”
“I spit free verse.”
“Freestyle, you mean?”
“Okay, Mr. Ish, I know you like how I look cuz yuh eyes be buggin outcha head, so say me a poem about it.”
on a whole swarm
of the loveliest
Alec’s companion laughed and clapped. She seemed so young, truly like a kid. “Say me another!”
“You tell me something first.”
“Are you a lesbian?”
She grinned, revealing teeth of mixed quality. “Oh, precious,” she said, “that is like the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” She pinched his cheek and caught a little flesh between two of her long, sharp nails. He wondered if she’d drawn blood. He hoped so. “But come on, child, you ain’t no retard, and I ain’t no lesbian.”
Her three friends marched up quickly.
“Is this boy bothering you, Oona? She ain’t workin yet, college boy. Business hours start at nine p.m. She on break now.”
“Shut the fuck up and wait over there,” Oona said. “Let me give this nice young gentleman my business card.”
Her friends walked a few paces off. She grabbed his arm, rolled up the sleeve of his dress shirt, an oversized hand-me-down from Rick.
“What are you doing?”
“Ahma write my number on yuh arm.”
“I’ve got a notebook.”
“Oh, right, cuz you a poet.”
She wrote her number, walked away, pirouetted back with a flourish, gave him a pinkie-and-thumb-to-ear call me sign, and pirouetted off to her friends. Alec collapsed on the bench.
Rick, who had been exchanging text messages with his young lady about their plans for that night, and occasionally glancing up to monitor the progress of his friend—though he knew ‘progress’ was not the word to use with regard to this uniquely troubled man—now saw Alec’s dilapidated form sprawled on the bench, and went to him. He looked like a man in the throes of a fever: his skin was moist and bright; an intense but faint light came from his eyes as from a distant star; his limbs looked both brittle and limp. Despite his apparent weakness, Alec stood up when he saw Rick approach.
“How’d it go?”
Alec laughed and his body shook, and did not stop shaking when he stopped laughing.
“Sit down, buddy.”
He sat, erect this time, on the edge of the bench, hands on knees, head held high, hair damp with sweat, eyes rimmed with dark flesh, about to share exciting news.
“She gave me her digits. I think I have a chance with her.”
“A chance at what?”
Alec laughed again, a lot. “Good one,” he said between gasps. Rick didn’t like this laugh.
“Listen, Denise is coming over soon. I don’t want you walking home in this state. Let’s put you in a cab. Here’s twenty bucks.”
Getting into the cab, Alec said, “She’s not a lesbian.”
“That girl is straight?”
“No, not straight.” Alec grinned. Rick had a bad feeling, not about the girl’s sexual orientation—if that was the appropriate terminology—but about Alec’s laugh and grin: they were a mirror image of Rick’s own laughs and grins those times when he had told Alec of his own happy seductions, but as if superimposed on the face of a seven-year-old boy who had just witnessed a bloody car wreck.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”