“We were the modernest pillars of a vaunted profession, yet at work I felt more like a hyper-visible switchboard operator.” A short story by Hannah Gold.
The Minor Escape
A few years ago, the period of my life I spent trying to be a journalist abruptly ended when I opted out of work early due to a trifling frustration, then decided I never wanted to think about it again. This was in my early 20s. My boss, a failed tragedian and a reckless editor, was having me file six pieces per week on hazards to the environment. Usually the environment I was asked to focus on was wildlife or weather, and the hazards were men, occasionally women, and there was reporting involved, just two or three sources to make it sound official, that way readers could say they learned something, or, likelier, that they already knew all about it. For instance, the reader might know thanks to me that the pink bottlenose dolphins of Louisiana are colored by blood vessels so close to their albinized skin they almost touch the surface of the water. Pink is a shadow, a mutant compromise. The dolphins are like delicate lanterns bathing in the dark; they are made of paper and the ocean is of air – their canisters are tight fists of veins. My lede was about how the dolphins’ lives aren’t as “rosy” as they used to be, because they’re nearly all dead now.
For months, all the work stories I told my friends ended with a mass grave of cute animals. All of my friends’ favorite animals were dying; only the kind we would have killed on sight if they ever struggled up a drain hole into the Brooklyn apartments we didn’t even want to live in were able to flourish. The problem with this, of course, is that I was an abiding drag. The news about cheetahs is never good.
The breaking point came when my boss assigned me a study to write up. This means talk to the scientists who wrote it and to a couple of experts. (An expert is just a person with a job, except you can quote them indefinitely without them ever approaching the cultural import of Jesus or Faulkner.) The particular story at hand was supposed to go just like that, only here’s how it goes instead: In the morning my boss sent me a study called “Excited Temperatures, Birth Rate Adjustments, and Climate Change,” and told me to file a piece by the end of the day with the headline “Are Americans Having More Anal Sex Because of Global Warming?” After reading the study I was no more sure of the answer, and even less sure of the question. The paper suggested, in the fourth paragraph of the twelfth page, that, if the oceans don’t swallow us first, August in the United States could become too hot for vaginal intercourse.
Everyone she worked with, herself included, believed themselves to be an artist of some kind, usually a writer, emerging into infamy slowly, imperceptibly, from the stacks.
The paper literally said “vaginal intercourse,” but that’s just because it was written by experts.
It said nothing about anal sex, and that was precisely my hook – how else would Americans deal with the debilitating loss of sweltering August pussy? No training had prepared me for this sly method of punching holes in academic research.
I was given the assignment at nine. By noon I had been hung up on half a dozen times. None of the scientists were angry with me, they just thought it was a scam and probably assumed I wasn’t being paid enough. I got pretty far with a climatologist at UC Santa Cruz though. When I asked him if anal sex might, in fact, be even warmer he said, “Mathilde, is that you?” Then I hung up. Then I decided life was not worth living unless I could be unemployed immediately.
At around two I closed my laptop without responding to my boss’s latest email and walked a mile through Crown Heights for strong coffee. This particular day was warm mid-March, an ice storm had hurled all over town a few days prior, and the interloping temperatures were playing sick jokes on the forlorn snowbanks. They were miniature, shellacked, and shit-stained, like the old dressers left out on the street during summer that people in good moods think are beautiful and bring into their homes.
I didn’t feel that I had lost anything, and not because I technically hadn’t been fired yet. That came a few days later in the melodramatic email from my boss (“We both know what this means.”), which I responded to with an unrequited love sonnet he himself had written and posted to his personal website. He’d titled the work “Lion Tamer.”
The most persistent feeling I’d had during my nearly yearlong stint as a stay-at-home fake environmental reporter was of not being able to get on board with anyone who confidently expressed a world view – not the feminists, or the optimists, or the Marxists, or the alcoholics. To economize: I couldn’t get along with anyone who was confident. It seemed like I’d felt that way my entire life, but such habituation is one of the city’s primest illusions. During this time, I ritually attended leftist magazine parties as if they were Church, the kind that doesn’t serve even a hint of food. The guests were chronically underdressed on the magnitude of Christ’s disciples.
I guess you can say I felt done with a certain phase of my life. Hope dominated the day. Sticking it to my boss, albeit wordlessly, had made me giddy. I entertained the thought that my greatest talent might be for lying, and that the better I knew a person, the more my natural gifts got away from me. In Brooklyn, my inconsistencies could turn me prophetic. Maybe I could live forever, eat forever, off this intriguingly friable belief in myself. By knowing someone or something then dropping it easily, then picking up a prize, then respect. This lack of job was an opportunity, no, an experience; it made me less susceptible to the will of others, more prepared to live outside the burrow of commitment. I was like an illegal basement bedroom with an aperture knocked into the wall, letting in the rats, and the beetles, and the strange, muffled air. Trapped, yet striking out, and welcoming something new.
Let’s vow never to write anything again, ever.
As I was rounding the corner on the street that had the coffee that beckoned, Jenny texted to confirm drinks. I hadn’t been expecting that. Jenny cancelled at the last minute, almost as a rule, only she didn’t have any of those. For instance, she cancelled after the last minute sometimes, too. Usually what she had was an article to finish late or a man to drive insane. I put up with it because I liked her, or thought I did. I used to really like her.
When we first met she was twenty-two, so was I, and doing the fiction thing, and line after line off an excessively shiny silver tray held aloft by a much older and more desperate writer who stared straight ahead with tender dignity, as if he’d come to understand his final form to be some stately, obligatory fountain over which young women fluttered and occasionally dipped a nose. I took to her vastly and immediately for the unjournalistic way she demanded information of me. “If we were twins, who’d be born first?”; “Describe the outfit Rihanna will wear tomorrow”; “How come all poets say ‘last night’ when they mean ‘ages ago’?” I kept falling to the floor in what I perceived to be slow-motion, and when I got down, she got down, when I got up, she got up. Usually we were sliding up and down the same wall, and sometimes there was a 40-something man between us who stayed on the floor.
We both practiced journalism for a while, though we harbored purposes much more ambitious and imaginative, as did most of our peers. With the exception of Jenny, who was heart-set on grinding out a novel, I believe we (me and my young contemporaries) all dreamed of composing long magazine pieces that did unspeakably delicious and twisted things to genre, things that had never been done before and anointed us the new-new-new prognosticators of journalism, so undeniably unexpected that even book reviewers would one day refer to us as “writers.” This unfortunate provenance recalls a Mary Gaitskill interview where she talks about working at The Strand for years while she was fashioning and shopping the stories of her first book, Bad Behavior. Everyone she worked with, herself included, believed themselves to be an artist of some kind, usually a writer, emerging into infamy slowly, imperceptibly, from the stacks. You’d think we had a leg up because we were already writers. We were the modernest pillars of a vaunted profession, yet at work I felt more like a hyper-visible switchboard operator.
Because she didn’t tend to show, I most often encountered Jenny when I was already out. At Stefan’s party – Stefan was a neoliberal and we hated him – she dislodged the only bathroom’s toilet paper dispenser and palmed it off to me in the kitchen like it was contraband, though I knew she meant it as a trophy. Which is not to say Jenny was wild, she just didn’t suppose anything belonged to anyone or should be fastened to the walls. Her parents were capitalist hippies who ran a summer camp for wealthy East Coat kids in Maine, and the contradiction in terms had adhered to her spirit at an impressionable age. Now she too was wayward, or “ambivalent,” as the shrink in Girl, Interrupted puts it: a finance reporter who didn’t want anything.
It was all going fine when Jenny asked me an obviously mean question. ‘So, what are you working on?’
I arrived promptly. It was one of those bars in Bed Stuy that’s really an overpriced café with the lights dimmed so you almost don’t notice the bad art on the walls – the blocky, primary-colored paintings of jazz performers, or sepia photographs of the artist’s best friends’ teeth. The menus for nine-dollar goat cheese sandwiches disappear altogether, and the tiny mason jars take center stage, depriving each customer of the bartering life-force within them that still gets a kick out of wondering whether their glass of wine is half empty or full.
When I got there, early, Jenny was already seated, an aberration that was slightly nauseating, definitely disorienting. I’d taken some dismal comfort in the illusion of her reliable lag behind me, but feigned excitement anyway as I sailed toward our table where she scooped me toward her with both arms. Her red lipstick was new, as was the shocking, almost white, blondness of her hair at the tips, where it crept just past her shoulders. She asked how were things at the farm.
I told her I’d quit just a few hours ago, at least in my heart. I hadn’t broke the news to my boss yet but I would. It occurred to me I’d like to get this entire evening over with five minutes ago, to wipe away the struggles to be witty, the rings of wine glass sweat, the vague intentions masking irreducible self-promotion. What, in all this effort, could possibly be redeemable?
“You’re my hero,” she blurted, “but,” and took a sip of wine, “you never published your Harambe exposé!”
“Harambe,” I eulogized, “my dear, departed friend! It has been several months since I last thought of him, forgive me.”
“I can’t. Tell me, who should have died in the best of all possible worlds – the kid or the monkey?” She had a knack for teasing me into sardonic moods.
“Don’t make me choose.”
“Fine, ok, I don’t support standing by while a gorilla crushes a little kid to death.”
“That’s why you’re unemployed.”
“Please,” I squeaked, “environmental reporters aren’t hot-take incubators, we – they don’t tell people what to think.” A generous self-own given the day I’d been having. I’m sure I shifted nervously in my seat as I sutured a new defense.
“I was good at my job,” I tried again. “I cared, I did! The kid shouldn’t die, but, more importantly…I couldn’t live in a world without monkeys. And I definitely don’t think of people as monkeys.”
“That’s not a world you can live in.”
“Couldn’t do it.”
“A world without monkeys.”
Our conversation curled into silent despondence for a moment, as if we were both imagining a future in which small children had never been safer but would just have to take their parents’ word for it about the monkeys. They were like us, we’d tell them, only we never pretended to understand their motives. Now they’re all dead. Big hug.
It was all going fine when Jenny asked me an obviously mean question.
“So, what are you working on?” she said. “Are you working on anything else?”
“I’m writing about female friendships as an economy of rejection,” I shot back. I wanted it to be true. Even more, I wanted it to be funny.
But Jenny was no fool, she sensed I’d genuinely soured, and didn’t say anything again for a while. I grasped at nothing to save the evening, and started telling her about a fine reading I’d attended the week before. There was this poet who’d made a bad joke at the beginning – she’d said, “I’m a poet, but tonight I’ll be treating you to my furtive passion: journalism.” Then she downed a glass of brown liquor and cued up the theme song from the latest 007 remake. By her third poem she had formulated a much better lede: “I’m going to speak to you the way I speak to my friends: with a vengeance.”
At this point in my recounting I realized how unfortunately in keeping that last line was with my comment about rejection, and regretted it. Possibly it meant nothing to Jenny, but my panic had set in anyway. I had transitioned from someone unconsciously picking at a wound all evening to someone openly bleeding all over the table. Fuck fuck fuck I thought. Just, fuck.
Maybe I could live forever, eat forever, off this intriguingly friable belief in myself.
Then, out of nowhere, Jenny said something actually kind, if only I could have taken it that way. “Let’s vow never to write anything again, ever.” Hearing the words out loud it dawned on me that this would be the least impulsive decision I ever made. Not too long before, my dead middle school crush had visited me in a dream. He told me that all writers have their specialty. Some are poets, others are journalists. “But you,” he told me, “are a great writer of points. That’s really where you shine.”
The shadows across the bar tensed as the candles proved themselves startlingly real. A woman could be heard saying, “I stalked her – like, not on Facebook. In her house,” and everyone who wasn’t paying any attention to the conversation they were having tilted an inquiring head toward the darkness nearest them. There was no clock on the wall, just phone lights beading the air with interruption. The barista became a DJ and played that song from the movie you remember you never saw, but the preview made it look so good.
“I don’t know,” I said, stalling for choicer words. Though it was true: I didn’t know if I could go on with writing, in any form, much longer. What I did know was that I was a liar, because I lucked upon the truth all the time. I knew I was afraid of not knowing, but not of being half-assed. I knew I didn’t matter, but sometimes I wasn’t so sure. And I knew that things had clearly been better between me and Jenny when we weren’t trying to make something happen on purpose.
On the walk home I began fixating on the image of Jenny in a white dress on New Year’s Eve. That infuriating white with a ballerina dip in the back. We were in a Park Slope duplex and the host had allowed the bottom floor to shade with the night into a metallic royal blue. He’d recently captioned a handsome coffee table art book of memes he stole with permission, but this wasn’t how he made his money – that was a story only older, more established artists knew. She took off the dress for him, while I slept downstairs on a couch, in front of the great hardwood expanse that had been our dance floor for those first floating hours of another year. I burst awake before the sun was up to the tune of a large champagne glass tower cracking on the floor. It seemed fitting to me that the refuse of an acceptable enough party should be recycled into a pile of murder weapons. A miraculous, as in natural, cradle of edge.
There wasn’t a single point at which we hadn’t stayed at the party the perfect amount of time. And though it had been a bland party, there had still been moments I thought I’d die of the self-satisfaction clutched so furiously inside me. Any time I left would be the perfect time to leave, so I stayed and stayed. In the blueish blackout of the dance floor, a man I could barely see asked me if I’d write about a new app he’d produced that was like Instagram, only you can message people on it. “But Instagram,” I cooed, “already has a messaging function.” He meandered his face toward mine and whispered in my ear, in the voice of a radio host announcing his taste for human flesh, “no, it doesn’t.” I looked around for Jenny’s eyes and let them suck me away from him.
For a long time we were disconnectedly grinding, not talking, mimicking each other’s halting exaltations and disapprovals. Her body was readable, and sometimes it would suddenly jump forward, like a bad joke. Then she’d close her eyes and wind up her mouth. It was like she was trying to get a ribbon to leap out of me. And once she gave me a good tip, which I pass on to anyone who still wants to be a writer: “Always move your hips more than you think you have to when you’re dancing.” Like Jenny, I have freighted this advice with malice and devotion.