A short story by Nada Alic.
“What is the problem of your life?” he asked.
“What is it that you can’t stop thinking about? The thing that brings you both immense pleasure and pain—that is the problem of your life.”
I sat quietly for a while pretending to think, as if it weren’t immediately obvious. As if I had to struggle to recall what it was.
“Money” I answered, “money is my problem.”
I spent the rest of the hour constructing an explanation to account for my money problems instead of telling him the truth because the truth was obvious, which meant it was impossible. I just wanted to give us both something we could handle for once. Something that involved a printable checklist of things to do and not do everyday until I was cured. I waited for him to ask me another question so that I could lie about something else, until I built a whole person made up of lies that he could slowly fix over time. If I could focus on this other person for long enough, maybe I could forget my own problems, which would then seem small in comparison. I wondered whether this was some kind of advanced therapy technique that no one had thought of yet or if people had already been doing it for millions of years.
This would please him, the speed of my progress. A tulip blooming before him. At our final session, he’d pull me aside and tell me that I was his favorite patient. “Off the record” he’d add, winking. He’d thank me for not being like others. And I would go home smiling at the thought that I was anyone’s favorite anything.
It wasn’t that the problem of my life was more special or problematic than the problems of others, it was just too stupid to admit. I did not want to name it. At best it was a sound; a kind of hugck sound. Like a dry heave. I couldn’t make the sound on command.
This might seem like a waste of money to you but it felt easier than just saying hugck. I walked out of his office and towards the parking lot where Isi was waiting for me on the curb. I told her not to wait for me because it would make me nervous thinking about her waiting, but she said she didn’t mind. We’ve only been friends for a few months but she was the only person who knew about my hugck and seemed totally unphased by it. Whenever it came out, she would just say, “bless you” which was enough for me.
“How did it go?” she hugged me with her whole body and I hugged back with just my forearms because of the sweating. I always sweat even when I wasn’t hot, so I always kept my arms at my sides to hide the stains under my pits. This is the real reason why I never go out dancing—limited wingspan.
We arrived at her apartment at an undisclosed location that only a handful of people knew about; everyone else thinks it’s somewhere else but the rest of us were sworn to secrecy never to tell anyone so all I can say is that it it’s above a Korean BBQ restaurant and even that is saying too much. This is because Isi is a sugar baby. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is, it probably means you don’t know about a lot of other things like the dark web or ASMR. When she first told me about it, I acted very calm as if she would stop telling me if my face showed any signs of distress. At one point I overdid it and seemed almost bored, periodically looking down to check my phone. That’s how calm I was.
“No sex stuff” she said “he just likes the company.” It seemed odd that a private equity lawyer from Brentwood would pay twelve thousand dollars in cash every month for the nonsexual company of a nineteen year old. The absence of sex somehow made the whole thing worse. Everyone understood that life was designed exclusively for the pleasure of this specific kind of man and whatever the rest of us got was more or less a happy accident. If life for them was anything less than an all-you-can-eat-buffet, then what was the point?
I wondered if this man felt duped, like he’d come all this way just to find himself alone in a hotel room nervously texting a teenager who was being paid to respond. I liked imagining a middle-aged man sitting on a king sized bed typing sup then wassup then finally hey, and doubting all of it. Isi assured me that it was totally safe, which is something people say about things that are not safe at all. She said she kept a separate address and phone number and even had a separate name: Darla. I told her that was the fakest fake name I’d ever heard. She said it was her grandmother’s.
Everything about Isi’s apartment felt premature to me. For starters, she had an apartment. I didn’t know teenagers were even allowed to rent apartments, but the more I learned about her, the more it was obvious I didn’t know anything about anything. All I wanted to do was ask her about her brother Liam, whom I recently started dating after several months of intense eye contact. This was a trick my mother taught me from an online course she took in kinesis: the study of body language. She said that eye contact was a sign of attraction and could be felt from as far as 40 meters away. “Use it wisely” she’d say, with the confidence of someone with much larger breasts than me. At first, it started as a way to keep my balance in my ashtanga yoga class, using the back of Liam’s head as a centering device. Steadying my gaze, I imagined an invisible string anchoring me to the back of his head. It took him weeks to turn around but when he did he said, “did you say something?” and I said, “did you say something?” and we both laughed from our diaphragms, as instructed.
If hugck was the sound of uncertainty, then ahhh was the sound of love. Ahh was short for ahh ha ha ha, because it’s funny when you’re in on the joke, and life’s a joke. But this time you get it. You just open your mouth and all that comes out is that ahh ha ha ha!
I waited until the exact right moment to ask about Liam. I didn’t want Isi to think that her brother was the only reason we were friends. There were other reasons, I was sure of it.
“How’s Doug?” I asked.
“Annoying. He wants me to go to his nephew’s christening.”
“Huh? So his family knows about you?”
“Yeah, he told them I’m an exchange student from Romania, so I don’t have to talk. If anyone asks me anything I just smile and say, da!”
“Weird” I said, looking down at my phone.
I was careful not to retain too much knowledge about Isi’s arrangement with Doug in the event that I got a phone call from a policeman or a reporter asking what I knew about and for how long. Instead, I ran through a list of things I wish I could ask her but never could, because of the sibling thing:
Have you ever seen your brother naked?
What does he look like?
How many girls has he been with, if you had to guess?
Is he cut? Actually nevermind, I don’t have a preference. I know most girls do, but not me.
The list goes on, but you get it. We haven’t done it yet, and it occurred to me that perhaps withholding sex ran in the family. On our first date, he told me all about the pleasure principle and how he was building up his immunity by deferring gratification or “edging” in order to harness his sexual energy towards more meaningful pursuits. When I asked him what pursuits, he said “bodybuilding” and “my music career.”
He said he’d only been doing it for three weeks but he already felt the effects.
“Feel that” he said, rubbing his belly.
I touched his stomach over his shirt. It felt like two rows of marbles.
“I’ve lost seven pounds since last week,” he said proudly. Then he looked me up and down and said, “Besides, it’s for your own good. Trust me.”
“What do you mean?”
“The things I’d do to you—” cutting himself off and pausing, for effect.
“You think so?” I asked, curiously.
He took his finger and rubbed the back of my knee in a circular motion until I felt it on the inside of my belly button. I slumped over the edge of my seat in a daze. Various parts of my body wept.
I learned about all of the things that were allowed later that night, which included making out and something that resembled Reiki where I just hovered my palms a few inches above his jeans while I thought about the happiest moment of my life, until he told me to stop.
“Spring break, 1998?” he said.
Now. Now is my favorite moment, I thought.
He then burrowed his head in my lap and took several deep, audible breaths. I stroked his thick brown hair and thought, “good boy.” Whenever I saw him after that I thought the same thing: Good boy. Good boy. Good boy. This was always easier than “goodbye” which was maybe what I should have said.
“How’s your brother?” I asked Isi. And by that I meant, “where’s your brother?” He would often disappear without telling me, sometimes for weeks. This was long enough for me to complete the five stages of grief and as soon as I reached acceptance, he would text me a photo of a baby monkey getting haircut or a squirrel getting a massage and I would forget what I was ever upset about.
“I think he’s up in Carmel, on a bike trip” she said, pouring holiday-flavored creamer into a cup of iced coffee. I didn’t even know he owned a bike. There was so much I didn’t know about him, come to think of it. Whenever I asked him questions about his life, he’d repeat the question back to me, knowing how much I loved answering questions about myself.
“Riiight, with who?” I asked.
“I dunno, some guys from his baseball team?” she said as if she wasn’t sure or didn’t care. I sat on her floor, too afraid to ask any follow-up questions.
I hadn’t felt this confused since the night I learned that Liam was semi-famous. I was standing on a crowded fire escape, counting backwards from ten in my head. He invited me to his friend’s birthday party and when I walked in, he was leaning by a refrigerator talking to a brassy-haired woman who I recognized from tv but wasn’t sure from where. Liam seemed surprised, as if he had forgotten that he invited me. I showed him how I sliced my hand on an exposed nail near the light switch in my laundry room.
“Aw, you dummy!” he said, examining my palm delicately.
Someone shouted his name from the hallway so he let go of my hand and brushed right past me. I wandered out onto the fire escape to demonstrate my independent spirit. After some time, I went back inside and found him surrounded by a group of people. I tried to get closer but a tide of people kept pushing me back. Soon, a procession formed waiting to approach him. “Hey, congrats, man!” they’d say. One by one, “so cool, well deserved” etc. I had no idea what they were talking about. I wondered if he thought I was rude for not mentioning anything, but how could I know? He never told me anything. I suddenly felt like I was in a foreign country where no one spoke English. These people hadn’t even heard of English. “Ing-leesh?” they would say, shaking their heads, laughing. I left the party and walked home alone, emphasizing my aloneness with my shoulders hunched over and my arms crossed. At one point I kicked a rock and missed. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
The next morning he texted me, “I wish you woulda stayed!” and even though it wasn’t true, I felt a smile grow across my face until it reached my ears and spilled into a laugh. Ahhh ha ha ha!
When I saw him the following week, he grabbed my hand and held it up to his face as if to monitor it’s progress.
“Does it still hurt?” he asked.
“Not really” I said.
He then took my palm, guided it into his back pocket and pulled me in for a kiss. I almost choked. The kiss was severe, angry even. Angry, as if he couldn’t kiss hard enough, like my teeth and gums were in the way. Angry, as if there were years of unsaid things to so many people, people who were now gone, lodged inside his throat. He didn’t know how to coax them out or even what to call them. But the kissing, the muscular rhythm of it, the slippery texture—that made it feel better, like he could almost begin to sound it out.
I took his hand and slid it underneath my bra, he rested it limp and kept kissing me. I then put my hand on top of his hand and squeezed, he did nothing.
“C’mon” I said, “it’s been long enough!”
He looked at me sternly and said, “Babe, I can’t. You know that” his hand still cupping my breast.
“So, never?” I asked.
“Maybe you can’t handle this,” he said, avoiding the question.
“I can. I want to.” I said, defensively.
“You know what? What if,” he said, pausing to think.
“What?” I asked.
“Ok, picture this,” he held up his fingers as if to create a frame. I looked up at the frame as if it were a visual aid.
“What if you had sex with someone else and told me all about it? Would you do that for me?”
“What? No! I don’t want to do that.”
“Babe…” he lowered his chin until there was no distinction between chin and neck, “c’mon, this a win-win.”
“But I…” He lowered his chin even further, obstructing his vocal chords, “babe.”
“No. Not gonna happen,” I said, crossing my arms.
He relaxed his chin and put his hoodie over his head, pulling the drawstrings as far as they could go until his face disappeared completely and all you could see was a mouth hole. He did this sometimes, when he felt embarrassed or cold.
“Ok, fine then. Forget I mentioned it,” he muttered through his mouth hole “I’m outta here.”
I tried leaving him once. Not leaving leaving, I just left town for a week. I told Liam that I needed to clear my head and work on my novel. I said it just like that, “my novel!” with gusto. All he said was, “good for you, babe!” Nevermind the fact that I wasn’t a writer, that I’d never been a writer and now I’d have to write an entire novel just to prove my point. Still, I thought, he’d miss me. He’d be a wreck over it, I was sure. I drove out of the city to the mountains where my uncle had a cabin. He told me I could use it any time I wanted to as long as I fed the cats, but there were no cats. I assured him I would. I was already bored after a few hours but knew that I had to stick it out, if not for Liam then for myself. I needed to learn how to be alone. I took out a piece of paper and decided to write whatever came to mind. I wrote:
OK HOW DOES THIS WORK? DO I JUST KEEP WRITING WHATEVER I THINK? OK WELL HERE’S WHAT I THINK: I LOVE LIAM AND IT MAKES NO SENSE BUT NEITHER DO A LOT OF THINGS LIKE CONSCIOUSNESS AND BLACK HOLES AND DREAMING, CAN ANYONE EXPLAIN DREAMING? IS ANYBODY OUT THERE? LIAM, CAN YOU HEAR ME? IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, SEND ME A SIGN, I’LL BE WAITING…
I looked at what I wrote and I read it, almost pleased with myself. It didn’t seem all that strange that he might send me a sign. His sexual power was so potent at that point, he could bend a spoon with one hand. Every time he came over to my place he would bend a spoon and every time I tried to say, “stop” it came out as “cool.”
The days trudged along, just barely. On the first day, I was motivated to tidy up, but I ended up just moving heavy boxes from one room to the other, kicking up dust and asbestos from the floor. A chemical-y smell perfumed the air and something, somewhere was leaking. Eventually, I gave up and sat on the balcony. I noticed an elderly, heavy-set man building a deck in the distance. I sat for hours, watching him place planks on top of other planks, wiping sweat from his brow, standing periodically to assess his progress or perhaps admire his craftsmanship. He made being alive look so simple, enjoyable even. Surely, the gods had led me here so that I might learn a valuable lesson about self-reliance and hard work.
As the sun set, I grew anxious. Most people would probably think “what a beautiful sunset” and that’s it. End of thought. What follows after must then be the enjoyment of the thought or just the sensation of experiencing beauty. My brain does not work that way. My brain will barrel right passed sunsets towards thoughts that have nothing to do with sunsets, until the sunset has passed and it is night and everyone has gone inside to make dinner. When I see a sunset, all I can think is: I will die alone and it will hurt. Thinking about Liam was one thousand times more enjoyable than watching the sunset. I wondered, was he thinking about me right at this very moment? Was he crying? Was it making him hard, to cry like that?
The next morning I remembered that I needed to write to prove that I had indeed come to write. I couldn’t think of anything so instead I just decided to document the progress of the man building his deck in my notebook.
9am: man cannot find his hammer, turns around, sees hammer on ladder underneath glove
Noon: man cuts plank with a saw, blows sawdust off and lines it with previously cut plank (repeat x12)
2pm: man removes shirt and wraps it around his head like a turban, examines tan lines
6pm: man accidentally hammers thumb, yells “Christ!”
Watching his throbbing thumb, which looked miniature from where I sat, I had the strangest thought: what would it feel like to put my mouth on it? This happens to me on occasion but it’s usually the standard stuff, like: “what would happen if I drove off the overpass?” or “what if I punched you to death just by blinking? How many blinks would it take?”
I thought about Liam’s proposition, and it started to make sense, once I was able to see it from his perspective. That was my problem, selfishness. I looked over at the man in all of his manliness. I looked down at my womanness. I looked left, no one. I looked right, no one else. I went back inside the cabin and whispered, “hello?” Nothing. It then became obvious what I needed to do.
The man was bent over and facing the opposite direction. He was also an immeasurable distance away. Whenever I opened my mouth to call out to him, all that came out was hugck. I quickly gave up. I couldn’t do it. The man’s back was paint-splattered in age spots. His thin hair drooped over the place where his eyebrows should have been. He wouldn’t know what to do with a woman like me.
So instead, I sat down cross-legged with my notebook and began to write:
7pm: man sees me, waves. I wave back and motion him to come over. Man looks behind him to make sure I wasn’t waving at someone else, I wasn’t. He smiles and makes his way over.
7:30pm: man knocks at the door and says, “anybody home?” I say, “yes, come in sir.”
8pm: man wraps his hands around my waist and slides them down, cupping my bum cheeks. Man then makes a swirly motion with his hands over my bum like a massage from someone who has never given a massage before, it feels nice.
8:15pm man instructs me to lie down on the floor of the living room and lies down next to me, we hold hands for several minutes.
8:35pm man tells me all of the details of his life, spending a great deal of time on his past relationships and why they didn’t work out and what he could have done better. Man says, despite it all, he still believes in love.
9pm man asks, “What are you thinking about?”
9:05pm I say nothing.
9:10pm man turns over and kisses me, sucking the insides of my mouth into his, the pushing the inside of his mouth into mine and alternating. Man rubs my arms vigorously as he does this. This goes on for a while.
9:45pm man asks, “what are we?”
9:50pm I say nothing.
10pm man does a slow striptease, folding each item of clothing neatly into a pile by the doorway. I do the same.
10:10pm man rests his head against my chest and tells me that I smell like coconuts. I tell him I just started using a coconut-infused shower gel.
10:20pm, man enters me in a way that can only be described as feminist.
10:30pm man is still inside of me, really going for it.
10:50pm man finishes, yelling out a “Christ!”
11pm man pushes wisps of hair from my face and tells me that I look beautiful without any makeup on. I tell the man I am wearing makeup.
11:15pm man asks if I would like to see a magic trick. I say no thank you. Man nods and gets up to leave.
11:20pm man puts on his shoes incredibly slowly, begins telling stories about that war. “What war?” I ask. “All of them” he said. As soon as his shoes are tied, he unties them and starts over.
11:45pm man pulls me in, kisses my forehead and says, “peace be with you.”
“And also with you” I respond. I close the door, put on my clothes, and go to bed.
I read and re-read it, imagining how I would recite it to Liam. I’d make a frame with my fingers and say “picture this” and I would read slowly, alternating between voices for effect. I could barely sleep just thinking about what he’d do. Punch a wall? Propose? All of the outcomes seemed equally exciting to me.
When I got back, I met Liam for dinner could barely wait to tell him what had happened.
“I did what you asked” I said, under my breath.
“I did it. With a man.”
I proceeded to tell him the whole thing, sparing no details. When I was done I looked up at him and waited for a response.
“Gross” he said.
“What do you mean, gross?” I asked.
“I mean gross. That was a really stupid thing for you to do.” he said, disgusted.
“But you told me—” I said.
“I didn’t mean it literally. I meant it as more of a metaphor.” he said.
“A metaphor for what?” I said.
It was too late, he was already pulling at the drawstrings at his hoodie. I watched his face disappear into one tiny black hole and before I could tell him I had made it all up, the hole itself disappeared and he was gone.