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The Bad Thing

1.

 

It must have been around the same time she decided that she really was using all the hot yoga as a substitute for other kinds of self-harm – she always realised these things so late, out of touch with her Innerlichkeit, as the philosopher Georg Simmel would say, the intelligible forms of her understanding outstripping the inchoate flow of her consciousness – that the kid arrived on the scene. Indeed his sudden obtrusion must have been around the same she decided she needed to scale back the stretching and instead punish herself for whatever she’d been punishing herself all her life by working on her dissertation and not, say, by pretending to sit in a small non-existent chair while her thighs burned and twitched or by standing for minutes with her leg pulled over her head like some kind of retarded Degas – she’d decided that she’d get to work, anyway, though she certainly hadn’t done anything about it. And she wouldn’t for a while.

 

Life was all about timing; she’d learned that from her studies: you have to learn something about plotting if you’re going to study literature. So it didn’t quite surprise her that there he was, the kid on the neighbouring mat, a smattering of acne on his shoulders, the kind you get from exercise, not bad genes, wearing nothing but a t-shirt from the university supposedly about to confer her PhD and – heavens, the youth these days – Spandex capris.

 

The kid was very good-looking, or at least young-looking. She noticed because recently she’d been nourishing a youth fetish. And not just a sad who-can-hope-to-avoid-it-in-a-youth-fetishising-culture kind of thing but a specific, personal jonesing for dewy boyflesh dating back to when she fucked that slab of junior varsity crew team beef, one of her own students, in her second year of graduate school. That had been around the same time that she’d first read on a website that women in their early thirties were in their sexual prime.

 

And whether or not she was suddenly hotter for it than ever she looked at this new kid for longer than would have been polite in almost any context except pornography and other kinds of sex-encounters, life or recorded, that involved consensual voyeurism. She knew it was bad etiquette, what she was doing. But who didn’t go to yoga to look! The junk on display, vulvas gently distending the Lululemon strapped over every lady’s undercarriage, glutes like bagels under plastic wrap, complex knots of shoulder muscles like a cross between a rawhide chew toy and Easter bread: she smiled sometimes, resting on her back in one of the easier poses, happy baby, dead man, reflecting on that day’s sights, and breathed a sweet sigh. Yoga was better than nudity. Better than pornography. She suspected you’d never see a so-to-speak professional human ass, a porno ass, do the things an amateur ass did here: the ripples, the tension, the way in a lunge even the lumpiest buttock humped itself into a perfect sphere atop whichever leg was held back from the torso.

 

She knew the kid couldn’t tell she was looking at him, so she watched him out of the corner of her eye until the instructor called a forward fold. Bent at the waist, reaching for her toes, she looked at the hair on her own feet and shuddered with delight. Sweat dripped from the top of her head down onto the pine floor above the mat and she wondered, briefly, what her vulva looked like. She knew, kind of – she had done that feminist thing that was viewing her vagina in a mirror; viewing your vagina in a mirror had been at that point trending on Twitter – but what did her vulva look like right now? She’d get to see it later, pushing her way up into shoulder stand and then into Plow, lying with her shoulders on the floor, her chin tucked under and her hips tilting back towards her face so that her feet landed behind her head. Don’t look at it too aggressively, she reminded herself. You can wrench your neck. She’d done it before.

 

2.

 

The woman in question – not the kid – had arrived in Boston during a heat wave that turned into a hurricane and then turned into the single most fucked six years of her life. Graduate school. Whenever she considered it her asshole tightened. In her third year, she’d fallen so far down the echoic well of imposter syndrome and had been vaguely ignored by just enough of the faculty and had realised just enough about her job prospects after graduation to feel a kind of relentless, heartbeat-to-heartbeat vertigo: she was harrowed daily by the precariousness of her intellectual and economic situation, not least because her adolescence and college years had been firmly upper-middle-class. By year three she was gagging at her own students, at her paltry achievements, at the tiny wage she was paid to work forty-plus hours grading papers, all the time she’d wasted. Life was a farce, she thought, this was all a bad joke! And so when her faculty committee had asked her to designate her academic specialty, she said, ‘Comedy.’

 

From her studies – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin again, Sid Caesar, Dickens, Jerome K. Jerome, Brent Weinbach, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, more Chaplin, Mike White, Vince Gilligan – she had learned that people like laughing, fucking, shitting, eating, and dreaming. Which she had known since she was a little girl. But she learned a lot about the things that people had written about laughing, fucking, shitting, eating and dreaming. The more people needed to do those things, and the more they thought they didn’t need to, the funnier their art was, the more they – writers, artists, characters, it somehow didn’t seem to matter – approached the status of cartoons and of grace.

 

That had been a real epiphany. She had stood right up and stepped back from her desk. She had gotten up and walked into the toothache freeze of a New England night out the backside of the world’s fanciest private library. She had looked at the stars and thought that she, too, had once been an unwitting utopian: an innocent, an inhabitant of the green world, as innocent as if wickedness had never been born. But she wasn’t a fool anymore, and that was the problem. She had transferred a vast love of paradox and grossness and grotesquerie right out of her life. She wore blazers all the time, and within their woolly confines her Innerlichkeit stirred. A voice whispered: If life is no fun anymore, you should embrace it! Double-down on your downward flipping dog. All this as she was supposedly achieving her sexual prime.

 

Sleeping late, working late, walking home – this was before she’d stopped working entirely – she looked up at the heavens, which used to console her, the moon sharp like a lovebite, the ectoplasmic mess of the Milky Way. And then something went wrong. What was it. Beginning in year four she woke late in the morning and went and lay back down on a mat. She stood among other adult persons and pretended to be a tree. She had thought she needed discipline, a new practice, new ritual, ways of marking and consecrating and ordering time so she didn’t lose her grip on it entirely. Yoga! Why not. Yoga was a lie believed by so many people that she found it heartwarming, even funny, or at least distracting. Every idea that yoga expressed about women she found hilarious. She’d once been told by an instructor not to do headstands while menstruating. It may have been the period rage but she had flipped upside down anyway, praying for a nosebleed so that she could crumple to the floor and beg forgiveness of that tea-drinking Ashtangi motherfucker: You were right you were right and now look! I thought that nothing would happen! I thought that my innards wouldn’t work that way. And now look at the menstrual blood leaking out of my face.

 

3.

 

The changing room at the lesbian-owned studio she attended beginning late in year four and moving on into year five was always crowded. People were always grabbing the wrong stuff, whacking each other with their rolled up mats and towels and backpacks, all of which were design-driven, ethically manufactured, and affordably priced like that was a solution to global capitalism. Ha.

 

The first afternoon she saw him, the kid asked Canada what the tattoo on her wrist said. Men were always asking that, especially in Boston. At least this time he hadn’t touched her. And she had smiled accommodatingly, told him about it, asked him jokingly if he liked 19th century Jesuit poetry. I do! Enough to have it stabbed into my body with a vibrating needle. She laughed to carry off this entirely weird thing to say and he laughed, also, and his laughter and his capris made her feel safe.

 

He said, Oh, you must be some kind of literary person, and she said, yes, I study literature, what do you do, and he said, Econ. And she said, Ew.

 

And he said, I did my undergrad at Harvard and now I’m at MIT for a PhD in Economics. And she was tempted to say Ew again but didn’t. His voice was very deep and she wondered where its deepness came from. She’d observed his junk, when they all bent forward with their legs spread and grabbed their ankles and everyone’s ass or clam or testes were briefly at eye-level with whoever happened to be right in front of or behind them. The kid’s testes were so tiny. Was there a reverse correlation, after all, between deepness of voice and testicle size?

  

So your subject area is poetry? he’d said again, his basso profundo modulating with that rising intonation that she – despite her advanced age and her many years of education – still associated with girls.

  

Oh, yeah, whatever, she said. English literature. She didn’t tell him that she no longer liked English literature, or anything, like every other graduate student she knew. The black lung of graduate school is depression, someone had once tweeted, and she’d tweeted back I like this tweet so much I want to stress eat it. At the time she had been stress eating, and stress drinking, and stress-forgetting-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning and breaking out periodically in stressed-induced hives and swollen lips and eyelids, though the Internet informed her that the hives – urticaria and angioedema were the medical names – could have been an increasing allergy to alcohol, her body’s protests at her repeated attempts to poison it.

 

As the kid asked a few more polite questions she finished tying her shoes in the B.O. and tea tree oil stink. What would Simmel, he who had written the classic essay ‘Sociability,’ say about this very human situation, about the fact that although she’d severely enjoyed watching this person’s butt contort a few minute ago she now felt too shy to tell him to shut up and go away – that she was even frightened, that she now felt his interest in her as an assault? And could she make any money applying Simmel’s not famous-enough theory to this situation, writing as it were a study of social awkwardness? She’d wanted to know what the thought about jokes, and whether they were an honest and healthy way to relieve anxiety. He’d been equivocal, but she’d come away with a long list of quotes and page numbers. Didn’t anyone want to pay her for her list of quotes and page numbers? If she wasn’t going to be a professor, maybe she could get in on that good clickbait economy money. She, too, could become a veritable engine of thinkpieces, if provided appropriate templates and training. ‘A Theory of Anti-Sociability’ – a good title for the middlebrow novel she’d also never write.

 

The kid followed her, his mat strapped over his shoulder, all way to her bicycle. He asked about her academic progress, when she expected to graduate, whether she had applied for academic jobs. She’d shrugged it off. She’d said, My discipline is fucked. There is one tenure-track job for every fifteen hundred candidates in my field. She’d laughed, too loudly, suddenly sweating in the freeze. She told him an anecdote about the denunciation of all tenured professors by another tenured professor who claimed that they and their universities extorted their graduate students by paying them a minimal wage to grade and suffer toward degrees that would never gain them employment. He said that did sound like an extortionary practice, which she knew wasn’t a word. She wanted to ask him: Why is the fear of being thought a failure as real as the fear of being a failure? Is that generational? Is that gendered? I dunno, basically what I’m wondering is whether you tell me what the fuck is wrong with me?

 

But then, as he biked away, she thought: Whatever. Everything is fine. There were texts on her phone from a dude she’d fucked twice. His name was Robert. He was the CEO of the company she’d worked for after college. He had two children and a wife from whom he was separated; he had a bi-weekly lectureship at Harvard Business School. He’d never touched her when she’d known him, not before, not when she was his employee. He’d just stopped by her cube while she was reading a novel on the clock. Once she’d shown him that she’d cleared a week of work in a day and had the free time, he’d shaken his head and told her to keep reading. Once he’d brought a carton of chocolate milk to her as she sat in her cube, gave it to for apparently no reason, shrugging his shoulders as if it were both nothing and an almost unbearably generous gift.

 

And then, the next year, he’d told her at a work party that since she’d never be loved by him she’d never know what love was. He’d leaned over her and smiled and said this and then summoned a waiter and ordered her a bottle of wine from her birth year and then gone back to his wife – then his pregnant fiancée – at the bar, where she was flirting with a go-getter from the business development team. Canada had remained quietly obsessed with him, her former boss, for years. And then it turned out he’d felt the same. He’d taken the Boston lectureship because he’d remembered where she’d gone. He had other options. He’d come all the way to Boston, he’d said, just for her, in the same tone of voice he’d used for the milk thing.

 

4.

 

The yoga kid found her email address through Harvard, presumably, from the English Department website. Easy, given her fucking ridiculous name. He had a little sister, he said in the email. She was considering graduate school, and applying for a Fulbright. Did Canada have any advice? Oh no she did not. The little sister was a senior at Princeton, a school Canada hated, precisely because it seemed that those particular WASP children believed the world was made for them even more intensely than the ones she’d taught at Harvard. He Facebook-friended her immediately after he sent the email.

 

She let the request sit idle.

 

The real problem was that the world was made for these kids. As, in some ways, it was for her. She thanked God some days that her family was downwardly mobile, that among all the morons she knew in graduate school she was pretty unique in having no secret family money and in not treating her programme as if it were the finest possible finishing school. Instead she was doing the sentimental bourgeois thing. She was proud of her education. If she managed to finish, she would frame her diploma.

 

And what would they write on it? Canada McCleod Murray, philosophistry, specialising in one long joke. Canada thought about her name sometimes, and how it had once felt like a blessing. It had made her special, distinct. And then all these books came out in which all the characters had bizarre names: books by men that were called hysterical realism by men who didn’t like them. These books – both their badness and the blowback against them – undid whatever poetry had been associated with her life, even as it remained true that, like her namesake, Canada was cold, pleasant but  powerless, Western but not vicious enough to accomplish anything, full of syrups and gravies – and, under all the sweetness, a guilt-ridden, desperate masochist with a bunch of secrets.

 

For instance: She’d been a cutter in college and then she’d found clever ways to cut without cutting. In a good yoga class, you could stand on one foot until it felt like your calf was being flayed from your shin. There were poses designed to teach you how to remain still while you tortured yourself. You stood with your head tilted back, your jugular exposed and your windpipe kinked and your adrenal glands compressed until you literally panicked. How delicate the human neck was, how much we try to protect it, the things our brain shouts when we leave it exposed! As Canada induced herself to the edge of vomiting she imagined someone tearing her throat out with his or her teeth and the hot blood just rocketing all over. At that time there was also a lot of blood in her dreams.

 

In the meantime, she responded politely to the kid’s email. She told him she didn’t have time to meet before leaving for the holidays, that she was going home to California. She wished his sister luck. She didn’t respond to a follow-up email he sent informing her that he would be in the Bay Area, and if she was there they could have coffee anyway. She didn’t understand the kid. He’d received an elite liberal arts education. Why couldn’t he read the motherfucking signs? She drafted a mean reply containing an obscure punchline about semiotics and then she deleted it.

 

5.

 

She and Robert the CEO fucked a lot, from the late summer into the early fall. Every time he was in town from San Francisco, for the first four months of what was to be her last year at school. They broke things off by text message, after the holidays, as she walked under a cold bridge on a cold New York afternoon. She’d come in by bus for the kind of literary party she’d gone to before grad school, the kind she had once thought was important because the men of her generation who had written bestselling novels about their undergraduate lives were there. He was in Los Angeles for a work thing; he texted out of the blue, maybe because he was lonely or because she hadn’t responded to an email in which he declared that he would start writing, writing stories, that he was going to pivot from business to literature.

 

He started off with something he knew he’d piss her off. He wanted to know why she got so mad when he criticised her: her clothes, her behaviour, her ideas. Why didn’t she understand he never meant to insult her? Didn’t she know he loved her? Didn’t she love him?

 

Ha! They both knew she did not. There were many dinners that hadn’t ended with sex, that was true. And he hadn’t insisted on it precisely because they both knew he was buying her and they had to kind of take it slowly to avoid looking their mutual tawdriness right in its haggard, old-ish, middle-thirties face. But those instances without sex were in fact because she didn’t often didn’t feel like sleeping with him, disliked him as often as she liked him, certainly felt no love. In her wallet she now kept a tiny silver oyster fork she’d stolen from a Boston restaurant with four Zagat stars; sometimes she touched it, wonderingly, as wonderingly as she’d gazed at his impertinent little peen. You’d give me anything, she had thought, genuinely puzzled, just so I’d touch you here?

  

Don’t get started with that pissed-off smart girl stuff, he replied, when she texted him back from under the bridge. She asked him to think of a time she’d ever dared to criticise him and resented that she couldn’t italicise things in a text message. He got really mad then. He called her lugubrious. She said, You can’t talk to me that way. He’d disappeared from the thread then, and she’d felt bad. It was a stupid riposte, childish and also callous. And besides, she knew he only had one way of talking, and he’d always been allowed to us it before: he had a big ol’ vocabulary, like his big ol’ wallet, and the size of both was inversely proportional to his emotional range, which was babyish, threadbare, small. He’d be hurt, sad, angered by her snippishness and she regretted it. She knew she wasn’t supposed to care about her oppressors. But here was the thing: she did. She had bought shark’s teeth for Robert’s two children, for both of them. They had strange names she had found lovely, Hebrew names for little kings. She’d touched his hands while he was sleeping, drawn his heavy arm across her torso, let him wash her back, let him snake his arm up between her thighs and part her labia and rub her clit to climax while he held the nape of her neck in his jaws. It hadn’t been love –it was untender and unmerciful – but sometimes it had been something.

 

After their shitty text break-up, carrying her overnight bag, she walked under the Brooklyn Bridge. What was wrong with her? Why was she angry with him? He’d done nothing but be the self she knew he was already. Afterward she had thought about him all the time, not least because she had wondered if his behaviour – the lie he’d told her about the shape of her whole life, how he’d negged her so hard she’d thought until they’d actually fucked, years and years later, that he might be right, she might never know love without knowing his love – she wondered if his behavior constituted some sort of abuse. As she considered, she did what she thought was feminist: she tried to make sense of her own failings by pointing to this instance and other milder instances of patriarchy as a personal excuse for her shit life. Once her father had dragged her upstairs by one elbow and shouted her deaf when she was eight or so because she’d kicked her brother in the balls. She was not to do that, he’d shouted, not to his only child, which wasn’t accurate, since, so far as she knew, she was his child, too. This was a bad thing, a bad thing that happened to her, despite her privilege. Certainly.

 

Or was it? She knew that if she were to ask herself closely, the answer would be no. But oh she wanted to have a trauma! Every day someone on the Internet got paid to tell the rest of the Internet that their trauma wasn’t going to stand in the way of their life, even if it did excuse everything they’d previously done in their life.

 

But she didn’t have a trauma, which gave her anxiety, and that anxiety troubled the borders between decision and event, activity and passivity: what had happened, what would happen, what did it mean to do anything if nothing had ever happened to you? What if you were just – she’d seen this phrase on a t-shirt in an Urban Outfitters and on Twitter – an unlikable female protagonist? Under the Brooklyn Bridge, while the cars and the purposefully poorly dressed rich people and the cyclists with chains around their waists passed over her head, while a plastic bag floated around and she thought about the plastic bag scene from that movie and then a plank broke somewhere in her mind and she dropped down and down. She wanted all the garbage in her head gone, all the allusions and references and jokes and flimflam, the endless spin cycle, no sorting mechanism, not one worthy form. She opened her mouth in a silent, gasping scream. And then she smashed her forearm against a frozen tabloid dispenser as hard as she could. Precisely the pain of it reminded her what she had to do.

 

She took a train into Manhattan and went to one of those donation-based classes jammed with freeloading NYU undergrads. She pushed down into the splits and breathed through her mouth and felt her groin stretch, felt almost the micro-tears in the muscle. Open your pelvis, said the teacher, like a book. In wheel pose she flipped her head back so that the crown of it pointed at the ground and the tears ran down into her hair like the oil poured over David’s head but in reverse.

 

Afterwards, as her butt sank down toward her heels and she lay on her stomach in child’s pose, her knees spread wide, her arms outstretched, she felt better. One of her Boston teachers worked at the aquarium and had once encouraged them to think of their anuses as mouths, to feel as though they could breathe out of them the way certain breeds of burrowing turtles could. She’d laughed then: she laughed now. So far as she could tell, a fart was always funny, everywhere in the world. She looked at her arm, at the gathering bruise up near the elbow, and then at the cutting scar inside it, seven inches long. She would be seeing it when she was an old-ass lady, even when the folds of skin on her arm did that vellumy thing – when her age spots would be wavery around the edges, like her mother’s, like her maternal grandmother’s, like rain splotches, the big ones, when the thunder came.

 

 

6.

 

Arriving home from New York she greeted her roommates and her cat and then she changed clothes, emptying the wet things out of the bag. She put on new, dry clothes and went to yoga again. And there was the kid, on the mat at the back of the room. The proverbial last-thing-she-needed. She took her time after practice, to avoid him, but as she was unlocking her bike he rode up to her, as if he’d gone around the block just waiting, waiting, waiting. He really was just like the crew kid she’d fucked, strong arms, well-muscled back, stroking his way toward the river where he’d tie his boat to a yacht and be sat on a throne and sated with grapes and a leopard would massage his tired back and pretty much anyone he liked would offer him blow- and hand-jobs. She tried to imagine someone being offered a blowjob on a silver tray.

 

Listen, said the yoga kid, standing by his bicycle, I understand why you wouldn’t want to talk about your life. As if her life was shameful.

 

Hey, look, she said, forced to puke up a little truth. I honestly don’t even know what to do with what you just said to me.

 

He looked back at her, steadily, the grey light of the snow kind of gathering around his sweaty shelf of bang. His pupils were enormous and his brow took up too much of his forehead. He was wearing one of those doofy fleece ear-warmers, so WASPY but somehow also so evangelical, that innocent look at which white people excel, the light in their eyes like Why would you hurt me. I’m just a little lamb for Christ. She wanted to tear off his ear-warmer and jump on it. She wanted to spit in his eye as an utter rebuke for his clownishness. She also wanted to fuck him, maybe because she was embarrassed by her honesty, what he’d procured with such a heinous neg and his little lamb face. She biked home aware despite the sweat and the freeze that she was wet.

 

7.

 

The kid disappeared for several weeks. In the meantime, Canada subsisted. She had one or two drinks a night and rubbed one out like every night, just to help her sleep. She emailed Robert the CEO apologizing and informing him that she wasn’t available in any sexual way and then answered very politely his still-way-inappropriate texts asking her to help with his current project to end myopia. If I can’t have your body, at least I can have your mind, he said, the little dots of his iChat pulsing as he thought of and then deleted the other, less elegant things he wanted to say. He was lonely, and she was, also. She wasn’t writing, but whatever. One good thing was how totally buff she got.

 

And then, in February, the kid came back.

 

He put his mat right down next to her and she ignored him hard and then he said, to the side of her head, I know someone who knows you. She turned, and it wasn’t the worm she felt. It was fear.

 

I went to a dinner and there was someone who knew you. An eighth-year from your programme. A Canadian. And he smiled, showing all his white teeth. She hadn’t known what to say. She hated him, and she hated his smile. She hated jokes about her name. She hated that he felt like he could talk to her whenever he wanted. That, she knew, was actual patriarchy.

 

He practiced as before, on the mat right beside her, and he’d gotten better. The angles in his knees were crisper. When he pressed himself back from upward facing dog into downward facing dog he flipped his toes under charmingly.

 

After practice, he said, Nice talking with you. And then he left the studio.

 

Wait what the fuck! she thought. You’re supposed to be my stalker. You get back here. She suited up in coat and boots and she went outside. And there he was, waiting by her bicycle, his calves surely freezing in those fucking capris.

 

Get a car, she said. Let’s just leave the bikes.

 

What, he said.

 

Do you like me or what. Come on.

 

9.

The kid’s apartment had posters for Kurosawa movies and for the DJ duo Disclosure. He took her clothes off before taking his clothes and he was into buttplay, which she found unsurprising. Younger Millennials were like carnies at some sort of porno bigtop and she and all humans over 28 were the sad fat men who paid to visit it alone.

 

After they finished – he and she, both finished because he cared about her finishing, which made her feel infinitely depressed about the bad sex of her own youth. Then she rolled over and looked at the kid, who was sleeping, his face flushed: so young. She put her finger in his nose as he slept and was surprised at how hairless it was. Then she imagined shoving her finger much further up, touching the inside of his skull with her fingertip, causing him pain. You would not believe what happened to me, she imagined him saying, in his deep voice, to the other neoliberal pukes in the MIT economics department. She felt a new hate spreading through her ribcage, lighting her up as if she had drunk a particularly fiery vintage of drain cleaner – not just hate, she knew, but jealousy.

 

In the same moment she suggested to herself something new, a new form into which she might pour that soul of hers, that writhing mass which if anything was a pot of worms incalculably deep. People like her, people to whom no bad thing had ever happened, were instruments. They were kept clean of trauma precisely for this reason: they were the bad thing. And yea so it was that she decided she really would hurt the boy. She had or almost had a literal fucking PhD in comedy, which necessarily meant she also knew something about tragedy and how it was made. She’d go to jail. Her bag was right there on the table and she took out her little oyster fork. She flexed her slender bicep. Afterward, sitting in his blood, she said out loud exactly what she was thinking, which was Om.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vice, Cabinet, n+1, the Believer, McSweeney's, Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She is a doctoral candidate at Harvard. 'The Bad Thing' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (US & Canada).

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