I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A satirical take on toxic masculinity.
There would be no strippers, a condition stipulated by The Bachelor’s Fiancé. She was not against sex work, but she only approved of its Platonic ideal: some kind of womyn-run co-op on a squash farm upstate, empowered performers in antique garters reciting the essays of Audre Lorde.
The Bachelor hadn’t argued. He and his friends were sensitive men. They were academics or artists or artist-adjacent. They were bald or balding. They’d been taught by their mothers to dress for the weather, and then by their girlfriends to dress for their bodies. The result was an abundance of slim-cut flannel. With the exception of The Best Man, they were white.
“You’re white,” said The Old Friend, whose sensitivity was of a different sort. For instance, he was sensitive about not being chosen as Best Man. He’d been The Bachelor’s undergrad roommate. They met The Best Man in art school later on. “If Jews are white, then Indians are too.”
“I’m Pakistani,” said The Best Man.
“That’s a country,” said The Old Friend. “Not a skin tone.”
He held his arm up to The Best Man’s.
“You’re just tan,” said The Best Man. “From your trip to LA.”
The Bachelor turned up the music. The Old Friend sat shotgun, one foot on the dashboard. He tapped his toe and rapped along, emphasizing the N-word each time it occurred.
The Bachelor’s Work Friend was on his phone. The Bachelor hoped he wasn’t tweeting. They were supposed to be on social media blackout. A what happens in The Berkshires stays in The Berkshires kind of thing. Joking, but not. They hadn’t discussed when the blackout went into effect. They were still on the Saw Mill, barely out of the Bronx.
The Bachelor didn’t know The Work Friend well, but they were similar types. Both were engaged. Both were bitter about their careers. Both had tattoos of non-predatory birds. Both felt disappointed when their tweets and Facebook posts didn’t get as much attention as they seemed to deserve, and both were ashamed that they cared. They discussed these topics at lunch most days while they slurped ramen noodles or dipped maki in soy sauce. Some days they got sandwiches instead.
The Bachelor worried that The Work Friend was tweeting that The Old Friend had said the N-word. The Old Friend was not exactly famous, but he was well-known enough that an accusation might affect his career. The Bachelor switched to a different playlist that didn’t include any rap.
The Old Friend lit a cigarette and held it out the window. He was the only one who still smoked. He may have been the only one who could afford to. The Old Friend came from money, and he’d used that money on studio space while the others worked as catering waiters and gallery slaves to pay back loans they’d taken out for their MFAs. Now he was an artist. The Bachelor and The Work Friend were only adjacent. They still made art, but more often they complained about not having time to make art. The Best Man taught. According to the Old Friend, he’d “affirmative actioned” his way into tenure. The Bachelor and The Best Man talked shit about The Old Friend, but it was boring when he wasn’t around.
The Best Man and The Work Friend bummed cigarettes. The Old Friend held the pack out to The Bachelor, who waved it away. He hadn’t had one in years, not since The Fiancé asked that he quit. It hadn’t occurred to him not to. They were in their twenties, in art school. Their other female peers dated older, famous artists, like their professors, and their professors’ friends. The Bachelor felt lucky to be with The Fiancé, who was smarter than he was, and more attractive. He was happy to comply with her requests.
The Bachelor understood that, as a cis-gendered heterosexual white male living in a hegemonic late capitalist society, he held some kind of fundamental power. And maybe he did—part of the problem of privilege, he knew, was the inability to recognize one’s own—but it had never felt that way. He pictured power tossed like beads from a Mardi Gras float. The more aggressive among them gathered the bounty while guys like The Bachelor looked on from the side.
The house had belonged to The Old Friend’s grandparents, who were dead. The family kept it as a vacation home, but it was still filled with the grandparents’ stuff, including a collection of rare and valuable nineteenth-century sewing samplers. There were scratchy quilts and vintage wooden toys. There were Norman Rockwell prints and a working fireplace. The theme was farmhouse kitsch, but it was actually a lakefront condo in a development populated almost exclusively by Jewish retirees.
The house’s only thematic exception was the master bathroom, which The Old Friend’s grandmother had decorated in Betty Boop memorabilia. The Old Friend enjoyed this part of the tour. He poured the remains of his beer into a Betty Boop highball glass and climbed into the tub. He took a plush Betty Boop and pushed her into his crotch.
In pics on blogs and in art magazines, The Old Friend always looked attractive, darkly complexioned with wiry muscles. In person, he had a diminutive air. He currently resembled an unneutered lapdog, a rare breed of balding Pekingese.
The most irritating thing about The Old Friend was that he was a good artist. A prominent critic had described his sculptures as fearlessly grotesque. “Say what you will,” their professor once explained after members of the class complained about the abundance of phallic imagery in The Old Friend’s work, “but at least he has a worldview.”
The Bachelor liked to think his own work was more nuanced and subtle. He knew, in his heart, this was not the case.
“It only just occurred to me that Betty Boop’s a prostitute,” said The Work Friend. He sat on the closed toilet, flipped through an old copy of People featuring Prince Harry on its cover.
“A shitty one,” said The Old Friend. He pulled the plush toy from his crotch and flung it toward the door. “No suction.”
“She’s not a prostitute,” said The Best Man, with a tenured professor’s air of authority. “She’s a burlesque dancer, maybe even just a cigarette girl. She has those big flirty eyes, but, believe me, there are pasties on her nipples.”
“What do you know?” said The Old Friend. “You teach at fucking Pratt.”
There weren’t supposed to be any drugs either. This directive came from The Bachelor. He hadn’t done mushrooms since college, weed made him anxious, and coke became too much the focal point when it appeared. But they were many beers deep and full of ribeye, grilled to crosshatched perfection by The Best Man. A magic hour sunball sank over the lake. When The Old Friend pulled a joint from his pocket, The Bachelor could hardly object.
“Later we can walk over to the camp,” said The Old Friend. He gestured down the shore to where some sailboats were docked. “Find a bunch of counselors horned up on Jose Cuervo and clean country air.”
“You know none of us are single, right?” said The Best Man. One of his duties as Best Man was to temper The Old Friend’s impulses. The Best Man could be relied on as a trusted voice of reason. He didn’t genuflect to The Old Friend as others often did. “You’re the only one here without a fiancé.”
“Single schmingle,” said The Old Friend. “I’m not talking about getting pussy, I’m talking about proximity to pussy.” He turned to The Bachelor. “This, after all, is your last hurrah.”
The Old Friend only talked this way around other heterosexual men. The Bachelor had seen him on panels sounding sensitive and woke. The Old Friend tailored his manner to social situations. Perhaps this was the real key to his success.
The Bachelor watched the joint move around the table. Each person performed when it was his turn. The Best Man made a point to finish some shading before resting his pencil in the spirals of his sketch pad and taking the offer. The Work Friend tapped ash into the grease on his plate. When it got to The Bachelor, he tried to give the impression of inhaling without allowing smoke into his lungs. It didn’t work; he coughed and became instantly stoned. He liked the feeling and felt relieved that he liked it. The breeze was nice on his arms.
The Bachelor thought of The Fiancé, who was in Palm Springs with two girlfriends and a gay male colleague. The plan was to take Ayahuasca in something called The Integratron, which she’d described as a sound bath or audio cleanse. The Fiancé rarely drank, but she did mushrooms a few times a year. After art school, she took an administrative job at a startup called Spoony that made SmartSpoons that tracked caloric intake. Mushrooms were part of the office culture, a conduit to team building at their quarterly retreats. The SmartSpoon was a reprehensible product, but Spoony donated a percentage of its revenue to a non-profit that brought ancient grains to urban schools. The Fiancé considered it an ethical wash. Besides, she received a large pay bump when Spoony took on a round of Series A. The Fiancé still did collage work, but she no longer aspired to have it hung in galleries or discussed on art blogs. She was happier this way, without petty envy of their more successful friends. Ambition was a burden, The Bachelor had realized, and its end brought relief.
The sunball goldened, then purpled, then faded to sky. The four men sketched in the dusk light. The Bachelor drew the leafy oak that shot up through the porch, penetrating through a gap in the wood slats. He was ready for marriage. He’d had sex in college. Not an excessive amount, but there were female friends, some of whom he found attractive, (some of whom he did not,) many of whom he eventually slept with or else beside, sometimes in groups of three or more. These weren’t orgies, exactly. More like half-nude cuddle sessions with occasional kissing. The Bachelor often woke to find his erection pressed against someone’s thigh or the small of a back.
In college, pleasure wasn’t the goal so much as experience, something to brag about at brunch the next day. He preferred sex with The Fiancé, who knew to run her nails up The Bachelor’s spine, knew to slow things down when his breath got short. She knew he liked to be kissed on the neck, but softly, in flurries, without any licking. And though The Bachelor enjoyed The Old Friend’s tales of scheming and conquest, he was glad that part of his own life was over. It was like listening to someone on military furlough; you pitied The Old Friend’s return to the trenches.
A recording of TAPS came in from the camp. This meant bedtime for campers. The Old Friend touched his forehead in mock salute. He told a story about a Navy SEAL who’d given him a hand job in the bathroom of a Greenwich Village steakhouse. He called the woman “Lady Seal” like that was her name, a minor character on Game of Thrones. He described the hand soap she’d used for lubrication, cucumber aloe vera. This detail was too specific. The Bachelor thought he’d seen the same soap in the master bathroom.
“Bullshit,” said The Best Man. “I’ve heard that story before, only last time the woman was a firefighter and it was a dumpling spot on Mott Street.”
“Different girl, you racist,” said The Old Friend. “And the woman was Asian, not the restaurant. And it wasn’t a hand job, it was soulful anal in the coat check at The Guggenheim. And she wasn’t a fire fighter, she was a fire marshal, so get your shit straight.”
Everyone laughed, including The Old Friend, who only ever laughed at his own remarks. This was what The Bachelor wanted out of this weekend. Not a last hurrah, but a brief respite. Not proximity to pussy, but a safe space where you could say the word pussy. Hell, if you wanted, you could say the word cunt. So long as the Work Friend wasn’t tweeting.
“Sorry,” said The Work Friend. “Was trying to ‘gram the sunset. Old habits. No service out here anyway.”
He put the phone on the table and showed his sketch to the group, a Mondrian-esque take on the oak tree, half-erased pencil marks smudged into clouds. They’d all drawn the tree except for The Old Friend, who’d done a nude, spread eagle, with a hand between her legs. It was clearly better than the other sketches: the finely rendered wisps of pubic hair, the gradations of shading on the areolas. The Bachelor recognized the woman, a College Friend from undergrad.
The next phase of the night involved drinking scotch and watching pay-per-view boxing. The Old Friend feinted and jabbed, threw undercuts at the air. His sketch had been tacked to the wall by the TV.
The Bachelor wasn’t paying much attention to the match. He stared at the sketch and thought about their College Friend. She’d had an older boyfriend who’d played bass in a moderately successful shitty band. He was away a lot on tour. The College Friend would complain to The Bachelor about her boyfriend, who wasn’t kind or smart. But he was very attractive, she always added, a skillful lover whose penis was abnormally large.
When The College Friend’s boyfriend was out of town, she slept in The Bachelor’s bed. They drank wine and looked at art books. He pined for her and mistook the feeling for love. Love looked like this in certain movies, chatty and unconsummated. But The College Friend always slept in sweatpants. She never let The Bachelor kiss or grope her like their other friends did.
The Bachelor hadn’t seen The College Friend in years. He and The Old Friend had gone to New York for art school, and she’d stayed in Connecticut and married her gastroenterologist, a divorced father of teenage sons. She posted pics from her stepsons’ lacrosse games, or at fundraising galas beside cardboard cutouts of intestines. At some point, The Bachelor stopped stalking her feeds. He’d met The Fiancé and modified his definition of love, which he’d decided was contingent on reciprocated feelings.
The Work Friend used his phone to photograph the TV. He tried various filters, with and without flash. He took pics of the boxers’ legs and feet. He said he might Photoshop the legs with different torsos, a comment on how our culture fetishizes black bodies. He zoomed in until the image was blurry, pulled back until The Old Friend’s sketch shared the frame.
The Bachelor figured The Work Friend would tag The Old Friend when he posted the photo. The Old Friend’s fans—a small but passionate contingent of male art students—would be excited by this so-called collaboration. The Bachelor could see it in The Work Friend’s eyes: the dream of Internet fame by association.
“Care if I tag you?” The Work Friend asked.
“If it gets you wet,” said The Old Friend. The only app he had on his phone was Tinder, and even that he rarely used. The Old Friend preferred to date friends of friends. Otherwise they wouldn’t understand his elevated status. The Work Friend often said that he too would like the privilege of being a Luddite. But the art world was a hustle, and unless you were already successful, then you needed to aggressively promote your brand. The Bachelor thought this was cynical, and probably accurate. And yet, hadn’t The Old Friend become initially successful by making sculptures while the others took pics of their bagels?
The Old Friend cut up four lines of cocaine on a coffee table book titled Jewish Athletes of the 20th Century.
“What the fuck?” said The Bachelor, but his anger was half-hearted. Maybe leaving the city had loosened him up. The whiskey helped. He didn’t even care about The Work Friend’s phone. The Old Friend rolled up a twenty and snorted.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s 90% baby laxative. My regular guy’s on vacay. Had to score some street shit.” He held out the rolled bill and said, “Who’s next?”
The Work Friend bent over Jewish Athletes of the 20th Century. It was a slim book. It was a difficult century. The Bachelor recognized Sandy Koufax on the cover. Koufax, he recalled, once sat out a World Series game to observe Yom Kippur. The Bachelor couldn’t imagine upholding his own principles under that kind of pressure.
“Not all laxative,” said the satisfied Work Friend.
“Talk to me in ten minutes when you’re scraping diarrhea off your leg,” The Old Friend replied.
After doing his line, The Best Man went to the bathroom to snort water so his sinuses wouldn’t clog. The Bachelor hesitated now that it was his turn. He looked again at The Old Friend’s sketch. The thing he’d had really captured was The College Friend’s teeth, which were widely spaced and unattractively consistent in size. She used to keep an old retainer in her nightstand drawer. She said she hadn’t worn it since eighth grade, but that she couldn’t bring herself to throw something so expensive away.
The College Friend was a blue-eyed blonde who wore loafers and pastel sweaters to punk shows. But the clothes were aspirational; she wasn’t a WASP. Her father worked on boats off the Long Island Sound. When The Bachelor had mentioned the decade-old saliva crusted onto the retainer, The College Friend wasn’t bothered. Her view of the world was schematic and abstract. She liked art that was the same, all that Bauhaus color theory, Josef Albers.
The Bachelor had only seen her show real emotion once, after her boyfriend had confessed to cheating on his European tour. The College Friend came in tears to The Bachelor’s room. She was a vocal crier, which surprised The Bachelor, as her speaking voice was modulated and soft. The Bachelor encouraged her to let it all out, and she did, briefly, though she refused to be hugged or physically consoled. She cocooned herself in his old rainbow afghan and lay staring at the ceiling until she fell asleep.
The Bachelor was more of the heart-on-sleeve type. He cried during tender father-son scenes in movies, and he was bad at faking being in a good mood. His favorite painter was Alice Neel, whose figures always looked so sickly and slumped. The Bachelor took zinc supplements daily. He was constantly worried he was catching a cold.
They would have made an unsustainable couple. Relationships, The Bachelor had learned, thrived on agreement. You needed someone who shared your taste in decorative tchotchkes, shared your feelings about when and if you might want kids. You needed someone, like The Fiancé, who you could tell about your fears—of complacency, failure—and who would reassure you in a firm, calm voice, her sour breath expressing a familiar human warmth.
The Bachelor studied The College Friend’s body. He knew he had no reason to feel guilty, but he did.
“You know what people do on Ayahuasca, right?” asked The Old Friend.
The Bachelor assumed it was like mushrooms: dizziness and colors, gastrointestinal distress. He imagined The Fiancé in a linen caftan, twirling to mid-tempo EDM.
“They hump,” said The Old Friend, and demonstrated on the arm of the couch.
“She’s with her girlfriends and a gay guy,” The Bachelor replied. “At a sound bath.”
“In a bath?” said The Old Friend.
“Proximity to penis,” added The Work Friend, who’d been repeating things The Old Friend said.
“A sound bath,” said The Bachelor. “An audio cleanse.”
“Exactly,” said The Old Friend. He took off his shirt and licked a finger. He rubbed his nipples so they raised themselves from his chest. In a sexy voice, he said, “Yeah baby, do it baby, bathe me in sound.”
The Bachelor wasn’t bothered. He trusted The Fiancé, who was a free-spirit in appearance only. Before The Bachelor, she’d had boyfriends, but she’d never, to his knowledge, had a one-night stand. Even the Ayahuasca trip was meticulously planned, from outfits, to playlists, to a limo so they wouldn’t need a designated driver.
The Best Man returned from the bathroom with his hair slicked back and his beard soaking wet.
“In there long enough?” asked The Old Friend.
“Was I?” said The Best Man with genuine concern.
“I was worried you were building a suicide bomb.”
The Old Friend and Work Friend found this hilarious. The Bachelor waited for The Best Man’s riposte, but he appeared to be elsewhere: grinding his teeth, pulsing to imaginary music.
“Suicide bomb,” The Best Man said, and grinned. He pretended to click a button and blow himself up. Everyone was laughing except for The Bachelor.
“See,” said The Old Friend. “Racism is funny.”
The Bachelor disagreed, but he knew that drugs altered perception. As the lone abstainer, he was out of the loop.
And the more he thought about it, the harder it was to remember why he’d stopped doing coke himself. The Bachelor recalled key bumps at his first Brooklyn group show, emerging from the bathroom to the chatter and light. He was introduced to strangers as, “one of the artists,” and he felt witty and cool. Another night, he and The Fiancé went in on an eight ball, then ditched a boring party to do their share at home. They cut the coke on the art deco mirror she’d found at a stoop sale. They kissed and took turns choosing songs from her iPod.
The Bachelor felt nostalgic. He did his line.
Boxing was over. The bourbon was finished. Two of the three bags of cocaine were gone. There was talk of an outing, but it was two in the morning, and bars closed at midnight. There was talk of the camp, but even The Old Friend wasn’t bold or dumb enough scour to the woods in search of teen girls.
They sat on the porch and looked at the stars. They said things city people say when they’re in nature and on drugs. That the air was so clean, and how crazy that real estate here was so cheap.
That stuff about the laxative wasn’t a lie. Betty Boop watched The Bachelor from a framed poster hung over the tub. She was in Hawaii, advertising a defunct brand of soft drink. She wore only a grass skirt and a breast-obscuring lei. The Bachelor pictured Betty back in her hotel room: running the water, removing her lashes, mumbling about the goddamn male gaze.
He’d been wrong about the hand soap. It was milk and golden honey.
Three of the three bags of cocaine were gone. The Best Man and The Work Friend were in the kitchen building Legos that belonged to The Old Friend’s five-year-old niece. They’d dismantled a spaceship and reassembled it as a symphony space. The Old Friend did pushups on the living room floor.
The Bachelor wished The Fiancé were here. They could curl up in his guest bed, lit by the moon through the room’s gauzy blinds. He glanced again at The Old Friend’s sketch and said, “You really managed to capture her teeth.”
“It’s easy,” said The Old Friend. “When you’re working from a photo.”
The Bachelor wasn’t sure, for a moment, what that meant. Then he figured it out: The Old Friend had photoshopped The College Friend’s face onto someone else’s body.
“You’re sick,” said The Bachelor.
“I’m sick? She’s the one who’s sending me this stuff.”
“It’s right here on my phone.”
The Bachelor said, “You’re kidding,” again, though, somehow, he knew that The Old Friend was not. The Old Friend said she’d left her husband. She was staying in a sublet above Chelsea Market.
“And you and she?” said The Bachelor.
“We’ve been in touch since college,” said The Old Friend.
This was news to the Bachelor. “Is it serious?” he asked.
“It’s the opposite of serious.”
“Filthy,” said The Old Friend. “Is what it is.”
He asked if The Bachelor wanted to look.
This was a violation, The Bachelor knew, an indefensible betrayal of The College Friend’s trust.
He pictured her in the Chelsea apartment, alone in pajamas, watching the news. She was probably thinking of her husband and stepsons, asking herself if she’d made a mistake. He pictured her stirring yogurt with a plastic spoon, drafting texts in her head to The Old Friend—how to convey that she missed him without sounding desperate? And if she knew what The Old Friend was offering The Bachelor? He flashed on her from that day in his room, cheeks puffed and wet.
The Old Friend waved his phone in The Bachelor’s face. It was men like The Old Friend, The Bachelor thought, that made women hate men.
And what about The Fiancé? In a month’s time, she and The Bachelor would stand beneath a chuppah in a New England meadow. Their families would be there—cousins from as far as Tel Aviv and Hong Kong—and dozens of friends. In front of these people, The Bachelor would pledge to be loving and faithful. The Fiancé would be beautiful, in white, and he would be happy. They would stomp on the glass. He would no longer be The Bachelor, but The Husband instead.
“Okay,” said The Bachelor. “Let me see.”
The moon was still out though the sky had lightened to a pewter gray. Wind came off the water. The Old Friend danced nude on the condo complex’s small patch of sand.
“Tag me, bitch,” yelled The Old Friend. “Tweet this dick.”
The Bachelor had seen The Old Friend naked countless times. What always impressed him was not The Old Friend’s body, but the confidence with which he displayed it. His genitals were of average dimensions, but he bore them with self-assured pride.
The Bachelor had taken no pleasure in the pics. The Old Friend appeared in some himself. Not his whole body, but his fingers, his erection, his chest, his mouth. The worst was a postcoital selfie of the two propped in bed. They looked sweat-soaked and pleasantly spent.
The Bachelor had taken no pleasure, but he’d felt a sense of duty. To what he wasn’t sure. Maybe a duty to his earlier self. Wasn’t this what Bachelor Parties were for: to say goodbye to that self, send him off in a heap of titillation and shame?
The Old Friend sprinted into the lake and freestyled out past the buoy. The Work Friend waded in and continued to film. The Best Man approached The Bachelor, who sat alone in a beach chair. As Best Man, it was his job to offer wisdom.
“It won’t last,” said The Best Man.
“No,” said The Bachelor.
“And you’re getting married.”
The Bachelor nodded. He’d always prided himself on not resenting The Old Friend’s success. Other people called The Old Friend a phony, a talentless hack. The Bachelor always came to his defense. He went to all The Old Friend’s openings. He posted links to glowing reviews of his work. The Bachelor felt genuinely happy whenever The Old Friend notched some new accolade, a fellowship, say, or the lucrative sale of one of his sculptures. And this, despite The Bachelor’s own frustration at what had now been years of rejection. Because who were they kidding, it was all a contest, and The Old Friend had won. The Bachelor was nothing if not a graceful loser. Which was why he was angry. What was left for The Old Friend to prove?
The Best Man suggested they get in the lake. The Bachelor declined. He watched the others splash and laugh. The Old Friend grabbed a fallen branch from a tree that hung over the water and swung it like a baseball bat.
And maybe it wasn’t The Old Friend’s fault. He was human, after all. He was a bachelor in the wild, and this was how bachelors in the wild behaved. Weren’t women supposed to be the loyal animals? Weren’t they supposed to be self-disciplined and mature? She was the one who’d left her husband. She’d let The Old Friend take those pics. The College Friend had spent dozens of nights in The Bachelor’s bed. And not once, in all those years, had she ever even offered him a kiss.
That day, after coming to his room in tears, The College Friend napped in The Bachelor’s bed. While she slept, The Bachelor went and got the makings of a feast. Whole red snappers stuffed with lemon and dill. Purple fingerling potatoes. Parsley butter on a warm baguette. He cooked in the dorm’s shared kitchen. He brought the food to his room and lit candles. He put on music and opened a bottle of wine.
The College Friend’s mood improved. She swooned over The Bachelor’s culinary skills. They pretended the fish’s face was a puppet and took turns making it talk. They bad-mouthed her boyfriend and The College Friend claimed she’d never speak to him again. The Bachelor told her that she was a strong, amazing woman, and that she deserved much better than this. He explained that there were other men out there, men who would love and respect her, who would treat her right if she let them in. The College Friend seemed to consider this statement. She looked out the window and nodded. It seemed like she knew he was referring to himself.
Later, in bed, The Bachelor inched toward her. She was facing the wall, away from him. Very gently, he touched his lips to her hair. The College Friend said nothing. He kissed her neck.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“It’s okay,” said The Bachelor and kissed her again.
“No,” said The College Friend.
“It’s okay,” said The Bachelor.
He squeezed her arm, perhaps a little too tightly. One of his legs had clamped itself around hers. The College Friend kicked and launched herself from the bed. She was in tears again, gathering her things from The Bachelor’s floor.
“I’m sorry,” said, The Bachelor. “I misread the signals.”
“There were no signals,” The College Friend said.
Halfway to the house, The Bachelor’s phone buzzed. He must have passed through a service zone. The Fiancé had sent a series of texts documenting her day. She said her flight was fine, that she’d read and slept. She joked about her maid of honor’s oversized suitcase. There were pics of brunch and of Red Rock formations. Then she said that she was off to the Integratron and phones weren’t allowed, but she wanted him to know that she loved him and that she hoped he was having fun with his friends. The chain concluded with a selfie. The Fiancé looked happy and mildly sunburnt. She blew The Bachelor a kiss. It turned out to be dew falling down through the leaves, but for an instant The Bachelor felt the kiss wet his head.
The Bachelor entered the house through the porch. He found himself gripping a wood-handled steak knife. In the hallway mirror was his own grinning face. The knife glinted silver. The Bachelor’s eyes were tiny beads.
The Bachelor pulled The Old Friend’s sketch from the wall and placed it on the walnut dining table. He aimed the first slash for her mouth, but the knife caught on the page and he nicked her ear instead. In frustration, he twisted the knife until her face became a void. He got into a rhythm, stabbing and twisting, pulling the blade from the wood. I’m making art, The Bachelor thought as he continued to stab.
Soon the others would come in from the lake. They’d see the modified sketch, knife-pinned to the table. Dawn through the skylight would give The Work Friend’s pics of The Bachelor’s installation a rosy glow.
Tag me, The Bachelor would to say to The Work Friend.
Tag me, for this is my truth.
He sank the blade farther into the table until it stood stiffly at ninety degrees. The piece would be called Last Hurrah.
Pre-order Adam Wilson’s upcoming novel, Sensation Machines (Soho Press), here.
Adam Wilson is the author of three books including the forthcoming novel, Sensation Machines (Soho, 2020). A National Jewish Book Award finalist, and a recipient of the Terry Southern Prize, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, and the Best American Short Stories among many other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee