The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy
March and there’s dirty snow humped on the windowsills, still; sidewalk’s mucked, sky’s been the color of dust for days. He’s shaving his head over the bathroom sink, weekly ritual some years now, ever since that first spot blossomed high in the back. He remembers how the pads of his fingers felt when they first found the smooth patch, warm and soft, and how he thought, Shit no not gonna be that guy. So instead he’s this guy, whoever this guy is, clean-scalped, boasting a thick beard, well-groomed, hazelnut, he likes to think but would never say. A well-groomed beard is paramount, believes Gregory who when he meets new people says “Please, call me Greg” but doesn’t mean it. The full name is what he likes, its fine whiff of archaism, bouquet of saints and England, popes and Greece; the two “g” sounds granting clangorous passage toward the open and humming “ory” with its quick high finish like young wine or the inflatable slide you ride to escape from the burning plane. But nobody calls him Gregory except his mother, and he rarely calls her at all. So Greg, then: a higher-up in the lower echelon of a medical copy-writing firm in far West Chelsea. Sometimes it seems like science fiction that one blue train line should connect that neighborhood to the part of Bed-Stuy where he’s been living for—what is it, two years now? Two years. Merciful Mary. Fucking hell.
In April he stops at his corner coffee shop for an afternoon latte, asks the barista out on a date. Not only does she say yes, but over riojas it turns out she doesn’t just work at The Grind Shack, she owns it. Used to have one just like it, successful, in Charlottesville, Virginia, unless she said State College, PA. Anyway, she sold that place and with proceeds bought this one because she wanted to have the experience: city life. Audrey says business is booming but she never imagined she’d hate New York the way she does. She expected an adjustment, sure, but up all night crying? Never. Says she’s wolf-whistled at by corner drunks, wants to see a field sometime, may be suffering PTSD from a train grope.
“What can you do?” he says.
“I’m looking for a buyer,” she says. He’d meant the question rhetorically—hadn’t, in fact, thought it could be taken any other way.
He has these great big bear hands and loves them, favorite thing about himself, easily, the way a double cheeseburger looks a little lost when held in them, or the neck of his old Fender Strat. Proud, too, of the arms they’re mounted on, whose size is half gift and half result of honest effort (he’d looked into a gym near his office; joined the Y near his apartment instead). He’s in the bathroom lathering his head. It’s May and already most days the mercury’s hitting eighty-five by noon. The stripper—one of four strangers he shares this narrow two-story house with—is banging on the door for the second time. She wants to get in here to do her own shaving, plus mascara, body glitter, diaphragm. She’s running late, she says; the car from the club is going to be here any minute. His eyes are red, cheeks round, puffy, hairy, and high.
Everything about his job disgusts him. He engineers the jargon that lies the company out of whatever the studies they’ve done have proven more or less unequivocally. The raw data is enough to keep you up half the night mulching your fingernails, choking back bile and fright. Ergo face puff, ergo eyes. He buys Žižek books by the pound and wine by the gallon. Žižek and Audrey, he feels, are the only people who understand him. Zombies his way through the workweek with a bottomless coffee mug—I’m always on drugs, he thinks at the mirror, Always trying to go faster or else slow down, sharper or more dulled, my fingers a beige blur over the beige keyboard, up and down my beige girlfriend; if I were someone else looking at myself at my desk I’d see a slack face bathed in monitorlight, dull. He heats the razor by running it under the faucet. He touches the thin hot steel to his head, pulls.
By June Audrey’s found her buyer. She’s ready to go but where? He says, “Well, we’ve both got some money.”
She says, “Are you serious? I mean is this us talking serious?”
He says, “I moved to this shitass city to become a rock star. Instead I’m an office drone and, increasingly, a raving Communist, only the only times I have time to rave I’m too drunk or too sleepy and then the people who really need raving at aren’t around, or they are but they’re holding my leash. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I search Craigslist for sublets in Canadian cities. Square footage alone has brought me to the verge of weeping joy.” This is the longest monologue he’s ever taken in her company. She throws her arms around his wide neck, tilts her pelvis into his hip. “I want a new guitar,” he says. “Acoustic.”
Part of the deal for selling The Grind Shack is Audrey has to help the new owner learn the ropes so Gregory’s alone in Montreal the first couple weeks of July. When they Skype he plunks out “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and can see her in her little digital box, melting for him. And there he is, in his even smaller box inset in the corner of her box, the Ibanez slung across his belly, his sweaty head agleam. Sometimes they let whole minutes pass in silence, he watches her and he watches himself watching her. Audrey in her New York living room, a pale face afloat before a plain gray wall. He takes epic walks around Montreal, up backstreets, down alleys, wherever. If a parade went by he’d probably join it. In a bar near McGill he finds himself knocking back whiskies with a guy who does research on sleep cycles. Guy’s going on about fruit flies, the neverending bitchwork of grant proposals, how it’s gonna be when he gets his degree, his own lab, tenure. Guy says he wants to move to New York City. There’s a post-doc at Columbia he’s got an eye on. Gregory starts to tell him about the old loathed Bed-Stuy share, the way the city stinks in summer. Guy’s not saying much anymore and Gregory, worried his frankness has unnerved, swerves toward a different subject.
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