“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.