Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2012): Lynne Tillman’s story collection Someday This Will Be Funny, from which this story was excerpted at NC last spring, was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly.
Here’s a sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, sexy, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise short story, “The Substitute,” from Lynne Tillman’s brand new collection Someday This Will Be Funny (May 1 pub. date). Lynne is an old acquaintance, “friend” would be a bit presumptuous; though we have known each other and corresponded sympathetically now and then since 1992 when I reviewed her sly, witty, fiercely intelligent, hilarious, knowing, playful and wise novel Cast in Doubt for the Washington Post Book World. Of that book, I wrote in part: “…Lynne Tillman writes with such élan, such spirited delight and comic intelligence that it is difficult to take anything but pleasure….” Believe me, this woman has some moves.
Lynne is the Writer-in-Residency at the University at Albany. She has published five novels, three story collections and a book of essays. Mirabile dictu, her current publisher, Red Lemonade, is simultaneously bringing four Lynne Tillman novels back into print: Haunted Houses (1986), Motion Sickness (1991), Cast in Doubt (1992) and No Lease on Life (1998). This is amazing, a coup, and a sign that somehow publishing lives, nurtured by innovators and risk takers. Richard Eoin Nash, the man behind Red Lemonade, describes the imprint as “a pilot for a massively ambitious program, to create a new platform (part webapp, part business process) for independent publishing, combining the best of editorial judgment and publicity moxie with community input into acquisition and promotion, and combining the tradition publisher/retailer process with digital publishing and limited editions. That’s called Cursor and that’s the platform powering Red Lemonade.”
Read Lynne’s story, buy the books (stock up before the next recession), check out Cursor and Red Lemonade. Read about Lynne on Slate; read an interview in BOMB, another interview in The Millions. More recently, an excellent interview and collection of links .
She watched his heart have a small fit under his black T-shirt. Its unsteady rhythm was a bridge between them. Lost in the possibilities he offered her, she studied his thin face, aquiline nose, tobacco-yellow fingers. In the moment, which swallowed her whole, she admired his need to smoke. She wouldn’t always, but not being able to stop meant something, now. Certain damage was sexy, a few sinuous scars. He’d be willing, eager maybe, to exist with her in the margins.
She’d set the terms. Ride, nurse on danger, take acceptable or necessary risks. Maybe there’d be one night at a luscious border, where they’d thrum on thrill, ecstatically unsure, or one long day into one long night, when they’d say everything and nothing and basely have their way with each other. She wasn’t primitive but had an idea of it—to live for and in her senses. She’d tell him this. Then they’d vanish, disappear without regret. She was astonished at how adolescence malingered in every cell of her mature body.
Helen met Rex on the train. She taught interior design to art students in a small college in a nearby city. He taught painting. She liked it that he sometimes smelled like a painter, which was old-fashioned, though he wasn’t; he told her he erased traces of the hand (she liked hands), used acrylics, didn’t leave his mark and yet left it, too. Still, tobacco, chemicals, alcohol, a certain raw body odor, all the storied ingredients, reminded her of lofts and studios and herself in them twenty years before, late at night, time dissolving.
Between Rex and her, one look established furtive interest, and with a fleeting, insubstantial communication they betrayed that and themselves. They were intrigued dogs sniffing each other’s tempting genitals and asses. Being an animal contented her lately, and she sometimes compared her behavior with wild and domestic ones. Reason, she told an indignant friend with relish, was too great a price to pay daily.
Her imagination was her best feature. It embellished her visible parts, and altogether they concocted longing in Rex. She could see it; she could have him. She couldn’t have her analyst. She held Dr Kaye in her mind, where she frolicked furiously in delayed gratification. But Rex, this man beside her—she could see the hairs on his arms quiver—engaged her fantastic self, an action figure.
Rex’s hands fooled with his cigarette pack. Her analyst didn’t smoke, at least not with her, and she didn’t imagine he smoked at home, with his wife, whose office was next door, she discovered, unwittingly, not ever having considered that the woman in the adjoining office was more than a colleague. Cottage industry, she remarked in her session. Dr Kaye seemed amused. Maybe because she hadn’t been curious about the relationship or because it took her so long to catch on. That meant more than what she said, she supposed.
Rex’s hands weren’t well-shaped, beautiful. If she concentrated on them . . . But she wondered: would they stir me, anyway. She shut her eyes. She liked talking with her eyes shut, though she couldn’t see her analyst’s face. Dr Kaye wore a long tie today. It hung down over his fly and obscured the trouser pouch for his penis.
When she first saw him, she was relieved to find him avuncular, not handsome like her father. Men grew on trees, there were so many of them, they dropped to the ground and rotted, most of them. Dr. Kaye hesitated before speaking. She imagined his face darkening when she said things like that. Whatever, she said and smiled again at the ceiling. I like men. I’m just pulling your leg. She could see the bottoms of his trousers.
When she approached him on the train, Rex had a near-smirk on his lips, just because she was near. She liked his lips, they were lopsided. If he didn’t speak, she could imagine his tongue. He might push for something to happen, actually, and that was exciting. Her heart sped up as Rex glanced sideways at her, from under his . . . liquid hazel eyes. She squirmed, happily. Hovering at the edge tantalized her. The heart did race and skip; it fibrillated, her mother had died of that. What do you feel about your mother now? Dr. Kaye asked. But aren’t you my mother now?
They flirted, she and Rex, the new, new man with a dog’s name. Did it matter what he looked like naked? They hadn’t lied to each other. Unless by omission. But then their moments were lived by omission. Looking at him staring out the window, as if he were thinking of things other than her, she started a sentence, then let the next word slide back into her mouth like a sucking candy. Rex held his breath. She blushed. This was really too precious to consummate.
Dr. Kaye seemed involved in the idea. He had shaved closely that morning, and his aftershave came to her in tart waves. She inhaled him. She—Ms. Vaughn, to him—weighed whether she would tell him anything about Rex, a little, or everything. With Rex, she wasn’t under any agreement. She measured her words for herself and for him, and she told him just enough. He was the libertine lover, Dr Kaye the demanding one. With him, she drew out her tales, like Scheherazade.
First, Dr. Kaye, she offered, her eyes on the ceiling, it was the way he looked at me, he was gobbling me up, taking me inside him. I liked that. Why did I like that? Because I hate myself, you know that. Then she laughed. Later, she went on, I pretended I didn’t see him staring at me. Then I stopped pretending. In her next session, she continued: He wanted to take my hand, because his finger fluttered over my wrist, and his unwillingness, no, inability, I don’t know about will, I had a boyfriend named Will, he was impotent, did I tell you? His reluctance made me . . . wet. She sat up once and stared at Dr. Kaye, daring him. But he was well-trained, an obedient dog, and he listened neatly.
Rex was sloppy with heat. Their unstable hearts could be a gift to Dr. Kaye. Or a substitute, for a substitute. She trembled, bringing their story—hers—to Dr. Kaye in installments, four times a week. It was better than a good dream, whose heady vapors were similar to her ambiguous, unlived relationships. Not falling was better, she explained to Dr. Kaye; having what they wanted was ordinary and would destroy them or be nothing, not falling, not losing, not dying was better. Why do you think that? he asked. This nothing that was almost everything gave her hope. Illusion was truth in a different guise, true in another dimension. Dr. Kaye wanted to know what she felt about Rex. I don’t know—we’re borderline characters, she said. Liminal, like you and me.
And, she went on, her hands folded on her stomach, he and I went into the toilet . . . of the train . . . and fooled around. She laughed. I was in a train crash once . . . But the toilet smelled . . . Like your aftershave, she thought, but didn’t say. Say everything, say everything impossible.
Looking at Rex reading a book, his skin flushed, overheated in tiny red florets, Helen wondered when the romance would become misshapen. Her need could flaunt itself. She wanted that, really, and trusted to her strangeness and his eccentricity for its acceptance. Or, lust could be checked like excess baggage at the door. They’d have a cerebral affair.
But their near-accidental meetings sweetened her days and nights. They were sweeter even than chocolate melting in her mouth. Dark chocolate helped her sleep. She had a strange metabolism. How could she sleep—Rex was the latest hero who had come to save her, to fight for her. If he didn’t play on her playground, with her rules, he was less safe than Dr. Kaye. But Rex was as smart, almost, as she was; he knew how to entice her. She might go further than she planned.
Dr. Kaye’s couch was a deep red, nearly purple, she noted more than once. Lying on it, Helen told him she liked Rex more than him. She hoped for an unguarded response. Why is that? he asked, somberly. Because he delivers, like the pizza man—remember the one who got murdered, some boys did it. They were bored, they didn’t know what to do with themselves, so they ordered a pizza and killed the guy who brought it. The poor guy. Everyone wants to be excited. Don’t you? She heard Dr Kaye’s weight shift in his chair. So, she went on, Rex told me I’m beautiful, amazing, and I don’t believe him, and it reminded me of when Charles—that lawyer I was doing some work for—said, out of nowhere, I was, and then that his wife and baby were going away, and would I spend the week with him, and it would be over when his wife came back—we were walking in Central Park—and I said no, and I never saw him again.
One night, Rex and she took the train home together. When they arrived at Grand Central, they decided to have a drink, for the first time. The station, its ceiling a starry night sky, had been restored to its former grandeur, and Helen felt that way, too. In a commuter bar, they did MTV humpy dancing, wet-kissed, put their hands on each other, and got thrown out. Lust was messy, gaudy. Neverneverland, never was better, if she could convince Rex. How hot is cool? they repeated to each other, after their bar imbroglio.
Helen liked waiting, wanting, and being wanted more. It’s all so typical, she told Dr. Kaye, and he wanted her to go on. She felt him hanging on her words. Tell me more, he said. The bar was dark, of course, crowded, Rex’s eyes were smoky, and everything in him was concentrated in them, they were like headlights, he’d been in a car accident once and showed me his scar, at his neck, and then I kissed him there, and I told him about my brother’s suicide, and about you, and he was jealous, he doesn’t want me to talk about him, us, he thinks it’ll destroy the magic, probably . . . stupid . . . it is magic . . . and he wanted me then, and there . . . But she thought: Never with Rex, never give myself, just give this to you, my doctor. She announced, suddenly: I won’t squander anything anymore.
The urge to give herself was weirdly compelling, written into her like the ridiculous, implausible vows in a marriage contract. Dr. Kaye might feel differently about marriage, or other things, but he wouldn’t tell her. He contained himself astutely and grew fuller, fatter. He looked larger every week. The mystery was that he was always available for their time-bound encounters, in which thwarted love was still love. It was what you did with your limits that mattered. She imagined she interested him.
Listening to her stories, Dr. Kaye encouraged her, and she felt alive. She could do with her body what she wanted, everyone knew that; the body was just a fleshy vehicle of consequences. Her mind was virtual—free, even, to make false separations. She could lie to herself, to him; she believed in what she said, whatever it was. So did he. To Dr. Kaye, there was truth in fantasy. Her half-lies and contradictions were really inconsequential to anyone but herself. He might admit that.
But the next day, on the train, Rex pressed her silently. His thin face was as sharp as a steak knife. He wouldn’t give her what she wanted: he didn’t look at her with greedy passion. There was a little death around the corner, waiting for her. She had to give him something, feed his fire or lose it and him.
So she would visit his studio, see his work, she might succumb, Helen informed her analyst. She described how she’d enter his place and be overwhelmed by sensations that had nothing to do with the present. In another time, with another man, with other men, this had happened before, so her senses would awaken to colors, smells, and sounds that were familiar. Soon she would be naked with him on a rough wool blanket thrown hastily over a cot. Her skin would be irritated by the wool, and she would discover his body and find it wonderful or not. He would devour her. He would say, I’ve never felt this way before. Or, you make me feel insane. She wouldn’t like his work and would feel herself moving away from him. Already seen, it was in a way obscene, and ordinary. She calmly explained what shouldn’t be seen, and why, and, as she did, found an old cave to enter.
Dr. Kaye didn’t seem to appreciate her reluctance. Or if he did, in his subtle way he appeared to want her to have the experience, anyway. She knew she would go, then, to Rex’s studio, and announced on the train that she’d be there Saturday night—date night, Rex said. He looked at her again, that way. But she knew it would hasten the end, like a death sentence for promise. Recently, Helen had awaited Timothy McVeigh’s execution with terror, but it had come and gone. No one mentioned him anymore. Others were being killed—just a few injections, put them to sleep, stop their breathing, and it’s done, they’re gone. Things die so easily, she said. Then she listened to Dr. Kaye breathe.
Saturday night Helen rang the bell on Rex’s Williamsburg studio. All around her, singles and couples wandered on a mission to have fun. Soon they’d go home, and the streets would be empty. Rex greeted her with a drink—a Mojito—which he knew she loved. His studio was bare, except for his work and books, even austere, and it was clean. The sweet, thick rum numbed her, and she prepared for the worst and the best. There was no in-between.
His paintings were, in a way, pictures of pictures. Unexpectedly, she responded to them, because they appreciated the distance between things. Then, without much talk, they had sex. She wasn’t sure why, but resisting was harder. Rex adored her, her body, he was nimble and smelled like wet sand. He came, finally, but she didn’t want to or couldn’t. She held something back. Rex was bothered, and her head felt as if it had split apart. But it didn’t matter in some way she couldn’t explain to Dr. Kaye. She heard him move in his chair. She worried that he wasn’t interested. Maybe her stories exhausted him. Rex called her every day. She wondered if she should find another man, one she couldn’t have.
I took a workshop with Lynne at UAlbany a few months before starting at VCFA. Truly the most useful workshop I had in college, and a wonderful writer to work with. Great new story.