Know Your Material
I am a liar. I have lied about brushing my teeth to my parents and about impure thoughts and deeds to my priest. I have lied to my friends and to the women I have loved. I have even lied to you, dear, gentle, pretty, handsome, kind reader. I have lied but, generally, with good reasons, without malice, and often even when I have been trying to tell the truth. But the truth is not such an easy target to hit, and even a near miss is a lie. The truth is what I aim for, though, as I am aiming now again carefully, holding my breath, steadying my hand.
Let me tell you the story of my life—no, this metaphorical gun is not big enough for that monster—let me tell you the story of my marriage. Let me try again to kill that elusive beast and finally stuff and mount it for good on the wall of my study. We will have brandy in snifter glasses under it and laugh about what a good hunt it was. Then you will look up at the dead thing and say, Hey, are those eyes made out of glass, and you will know then that I have lied again.
“You’re still not over her,” my girlfriend Eun Shil told me once, after she had read whatever latest opus of love and marriage and divorce I had written, some of it true.
“I don’t want to get over it,” I told her. ”It’s good material.”
“But you’re dwelling.”
“I’m in the business of dwelling.”
“You never write about us.”
“You wouldn’t want me to write about us.”
Dwelling is my business, perhaps, but the business of writing—the part of it that has been in any way profitable for me—has nothing to do with my endless ruminations on my ten years of marriage, my son, my having been cuckolded, or my subsequent divorce. The only writing that has ever earned me anything like a living has been pornography. Tales of TV repairmen and large-breasted women. Interviews with strippers and porn stars. That sort of mindless blather and the endless, fruitless search for a new adjective to describe a raging hard-on or a tight, wet cunt.
I met Eun Shil on the phone when I was a salesman for a software company. The company she worked for in Seoul made software that the company I worked for used. When I used to talk to her on the phone, I used to kid her about her English, which was clear enough, but sometimes broken.
Eventually our conversations concerning the purchase of this or that many units of this or that product turned toward more personal matters. She had a boyfriend back then and I still had a wife. Neither one of us was particularly happy with our respective situations.
Eventually my marriage ended, her relationship ended, and her company offered her a position in the States. She took it, we met in real life, and ended up living together.
Such a tiny little beautiful creature she was. Her name—Eun Shil—looks simple enough, but for an American mouth it is nearly impossible to pronounce. For the closest approximation, you must wire your teeth shut and punch yourself in the stomach while you say it. If you do this, the pained, wheezing sound that escapes your lungs is something like her name.
My wife’s name had been somewhat easier to say, though I do not find much reason to say it anymore. Her name was Alice.
She had red hair that as a writer I am obligated to describe poetically, but for which I can give you no clearer image than the one that came on the bottle: Fire Sunset Number 5.
I once got in a great deal of trouble revealing the secret of her hair color to some mutual acquaintances, who were inquiring about one of my wife’s trips to Ireland, which she chose to call “sabbaticals”—sabbatical being her subtle way of telling me I was not invited. They asked if she was going there to discover her roots. Passing up the obvious joke, I simply said she was of Russian decent, not Irish. “But her red hair,” they said incredulously. Even Russians can go to the drugstore, I told them. They laughed. They also told my wife when she got back. Coincidentally, this was the same year we got divorced, but I would like to think there was more to the breakup of our marriage than that.
I wrote a story once about a man who catches his wife flagrante delicto (and naked) with her boss, but in real life the moment when my marriage became irretrievably broken was by no means so climactic.
It happened like this: For some time I had been reading my wife’s diary. This is a horrible thing to have to admit and it makes me something less than a sympathetic character in this story, I know. But, you see, I am not only a liar but a sneak, and my only excuse is the same for both. I wanted the truth.
It would have been so much easier to have caught her in the act, but instead I had to read through the daily episodes of her life from adolescence (her mother had bought her the diary when she was seventeen) and suffer through the tedium of those years. Thus, I was there in, in a sense, for her first bout with love, her first encounter with sex, and countless misunderstandings and injustices concerning her friends and family. When it looked like she would become bogged down in an introspective mood that might last several days, I would skim through the pages just looking for key words like: love, sex, and my name.
The character of me was not introduced until late in the book, and that after the fact, and after a long period of her not writing anything at all—being content, apparently, to live her life for years on end without comment. I was not even introduced. No breathless account of our first date, or first kiss, or first fuck. Just a matter-of-fact and passing mention of the man who was already her husband.
I read on, and skimmed over more, and found here and there again the mention of my name. It was usually the recounting (inaccurate, I might add) of some fight or another we had had. Or some rumination of my shortcomings, as a husband, a provider, and—as time progressed with the pages—a father. On rare occasion there were words about loving me, but these seemed forced and hesitant, the way one tries to describe the good qualities of a spouse to a brother or sister of that spouse. More often I was not mentioned at all. Toward the end of the book, she began talking about her boss. He was a fine man, a tall man, a responsible man. His wife didn’t understand him, much in the same way her husband (me) did not understand her. They went out to dinner after work, and these entries being from recent history, I was able to remember the dates when she had come home late from work and figure out that these were her dinners.
When the word love finally appeared next to her boss’s name I felt a dizzy, spotty, disembodied feeling—the way I used to feel as a kid in church where I would faint on a regular basis right before communion. I read on, and as if it had suddenly occurred to her that I might be reading this one day, she began to become more discreet until there was nothing written at all and just a couple dozen completely blank pages before the end of the book. I filled these pages in myself, wrote them out in her own careful handwriting from the spots that were floating in front of my eyes. She had kissed her boss one night, for sure. A transporting kiss, the sort of kiss that leads seamlessly into other things. Maybe they had consummated their love on the desk of his office, or maybe they had gone to a hotel. A nice hotel, of course. He was a fine, tall, responsible man. He had a ton of money.
I closed the diary and put it back carefully in the bottom drawer, under her underwear where she had hidden it. I drove out to the liquor store, bought a bottle of scotch, brought it home and proceeded to drink myself into a stupor. I tried for stupor, at least. What scotch gave me instead was a detached feeling, as if I had spent the day watching a long TV show about Alice’s life.
When she came home from work (an hour late), I kissed her lightly on the lips and wondered if I was tasting somehow the lips of that other man or at least the dinner she had eaten with him at some upscale restaurant. But there was no taste from her mouth except a gray numbness. What she tasted on my lips was a day’s worth of scotch, and she mentioned it.
“I did something horrible today,” I said, the words slipping from my mouth without thought. I decided to let the rest of them slip out that way as well. I decided to not think at all but just spill out the details of our respective, and now combined, crimes.
“I shouldn’t have, I know, but I did and there is no point fighting about that,” I said. “I read your diary. You are in love with someone.”
“Oh,” she said. I could find no emotion on her face. Not pity, or anger, or affection. Her “Oh,” was said in the way one might say “Oh,” to someone’s vaguely interesting opening to an account of their day.
“So I read all about how you’re in love with this guy and there is no point denying it. I know.”
“Well,” she said. ”I am not going to deny it.”
“Good. There wouldn’t be any point. Anyway, so you are in love.”
“So, anyway, our marriage is over, of course.”
“ Yes. Of course.”
“Anyway—” The words did not spill out after all. My brain ran dry; my emotions, which seemed to be swimming around quite actively earlier, were buried now somewhere in the dry mud, waiting for another day.
“Would you like some scotch?” I asked her. “There is some left.”
She smiled. I can’t imagine now what I ever saw in that smile. It was a dead thing stretched out across her face. The tops of her gums showed. I have been told often that my wife was pretty, and that she had a pretty smile, but I cannot see it anymore.
I poured her scotch and water. I dropped in some ice. I made myself another the same way.
When I wrote it all down in a story, I had the husband walk in on the wife and boss because everything that followed in real life is tired and unmemorable. There was more drinking, careful discussion, a decision.
I began sleeping on the couch in the nursery with my son nearby in his crib. He was only a baby then and did not talk or laugh or crawl or do anything much of interest except cry some, suck contentedly at a bottle, and burp.
My wife lost weight, took up smoking again, seemed to walk lighter, and talked loudly and happily to her friends on the phone as she relayed to them her good news.
Not wanting to have the failure of my marriage surprising me around every corner, or to have the awkward conversations with the people who had once been mutual friends but now would all be on her side, I decided to move out of state.
It was a pleasant drive across the country. I saw snow-topped mountains, rolling green hills, the Badlands. I saw a house made entirely out of husks of corn and another made from hubcaps. I saw the World’s Only Doll Museum and the World’s Largest Museum of Taxidermy. I drove fast, slept little, and tried not to think about anything at all.
When I arrived at the other end of the continent I found a sparkling city nestled among dormant volcanoes. I acquired an apartment, and then a job, and my life had begun anew.
One night, after I had been there for about a month, I called Eun Shil and told her the exciting news of what had been happening in my life. It had been sometime since I had talked to her and we stayed on the phone until my ear was sore and it was dawn, or—for her—afternoon.
She told me then that she had broken up with her boyfriend and was considering taking the position her company had offered her in the States. I encouraged this with selfish enthusiasm.
Sometime later she moved to the States, and as fate would have it, her position was not far from my sparkling city nestled among volcanoes. It was only practical then that she should move in with me, at least to start with. And so I picked her up at the airport, and saw her there for the first time, a tiny, beautiful creature, with large brown eyes, caramel-colored skin, black hair like enamel. I hugged her nervously and helped her with her luggage. I drove her back to my apartment. There we kissed, and it was the sort of kiss that led seamlessly—or nearly so—to other things.
Let me pause now, having worked so hard to get you to the point where the two young lovers may bask in the golden afterglow of their all-important first time, and tell you a little something about my career as a writer.
I have written stories all of my life, simple, little structures made out of the meager blocks of my life. Literary stories, they are called, when no guns are drawn, or portals to hell discovered, and nothing much happens. I have sold them to small literary magazines who pay peanuts—this under the optimistic assumption that you can walk into a grocery store, give the clerk your small stack of contributor copies, and receive in exchange a handful of peanuts. The stories are almost always about a man and his wife and their marriage that ends for some reason or another. Sometimes the man has a son, sometimes he has a daughter, but usually it is easier to make him childless. The wife cheats on the husband, or just loses interest. The husband, on occasion, cheats on the wife, but this is portrayed unconvincingly by a writer who has strayed too far from what he knows.
At one point in my life as a writer, while I was still married and motivated by several forms of frustration, I began writing pornography. This is the point also when I began making money. I sold my first story for real money to a magazine specializing in foot fetishes. My second story went to a magazine called, with no pretense to subtlety, Big Tits. My third work in this fashion was bought for a relatively princely sum by Fuck You Magazine, and here is where my career as a pornographer began in earnest. I established a relationship with the editor of Fuck You and began selling my work there on a regular basis. I received assignments from the editor as well, writing phony letters and interviewing whatever stripper or porn star that happened to be passing through my city on her world tour of what are sometimes called—without irony—gentlemen’s clubs.
I began making a semi-respectable living out of this and was able to quit my job as a clerk at the pet store. Alice was at first amused and hesitantly proud of my career, but this faded, and after a time, she refused to even look over my latest work to catch my spelling mistakes or my embarrassing tendency to use the word ”then” for “than.”
I enjoyed my work. I especially liked to write the fake letters, having worked out a simple formula in which I could crank out several at a sitting. The trick was to begin with a profession—TV repairman, security guard, pet store clerk—and then introduce a large-breasted blond who needed her TV repaired, to use the phone, or buy a goldfish. After that it was a simple matter of making sparks fly, and clothes melt away, and raging hard-ons meet tight, hot, wet cunts, or red-lipped mouths that formed a sensual O. I could write those letters in my sleep.
But something happened to my little gold mine, the way something always happens to all little gold mines.
Fuck You began to change. It became a bold, hard-hitting magazine less about how to keep your erection going for a week and a half and more about the corruption of government, the hypocrisy of religion, and whoever was the latest pale star breathing fresh life into the corpse of Modern Music.
They no longer bought my stories, the days of letters about that-crazy-summer-when-that-thing-that-I-thought-would-never-happen-to-me-happened were over. I was assigned to a few more interviews, but to political figures and local mavericks, and by then I had developed the unfortunate tendency of asking my subjects how often and how they masturbated and when was their first fuck, so the assignments stopped, too. The last thing I tried to sell the magazine that had now become F.Y. International was a semi-literary story about a man who leaves his wife and makes mad, passionate, end-of-the-world love across a fully set dinner table with a waitress.
I became a phone salesman for a software company, met Eun Shil, got divorced, and thus fate had had its merry way with me.
One day, after Eun Shil and I had been living together for a couple years, and some time after I had written the story about which she had accused me of dwelling on my failed marriage, I received a wedding invitation in the mail. My ex-wife was getting married. She was keeping up the pretense of what we had chosen to call an amiable divorce for irreconcilable differences.
“Are you going to go?” Eun Shil asked me while I bounced the frilly piece of paper thing that looked like an overly starched doily thoughtfully in my hand.
“Of course,” I said.
“How do you feel about it?”
“About what? I am happy for her.”
“It must hurt a little.”
“Why should it? I don’t like her that much, you know.”
“You think about her enough. You’re always writing about her. You’re either still in love with her a bit or you hate her. And they’re both pretty close to the same thing.”
Eun Shil’s English was not nearly as broken as it used to be.
“It’s a good chance to see my son again,” I said. It had been about six months since I had seen him last. I tried to make it back east to spend some time with him a couple times a year. Usually what we did was go to amusement parks, movies, anything noisy that would not give us too much time to think or talk. When I did think about it, I would become impossibly sad about how much I had missed, how different he was every time I saw him—a strange creature that bore little resemblance to the strange creature I had flown out to see last. He was three now and talked incessantly about his favorite TV show and the toys I should buy him for Christmas. He called me Dad, but sometimes I thought I could hear the word hesitate in his throat, as if it had been something he had been recently taught and was still trying to remember how to say it and what it meant.
“So you want to come with me?” I asked Eun Shil.
“Of course,” she said.
We flew east, over snow-capped mountains, rolling green hills, the Badlands—all of it flattened by distance into abstraction. Somewhere down there too, hidden within the geometric patterns of neighborhoods and farms, was the house made out of corn husks, the other made out of hubcaps, the museum of dolls, the museum of taxidermy. I told Eun Shil about it as she looked down and I struggled with a bag of peanuts.
“It’s a great drive,” I told her. ”We should make it sometime. See the country.”
“I’d like to.”
But of course we never did.
I did not see Alice or my son until the wedding. It was at a church—as opposed to our wedding, which had been in a courtroom. Alice wore white and my son was in a little black three-piece suit and again had grown and changed since the last time I had seen him.
I did not begrudge Alice the chance to wear white. I don’t know what Miss Manners has to say on the subject, but in a sense Alice was untouched. At least, I had not touched her in our ten years together. Not really.
Eun Shil and I sat in the back row, on the bride’s side of the church. She held my hand, squeezing it now and then as if she were comforting me.
The church was hot and airless. If it had been an actual mass I would have probably fainted before communion, but it was just a wedding and for the most part we got to stay in our seats without going through that soul-and-body-exhausting Catholic obstacle course of stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel-sit.
The ceremony droned on without a hitch. The ushers were all handsome and stood in a line with their hands folded in front of them. The bridesmaids were all pretty and smiled through everything. My son held the ring on a blue pillow with admirable steadiness for a four-year-old boy. He seemed to be an exceptionally calm child. The last time I had seen him he bounced around even when he was standing. I wondered what his favorite show was now. No one spoke. Everyone forever held their peace.
After the wedding, Eun Shil and I stood in the long line and waited our turn to shake hands with the wedding party. I shook my son’s hand ceremonially and ruffled his hair with somewhat less ceremony. I shook hands with the happy groom and said something supportive. I kissed Alice’s cheek and tasted only her fine coating of makeup and could not imagine that there was flesh beneath it, and it was flesh I once knew and knew well.
At the reception, I drank too much. I watched the bride and groom dance their wedding dance. Alice’s veil was off now, and I saw that her hair had been changed to an unnatural black.
“You’re dwelling again,” Eun Shil told me.
“Dwelling is my business” I said. I had grown fond of that line.
At the bar, refilling my drink, I stood next to Alice, who was checking on things, making sure no one would go thirsty.
“Your hair is black now,” I said.
“It’s always been black.”
“It was red when I knew you.”
“It’s been black for ages.”
“This is new, though,” she said, and lifted her ankle slightly for me to look.
There was a tattoo there, a small, red butterfly. A symbol, I imagine. A symbol of her awkward adolescence, the stifling cocoon that had been our life together, and her final burgeoning into the happy, fluttery, unnaturally black-haired creature I saw before me that day.
“That’s new, all right,” I said.
She left for another dance with her new husband.
My son came over to sit at our table for awhile and fell asleep on my lap. I let my chin rest softly on his head, breathed against his soft yellow hair, and wondered when I would see him again. I knew I could disappear now and he would only vaguely miss me, and only think of me again when he was older and the blood began roaring through his veins and he began wondering about his existence. Someday—maybe someday soon—he would call Alice’s new husband Dad. It was better that way, of course, but vanity made me want him to cry for me.
I sniffed at his hair and tried to store its candy smell inside me someplace forever. His breath was small, gentle, and warm against the side of my neck.
The next day Eun Shil and I flew back west, to my sparkling city among volcanoes. We did not talk much on the flight. She let me have the window seat and I watched the world slipping away beneath us like a muslin backdrop being pulled slowly and carefully by experienced stagehands.
I fell asleep over farm land and woke up over mountains.
Soon after, Eun Shil left. She flew back to Korea, saying she missed her family and the world she knew. Sometimes I still get drunk, wire my teeth shut, punch myself softly in the stomach to say her name, and imagine that I loved her.