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M is on the verge of writer’s block, or more precisely, he is so obsessed by a recent review of his latest collection Unrepeatable Acts that he can’t manage to pen a single funny word. His first two books – a collection of stories titled Absurdisms and a slim novel The Dead Jester – garnered praise for being “wild and inventive” and created a voice that was akin to “Vonnegut or Barthelme doing stand-up in a Brooklyn comedy club,” a remark that could either have been an accolade or an insult but certainly appeared as a blurb on his latest book. One would believe that this young writer had steady footing as a humorist. Yet the unfavorable review came from a highly respected critic, an individual for whom M had the utmost respect and admiration. Characters aren’t fully realized, the humor is largely farce, and stories come off as brief, uninteresting moments of nonsense… A literary event of boredom! The only “unrepeatable act” would be rereading this book. Needless to say, M hasn’t heard that kind of criticism since his college writing workshops.
What is most disheartening is that he knows writing humor isn’t easy, and it takes a great deal of tragedy and pain for his type of story: one can’t just vomit this kind of material on command. The critic’s failure to recognize the nuances of emotion truly offends M, possibly even disappoints him because he respects the critic’s work, has been a fan for years, even looked forward to being reviewed by the guy. It was as if the critic hadn’t read the same book. With the little bit of money coming from M’s modest book sales, in addition to his circle of friends and the parties he attends, he considers his life good. His struggles are few, his suffering nearly nonexistent. Since he has apparently lost his sense of humor or comedic thrust, he decides to write a serious story, one that possesses the gritty realism his contemporaries and critics are so fond of. The Great American Short Story.
M thinks hard about his subject matter, what his themes will be. Think domestic, think real. Think family drama. Think epic quest for identity. It’s instant, an epiphany – love, or maybe heartbreak. Why not both? Everyone experiences heartbreak to some degree. There is nothing overtly funny about that. But M has not been in or out of love since his career became his sole priority. He’s had occasional flings but nothing significant enough to provide real pathos. Nothing quite domestic or real or that the literati would sink their teeth into. However unfortunate his own predicament, no one wants to read a story about the miserable and lonely life of a fiction writer, let alone his pitiful writer’s block. Hell, there’s still a debate to whether writer’s block is even a thing. The writing process is not enough to hit his readers in their tender spots. Even Stephen King couldn’t have pulled off Misery without a little erotomania.
M thinks about the people he knows, his friends and distant family. He pictures a beautiful woman dissatisfied with her loveless marriage, a neglectful husband that treats his wife like a child or a servant or an idiot. That story has been told and retold ad nauseam as far back as the Greeks. After several minutes of frantically scribbling ideas, he’s mapped it out as if it were there in his mind all along. It takes him a couple of hours to type it, but he finishes the story and titles it “Strange Love.” The storyline goes like this:
After finally acknowledging her romantic advances, Marty decides to begin an affair with his friend Rita, the dissatisfied wife of the distant and insufferable Joe, a man whose appetite for food and male camaraderie is equal to his desire to control and belittle his wife. Full of pity and longing, Marty asks Rita to meet him at a local bar one weekend, coincidentally on Halloween. Because Joe is possessive and jealous, Marty advises Rita to dress in costume and to tell Joe she’s going out with her girlfriends. Marty will show up dressed as a woman as if he is just part of the girls. Although it’s an unusual situation, she agrees. She’s desperate. When they meet, no one recognizes them (Rita is dressed as a German beer maiden). They go to the women’s restroom, lock the door, and consummate their liaison, Marty still in costume. Their meetings become more frequent: Marty always in women’s clothing and a wig, Rita expressing increasing dissatisfaction with Joe, and Marty trying to convince Rita to leave her husband. Each date ends at Marty’s condo. Joe confronts Rita about all the time she has been spending with her new girlfriend. Rita confesses she is a lesbian and leaves the son-of-a-bitch Joe for the “new woman.” Marty and Rita move away and live a satisfying life together.
M promptly emails the story to C, a friend and writer of domestic realism, with a message telling him that this is the story that may place him as the John Updike of their era. This could be the story that shows the critic how wrong he really was. M receives a response the next day from C stating, “Even if this was a humor piece, it wouldn’t work. Have you ever met a woman who goes for the drag thing? I haven’t. If this is supposed to be realistic, the part about the cross-dressing needs to have more substance. Your character doesn’t seem trans, this doesn’t feel like a love triangle, and there’s really no heartbreak at all. Everyone feels mechanic and practically emotionless. It’s like you’ve never met real people, let alone men who dress in women’s clothing. Frankly, the story is kind of shitty. Take some time and do a little research. It’ll only help. By the way, this feels like a straight, white dude wrote it. It’s a little obtuse. Like, don’t use the term ‘transvestite’ at all. Are you trying to be offensive? Who even is your audience?”
What the hell does he know? If that bastard had an imagination, he wouldn’t be writing about real life. It’s also not offensive if it’s what the character is thinking or part of his personality. Maybe that’s the only terminology he knows, or maybe this takes place in a previous era where that is acceptable. But after some thought, he considers just deleting the story and forgetting about writing altogether. C’s probably right. M’s got enough money to live comfortably for a few months, and he could always pick up copy editing or find a teaching job if he wanted. Fuck it, right? What’s the point? But he can’t stop writing, and he is determined to make this a good, readable story. M has always sacrificed himself for the sake of the story.
Unease comes over him as he envisions himself interviewing one transvestite – er, cross-dresser? – after another. It’s not that he has a phobia of drag queens or men who cross dress. He’s always loved Rocky Horror Picture Show or Tootsie. When The Birdcage came out, he saw it twice in the theater. His anxiety stems from the way they might ridicule his absurd and clearly naïve questions about a day in the life of a… He Googles “non-offensive term for transvestite.” Gender illusionist. That had a nice cadence to it. He mostly wants to know what it would be like for a gender illusionist to have an affair with a consenting married woman. Is there a subculture or fetish he doesn’t even know exists? M has done plenty of unorthodox research for stories, but just the thought of this whole other unknown universe makes him feel like this story is a mistake, another gag from the class clown who never takes anything seriously. He walked the roof’s ledge of a ten-story building near his apartment when he wrote a story from the point of view of a serial base jumper who fakes his own suicide. He went camping with a cryptozoologist in the Cascades in an attempt to meet Sasquatch (despite his disbelief in the creature and the field of study) when writing his story, “Being John Lithgow.” He even took laxatives for an entire month, which won him a week-long hospital stay, when he wrote a story about a man whose obsession is to have a bowel movement on every floor of Empire State Building entitled, “The Art of Defecating,” later reprinted in his collection Unrepeatable Acts under the title “Shitting to the Top.” Perhaps it was merely the thought of personal confrontation that made his palms sweat and gave him an aching feeling in his stomach.
For days M wonders how he can give this story the emotional truth it needs. He breaks it down as he sees it: main character in disguise, affair between main character and an unhappily married woman, main character and the woman fall deeply in love and run away to start a new life. The gender illusionist needs to feel authentic, he thinks, and the relationship must evolve naturally. How would a relationship like this naturally progress? The parts of the story that seem most domestic, most real are taken from his own life. Marty is a stand-in for M, Rita and Joe are stand-ins for two married friends, R and J, respectively. He altered each person’s appearance a bit: Marty is tall, boyishly handsome, with a full head of black hair, contrary to M’s short stature, sandy brown hair, and soft, feminine facial features; Rita has blonde hair and large breasts as opposed to R’s red hair, petite frame, and flat chest. Joe is an out-of-shape Italian with a big car and thick mustache, while J lacks the aforementioned facial hair. Their relationship is as sad and loveless as M portrays it in the story. Maybe the characters are a little cartoonish.
Realizing what he must do for the sake of the story, M calls R and asks her if she would like to meet at a bar one evening. She asks him why they haven’t talked much since their kiss a few months back. M apologizes. I didn’t want to make things awkward between the three of us, he says, so I thought I would stay away for a while and focus on work. He asks to make it up to her by buying her a drink. Despite her overbearing husband, she agrees. They plan on Tuesday, ladies’ night, the third Tuesday of the month. At that particular bar, men dressed in women’s attire get half-price drinks.
M goes to Forever 21 at the mall, a store he remembered overhearing a few female students talk about when he taught a fiction seminar last year. Finding it difficult to pick the exact outfit, he finally decides on a simple black and white dress with blue flower print, black leggings and a pair of black flats. He stops at a party store and buys a blonde wig, amused by the whole experience, wondering if this is really what it felt like for a man to buy himself these items for the first time, yet it was a mere simulation of the experience.
They meet on Tuesday. R is taken back but laughs it off, given M’s sense of humor. M is not the only man dressed like that; the place is packed. He makes a joke about half-price drinks. Odd way to catch up, she says, but I’m glad you asked me out. She orders a Captain and coke, and then another. Keeping this night as close to his story as possible, he suggests the upstairs bar. He grabs her hand, and she smiles as he guides her through the crowd. When they reach the top of the stairs, M turns around and kisses R. She kisses him back. Follow me, he says into her ear over the loud music playing and leads her into the unisex bathroom only feet away from where they were. He shuts the door and kisses her passionately, the whole time feeling a little beside himself, slightly ashamed. R doesn’t resist, and in fact, the act of public sex was her suggestion months ago when they had kissed, but M declined for the sake of her marriage. She discourages him from wearing the wig while they have sex, citing her difficulty to be fully in the moment. Regardless of her objection, he leaves it on, and they continue their coupling. The two leave after another hour, R hugging him tightly as they say good-bye. I’m glad you came to your senses, she says. M drives home to revise that part of his story.
Due to M’s impatience and desire to finish his story, rather than waiting a week, M calls R that Saturday and asks if she would like to have a drink, go to his place afterward. J is predictably at a football game with friends. R accepts. He mentions disguising himself like the time before, but she says it’s unnecessary since J is occupied elsewhere. They hang up. M hesitates, considering the situation. Sure, he could facilitate and capture the emotion of the situation, but the verisimilitude is lost if he isn’t in costume. How then would this be an authentic representation? The story must come first, despite the woman’s feelings. He wears the same outfit, arrives at the bar several minutes before R. This time he is not so inconspicuous but drawing great deal of attention, mostly negative. He orders a beer. The bartender tells him that Guys-Dress-as-Ladies’ night was last Tuesday. He’ll have to charge full price. M tells the bartender that he’s not here for half priced drinks but researching a character. The bartender asks if he is an actor.
A group of guys – college age – heckle M from a booth a few feet from the bar. One of them gets up, walks to the bar, and stands next to M. Tranny show is at the bar on the other side of town, faggot. Slightly taken back but not at all surprised by the display of toxic masculinity, he turns to the guy and politely tells him to go fuck himself. The guy connects with a right hook to M’s left cheek, knocking him clear off the bar stool, unconscious.
When M comes to, R is standing over him, asking if he is all right. Someone to M’s left tells him a man punched the guy that hit M because he thought the guy hit a woman. Mayhem ensued. They help M to his feet and walk outside. R asks M why he is dressed like that. He knows he has to lie if he’s going to salvage this relationship, his story. If he lies about this and the story is published, he’ll have a lot more to explain, and the blow to R may be even more severe. So, out of some odd sense of obligation, he tells the truth, every detail. What is he doing? This is not part of the story. He feels sick and nervous. She begins to laugh.
Confused, M asks if she’s alright. As sudden as she began to laugh, tears emerge, and she’s crying. He notices other people watching the fiasco unfold. R is embarrassed. He feels horrible, but it is out of his control. This whole scene is a mess, and there’s no real way to fix the story. It’s best he just scrap it. He damaged one of the few people who truly cared for him, maybe even loved him.
You did all of this for one of your stupid god damn stories? R shouts. Fuck you, M. I don’t ever want to see you again.
M tries to think of something to say, but R’s back is turned, and she retreats at an ever-increasing speed. Alone with wig in hand, M walks to his car and drives home.
The story seems rather pointless now. The events that transpired ruined any chance for him to make this a good, authentic story. He should have never tried to impose the parameters of fiction onto his reality. No one else would have agreed to such a thing. He had taken advantage of her for the sake of a story that would never see the light of day, an experiment to prove he could write realism. That he knew how love could be written. Clearly, he does not. Fuck realism.
A few days later M calls R to apologize, but she doesn’t answer. Why would she answer? She owes him nothing. He leaves a voicemail. He tells her he really cares about her and that he’s sorry. M wants a second chance, though he doesn’t deserve it and knows she won’t talk to him again. He calls her several more times, but it’s no use. She’s never speaking to him again.
In an attempt to either rationalize or make sense of his current situation, M writes down the events that transpired. From the rejection to experimenting to the research and taking advantage of the emotions of his friend, this was all to service his ego. He could turn it into an allegory about the way life mimics art. He could title it “The Other Woman,” making some kind of analogy with R as muse or art as romance. Or something of that nature. If he just can construct this in some way so that the comedy hits just right, the critic will see it and regret his harsh and misconceived review.
Feeling the desire to talk to someone, M phones C and, throughout the duration of the call, tells him everything. The moment M finishes his confession, C laughs hysterically. Offended by C’s outburst, M scolds the other writer, telling him that there is nothing funny about his predicament.
Of course, there is, says C. What you did was ludicrous. You created artificial situations and tried to force the results in your favor. It was unethical and pretty mean. But also very stupid.
You told me to really research this so I could make that story better.
I never told you to dress like a woman and fuck some guy’s wife, says C. You take things too literally. You essentially faked the real.
M is silent. He doesn’t know what to say.
Let’s be honest, M, says C. You had to know this wasn’t going to end well. And did you even learn anything from this experience? Something about people? Sensitivity? Life? Even though you write these stories, they aren’t just yours.
Again, no response from M.
Listen, says C, I think you can salvage something from this, but I don’t mean fixing that shitty story you sent me. Throw that away. What you can do is turn this into an essay. Make it sort of like “when research goes wrong” and send it to a magazine that deals with the craft of writing. I guarantee they will eat that shit up. It’ll be hilarious.
I don’t want this to get back to R, says M.
Use different names, says C. Do you really think she’ll see it? The only people that read that shit are writers and college professors. No one will see it.
So M sits at his computer and recounts the whole story, typing as if R was holding a gun to his head. The essay begins from the moment he receives the critic’s disappointing review that propels him to write the Great American Short Story, leading him to do research as a poor man’s gender illusionist where he not only sleeps with his friend but betrays her confidence all for the idea that literature is more important than the lives we lead, which compels him to confess to C while the insensitive prick has a good and well-deserved laugh. He titles the piece “Bad Research.” Not his finest work, but the first piece in a long time he has felt any affection towards.
He submits the essay, and it is quickly accepted and published in the magazine where the critic is on staff. A few weeks later, M receives a postcard in the mail from the critic. I’m sorry you felt that way about my review. I liked the book so much more than your previous work. Let’s hope you don’t treat all of your friends like that poor woman.
The note leaves him with the same feeling as R’s absence.
Matthew Meduri is a writer and educator living in Kent, Ohio. A graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cactus Heart, Gastronomica, and the essay collection The Akron Anthology by Belt Publishing. He recently finished a novel.