Slumming It

Artwork credited to Roxana Kadyrova.

In the morning, he was up before her. She watched him as he paced around the bathroom brushing his teeth, as he flossed, as he lifted his arms to apply deodorant – of course, he never thought to close the door or turn the light off for her sake. His body was large and a shape that she had never exactly seen before, pear-shaped without being soft. There was an egg-like symmetry to his torso, a compactness that contrasted interestingly with the thin, straight hair coming down to his neck and the long leopard tattoo stretching its way down his flank, and there, propped on her pillow, with nothing to do for hours, she was as intrigued by his body as if she were a taxonomer discovering a new species. There are moments, situations, that define relationships, when there is a rightness between two people – the way that a society host and hostess, cold-shouldering each other for months, would suddenly light up, laugh at all of each other’s jokes and find one another absolutely charming just as soon as their party starts – and for the two of them, Trina reflected, these mornings were when it clicked into place.

When he turned off the bathroom light, it was as if he broke a spell. He made his way to the dresser, drops of shower water still on his shoulders, maneuvered himself into his tight dress shirts. Usually he didn’t say anything as he was leaving, just nodded to her like she was an acquaintance. She liked that he was up before her, that he was so purposeful in the morning. It gave her morning structure – it took her a few minutes even to have the will to reach for her phone, to start checking her e-mails.

Everything else about him was a bit of a disaster. She herself was perfectly willing to acknowledge that – and by being gleeful about it, by treating that like a fun fact about him, she hoped to preempt all the hand-wringing, all the despondency, among her family and her extended circle. Her friend Kimmy, who still hadn’t quite managed to graduate, was the one who understood it best, who laughed the hardest at all her Andrew stories, although, admittedly, even Kimmy was starting to act as if she were getting tired of the joke.

“What is it?” Kimmy would say, when they were on Crown Street, over martinis. “What does he do all day?”

She must know the answer perfectly well, it was impossible, even for Kimmy, that she could have so little retention. Trina assumed that she was like a fan at a show calling for a favorite song or joke.

“He itemizes,” Trina said. “He has his little pad–”

“Like an iPad?”

“Like a work iPad, and he marches around and he enters things in it, he enters in what’s come into the warehouse and what hasn’t, and if there’s anything off, if there are any infractions, this is the important part, he takes out this giant stylus, and he gets this mean squint, and he starts writing away his report.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“Yeah, he was proud of it–”

“Or proud of you.”

“Or proud of me. And he brought me there to show off. I think just to see how terrified the delivery guys were of that squint; of the damage he could do when he really got to writing.”

Despite not remembering anything afterwards, Kimmy was a really good, appreciative listener, and she howled at Trina’s description and pounded the table, jostling her martini. Trina didn’t actually think Andrew would be offended if he heard how they talked about him. It all seemed in the spirit of how he viewed the world – “everybody pulling each other’s chain,” as he once put it – and it was so exactly what he expected from her and her friends that in some obscure way she didn’t want to disappoint him. “Think they can wipe their soles on me,” he had huffed once, and Trina had just raised her eyebrows at him, like what was he going to do about it. What she didn’t say to him, or to anybody else, was that she felt like a double agent – the joke, in some way that she probably couldn’t quite have explained, was on everybody else at least as much as it was on him.

Where it got more complicated was when he slept around on her. It was unbelievably easy to catch him at it, he went out several nights with his ‘buddies,’ stayed out late, didn’t answer her texts, came back without a story worked out. A couple of times, when she casually glanced at his phone, she came across text messages with other girls – he was obviously involved enough with all of them that they were already fighting with one another. When she brought it up with him, he angrily denied all of it. She didn’t know what was worse, if he actually was trying to hide it from her and was too stupid to pull it off, or if he didn’t care, if he was some variety of sociopath (that was Kimmy’s preferred theory on it) and enjoyed both having her discover it herself and making her stew about it.

With Kimmy, she adopted the same breezy tone as with everything else. “I don’t get how he does it,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like he’s attractive–”

“Definitely not,” Kimmy agreed.

“It’s not like he’s doing it with his winning personality, with his myriad accomplishments.”

Kimmy shrieked at that thought.

“I mean, how is he pulling this off? What is his move?”

She pursed her lips, she stretched out her shoulders, she gave herself a broad, swaggering build. “Hey ladies, what’s up tonight?” she said in the lowest, laziest voice she could manage. “Nothing much, am I right?” Kimmy, shrieking, came close to upsetting her martini. In her odd, secret way, Trina felt that Andrew would have appreciated this whole performance.  

Kimmy was the only one who found this sort of thing funny. Her ex-boyfriend Daniel took all of this seriously enough that he decided to stage his idea of an intervention. He came to campus on a very slender pretext – he wanted to spend an evening at his old society and, while he was up there, he figured he’d take her to lunch.

They sat at the Vietnamese place that had been their spot in college. It had been warm and reassuring and familiar then. Now it seemed shabby. He was dressing differently, a sport coat and nice shoes – she couldn’t tell if that’s what you wore in New York City or if it was some dress code for his society. He talked in circumlocutions all through the meal. He asked about this thing and that thing on campus, all the places he missed, she kept having to remind him that she wasn’t on campus either. He was nostalgic for places that had been important to them. A few times he made her laugh.

As they were finishing up the food, as he was wiping his mouth with his napkin, he said, “Everybody’s a bit concerned about this new relationship of yours.” She felt that the timing of how he said this was carefully orchestrated, some sort of ritual of delivering difficult news, like a businessman terminating a contract or a mob boss issuing a hit.

“Who’s everybody?”

He extended out his arms in his bewildered gesture, which was his favorite method of arguing. “My parents, my friends, your parents, me – if I count, if I get any kind of a vote in this.”

“Why in the world would you get any kind of a vote in this?”

“I mean, what’s going on? Is this somebody you’re serious about? Is this for real?”

“And you’re what? You’re putting out a news bulletin? You need to check all the info?”

“I just want to know what’s really happening.”

“What’s really happening is that I’m trying something out, I’m seeing where it’s going. I don’t have a declaration of intention. I am not affianced. This isn’t in any way a formal thing, or an official thing–”

“Well, how is it going?”

“Good,” she said primly. “It’s going good.”

He sprawled back in his seat. He looked completely shattered. She was trying not to think about the fact that he had discussed any of this with her parents, that Daniel and her parents were apparently meeting, as if it were some kind of family council.

“What’s happening with you?” he said, and his tone was different, like an actor changing a tactic. Now he was her friend, asking her to tell him something just between them.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, why are you still here? Why are you hanging out here? Other than this dude, what in the world is keeping you here?”

“I have a job.”

He made his bewildered gesture.

“What?” she said. “It is a job, a real job, more than you can say for some people sitting across the table from me.”

“And here? In this city?”

“We spent a lot of our life here,” she said, “and we were happy to. All of a sudden, it’s embarrassing or something to be in the same place where we were all this time?”

Daniel suddenly huddled forward. He seemed to contract over the table; fists together, head bowed. He had only a few gestures when he was arguing, and she knew all of them. “Is there something–” he said, “something you’re not telling me or something, something that’s going on with you, something you’re trying to keep to yourself? Because, whatever it is, you can tell me.”

She burst out laughing. “You mean, like I was abused or something? Am I working through trauma? If it was,” she said, “I’d make sure you were the first to know.”

She waited until the evening before telling Andrew. It was a night when he was planted in the apartment. She was in bed, which – more than she could remember from college – had become a sort of refuge for her. She liked to pretend that it was an island, she found herself exploring all the different corners of it, lying with her feet suspended over the pillows, that kind of thing. Andrew was moving back and forth around the apartment – there really wasn’t enough for him to do at his job, he came home with this excess energy he needed to burn off. She said that her ex, Daniel, was in town, they had a nice, long lunch.

Andrew executed his favorite move in an argument, which was to pretend not to hear.

“He’s talked to his parents about it, he’s talked to my parents about it, it’s unanimous, everybody thinks you’re bad news for me.”

“I think it’s funny,” he said, “I think it not very proper” – this in a horrendous British accent – “that they would make their decision about me before they’ve met me.”

“Do you think meeting you would change their decision? How do you imagine that would go?”

He pretended he hadn’t heard her. This feral pacing, this moving-between errands, which she found so thrilling in the morning, didn’t exactly have the same charm at night, when he was obsessively putting his shirts back in the wardrobe, buttoning them up on their hangers, wiping down the sinks, picking her things off the floor. Laughingly, she accused him of being OCD. Secretly, she liked to pretend that he was a great cat licking himself. 

“What would you and my parents do together?” she said. “Maybe they’d take you out for a delicious scone at the Popover Café? Maybe everybody would go to a Broadway show? Maybe they’d invite Daniel along, for some kind of continuity, like an exhibit – Trina’s boyfriends through time. It would feel very Modern Family.

He paused in his movements, which was the intended effect. He squared up. He glowered at her, his dark features, the bristles of his goatee, the protuberance of his forehead, which she always told him meant that he was part Neanderthal.

“You think I’d fuck it up?” he said. “You think I wouldn’t charm your parents?”

“Um no. I don’t think you’d charm my parents.”

“You think I wouldn’t be quite proper?” His British accent was really horrendous – it was also completely irrelevant to her family – but no matter, she found that, through the miasma of his class prejudices, he could often be surprisingly perceptive about her family, guess things that nobody else had managed to put their finger on. “What do you think I would do?”

“Put your elbows on the table, slurp when you drink, cough into the open air, wipe your mouth with your napkin–”

“Isn’t that what the napkin is for?”

“Order white wine with your meat, order meat at all, ask for ketchup to put on top of it, use your salad fork for the entrée–”

She was squared up to him now, she was on her knees at the base end, the distaff end of the bed, as she’d started thinking of it, her face was at the level of his neck. His pear-shaped body was inches from her. He smelled of the baby powder that he for some reason used to pad himself down. He reached for her, she coiled backwards and down, exactly, she thought, like a cobra rewinding and preparing to strike. He hesitated. His hand was in mid-air and he seemed to consider it, to be surprised by it, then drew it back to his body. The leopard on his right flank was visible through the white mesh of his undershirt.

“I don’t like it when you talk about me with your exes,” he said.

“What am I supposed to do, not have exes?”

“Not talk to them.”

“What would you say is worse, having lunch with exes or sleeping with random strangers and not even having the courtesy to text me not to wait up?”

He pretended he hadn’t heard. He was back to his errands – his chores. He had the ironing table out. He was starting to plug in his iron, starting to get to work on his shirts.

“Here’s the thing I don’t understand,” she said, and she was no longer in her coiled cobra posture, now she had her legs out to the side, her hand on her chin, she was like a pupil at the feet of a master. “When I see the pictures come through on your phone, the ones that you so ineffectively hide from me, none of these women are exactly, I would say, gorgeous, none of them are, I would say, lookers. Big women, blown-out women, women who you can tell have kids, women who are going crazy, one night only on the town. And I see these pictures that I’m not supposed to see, and I get insecure, and I go to the bathroom mirror to compare myself, and, you know what, in every race, every contest, I win hands-down, and here’s what I don’t get is why, with this bit of luck that’s been thrown your way, you wouldn’t just congratulate yourself, you wouldn’t say, wow, Andrew, you did really amazingly well for yourself, you wouldn’t take that as an opportunity to, you know, frankly, cut out the bottom-feeding, to see what else maybe could shift for the better in your life.”

He had powered on his iron, he had his shirts piled on one end of the board, he was working his way through them, with his back to her.

“I know that you hear me,” Trina said. “We were just having a conversation and you heard me perfectly. My volume hasn’t gone down, it’s gone up. I know that you think this is a really effective trick, that if you don’t like something, you can pretend that you haven’t heard it and then it doesn’t exist – but it doesn’t work, believe it or not, it doesn’t work, I’m telling you – and I know you can hear this too – I’m telling you that I’m not exactly fooled by this ruse–”

He turned around. He was holding the heated end of the iron so that it was facing her, the electric light burning. It looked like he was in the middle of doing a bicep curl with it. “You don’t get to tell me what to do and you don’t get to be the boss of me,” he said. “You’re little Miss Princess running around daddy’s house and you’re the manic-pixie whatever the fuck girl with your little boy toys. They do what you want when you tell them but you’re dealing with something else here, you’re dealing with a man – who’s the boss of himself and is never gonna get pushed around.”

He was gesturing with the iron towards her like he was a villain waving his gun in an old movie. It was too much for her. She actually liked the rhythm, the pacing of this argument, but she couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing.


Kimmy had a professor friend. She liked to talk about him as if he were a possession or a pet. “My professor is coming out for drinks with us,” she would say. They both agreed, with the wry enthusiasm with which they agreed about everything, that having a professor was a valuable and underrated addition to one’s life, like a valet or a maidservant might once have been. He typically came late to their drinks’ events, breezed in with some story about what had been holding him up. He liked to survey and critique what they’d already ordered. His hair, which was salt-and-pepper rather than gray, was thinning and was combed a bit aggressively over the top of his head. He wore a greenish blazer and vest, a complicated, old-fashioned system of layering, with pens in his shirt pocket. Trina liked the way he dressed – in general, she was a fan of people dressing in the part they were supposed to play. He had a tendency to monopolize the conversation. He complained about faculty meetings, conferences, about the illiteracy of his freshmen and sophomores. Kimmy laughed in her shouting way, as if she were completely removed from that problem, as if his criticisms could never ever have possibly applied to her. When the wine came – he always ordered an extra bottle – he made a point of pouring for both of them. He draped his arm around Kimmy’s chair when he poured for her. Something about the way he performed the gesture made it seem like a best practice he’d picked up in sommelier school once upon a time.

Really, he could not have been more flirty with Kimmy, but Kimmy was a student, and as months passed in this way, without progression, it became clear that he took the boundary seriously. Trina, however, was no longer a student. He had a whole performance about not liking to be rushed out of restaurants, he collected the check, batted away the hands of anybody who tried to pay it. For Kimmy, who kept to a tight American schedule, this was infuriating.

“This is such a power move,” she said.

“I don’t like the way restaurants rush their customers,” he said as part of the performance.

“It’s a power move,” said Trina, when Kimmy looked to her for confirmation.

Kimmy had obligations in her evening. She tried to talk him into paying with no success; he didn’t want to rush a lovely evening. She tried to flick a twenty-dollar bill into his table setting. He pretended not to see it; Trina noticed the similarity to Andrew’s arguing maneuver. Eventually, Kimmy gave up, she strapped her handbag over her shoulder, she applied her lipstick, she kissed the top of his head, right at the combover. To Trina, it all looked like she was donning armor.

“I just hate that,” the professor said. “I hate the way restaurants greet you on the way in and they dismiss you when you’re finished, they have no more use for you. I hate that they themselves don’t understand what it’s like to really have a meal; and because of that, everybody’s always in a rush.”

“I’m not in a rush,” Trina said.

She had, as a matter of fact, had an apartment of her own the entire time; she’d just gotten in the habit of spending every night at Andrew’s. She preferred that apartment to her own. He was fussy about space where she was messy. She liked the large bed with its posts and its headboard. It made her think of the Dylan song about the big brass bed. Her room was modern, an ugly eggshell white that she had never gotten around to repainting, and despite her best efforts there was always a thin layer of clothes on the floor. But seeing him seated at the edge of her bed – he was single, divorced, but for reasons that she never delved into, he never invited her to his place – his head bowed, his vest unloosened, the nervous chatter he seemed unable to resist whenever they were on the verge of it, she suddenly discovered a love for the room, the apartment, her whole sordid, indeterminate life, staying on in a city that everybody else had moved on from, it now clarified for her as a picture, like some old masterpiece, the eggshell white, the splotches on it from a haphazard painting job, the old man slouched on the edge of the bed, his hands waving in the air.

As for his conversation, she found it a bit uninspired; for a man who made his living from words, the heightened and worshipful use of words, his talk during sex was grunting and animalistic. That was understandable enough, but before and after he seemed interested only, and above all, in stories of other lovers. Andrew was particularly enthralling for him. “The beauty and the lump,” he said when she, under duress, finally showed him a picture. “Was he at least good in bed?” And, asked a direct question, she admitted that he was; actually, he was terrific, and just as he was uncomfortable and hard-to-place in conversation, in the work force, in how he came across to her friends, he was exactly the opposite when it was time for sex, like a foreigner suddenly able to speak his own language. His body was large and poised and purposeful, there was a roughness to his hands and a leonine shimmer in the way he moved. She described it all to her professor. “You poor thing,” he said, vigorously shaking his head, when she told him about Andrew’s cheating and the kind of girls he was cheating on her with, but he still pressed for details – before and after and, eventually, during. She didn’t analyze this or question it any more than she did his decision not to invite her to his house; there was no point in trying to work out all the perversities of older men. “You like that?” he would say in his unimaginative way. “You like it when I fuck you the way he fucked you?”

“Oh yeah,” she said.

“You like my dick more than you liked his dick?”

She attested that she did.

“Talk to me the way you talked to him.”

“I just want you to fuck me,” she said, “I want you to fuck my brains out. I want you to reinvent the whole idea of fucking. I want you to fuck me like nobody’s ever fucked before.”

He was goggle-eyed, lying there with his head on the pillow, while she rode him.

“I don’t want you to fuck me gently, I don’t you to fuck me like I’m sweet, I want you to forget that I’m pretty, I want you to forget that I’m sweet, I want you to just shove your cock into me. I want you to make me see stars.”

Sam Kahn

Sam Kahn's most recent writing can be found at Essayistic writing has been published at AGNI, The Awl, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, etc. As a documentary producer he has had work on Netflix, Showtime, Paramount+, etc.

Sam Kahn's most recent writing can be found at Essayistic writing has been published at AGNI, The Awl, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, etc. As a documentary producer he has had work on Netflix, Showtime, Paramount+, etc.

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