Musée des Beaux Arts: A Short Story -The Toast

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Learn that you are frivolous. You are told this on a Saturday by an editor who rejects your manuscript. You had submitted it six months ago, newly unemployed, giddily setting free your first submission as if getting sacked were really just a bohemian blessing. Now you learn that you are possibly worse than an idiot. Some TV show lauded for grittily glamorizing the lives of young urbanites might depict this scene in a bright coffee shop with Cocteau Twins playing in the background, but you don’t know anyone who actually has business meetings in pretty settings, so you discover this as lines of 10-point Arial text in Gmail.

You are frivolous, you discover, because your writing is not about things of substance. Death is poignant. Family sagas have heft. There is equal gravitas to both the tragedies of patriarchs and rowdy stories rendered in the brown languages of the immigrant experience. Your writing suffers from privilege, is dominated by the preoccupations of an entitled girl too young to claim life, too upper-middle-class to merit documentation. You’re confused because your protagonist wasn’t meant to be you, and anyway it’s not like having flown from Beijing to Jim Crow country when you were seven and crying on your first day of class when confronted with an alphabet in Comic Sans makes you ignorant of the immigrant experience, but you’re not sure who is being insulted here so you close the email and listen to some death metal, which you have to admit does make you pretty fucking white.

If this were a clean narrative, later that day you would walk out of your apartment and reveal yourself to live in one of those neighborhoods rich kids who pretend they’re not yuppies still vocally fear. You would demonstrate so much gritty, street-learned populism that your reader would immediately chuckle at the irony, at all of your obvious substance forged by poverty and struggle. Instead you live in a perfectly gentrified neighborhood tour guides describe as hip: four coffee shops, five specialized workout centers, six bakeries. Maybe once you held a claim to authenticity, sleeping on nothing but carpet for years, buying the Pokémon book so you could talk about catching Mews and MewTwos and once mistakenly a MewThree with your friends who could afford video games. But at some point your parents ground out some money and bought a house down the street from a Real Housewife and sent you to Harvard and then everyone knew you had made it. You never spoke again of all their fights over ten dollars misspent, all of your attempted interventions shot down by them locking you out of the house, the biting cold of a night spent on the lawn shivering from the shame of anyone seeing you like this. But that was so long ago. You tell yourself to stop being a pussy.

You shut your computer, text the guy you’ve been sleeping with for six months who’s not your boyfriend, and smoke two bowls while waiting for him to let you know if he wants to fuck. When he doesn’t respond after an hour you decide to go to the grocery store because you’re out of ramen. Your city is not glamorous the way cities are supposed to be, in that vivid pulsing dream-fulfilling way people imagine concrete mazes, and before you make it to the store a homeless man asks if you’ll buy him a burrito. You agree because you’re a little stoned and have nothing better to do. “Flash Taco?” you ask him, and he shakes his head. “I don’t know that place. Let’s go to Big Star.” You acquiesce and follow him five blocks until reaching his Mexican restaurant of choice. Turns out it shuttered three months ago. “Aw, damn.” He says. “I’ll just take some cash I guess.” You tell him truthfully that you have no cash on you and he calls you a chink-ass bitch before storming off. You’re a little hurt mostly because you never thought of yourself as looking all that chinky. You walk the five blocks home and the five more blocks to the grocery store before discovering that Jewel-Osco has decided to upgrade its offerings and remove its formerly vast stock of poor people food in an attempt to compete with Whole Foods. You give up and ask your best friend if she wants to get dinner. Her response bursts forth instantaneously like a worm squirming from soil, a cheerful iPhone-blue bubble inflating with a wiggle. Clearly you’re a little too stoned.

You ride the train four stations and watch the corners of buildings curve past your shoulders. It is dark outside and clinically bright inside the car. Your reflection is overlaid upon the window, an incandescent blur like an obnoxious fog before the city stretching away into a patchwork of indigo. The woman behind you is eating a burrito and you listen to her masticate as her son cries for a bite. She smacks him. He stops.

Julia chooses an expensive restaurant that serves authentic ramen for $16 a bowl. You meet her in a basement underneath a barbecue joint, so dimly lit that you hobble squattily down the steps for fear of tripping and breaking your front tooth again. Inside there are ten seats at a counter, all occupied by beautiful twenty-somethings whose shirts do not carry mysterious stains, and you wait together for nearly thirty minutes by the end of which you’ve exhausted most common topics of conversation. School. School friends. How much these school friends are failing – poor them. How much those school friends are succeeding – fuck them. She orders some coconut-and-rum beverage served from a frosted blue mug shaped into what looks like a tropical gargoyle. You can’t justify the money for your own so occasionally you steal a sip.

These days you’re not sure what to talk to her about. Julia is mostly the kind of Ivy League graduate that people imagine. Besides the ketamine habit, she’s tall and beautiful and has a 9-to-5 at a non-profit that wins awards every year for both its vision and its data-driven efficacy. She got a 179 on the LSAT last month and majored in Social Studies, so she’s pretty much set. Over dinner she tells you about how she visited her boyfriend in New York last weekend and they fucked in the offices of Sullivan and Cromwell, which looked strangely similar to her dentist’s office back home in New Jersey. You nod. Your friendship has been strained since you got fired from McKinsey after a full month of hundred-hour work weeks triggered a sobbing fit on the sidewalk outside your office facing Millennium Park. A crazy dude spat on you, calling you a bougie-ass bitch, but then a family of Midwestern tourists rushed up to clean the phlegm-mascara mixture off your cheek and you felt a little bit better. “What’s wrong?” they asked. “McKinsey is a bunch of cunts,” you responded. “Is that where Mitt Romney used to work?” they asked and you said no and they decided that not speaking would be more comforting for everyone. Afterwards you smashed your company laptop in a fit of anger and for the following week refused to respond to emails from your Supervisor, your Manager, eventually your Partner asking where the fuck you were and what the fuck happened to the highly sensitive $400M+ supply chain cost reduction model you were supposed to have been building. For most of that week you hid in your sleep, but one night you met a boy at a punk show and had a sex bender during which he told you he thought he loved you but couldn’t be your boyfriend, so that was nice. Julia didn’t approve, but then again she was cheating on her boyfriend with a ketamine dealer so there was no way your friendship could really suffer more. You are both frivolous women.

“How was your day?” she asks.

“Okay,” you respond. You tell her about the homeless man, then about the editor, before spending many more minutes whining about how the guy you’ve been sleeping with never texted you back.

“Shut up,” she tells you. “Don’t even whine at me about someone named Wystan, I can’t take that seriously.”

“He’s named after W.H. Auden,” you point out. “About suffering the old masters were never wrong.

“That’s not even how the poem goes,” she says and you realize she’s right. She tells you that the editor was clearly a misogynistic dick. You shrug.

“Maybe he’s right,” you suggest. “Maybe I should’ve submitted a story about an agrarian revolution in rural China that’s violently put down by the government and only glimpsed on the Internet through blurry YouTube videos. That would’ve been substantive and topical.”

“Didn’t that actually happen?” she frowns.

“Yeah.” You admit. “I was really sad about that for a while.”

You go to a party together and the cab driver turns around, staring, half-refusing to unlock the door. “What is this?” he asks and you reassure Chuluunbold from Ulaanbataar that the industrial-looking building with boarded windows is your intended destination. Inside Julia buzzes between friends whom you greet in your loudest voice and hug after learning their names for the first time. You used to panic a bit when they asked what you did, but now you tell them that you’re an aspiring writer and everyone shouts with exaggerated approval. You talk to a kombucha brewer, a guy who installs visuals for raves, a girl who brightly chirps that she works for Accenture without the smudge of shame in her voice that you adopted before when confessing your capitalist sins. You dance a bit in front of a throbbing speaker, closing your eyes and reopening them in a flashing back-and-forth between yourself and the crowd. When you grow tired you escape to the back room where there is a half-pipe installed and boys skating. You smoke a cigarette and watch them glide to and fro with parabolic grace, like a set of intersecting pendulums.

At 11:00pm W.H. Auden calls you. He just got out of band practice and is probably too tired to fuck but wants to spoon you tonight. You take the bus up to his apartment and worry one of your former coworkers will be sitting outside his window eating at the Mexican restaurant on the corner that liberally conquers the entire block with its pleasant outdoor seating. But you’re safe, he buzzes you in, you stand on your toes to give him a kiss and take your clothes off. One by one you rid yourself of socks, pants, shirt, bra until you’re left standing in front of him sheathed in a sliver of cheap cotton lace, anticipating his gaze passing over each brown nipple. In this state you look least like the photo of yourself on the second page of the Harvard careers services office brochure, beaming in business casual, holding a piece of paper on which you’ve scribbled made up curlicues. You’re certain that he’s never seen the brochure and you like him for that. You want to tell him that you got called frivolous today, but he tells you first that he thinks he’s depressed again. His hands are cold when you touch them. You lean against him in a gesture of comfort and he presses his nose into your hair, loops one arm around to pull you closer. You hold still like this for two entire songs of silence. The next song he plays is called “Rectal Asshole” and that breaks the silence.

That night you sprawl across his body like a protective cat, your face buried awkwardly in the crook of his neck, squeezing his forearm with hopeful tenderness every few hours as his intermittent spasms wake you. You wonder if he has bad dreams but he never remembers. You don’t fuck the next day either but spend eight hours at his apartment smoking spliffs and listening to records, and this makes you feel good, because it’s certainly a marked improvement from the same day one year ago that you spent in the E.R. because you were afraid you would kill yourself and on some level didn’t want to. Among other things, you keep this anniversary to yourself.

Get home around sunset. It’s now been over 24 hours since you received the email. Reread it. Reread your story. It feels a little frivolous. There’s nothing about it that would move a human being who’s not a twenty-three-year-old woman desperate for people to think she’s smart, but edgy, but in tune with a youthful reality worthy of attention. You try so hard to sound like you didn’t spend most of your life cocooned, write your protagonist like one of those girls on TV shows who have funny misadventures instead of depressingly anticlimactic ventures, but the editor finds “Rina” insufferable and you see his point. “Rina” plays the guitar and writes for The New Yorker and has musician boyfriends who dote on her because she’s a beautiful girl who plays in a band that sounds like the Wipers. “Rina” lives in Bushwick and attends experimental jazz shows at The Stone on the weekends and converses fluently on the pulse of the avant-garde. “Rina” has a bad acid trip at a party but comes out of it all right and discovers that she does in fact love Hugh, the aspiring writer whose phone background is Man Ray’s imagination of a poem. You read the story two more times and decide that Rina is a completely implausible character whose existence is both unrealistic and meaningless. Sigh with relief because the editor agrees. Wonder why you want to be her.

Undress. Stare at yourself in the mirror, shifting between light that devastates your face and light that worships it. Take a long shower, scrubbing with a paste that assaults your skin like wet blue sand, feeling the lukewarm water pool around your feet, listening to it descend like rain. Think about Julia snorting bumps of powder off of keys in cavernous rooms filled with strangers, her face only coming into view as she rises from her prize with a smile full of white teeth. Think of a small room overwhelmed by afternoon light, watching clouds of dust drift through the air from the warm resting point at the center of a hard, male grip. Think of words on a screen.

Write something truly unlikable that night. Abandon the canonical vernacular in your language, stomp away from rice paddies you’ve never seen, briefly strip yourself of fictions on the kind of voice that invites a reader’s fascination and love. Write a messy short story that’s kind of shit. Go to sleep and wake up brutally insecure. Do it again.

X.A. Li lives in Chicago. Her life dream is to one day own a dog.

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