Ashley Burnett’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Alex’s hair was beginning to gray at the nape of his neck and he tired after walking up only two flights of stairs. I teased him about these facts only to deflect responsibility.
With every stroke of the pen or tap of the keyboard, I could feel energy pooling in my fingertips. Late at night, I’d touch Alex’s shoulder and feel its frailty, my fingers pressing down and feeling only bone. He was the last in a long string of men and had not been sought out like the others, but I took him in anyway.
“All that typing’s giving me a headache.”
It was a frequent complaint. That evening Alex was sitting in the bay window, a book open in his lap, its pages only lightly touched.
“Sorry,” I replied, still typing. “I’ll be done in a minute.”
Perhaps his voice was hoarse, or perhaps it was my imagination. I glanced over my shoulder and studied his face, half-lit by the light still streaming in from the window. When he caught me looking, I turned away.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“One of your books.”
I heard him rustle the pages as he flipped the book over. “Brushstroke.” That was my best-seller, based on poor old Lane. Before he died the veins on his arms looked like blue mountain ranges.
“Do you like it?”
“’Of course’? It’s okay for you not to like it.”
He shifted in his seat. “But I do. Stop talking and finish.”
“Just five more minutes.” I was already on page seven, no end in sight.
I heard him flip a few pages ahead to check and see how long until the next chapter. “I don’t know if I get some of this stuff,” he said and sighed.
“I mean the symbolism, I guess. Like why are his parents blind? Is there a reason?”
I thought about it as I rubbed my eyes, the glare of the computer screen making the inside of my lids the faintest red. The truth was very simple: Lane’s parents had been blind in real life. But Alex didn’t know about Lane, or Willy, or Frances. “Do you think there’s a reason?”
“I think it’s to symbolize how Lane comes in with this brand-new vision, something that’s never been done before. The people around him are literally blind. But I’m not sure if that’s right.”
A part of me wanted to tell him he was wrong, just for the pure pleasure of it, but I didn’t have the time. So I said: “It’s whatever you think it is.”
I could tell without turning around that he was smiling. I started typing faster.
“Are you going to stop soon?” he asked a few minutes later.
“Sorry. Another five minutes?”
He placed the book down and strode over, his footsteps light. I shuddered as I realized he was about to touch me. As his fingers slid around my shoulder I found myself relieved—they were less bony than they’d once been. Perhaps the process had slowed down.
“Can’t you finish now?” he asked.
“I’m almost to page ten.”
His fingers flexed against my shoulder and I thought, for the briefest of seconds, that they felt a bit stronger. “Fine,” he said, and left me alone.
That night I crept into bed after reaching page twenty. Alex had been asleep for hours. When I placed my hand against his stomach, it felt concave.
“I’d like to try writing,” Alex told me one night as we lay in bed, his bony arm underneath my head.
“You should,” I lied.
“You could teach me.”
“Or I could take a class.”
I nodded, my head rustling against the pillow. “I know a professor at that junior college near your house.”
“You don’t want to teach me?”
“I didn’t say that. But it might be better if the professor has no… biases.”
He was quiet until I added, “I love you too much to read your first drafts.”
Alex laughed and pulled me in closer. His grip was stronger that time.
Alex’s favorite thing to do after he’d enrolled in his writing class was to sit next to me at the kitchen table, both of us writing on our laptops.
After class, he’d text me excitedly about the various As and Bs he received on assignments, or about any times when his teacher said a comment he’d made was “interesting”. Sometimes I would ask about his stories while I paused between pages, my hands reaching over to check how bony his fingers had become in the interim, but he always played coy.
“Something that happened to me when I was little,” he’d say. Or: “Maybe it’s about you.”
I’d nod, my hand would retreat, and I’d begin writing again. But slower that time.
The first gray hair popped out five weeks after his course began. The veins on my wrist became a swollen blue a few days after that.
Alex had stopped writing next to me at that point. He’d stopped showing me his papers like a little schoolboy. He’d even taken his extra toothbrush back to his apartment, although it took me a few days to notice.
When he did deign to write next to me he typed faster than I did and hunched over the screen to block it from my view. When he’d rise to get a glass of water or go to the bathroom, he’d log off so I couldn’t lean over and look. He also changed his password, formerly “diane123”.
After my face had become so gaunt I couldn’t stand it anymore, I decided to visit his professor. Jules and I had gone to college together and had worked on the same newspaper for two years after we graduated—before I’d written my first book.
Her office was tucked away in a nondescript building in the middle of campus. Students poured in and out, grabbing staplers and papers and muttering to one another in hushed tones. Jules pretended they weren’t there, her eyes glassy and almost bovine.
I shuddered upon entry, as one might when coming face-to-face with the life they could have possessed.
“Diane! It’s so nice to see you,” Jules said as she reached over her desk to hug me. “Although, with Alex’s stories, it feels like it hasn’t been that long.
“I hope they’ve been positive encounters.”
“How could they be anything but?”
My smile was closed and tight-lipped. “How long have you been working here?”
“Two years this September. It’s been fun. I’d recommend it for anyone who hasn’t been published yet.”
I forced a laugh, unsure of what to say.
Jules laughed too and shuffled some papers around her desk, a few falling to the floor. She made no movement to pick those up. “Yeah, well, I’m trying. I’m sorry I couldn’t have lunch today.”
“What is it exactly you wanted to talk about? Alex? You know, I haven’t scheduled any other parent-teacher conferences.”
“Just wanted to catch up with you, that’s all.”
“Alex is a pretty good writer. You haven’t been doing his stories for him, have you?”
“Nope. He won’t even let me look at them.”
“Well, then I’m definitely impressed,” Jules said. Jules started rifling through her desk drawers. “I’m not sure I should show them to you,” she said. “If that’s why you’re here, of course.”
“I didn’t ask to see them.”
She grabbed a few sheets of paper and handed them to me. “True. Why don’t you bring them home to Alex? He never picks up his old work and it’s cluttering up my desk.”
“He doesn’t really live with me anymore.”
Jules hesitated. “Then I guess you can do whatever you want with them,” she said with the faintest smile.
I threw the stack of stories on the foot of my bed and sat at my computer. I wanted to reclaim some of my power—smooth out the wrinkles, make the veins retreat. But nothing would come. I was drawn back to the manuscripts and picked up the shortest one.
It was called “The Zoo”. Alex had written it without any obfuscation—even our names were the same and the bay windows of my apartment were a main feature. Once I finished I shredded the story. The headache that had been throbbing since that morning began to disappear.
I read through the rest in quick succession. Shredding them made me feel better, although I suspected it all of being a placebo. I rarely enjoyed anyone’s writing, but Alex’s was fine. A small and vain part of me thought it was because of my influence, or because I was the subject.
It was 5:00 A.M. when I decided to call him. I knew he would be awake—before he left he had begun setting his alarm for four. “My muse is an early-riser,” he’d said.
Before the final ring, he picked up.
“It’s me,” I said. “Can we talk?”
There was silence on the other end, but I could hear the faint sound of typing. He cleared his throat and said, “Of course. Right now?”
“Maybe in person?”
“I’d prefer right now.”
Would he write that in later? “Okay. I read your stories.”
He kept typing. “Did you like them?”
“They were fine.”
“So you didn’t?”
“It’s tough to say.”
Alex stopped typing and cleared his throat again—it was a drawn-out, guttural sound. He let out a sigh. “I didn’t want you to read them. Where did you get them from?”
“Well, it’s not like you didn’t see it coming right?”
“I really didn’t.”
“What goes around comes around,” he said and laughed at his own cliché.
“Not often enough.” My hands were trembling and I sat back down on the bed. I felt cold. “Can’t you just change the names?”
“Why does it matter? You still know it’s you.”
I paused. He was right.
“Diane?” he continued. “Are you still there?”
“I know.” My voice broke and I berated myself for attempting to cry.
He was quiet for a minute and then he said in a voice so tiny I’m sure it surprised him, too: “Ever since this started, I can’t sleep.”
“You get used to it,” I said and hung up the phone.
His first story was published four months later. It was about me, of course, and also about Jules. He knew the details because I’d given them to him: we worked at the same paper. I got famous, she did not. There was animosity that was never spoken out loud. I had never written about it—not out of loyalty, but because I didn’t want the hassle.
After I read it I decided to call Jules.
Her voice crackled to life over the phone. “Diane?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Did you read Alex’s new story?”
“How do you feel? Are you okay?” I tried to put some measure of concern into my voice, hoping the spotty connection would make up for the rest.
I could hear her shuffling papers again. “I’m a little light-headed, I suppose. But it’s okay. It was… mitigated. Somewhat.”
“So you’re okay with it?”
“Yes,” she said, voice strained. “I edited the story for him actually.”
“I didn’t know that.” I felt nauseous again and my hands trembled as I switched ears. “I just wanted to check on you.”
“That’s nice of you,” she said. She was better at faking it than I was. “I think you bore the brunt of it.”
When we finished talking (she hung up first) I crawled into bed. I knew it could only get worse, only because it so frequently did when I was on the other side.
Jules was a lifeline to Alex. He had officially cut me out of his life, but he was still sending Jules his stories to edit. He was working on a book too, she told me, and it was very good. My heart palpitations began as soon as the words left her mouth.
“You think it could get published?”
“I do,” Jules said, avoiding eye contact with both me and the waiter.
“Why can’t he find someone else?” I started playing with my food, tucking the carrots beneath the mashed potatoes.
“I don’t know. I’ve asked him before and he never answers.”
“Then stop editing for him.”
I could hear Jules fiddling with her collar. “Wouldn’t you rather know what he’s up to?”
“I don’t think he could write without you.”
Jules looked up at me and I noticed for the first time how dark the circles beneath her eyes were. “You know, I don’t think that’s true.”
Alex’s first television interview was two years later. He’d written a book about me (this time with names changed) and people had finally connected the dots—two bestselling authors, one writing about the other.
“Has she ever written about you?” the host asked. His face was eager and his hands were balled into fists, like he was clutching invisible utensils.
“Not to my knowledge, no,” Alex said and adjusted his glasses—he never used to wear glasses. “Or at least, those haven’t been published yet.”
The host laughed, although it didn’t seem like Alex was telling a joke.
“What does she think about the book?” the host continued, his recovery swift after the unreciprocated laughter.
“We don’t speak anymore. I have no idea how she is. But I assume she’ll be writing her own book about me. Or, at least, that’s what I would do.”
I muted the television and turned back to my notepad. I hadn’t written in weeks. I tried to—I had so many ideas, all about him, but the words wouldn’t come. I’d write an opening line and feel my grip strengthen and then the pen would fall from my hand all at once.
On those fruitless nights I would force myself to drive out to a café or a bar. I would people-watch and pick the easiest targets—always the men sitting alone. I could craft a life out of their image. I’d make sentences and paragraphs out of throwaway gestures and meaningless looks. They always looked a little tired after I was finished, but I felt better. It was only on those nights that I could sleep.
“It’s been quite a while since your last book, Diane. Can you tell us a little about the delay?”
My hand fluttered to the cane resting beside me, like at any moment I might leap up and hobble away. But instead of escaping, I turned to the host and said: “There’s no reason in particular. I just wanted to make sure I got this one right.”
“I have to ask,” the interviewer said, and leaned in as if we were co-conspirators, “is this one about Alex?”
“Is Drain about Alex?” I repeated, my fingers curling around the cane. “Well, what do you think?”
“I think it is.”
“Then you think right.” We both laughed showy laughs and I watched his eyes dart back and forth between me and the camera.
“Well, it’s terrific. And I’m betting he regrets writing about you.”
“Oh, I hope not!”
The interviewer bared his teeth and added, “Well, he should. Have you read the excerpt of his newest book?”
“No… should I?”
He grimaced, his eyes rolling back to the camera, and said, “Maybe not.”
“That bad, huh?” I had intended to say it loudly, but it came out like a whisper, as if I were speaking to myself.
The host heard, though, and winked. “I’ll show it to you during the commercial break.”
The Old Back and Forth was about us as writers, but it charted new territory, too—Alex wrote what might happen to us in the future. It was something I’d never attempted. I’d always kept focused on the past, on events I knew about and could examine like microscope slides under glass. They meant nothing to anyone else and everything to me and people in the know.
My interview ran the next day and, as if on cue, my phone rattled with his name. “You feeling okay?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, who is this?”
A pause. “It’s Alex.”
“Oh, right, I apologize. I bought a new phone.”
“With your advance?” he laughed.
I ignored his question and said: “I’m feeling fine. And you?”
“So it worked.”
I heard him shuffling on the other end—perhaps fiddling with the mirrors on his car, or lying in bed. “My book.”
“Oh, yes. The Old Back and Forth.”
“I’m glad it worked.”
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t you curious why you aren’t dead?”
“Not any more than the average person.”
“I wrote a book about you. You should be in a coma, or at least hobbling around on that cane.” I heard the telltale signs of the television flickering on. “But you aren’t, are you?”
My cane was lying diagonally on the rug, underneath the coffee table. “No.”
“And it’s all because of me. Because I wrote what could happen, and not what’s happened in the past.”
“As do a lot of people.”
“But not like us, Diane. Isn’t that right?”
“We’re going to do this forever, aren’t we?” he continued, his voice quiet. I could almost see him slouching in the dim glow of his living room, the phone pressed too tightly against his ear, as if he couldn’t hear. “We can keep this going as long as we like.”
“Don’t you have anything else to write about?”
I could hear him smile. “No. Do you?”
“So we’ll keep going. The old back and forth.”
“The old back and forth.”
“Good night, Diane,” he said and hung up. It was just the way I’d written it.
Jen May is an artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her website is somewhat regularly updated with new work.