Trash

Trash 1024 768 Dan Leach

I have a former student, now a friend, who works as a prostitute to offset the monstrous costs of her graduate degree in nursing. We catch up from time to time and, knowing that I am a writer, she tells me stories about the strange things men ask her to do. She always ends these stories by saying, “Put that in your next book.”

Last time we talked, she told me about a man who paid for an entire night with her, except when she showed up to the hotel, he wasn’t there. Instead she found a hand-written note with the following request: “Take a shit in the toilet. After that, please leave. But make sure you don’t flush. I want to find it there when I come up.”

“That’s pretty weird,” I said. “What do you think it means?”

My friend pretended to think about this question, but we both knew she had an answer before she ever called me, and that, in a certain sense, this answer was the reason for her call.

“My guess,” she said. “Is that he gets off on sitting alone in an empty room and knowing that something happened, but that he missed it.”

“A fetish for the aftermath,” I said. “That’s amazing.” 

“Then go write it,” she said. “And when it becomes a best-seller, I expect royalties.” 

When I told this story to my wife, she said, “I wish you hadn’t shared that with me. It’s inappropriate. The whole situation is inappropriate.”

I was ready to drop the subject, but I was also confused on one point. So I asked my wife, “When you say inappropriate, do you mean the guy who pays money to smell a stranger’s shit, or do you mean me talking to my student about that kind of stuff?”

“Both,” she said. “But you knew that.”

As much as I like to perform the role of the aloof artist in search of an honest subject, I know that most people find it unacceptable to talk about sex work with someone you used to teach. I knew this, but I talked to my student anyway, just like I knew it would offend my wife to hear the story, and I shared the story anyway. Speaking of fetishes, here is mine: I like to say what I have been told not to say, and (even worse) I like to pretend that I do not understand why anyone would deem anything unsayable.

Writers love to quote Kafka as saying, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” But no one ever says what the “frozen sea” is, and neither did Kafka. For me, it’s “appropriate” conversation. 

When I was seven, a teacher overheard me use the word “fuck.” She removed me from the classroom and knelt beside me in the hall, taking my face in her hands as if it were some fragile vase of inestimable worth. Then, leaning in so close that I could smell the apricot tea on her breath, she whispered, “Daniel, that word you used is hurtful, and I do not believe that you want to hurt people. Please promise me that you will never use it again.” I promised her that I would never use it again, but after we returned to the classroom, I found it impossible to pay attention to any of the lessons. The word “fuck” now echoed in my head like a song you can’t forget until you have played at the loudest possible volume.

“Be careful,” my wife once warned me, after reading an essay I had published that opened with the two of us having sex in a window in plain view of our neighbors. “It’s one thing to be transgressive. It’s another thing to be a showboat.” 

My favorite episode of Seinfeld is the one where George Costanza gets in trouble for having sex in his office with the cleaning woman. George’s boss is furious and confronts him the way a parent berates an unruly child. But George perfectly adapts to this configuration by making the face of absolute innocence. He says, “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?”

All my favorite characters are absolute liars. All my favorite people too.

When I was a child, I never wanted to be a writer. I loved punk music and dreamed of becoming Joe Strummer. If I had possessed a modicum of talent on the guitar, I would be composing songs right now, not sentences.

– 

The first time I carved something onto a school desk, I used the sharpened point of a compass, and I wrote, ASSHOLE. I came back the next day to find that someone else had inscribed a message directly above mine. It read, YUMMY. It was the first time I realized that all composition is collaborative. 

The best and worst reading experience I have ever had was when I was eighteen years old and finished Sylvia by Leonard Michaels. It was the best experience because I had never before encountered a book that felt so much like a punk song. Michaels wasn’t telling me a story–he was showing me his heart, even the dark and deformed parts. It was the worst experience because I was so young that I mistakenly assumed there were hundreds of other books out there that also felt like punk songs. I had no idea how hard it was to tell the truth. 

What I said about Joe Strummer was a lie. I am surprisingly decent on guitar, but it’s written language that I love, and even as a kid I wanted to be someone who wrote interesting books. Why misrepresent such a harmless aspiration? Because I am a showboat. Because I am a liar.

The worst way to get me to watch a movie is to tell me how much you loved it. 

The best way to get me to watch a movie is to tell me that something in it was so unsettling that you had trouble sleeping. I like the way that people try to explain how it felt to see Eraserhead for the first time. My college roommate: “I don’t know what I just watched, much less what it means. It just kind of happened to me, and now here I am. I feel different, but I’m not sure how.” 

The day after my old student told me about getting paid to take a shit in an empty hotel room, I found myself in the mood to write a poem. I opened my notebook and wrote “A Fetish for the Aftermath” at the top of a blank page. For about half a minute, I tried to think of an adequate first line. Then I tore out the page and scrapped the whole project. Two people–my student and my wife–already knew my central metaphor, and that made the experience of composing the poem as thrilling as completing a tax form. I want something so damn good that it just kind of happens. 

The morning I started writing this essay, I called a writer friend who lives in Las Cruces to tell him how excited I was about the project. I got as far as “I’m writing this thing about how certain words make certain people uncomfortable and how–” Then he stopped me and told me a story about Bernard Malamud rebuking Harold Brodkey at a cocktail party because Brodkey was “talking out” too many good ideas. My friend told me, “If you’re really excited about this essay, don’t say another word about it. Hang up the phone and start writing.” 

My father, who was a provocateur in his own right, once told me, “If you’re not pissing people off, you’re not saying what you mean.” My mother came behind that with an equally true aphorism: “If you’re pissing people off every time you open your mouth, you’re not thinking before you speak.” Writing means splitting the difference between these philosophies.

I have a fantasy that I do not expect will manifest, at least not in this lifetime. Here it is: I meet someone for the first time, a true stranger, and instead of beginning with small-talk, the stranger blurts out a truly interesting secret. No names, no professions, no formalities–just one-hundred percent intimacy from the first word between us. 

“You only think you want this,” my wife has reminded me on more than one occasion. “The truth is, if something like that ever happened, it would scare the shit out of you.”

“Not so,” I tell her. “I’ve been preparing for it my entire life.”

“That may be true,” she says. “But a secret without context is like a kiss from a blow-up doll.”

When I am writing, I tend to agree with Anne Lamott, who said, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” When I come back to revise, I find myself in league with Barry Hannah, who said, “You’ve got to lie to stay halfway interested in yourself.” 

I published a short story on cucking, and because I shared it on social media, a distant aunt, a born-again Christian no less, read it and called my mother to express her disgust. My mother called me immediately and demanded I apologize to the aunt. She said, “I don’t understand why you can’t just write something nice.”

“Like what?” I said.

“I don’t know,” my mother said. “Like dogs. Or love. Stuff that normal people think about.” 

Any day now I will get a call from my student, the prostitute. 

“You want the latest?” she will say.

I will pause before answering, knowing exactly how I should respond. The availability of that option never leaves my sight.

Header photo by Jacelyn Yap.

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