Speak Easy

Jess and the other fiction writer met by way of an online dating site—that oft-praised, oft-disparaged, oft-discussed twenty-first century digital matchmaker. In a flurry of messages, they praised the same authors, cited the same existential anxieties, and bemoaned the nepotistic society of the city where they had both, quite excitedly and without a second thought, moved postgrad.

Prior to their first date, Jess agonized over bar selection. The venue might very well become part of an important memory recounted to numerous friends and family: the night they met. When she began the process, she only included bars she’d already been to. Those bars ranged from dimly lit cocktail lounges where men and women touched each other under too-tiny tables whilst drinking concoctions such as Pineapple Cinnamon Mint Jalapeno Martinis, to back-alley hidden speakeasies featuring jazz bands and blood-red carpets and burlesque dancers, to dive bars accented by jukeboxes and old vomit stains and fish tanks. The bars represented nearly every borough, too—except Staten Island, and except the Bronx, and except Queens. (Jess had always planned on branching out, but it was far easier not to).

Jess wondered what it might mean to get out of one’s comfort zone for a first date, what it might symbolize, how it might affect the date’s overall success. After deciding—upon the conclusion of intense internal debate—to try something new, she consulted her trusted confidantes: best friend, coworker, several Internet guides, and finally her mother, who had been a twenty-something New Yorker in the eighties and relished any opportunity to reflect and eulogize.

Taking each of these varied and passionate opinions into account, Jess made her final decision on the eve. She sent the other fiction writer a text with the bar’s name, the bar’s address, and a smiley face.

 

On the day of the date, Jess arrived seven minutes late. This degree of lateness didn’t make her look too eager or too high-maintenance. She couldn’t sabotage the date before it had even begun. And yet, despite all her careful research, the dive bar she had chosen was too loud. She was dismayed. She hadn’t stumbled upon a single discussion of volume in any of the lengthy reviews on Yelp.

When Jess spotted her date standing at the bar—correct identification and breezy introduction being the most unequivocally daunting moment of every single online date in history—she breathed a sigh of relief. The other fiction writer was wearing a light-blue button-down shirt and beige pants and brown leather shoes with a face that was thankfully more, and not less, attractive than his modest pictures had presupposed.

She laid a hand on his elbow—gentle, nonthreatening—and said hello.

“Hi, I’m Jess, so nice to finally meet you. I’m sorry it’s so crazy loud, I really wanted to be able to hear you and talk to you,” she said, which she hoped was a mature, straightforward, and alluring thing to say.

The other fiction writer introduced himself as Jacob and said, “No worries, we’ll manage, what do you want to drink?” and Jess put her mouth next to his ear and asked for beer. He nodded and bought two cans with a twenty-dollar bill and left two one-dollar bills as a tip and she watched and was satisfied.

They settled across from each other at a table in the back, clutching their beer cans. She opened her mouth first. She had to yell to make herself—hopes and dreams and disappointments and amusing nuanced anecdotes—heard, and because of this she felt a little humiliated but also a little vindicated for choosing such a popular place. The other bar patrons were all very attractive. The men were scruffy and tall and broad-shouldered and bright-eyed with hard and soft edges. The women were lithe and curvy and smiled with open mouths and cherry red lips and white teeth and had hair that bounced and exhaled. The bar itself had grungy pool tables, disco lighting, small televisions playing soundless old horror movies, and, according to the drunk man at the table next to them, the best New Orleans-style Po’boy sandwich in the city.

After a few hours of constant chatter, Jess felt like she and Jacob understood each other. There was surefire chemistry, buzzing in the space between them. They shared similar opinions on religion and politics and literature and on the perils of calling oneself an artist, and even when they didn’t agree on something, their debates were lively and flirtatious.

Jess wondered what someone would think if they glanced over at them, what she and Jacob looked like from the outside. She imagined someone, anyone, would be able to report a mutually strong interest. She and Jacob used their hands and nodded fervently and leaned forward. They laughed and they smiled. It was all so clear.

After four hours, they put on their jackets and Jacob settled the check—six drinks, between them—and they parted ways, a warm hug, outside the bar. Jess was confident about the likelihood of a second date.

 

On their second date, Jess and Jacob sat at the end of a large wooden communal table at a German-style indoor beer garden.

After laughing together about the mispronunciation of the beers they’d both ordered, Jacob handed Jess a dog-eared, highlighted copy of Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.

“This book is really important to me,” he said. “I thought you might enjoy it. I’ve even taken it all over Europe.” He held up two hands and began ticking off fingers for each city: “Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Florence, Vienna, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Barcelona…I must be forgetting some. So, I’m sorry if it’s falling apart a little bit.”

 Before Jess could express the expected amount of admiration and envy over his extensive travels, he began to soliloquize about the book’s admirable outrageousness, its zealous yet justified use of exclamation points, and its unflinchingly honest portrayal of a young man’s struggles to come of age in American society. When he finished discussing the merits of his recommendation, Jacob looked quite pleased with himself.

Jess was very flattered that he brought her a book. He carried it from his home in Bushwick all the way to Harlem just for her. In this exchange, he made it clear that he wanted to forge a new intimacy between them, that he wanted her to perceive and understand him more deeply. Jess was overwhelmed by the sheer significance of this, his willingness to bear himself to her, to be exposed. Whenever Jess recommended a book to someone, she wanted that person to understand something, deeply. It was Jess’s primary mode of communication. And although Jess couldn’t remember a single thing she might’ve said or a single action she might’ve taken that would’ve spurred Jacob to recommend for her this particular book, she told herself it was the thought that counts. She should be grateful. She knew that, yes, it was indeed possible that his recommendation had nothing to do with her, and nothing to do with them, and everything to do with only him, but she preferred to believe that he wasn’t, in fact, a narcissistic, pretentious, self-important asshole who felt as if he had something important to teach her.

“Thank you for the book,” Jess said, smiling with all her teeth. She uncurled his fingers from its spine, transferring it from his hands to hers. “I can’t wait to read it.”

On her couch later that evening, Jess curled up with a notebook and a pen and Portnoy’s Complaint. She planned to read diligently, to take notes. She planned to speak intelligently about it during their next meeting. She planned to offer original analysis. She wanted him to be pleased with her, to be happy he’d leant it.

The book sat on the arm of her couch, and then it moved to her bedside table, and finally to the edge of her pillow. He was in bed with her now. He had done it, somehow, and in the morning there he was, bookmarked, by her coffeepot. He was infecting everything.  

 

Jess found the novel to be entertaining and quite hilarious, amongst other things, and she scheduled a third date to discuss it.

They met in a café this time. Jacob ordered his coffee black, and Jess ordered a skim latte.

“As a woman,” he began, looking at her with serious concern, “did it—offend you? Did you find his perspective unforgivable?”

“All books should be a little offensive,” she said. “I think I can recognize that it’s a work of fiction, and that Alexander is a character entitled to his opinions. I certainly found the novel to be entertaining and hilarious. I mean, yes, it sucks that so many of the women characters were so thinly drawn. But maybe that was intentional. Maybe Roth really does respect women. Maybe there is a depth to their character that I’m simply failing to see.”

“Yes, yes, exactly,” said Jacob, agreeing that Jess was, indeed, failing somehow. His eyes widened, as if a realization was dawning on him for the first time. “The women were very important. They provided the lens through which Alexander was able to see his true self!”

Jess couldn’t compete with him. Frankly she didn’t want to. He liked being the one with knowledge and wisdom to impart, and Jess, in crushing on Jacob, had apparently consented to being taught.

She attempted, then, to gently change the subject, to talk about things other than writing and literature. She asked about his relationship with his family and with his roommates. His eyes unfocused, he became distracted. He took a sip of his black coffee and then put it back down again, the mug about eighty percent full. It was clear Jacob didn’t like black coffee. He was a retreating tide, and Jess knew the only way to make him crash back upon their shared shore was to suggest an exchange of writing. If they were to go on calling themselves writers, swapping tips and lamentations, and ruminating over selection of the perfect word, the perfect sentence structure, then they might as well get it over with and read each other’s writing first.

“Have you been published?” she asked. “I’m sorry if that’s a blunt or obnoxious question, but I’m curious about where I might get my hands on some of your writing.”

Jacob drew his lips into a thin line and shifted in his chair and said, “Well, no, I haven’t. I wanted to wait until I had something I was proud of. I wanted to wait until I graduated. So far, I’ve received a few encouraging rejection letters from a few prestigious literary magazines, so I suppose that’s all I can ask for at this point.” He took a deep breath. “Have you?”

Jess was indeed published once, so she told him about it. It was one of the best days of her life, but she didn’t say so.

“It was pretty lucky.” She stumbled over her words, blushing. “It’s not a huge deal, and it was one small story in one small magazine, but I suppose any exposure, however tiny and insignificant, is a good thing.”

“Of course, of course.” Jacob nodded with a closemouthed smile. “Congratulations.”

Emboldened, Jess decided to impart a flirting tactic she’d read about in a magazine once: to recommend a sassy, low-stakes sort of competition. “I certainly can’t keep seeing someone—another writer, no less—whose writing I haven’t seen. We’ll swap stories and then, if we both pass each other’s test of creative competency, we can meet again.”

He looked at her incredulously, but with amusement.

“Like a workshop,” she added, hoping that would satisfy him.

“It’s a deal.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Game on.”

Jess thought this was endearing, and playful, and hinted at something good within him.

Outside in the November chill, while walking to their respective subway stations, Jacob grabbed her hand and led her down a secluded alleyway. She followed, dumbstruck and intrigued, and he put his hand on the back of her neck and drew her face toward him. He kissed her so deeply that she found herself pitching forward, dizzy, colliding with his mouth as if intending to disappear inside. It was a confident kiss. His tongue seemed convinced that her tongue wanted nothing more than him, than this.

When his fingers crawled inside her, Jess squirmed away. Fighting to keep her composure, she felt a dull insistent throbbing between her legs.

“I want to fuck you,” she said, without inflection, “but not yet, not here.”

These stale words still pleased him somehow. Perhaps he could’ve lifted her from his pages; perhaps he’d salivated over scenes like these before. He ran his hand down her arm and then down her leg as if she were a single continuous limb, an instrument to strum.

“That’s fair,” he said. “But just curious—how far is your apartment from here?”

“Forty-five minutes. What about yours?”

“Forty-five minutes,” he said, laughing, and so she laughed, too, glad she had been let off the hook.

They parted amiably.

Jess couldn’t stop smiling on the subway. She loved being desired. She felt Jacob’s hands still on her. Her skin buzzed, creating its own sensation of memory. She squeezed the muscles between her legs and gave herself a little jolt of pleasure. She made eye contact with four men while she did so. They looked at her and leered as if they knew already the kind of girl she was, or wasn’t.

When she rose to the street and checked her phone, there was a text from Jacob: “Check your email.”

She sprinted to her front door and sprinted up two flights of stairs and put the key in the lock and dumped her purse on the countertop and checked her email.

He had sent her his novella, his senior thesis, as promised, and so she sent him two of her short stories: one that no one had ever seen, where she had taken some risks, and one that she knew everyone loved.

She printed his novella so she could feel the weight of it and stayed up late reading. She was thirsty for his words, for his way of seeing.

 

Neither of them contacted each other for five agonizing days. Jess finished his novella in a record ninety minutes, but she didn’t want to crowd him, to threaten his pace or his reading process, and so she forced herself to wait.

On the fifth day she thought she might be dying, but then her phone buzzed and Jacob said he finished reading and she could breathe again.

 

They scheduled their fourth date for the very next day.

While sitting in the shadowy corner of a wine-and-crepe bar, Jacob placed his long index fingers underneath his bottom lip and leaned forward. “Are you ready?”

Jess nodded.

“So. If I’m being honest—if the goal here is improvement and constructive criticism—then I must tell you that your writing in the first story tends to rely on, and veer toward, cliché.” He enunciated carefully and spoke slow, as if he were a doctor informing her of some fatal illness.

Jess’s expression faltered and he noticed, proceeding apologetically.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are a few intriguing insights in here, but most of it just seems, well…trite. I wasn’t quite as moved as I should’ve been, considering.”

She opened her mouth to ask considering what, but he also opened his mouth again, and much wider than she’d opened hers, to read a few sentences from her work that he believed best demonstrated these aforementioned clichés.

Hearing it in his voice, she hated every word she’d written, too—she found each syllable insufferable and ineffective and flat and wrong.

“What about the other story?” she asked, hoping to find something positive she could hold on to, something salvageable to take with her.

He sighed and looked out over her left shoulder. “Well, I could certainly see how some people could like it. I understand why this type of story gets published.”

He could have quietly devastated her with that critique, could have silenced her forever. He could have twisted the knife, watching as she wrenched it out and then gave it back to him, even apologizing for having bloodied it.

But that wasn’t her. It wasn’t.

She took the stack of pages, his manuscript, and put it on the table between them. He focused his gaze on it, his whole body softening in a way she hadn’t seen before. She realized, then, that he hadn’t touched her yet, not once, in the time they’d been sitting together. Even their knees managed to occupy their own separate space underneath the tiny table.

“I’m not sure about the dream your protagonist has,” she said. “I think dream sequences in fiction are lazy. There are no stakes in a dream. Dreams are not interesting.”

One of Jess’s past writing instructors had told her that in a college class a few years ago. She remembered it being particularly devastating. She was capable of devastation now.

Jess had originally prepared to say a few very nice things about Jacob’s work. It was generally agreed upon that the goal and purpose of a date is to be liked, so much so as to garner another date, and another. She hadn’t considered the possibility that Jacob would take the concept of “workshopping” to the extreme. She had prepared to be kind. She had thought he would like her kindness. She had thought perhaps they could both be molded into the sort of person the other could admire and perhaps even eventually love. They clearly had a lot of work to do, but she thought that their continual decision to meet over beverages, in a day and age where time is precious and rare, meant that they were interested in each other romantically. She could already see them together in some distant future, sitting on the porch of a large house somewhere in Maine, writing longhand in identical notebooks, sipping from gin and tonics and occasionally reaching across the space between their rocking chairs to touch the other’s hand.

And yet he had not been kind. He was not, in fact, trying to win her in the ways in which she’d like to be won.

“And if I’m being entirely honest,” she said, “I think that your one female character, the girl both men obsess over, is too flat and one-dimensional. If they’re so obsessed with her, I want to know why she’s so great. I want to see her thinking and, like, doing things.”

 “Well, that’s the whole point, actually,” Jacob said, bristling. “She’s supposed to be sort of like a ghost, like a skeleton. She’s only a projection of their fantasies. She becomes what they need and desire, don’t you see?”

She did see. She saw perfectly.

Jacob and Jess hastily finished their respective glasses of wine, split the bill, and wandered back out onto the streets. After an awkward, one-armed hug, they turned in different directions and didn’t look back.

 

On the train home, Jess watched women’s chins bob into their chests, and watched men’s eyes grow bleary, and listened to the apocalyptic shriek of the train’s wheels as it made its way through miles of lonely tunnel beneath the dark metropolis. The train car got emptier and emptier, ejecting passengers into the night, until she was alone.

She opened Jacob’s manuscript and began to reread, if only to remind herself that someone had once been there.


Caitlin Barasch is a writer living in New York City. Her fiction appears in Amazon's Day One, Hobart, Grasslimb and Word Riot. Her short journalism and book reviews appear in Electric Literature and DIAGRAM. Starting in the fall, she will be an MFA candidate in fiction at NYU.