by Corley Miller
We had some old ginger, and it scared us. It wasn’t that we were afraid it might be rotten. It looked fine. It was just that we had spent all day making everything else perfect. We had cleaned, and vacuumed, and then dusted. Jen had also mopped. We were having Stacy and Luke for dinner and it didn’t seem like we had done all those other things just to use old ginger. So we put it on the list. That was right before we went shopping.
There’s one other thing to say. The other thing is that at the time I was reading a lot of Raymond Carver stories. A couple of days before I had got to a point where I had a little doll of Raymond Carver in my head. He was sort of like a wind-up doll. You could pull the string and he’d get into a fight with his wife. Or be too exhausted and just stew. Or call something a nuthouse.
But as a wind-up doll Raymond was a little inappropriate. Jen and I would be watching a movie and he’d pitch in. ‘This is no picnic, this nuthouse,’ he’d say. I guess what I was really looking for was more a ventriloquist than a wind-up doll, one who could talk with a different version of my voice. I’d be able to pick him up and hear what Raymond Carver had to say about everything. I don’t know why that was so important to me, but it was.
The whole dinner thing had been a big Jen idea. At first I hadn’t wanted to.
“What’s the point?” I said, “We’re just gonna spend a whole Saturday getting ready to pretend we’re grown-ups.”
“We are grown-ups,” Jen said. “We have our own apartments. There are whole TV shows about people with our lives.”
“If we want to pretend,” I said, “we can just all go out and drink too much and cheat on each other. I’ll pass. I like you too much.” I guess if I said that I was already reading Raymond Carver.
“We’re not pretending,” she said, “When you pretend in private it isn’t pretending. It’s just the way you are. Besides,” she said, “it’s not like you have any choice in the matter. Stacy and I put it on our google calendars. Plans have been made.” She came over and sat on my lap.
“I guess I could only get out of it by breaking up with you,” I said. I was holding her with both hands.
“I know,” she said, “isn’t it tempting?” She was holding the top of my head in both hands. I told her it wasn’t tempting at all. I had decided that pretending to be grown-up probably wasn’t that much worse than pretending to be anything else. Then we kissed for a while. I remember it was cold that day.
“Adulthood is all about ingredients,” Jen said at the supermarket. “Adulthood is the difference between meals and ingredients.” Ingredients or not I still thought there was some pretending going on. I knew because I had been buying three new pairs of socks every two weeks. I would wear them down to parsimonious rigidity and then buy new ones. That wasn’t how I knew I wasn’t an adult yet. My big clue about that was that I had no idea where the old socks were going. It seemed like an adult could rationally decide to buy new socks, but not suffer from mysterious sock disapparation. I didn’t know if Jen had any of these problems, but I sure did.
When we got back it turned out were bad estimators and hadn’t bought enough ginger. So we had to mix in the old ginger anyways. It also turned out that neither of us knew how to tell when salmon was cooked all the way. Raymond thought this was a fine fix for us to be in, but I think he was disappointed that we solved the problem. Jen remembered that it had something to do with a fork and something to do with the different layers of the fish. I was in charge of salmon so I opened up the oven and stuck the fork between two layers. Some white gunk came out after the fork.
“I don’t think it’s done,” she said.
We ended up having to google it. We were looking for something called ‘flaking’ but it was apparently difficult to describe with words. Eventually Jen found a youtube video.
“This is incredible,” I said.
“I know,” she said, “it smells fantastic.”
“No,” I said, “that we can do this. Just cook ginger salmon because we want to.”
“Incredible?” She asked. As fine a fix as this was I could tell that Raymond was a little bit bored. He wasn’t that interested in our conversation so he just kept trying to describe things about Jen in this kind of terse self-important way. ‘Jen had dark hair and a nose that was pretty close to perfect.’ I told him to shut up.
The thing is that just then the kitchen smelled like butter and like ginger. Jen and I were having a drink and I didn’t have a lot of patience for Raymond. We had beat him. I didn’t want to think about him just then and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to read his stuff again. I didn’t know why you would want to read about those people. They were stupid and poor and if they had ever known how to be happy they had either forgotten or become too tired.
That wasn’t us. Jen and I—and Luke and Stacy too—were young and we were smart and usually we were happy. Before too long we felt that we’d be rich. When we talked about love we talked about love, not about being beaten or dying. What we had going wasn’t a nuthouse at all. So if Raymond had a hard time saying anything about it, well, that was his problem and not mine.
“Just—that we can figure out how. Fifteen years ago we’d have been paging through these like smudged recipe notebooks for our mother’s favorite thing.”
She thought about it for a minute. “God,” she said, “We’d probably be making casserole.”
“Or pork chops,” I said. We laughed about it. But then I could remember autumn evenings eating pork chops after soccer practice. The way my mom cooked them they were sweet and moist and hot. I could remember how happy I had been to eat those pork chops. Of course I didn’t know how to cook them. It struck me that I could have found a pork chop recipe as easily as I had found a salmon recipe, but that the internet’s pork chops would not be my mother’s. “Do you think it’s a good trade?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Casserole for ginger salmon,” I said, “Or pork chops.”
“All that cream?” she asked, “Smell that.” She had started plating the salmon. It did smell good.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not the casserole so much. It’s the rest of that stuff. Casserole as—what’s the word? The one where a part represents the whole?”
“Synecdoche?” Jen asked.
“Casserole as synecdoche. For everything we haven’t learned because we could just look it up. And it’s not like school stuff. No one cares what year The Great Gatsby came out. It’s real stuff. That casserole could have come from your great-grandmother. Shouldn’t we have to know those things?” Jen didn’t look at me. She opened the oven and poked at the salmon with a fork.
“I guess. You can look at it that way. But doesn’t it just feel like we’re so much bigger,” she said. “It’s not just ginger salmon. It’s everything. We could have made anything we wanted. We could have made, like, Malaysian Tamarind Liver. And I know I can always get the recipe from my mom too.” I didn’t have a lot to say to that, so I set the table. Part of me thought the whole thing was silly, but there was another part, apparently, that loved to fold napkins and set them under forks, and loved to have made something, even if all it was—with the window partway open and the smell of salmon—was a moment. I loved that even if I lost my socks sometimes.
My friend Luke was talking. Luke was a trader for Goldman Sachs and sometimes that gave him the right. He was talking about work; it was the part of the evening when we all took turns talking about work. “So we finished the meeting, and we went out to the parking lot,” Luke was saying. He was wearing a yellow cream shirt and a navy blazer and would have seemed perfectly prepared for spring if he wasn’t so exhausted.
You had to admit the pretending was getting on pretty perfectly. The salmon had turned out great and we were just eating and drinking and talking, all very slowly, and there was this quiet sound of forks and voices, and I could imagine pretty easily how we might all have dinner once again, in twenty years or so. Our apartments would be bigger and we’d be talking about different things, but the forks would sound the same and we’d still get drunk the same.
“And the MD turned to me,” said Luke, “and said, ‘Luke, where’s the car?’” Luke was looking around theatrically, as though one of us knew where the car was and had chosen to conceal it from him. “’Where’s the car?’ I had no idea. We were in Connecticut. I was the junior guy. And even though nobody told me to I was just supposed to know to call the car. That was it. I was supposed to know. I got yelled at for an hour and a half on the way back to Manhattan. But that’s what it’s like. That’s the real world, man. That’s where these guys live,” he said. He was leaning as far back in his chair as he could.
“Everyone says it gets easier,” Jen said, “right?”
“Well, after this year someone else will be the junior guy. And I’ll get to do a little less work.”
“That won’t be as bad,” said Jen. I have to say that I loved the way Jen ate. She was always an extremely sensitive eater.
“Not as bad,” he agreed. “God knows this year’s been rough. She’s the real hero,” he said. He put his arm on Stacy. “I’m always calling her at midnight when I get off work.”
“It’s true,” she laughed, “I think my landlord thinks I’m a drug dealer. I’m always going downstairs in the middle of the night to let him in.”
Raymond liked this. Stacy was a lithe brunette who never wore makeup but was actually beautiful. She would be in bed when he called, and she would have to put on a sweatshirt when he arrived, and creep down the stairs exhaustedly to let him in. Some nights it would be good and they would be in love, but other nights, Raymond knew, she would be tired and he drunk, and they would sit together in her living room trading spiky little words, and maybe drinking, and going to bed without solving anything.
I had to admit that was more interesting than whatever we were doing. It was a lot more interesting than Luke talking about his damn job.
“Anyways,” Luke said, “I think it’s getting better already. How about you, Dev? Dev Draper? How are things in advertising?” The problem I was having is that I wasn’t so sure anymore that we were beating Raymond. It was occurring to me that it kind of depended how you counted. If you counted by happiness or wealth or any of the things we usually count by we were certainly ahead. But if you counted in other ways we just as certainly weren’t. I didn’t know what those other ways were. But I knew they were there.
I looked around. Suddenly something felt a little rotten.
“You really want to hear?”
“Of course we do,” said Stacy. “Why wouldn’t we?” She was leaning forward very prettily and gave every impression of being extremely interested.
“Doesn’t it just seem boring?” I asked.
“No,” said Luke, “not at all.”
“I’m bored with it. Look, Jen has heard about it a million times. It’s all anybody asks about.”
“Dev,” said Luke, “I spend all day staring at excel. I’m a spreadsheet slave…you write advertisements.” He looked at me like he had just made something very obvious.
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s not that that’s boring. I’m just afraid—I spent all week on this. And it didn’t make me happy when I was living it. And now I’m supposed to come home—it’s Saturday. Now I come home–and I’m supposed to talk about it, too?”
Nobody said anything, including Raymond.
“It’s just—can’t we talk about something better? This is what you talk about with people you don’t know at all. Hasn’t anyone thought about anything?”
“What do you want to talk about, Dev?” Jen asked.
I looked at her. “I don’t know.” I said. “That’s the problem. I spent all week on it. When I got home I went out with Jen. Or else I read things. On the internet. I read about the Knicks. Jeremy Lin.”
“What’s the deal with that?” Stacy asked.
“It’s not important,” I said. “In ten years he’ll be gone. And there’ll be a Wikipedia article. And it won’t have mattered that we talked about him. Any more than about work.”
Jen looked at me. She didn’t seem happy. Her expression suggested that she was trying to build a wall and look at me from the other side of it. “So what do you want, Devon?”
“I just—can we talk about something interesting? Something…something we might be glad we talked about. Not work. Not sports.”
There was another little while when no one talked. Things were suddenly a little tense and that felt better. There had been something pat, something too easy, about the way the conversation had been going before. We were a little closer to a nuthouse. One thing about a nuthouse: things are never boring.
“I read a poem,” said Stacy. “It was one of those poem every day things. That they email you. Except this time they didn’t send a poem. They sent a letter. It was a letter by a poet.” This made Raymond and I feel pretty black, but also feel pretty appropriate. We had gotten to a point where poetry was like a vitamin, or an advertisement. It was something that someone yelled at you, once, every morning. It was hard for me to imagine what Raymond thought about poetry, or what I was supposed to think.
“What was the poem?” Luke asked.
“It was a letter—well really it was just this one line from a letter—from a guy to one of his old teachers. He talked about a bunch of stuff. But what I keep thinking about was this line at the end. He said ‘I is another.’”
“You mean ‘I am another,’” said Luke. “That’s wrong.”
“No,” said Stacy, “it was on purpose. Because ‘is’ is like, how you talk about somebody else. It’s not how you talk about yourself. But when you read it you’re reading about somebody else.”
“That’s really interesting,” said Jen.
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“You’re reading about somebody you know. Who’s talking about himself. So you could say ‘you’ and he could say ‘I.’ But no one would say ‘he.’ So it like captures how far apart you are. I is. You is. How far apart everyone is.” Stacy explained it. Her voice sounded like she really believed that what she was saying meant something.
“Huh,” I said.
“I get it,” said Luke. “But I don’t know why I get it.” He had set his glass down and was looking at it instead of any of us.
“What do you mean?” Jen said.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to be any different now than I was,” said Luke. “Isn’t that what a poem is supposed to do?” he asked. “Like, what did I learn from it? What am I supposed to change now?”
“It sounds like it’s more like a koan,” said Jen. “Like it doesn’t mean anything on its own, but when you think about you have to see the world in a different way.” I could see what she meant. But this conversation wasn’t really doing it for me either. We had just exchanged one kind of bullshit for another.
“I guess you’d have to ask the poet,” said Stacy.
“Who wrote it, anyways?” I asked.
“This guy Rimbowd.”
“Rimbaud?” I said, “It’s pronounced Rimbaud.”
“Didn’t he go crazy?” asked Jen, “Didn’t he go off and smuggle guns in Africa or something?”
“Then he’d really be distant,” Luke said. He seemed to think this was the pinnacle of wit.
“Smuggle guns,” I said. “No way.”
“He definitely smuggled guns, Devon,” said Jen. “Definitely.”
“No way,” I said. “Poets don’t smuggle guns.”
“Anyone want to make a bet?” said Luke. He was getting out his cell phone.
“Christ,” I said, “The internet. What, are you gonna go on Wikipedia?” I made a loud noise.
“What’s wrong with Wikipedia?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it,” I said, “it just takes the fun out of things. Now we’ll know for sure.”
“That’s the point,” said Luke, “We’ll know.”
“Don’t you ever miss not knowing?” I asked.
Of course it turned out that I was wrong about Rimbaud, and that he actually had smuggled guns in Africa.
Luke and Stacy left without finishing the whisky, around midnight. After that it was just Jen and I. They left the bottle of whisky. It was an awkward time. We didn’t feel like going out to be around people. That would ruin something. But I also felt like staying in would ruin something. We needed the window to take us somewhere. But of course it wouldn’t. So we poured another glass of whisky and stayed in the living room.
“What was all that?” she asked.
“All what?” I asked.
“That whole ‘I don’t want to talk about work anymore’ thing.” She was standing by the window.
“It was just how I felt,” I said.
“Work is all you talk about,” she said. “All you talk about to me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I thought we were pretending.”
“Not pretending,” she said quietly.
“Not pretending.” I said. “Whatever. Being older.”
“Dev. That’s what people do,” she said, “Older people. They talk about work.”
“It’s what boring people do. I just got scared. Doesn’t it terrify you? Like—if we practice that way we’ll end up living that way. Work’ll be all we ever have to talk about.”
“I thought we were having a nice time.” She was leaning back against the wall.
“Don’t you remember when we used to be smart?”
“Devon, we’re still smart. We’re still smart.”
“Don’t you remember when that used to mean something though?”
“It still does. Jesus.”
“It just means we get paid more to be unhappy.” She didn’t say anything. “It used to be exciting.”
“I thought it was nice. You know how hard it is to get Luke away from work,” she said.
“Fuck Luke,” I said. “These are actually our lives. Do you really want another twenty years of–of getting drunk and talking about work?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s better than twenty years of fighting over what we’re allowed to talk about. Because somebody’s afraid we’ll be boring.” She set her glass of whisky down. “I’m going to bed.”
Then she sat up and went into the bathroom. It was difficult for me to move. After a while I figured that we had just had a fight. Then I figured that this was kind of a stupid thing for us to fight about. It hadn’t been so bad listening to everyone talk about work. Even now we were beating Raymond. We hadn’t fought about anything real. We were doing pretty well. We had folded the napkins and made ginger salmon. We were young and we were making money and we didn’t have anything better to fight about than whether one day we might be boring, and whether we should do anything about that now.
But then it also seemed like it might be a problem that we didn’t have anything to fight about. And that was why we didn’t have anything to talk about. And it seemed that no one else did either. Everyone we knew was just like us. They had grown up in ____________________ and gone to college at _____________ and now they worked at __________________ and that, more or less, was it. We all had one story to tell about how we got between the first two blanks and another story to tell about how we got between the second. That was it. And they were such short stories. It seemed like it was hard for such a short story to mean very much, especially when it was the same as all the other stories.
I could hear Jen in the shower. She had left her glass of whisky on the table. The ice was melting; in the morning there would be a ring on the table. The glass was half-full now with melted ice and a little whisky. It made me feel a certain way.
Corley Miller is a writer living, shockingly, in Brooklyn. He’s a former high school math teacher and now works for a startup. He’s currently selling his first novel, and blogs infrequently at amcorley.wordpress.com. This is his first published fiction.