Plausible DeniabilityBy Caitlin Forst
June 23, 2020
He asked me if I made it home okay in such a caring, fatherly tone I got turned on. We met in a writing workshop. He critiqued one of my stories by saying, “You’re very good at individuating based on the desires of other people.” The night before, we got drunk together at a bar near a reading with a thrown together group of acquaintances, and now he was closing in on me in the corner kitchen of another reading inside someone’s Bushwick apartment. I told him, “Yeah, I got home fine” and not “I spent two hours walking around Brooklyn near-blackout last night alone, took blurry pictures of buildings on my phone, and then masturbated about you until I fell asleep at 6AM.” I noticed him staring at me as I walked back to my seat to watch the rest of the reading. When I left he texted me, Where did you go? I couldn’t believe it.
I read Paradise by Donald Barthelme as an excuse to text him. Then I bought the Harold Brodkey book of short stories he recommended right after. The first edition hardcover with a ripped jacket was $7 at The Strand.
I’m a sucker for ‘Innocence.’ I read it as a kind of metaphor for the reader/writer relationship, he texted me.
I read the story immediately. It is explicit sex for 30 pages. It is hot. I overlooked the narrator’s misogyny and the laughably written female dialogue because I loved the weirdness of the prose. There are times the oral sex pushes past the point of consent. He wants to give his girlfriend her first orgasm and she’s afraid to have it. Right before she comes he says she’s Good.
We started texting daily. I became too interested in Greg to reverse my affection back to the man with whom I still shared an apartment. I googled his full name and listened to him interview “one of the world’s foremost literary theorists” on a podcast he hosted in college. At the end they talk about bypassing castration fear by way of sadomasochistic perversion.
I typed into the notes app on my phone: I guess jouissance is on the side of transgression???
During this period, whenever I sat down to write a story, knowing he wanted to read it, I became horny to the point of total derailment. I rubbed the backend of the pen against my clit. I forgot where I was in my own world.
I thought, I have to get rid of my self-critical impulses, my overactive libido, and just write the thing For Him–my imagined reader whose characteristic function is to make fun of the illusion of the role itself.
He said he’d been thinking about my feedback on the first draft of his novel all day.
It was almost Christmas. I walked back from the subway to my apartment as I read his text: Would you be able to talk more about that? Cool if you can’t.
My boyfriend, Colter, was asleep on the couch. Honesty was our usual method for handling my half-decade of asshole girlfriend behavior. But this time I didn’t wake him up to tell him what was happening to me and what was probably going to happen to us.
I wanted any reason to continue to talk to Greg. I typed out what I hoped would amount to useful feedback, deleted entire paragraphs I decided were too long or effusive and then switched from my phone to my laptop to stop myself from flooding him with text messages. I hoped in email format I would come off as perceptive instead of frenzied, horny, and deranged. My final self-edit was a paragraph long.
I feel more rejected by your novel every time I think about it. My attempts to understand it are basically jokes to the writer. Anti-intimacy. I want to be fully ruined by the sincerity the humor is meant to deflect. I love your book, even though it pisses me off.
He sent me a reply eleven minutes later.
I just feel happy you like reading my stuff. You’re one of the smartest and most intense readers I know. I want to think of the book as pro-wanting intimacy. It’s just that the systems that create intimacy (language/family) always also create a feeling of being trapped and then there’s the resentment that comes with that.
By the next day I hadn’t replied to his email. He sent me a text about how great it is that my writing simulates disclosure when in reality my stories always have a “bracing withholding.”
I repeated his note on my writing out loud to a friend. “What the fuck does that mean?”
A full night went by of me reading for hours about Lacan. I sat in the upstairs area of a vegan cafe in Union Square and typed out a long message to him about hysterical discourse and the master signifier and about how all this scholarship online read, basically, like a transcript of my own thought process since we started talking.
I couldn’t find the confidence to look at his full response after I got the notification on my phone. I couldn’t deal with the reality of him not understanding me.
Underground, later, in the subway he texted me a second time, even though his first text was still unanswered. He said if it was easier to explain in person, he was going to be “in the neighborhood” later to pick up a book from Topos. Would I like to meet him for a drink?
I arrived on bike at a bar in Queens called Paradise Lounge twenty minutes late. I wore tight black jeans. He closed a poetry book by Kenneth Koch the second he saw me and told me any wine I ordered could go on his tab.
“I write about family. You don’t write about family at all. You write about relationships.”
I thought, No, I write about sex and death.
But I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “Yeah, I guess there’s some resistance there.”
I told him I left my family’s house when I was 21 to move to California. I never went to college.
“I liked it there. Ash fell out of the sky. It felt like living at the edge of the earth.”
“Edge of the earth?”
Hearing him repeat this confirmed to me that I sounded like a dumbass. But he still looked red-faced with something other than embarrassment. I did too.
He asked me to tell him a story about going to a museum with my friends. All I could think of was a fantasy of going to a museum alone, something I’ve never done, how that would be superior probably.
“Is it because you wouldn’t have to worry about what the other person thought of the art?”
I said yes and his eyes steadied for a few seconds on mine. I pretended this was a look of someone beginning to know me.
He said my favorite writer is his girlfriend’s favorite writer. Seconds after I explained how my boyfriend refuses to watch pretentious movies with me, he talked about how he likes to watch pretentious movies with his girlfriend.
I asked him if we should “keep drinking” and he stared down at me like an attentive father and said, “Let’s do one more.” It felt so responsible, so decisive, so me deferring to his judgement, which was meant to benefit and protect me.
When he returned to the booth, I was drunk enough to say, “I took your comment in workshop as a comment on my sexual identity.”
He said, “I only meant it to be a comment on a running theme in your stories–the Lacanian way your characters interact with each other. And I never wanted my novel to make you feel mocked or rejected. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t look him in the eye or make sense of the truth as I observed it the night before. I told him what happened was like reader/writer transference. I used the word erotic. I said I saw a desire after symbolization. I tried to explain, but as easy it was for me to say the word “hysteric,” I could never force out the word “master.”
“I’m not 100% sure what you mean,” he said.
I told him he’s didactic, but he isn’t pedantic, and he said, “That’s the thing.”
I said, “I should go now” when I finished the third glass of wine. He frowned hard at my empty glass. I offered again, but he wouldn’t let me pay him back.
“It’s funny this place is called Paradise,” I said.
“Oh. I just picked it, because it was a bar only a few blocks—”
“You don’t think it’s funny?”
“I do.” The expression he made in response to this–barely bound back dark laughter–made me want to take off my clothes for him right there.
I rubbed his arm goodbye.
We texted the entire time we were apart over Christmas. I thought our conversations were helping me better understand myself. He was an ironist who saw what was funny before I could, and he made me laugh with him.
I could tell he wanted me to become the well-known female writer he compared me to by name. I could tell he wanted me to write about him.
We never discussed sex over text. I didn’t send him pictures of my body.
One of his texts concerning aphorisms I often reread while I touched myself.
Conclusions are cool when they break the spell of argument (like in Freud or Lacan) but you need that slow style, that accumulation, to get you into a place where you’re susceptible to the big reveal of the Rule.
I wanted the slow accumulation of his actual touch and I wanted the reveal of the Rule to be my orgasm.
I agreed with him, about theory being a container for feeling, for my own reasons.
He asked if I wanted to get a drink the night of New Year’s Day.
But wasn’t paradise just wanting it? Did I want him to actually grab my thigh, graze my clit with his thumb beneath my dress, ask me to come home with him, open my mouth for him, be spanked by him, be fucked without the need or expectation of dissociative absence, stay there with him in me?
Yes definitely 🙂
This time it felt like a definitive date.
I gave him a book by BR Yeager and he gave me a book by Paul de Man. I drank a beer called BrewDog and he drank sherry.
After a few hours of talking he said, “What we’ve been texting about is intimate.”
I couldn’t gather the nerve to look up from the table.
“I’m sorry that I’ve eroticized so much of what we talked about,” I said.
“No, it’s completely okay. I live right around the corner from here. Do you want to come back to my apartment and watch Stardust Memories?”
I was immediately turned on by his offer and I said yes. I went to the bathroom before we left the bar and stared at the tile of the floor, the stickers covering the mirror. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Then I followed him on the clean emptied streets of Williamsburg to his two-bedroom apartment. His girlfriend, he told me, was spending the rest of the week with her family in New Mexico.
He put the movie on his crooked projector after he showed me the bell he bought from Philip Roth’s estate sale. He was insistent I ring the bell.
Then, through a few minutes of telegraphed gestures between us of acceptance and encouragement, I was sitting in his lap.
He held my hand to his chest. “You make me crazy. I was with my girlfriend and her family and all I could think about was you.”
We made out a lot. It was awkward only for the first minute or so and then it remained intense and passionate.
He told me to keep my dress and my tights on.
He said what was happening between us was “real” and “rare.”
With his knee propping me above him, he slapped my ass for the first time.
I met him the next night in Bryant Park. He bought me a $30 Rilke hardcover and sat stoic with guilt across from me on the bench and then on the train.
He was so avoidant and dispassionate in public that I transferred to the L train without saying goodbye. He texted me, “I feel I’ve in some way upset you, which I don’t want to do.”
He wanted to see me the next day so we held hands over glasses of the unfortified version of sherry at a daytime wine bar. He gave me a used Philip Roth book he bought for $7 and handed me a folded up print out of a Barthelme story he said was difficult to find.
At home, I read the printout of the story and found a line in the middle of the story underlined in blue pen: I remind myself to tell you that you are abnormally intelligent.
We hung out on Sunday night at another bar. I confessed my anxiety about him eventually finding our conversations boring.
“Caitlin, we both wear glasses. It’ll be okay.”
We walked together afterward to take the subway to Botanica. He said, “At this next bar, we’re not going to make out. We’re just going to get drinks and talk.”
So I had to say, “Sorry sorry yeah of course” while feeling like a complete dick.
But by the time we were in the dark booth, I got tired of being turned down by him. “I’m not going to try to kiss you again.”
He looked vulnerable. He leaned close to my ear and whispered, “Well, there are those men over there reenacting a scene from Star Wars and then in the other corner there’s a German tourist couple…I think we’re okay.” Then he kissed me.
I told him about a writer I’d read and idolized since I was a teenager inviting me to this bar after a reading recently but how I didn’t care.
“Caitlin, how is that going?”
“The performance of not caring?”
This is when I fucked up. I couldn’t help it. He said, “I fantasize about doing boring domestic stuff with you.” And I told him, “I am in love with you” and it’s not as if I thought he’d say it back. He smiled with his entire face for the rest of the time we were together, which included a walk to the curb to get in a cab and the cab ride itself. We made out the whole time.
I texted him the next day that it was difficult for me to not give him sexual pleasure because I think I could be pretty good at it.
And he said I’d be “so so good” and that every day we don’t see each other he looks forward to being alone so he can stroke his cock and think about putting his hands all over me.
We met again at a coffee shop near the restaurant where I worked. I told him if we were going to hang out again so soon we had to leave the coffee shop immediately. “Colter keeps asking to spend more time with me.”
We walked for a few seconds before he stopped us in the middle of the street.
“Hi,” he said, and he kissed me while we were observable in every direction by fast-moving traffic and slow-moving pedestrians.
We broke up with our partners on the same day, but it was weeks before his ex-girlfriend moved out the entirety of her things from his apartment. In his hamper, gathering his clothes to do his laundry, I found cotton underwear stained with her period blood.
We lay together on their old mattress after midnight. I wanted to know.
“Did you like your ex’s writing?”
“She improved a lot since we met,” he said.
“I can’t wait for you to say that about me.”
He laughed for a long time at that.
My world contracted to the size of his bed most nights of the week. We never slept together at the new sublet I moved into after leaving Colter.
Greg told me about a blowjob I gave him I couldn’t remember.
It was the next morning. He had a white towel around his waist, terrified I’d mislabel it rape.
I told him, “I’m okay with giving blackout drunk blowjobs to my boyfriend.”
He laid out fifteen pages on the bed and showed me a story he wrote from my perspective. I read it all the way through, and then said, “This is clearly about me.”
“No,” he said, “it’s about authenticity.”
I told him he was my favorite writer because it had been the truth since the first time I read his writing. “No one has done what you’re doing yet.”
The playlist he made for me shifted from a Prince song to a Cocteau Twins song. We started talking about lyrics. I said, “I mean, aren’t all lyrics supposed to be meaningless?” and he wrapped his arms around my waist, put his head in my lap, and said he loved me over and over and over again.
We fucked that night, after days of me begging him to be rougher with me, even though it went against his experience.
I started to tell him how it hurt, and he reminded me what I said before.
“Will you do anything for me?”
“Yes, I’ll do anything for you. Yes.”
His gratification over my pain, or the simulation of it, was what I needed in order to come.
The day we broke up I was talking about how aphorisms are dumb and vain unless they express a desire. He wasn’t responding other than to look up occasionally from the book he was reading. I could see the distance and the untested emotion in his face.
I didn’t know if my instincts were protective anymore. I brought up leaving to go back to my sublet, even though I knew the pandemic meant leaving once was the same as leaving permanently.
“You don’t want to see me for months and months?”
He said, “It’s not about ‘want.’”
“I don’t think you take our relationship seriously. I don’t think you care about me.”
He cried for five full minutes.
“Please don’t say I don’t care about you. I care about you so much.”
Two days after I left, he told me through a screen, I need to be alone for a very long time.
I tried not to remember his hand reaching for my lap and his fingers kneading me through my jeans while I drove my furniture from my ex-boyfriend’s apartment to the sublet I moved to in order to be with him.
“I really liked doing that with you. That turned me on,” he said. He meant the process of taking apart a bedframe for me and helping me move for the majority of a rainy day.
He looked over at me across the passenger seat. “Do you want me to stop?”
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