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The Swings

My friend Michael wants to know what I think of his novel. The first chapter—the first of twelve planned, according to the index cards pinned to clotheslines that cover the ceiling of his apartment, is one hundred fifty-seven singlespaced ten-point Times New Roman pages that describe relations between a man referred to as Captain and a woman known as Isabella, the wife of a Austrian blunderbuss dealer. When we first meet her she is disguised as the Austrian's teenaged son, but after seeing her husband/father keelhauled, and threatened with keelhauling herself, she unbinds her bosom and explains that she was, until she posed as a woman of good family in order to marry, a whore wise to pirates, and now she wishes only to survive the voyage and be returned to Europe. At this Captain drags her off to quarters, exiles his catamite Esquimaux cabinboy to the galley, and proceeds to 92 pages of vileness until on page 156 a passing French galleon launches a cannonade into the poop. The narrator is a stowaway African gray parrot native to London.

“I read it at work,” said Enola, also a victim of the novel. She was speaking to me over the kitchen table at Scott Rahin's apartment. She shook her head and laughed with glinting fillings. (As with intense thunderstorms and passing sharks you are glad to have experienced that laugh but even more glad when it's over.)

Enola manages accounts at a public relations firm that represents corporate law firms. When I met her eight years ago she had just left her boyfriend and, believing herself to have successfully navigated past the sirens of her own fertility, was transitioning from a life of waitressing, amateur ceramics, and activism into button-blouse dayjob singlehood, flirting with sturdy, masculine coworkers who rented jetskis on the weekends. But now her white-collar reinvention is a leg chain made of rent money and health care, she hates the people with whom she works, and her body has changed her mind so she is desperately rowing back to the sirens' rocks before the last egg drops. She dates with fury but the stink is on her now. In the last three years she has sketched over 2,000 portraits of girls on swings as part of an undefined project. I have nothing but sympathy and she's sick of it. She calls me “Mr. Fuck.”

Which is fair. She tells me I'm a horrible ugly person, okay, and that my kind has ruined everything, fine. She mocks my shirts. I'm used to all of this. Then she says: “remember when you got drunk on my couch and tried to touch my neck?” And I sigh. Six years ago she asked me in for a drink after we'd been to a movie and I moved in for a kiss, and she laughed at me. Now that I'm married she likes to bring it up unless my wife is near.

(“As for Enola,” Scott recently said to me, “she just can't find anyone desperate enough to spelunk himself into her gaping brood pouch. And the only reason she wants to get knocked up is in order to grow a man dumb enough to love her.”)

It shouldn't bother me but it does. Not the rejection. That was hardly painful in retrospect. It's that when she goes down this conversational route I wonder if she feels that my basic contentedness somehow cheats her out of her due. That because she rejected me unkindly, years ago, she had established that her own existence was run along superior principles. Three months after the neck-touching she broke the silence to call and tell me that she was dating a famous and rich artist. Ah, I said, great. “It's so surprising to be this happy,” she said.

The famous artist worked exclusively in leaves, and so of course he left her. She didn't call to tell me that at the time, though. And now seven years later I realized that thinking along those lines was giving my role too much due. We were just passing the time with half-assed, comfortable cruelty. Normally fine but I thought of those 2,000 sketches of swinging girls—some smiling, some forlorn, some with trees behind them—and hugged Scott and kissed Enola on her cheek and put on my coat. “Don't let me scare you away,” she said; she had, but not in the way she would hope to. As I closed the door I said, “I just have something better to do,” which got of her a half-laugh mixed with the sound of the latch.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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