Illustrations by Anthony Cudahy
Below is a new story by Tao Lin. Our 2007 Fiction Issue included Tao’s “Shoplifting From American Apparel,” which he later expanded into a novella. Things have gone all sorts of ways for him since then, but we think his future is very bright and are certain that all of us will be hearing various things from and about him for years to come. Those familiar with the author will most likely vehemently hate or thoroughly enjoy this selection, which is the appropriate divide for the kind of fiction we will be publishing in VICE, every month from here on out. Each story will be paired with photography, paintings, drawings, and other works of art, such as the following illustrations by Anthony Cudahy. Now brew a nice pot of tea, draw the shades, turn off your phone, and enjoy a few moments of silence while enjoying the archaic yet splendid activity known as “reading literature.”
One night in March, entering a café grinning uncontrollably, as he almost always did at this point in a new relationship—two weeks after kissing—Paul somehow didn’t expect Michelle to enlarge in his vision as he approached where she stood (idly looking down at a flyer, one leg bent) and felt a comical, bewildering fear as she rapidly and somewhat ominously increased in size. This amusingly foreboding manner of experience, equally calming and surprising, characterized most of their first two months together. It seemed they would never quarrel, and in the structural innovation of that (a relationship without complaint was a new concept to Paul) the nothingness—and bleakness—of the future gained a framework-y somethingness that felt privately exciting, like entering a different family’s house as a small child.
At some point Paul began to feel bad when apart from Michelle. In May, on a night when she was out with friends, he cried a little (forcing it, to some degree, though honestly feeling neglected) on his bed in Brooklyn as his MacBook quietly emanated one of her favorite songs. A few weeks later, in his room after they cooked and ate pasta, he meekly—without looking at her face—complained that she never helped wash dishes. She stared silently at him for some time before her eyes became watery, the extra layer of translucence materializing like a shedding of something delicate, and Paul stared back, weirdly entranced then suddenly dizzy with emotion. It was the first time he’d seen her cry. He crawled to where she sat on the wood floor, hugged her, apologized.
By July Paul most days was either visibly irritated or mutely, inscrutably despondent—as if he alone had a vast knowledge of horrible truths, which he knew he didn’t—but was still able to feel good after coffee, beer, or various prescription drugs. He liked what he half-projected as Michelle’s view of drugs—that tolerance made them unsustainable as an unstaggered lifestyle, but that the word sustainable seemed suspiciously meaningless in a context of impermanence. They were somewhat reliant, at this point, on their occasional drug use (by August it was usually the future event they focused on most) to mutually enjoy each other’s company, and had recently been ingesting methadone, supplied by Michelle’s friend who had fallen down stairs, once or twice a week to sedately enter and exit stores for a few hours and see movies with budgets exceeding $80 million or below $2 million before eating expensively garnished salads or giant steaks in darkly lit organic restaurants and retiring to Paul’s room to hold each other in darkness, allowing the simple insistence of the drugs, like a long chord progression, to abstract them into something nucleus-like—satisfying and directionless as a final, apolitical achievement. Ten to 14 hours later they would wake—in the early evening or late afternoon, the light outside a science-fiction-y red.
“Hurry, we need to hurry,” said Paul, mock-urgent, one of these nights, in Sunshine Cinema’s basement theater, sensing Michelle somewhere behind him as he moved unstably forward. Seated, near the front, he slid a hand nonsexually between her thighs and discerned the movie with a wantless, proliferating fondness, like a dye underwater.
“Brunch,” he said in bed a few hours later. “Cornbread.”
“Yeah,” said Michelle in a sexy voice and undulated her backside against the front of Paul as he said “Guacamole,” a bit loudly, as if ordering it, and tried to remember what movie they saw, remembering instead their plans to visit his parents in December. “I’m excited to be in Taiwan,” he murmured. “It’ll be warm there then, I think.”
Two days later he exited the library after looking at the internet for three hours with his next novel open in one of the ten-plus windows that had accumulated on the screen, almost surreally unmanageable, and walked across the street to Washington Square Park to meet Michelle after her last class of the day. They hugged for what seemed like a very long time, as if grieving, and walked east without a short-term goal or holding hands, operating within the assumption that they would, at some point—after 60 to 90 minutes of going into one bookstore, two grocery stores, maybe three restaurants—eat dinner somewhere. After a few blocks of silence Paul said something about Michelle’s slow response times, earlier that day, to his text messages. Michelle said she had been with Genie and didn’t hear her phone vibrate. Ahead was a sushi restaurant Paul ate sweet-potato sushi from one night in college, six or seven years ago, friendless and bored; as they passed, Michelle asked Paul if he was upset. “Yes,” said Paul with a sensation of non sequitur and stopped walking, at an intersection—“literally,” he thought, feeling only a little self-conscious, and stared across the street with a grim expression. Michelle observed him with something like mild, bored concern and, in the ensuing discussion about text messages, said “Sorry” three times. Paul was aware of a small dog near his legs as he said “It’s just inconsiderate” and gazed far into the distance—at a brick wall, maybe 50 feet away—continuously thinking “I hate myself,” as if holding down a button for “I hate myself,” and said he was going to the library.
“Jesus,” said Michelle. “You’re going to the library?”
“Yeah,” said Paul, somewhat uncertainly.
“You’re going to the library,” said Michelle.
Paul stared at her blankly, with some nervousness. Sometimes during an argument he would suddenly grin fully—feeling like he had previously been acting in a movie, for money, and the scene was now over—causing Michelle to grin, implying between them an agreement that life is fleeting and one can “simply” choose how to feel, within which they would be able to resume doing things together, but that didn’t happen now.