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The Conflict Minerals... Issue

Relationship Story

One night in March, entering a café grinning uncontrollably, as he almost always did at this point in a new relationship...
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.


"Relationship problems," said Paul in the library on Gmail Chat to Kyle, the only friend he retained after meeting Michelle (he viewed friends as means to girlfriends, contrary to Michelle who valued friends as ends; they'd discussed this and concluded, to some degree, that Paul had his writing, Michelle her friends).

"Maybe you need to spend less time together," said Kyle. "I feel lonely when she hangs out with other people." "Seems bad you feel lonely if she's busy. You should feel OK. Well, there is nothing you 'should' feel." Paul stared at what Kyle had typed with a not entirely sarcastic fear. "It's just something I read from Rilke," said Kyle. "Seems like I automatically would do the opposite of Rilke," said Paul while thinking "General Tso's chicken" with a vague longing and a bleakly sarcastic etymological interest. "Then I think you are OK," said Kyle. "I don't know. Seems like we won't talk again tonight." They didn't, but the next day Paul text-messaged her and they ate dinner together and drank beer and watched a movie, not arguing again until late the next night. In August they visited Michelle's separated parents in Pittsburgh. Michelle's father gave Paul his 650-page, self-published memoir. Her mother brought Michelle and Paul to a Chinese restaurant that was one gigantic room, high-ceilinged and low-lit as a natural-history museum. The next night Paul had a fever and Michelle gave him Tylenol Flu and cream-of-broccoli soup and, on her L-shaped sofa, holding each other, they watched a movie about a blind woman hanged for murdering a man who raped her after stealing her life savings. Michelle, who was staying home a few more days, dropped Paul off at the airport the next morning and he stood in line feeling both zombielike and feathery, like he might unidirectionally collapse, for about 30 minutes before learning that his flight was canceled. He called Michelle and she returned and he crawled into the backseat hazily imagining a heavily medicated version of himself holding hands in IKEA with an affectionate Michelle who was watching him sip an interesting, miso-y broth. "Can we go to IKEA?" he said, on his back, eyes closed. "You want to go to IKEA," said Michelle. "Yes, can we go to IKEA?" "OK," said Michelle after a few seconds. "Did we pass IKEA?" said Paul, waking, sitting a little. "I missed the exit. I asked you what I should do. You didn't respond." "I was asleep." "Do you still want to go?" "Why wouldn't I want to go? I asked… and you said OK." "It seemed hard to get back to the exit. I wasn't sure if you wanted to go home to lie in bed. That's why I asked. But you didn't respond." "I was asleep," said Paul in a monotone. "Do you want me to turn around?" "Just do what you think is right," said Paul after a few seconds and closed his eyes. He woke to the car parking. He walked unsteadily toward IKEA, about 15 feet behind a faster-paced Michelle, and said, "I feel really bad toward you right now." Michelle said she felt the same about him and Paul said he "couldn't believe" she felt bad toward him. "We agreed to go to IKEA, then you put me in a position… like I'm in fifth-grade," he said, vaguely confused. "Why do you feel bad toward me?" he said. "Because you're acting like a child. Don't yell at me." "You put me in this position… like I did something wrong, when I'm really sick. I don't want to be treated like this. We're not in a relationship anymore," said Paul and entered the car's backseat while realizing they'd turned back at some point. In a strange voice with undertones of curiosity and resentment he asked Michelle if she could drive him to the airport, feeling distantly like he was in a taxicab. "I'm taking a walk," she said, crying, and left the car. After staring through the windshield for a few minutes—there was a median of grass, a street—Paul remembered how as a small child he would lie alone in backseats while his mother bought groceries and that, once, he had felt afraid when, sitting in a full bathtub, he couldn't see its bottom. Michelle entered the car, not crying anymore. "Can you drive me to your house?" said Paul. "I'll take a cab in the morning." At her house, on one side of the L-shaped sofa, he grinned—something in him previously dead now resurrected, bemused, moving around and touching things—at Michelle on the other side. Her expression seemed intentionally obscure. Paul said he wanted to be in a relationship and didn't mean what he'd said before, then crawled to Michelle and hugged her and, with a feeling of secrecy, grinned with his head beyond the back of her head.

On the plane back to New York City Paul lay facedown—forehead on forearm, like he'd done in high school—on his dining tray for about 15 minutes, "hating himself," then drank a small cup of coffee and read some of Michelle's father's memoir: sexual frustrations with Michelle's mother, something about his failing law firm, five years of "transcendent sex" with his new wife. In Paul's previous relationships he experienced dissatisfaction as an empirically backed enthusiasm for the future, in that it implied the possibility of a more satisfying relationship with some as yet unknown person in forthcoming months or years. With Michelle, whom he felt closer to than his previous girlfriends (he'd told her this a few times, truthfully), he reasoned that if he was unhappy there was something deeply—genetically, maybe—wrong with him. Over the next few weeks they each ended the relationship once (Michelle calmly saying one night that maybe they should just be friends; Paul stoically agreeing, feeling a bit sarcastic; Michelle a few hours later emailing that she didn't know why she'd said that; Paul a few days later, with indirect language, causing around ten days of intermittent contact) and were now more firmly together, though perhaps also more crudely, like a refrigerator magnet that keeps falling off until, at some point, you rip off the magnetized piece of metal and tape it on. In early October, for about a week, Paul felt bad in a complexly layered, intellectually formidable manner that, because of its inability to be sourced, articulated, or even discerned seemed like it could be blocked out completely—as a legitimate solution—through willpower or some honed form of apathy that might develop if he was a different person, which, he knew, he was not. His thought processes took on a non sequitur quality that made it difficult to be certain what he was thinking about. Michelle began to spend some nights alone, in her dorm by Union Square, talking to her friends from Pittsburgh. One night she said it seemed like Paul "hated" her and Paul was quiet a few seconds before citing a recent night when he was nice. Michelle said he was on drugs that night. Paul grinned and illogically said "No." Another night Paul complained that he always offered Michelle food or drink before eating or drinking something himself, then—after she said she'd be happy to do that, now that she knew it mattered to him so much—said it didn't matter to him and that she shouldn't change her behavior. One afternoon Michelle emailed that she might study abroad in Berlin from February to May; that night, outside Whole Foods, where they'd met to see a movie, Paul said he didn't know if he wanted to be in a relationship with someone whose level of commitment allowed them to consider being apart four months. Michelle said she was in a different time of her life. "Maybe I shouldn't," she said, earnestly pensive, in bed, and was quiet, then said, "Where do you see us in five years?" "Ideally, together, I think," said Paul after some time. A few days later, in a candlelit restaurant, waiting to be seated, Michelle said she'd decided not to study abroad, but wanted to visit Genie in Italy over Christmas or New Year's. Paul stared at the tiny trophy on Michelle's metal belt buckle and said he felt a little disappointed that she wanted to spend a holiday away from him. Michelle said she could visit Genie after New Year's, then—that she also wanted to be together on holidays. After ingesting methadone and Xanax and quietly sharing three appetizers Paul said in a placid voice that if Michelle wanted to spend a holiday with Genie then he encouraged her to do that. The only way he wanted to influence her to stay, he said (aware, with some amusement, that the drugs were making him much more rational and articulate, as if he had somehow traveled to and was speaking from the future as part of a panel of logicians and relationship counselors), was by being nicer to her, resulting in her naturally wanting to stay. He'd said this before, he knew, mostly as a reminder to himself and Michelle—and two previous girlfriends and, for a few months, his mother—that complaining was not his ideal behavior. "I want to spend New Year's with Genie," said Michelle, and Paul sincerely encouraged her to do so, and she moved to his side of the table. They hugged tightly and then fed each other little spoonfuls of the shadowy insides of a slice of pumpkin pie, soft and colorless as a baby food. One of them mentioned plane tickets to Taiwan, that they hadn't bought them yet, and Michelle said they should tomorrow and Paul said "Yeah" while aware, seemingly without interest—as if he wouldn't be alive tomorrow—that he wouldn't feel like doing it tomorrow, when he wouldn't be on drugs, though maybe he could force himself to if Michelle initiated. She didn't, but for some reason the next few weeks were calmer—there was less quarreling and then only in a low-level manner, something slightly motherly emerging in both of them. Paul began to feel philosophical in situations where he previously might have felt agitated—or maybe at this point he was unable to discern his relative calmness as simply a lack of irrational thought but actually something transcendental—and seemed to experience most phenomena with a once-removed disbelief, which manifested most days as a midlevel inattention, both outward and inward. He mostly focused on remaining calm, which somehow seemed more—not less—difficult with each successful day of not complaining. One night at a restaurant he returned from the bathroom and stood above a seated Michelle and felt almost scarily alone as she slowly opened a bottle of coconut water and drank from it, not acknowledging him as he stared at her face, which was exemplifying the offensively stupid expression of a person unself-consciously alone in a public area. She seemed to notice him, glaring at her, probably, and asked if he wanted some coconut water. "No," he said, concurrently resenting her and remembering having said it didn't matter if she offered him things first or not. Over the next few minutes the memory wandered feyly away, not indicating where it was going, disappearing in a sort of half-life, as the resentment increased in presence, against logic and willpower. Outside, walking to a magazine-release party in Chelsea, Paul felt resigned to not speaking. They were out of drugs and unmotivated to get more. It was raining a little. Paul felt more like he was "moving through the universe" than "walking on the sidewalk," a sensation that might normally console or excite him but currently made him feel, if anything, schizophrenic. He stared ahead with a masklike expression, occasionally feeling cold, and weakly tried to remember where he was last November. "Are you OK?" said Michelle after a few blocks. "Yes," said Paul without thinking. Near the gallery, after eight blocks of not speaking, he glanced at Michelle and saw her grinning and began to grin uncontrollably while feeling "horrible." He looked away and suppressed his grin and said "What" in a monotone. There was a belief in him, somewhere—distant and minuscule but detectable by its shrinking movement—that Michelle liked him enough to be able to endure this and finally overpower his negativity, which perhaps was always the hope, throughout everything. "Nothing," said Michelle. "What are you grinning at?" "Nothing. Just, life. The situation." There was someone at the party Paul had said vaguely negative things about a few years ago, on the internet, and so when he and Michelle entered he quickly walked to David, an acquaintance who was easy to talk to, and engaged him in conversation about movies they'd recently seen. Michelle peripherally moved away and then returned, smiling a little, to ask Paul if he wanted alcohol. Paul said he would like a beer and she brought him one and then moved away in a circular, animal-like, nearly "loping" manner, which Paul stared at while thinking "Seems like she wants to be alone, or let me be alone" with some confusion. About an hour later they were holding their third or fourth drinks, sitting in chairs in a corner, facing 40 to 60 people who seemed like one large group of friends. Dancey electronic music was playing loudly. Paul stared at a woman's red boots, then a man's thick-rimmed glasses, then moved his chair close to Michelle's and with unclear purpose touched her shoulder, tentative and reckless as a two-year-old petting a large animal that was looking elsewhere. Michelle's depressed expression seemed both affected and unaffected, the willed and natural overlapping in a hallucinatory bleakness. Paul asked if she wanted to eat dinner somewhere and she asked if he did and he said, "I don't know." One night, months ago, they'd sat on a curb on Lafayette Street to continue an argument in a resting position and Paul had felt distracted by how pretty she was and began to forget the argument, even while saying things agitatedly, as he became fixated, with increasing gratitude, on how she liked him enough to not simply leave and never speak to him again. "I'm going to go introduce Kyle to someone," said Paul. "I'll be back in, like, five minutes." Kyle was standing alone in a dense area of people, as if at a concert, and seemed drunk. "Do you want to meet Kristen?" said Paul about someone he had described as "her blog gets a lot of hits" and Kyle had described as "really hot." Kyle said he did and, after chugging another beer, walked with Paul to the hallway outside the gallery. Five people shook hands in various combinations as Paul, grinning nervously, stared at one person, then another, then noticed Michelle sitting alone, against a wall in the distance, and walked toward her—the front of his head feeling suddenly foreign as a plastic bag, stuck there in a wind—aware that she'd maybe seen him grinning at an attractive girl. "Do you want to go now?" he said, looking down at her. "You can talk to Kyle more if you want," said Michelle. "I don't want to," said Paul, looking toward the gallery. The possibility he'd felt earlier, that Michelle might successful console him, now seemed insane. "Are you sure?" said Michelle, not standing. "I'm going to say bye to him, I'll be right back," said Paul and walked robotically through the crowd, thinking "Lost in the world…" in a precariously near-earnest tone, and stood by Kyle and said, "I think Michelle feels like I'm not giving her enough attention." "That's funny," said Kyle after a few seconds. "Because Gabby, after one of our parties, said you gave Michelle so much attention and were always next to her talking to her, and that I'm always talking to someone else, and that I don't love her." "Damn," said Paul. "What did you say?" "That I love her and give her attention," said Kyle loudly and Paul noticed that someone, Gabby, was introducing him to a Vietnamese girl and the girl's boyfriend—also named Kyle—who was holding two unopened beers in one hand. Paul distractedly intuited that life was troubling and weird, like someone else's irrational behavior expanded into an entire universe that contained, then, its own people. "I'm going to leave now," Paul said and waved vaguely while turning and mumbling "Bye." He didn't see Michelle when he walked into the hallway, then saw her sitting on the floor more than 50 feet away, stereoscopic and crouched as a rare animal, not apparently doing anything. He walked there, feeling affected by the vulnerability of the situation, and asked why she was so far away. "I'm waiting for you," said Michelle. "You said you wanted to leave an hour ago."

She quickly walked ahead on the sidewalk, hands in her jacket pockets as if to better escape Paul with a more streamlined form, though it was also still raining and they had no umbrella. "What do you want to do now?" said Paul. "I don't know," said Michelle. "I'm not hungry anymore." They crossed Tenth Avenue in a diagonal, not at an intersection—through headlights of a parked taxi—onto the opposite sidewalk, and continued downtown, crossing 22nd Street, bodies bent forward. "Can we stop walking for a minute?" said Paul. They stopped walking and stood on the sidewalk, both facing forward. "What's wrong?" said Paul, after a few seconds, slightly accusatorily. "You've been ignoring me all night," said Michelle. "I moved close to you and hugged you, when we were sitting." "Once we got inside you walked away and started talking to other people." "I saw you walking away from me," said Paul. "I felt confused." A deli worker stood under an awning looking into some unspecific distance, honestly uninterested. "I've never felt you act this way before," said Michelle, unsteadily, looking down; something in her previously assured, or at least focused, was now tired and scared, the protest of it having dispersed to something negotiable or seizable. They stood not looking at each other as the rain fell on them in an idle, general insistence of somethingness. Paul felt himself trying to interpret the situation, as if there was a problem to be solved, but there wasn't anything, or maybe there was but Paul was three or four skill sets away from comprehending it, like an amoeba trying to create a personal webpage using CSS. "I'm just naturally losing interest," he finally said, a little improvisationally. Michelle began crying and said she hadn't expected this, had thought they'd been closer than they'd ever been, the past two weeks. "I think I was affected by the study-abroad thing," Paul was saying. "Go back to the party," said Michelle, looking away. "I'll talk to you tomorrow." "I don't think we should leave each other right now," said Paul, confused by how she'd thought they'd been close recently. "Have a good time with your friends," said Michelle sincerely. "Wait," said Paul. "If we leave each other now it's over." "It doesn't have to be like that. I'll talk to you tomorrow." "I only go to things to find a girlfriend," said Paul, quoting himself, and they stood silently for about a minute, mostly looking at the ground, until Paul asked if she wanted to eat dinner with him. "I don't want to talk to you right now," said Michelle. Paul said he didn't want to be in a relationship "where it was like this" and Michelle said she didn't either. "I'm going back if you don't want to do something," said Paul. "I'm going home," said Michelle. "Good night." "OK," said Paul and turned, aware they hadn't parted like this before, and crossed 22nd Street and turned to cross Tenth Avenue when he saw Michelle disjunctively running and walking in his direction. She stood at a red light with the posture of a depressed teenager—Paul distractedly thought about how she liked Nirvana a lot—and then crossed the street. "Paul," she said, and touched his upper arm. They stared warily at each other, not moving, and then Michelle lowered her hand, to her side. "What are you doing?" she said, somewhat defensively. "What do you mean?" said Paul. "Aren't you going back to the party?" "Yeah," said Paul, a little confused. "You said you were going back to the party." "I thought I was," said Paul slowly. "Fine," said Michelle and they stared at each other and then she said, "Why are you standing here?" seeming almost "honestly curious," as if she'd forgotten something. "You… came back," said Paul. A small group of people—from the gallery, maybe—walked toward them, and Michelle turned and stepped into a soil-y area lower and darker than the sidewalk. She leaned on a low metal fence, between spires, her left profile toward Paul who after about a minute of watching her quietly cry—thinking with theoretical detachment that he should console her, then feeling dumbly tranquil, staring at the curve of her back, gently convex as a beginning yoga exercise—asked in a near monotone if she wanted to go eat dinner with him somewhere. He thought that maybe the discomfort of her arms being pressed against the thin metal of the fence had created a place accessible only to herself, to relocate to in a kind of shrinking, away from what she currently felt. "What do you want to do?" said Paul and she turned toward him a little, moving her head to see through her hair, and in a tired and only slightly antagonistic voice, as if waking from a nap, said, "What are you doing?" and leaned back on the fence. After not thinking anything specific for an unknown amount of time Paul asked again, tonelessly, if Michelle wanted to eat dinner with him, at the Green Table. Michelle began walking away, her long legs scissor-like in their little, orderly movements. It would take her thousands of steps to get anywhere, Paul thought vaguely, but she would get there easily, and when she arrived, then, in the present, it would seem like it had been a single movement that brought her there. Did existence ever seem worked for? One seemed simply to be here, less an accumulation of moments than something continuously gifted from some inaccessible future. As Michelle's form became smaller Paul distantly felt the implication, from his previous thoughts, which he'd forgotten, that the universe in its entirety was simply a message, delivered to itself, to not feel bad—an obscure but comprehensive rhetoric against feeling bad—and he was troubled by this, suspecting that his thoughts and intentions, at some point, in April or May or years ago, in college or as a small child, had been wrong, but he had continued in that wrongness, and was now distanced from some correct beginning to such a degree that the universe (and himself, a part of the universe) was articulately against him. In his tiredness and inattention, staring now at nothing (Michelle was out of view), these intuitions manifested in Paul as an uncomplicated feeling of bleakness, that he was in the center of something bad, whose confines were expanding, as he remained in the same place. Faintly he recognized in this a kind of humor, but mostly he was aware of the rain, continuous and everywhere as an incognizable information, and he turned and walked onto the street, gleaming from wetness, to return to the party.