Read 'The Pornographers', New Fiction From Ottessa Moshfegh
A short story by the young American writer.
Photos by Bridget Collins
From the look of the grainy snapshot he'd emailed me months before, George was ugly. He claimed to be a grad student at some upstate university, and yet he lived full-time in the city. "I commute," he wrote in one of our first exchanges, "and I do drugs." I didn't tell him I was in the midst of intense training, had dropped down to light flyweight and had built a kind of shrine to a man I'd never met, the handsomest man on earth, I believed, the man I knew I had to marry, a boxer named Emilio Marcon.
I myself was a doctoral candidate at an Ivy League university two hours north of where George lived. I'd done one good year of research and then took a leave of absence, something I finagled through Jerry, my therapist, who wrote a letter to the dean describing the paralyzing depths of my attention deficit disorder. He offered to show me the letter, but I couldn't look. "They might never let you back on campus," he said, and wrote me a prescription for Adderall, which helped get me down to 103, and which George told me he could flip for "big money." I had all sorts of men in my life. Kid, my trainer, told me I could go far, that nobody in my weight class had a heart like mine, that I was a warrior, that I was "born to kill skinny bitches." And then there was Peter, my housemate, who was obsessed with Asians.
"Nothing will ever happen between us," he said the first night I moved in. "Your face is too dimensional."
"Thank god," I said, and took my plate of celery and kidney beans up to my room.
All I did all night and all day was shadowbox and think about Emilio Marcon. I was madly in love. Everything I did, I imagined Emilio Marcon was watching me. Every time I hit the bag at the gym, I pictured it was Emilio Marcon's girlfriend's cunt. Not that I thought he had a girlfriend, but I'd assumed he'd had one at some point. And every time I looked in the mirror, I imagined Emilio Marcon staring deep into my eyes, saying, "You're the best girl on earth. Please, please, be with me." I'd never been so deeply in love before.
I wrote to George and told him I was driving down to the city, and if he'd put me up for the night, we could hang out. "No sex," I wrote in the email. "I'll take you to a boxing match, then we can get dinner," I wrote. I knew I couldn't show up to the fights alone. It wasn't a championship or anything, just a night of boxing in the basement of a church somewhere downtown, and I had been planning this trip ever since I'd read online that Emilio Marcon would be fighting some no-name from the Bronx. Emilio Marcon was going to rub his ass with that guy's face. And then somehow—this was the hard part—I was going to get Emilio Marcon alone and make him fall in love with me.
"Sounds cool," George wrote back. "You'll see my apartment… I have a futon," he wrote. "OK about the sex, ha ha, but it will be nice to meet you in person, and thanks for the boxing."
I was hoping I wouldn't have to spend the night at George's place. I was hoping I'd be going home with Emilio. Still, I wrote back, "Futon's fine. See you Friday night," and went off to the gym to jump rope for three hours.
It was hell deciding what to wear. All my clothes, all the nicer stuff, just hung off my shoulders like a hospital gown. I was down to three-percent body fat. The best thing that fit me was a spandex jumpsuit I'd bought for Halloween a few years earlier. It was like what Sandy wore for that last number in "Grease" when she's gone bad, teased her hair and put on bright red lipstick to signify she's game for whatever, that she's up for going all the way. I worried I'd give George the wrong idea. So I decided to just play it all down: t-shirt and jeans. But I got my hair cut special. An Indian girl in the nail salon did a good Brazilian. I plucked my eyebrows, shaved my legs. This was all part of my plan. I'd never looked better, I thought, doing my make-up au naturel in a McDonald's bathroom on I-90 on the way down there. I didn't want George to think it was all for him. I figured I'd just treat him shitty and he'd get the idea.
"You're disappointed," George said opening the door of his brownstone. "You think I'm ugly."
"It doesn't matter," I told him. "We're friends, right?" He nodded, laughed. He was a good sport.
"Well, come up," he said, "put your things down. Have a drink." He led me up the stained, carpeted stairway, opened the unmarked plywood door to his apartment. "There've been some break-ins recently," he said, and stuck a chair under the doorknob. "Just to be safe."
His apartment had almost no furniture. The lights were all fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling like you'd find in a subway station. A laptop sat on the floor, books were piled on the mantle, a crate of oranges sat under the open window, sky violet and peaceful, a swaying tree in the lot outside. George opened his buzzing refrigerator and pulled out a Monster energy drink. "I've got beer, I've got vodka. You want vodka?"
"Just water," I said, pulling the Adderall from my backpack.
He looked disappointed, sucked his Monster down. "I'm not sure I have a glass."
"How do you drink the vodka?" I asked. He shrugged and went into the bathroom.
"I'll wash this." He held up a plastic cup printed with worn Disney cartoons.
"Thanks," I said, and swallowed the Adderall dry. I hid the bottle deep inside my backpack. "Are you ready to go?"
"Want an orange?" he asked me. "I found these. Bitch getting them up the stairs, but they're good. They're sweet. Want one?"
"Too much sugar," I said.
"You're disappointed," he said again, putting his hands on his hips. "You were expecting something different."
"Don't be silly," I said. George wasn't really so bad. He looked like the people I'd gone to school with: Jewish, pot-bellied, small hands. "We should get going," I said. "You feel like driving?"
"Are you tired? Want some coffee? Want a Monster?"
"I'll be fine," I said, gulping the water he'd handed me, which tasted of toothpaste and rust. "I don't want to be late."
"You look just like in your picture," George said, zipping up his jacket. He was like a nice uncle. He was like Jerry. "Even prettier."
"Really?" I stopped myself. "Thank you, I mean. Ready?"
"Hang on," he said, and put his laptop in the freezer. He pulled the chair away from the door and set it on its side on the floor, I assumed, as an obstacle for burglars. He turned the lights out: "Ready."
I handed him the keys to my car.
"Pull over," I told George. "Have you ever driven a car before?"
"Funny story," George said, whipping his head around side to side, nearly sideswiping a bus.
"Pull over!" I shouted. I was buzzing with the Adderall. George drove like a crazy old lady, swaying and signaling at all the wrong moments. He flinched every few seconds, took wide turns, accelerated up to a red light, gasped, and slammed on the brake. I tried to tell him what to do, how to drive, but he wouldn't listen. He couldn't handle it. Taxis were swarming, beeping, gesturing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
"This was a mistake," I told him, gripping the dashboard. "Stop the car and get out!"
George pulled over, parked, put his hands in his lap.
"Give me the keys," I said. He handed them to me and hung his head. "I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have asked you to drive. I'm sorry I yelled."
"It's my fault," he cowered. "I know I'm not a great driver. But you're really controlling, you know. You're like my dad."
"Your dad's probably an excellent driver," I said, hoping to make him laugh.
"He's always busting my balls. He's always on me for something." George rubbed his head. He was balding, I noticed, and wore a gold band on his right hand.
"Okay, switch sides," I said. We were going to be late for the fights as is. There was no time to ask if he was married.
Everyone there was someone I recognized from the Internet. All the smashed noses, sharp jaw-lines, short, mousse-ed up hair, the biceps. George went straight for the concession stand.
"Want a hotdog?" he asked, pulling out his wallet.
"Diet Coke," I said. "Thanks." The fights were just starting.
I figured Emilio Marcon was backstage, so to speak, warming up and stretching in the church rectory or wherever they taught Sunday School. I figured he was pumping himself up, jabbing in front of the mirror or up at Christ on the cross. I figured he was saying, "Die, motherfucker, die," over and over in his head. George came back with the Diet Coke. I felt a little embarrassed being seen with him. Maybe I could pass him off as my gay cousin, I thought, if Emilio wanted to know whom I came with.
"Where's your hot dog?" I asked George.
"Oh, I ate it already," he said, and pushed his glasses up his nose. He wore fashionable glasses, smudged with greasy fingerprints. Gay enough to pass, I thought, if necessary, and took him by the hand through the crowd and up to the ring where I figured I'd have a good vantage point to make eyes at Emilio when they brought him out.
"I'm excited," I said to George. "I love boxing."
"I did karate," he told me. "Then I sprained my wrist." He held up his arm as though to show me it was broken. "In sixth grade," he conceded.
We talked for a while about martial arts, the concentration involved, how the primal instinct gets repressed by the intellect, how stupid people are, how much we liked sushi. "It's starting," I said when the ref and the MC came out. "This is going to be good," I said, and crossed my arms.
The first fight was boring. Long rounds of nothing. Two Puerto Rican teenagers scared and throwing wide and short and backing into corners. The second fight was even worse. Muay Thai with the ridiculous music and bare feet and skirts and all that nonsense. The third was good. A heavyweight from Philly with dyed green hair and a big smiley face tattoo on his back got knocked out in about six minutes by the local favorite, a black guy with the longest arms I'd ever seen. I was getting antsy, though. And my feet hurt. It was so packed in there, I got shoved right up next to George, who was sweaty and whose breath smelled like sauerkraut and tic tacs. Then the lights went out. I knew what it meant.
"Ladies and gentlemen," sang the MC. I knew it meant Emilio. Emilio was coming out. I stood on my tippy toes, trying to get a good look down the back hallway all the boxers came through, but I was too short.
"Pick me up," I told George. "Can you pick me up?"
George was nice. He tried. "You're too heavy," he said, putting his arms around me. "I can't do it. I need better leverage."
"Never mind," I said, and covered my ears as the crowd booed Emilio's opponent, a boxer I knew nothing about. His name was Buick and he looked like an idiot. He jumped up and ducked in the ring, kept his head down, squatted and did this kind of rapid breathing I'd learned once in a yoga class. "This is going to be good," I told George, who smiled deliberately and avoided eye contact. I could tell he was upset about something. I could tell he wasn't happy.
"Cheer up, George," I said. "We're having fun, aren't we?"
"I'm going to get another hot dog," he said, pretending he didn't hear me. "I'll be back."
Then the music started, and behind me the crowds parted and here comes Emilio Marcon, my guy, cruising up the aisle in red shorts, glistening like some kind of I don't know what, like some kind of miracle, some kind of dream. He rushed right past me and flew up into the ring. Some kind of angel! I felt the heat coming off of him as he went by. He was on fire. That Buick piece of shit was going to get his skull smashed. He was going home in a body bag. He was burnt toast. I felt a bit sorry for the guy. But Emilio, Emilio, Emilio!
"They're out of hot dogs," George said. "Is this the main act? Is this the last one?"
"Shh," I said. "Yes," I said. "This is the one." I didn't want Emilio to see me talking to George.
After the requisite formalities, Buick and Emilio stood in their corners. Buick hopped up and down. And Emilio just stood there, staring at him like he was a clown at a birthday party or a cat taking a shit. The bell rings, and boom! Buick zooms at Emilio out of nowhere. And Emilio ducks, rolls his eyes. Was Buick crazy? He took a wide step back, put his gloves down, stuck his tongue out like the Joker from Batman. Emilio was good. He was classy. He got closer and just started testing him out, soft jabs, just to see what Buick would do. And Buick played the game for a minute or two, and then suddenly turned his back. Emilio looked at the ref with his hands up. And when Buick turned back around, he went jab, jab, left hook, and that's all I could make out before his arms went wailing like a pinwheel and then smack! Emilio was on the ground. He was out. He was gone. He had lost the fight. It was done.
"Sushi?" George asked.
I just stood there shaking my head. "We have to wait," I said. "To see if he's okay. They have to call it." But I knew it was over. Poor Emilio, I thought. Poor guy. The ref bent down, got Emilio to open his eyes, said a few words, and called the fight. The crowd booed. Buick just stood there grinning. He put his arms up and stuck his tongue out again. It was devastating.
"You look tired," said George. "Did you have fun?"
We were back in George's neighborhood, at his favorite sushi restaurant. He had ordered all these rolls. I ate a few. I was despondent.
"I'm sorry," I told him. "I don't feel well."
"Should I take you home?" he said. "I mean my place. Should I get the check?"
"No," I said. "I'm heartbroken. I'm in love with Emilio Marcon."
"That boxer?" he asked. He chewed his food. "The loser?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Are you crying?" he asked me.
"No," I told him. "I'm not an idiot."
"Want to talk about it?" George asked. He was nice. He was a sweet person.
"No," I shook my head. I was crying. "Get the check," I said, putting my finger up. "Let's go back to your place."
"Wait here," George said as he turned on the lights, flipped the chair upright. I pulled off my boots.
"These lights are awful," I said. "They hurt my eyes."
The futon was lumpy and smelled like macaroni and cheese.
"I just washed the sheets," George said. He sounded nervous but I didn't care.
"I don't care," I said. "Come here." I lay down with my back to him and patted the spot behind me. He took off his sneakers and scooted in. "Just hold me, okay?"
"Okay," he said. He put his arms around me. I felt horrible. I felt like I was dying. Emilio, Emilio. I was so confused. I felt so bad.
"Closer," I told George. He got closer. "Don't be a baby," I said. "Really hold me. Hold me like you mean it. Haven't you held anybody before?"
"Like this?" George asked, putting his arms around my ribs.
"Come on," I said. George pulled me tighter.
"You're so skinny," he said. "You're like a little girl," he said. "I like it."
"Gross," I said.
"I mean you're beautiful," he said.
After a half an hour or so, I took off my clothes. George got up to turn the light out, and without him in the bed it was cold and my bones hurt and I missed him.
"Come back quick," I called out. I heard the fridge door squeal open, heard him open a new can of Monster. "Please," I said. "Be with me."
"I'll be with you," he said softly, setting the Monster on the floor by the futon. He pressed his body up against me. It was nice. It was okay. I could feel his breath on my neck, his knee parting my knees, his lips on my shoulder. It went on and on with nothing happening until I told him,
"Okay," I said, "that's enough. I feel better now," and drifted off to sleep.
In the morning I put the Disney cup back in the bathroom and left my Adderall for George on the chair. We never saw each other or spoke again after that.
Late May I drove to campus, and emptied out my department mailbox which was full of medical insurance statements and fliers for university events. I'd gained six pounds since that night in the city, at the fights, with George. Kid told me I was letting him down. "The world will kick your ass if it's flabby," he said, and "Where's my diamond in the rough? Where's my star?" I was tired. I was hungry. I wrote emails to my sister in Canada. I wrote emails to my friends back home. Nobody confirmed what I thought might be the truth, which was that nobody was worth fighting for, nothing was. I opened a letter from the dean. It said to come see him, to discuss my future, my funding, my place here at the university. I'd been weighing my options recently. A family friend had offered me a position as a nanny on the Cape for the summer, free room and board, and as boring as that sounded, I was considering it. "Fresh air will help," my sister wrote. "But what about after? Where do you go from there?" I put the dean's letter back in the envelope and dried my eyes. I prayed for an answer to all my problems. Just then, Adam Abramovich sauntered into the office eating a tuna sandwich wrapped in tin foil.
"I just met these guys outside," he said, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder. "They're pornographers."
"Where?" I looked down the hall through the glass double-doors.
"They just drove off. Nice guys. They came asking if anyone wanted to write a script for a porno movie. They're just looking for writers, not actors," he said. "One of them gave me his number."
I took the slip of paper from his hand and pushed my campus mail into the recycling slot.
"How's your dissertation going?" Adam asked. He was one of those people who would get rich but accomplish nothing, and spend most of his life reading Cold War histories in an armchair by a fireplace in Connecticut, eating pistachios and dried fruits, taking long shits at night alone in the dark.
"It's going," I said. The number written on the slip of paper was a 401. I went home. Peter had already left for the summer to Eastern Europe: He'd had his heart broken too. I looked in the mirror. I was still in good shape. I was still training daily. But I didn't feel good. I felt like I'd lost everything I had worked so hard for. It felt like such a waste. I called up the pornographers.
"I hear you're into porn," I said when a man's voice answered. He sounded tall and good-looking and sincere.
"Yes, I am," he cleared his throat. His tone was professional, but not uptight. "How did you get this number?"
"I'm from the university. I might be able to help you. I have my summer free, and I'm interested in pornography. Can you tell me what you're working on? You have a particular project in mind?"
"Perhaps this is best discussed in person," said the man. "Could we get together? Someplace private? Not to freak you out," he wavered. He laughed. "Just so we can speak openly together. Exchange ideas. Brainstorm." I liked the way he talked. He sounded very reasonable, very stoic. "If you're interested, that is."
"I am interested," I told him. "Why don't you come over? I live right by the school." We set a time and I gave him the address.
"I'll bring my business partner," he said. "He handles the production side of things. See you soon."
Now this was something. I spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning up the house. Between Peter and me, we hadn't swept the floor or run the dishwasher in months. It felt good to clear out the cobwebs. I found an Adderall wedged between the floorboards in the kitchen and dug it out with a knife. It felt good. I felt better. I took a long, hot shower, shaved, blew my hair out. I figured I should look good for the pornographers. I put on some blue jean cut-offs, a white v-neck, no bra. This is good, I said. I look liberated, I thought. This is impressive. They won't know what hit them. I thought of George for a moment. I wondered if he was still selling speed to dumb-dumbs at CUNY. I wondered if he'd found a girlfriend on the Internet, someone who would appreciate him, find him funny, find him cute. I wondered what he did that night after I fell asleep.
The pornographers turned out to be juniors in high school. "My uncle's got a lodge outside Killington he's not using," one said. "We could do some outdoor shots, stuff like that. We have all these ideas."
"Go on," I said. I handed each a drink and sat down between them on the couch. "No, really," I said. "Tell me more. I'm interested."
"He's got a hot tub," the other said. "And there's a basement full of beer."
"We can't drink his beer though," the other one said, putting up his index finger and shaking his head.
I put my legs up on the coffee table. I put an arm around one, then the other. "I'm down," I said. "I'm ready. Let's go. Let's do it. I'm up for anything."
They were good kids, earnest, seventeen. Both had large, drooping eyes and liked to drink cough syrup and look at porn together, and they told me they wanted to make videos for the new generation, not-for-profit, no shame. I loved them. We hung out for a few days. I let them sleep in Peter's bed. After they left, I called up Jerry. I got some refills. I poured my heart out to Adam Abramovich. I ran seventeen miles. I cried.
"Just a quick note," I wrote to George some time later. "I have a lot going on at the moment, but if you're ever in the area, if you're ever just passing through, please, come, it would be so nice to see you, just one more time."
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