by Simon Graham
Dirk’s ad for an assistant didn’t ask for a CV or cover letter, just a short email explaining one’s interest in writing. I said I liked the idea of learning a little bit about a lot of things, rather than a lot about one. Perhaps a pedestrian mentality for someone fresh out of high school, but Dirk told me my message stood out. “All the other applications were bullshit,” he said.
Dirk was in his mid-thirties. He had sandy curls and, despite now working as a finance writer, the firm hands of an Australian raised in the country. He wore dark sunglasses the day we first met, but this funereal veneer was betrayed by his mouth. His lips were quicksilver. A warm smile could morph into a vicious sneer and back again.
He asked me questions in a reportorial tone and I did my best to stay afloat. I said I read publications I didn’t, and made up smarter, fake reasons for reading those that I did. Dirk knew I was lying, he would later tell me so, but at the time he segued into questions like, “What does your father do?” and “How was your childhood?”
I worked a day a week for Dirk while in my first year of university. It was standard assistant fare: interviewing sources, conducting secondary research, proof-reading drafts. Dirk’s articles occasionally appeared in big name papers, but mostly he wrote puff pieces for trade publications and moonlighted as a spin doctor. “Journalism has been hollowed out,’ he said. “Public relations is the only way to earn a dollar.”
I took this sentiment to heart: six months later, I started a second job, in communications for a mining conglomerate. Dirk was petulant about me applying, despite the fact the work he had for me was dwindling. Though maybe he was prescient. Once I started the office job, I wasn’t committed to the work he had for me. For an article about investing in wine, I didn’t call the key source until the day before it was due. Dirk found out, and the next time we met in person he fired me.
“That could have gone so badly,” he said. “I don’t know if you know this, but I have a reputation for being a real cunt.”
Our formal relationship ended, but we still met in person every few months, emailed every other day. I often felt uneasy and I acknowledged to myself that he had threatened me. But I wanted a mentor, an older person with whom I could talk about politics, philosophy and books. I was beginning to write creatively and Dirk revealed he was writing a novel. He sent me the first few chapters and asked for my feedback.
The novel was about a down-and-out journalist in the big city, plotting and scheming his way to getting what he wanted: money, power, a beautiful wife. Dirk could turn a phrase and describe a harbor, but the main character was selfish and manipulative. It was unclear if the book was intended to be a hero’s adventure or a satire of capitalist vanity. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to be let in on the project. It inspired me to attempt a novel of my own, which I abandoned, but not before sending the initial chapters to Dirk. When I did, he invited me to his house for the first time. He gave my pages an attention that I received like a drug.
Only years later would I recognize the discomfort of his wife that night, her apprehension at my being there.
Dirk was steadfastly right-wing. He had written editorials against Australia’s carbon tax policy and against the country’s conservative party’s contemporary appeal to liberalism. I knew his politics from the beginning, but I glossed over them the way I glossed over his aggressions.
In Alexander Chee’s essay about working as a waiter for the conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Chee writes that he couldn’t bring himself to read Buckley’s magazine, the National Review: “I knew civilized people were supposed to read the ideas of people who disagreed with them and at least think about them. In this way I was not so civilized.”
I, on the other hand, was desperate to be civilized. I had grown up in an unhappy home and decided one of the causes of this was the fact that neither of my parents finished high school. I aspired for the elevated air of intellectualism in which all issues were abstract and debatable, where there were no material conditions, no physical bodies, no visceral pain.
I told myself my world was an echo chamber without Dirk. I listened to his rationale for why climate change was a hypothesis, why feminism was misguided, why lesbians were unhappy. Immigration is ruining the West, he said, just as pop culture is ruining our minds.
His views were bolstered by the feedback he received when he took his manuscript out for appraisal. The comments were uniform: the tone is dissonant, the central character unlikeable, his ambitions irreproachable. The publishing industry, Dirk concluded, hated white men.
The world was on the cusp of a conservative wave at this point and Dirk and I’s dynamic was inseparable from the wider one within which we lived. If it had been another time, I may have continued to give Dirk’s diatribes the benefit of the doubt. I might have ridden the line of centrism well into my adulthood. Instead, I quit my job at the mining company. I stopped eating meat. I began angling toward work in climate change advocacy. I went to therapy.
And yet, I kept talking to Dirk. Our dialogues mimicked the media. We sent essay-length emails to each other that were littered with statistics, links, exclamation points. My energy was sucked through the screen each time I received a message from him, but I didn’t stop replying. There was a magnetism that made it feel like I didn’t have a choice.
The one domain in which I remained reticent was sex. I had admitted to myself that I was bisexual by then, but I was coy about it, to most people, but especially to Dirk. I stayed quiet when he espoused his theses on sexuality: that it was complicated but should be explored in private, that sexual liberation was the death of desire, that the newfound acceptance of homosexuality was a thin veil. “Hypothetically,” he said on one occasion, “if you were gay and came out to your father, he would be devastated.”
Finally though, confrontation came. Or maybe it was the opposite of confrontation—a dropping of arms, an exhaustion. Dirk made yet another bigoted comment, and I replied that I was queer but had never said so because of his homophobia. He called me immediately, something he never did, and said—in a broken voice, laden with insinuation—that he was queer, too. He said we were in love. He said he never wanted to hurt me.
In her essay Jailbait, Ottessa Moshfegh dissects her brief relationship with an older editor she met when she was a teenager. Moshfegh takes a rarefied tone in the essay, refusing to assume the role of the victim. “I remember thinking his waning vitality could be used to my advantage,” she writes.
I never had such cunning thoughts when I worked for Dirk. But it would be disingenuous to claim naivety. Did I, on some level, know that Dirk was in love with me? I did to the extent I knew I was queer long before I stood in front of a mirror and said the words to myself. Which is to say, I knew in an intuitive, bodily way that I did not interrogate because some part of me believed it was not yet safe, or at the very least not yet convenient, to do so. And it was this avoidance that kept him and I bound together in a delicate dance. Within two weeks of outing myself and Dirk confessing, the ties that bound us vanished. We haven’t spoken since.
My inability to extricate myself from Dirk for years was partially to do with the perceived danger he posed, partially to do with my misguided desires and aspirations, but it was also to do with the schema in which he fit, the long-held pain of which my relationship with him was an echo. A decade before meeting Dirk, I was abused by a man I idolized. His transgressions left the imprints in my soul through which Dirk’s mercury was able to run. My perpetrator was right-wing. He was a writer, too.
I do not believe Dirk began our working relationship with a detailed plan of how to groom and seduce me. He was flailing and grasping just like I was, a puppet on strings he could not, or was not, willing to see. When Dirk told me that my father would be devastated if I came out, he meant his father would have been devastated if he did. Where Dirk grew up it was better to be dead than gay. These are his words.
Our adult lives are the stages on which we enact our early wounds. The skill lies in sublimating them into something productive—political action, say, or a novel. If Dirk had imbued his protagonist with just some of his realities, the story might have sung. Dirk was a sensitive, charismatic, and kaleidoscopic man. He was far more interesting than the character he invented. The tragedy is that it was the parts of him he tried to hide that made him so.
There is a section late in Dirk’s novel in which the main character, his life in shambles, goes walking through the rough end of town. He stumbles down a set of stairs into a dark labyrinth of nefarious activities. Nothing happens inside, or nothing that is clearly defined. The section is written like a dream. It makes little sense in the story, at the same time as being the only part that does. The scene is electric, but it is over before it begins. Then the protagonist is back on the surface of things, trying desperately to keep up.
Simon Graham is an Australian in Seattle. Their creative work has appeared in Hobart, New York Tyrant and elsewhere, and their writing on climate change has appeared in a number of Australian publications. They are an MFA Candidate in Prose at the University of Washington-Seattle.
Image: Laura Chouette/Unsplash