by Michele Suzann
It was not a large sum of money but I needed it. I was attempting to be different, trying not to tell a story. You know, the one entitled Why I Need The Money? I had discovered that whether or not the story prompted its hearer to hand over dollars, it inevitably inspired a compulsion to transmit advice. But I had never told the story to learn how I might, in future, avoid having the story to tell; I told the story to get money. As the situation persisted, however, and in an attempt to change it without cash, I stopped telling the story. This on the advice of a hearer (I was beaten down; what can I say; I took it). The advice was: if you stop telling the story, it will cease to be true, ergo: you will not need the money. I had taken this advice to the payday lender, to the sale of still-treasured not to mention useful personal effects, to the second job, to the third job. Places you could go to, storyless.
But there was an acquaintance. Priorly, we had always expressed pleasure when we encountered one another, yet we had never machinated to bring more of these meetings about. I had not, initially, known that he had money to lend, however I did know that he had once said, upon seeing my face and not hearing the story: if there is anything I can do to help, let me know. I knew also that when I sat or stood next to him, I suffered a sexual thrill, and I wondered if he did also. It was a thrill I did not understand, was in fact rather ashamed of, and then ashamed of my shame; I found this man’s physical appearance in no way attractive. It is true that when he spoke, I often said—to myself and/or aloud to him—yes, that is exactly how it is, and I marveled—to myself only, because of that thrill, you see; had that thrill not existed, I might have been more audibly complimentary, might have been less worried that a compliment would escalate the level of our intimacy, which escalation, while desirable on a purely sexual level, was highly undesirable at the social and public levels it would have to transpire upon in order to reach this purely sexual level—I marveled that this man had such finely articulated insights into human pettinesses and cowardice.
Now here’s the thing. There was another man who would no doubt have lent me the money. This second man, also an acquaintance, aroused no sexual thrill, nor did he inspire the admiration in me that the first man did. He was, however, conspicuously wealthy. I felt sure that, could I only summon the courage to ask—and I could tell, too, that this second man would not even require the story; some wealthy people are like that: their money obliterates the need to understand—he would offer to help, and he would not interpret my request as an escalation of intimacy. (Even though asking for money is just that, an exposure of need, of vulnerability.) At worst, this second, non-thrilling man might ask questions about my finances, perhaps judge me harshly if he saw me flaunt some luxury item (say, a cup of coffee, or a donut) before I had repaid the loan. This non-thrilling man might say to himself, no wonder she needed a loan, mentally shaking his head, look how she spends mine. He would grow colder, perhaps, perhaps not warming again until I had paid him back. Still, a chill (de-escalation) in response to loaned cash was preferable to heat.
The day arrived, dreaded for some weeks, when I would have to obtain this sum of money, or else. And on this day, I knew I would encounter each man, and I knew I would encounter the thrilling man first. Plenty of times in the preceding months I had effectively deflected his inquiries (How are you? What’s up?), the better to avoid telling the story. I could have easily deflected again, and especially ought to have, given the fact that I knew I would later run into the second, non-thrilling man. But I was afraid; I was beaten down; what can I say? When the thrilling man asked me what was wrong, and joked was it really so awful to have to sit next to him (and it was! it was!), I let him coax the story from me. I suppose I knew that making the face that would prompt a what’s wrong was as good as telling the story, and certainly I knew that with this man, telling the story was as good as getting the money (advice-ridden or no). Yet the thrilling man offered no advice, only cash, which I accepted. Not even an “oh, but no, I couldn’t.”
Less than twenty-four hours after handing me several bills, however, the thrilling man took it upon himself to call me and ask how I was doing. More than once. He had never called me before, and he now attempted to push our conversation beyond the usual limits, both in length and subject matter. I accepted his solicitations as gracefully as I could, deflecting inquiries that sought another, perhaps more detailed iteration of the story. He seemed to have some opinions about the story, and how I might avoid having it to tell in future, and these opinions were, sadly, not much different from advice. Nonetheless, I pretended to consider seriously his opinions/advice as if heard for the first time, or for-the-first-time-heard-because-they/it-emanated-from–him. This faux consideration, I felt, was part of what I now owed the thrilling man, in addition to repayment of loaned dollars. As quickly as I was able to, however, I reciprocated his more general questions, and asked whole subcategories of related others. I strove to keep him talking about himself not because I truly cared, and not even because I wanted more profound insights at which I might marvel, but simply to keep the focus off of the story, and off of myself and what I might owe, and also to keep our relations appearing friendly. I felt that to deescalate our intimacy would be unfriendly, and would significantly increase the already considerable discomfort I felt around this man. He, unlike the non-thrilling man, would not grow cold, but bitter, and audibly so, honestly so. He would say, what did you mean, telling me that story in the face of this thrill? He would say, you knew exactly what you were doing when you took that money, don’t pretend you didn’t think this was where that might end up. (Yes, that is exactly how it is!) I did not want to be seen as the kind of person who asks for money and then is unfriendly, as if I were using a person for their willingness and/or ability to make a loan, but in truth that is exactly what I would have preferred to do, and be, and I had little experience—at the time—of being honest with myself—let alone others—about my desires. It did not seem right to say look, buddy, back off, it was just a loan, you even said I didn’t have to pay it back, not that I won’t, because I will, but cool it with the phonecalls. Although I had escalated our intimacy to the point of sharing some personal deficit with him, and then allowing him to remedy this deficit, I was unwilling to interact with this man on terms intimate enough to say the above, even diplomatically, could I have discovered those words, that phrasing, some tone of voice. So I worked hard to answer only every third phonecall. I could then ask him the many questions and appear friendly, without significantly increasing the amount of time we spent interacting. When they did not involve astute analyses of double standards and failures of nerve, the thrilling man’s answers bored me (as perhaps only answers to such lying questions can) (I was relieved to discover), but I did find them useful as a mine from which to extract further questions.
But then the thrilling man visited me at one of my three jobs. He was not, like the second, non-thrilling man was, wealthy, and yet he spent lavishly. It felt as if the thrilling man were trying to say something by purchasing—without even glancing at the labels—eight jars of okra pickles, a small luxury he could not possibly need or want, or at any rate never had in the recent past, though he had long known I worked at this store. Neither would he accept my employee discount, which I offered in order to appear friendly. I told myself that he thought I was on commission, and that he thought he was helping my wages increase; however, this seemed a thinly stretched attempt on my part to ignore the alternative—that he was performing some weird display for me, showing off something about his way with money that I was supposed to find attractive. The following week he visited again and bought ten gift-packs of organic anise-hazelnut biscotti.
I was distressed to find that when we encountered each other in person, and in spite of his shopping behaviors and my annoyance, the thrill had not in the least abated. It seemed, in fact, to have increased. I considered saying something that began, look, buddy…, but as much as I wanted to crawl out of my skin at the idea of this man coming around, when he actually came around, I enjoyed it. I still marveled. Something inside of me still writhed. Was I afraid too much more interaction with this man might escalate the influence of this thrill, and that I might find myself allowing him to remedy more than just my fiscal deficits? Of course. Was I afraid of this because he was not aesthetically attractive to me, and I could not imagine the two of us together in any way other than some brief, intense, intensely awkward, hopefully lights out, and ultimately embarrassing-to-recall coital interlude, or worse, series thereof? Absolutely. Was I a coward? Hoping only to endure, until the five paydays which would allow me to accumulate sufficient payback funds had elapsed, the delicate and exhausting negotiation of the border between gratitude-inspired, good-natured friendliness (faux consideration), and a curious, irritated, obligated desire to remedy this man’s deficit, which now appeared to be: me? Yes. Could this entire dishevelment have been avoided if I had had the gumption to deflect the thrilling man’s inquiries, and then the patience to wait for and the courage to ask the non-thrilling man? Most likely. But it came down to this (and perhaps this has everything to do with that story, why I had it to tell in the first place) (and this is something that the thrilling man understood very well, being himself—as it turned out—an expert navigator of these very same so-called boundaries): that I would rather negotiate an imaginary line, than an actual one.
Michele Suzann‘s work has appeared at Web Conjunctions, The Rupture and Always Crashing (Best of the Net 2019 nominee). Her story collection, Fleece, was just short-listed for the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Awards. She lives in California.