Author Note: Daniel Felsenthal - Part II
As part of our Author Notes Series, Daniel Felsenthal shares the inspiration behind his story “Sex With Andre,” which appears in The Puritan Summer 2019.
I got back together with W. immediately before I began to write “Sex With Andre,” for my MFA thesis, which was due in less than two months. I got back together with W. because I ran into him in a bar, he began to text me, and I found myself moving through life with a constant, uncomfortable erection, like an adolescent boy whose penis had never been touched before.
I also got back together with W. because he told me that he had left his boyfriend, that they were now single and “best friends.” He only revealed the extent of this lie in pieces, and I was more than willing to believe him at first, because I needed him.
I moved into a new room, having lost my graduate student subsidies the moment my coursework ended, in a five-bedroom apartment in a shady building on an otherwise tony block of 103rd Street. Syringes and baggies of drugs were strewn all over the staircase and the sill of the windows that opened to the airshaft. The single, shared bathroom and the shared kitchen were crawling with water bugs and roaches, enough thatI had to wear flip-flops in the shower or emerge with an insect graveyard matted into the soles of my feet. None of the kitchen appliances worked, and each of my roommates brought personal slow cookers to whip up rice meals. My furnished room came with a lofted bed and perhaps the nicest fan I have ever owned, which I still use today. Nonetheless, the heat rose up to my bed, making it virtually unbearable to sleep in all summer, but I was in love which meant thatI did not need to sleep very much. My bed and my chair occupied virtually the entire floor space of my apartment besides a small square in which I paced and a dresser against the wall. Most of my clothes I left at W.’s apartment.
I took the place because it was located two blocks away from W.
I had a couple of tutoring gigs that summer, as well as a job teaching creative writing to wealthy high schoolers, which paid enough that I could get by if I lived with relentless frugality. W. spent every weekend and some of each week at his country home in Pennsylvania, where I was rarely invited since he promised to spend time alone with his ex-boyfriend. Because he liked drinking at bars, eating at restaurants, and buying ice cream cones for dessert, I tried to spend as little money on food as I possibly could while I was alone in the city. I mined the $2 bagel-with-cream-cheese-and-coffee deal at the Garden of Eden supermarket and the $.99 bags of peanuts from CVS.
I was afraid of developing a belly—peanuts and cream cheese and bagels are not exactly fat-free—because W. was obsessed with skinniness, and made it abundantly clear that should I gain weight like his ex-boyfriend had, he would no longer be interested in sleeping with me.
We sat around together drinking coffee when W. was in the city, having sex two or three times a day. Sporadically, we forked a few pitless olives from plastic containers in the refrigerator. Otherwise, we ate nothing. While I worked on “Sex With Andre,” he sorted his papers in the other room, went to the gym, watched videos of Glenn Gould onYouTube, and stared at the wall, feeling bad about his life.
At least once a week, we ate chicken at a Caribbean restaurant that we both loved, which I could hardly afford. I was so hungry that like someone with much more knowledge of food than I had at the time, I cracked the bones and sucked the marrow from inside, leaving a biological mess on my plate.
One night, W. drove in from his country house, and after several gin-and-tonics, he slapped me in the face. It was not the first time W. attacked me. I was physically stronger than he was, so I felt more than capable of defending myself, pushing him off when he held me down and tried to choke me the first time we broke up. But the act of being struck, as well as my knowledge of having grown a year older, made me unable to explain the slap away. I knew in that moment that our relationship would never work out, that I would leave him if he did not leave me first, that what he said about breaking up with his boyfriend was a lie—which I always knew, although I tried to deny this fact becauseI wanted him to be honest. Maybe I should have left W. then, knowing that the rest of our summer together would consist of me biding my time until I finished working on my MFA thesis and had the strength to escape.
But we stayed together.
I worked on writing12 or 13 hours a day when he was in town, and even longer when he was at his summerhouse. I did not work on my 24th birthday and a couple of days when my laptop was broken—in all likelihood because he, annoyed with where I had set down my backpack in his apartment, practically flung it into the other room.
I never accused him of breaking my computer. Most accusations I made, he parried by saying that I was “mentally ill.”
Another ex, a man he lived with in the 1970s and ’80s, told me, “Don’t let W.sabotage your thesis. He’ll try.”
I sometimes think that he was vaguely disappointed in his lack of success.
I rarely saw friends, because I did not have time, and also because I was afraid that if I made plans while W. was in town, he would make the impulsive decision to leave for Pennsylvania. Of course, he was jealous of everyone, accusing me of sleeping with a number of intimates and acquaintances, no matter their sexual orientation.Meanwhile, the people I hung out with were uncomfortable hanging out with W., in part because he flirted with many of them, and also sinceI had spent the previous year describing how terribly he had treated me.
There were better aspects of our relationship, which I do not wish to underplay. We listened to classical music, Messiaen and Dupré, Wagner and Chopin.W. read the books I suggested he read thoughtfully and carefully.
Once, I broke a rare, modern lamp he was very fond of, and W. did not raise his voice, scold me or change his behavior toward me in any perceptible way. Another time, I spilled a glass of beer on a couch pillow, and we cleaned up the mess together, relaxed and happy.
I completed “Sex With Andre” as well as another piece, the first 60 or so pages of a novel, in two months. I had never written anything so quickly, nor had I ever been so engrossed in a project for such a sustained period. Even though I hardly saw anyone besides W. and the students I taught, I felt as though my friends and family and dead grandparents and aunts were spirits floating around me as I wrote, sitting beside me on city buses, watching television in the apartment across the airshaft from my window.
A couple of weeks after I turned in my thesis, I packed and left W.’s apartment while he was out. I rode the subway from building to building in Brooklyn, trying to sign a lease as far away from him as I could. Our saga continued even after I found an affordable room in a five-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights although I never ran into him again, only received text messages and emails for the next several months.
I was extremely poor, searching for work while writing an essay that would not see the light of publication for more than two years. Because I did not have enough money to go out drinking and was not close to most of my friends anymore, at night I took long walks, often to the CVS in ParkSlope, for cheap peanuts. I was waiting for my thesis conference, to learn that I had passed and would receive my Masters of Fine Arts, apiece of paper I believed might gratify me symbolically. Mostly, I wanted to know that this monumentally difficult summer had been as productive as it seemed, that the power I had felt in “Sex WithAndre” and, to a lesser extent, in my novel excerpt, was real and true. Even if my relationship had failed, I needed to know that I had bested the conflict between sex and writing, but it would be many years before I could be sure that I had.
I received comments from my first thesis reader, an adjunct professor whose short storiesI admired greatly, sometime in October. She praised my work, particularly “Sex With Andre,” but no comments came from my second thesis reader, a full professor. Finally, I heard from him the day before my conference. I found out that he had gotten me mixed up with someone else, and had only read my thesis at the last minute; he proceeded to absolutely savage my work, describing “Sex With Andre”as a “non-starter.” In his line edits, which in an email to both myself and the administration he called “numerous,” he wrote almost nothing besides the quips “No!” and “This is a terrible sentence.”
One of his most substantive comments: the adjective “blonde” which I had mistakenly used to refer to a male character, he informed me was“only for girls.”
The night before my thesis conference, I went to a gay bar, having been harassed by W.all week, who sent me texts constantly with lies about men he was now seeing, which he counterbalanced with promises about how he would act if we got back together. I would only buy one whiskey, I thought, to save money, but someone I did not find attractive at all started to talk to me, and offered to buy me another. And then he bought me another, and another, and many more after that, and then I made an excuse about why I could not sleep with him and got on the train back to Crown Heights. The next day, seated in an office on campus, smelling the liquor in my sweat, I spoke to the adjunct professor while we waited for the full professor to arrive. He walked in 15minutes late and pulled his chair—which the adjunct professor and I had arranged in a circle at her suggestion—over to the other side of the desk, because he said that he did not feel comfortable talking to me unless he assumed a position of authority.
The adjunct professor and I sat, listening while he criticized my work. I centered my dislike for his opinions on his stupid face and hair, which made him look like a vain bulldog.
“I know young people have sex all of the time,” he said. “But old people go along time without having sex.”
He leaned back in his chair, satisfied with his wisdom. “It can be scary to have sex when you’re old. I don’t think you know anything about men who are much older than yourself. You should write about things that you know.”
I nodded, trying to suppress my urge to tell him to go fuck himself, hoping just to finish with graduate school and leave, to stop slaving over workshop submissions and parts of a thesis—to write something that had no institutional endgame: a novel, a story, an essay.
At one point, the adjunct professor interjected. “I understand what you’re saying,”she told him. “But Daniel’s insights about people are better than99% of what’s out there in the world of fiction.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said the full professor, who had lost a job as the fiction editor of a very high-profile literary magazine a couple of years earlier, whose first novel had flopped commercially and critically.“You’ll go nowhere if you keep writing like this.”
“I read a lot of Deborah Eisenberg this summer,” I said. “I was thinking of her work when I wrote.”
The professor smiled at me as though I had just told him I wanted to be Superman when I grow up. Eisenberg was his colleague at the university.
“You don’t want to be like her,” he said. “You won’t make any money that way.”
I left campus for a tutoring job without having snapped, without screaming—as I wanted to scream—without telling the full professor that he was an envious artist and an irresponsible drunk who had flubbed my thesis reading, that he was as wrong as any man could be, that his behavior was a dime-a-dozen in my world of intergenerational gay love, that unlike me, he knew nothing about what it was like to fuck an older man. Instead, I kept calm, as I had learned to keep calm in my relationship with W.,and suddenly I was alone on a subway train, newly 24 and feeling as though I had no future as only the very young can feel this sort of thing; but in reality I was mature for my age and more sane than anyone could ever expect me to be. I was battling, I deserved a pat on the back for doing everything I had to do, even if I did not know it at the time.
As they can accuse my characters, readers can rightly accuse me of self-pity, but self-pity is a sister of self-respect.
Publishing “Se xWith Andre” now gratifies my younger self: I had failed at writing fiction, I believed almost half a decade ago, but in fact I was writing fiction that I stand behind, some years later.
Walking down West72nd Street toward my tutoring job, I thought of a time in late May, right after W. told me that he had left his boyfriend. I was about to lock myself inside for the summer and begin work on “Sex With Andre”; W. was at his country house and I was alone in the city, just finished with my MFA coursework and unaccustomed to the prospect of having a free weekend. A friend of mine from college, a talented writer with a miserable marketing job, offered me a ticket to a concert celebrating the anniversary of an electronic music label in aWall Street bank vault. It was just the sort of thing I used to love doing. I was gaining an appreciation for classical music; still, I liked the same music I had when I was 15, and 17, and 20, too.
He had, he told me, some ecstasy we could take if I wanted.
We swallowed the drugs in my friend’s bedroom and spoke about our lives while we took the 4 train to the southernmost stop in Manhattan, how confused and afraid we were at work, in school, in our relationships. The show was happening in a looming bank building on a deserted street. Inside the bank, through a large, circular vault door, was a rambling underground area where young people dressed in black wandered and smoked pot in the open. The E kicked in soon after we arrived. My belly seemed to raise slightly from my lower torso, my heart and my guts lighter than they had been an hour earlier.
One cannot always anticipate when drugs will be fun and when they will be a burden on the mind. I registered the euphoria of the chemicals although I stood outside of them, in a personal world of anxiety, as though there was some great task I had to accomplish and I could not escape back to the carefreeness of youth until I had attended to it.
I do not believe in the merits of preoccupation as much as I used to—if the labour of my writing deserves my attention, so does a joyful event like my night with E —but I benefited from knowing that trying to leave myself that night was weighed by the knowledge of the labour ahead, and that being high at a concert would not suffice until I had brought such a labour to completion. There were spirits from the past recent and old trying to enter my work, and I wanted to have memories with a fine grain that I would have to sift through, specks I needed to find.
My friend and I met Björk, who danced beside us, hiding in the crowd behind a glittery veil. Apparently, she deejayed after we left, to wander around the sparkling buildings of the Financial District while the last of the drugs worked through our systems, before I dropped my friend back at the subway and walked all of the way home, much of the length ofManhattan, from the lowest tip of the island to Morningside Heights, blocks above Central Park. I got back as the sun was rising, and plopped down on my bed, exhausted and happier than I had been all night, to be alone with my thoughts in the city.
Before I fell asleep, I sent W. a quick email, and woke the following morning to a phone call. “You’re reckless and I’m worried about your drug habits.” He told me that he did not care if I was 23 years old, that I was going to give him an STD he might pass on to his ex-boyfriend, that he had lived through AIDS and that there was no chance he was going to care for me if I developed a substance habit or contracted a life-threatening illness. I’m not a danger to you, I wanted to say, you don’t have to fear me in order to love me. But instead I told him that none of these things were going to happen, that I was not going to develop a habit, that I was not going to contract something life-threatening and die. I said that I loved him so much, but that he had no idea how intent I was on surviving this.
Daniel Felsenthal was born in Chicago and lives in New York City. He publishes short stories, essays, and reviews in a variety of publications, and is almost done with a novel.