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Ben Greenman


He was a skunk.

He got skinny, subsisting on nothing but apples and tomato juice. He got fat, gorging on marinated rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes, cinnamon-and-walnut stuffing, and creamed spinach. He got smart, boning up on literary criticism and art history. He got stupid, parking in his leather easy chair and watching the Home Shopping Network. He got active, deciding suddenly to volunteer at the local rec center as a part-time basketball coach for underprivileged kids. He got lazy, shoving day after day into the recent past like he was chambering rounds.

All the while, he was a skunk and it burned at him.

A study in the newspaper said that women pick men for their personalities while men pick women for their figures. This was something that his mother used to tell him, with the confidence of someone who had experienced the phenomenon first-hand. His mother had clearly been picked for her figure, a fact that encouraged her to maintain a substantial budget for its upkeep. One year she had gone in to have her hips and backside reduced; the next year she had returned for a breast enlargement. She joked that they had used the bi-products of the first surgery in the second surgery; the joke embarrassed him, as did the fact that during a Christmas party she drank too much and kissed David’s friend Evan on the mouth. Later on that year Evan had an affair with a fifty year-old woman who was married to a prominent local lawyer and tried to talk to David about what he called his “older woman fetish.” “I think you mean fixation,” David said, but would say no more.

David wasn't a skunk then. He was in graduate school, idealistic beneath a veneer of cynicism, well-meaning, with an ambition he liked to think of as crisp. Over the years, that ambition creased and picked up dust, and became the kind of thing you find in a jacket pocket after a period of such length that you no longer remember why it was there to begin with. Threadbare, pungent, and nostalgic, it had become a thing of shame. It had become a thing that signaled skunk. David was twenty-nine now, sitting in a coffeeshop in Greenwich Village, smoking a cigarette, staring at a legal pad on the table in front of him. The pad was almost empty; the letter he had planned to write had amounted to little more than a greeting. “Dear Catherine,” it said, and then “I wanted to tell you.” That was all. The yellow expanse of the rest of the pad mocked him. He didn't know what he had wanted to tell her. Maybe he just wanted to explain that although all his choices were bad, they were at least his own choices, and that he wanted her to respect him for that. But the more his mind moved forward through the haze of his imperfect resolve, the sharper the rocks of consequence seemed.

The coffeeshop was called 3000 A.D., and it was done up in post-Apocalyptic decor, with blasted odd-cut tables scattered among sheet-metal chairs painted the color of nuclear ash. Outside the window, late-spring New York went by like an experimental film—one of those dreary exercises in which “actors” are not hired thespians but rather amateurs prized for their natural demeanor, and “scenes” not scripted episodes but random slices of time. A couple with spiked hair held hands and chatted. A tall girl in a mustard-colored tank-top stopped to post a handbill that advertised a band named Witness Tree. A fat man huffed against a lamppost.

Women walked by, hundreds of them over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes, and David wondered why none of them were Catherine. The simple answer, he knew, was that Catherine was in Vermont at an artists’ colony, scrutinizing Balthus and Mary Cassatt, writing long loving letters to David that overflowed with enthusiasm. She was painting better than ever, it seemed. She was moving through her mistakes to a new understanding of shadow, evidently. She had become a votary of early Matisse, whose colors made her “laugh with alarm at their beauty,” if the evidence of her letters was to be believed. She was even entertaining thoughts of an affair with her female instructor, although she was careful to tell David that the thoughts were “merely a way of reconceiving of the self, and would likely not be acted upon.” She was bursting with joy, and David could only think of his own life—how it was like unopened champagne, with the cork packed tight and the cage still on.

Women walked by, mostly young, many slender, some possessed of perfect beauty, and David tried to ignore them and concentrate on his letter. He had started the sentence haltingly, “Dear Catherine, I wanted to tell you.” What would follow? Dear Catherine, I wanted to tell you some disappointing news. Dear Catherine, I wanted to tell you how intent I am on squandering these brilliant years of your late youth. Dear Catherine, the wolf at the door is me. Nothing seemed right. And then a woman stopped in front of the coffeeshop to read the daily specials from the chalkboard. She had long, muscular legs, and large breasts, and a neck that went upward from her shoulders like calligraphy. But David was most taken by her arms, which were like things from another planet, delicately muscled without carrying any hint of intimidation, lightly fleeced without suggesting anything other than the purest feminity. They were the kinds of arms you would like to have around you always. He wrote this on the legal page, aware as he wrote that it was no longer a letter to Catherine.

The woman had noticed David noticing her. He did something he had never done before. He licked his lips at her.

That didn't mark him as a skunk. What marked him as a skunk was the fact that when the woman turned and left, he followed her. Down the block, she turned left into a bank, and he went after her. He got sixty dollars from the automatic teller, even though his wallet was already thick with tens and singles. When the woman went into a Mexican restaurant, David hung out in the newsstand next door for as long as he could bear, and then he went inside. Some detective show was on the television. He walked right up to her and leaned against the bar.

—What show is this?

—I think it’s The Rockford Files.

—Oh, yeah. Thanks. He smiled.

—Aren't you the guy from the coffeeshop?

—I am. Do you know that coffeeshop?

—I think I was in there once. She looked straight at him, more boldly than he had expected. What's your name?


—I have bad luck with Davids.

—And you are…Goliath?

—I’m Emily, she said, giving up a small smile now and extending her hand for him to shake. He did.

—I’ll tell you, he said. I’ve never been much good with Emilys. Once I convinced an Alice to take off her pants at my parents’ lake house, but I was only seven.

—How old was Alice?


This time she laughed aloud.

—You know what? she said.


—If I wasn't with someone we'd be in bed in half an hour.

—You're with someone? David’s voice cracked. He hoped this came off as a dramatic effect rather than a breach of protocol.

Emily–for he thought of her as Emily already–looked around with perfect comic timing. If this had been a play, the director would have counted off two beats in the wings before pointing at her to resume speaking. —Oh, no, she said, grinning. I guess you're right.

As it turned out, he was right. Her apartment was just down the street, and she took him there and put some folk music on the stereo. —Come here and let’s see what we can make of this, she said, her tone so matter-of-fact she could have been asking him to pass the pepper. The woman on the stereo was singing about singing on someone else’s roof, and then about the way birds exhibit fear (“by flying faster,” she sang, “faster than the wind”). They made love. David thought of it as making love. He didn’t ask Emily how she thought of it. She threw herself into it, though, and that was an answer of sorts to the unasked question. Afterward, they slept, and then he woke.

—You want to stay, she said. He couldn’t find a question-mark in her voice.

—No thanks, he said. It’s like Johnny Tremain said: A man can stand up. Then he did.

The streets were neither hot nor cold. They were quiet. The neon of a beer sign in the window of a nearby bar elated him. A scrap of paper in the middle of the street lifted suddenly in the wind like a promise of redemption.

Between one day and the next, everything changed. Wednesday morning he had woken up displeased with the heaviness of his head, the grey of his apartment ceiling, the musty odor of the place. He had been annoyed with Catherine, angry at himself, disappointed in his job, and not so thrilled about the weather, either. Thursday he had toast and jam for breakfast and considered it an overture to the rest of the day’s symphony of victory. He dashed off a letter to Catherine telling her that he thought he was in love with someone else, and that she should explore her feelings for the painting instructor. The letter didn’t start “I wanted to tell you.” It didn’t need to.

His mother berated him for breaking off the relationship. She and Catherine had always gotten along famously. “She had a darling figure,” his mother said. His recently separated brother came to visit him, promised they would go out and have a grand old time on the town, and then spent most of his trip on the phone to his estranged wife and his son. David didn’t care. He was radiant. He had one foot in the firmament. But he didn’t see Emily again after that first time. Seeing her would have accomplished none of the things he wanted to accomplish. He forbid himself access to his own motivations and moved stubbornly foward, always smiling, always sure.

Through three months, David kept on his couch most evenings, watching TV and writing hundreds of letters to Emily. He kept the letters for his own amusement. They were love letters, pledges of undying devotion, speculation on their life together, sexy comedy sketches featuring Doctor David and Nurse Emily, or President David and Secretary of State Emily. They filled the empty space of the apartment, the dresser drawers, the kitchen cabinets, the shoeboxes stacked on the top shelves of the closet. Once David dreamt he found one in his soup. Sometime in the midst of all this letter writing, Emily called him. He didn’t know how she had found his phone number, or show she even knew his real name. He put on a phony Indian accent and said, “Mr. David does not live here anymore.” He slammed down the phone and went to write another letter. This is when he got skinny and fat, smart and stupid, rich and poor, industrious and lazy. The time he didn’t spend at work or writing letters, he spent in coffeeshops on the Upper West Side, looking at women and sometimes, though he knew better now, licking his lips.

And then, sometime late in the winter, he married Catherine and became the full-blown skunk that he would always be, that he had perhaps always been. He ran into her at a restaurant, and she was both familiar and strange to him. She invited him over the next night for coffee, and the night after that for dinner. They dated for weeks without so much as kissing, and even their eventual kisses were nothing special, gentle busses, no fire, just inertia and relief. What directed them now was fate. Any show of will would have been a fatal error, a way of letting the enemy across the border. After all, they had made hundreds of passionate decisions in the three years they had been together, and they had done nothing but delay this eventual capitulation.

Three weeks after his marriage to Catherine, he was walking downtown when he bumped into Emily. She was standing in a doorway trying to light a cigarette. A sign above her said “Save time and money on your business loans today!” He gave her the once-over. Her body was as it had been before, peerless, piercing, a body that encouraged the future to shrink in the face of the swelling present.

“You know,” he told her after he had volunteered his lighter. “I thought that sign said ‘A man at thirty is no man yet.’” It was a line from the folk album she had played for him at her apartment. They moved a few doorways down, into a bar where everything—door, stools, countertops—was fire-engine red. Emily talked about nothing in particular, but her words were coming at him like arrows or angels. She was knocking him down again.

They went back to her apartment, and she put a different folk record on the stereo and brushed her fingers across his face. He told her he had recently gotten engaged. He couldn’t bring himself to say that he was married. —Well, she said, I guess this should stay our little secret, then. Unless you want me to stop.

—No, he said. Don’t stop. And by the way, how does next Wednesday sound to you? I’m free.

Then it was the start of things.

Then it was the sight of her, hair coming down her face like water down a falls.

Then it was a question: If he could preserve just one image of her, which one would it be?

Then it was a whisper from him to her about the future, and a whisper from her to him about the record on the stereo.

Then it was her kissing him more, and more ardently, and everywhere.

Then it was a contretemps in traffic in the street below, a pack of car horns roughhousing on Lafayette.

Then it was the stink that striped the day like the white of the sun on the flat of his back, like the stink that was the stink of skunk.

The record stopped. Then she stopped, too.

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker. His fiction and journalism has appeared in McSweeneys, the New Yorker, the Blip Magazine Archive, and many other fine publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

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