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
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
—Oh, yeah. Thanks. He
—Aren't you the guy from
—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.
—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
—How old was Alice?
This time she laughed
—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
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
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
Then it was the start of
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
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.