Rumpus Original Fiction: Beginnings


1. The Beginning

I find you impossibly beautiful, the man tells me. Give it a year, I tell him, and you’ll find me impossible.


2. The Beginning

We are in a bar, the man and I. We came to this bar after a literary event. (After a literary event, I go to a bar with a man.) The man is an editor and I am a writer and so we are both part of a world in which going to literary events is not an action but rather something that happens to you.

I would very much like to fuck you, he says. I can tell he’s being sincere.

I nod.

What I’d like to know, he says, but I already know what he would like to know, so I interrupt. Have I mentioned that he’s an editor? I think he’s usually the one interrupting.

It can’t happen, I say.

There is a pause before he says, Let me get you another drink.

He is thinking this conversation is in need of some reframing. I can tell. I’m good at knowing when men want to reframe. Don’t think “cheating,” think “exploring,” that sort of thing.

He gets up, moves his hip. For a moment I think he’s about to start dancing. This is a dive-bar; dancing would be inappropriate. I’d be forced to look away and roll my eyes; I don’t wish to be associated with inappropriate behavior. But the hip movement turns out to be temporary; he’s transitioning from sofa-mode to motion. He leaves then, walks over to the bar. I stare at his back. It is a good back, but it is covered with a pale buttoned-down shirt. The man I married dresses well; from a fashion standpoint, cheating on him with the editor makes no sense.

I like watching men walk away, imagining they’ll never come back. Heartbreak, the pain of the young. I surrender to this fantasy, the kind of freedom I’d allow myself as a heartbroken woman. A week spent in bed, weeping.

Something that didn’t happen: a question, the kind people ask before they buy you a drink. What am I getting you? What would you like?

I watch his back, expecting it to turn around. It does not.

It’s possible that he forgot. And it’s possible that since the bar is crowded, by the time he realized his mistake he didn’t want to return, so as to not lose his spot. If there’s one thing men don’t like, it’s losing their spot. Also, it’s recently been scientifically proven, I read somewhere, that most men are incapable of thinking two thoughts at the same time. So if he was thinking about bedding me, he may have been physically unable to ask me what I wanted to drink. But of course there’s another possibility to consider: he might be the kind of man who decides for women what they will drink. I want to spend time with this thought. I imagine him putting a drink in front of me, a drink I don’t recognize. Trust me, he says; you’ve tasted nothing like this before. The feminist in me wants to laugh at him. Hey, look at that, she says getting up, a smile on her face like she’s already gone, you have two drinks now. The shock on his face gives her pride, pleasure.

But not all of me is her. Parts of me are more primal than feminist, unconcerned with the revolt they should feel when a man tries to control them. These parts of me—they do not revolt. When they hear him say Trust me, they want to put a hand on his thigh.

He comes back, places a glass of white wine in front of me.

Chardonnay? I ask. He brought me a refill.

He seems confused. That’s what you were drinking, right? (Isn’t that what you’re having?)

Yes, yes, I say. Thank you.

It is often a curse, this imagination of mine. Life pales in comparison. Refills pale in comparison.

He raises his beer glass. Clinking is in order.

I raise my wine glass. We let our glasses touch, briefly. I can hardly hear the clink over the bar loudness, but I know we have clinked. In a quiet room—say, his bedroom—the clink would ring in our ears, teasing.

(Don’t ease up here—stay in that charged moment.)


3. The Beginning

So about the fucking, he says. He has a nice sense of humor, the kind that allows a man to get away with a lot. Or is it his profession that buys him this privilege, his profession that appeals to me? He is a man who cares about language. He is a man who decides the fate of stories. Someday soon, my book in manuscript form may land on his desk.

I smile.

I want to be your friend, I say. I will never sleep with you.

His eyes are telling me something before he does, but I’m not sure what.

Let’s look at these two sentences, he says, shall we? He knows how to look at words.

Let’s do that, I say, because part of the game is that we show the same level of confidence. If I showed hesitation, our exchange would start over and we would be new people, flirting in a new way. “I want to be your friend,” he says slowly, emphasizing each word. We have desire here, something you want. Good. Then, on the other hand, “I will never sleep with you.” It’s a boring sentence, you’d agree. And what makes it boring? We ignored desire. You will, you won’t, who cares. What people want to know is desire. What. Do. You. Want. He looks right at me now, keeps his eyes on my eyes. There’s nowhere to go. Somehow, I neglected to predict this moment; he is a skilled editor.

I love my husband, I tell him. My voice is soft now. This isn’t how it sounded in my head.

No one is disputing that, he says.

I don’t know what I’m doing here, I say, I don’t know what this is.

I’m not asking you to know the ending, he says.

(Flirting is harmless. Did something happen? Without clear action, you don’t have a beginning. Find the real beginning.)


4. The Beginning

It starts at 3 a.m. over a burger he orders but can’t eat. There’s a storm outside, we ran into this diner for cover, and as we’re staring at the burger we’re both still dripping. Our waitress has no bra under her t-shirt and I keep waiting for him to look at her breasts. He never does. His lip is trembling. This is a big deal for me, he says. He means to say it’s been years for him since real connection. He means to say, You are a married woman. I put my hand on his. I think I could spend the rest of my life with you, he says, and instead of saying But you barely know me, I move closer to him, put my other hand on his thigh. I am trying to move closer to his words.

The pull is strong and I spend so much time in my head trying to—what exactly—not undo the connection, just, what? Break it down. I am a woman who likes to understand, who often mistakes understanding for control. If I understand what is happening, I think, then I’ll be able to make a conscious choice. Except, of course, the whole point of an affair is losing yourself to a force stronger than you and mysterious, a force that by its nature pulls pulls pulls, and never stops to explain.

(Ah, now we have the opposite problem! Try to locate the starting point of the emotional arc.)


5. The Beginning

When the affair starts, he’s not even there. He is away at some conference (name the conference or location?) and it has been a week since I last saw him. I am meeting a friend for drinks, a friend who knows about the affair, a friend who doesn’t judge. My friend looks at me and says, You’re in love. She smiles and sips her vodka tonic. She doesn’t seem to be asking anything, so I don’t answer. That’s how it happens that I just sit there with her words hanging in the air between us, above us. That’s how it happens that these words become true.

(You know that annoying two-year-old phase, when the child won’t quit asking why? But why? Pretend to be that child. Keep questioning your way to a deeper truth, then a deeper truth. As long as you can answer, you’re not done asking. You really want to find the beginning? Then be honest.)


6. The Beginning

It’s simple: it starts the way affairs start. It starts when you lie naked with a man who is not your husband, your body hot with guilt and soft with sweat, listening to the wind and the rain—the weather always gets busy just then—and as the drip-drop intensifies and turns to hail you know that you have willed this climate, that you are the kind of woman who uses her powers to turn the outside volatile when she wants the inside to, by comparison, feel calm.

(Awkward phrasing. Be mindful of what you sacrifice in order to hit the note you want, to end on “calm.”)


7. The Beginning 

(It starts before you sleep together. Doesn’t it? )

It starts when you kiss a man who is not your husband, and even though you are drunk, you know with certainty that this man is an editor and that your husband designs software, and so there is no confusion, no way that this here is your husband and therefore no way that you are supposed to be kissing this man, here, now. But you do.

(Skin doesn’t need to touch skin; beginnings are far more subtle. If you know what to look for, you spot them long before the first contact.)


8. The Beginning

It starts when you agree to have a drink with a man who is not your husband. You have a drink with this man, an editor, and over the loudness of the bar you tell him you’ll never sleep with him. He’s not asking you to sleep with him, he says. But he is not one to shout over noise, and so this is being whispered in your ear: he is not expecting sex, and while this is so hard, and while he would, if you gave him the green light, chase you around the block, he absolutely, completely, understands your—he pauses here just briefly—situation. His lips are touching your earlobe as he speaks. You feel his breath pushing its way into you when he says no, he’s not pressuring you, never would, but he is asking you for something, one thing: your truth. You are quiet and still now, possibly more quiet and more still than you have ever been in your life and he says, Really, I would never want you to cheat on your husband. He turns your face to face his face before he says, Admit what you want. That’s all I’m asking. Just that. Words.


9. The Beginning

I want you to know this, he says: If you were single, I’d marry you.

You want to correct him: You’d ask me to marry you. Sometimes his words are off.

(When does he start to lose interest?)


10. The Middle

One night in bed he sings for me, plays the guitar, but he is not there. Have you met someone, I want to ask. Have I done something wrong, I want to ask. Can you please look at me, I want to ask. Instead, I kiss his neck the way he likes. His eyes are remembering another woman; I just don’t know if he has met her yet.

(Keep the POV consistent; find another way to communicate her increasing vulnerability. And wouldn’t she be the one to lose interest? Seems more believable.)


11. The Middle 

Are you okay? he texts, Is everything okay? Yes yes, I text back. So sorry. Slammed. Drinks Tuesday?


12. The Middle

The noise of it all, the heaviness and lightness in my body alternating as if to make me lose my balance—when does it become too much? There is this moment: it is Saturday morning, and I am walking with my husband to a café in our neighborhood. We are about to cross a busy street, we need to move fast, when I realize that I can’t. My body is a lump of bricks two feet deep in sand. I look at my husband and he sees that I am slow again; I remember suddenly that this has happened before, has been happening recently. But he doesn’t ask, my husband—he never does. He takes my hand. He says, we’ll go around.


13. The Middle

One night, I come home late smelling of the editor’s bourbon, and my husband is crying. It’s tomorrow, he says, and I’m just so scared. She’ll be okay, I tell him, she is okay. I’m not sure what’s worse, that his mother might have cancer, or that I forgot all about it. I hug him and hug him until he seems to need air.


14. The Middle

I plan a writing date with my friend, but when we get to the coffee shop I know right away that it’s not going to work. I’m cursed, I tell her, I’ll never write again. Nonsense, she says, you just need to end it with the editor. And take on a new lover.

(Is this the same friend we met earlier? Clarify.)


15. The Middle

Ever since that cancer scare with my mom, you’ve been a little obsessed with the gym, my husband observes as I’m getting into my spandex.

I’m not sure the two are related, I say. Sweat clears my mind.


16. The Middle

I was thinking if Belgium gives me that bonus check, my husband says, or if we get some extra any other way, we should go back to Sorrento for our anniversary. Belgium is a musician my husband is trying to promote on the side, and Sorrento is where we spent our honeymoon. We always said one day we’d return.

(The tension drops in the husband sections. Time to circle back?)


17. The End

Three months later, at an Indian restaurant, the editor is leaving me. Red chutney is making our samosa soggy and it upsets me. Soft foods always upset me. With one finger he draws a circle repeatedly on the back of my hand. This is something that he does. I used to like it. I’m just not sure, he says, I’m sorry.

I would like to edit this conversation. Instead, I would like him to say: I can’t share you with him anymore. Or: It all hurts too much. Or even: leave him. I’m just not sure, he says, I’m sorry.

(POV character is passive here. Implicate her more.)


18. The End

Three months later, at an Indian restaurant, I am leaving the editor. You never really gave me a chance, he says. Red chutney is making our samosa soggy and it upsets me. I’ve always hated the red sauce; it tastes both spicy and sweet, which I find indecisive. I do not wish to put indecisiveness in my mouth. With one finger he draws a circle on the back of my hand, again and again. This is something that he does. I used to like it. Give me one month, he says, and then corrects himself—give us one month. This is not a new conversation. I know what he means, and what he means I can’t give him. What he means I can’t give anyone. I don’t have the ability to love one man, to be in one place; for no good reason, I fantasize about unlived lives, hypothetical lovers. I’m wired wrong. But that’s a terrible truth, not a truth you can share with a person.

I need to go soon, I say, I’m sorry. Don’t be sorry, he says, I need to leave now.

(Food stuff in this section is just a tad heavy-handed.)


19. The End

A few weeks after he leaves me, we meet for coffee. It is a place we’ve gone to before—one of those coffee shops that pretend to be someone’s living room—and we are sitting on the blue, worn-out couch he likes.

It was real, the man keeps saying. I want you know that it was real.

He’s talking about his 3 a.m. confession, his uneaten burger. He’s talking about the fact that it was raining. This is a big deal for me, he said then. He is sad now, talking about how real it all was while it lasted, and the blue couch makes it so I can’t get the distance I need. I want to ask him about it, ask if this couch has always been this small, but I know that it’s a stupid question. And I know that if I ask, he’ll think I’m being literary. He’ll think I’m using a metaphor.

That’s the thing about editors—they are incapable of ignoring subtext. And yet so often that’s what a moment of life calls for, isn’t it—the kindness of looking away.

So I don’t ask about the couch. I don’t ask why he keeps telling me it was real. I don’t ask what the hell that even means. Instead, I look at him. I see the damage that life has inflicted on him—with men you can always see, if you look closely. Every loss, every rejection, every bruise to the ego has creased his face, has slouched his posture. I wish we never slept together, I whisper, and I’d remained your fantasy. Then I whisper again, but this time there’s a lot of air in my words. I don’t sound like myself. I don’t sound fully human. I took a risk, my animal voice tells him, and then repeats. I took a risk. 


20. The End

Of course, he does eventually tell me that I’m impossible. The man who never loses his calm shouts these words—shouts them several times. The third time he adds a fucking. You’re fucking impossible! And you can hear the exclamation, though surely he’ll edit it out if he gets the chance. We’re outside a coffee shop and his iced cappuccino is sweating. Earlier, I put too much Stevia in mine and then drank it anyway. I am wired wrong, I want to tell him. My voice is shaking. I told you, I say instead. I told you this is how it would end.

(Why don’t we see what led to his explosion? Maybe you can use this opportunity to tie back to the beginning—she can call him a bad dresser, for instance?)


21. The Middle

When I come home from the coffee shop, my husband is doing our taxes. Looking like we should get nice returns this year, he tells me from his desk, much better than I expected. My voice still feels shaky, so I don’t want to speak. I walk over and hug him from behind. When I reach over him to open the window, he stops me, his eyes still on the screen. Don’t, he says, it’s too cold. Can you look at me, I ask him, and he does. I love you, I say, and my throat is making my words wavy. You know that, right? Of course I do, he says.

When I walk the two blocks to our laundromat an hour later, I stop every few feet and close my eyes so I can feel the air better. When I get there, I see a note on the door. Closed: Renovations, it says. Behind the note, the store looks gutted. I stand next to a redheaded woman who’s holding a giant laundry bag. We both stare at the sign. Well that sucks, she says. They have my clothes, I tell her, mine and my husband’s. She finds this funny, and I laugh with her to be polite. I start to feel the fatigue in my face muscles, a familiar sensation, and I wait for her to stop laughing so I can stop laughing but we are standing there for what seems like a long time, laughing together.

(I’m not sure about this side turn, this laundromat scene—especially if you mean for this to be the ending?)


22. The Beginning

Sorrento, my husband says.

I say, Yes.

I say, It’ll be good for us.

I say, I really do need to get away.


Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) and the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus, Writings from the MeToo Movement (McSweeney’s, 2019), as well as the upcoming I Know What's Best for You: Stories on Reproductive Freedom (McSweeney’s, 2022). Her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and on Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, has received a number of awards, and has been translated to several languages. Her website is More from this author →