I'm finishing a story called "Your Mother's OnlyFans Page," which takes the form of a letter written by a very awkward boy who is about to graduate high school, to a classmate of his he's obsessed over going back years, in part stemming from one incident in third grade, which we learn all about and which says so much.
He's very verbal, but he doesn't know how to use language as well as he thinks he does. He knows words and constructions, but he's play-acting, pretending to be wiser than he is, more intellectual than he is. He's come by a lot of those words and constructions in his loneliness. He's spent a lot of his life reading. He doesn't have friends. He's bullied. He's disconnected, too, from reality. He doesn't know how to act socially, how he comes across, as a result of his loneliness. Everything he knows comes from books and poems and films and comedy specials and the like. And very little from actual human interaction.
Publishing people wouldn't understand this at all, though they're a version of this kid. Albeit, a much more toxic, hateful version. But socially they're as inept as he is, but they're adults. And as misguided and inappropriate as this kid comes across, and as pompous--but it's a sad, pitiable version of pomposity--there's also a heart there. A sweetness. And a deep sadness.
Voice is integral to any work. The voice has to fit. It must be indelible and irreplaceable. Publishing people don't understand voice. It's lost on them. The idea of feeling and nuance is lost on them. They're like people who are learning a language phonetically. They don't understand inflections, modes of speaking particular to a certain person.
This kid says some things incorrectly. The grammar is off. Certain words don't mean what he thinks they do. He can be hit or miss. He'll nail one construction--which is something he's aping--then butcher the next. He'll speak in mixed metaphors, and has no clue what a mixed metaphor is. He's fumbling. Reaching. He has a certain command, but it's raw. Almost like a pitcher who can throw hard, but a lot of the time he has no idea where his pitches are going. Only, this kid answers to this made-up version of himself that he has in his head, so he thinks his pitches are strikes. Or he wants them to be. Hopes they are. Because he doesn't have anything else. Or so he thinks.
He mostly doesn't realize how he looks in this letter that he writes to this young woman, though there are a few instances where a certain self-awareness does break through. He's trying to show off and be impressive, and trying to be edgy, like a "cool" kid, or what he thinks a cool kid is.
He doesn't know what a condescending ass he is at certain points. But he's not a mean condescending ass. He's a lonely kid who doesn't know any better. Who's scared. He's trying to have this one brave moment in his life. He gets all of it wrong. Goes about all of it wrong. The whole story is his letter to her, which he resolved to write the evening his big plan to do the bravest thing he'd ever conceived of doing had ended up failing miserably, and became this drunken mystery whodunit kind of thing at a party he'd snuck into, which he describes in full. The letter is what he resolved to write as a result. It's a second attempt at that act of bravery. It's also a confession. And maybe it's also someone so down on themselves that they want to be hurt by this person they think they care about so much.
So many other details emerge. Naturally. They're not directly stated. They emerge almost accidentally. And actually accidentally. Details of home life. Other relationships. A popular kid at school and his dad who dates women twenty years younger than he is. The writer of the letter and a school teacher who both appears to have real concern for him and who is lonely herself, perhaps.
It's an affluent town, but in affluent towns you still have these families that aren't affluent at all. That's his family, and it's her family even more. He tries to think that that's something they have in common, a way in which they're united that other people in the town who are better off are not and wouldn't get. That other kids wouldn't get.
This is a kid who is pretty divorced from reality, who wants a certain reality. But who isn't divorced from reality these days? This boy makes that gap between himself and reality more overt with this letter of his, but that's just because he took the time and went to the lengths to spell out his thoughts, his feelings. In reality, he's what many people are, this boy. They're just using less words, and hiding themselves away.
That the entire story is his letter to her means that her reaction to reading this remarkable missive is left out. We don't see it, we don't learn it.
But we learn enough about her, through this kid's perception of her, that we can guess the result. The result is probably a form of nothing, but not all forms of nothing are created equally, or are really nothing.
I'd surmise that her reaction isn't one that lends itself to cruelty or mockery. My expectation based on what I know of her, how I've come to know her, how I've read between certain lines the boy has given us, how I've read between the depiction of his emotions and feelings, is that she's kind and she knows things that he doesn't know. About people. About life. Real life. But you know what? I think he knows that about her, too.
There is a lot that happens over on what I think of as the other sides of life, that we don't learn about, have no evidence for, and which we assume doesn't exist, because of the lack of tangible proof, or how unlikely it seems. The way people think about us. How often they think about us. Despite showing or saying nothing to suggest they ever think about us. How many times that email does get read, in truth. How thoughts of us inform the prevailing mood of a day, multiple days.
We almost never know when we are someone else's last thought before they go to bed. We can think they never think about us. We can feel certain. But we're often wrong, and we have no clue that we are, or to what extent we are. And it's almost impossible to think or believe otherwise.
I think one would conclude that she read the letter--probably more than once; kept it for a few days--then tore it up and threw it away, and told no one. She kept it a secret. She didn't embarrass him with her friends, or these boys she knows, who have made life so miserable for this boy. I think she probably pitied him. I think she has her own stuff she's dealing with, as everyone is.
In one way he doesn't see her that way, in another way he does. Because if that second way didn't exist at all, I don't think he would have written the letter. But I think she's probably kind, based on what he's written to her. And she could really have gone to town on him. But completely uninterested in him. Because why would she be?
That sounds harsh and cold. But this is their coming together, as such. It is something. What is that something? A naked, real, raw human moment that's shared. From a distance. Shared wordlessly. It's also very funny at points, but painfully funny.
But if you were in publishing? You'd never get this. You'd think I had gotten the grammar wrong. Then again, publishing people usually know nothing about grammar, so they'd be unlikely to pick up on that, but if they did pick up on it, they wouldn't think it was part of the natural voice, because they have no clue what a natural voice is.
This is from the story. The ending is heartbreaking. Even the signature, which ends up being the last line. We don't know his name until then. It's what he puts parenthetically after his name that says so much and just wallops you. And it's just two words.
Angela, I have loved you since the third grade, and I no longer care who knows it, which, roughly translated—as Ms. Kennshaw might say—really means I don’t care if you officially know it. Or that I do, but only a coward remains forever silent.
That we have ever had that one English class together in four years with that large but friendly specimen of a lady presiding over it in the aforesaid Ms. Kennshaw maybe ought to be a sign to me that we are not meant for each other, but I dash the fates to the ground as if they were previously the skins of dead animals hung upon my person.
I want fresh skin as we have now bid the august, but plague-y, institution of high school adieu, and that means being truthful.
I know you don’t have any college plans for next year and will be in the area for the foreseeable future. I think that may be hard for you, accustomed as you are to your popularity. For such is the lot of any great beauty in civilization when a plethora of suitors is replaced with nothing but a new day dawning.
Sun rays are not the same as hands on breasts. And yes, though it pains me to think of you that way with others, I understand temptation. Believe me I do. I have never been able to act upon what tempts me with you, unless one counts this letter, in which I unburden my own breast, thought that is different. I get it all the same.
I want you to be well. What is it Ms. Kennshaw says? (He asks as if he doesn’t know, when he totally does know and is striking a pose. Ah, the old habits of artifice die hard, if at all, Angela.)
“Happy, healthy, and whole.”
That’s what she says. I think I could contribute some measures of me to your happiness, health, and totality. I say it for me, I grant, but also because I believe it to be true. Primarily because I believe it to be true.
I would be willing to start at whatever we might need to be in order to become something else later. If that meant a year of friendship before so much as a first kiss, then may my lips be dry, never made moist by yours.
I will know your tongue in other ways. The manner of your words. The times you come to me and say, “Can we talk? And my eyes say the word “yes, as my voice never could even were it equipped with a megaphone to reach the inhabitants of some distant planet.
I could be the swain in waiting, who returns home on weekends from the city to be and grant whatever is most needed as it comes to you.
You won’t know this, but I will be in NYC. I’ve already declared improv as my major. I recognize that you are not of a theatrical bent, but my interests need not be yours. Anything that arouses your curiosity would arouse mine because it is you being you, as you fundamentally are.
I overheard you once talking with Jenny Barton sophomore year, about how you were on the pill. Your mom got it for you. You cited her remark that exploration was inevitable.
So much verse of the Romantics has seared my eyes, been felt in the bowels of my groin (forgive my linguistic blundering, but such has been the disorienting effect of art that on occasion it pierces me as if I were a veil, or a delicate membrane of skin that marks the transition from virgin one moment to lover the next), but nothing ever went through me like that snatch of dialogue.
I thought of your freedom and your form, and the form of your freedoms. Yes, I know that last notion borders on the oxymoronic, but what is love but sanity’s folly?
And what does love require more than risk? The leap taken.
This letter is my leap to you. See me as I fly.
Here I sit three days after graduation. We may never look upon each other again. We may look upon each other always going forward. Always forward, Angela.
So much depends on a letter one has the courage to write and place in the mailbox of a woman he loves, even while knowing, fearing, dreading, but being able to accept, that she is likely never to love him.
I was not popular, as I need not remind you. The names I was called had more unfortunate traction than my given name.
But I noted that you never used those names in my presence, and I think there was something true between us. A bond that we maybe both codified as present, as existing, but a seed has its time, as they say.
We may place the seed in the ground in winter, and it will not grow. But come the spring, when the situation is more favorable and the factors of influence have changed, that same seed, thus interred over the course of December January, February, March—so much like the years of high school—grows and grows freely.
How high may the plant rise? We never know, do we? A lot in this life depends on the presence of watering cans. Ask Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk fame how high his plant grew. Much higher than he expected. Much higher than anyone expected.
You’ve heard me called an Incel and an eater of ass. Why an eater of ass? Merely because Matt McGovern, late of the hockey team, thought it was funny. And as if the prospective gesture of love were a transgression. What part of us is more intimate? What is a more open and real way to say to someone else, “Here, may this be yours, too. Partake.”
But I digress. I feel my nerves palpitating. I could not send this letter (by which I mean place it in your mailbox) if we had but a minute of high school left. I admit that my courage is far from total. There seems to me, though, no risk now. Or, rather, the risk is in having not tried.
What is the worst that can happen? You laugh at me, perhaps hate me, but all the same, our formal time together, even from a distance of you on one side of the hallway, me on the other, between classes, is at an end.
Unless something else begins.
This is the time for honesty. You’ve heard many of our contemporaries remark that I am asexual but I have a raging torrent of physicality to give and I know—or I suspect—that that’s important to you. Sex is healthy, as you are also cognizant. It numbers as one of our modes of expression.
We have not always been totally apart in this way, as I have tried to bridge the gap. The secret is safe with me, so you mustn’t worry that word will get out, but I subscribed to your mother’s OnlyFans page.
At my one and only hockey game I ever attended, or am likely to attend, I saw her in the stands and I thought, “My God, there is Angela herself in a parcel of years.”
I heard the rumors. They even trickled down to me, alone at my lunch table. But whereas everyone else got no further, I’m an adroit searcher of matters on the web. I can find most things with proper motivation.
She was the reason I got a job and then a credit card at first opportunity. Or rather, you were. Round and round the world turns; but we may more accurately say, roundabout the world turns. Whatever takes us to that which matters to us most is always germane.
I’d watch her dildo herself, remembering how free she had encouraged you to be when she wanted you to be on the pill before you could drive, thinking that you had likely seen what I was seeing, how I was seeing the inside of your house, with its conspicuous absence of a male figure, and that I was also likely seeing what you were or would be in a time yet to come.
It’s a strange word, dildo as a verb. I wrote it into my comedy act, which I will be honing at school.
There’s an entire bit about nouns as verbs that you might find cutting edge. Dildo being one, cup another, tongue another, soap a fourth. I have this whole thing, too, about things black people say during sex, which is more edgy than someone would expect from me if they don’t know me.
For instance, black guys often say, “I’s a’gonna nut,” and then the black woman says, “You get that nut, baby.”
They say that word nut a lot. So does a black person see a squirrel gathering nuts and getting ready for winter and start thinking about sex?
Like I said, it’s edgy, but my comedy isn’t something I share with many people. The first mention, actually, of that routine is here, on this very page, to you. So you know I am in earnest. Those are jokes, but this is no joke.
I have spoken of the need for truth. Of the paragons of this world, none are more so than truth and beauty. If you are the ripened flower of the second, I feel as if I should try and contribute something regarding the first. I can embody the watering can.