Mitchell Warren’s Unsolicited Submission

Alex was looking for a bottle of hard whiskey and loveless sex that night. He had played all of the mind games and had learned all of the painful lessons taught through bad experiences. He had carelessly broken a few hearts and then received just comeuppance from his own unrequited love. The jaded confrere was worldly wise and he felt this was the ultimate truth for human beings to learn: Men want sex and women are dying to give it to them.

He gulped down his third drink and pounded the bar table with a fist. A spark of inspiration! The solution to his creative block, that was preventing the conclusion of his latest and greatest novel, was a reckless affair with a total stranger. Think of the wounded emotions, the lovesick repercussions, the river of guilt and the storm of regret. All good for creativity, he concluded. (Alcoholic, selfish and amoral—you had to know he was a writer)

But who would be the lucky girl? Whose world would he infiltrate and then destroy? Perhaps the buxom blonde that was sitting to the far right, or the younger, virginal brunette sitting way in the back. Just waiting for disaster? Asking for trouble?

Or were they simply doltish? Like the shallowest characters in the latest, commercially produced, best selling novel by Tom Sellout. The sort of formulaic refuse that he would never stoop to pen.

“I would sooner die here drunk and artistically free,” he pontificated, “Then allow my name to appear on a book I do not love.”

Speaking of love…

“Now which woman here tonight shall I wipe and flush?”

His hesitation was for the better. For he then caught sight of a very odd-looking, but picturesque woman sitting by herself towards the window. She was not beautiful, per say; Average looking, not quite in her twilight years and a few pounds heavy. She had a cute face and dressed very modestly. Wait a minute, he figured. She was beautiful in her own way. What is she doing in here? he thought. She stands out like a quaint protagonist on page five of a crowded war novel. However, there was another quality of hers that he found fascinating. He watched as her sad face looked down at the table, studying something written. She looked…unsatisfied. Lonely. Depressed. One heartbreak away from being unfit or unwilling to live.

He sighed. Why must great sex and damning guilt always be intertwined? He shrugged off his selfish intentions and allowed the idea of real love to float around in his mind. Just for a moment—like a limited release in major cities, he reminded himself.

It would be the only way he could allow himself to approach her.

“Because I could never forgive myself for being so cruel to a slightly unattractive, sad looking woman.”

He walked over to her table and stood above her, with an extra drink.

“The bartender made a mistake. He gave me two drinks instead of one. Let’s take advantage of the situation.”

She smiled and covered her reading material. “Okay, that sounds good to me.”

He sat down with her and the two exchanged nice smiles.

“What have you got covered up there? Are you reading a saucy romance novel? I can take a hint.”

She laughed. “No, I bring work home with me. And to bars too. What a life, right?” She giggled again.

“Indeed. In some professions, work is a twenty-four assignment.”

“That is so true.”

“Names? Or shall we drink as strangers?”

“Kimberly.”

“Alex. And let me guess,” he smirked. “You’re a writer.” His fiercely competitive instincts kicked in just in case she was.

“So close. Actually, I’m an editor. Submissions editor for Stallart Press.”

“An editor?”

He smiled at the irony—no, the contrivance of the situation! What are the odds that a writer and an editor would find themselves alone and lonely in such a common and lowly setting as this?

“What do you do?”

“Why, I’m a writer. So I guess in this scenario, you’re the fisherman and I’m the helpless salmon flopping around for his life.”

She laughed. “On the contrary, I see myself as the salmon and you writers as the persistent fishermen who never stop baiting.”

“In any event, this whole meeting is fishy.”

“Right.” She laughed again while Alex took a comfortable silence.

“So what do you write? Are you a best selling author?”

“Not yet, still struggling.”

“Ah, not quite up to prime level?” she sneered.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. I do have a novel coming out that I’m promoting.”

“Really? What’s the name?”

A Rose.”

“Hmm, sounds kind of generic. How about A Dandelion? Or does it depend on the genre?” She tittered and took another drink. Alex took a peaceful breath, and reminded himself all is fair in love and war. For an argument about writing to erupt here would not only be unprofessional but also very un-sexy.

“Well…I felt it was metaphorical in a way. On one hand A Rose can be something simple like a flower. But emotionally speaking…when you consider the petals and layers of a person’s life and experience…”

Her attention drifted. Her eyes went to another handsome stranger.

“Oh well. It’s very complicated.”

“Yeah, must be.” she teased. “So who’s publishing it?”

“Alumni Quest.”

“Never heard…oh.” Her face tightened. “Isn’t that a vanity press publisher?”

“Well,” he laughed. “Everything is vanity, a Jewish writer once wrote. But if you mean a Print-On-Demand publisher, then yes. However the process of digital technology is a new science and is really catching on. Even with the big house publishers. Baker & Taylor may be the largest distributor of books in the nation but even they use Print-On-Demand technology. The bottom line is that brick and mortar book stores don’t want thousands of books sitting in their storage rooms.”

Alex’s hands clasped together and he shifted upwards in his chair. This couldn’t be considered the usual, getting to know you chitchat.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know about digital technology, and offset presses and what constitutes print-on-demand. But POD to me, means Publish On Demand. As in self-published work. As in the author pays for his expenses, with no editorial review, and places a few copies of his book in a warehouse somewhere waiting to be specially ordered off the Internet. That’s what POD means to me.”

“You talk about POD as if it were a religious cult.”

“Well, it’s like false advertising. You tell me you’re a writer and create all of these high expectations and then to find out, you’re a vanity-press author!” She taunted him mercilessly, behind an affront of flirty friendliness. “How can you call yourself a writer?”

Alex’s smile left him. “Well, I am a writer. Even when I was unpublished I still considered myself a writer.”

“You’re still unpublished, honey. And I’m wondering if you really deserve the title of writer. Even in cheesy bars, we should have some standards.”

He could see she was enjoying herself during this professional poking. Was this all in good, teasing fun? “So you and your kind seek to segregate the unpublished struggling writer from the million-to-one, Tom Sellout success story?” He shook his head and playfully chided her. “Shame, shame O great goddess who looks down on us all.”

“Well,” she bobbed her head in sarcasm, before continuing the onslaught. “These myths that you perpetuate drive me crazy. Misunderstood writer. Creative, artistic genius that can’t get a break. This isn’t Hollywood, Alex. This is the publishing world. And I, as an editor, am bombarded with tons and tons and heaps and heaps of unsolicited submissions every day.”

“I know. Woe is you.” He lowered his eyes and allowed himself to check out the woman’s cleavage with less guilt attached.

“And you know what? I say that at least seventy-five percent of all manuscripts I read are complete crap.” She giggles but holds her fearless disposition. “All of this nonsensical garbage that people send in, thinking it’s pure genius…I got news for you, Little Larry from Sabina, Ohio. Your manuscript is not interesting or insightful. And I don’t care if you are awaiting a response! Send this SOB the form letter, Roger!” She exploded into good-natured laughter, while Alex struggled to keep a friendly smile in place.

“Jesus, woman. Or should I say, dear sir or ma’am.”

She got it and chuckled.

“I must disagree with that narrow-minded viewpoint. Respectfully yours, a published author whose work is available worldwide and is already gaining an Internet following. In the top 90,000 of Amazon.com and how many traditionally published books can say that?”

“Oh, yeah right. Well, you bought me a strong drink and got me half drunk. So I’m listening. Make your all encompassing point.”

“Hell, if you’re already half drunk, why waste time talking about writing?”

They both chortled away and enjoyed the comfortable, and occasionally, antagonizing silences.

“I find it annoying that so many of you in the editorial process have this elitist thinking, that all unmarketable stories are just garbage. Don’t you remember that some of the greatest authors in the history of human civilization were self-published? And for the same reasons. Because the mainstream world back then, just as today, was not interested in reading their iconoclastic work. Marketable to a thinking man, to an artist, means a “sell-out.” Dopey and predictable. Pandering to the lowest common denominator. I have many friends who are unpublished writers, and write splendidly. Better than a lot of your New York Times Best Selling, professional recyclers. And you know why they’re unpublished? Because they write experimental, avant-garde type stuff. They don’t compromise.”

“And they’re working two jobs, aren’t they?” She grinned. “That might sound like a good defense in court, buddy. But every vanity-produced book I’ve seen reads like amateurish, misspelled porno. Forgive me for saying the cruel and unusual truth, but the writers of today are not on the same level as the Virginia Woolf’s and the James Joyce’s. Most of these people are uneducated, probably unmedicated goofs that have no idea how to spell, let alone comprise an intelligent and provocative sentence. And these kids, they will never get any better. Because it takes perseverance, it takes hard concentration and an almost doctoral adherence to learning the trade of creative writing. Little Jimmy from Omaha, Nebraska might have a great idea and a lot of ambition. But he’ll starve to death in the real world of publishing.”

“Wow, you are a piece of work. You are so mean and yet so cute when you’re venomous.”

She laughed heartily, though not putting away her determined visage. “One of my flaws, I hear. I tell the truth first and console later.”

“So your advice to new writers or unpublished writers is what?”

“Uh, take your pick. Either believe in yourself and keep trying? That’s what I have to say in the office. Tact and professionalism is very important. But what I really feel like saying or screaming, in most cases is, stop it! Please stop it! Give it up, already. You’re not a writer, you have no talent. Find another career. And this annoying persistence you have, that you refuse to mold or adapt to the needs of the market, is not helping. You’re desperate, you’re begging. You’re like the sweaty palms, stuttering, nervous guy in a bar who’s too afraid to even approach a good-looking woman. The unsolicited, unagented submissions process hurts us both. You try and try, but with no talent or any hope, it is to no avail. So please, I hope that one day someone with no compassion or scruples but with a lot of experience is kind enough to tell you how pathetic you are. For your own good, just to put you out of your misery. And I am more than willing to be that person for you.”

Alex gulped down the rest of his drink, filling the hole of resentment. “All I can say to that is that you must be a demon in the sack.”

Kimberly exploded into volcanic laughter. What was truly funny about the situation however was that amidst all the drunken chortling taking place, both sides were vehemently convinced of their own truth.

“I might or might not be,” she said while peering between strands of hair. “But I guess you’ll never know.”

“What a cute cliché from an editor.”

She batted her eyelashes in sarcasm. “So what’s your second job like, Alex?”

Alex silently guffawed and absorbed the punch.

“I presume you have one. English teacher or McDonalds sales associate?”

“Gigolo.”

She laughed. “Ah yes, I know how you devious you writers can be. And the unpublished ones are especially untrustworthy.”

“Good thing I’m published, then.” Alex took a sneaky look past her cleavage and to a much more revealing product. A folded piece of printer paper covered in bold, courier new typeface that she had now uncovered. “What have you got there?”

“Oh.” She retreated. “It’s nothing.”

“Meaning it must be something. A story of your own?”

“Noo, surely not. I’m an editor, not a writer.” She laughed and covered up the paper with her hands.

“What then?”

“Oh, you’re going to laugh. Or worse yet, find fault. And after that harangue on unpublished authors I just delivered, you will be so cruel to me.”

“Not at all. I have an open mind, unlike the mainstream publishing industry.”

“I collect urban legends,” she snickered. “It’s the only thing I read just for fun anymore. There’s something so…”

Alex laughed hard then quipped. “Crocodiles in the sewer? Super glue in the underpants? That’s not geeky at all. I am so turned on right now.”

Kimberly laughed herself silly before uncovering her printed list of urban legends for the benefit of good reading. “Come on, you have to read some of these.”

“I have. I’ve always enjoyed urban legends. Something very simple yet eloquent about each one.”

“I know! And I’ve always had a very macabre sense of humor, so…”

“Kentucky fried-rat? Who could resist?”

A few urban legends and big belly laughs later, Alex asked Kimberly a bold and provocative question.

“Can we talk about something besides writing?”

What a question. Besides writing, what was life to these two creative people? Everything was art to Alex. And to Kimberly, good writing was the foundation of society and all existence. What else could there be to talk about?

“Let’s talk about sex, shall we?”

Alex replied coolly. “If that interests you.”

“The truth is, I very rarely go to bars. I don’t do things like this very often. Go looking for trouble, as my mother always says. I had two bad relationships a time ago, and I can’t stand to even think about living through another bad break up.” She laughed, but did so quietly, suppressing a stream of tears. “I’m one of those people who throws themselves into their work, so they don’t have to face the real world. There was so much pain involved the last time. And I would cry myself to sleep sometimes and say this isn’t worth it. There won’t be a next time, I won’t let this happen again. So I determined if I were ever going to get involved again, it would just be a casual thing. So I came here tonight thinking, I’m going to just let some Tom Cruise look alike pick me up tonight and not think twice in the morning.” She smiled sadly, as Alex mirrored her uncertainty. “And then we started talking about writing of all things! It was ironic in a way. And the funniest thing is now…the idea doesn’t appeal to me.”

Alex listened intently and his spark of inspiration disappeared as Kimberly’s face went somber.

“I guess it’s just not my lifestyle. I care too much about people, I want to get involved with people. I’m not a kid anymore. And if I had gone home tonight with you or any other handsome Don Juan, I would have been untrue to myself, my own ideals, and regretted it for that alone.”

It was a logical reasoning Alex knew all too well. Rather than reveal the irony that he came into the bar looking for the precise same thing but then thought twice (which she would probably see as rehearsed anyway material) he decided to expound on the same reasoning.

“I think we’ve all been there. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of bad relationships. It’s something you never get over, though we constantly try to invent new ways of doing so. But as I know from experience, prowling the night for strangers, and typing away for twenty hours a day with the blinds down…that is no substitute for progressing through the grief.”

“Yeah,” Kimberly grumbled. They remained silent, testing the other’s sincerity. To reveal oneself to a stranger is a difficult process, one that can have lasting consequences. They lived through the peaceful silence and with their friendly smiles, gained each other’s amicable respect, if not lasting trust.

“It’s hard to trust new people,” Alex muttered. “Who can blame us though, when we’ve been treated so unjustly? But I think we can make this night something meaningful. Even if our intentions were less than perfect to start with.”

Alex smiled, reflecting on his own troubled history, as well as his ambitions to start a new chapter in Real Life. Kimberly joined his nostalgic cheer and thought the reasoning of new beginnings, and trusting new people, was a solid one and one worth investing in emotionally. What a marketable venture, indeed.

They walked down a quieted and listening street on the way to Kimberly’s home. They had both done the unthinkable, and started being honest with each other. Revealing whatever was asked, but doing so professionally and interestingly. No game playing, simply high concept communication.

For most of the walk home, Kimberly waived her arms around and excitedly told stories, very much into the descriptive detail of her life’s experiences. When as she reached a climactic confession, however, her body language lulled.

“My mother is dying. Not to get too dramatic on the first date, but she does have a disease. We call it ‘the melodrama’, since we both just hate drama in our lives, and I especially hate it in manuscripts I read.” She laughed tiredly. “But she’s tired of going to hospitals. She’s lived a good life and just wants me to be happy. Thankfully, she’s resigned herself to the idea of grandchildren. It’s one of those cases, where she doesn’t pressure me to get married. But, she makes it clear that she’s not pressuring me, so…”

“I read you.”

“And not to bring up another cliché, since I know how you prolific writers hate clichés…”

Alex laughed politely. “It’s all about the execution, not the concept. Go ahead.”

“My father left us when I was a little girl. So I’ve always mistrusted men on some level. And then in college and then the last relationship I went through. It really takes its toll on a person. On the more cold and lonely nights, I just prefer to be alone with no men in my life at all.” She giggled at the thought. “Sad but true, huh?”

“Like life.”

“Like an urban legend!”

They laughed. Perfect timing, the writer and editor observed, as the laugh ended right as they approached the front door to Kimberly’s apartment.

Now what to do? They were sincerely enjoying each other’s company, yet made a promise not to turn a new beginning into a cheap end. Had anything changed, they wondered? They went looking for loveless sex, as a release, and yet found something more meaningful and possibly even worthwhile in the long run. Not that the delicious irony was lost upon them. A writer falling for an editor? With sexual release being postponed until the market demanded it. Enough with the fulsome metaphors, thought Alex as he returned to the plight. Would it be wrong to enjoy one night of casual fun in theory, or would it be up to the editor’s discretion? Would she understand this affair to be something with potential or something definitely marriageable? And by whose standards? The standards of your readers, correct? The readers being society or your social circle of friends?

Screw it, they both said. An hour later, they made love. The affair was awkward and performed self-consciously from the very beginning. It had been so long for Kimberly, she forgot about condoms and had to ask Alex if he had one. Alex then had to pretend as if he didn’t bring one deliberately and just happened to have one stuffed in his wallet, so as not to kill the mood. The final draft of this liaison was not without fair criticism. It seemed as if Alex’s ambition was the strong point of the collaboration, and that Kimberly simply reviewed his performance and evaluated it at the end as something acceptable.

The next morning, Kimberly was startled to find nobody present in bed. Then she remembered Alex had bid her goodnight before going home. To which Kimberly coolly replied, “Oh. Okay. I’ll see you later.” Nothing dramatic had been exchanged, she had no reason to feel used or mistreated. She simply woke up feeling uncertain of herself, perhaps nervous of things to come.

“I don’t want to feel this way again,” Kimberly cried to herself. “I can’t conclude that last night was anything more serious than it looked from the outside. It was as serious or as casual as he wanted it to be. This is a new beginning for me, right? It was what we both wanted from the very beginning. And yet it wasn’t meaningless sex, it was special. We befriended each other and were gaining significant trust. Therefore, it really was a new beginning. It was a wonderful thing. Just relax yourself, dear.”

She covered her body over with the blanket.

The next day, after hours of worrying, over-analyzing and overeating, Kimberly decided to call Alex at the number he so willingly provided. The phone rang until a machine took the call.

Hello. You have reached the offices of Alex Artiste. If you are an editor calling about the status of a relationship, please note that follow up phone calls will not be answered. Alex is bombarded by phone calls from various female editors daily and does not have the time to check on the status of a relationship over the phone. Please do not call this number for this reason. If you would like to know more about the status of your work, please wait for a response by mail. Thank you, Sincerely, Alex.

Kimberly’s jaw dropped. Is this a joke? she had to ask. A somewhat warped joke, but writers tend to be that way. Especially with such a delicate setting as the writer dating the editor scenario. No use getting impatient over such a silly sentiment. She was determined to be professional. She would wait it out as Alex had suggested and wait for him to call her.

Five days later, Kimberly received a letter from a familiar name. She tore it open and scrutinized every word.
Dear Editor:

We, the body of Alex Artiste, regret to inform you that your recent presentation to Mister Alex does not meet with our requirements at this time. Because of the volume of attractive women such as yourself that we have correspondence with, we cannot afford to go into length about why your presentation did not qualify. We do not provide reviews of your personal repertoire. Just to say that it does not qualify. For more information and for specific ways to improve your work, try reading sexual pictorial books, or take the advice of a few friends as well as ex-lovers, both male and female. Thank you for your enthusiastic interest in the body of Alex Artiste, and we encourage you to send future relationship ideas our way. And never give up getting laid!

Sincerely,

Alex The Writer

Kimberly purposely worked overtime that week. She couldn’t fathom what Alex was thinking behind all of that vicious sarcasm. Even in her private thoughts she confessed, “I never tell writers what I’m really thinking. I’m always tactful and polite. He doesn’t even have the decency to tell me face to face that it’s over.”

Later that week, Kimberly visited with her mother over lunch. Missus Thomas, a saintly woman with a frail body but vital personality, had recently been diagnosed with inoperable bone marrow cancer and was given a time frame to make peace with remaining friends, family and the world. Missus Thomas had lived a quite a life up until the diagnosis, and was ready to face death with an effervescent hello—but with one reservation. Missus Thomas brought up a sore subject that challenged Kimberly’s own undisclosed feelings.

“So are you seeing anyone?”

“Uh…why?”

“Please don’t tell me you’re not,” Missus Thomas glowered in a mother’s worry. “It’s been three years since Boyd left you. You haven’t even been looking?”
What to say. How about a halfway lie? “Well, yeah, I guess I did meet someone,” she mumbled, feigning reserved happiness.

“Really?” her mother’s face lit up like a bulb. “That’s great! Who is he? What does he do?”

Go ahead and tell her, she thought. That some stranger she met in a bar and foolishly trusted had her way with her and then dumped her by form letter in some paradoxical criticism of the mainstream publishing world. She sighed, “He’s a writer.
He’s a writer, mother.” She bit her lip.

“A writer? Ohhh, how ironic.” She nodded away happily. “Like a real writer, or one of those vanity writers you and David were telling me about?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course not.” Missus Thomas simpered. “You’ve come a long way, darling. Provided of course this is a serious relationship.” She raised her brow in warning.

“Yeah, of course it is. You know me.”

“I’m not pressuring you, as you say. Personally, I’m not that fond of the idea of grandchildren. Makes me feel old.” She smiled dearly. “But my reservations to Hades have been made and the one way ticket purchased.”

“Not Heaven, huh? Most people would say Heaven.”

“For girls like me, getting into Heaven is such a complication. Thing is, Kimberly, I want you to be looking towards the future. Every parent must die knowing their son or daughter is going to be well taken care of. I would die so wonderfully, knowing that you were going to be all right.”

“I know. Don’t worry about me.”

“Happiness is not submersing yourself in paperwork. The guys and girls from work you speak so highly of are not family. Your job is not your life. All these years later, I don’t regret missing days of work. I regret the time spent away from my family, you dig?”

“I know. No, this one really is serious. Maybe this guy is the one.”

“Good. Then don’t let go of him, dear.”

After swallowing the humiliation down like oblong vitamin pills, Kimberly had a sad realization. Alex, the smarmy writer, was the only man she had met in a long time. Certainly the only one with whom she enjoyed a special moment, and also endured pleasant conversation with for a long night that also seemed so short in memory. How sad, she thought, that too much had already been invested in this one mediocre man, to just rip out a page and start a new beginning like so. She already involved herself in a man’s life; it was too late to turn back now. Fix this story, this chapter in your life, before you go onto to another. Make the best of the situation, protect your investment. Let’s go with it, the editor’s educated voice told her.

The next day, Kimberly wrote a letter to Alex The Writer and sent it by registered mail. Don’t play the victim, she nagged herself. Don’t play his game and over dramatize his insensitivity. Don’t let on to how hurtful his practical joke was, or how seriously a cursory affair was taken. She decided to answer him in kind, playing up the silliness as if the ugly scene was little more than an adroit, tongue-in-cheek parody of life. If nothing else, it would show adaptable persistence, and informed pertinacity.

Alex,

Several days ago, I gave you just a small example of my work. While it wasn’t exactly a lifetime of happiness, I felt strongly that it was one of my better moments. I feel confident that you feel the same way, that “That Night” was something that could be wonderful if edited and worked on. Let’s face it, neither of us want to have yet another meaningless escapade. Remember as we spoke about? That sort of melodrama is the kind of badly written malarkey that belongs to writers whose work is waiting in the slush pile. I am willing to meet with you for a more detailed discussion, as well as an outline and marketing plan for our possible relationship to come. I think you will be pleasantly surprised, as my plans are concrete and not at all what you expect. I believe your prolific mind, and my learned and trusted intuition would make for a good, viable product. Contact me at this address.

Kimberly

A few days later, Alex contacted her through e-mail, suggesting a good night to meet where they could discuss their future. Kimberly read the letter and sighed uncomfortably, yet with a tinge of hope, that good things were to come her way. She reasoned, “Everyone appreciates uniqueness and diversity. My query letter was inventive and striking. Yet not too needy. How could any writer refuse it?”

The night they met for dinner, Alex seemed rushed and discomfited with the scene. He refused to be seated and introduced himself standing in place. A dolled up Kimberly, in her most elegant dress and styled hairdo, felt disappointed that a spry compliment was not coming her way. She spent the entire day making sure she was neat in appearance and professional in demeanor, yet the day was wasted. Before she could start up with consoling small talk, Alex grabbed his notes and spoke sharply.

“Hello Miss Kimberly? Nice to meet you, I’m Alex, as you know.”

“I remember.” She tried to smile.

“Okay, usually I don’t do this. But for you I’ll make an exception. Because you have been persistent and very professional in your approach.”

“Of course.”

“You’re really not the caliber of woman I’m looking for. Sorry to be so blunt, but time is a factor here. You look to be about forty years old or so, and we’re looking for someone younger.”

“Yeah, but aren’t you forty-two?”

Alex looked miffed, but answered straightly. “Well, Kimberly, I am. But in a woman looks are the primary thing I’m looking for. Youth is important. Okay?” His eyes looked compassionate, his voice became soft.

“Okay…”

“Your body needs some work. Breasts sag a bit. You are too heavy. Go to a gym, walk a few miles a day. Get rid of some of that baby fat.”

She flinched.

“As far as your face goes, it’s okay. But the one mole on the side of cheek does bother me. Consider seeing a skin doctor and try not to wear so much make up. Lots of fancy cosmetics will not make up for a plain face that has nothing going for it.”

“You’re not exactly Tom Cruise yourself.”

“Well,” he laughed merrily before returning to his notes, “Kimberly, I’m doing you a favor here. You want a critique, a reason why we can’t be together, this is it.”

“Anything else?” she groused.

“Your sexual behavior was probably the worst part of all. I realize that you’re new at this, or at least unpracticed. And the old saying rings true, practice makes perfect. I would suggest you get laid more often to improve some of the outdated maneuvers in your repertoire. For one thing, always bring your own condoms. No exceptions. Secondly, while I was thrusting, I noticed you didn’t have much of a reaction. Always be excited when you’re making love, even if you have to fake it. No man enjoys the company of a frigid woman who just sits there expecting to see a show and then claps politely when it’s over. Believe me, even if you don’t have much in the looks department, great sex can make up for any other shortcomings.”

Kimberly scowled. “Okay, I have one question. How can you be so cruel? How do you live with yourself?”

“Okaaay,” Alex screeched, rolling his eyes. “This conversation is over. Good luck in your future relationships.”

“Hey!” Kimberly stopped herself from chasing him out of the building. He never even sat down for a bite. She felt used, not like an objectified woman, more like a typewriter. And another irony struck her: she was alone again, at dinner with no one to walk her home gracefully. A recurring scene in her life, that became more depressing each time it happened, and more intolerable as each failed relationship passed. As Mother often reminded her, how much longer can this go on? When will you decide to get serious and to make a significant change in your life? Speaking of mother, Kimberly could not imagine having to face Missus Thomas with the bad news that this “serious” relationship had gone sour. The serious relationship that lasted a little over two weeks? For a desperately unhappy woman, whose solitariness was fast approaching, the future seemed bleak. And her next plan of action was best described as a reckless gamble.

Kimberly wore jeans and a t-shirt to the bar that night. With no make up on her face and her hair barely combed into something passable, she looked for the man of her devalued dreams.

There, Alex sat at the barstool checking other unsolicited submissions, and wolfing down a margarita. She took a deep breath and threw herself head on into the ugly encounter.

“Alex? We have to talk.”

Alex recognized her face and put down his drink stoically expecting an ill-natured conversation to come. “Kimberly, right? Hi, what can I help you with?”

“Look, I get the irony of what you’re doing. But it’s not working for me.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Because it’s two different worlds. This is real life. It’s not business. You’re talking about human feelings here.”

“And in writing, are there not human feelings involved? For a writer to put his greatest achievements and most profound thoughts to paper, that isn’t human feeling? That isn’t sensitive material? The submission process is far more fragile than sexual intercourse. You’re dealing with people’s deepest desires, fears and needs documented on paper. What could be more intimate than that?”

“Alex, this isn’t about writing.” Kimberly choked, fighting her tears away. “I don’t do things like this. I can sort through papers, edit comma usage and evaluate manuscripts like nothing else. That’s my job, that’s my life. But I can’t deal with things like this.” She looked away and mewled. “My God, this is the same thing that happened last time.”

“No kidding? You slept with another writer?”

“I slept with another guy who played head games like this! And I can’t do this anymore.” She cried heavily, covering her aching red cheeks with her quivering hands. “Every man I ever trust ends up treating me like this. Like I’m just a book to read and toss away! Well, I do my job the right way, Alex. I use tact and professionalism, and go out of my way to word things just the right way—the way I’m supposed to do it—
so I don’t destroy someone’s entire outlook on life. But you haven’t done that, you bastard!”

Alex listened. His forced, robotic equanimity melted down to a human face and surrendered something close to compassion.

“My job is my life. I have nothing else left. My mother’s dying and pressuring me to find happiness, whatever that is. And I’ve been so screwed up by the men in my life that I’m afraid of trusting any new people. And before I know it, I’ll have nothing left but my great job.” Meeting his eyes, she pleaded softly, “Please don’t treat me like this, Alex. I know you’re not worth much, but you’re all that I have right now. And if I don’t have someone else in my life, then I have nothing.”

Alex stared misty-eyed as his ex-lover poured her heart out without let up, letting the neediness soak through her clothes. He left his seat, stood up and embraced her.

She wailed on, “I thought we both felt something the other night. I know I was probably too trusting or needy or whatever. But I can change. I can get thinner or be a better lover. I can do it better! Just give me another chance.”

Alex stroked her head softly, still voicing his concerns. “But what about all those times you called me a vanity-press author?”

“I’m sorry!”

“So am I published author?”

“Well,” she sniffed, “Your work is commercially available in bookstores.”

“Yes, it is.”

Finally, Alex gently brought her head up to see him. “The truth is, I like you too. But I just got out of a very bad relationship. And that night we met, I ordered myself to have nothing but a casual, no-strings-attached affair. Just to spite my own feelings, to get back at the nameless woman who hurt me. My mind never changed, even after our fun conversation. But to be honest, yes, the lifestyle gets lonely. And yes, the guilt still gets to me, no matter how hardhearted I feel the next morning. I never set out to hurt anybody.” He spoke softly into her ear with a crack of emotion. “I want to grow up too. Time is constantly moving for all of us, not just according to your own watch.”

Alex kissed her on the lips with soul, and wiped her tears away with his brushing finger. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s get on with our lives, shall we?”

“Yes,” replied Kimberly in relieved sorrow. “I paid attention to your notes. I think I can impress you with my latest work.”

“Really? Do you remember everything I said?”

“Yes, everything.”

Kimberly had made significant improvements according to Alex’s finicky wish list. She was much more energetic and passionate in her lovemaking the second night. Why, she had even trimmed down a few pounds, due to lost appetite brought on by prolonged depression. Her uninhibited, erotic performance was so inspiring that Alex chose to overlook one other forgivable blunder. The post-coital kiss with a man she trusted once more was the most romantic memory of her life thus far, and one not stolen from the pages of a traditionally published romance novel.

Lying in bed taking in the afterglow, Kimberly reasoned within herself this experience was for the best. She had succeeded in her set goal and had seen her hopes, once so unrealistic and far-fetched, come to fruition and become a reality. She blushed with shimmering joy, “Wait until I get to tell my moribund mother the good news. Looks like it will be a bittersweet funeral after all.” It was yet another irony to be appreciated. Kimberly had won over the arrogant man of her depreciated dreams, by showing him just how needy and desperate she was for his company. She didn’t need fancy make up, stellar dresses or flirty wordplay to be found worthy of unconditional love. She simply needed to want it badly enough; she needed to express her desire for love without a hint of self-respect. She needed to beg for attention until it hurt. That was the real way to a man’s heart. After all, men like Alex find a woman’s neediness to be the most attractive quality, far surpassing superficial things like looks and bedroom skills, right? (Right?)

Kimberly awoke the next morning and covered herself with the blanket. He was gone again. Was he coming back or was this another game to be played and won? She tried to think optimistically about the returning word from the writer. No doubt, his answer would make or break her world. A world that she built all around him, for him, and just to be with him.

She rose from bed, got dressed and went inside the bathroom. She wiped her eyes clean, fought off the morning grogginess and looked to her reflection in the mirror for a solution to her deepest anxieties. And an answer was waiting there for her, written in thick red marker so as to be read clearly and concisely.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE BEEN ACCEPTED INTO THE AIDS CLUB!

She flinched. She quivered. She cried. She choked and gagged, realizing her most implausible fears, not her dreams, had now come true. What a blunder! She forgot to bring a condom for the second time, and while with a man that should never have been trusted again. It was an urban legend come true, the type she used to love to read for entertainment value. Because no matter how hapless one’s own life happened to be at the moment, the characters, the little pretend people in urban legends, always had it much, much worse. One can always laugh at the ridiculous plight of an urban legend and can count on escaping reality.

But that was no longer the case for Kimberly. Now she was an urban legend come to life, a useless work of fiction, a discarded piece of writing exercise to be mocked and heckled by those who would choose to hear her campy story.

But what about the full rejection slip? The answer was no, but why? The son of a bitch had taken everything else from her, did he not at least owe one last explanation? And a good explanation, a powerful one by a brilliant writer, his unquestionable talent hopefully redeeming his horrible heart. And there it lay on the closed toilet seat inside a self-addressed, stamped and sealed envelope. The explanation. The last word handwritten beneath a personalized, author letterhead.

Dear Kimberly,

You’re probably wondering why you have AIDS right about now. Well I assure you, this is not some cruel practical joke like before. You actually have contracted the disease as my medical records lying on your file cabinet will prove to you. Needless to say, I have chosen not to accept your relationship proposal for the reasons we discussed at our prior meeting. Rest assured though, I will think about you as I share my disease with the rest of the female population. Now the question I’m sure you have is why?

I admit to being quite fascinated with your initial queries. The chance for a vanity press author to bed a professional publishing house editor was surely a once in a lifetime experience. Not only for the reversal of the process, (the editor chasing the writer, which remains a shallow joy for me) but also for the symbolic ramifications that are suggested from the experience. If it is so remarkably easy for an unpublished male writer to sexually conquer a female editor, (and as you told me, sex really is a much more intimate act than the submission process) then what does that say about the lamentable state of the publishing industry? Is it really so that a man can achieve anything he sets his mind to? What does that say for your argument that higher learning and professional experience are the only mainstays for holding traditional success in this world?

Now as far as the AIDS sharing goes, I do feel a tad guilty about this. But allow me to explain it from my point of view, which ironically, was your point of view all along.

I feel you are not a very sexually desirable woman. You have no good qualities. You’re not pretty, you’re not young, you’re not sexy or particularly likable. So why not give it up already? Your mother is dying, and you can find no other reason to live. Let the both of you die together arm and arm, to spare the other from unnecessary grief.

You’re desperate, Kimberly, you’re begging. Last night, you were the crying, blubbering woman in a bar too afraid to even contemplate the thought of being alone and happy. And your ugly, clingy behavior hurt us both. You tried and tried, but with no self-respect or any true hope, it was to no avail. The first night I left you I hoped that one day someone with no compassion or scruples but with a helluva lot of experience would be kind enough to tell you how pathetic you are. For your own good, just to put you out of your misery. And it turns out, our second night together, I was more than willing to be that person for you.

***

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