The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by Desmond Kon

      Andrew Lefèvre was starting to find his job at the newspaper unbearable. The mornings were the same. Two hundred push-ups and crunches at five, followed by coffee and three cans of Coke Zero on the way to work. The commute was over an hour if traffic and weather were good; and the caffeine would take him through to late lunch, where he’d get some nutrition and a baked doughnut at Cece’s Take-Out. The recent job cuts at his company were only an ominous beginning, and everyone had become remote and joyless. On lean days, they made him chip in at advertorials, where he’d be emailed a jpeg of a product, and have to write something glowing about it — the way it fit in the palm of your hand and felt like human touch, or the way it revolutionized virtual communication in a counter-globalizing world. The only way around the mundane nastiness of the assignment was the thought of every gizmo being like a new song released by his favorite musician.
      “Maybe it’s the deep winter getting you down,” Susan Nguyen said. “Get a full spectrum bulb.”
      Susan was a long-time friend, who knew Andrew too well. She handed him the day’s mail with one hand, the other flipping through the latest copy of Fast Company in his out-tray.
      “It’s not that, Suz,” Andrew said. “I think I’m losing my faith in the cosmos.”
      “That wouldn’t be your andropause talking, would it? And?”
      “And it feels like shit, like I’m walking into a brick wall with just living, and I don’t have the answers anymore. Like everything that made sense before has been yanked out from under me.”
      Still scanning his iPhone, simultaneously fact-checking from his computer, Andrew gesticulated towards his cookie jar-turned-goldfish bowl, for the water to be replaced.
      “I never thought I’d say this, but life seems unbearable when you’re expected to believe only in yourself. Do I sound like some zealot, please tell me I don’t?”
      Andrew finally looked up, pushing himself from his chair — abruptly — with both arms.
      He pulled his five plastic pots of cacti closer together as if to build a wall, with as small a gap as possible between them. He had these little superstitions. Someone had told him that putting cacti along the ledge of your office cubicle helped ward off evil. With all the bad vibes hanging in the air, made rancid by the brie and Sam Adams someone was having for lunch, that seemed an appropriate call, a sound gesture. The hardiest cactus were the Beavertail and Pincushion, which never bloomed, but could go for as long as three weeks without water. Low maintenance was how Andrew liked it, the things around him as manageable as his copyedits.
      “No, you sound like you’re having a moment,” Susan said. “Although, I hope your utility bills and taxes make sense. You sound like you’re mulling through whether to have the latte or caramel macchiato — not that you have to choose. This isn’t a bread-and-butter issue. And I think God can take a little discursive beating, most of us would agree. In any case, not having any simple answers about the truth seems like a pretty natural way to go, in my book.”
      For faith to happen any way, in good measure. Susan was the office optimist. She seemed happy enough, genuinely so, and always seemed to have a newly brewed cup of coffee that she’d made for herself, untouched, that she’d give away to someone who was having a lousy day. Susan also seemed to have a pop-inspired worldliness that seemed incompatible with her Cassandra-like austerity. Was it fakeness? Being eclectic? Or just contrast at work, poignant. She also had her hair rebonded, and told everyone she had a bikini wax, which endeared her to the graphic designer at Corpcomms. But was she genuinely happy, was she genuine?
      “You don’t sound preachy,” Andrew said, in a hollow voice, relieved and to the point.
      “God, I hope not.”
      “How do you make it through the day and sleep at night?”
      “I don’t sleep very well myself, and the days aren’t always idyllic. I’ve learned to like not knowing. To live with the questions. Yes, I like the sound of that, to live with my life of questions. Someone wrote about Paul Ricoeur, and I’ve memorized this well so here it is, that sometimes his hermeneutic shows that ‘the promise of a historical master story to explain all experience is a chimera. That both the parables and Mark’s Gospel function as cautionary tales against naïve trust in the power of narrative emplotment to render intelligible the aporetic nature of experience.’ Holy Cinnamon, I just got all the words out, in the right order on one go. A first for me.”
      “Definitely a mouthful. Didn’t get all of it. Was that Mark, the banker?” Andrew said this solemnly, head tilted to the side, straight-faced.
      “You’re a pig,” Susan said, with a sigh.
      “What if I told you I’d like the aporetic experience of licking the dark chocolate off one of those Arnott’s marshmallow cookies the way we did two years ago? Remember the company retreat?”
      “The way you shared a mango and lychee smoothie with Terence two months after that? That ditty paragraph was from Mark Wallace’s intro to Ricoeur’s book by the way.”
      “Look here, Ricoeur was French, as was Celan. And Churchill and Mao and Gandhi and Pocahontas too. I like Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, tenth anniversary edition, foreword by the Dalai Lama. Jealousy isn’t becoming of you. And why are you writing in my magazine?”
      “You’re getting ridiculous,” Susan said, almost dismissive, yet looking Andrew in the face. “I wasn’t jealous. I just found it disappointing how easily distracted you were, and constantly allow yourself to be. This is real time, so let’s work with real life. Don’t scatter.”
      “I actually cared for Terence, not that I ever knew you cared to know anything about the both of us, not that you ever bothered to ask. Until now. Bottom line is you trust me. You’ve always trusted me. With all your bizarre fantasies, too. You trust me enough to see you behave silly, now let me have my silly. You let me read your diary for crying out loud. You trust me, Suz.”
      “Like a trainer would his big cat. You were easier to trust when you were an editorial assistant filing pictures and reimbursing meal allowances. You get ridiculous when you’re insecure, when you’re between too many places, when you realize you want something but can’t seem to get it.”
      Susan returned the Fast Company magazine to Andrew, open to the letters page, where she’d drawn two big smiley faces with a permanent marker, a big lasso or target board drawn around them, hugs and kisses, and the words “James McAvoy. Bradley Cooper. Lee Pace. You rock my world.”
      “What are you saying?” Andrew said.
      He ripped out the page cleanly, used a ruler to tear it down the middle, and started folding in the edges to make separate paper cranes.
      “I’m saying you’ve become Rottweiler shit in a suit, and between your calf leather and Ferragamo tie and high-fiber tofuwich, you seem to have forgotten the difference between what’s important and what’s garnish.”
       “Okay. What’s important to you?”
      “Having someone to love, who’ll love me back.”
      “And I’m a prick for not having delivered, for not fitting into your picture-book idea of happily ever after.”
       Andrew poured water from his Brita into his mug, fished out his goldfish from the bowl with his big hand and dropped it in. No need to temperature-check, never used a filter or air pump, no gallon per inch considerations to make it less claustrophobic.
      Gerard, from Sports five desks away, mouthed something, his arm twisted around his face as if in a headlock. The day had stepped up to a world that needed the columnists and their critical eye and voice, no more mucking around doing double duty in Listings or Home News. What the fuck? Someone muttered under his breath as he spotted a news feed on poodle owners and diamante collars. What the fuck?
      “Here’s more Ricoeur for you,” Susan said. She seemed to displace Andrew’s keen observation with her own. “Ricoeur says ‘talking about love may be too easy, or rather too difficult. How can we avoid simply praising it or falling into sentimental platitudes?’”
      “Ricoeur this, Ricoeur that, you’re positively streaming Ricoeur. You’re becoming a rivulet of sound bytes, Susan, I hope you know that.”
      “I’m not finished: ‘One way of finding a way between these two extremes may be to take as our guide an attempt to think about the dialectic between love and justice. Here by dialectic I mean, on the one hand, the acknowledgment of the initial disproportionality between our two terms and, on the other hand, the search for practical mediations between them – mediations, let us quickly say, that are always fragile and provisory.’”
      “Are you done? And is there something constructive you can dole out? Something that doesn’t come from a book?”
      “Yes, I’m done.” she said “And that was from a late chapter in the book, I think, when you start really getting a sense this guy was asking more questions than giving any easy answers.”
      “Are you done? God, Suz, what does it take?”
      “I’m not judging you, if that’s what you mean. To return to topic, if you start dreading waking up in the morning for work, it’s time to start scouting for something new. Maybe even an adventure, try a new industry, a late-life overhaul. How about starting your own patisserie since you like baking? All these years, making us pear-and-almond tarts, and every kind of quiche.”
      By now, Andrew was edgy, brow furrowed, pursed lips. He pushed the glassware on his desk to the far left, and shoved two ring folders into a long row of them, to prop up the magazines as well, those dating as far back as five years. He grabbed two mugs at once as if to make his way towards the pantry, but released his grip and left them where they were.
      “You’re always judging, whether you like it or not,” Andrew said this with little added effect. “Okay, I’m going home to nurse this headache because I’ve a deadline to meet. I can do the remaining phoners       from home. I’ll have a good cup of chamomile tea with honey too, and then head out for some exercise.”
      Andrew shut down his computer, and started packing his bag.
      People in the office seemed strangely calmer in these times, coming and going as long as the work got done. It seemed horrible, warming one’s office chair when so many of the cubicles had been left vacant, with many more to go. One cubicle was stacked with carpet squares, tied up with yellow raffia, ready for the furniture wholesalers. There was crepe and tinsel still hanging from the ceiling boards, the office party last Christmas having only half the staff from the year before, a potluck instead of the usual catered buffet. The pantry’s fridge was barely stocked, someone’s twelve-pack and a box of organic persimmons from a recent convention.
      “Want one of these?” Andrew said this plainly, sweeping his origami into a cupped palm and offering them to Susan. He glanced over at the bowl of jellybeans too.
      “A peace offering?”
      Susan looked at him sheepishly, staring at the two pieces, a crane and a day lily with four perfect petals. “Or are you telling me to go back to my desk to compile the tear sheets for next week’s meeting?”
      “No meaning in it. Just paper folded to make something else. One for you, and one for Terence when I meet him for racquetball later.”
      Susan chose the one that had no signs of her scribbling, the doodles folded within. She gave Andrew one of her sunshine smiles, the one that said not every problem has to be gladiatorial or disastrously harrowing. Or world-damning.
       “Say hi to the kids for me,” Susan said, pulling out the collars from beneath his jacket and pressing them down against each lapel. “And take a Valerian an hour before bedtime to help you sleep. Listen to Tracy Chapman or Darren Hayes. Andy Moore’s 'Georgia.' Read the bits of Whitman or Burroughs that you like so much. Or James Schuyler. That’ll perk you up. Between the language and your snug duvet, maybe you’ll have an epiphany. There I said it. Said it the way you like to hear it, with all the right citations and people to make you happy.”

      Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé divides his time between his art and teaching creative writing. A recipient of the Singapore Internationale Grant and Dr. Hiew Siew Nam Academic Award, he has edited more than 10 books and co-produced 3 audio books — several pro bono for non-profit organizations. Trained in publishing, with a theology masters from Harvard University and creative writing masters from the University of Notre Dame, he has recent or forthcoming work published in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, Cricket Online Review, deadpaper, Dear Sir, Ganymede, Lantern Review, Pank, and Prick of the Spindle. Also working in clay, Desmond is presently sculpting ceramic pieces to commemorate the birth centennials of Nobel Laureates William Golding and Naguib Mahfouz in 2011. Works from his Potter Poetics Collection have been housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the U.S.

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