ISSUE 28
Spring 2005

D.S. Sulaitis

 

Rebecca Bednarz This marks an author's first online publication D.S. Sulaitis' short stories have been published in Painted Bride Quarterly, New York Stories, Inkwell and in the Boston Review as winner of their fiction contest. Recipient of New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction Fellowships in 1996 and 2004, she has an essay forthcoming in an anthology which will be published by WW Norton in 2006.
The Advertisement Read: Editor Available    


The advertisement read:

Experienced Editor available for critique and private tutorials.

The freelance editor lived in a tiny tenement apartment in the East Village. He was a short man in his late sixties and always wore either a black shirt or a white shirt with straight-leg style jeans. The jeans were too big and crinkled like an accordion. He was barefoot and had ugly toes with long nails. He greeted writers with a broad smile, like a drunk might, only he wasn't drunk.

Kristina had called and arranged for a meeting. He charged a hundred dollars for one hour of editing. While on the phone, he told her to bring a short story and cash. No checks. He asked for the spelling of her name and she waited until he wrote it down. He'd said, "I'm writing it down." Then he asked her if she was Swedish. No, she said. Not Swedish. But offered nothing else.

* * *

She followed the editor down a very long narrow hallway to a room that had a sink. It was a depressing place and smelled of boiled soup and herbs, reminding her of the old streets of Vilnius. The walls were bare. Kristina looked around. There were stacked cartons everywhere. He told her they were filled with books. He was shorter than she and only reached her shoulders. "Shall we sit at the desk?" he said, and led her to another small room which had a child's desk and a bed. There were two chairs, side by side and Kristina sat down in one. She took her story out of her messenger bag and put it between them on them on the empty desk.

He got to work with a red pen and a pencil and read. At times he smiled, laughed. Mostly he made slash marks, or long lines, or question marks. An hour passed. They didn't speak. Kristina didn't move. She didn't dare ask for water or to use the bathroom. She felt like she was back in Lithuania, in a classroom during the Soviet occupation. She was still and watched his hand and the marks he made.

He finished.

"You have a problem," he said.

"What problem?"

"You can't write. Your use of the English language is horrible. Typical ESL."

"What?"

"English as a second language."

"But the story?"

"The story is good, but that doesn't matter. It's your sentences. They need work, lots of work."

She knew that. That was why she was here.

Before leaving they stood at the sink while she took out her wallet and paid the editor in cash. "Don't forget to pay me," he'd said.

He got his appointment book and decided that she should see him in exactly two weeks. She was to work on the story and return it for more tweaking. He said, "It will need tweaking. I did what I could, for now."

He wrote down her name in a slot in the appointment book, then led her back down the narrow hall to the door. She opened it and turned to face him. "Good-bye," she said.

She answered phones for an arts organization. She had a university degree but didn't mind picking up the phone and announcing the organizations name over and over, minute after minute. It was mechanical but gave her time to think about her stories. She had many coworkers, most of them artists, but she didn't speak with anyone. She preferred to keep her thoughts to herself. She ate lunch alone and left the office at exactly five o'clock.

One hundred dollars was a lot of money to Kristina. She was forty and moved to New York several years ago, choosing to live in northern Manhattan. There the rents were inexpensive, and she liked the trees, the gardens, the vast sky and view of the Hudson. She had her own apartment, which was a luxury she'd never had in Lithuania. She grew up in a town famous for its castle in the deep forest and the white stallions that roamed the fields at night. Then after her years at the University of Vilnius, she could only afford a small apartment, crammed in with another couple. She lived in a corner, sectioned off by a single curtain. It was how people lived in Vilnius, city of the Golden Mary. The Soviets had taken away space long ago. Everyone had learned fear and to keep still, quiet.

Kristina was here to write and work, though her looks often made people ask, "Were you a model?" She was tall and slim and blond with Baltic blue eyes. "No," was her reply. She never said more. They did not have models, not behind the iron curtain.

The next time they met it was raining, and Kristina came into the editor's apartment soaked.

"Where is your umbrella?" He asked.

"It's just rain," she said.

"You're soaking wet," he said.

"You get wet, you get dry," she shrugged. "Let's get to work."

As soon as they sat down at the desk she told the editor that she sent out the story from their last session. She'd sent it to a literary magazine on the west coast.

For a few seconds he just stared at her. Then he threw his red pen. He picked up the pencil and threw that too. Then he started to yell. His voice went up, high pitched, like a hysterical elderly woman.

"Your story was shit. It needed more work," he shouted. "No one will publish you. No one. You writers. You're all the same. Huge egos. You don't listen, do you?"

Kristina was staring off, her body in position at the desk, but her head turned to gaze out the window with its security grate, pigeons on the sill and a dirty brick wall beyond.

The editor, finally exasperated, took a deep breath, crossed his arms over his odd round chest, and leaned back into the chair. He didn't apologize. He composed himself, got up to find the pen and pencil, then sat back down. Kristina had put out her new story; he leaned over it and began his work.

Right there, Kristina decided to never see him again. For now, she'd endure the hour of torture. Then she would take her story and leave. She drank from a bottle of water she'd brought because last time he'd offered her nothing. In her country, a guest is a guest. You offer coffee and a cake. You are gracious, polite.

When he was finished he went to get his appointment book. When he raised his arm to get the book off a shelf over the sink, she noticed a tear in the underarm of his black shirt. It made her pity him.

On the shelf, next to the place where he kept his appointment book was a photograph of an androgynous person. A woman, Kristina decided, perhaps a girlfriend or wife.

Kristina made an appointment, knowing she'd cancel. The next day she emailed the editor and wrote, "I don't deserve to be yelled at. You are a sick fuck. A controlling sick fuck. Fuck you."

A few days passed and he wrote back, saying she will have to pay a penalty charge for canceling. Fifty dollars. He expected to see her as scheduled.

She didn't reply, deleted the email and went on writing and sending out her stories.

One night at St. Mark's Bookshop, Kristina was at the counter buying a little paperback called I Remember, when the editor came into the store.

"Kristina!" he smiled that welcoming grin. She looked away, back to the cashier to pay for the book.

"You stood me up," he said, a little loud so that the cashier got interested and listened. "You owe me," he said.

"I owe you nothing," Kristina said. "Good bye."

"Wait," he said as she was leaving and he followed her outside. He took her arm. His hand was tiny as a child's, nails bitten down, and the skin of his arms was pale with too much hair that hung in lines as if combed.

He held on to her, then loosed his grip, letting his hand slide down her long arm.

"You're so tall," he said.

"You're so short," she said.

"Writing much?" He asked.

"I write every day," she said.

He didn't say anything. He seemed to be searching for words.

"Funny we ran into each other," he said.

"It's not funny," she said.

"A funny coincidence," he said.

"I guess," she said; then she took a step away and said, "I'm going home."

"Why do you live way up there? Where is it exactly?"

"Northern Manhattan. I like it."

He was now walking with her, looking up at her. She kept her eyes fixed ahead, not acknowledging the little man. He was almost running to keep up with her stride.

He went as far as Thirteenth Street, then slowed down and stopped at the north corner. This was his street, although he lived way east. "This is me," he said.

She looked at him and decided that his black eyes were his only interesting feature. There was no light in them, no reflection at all. It was like looking at two small holes.

"How about a drink sometime?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

On the subway she wondered why she'd agreed. She hated him. He repulsed her, and yet, the yes slipped out easily as if she'd been waiting for him to ask.

They met the following Friday, after work, at a bar that was narrow with a mirror running the length of the wall. The editor told her someone had been murdered there, that's why he chose it. She didn't understand. Her stories were a bit morbid, but that was her inner world, she did not appreciate that he thought a place of blood would be a good place to drink.

She drank.

He talked. He told her he'd had a dream with her in it. She listened. She'd expected this. Men disregarded her brain and, in fantasy, got right down to her body, pulling her into their dreams. He was no different. She was his student and he was interested in her. The students were probably his lifeline. He'd told her he never went out during the day and sometimes didn't leave his apartment for a week at a time. Students brought him things: food, water, soda, DVDs.

"Your apartment is a dump," Kristina said. "I would go insane."

"But I have students that come to me. I'm a great editor," he said. "I don't think you realize that."

She finished her drink and went to get another. She felt him watching after her, the way a dog might watch its master.

When she came back to him, he seemed to be upset.

"You need me," he said.

"I do not," she said.

"You have a language problem. No one will publish your stories. You need an editor."

She drank and looked around the bar, not at him. His face was pock-marked, with bumps from ancient acne. Suddenly she'd had enough and wanted to end the evening.

"I must go," she said.

"I'll put you down for next Friday," he said.

She didn't respond. She put on her knitted cap and buttoned up her military style jacket, then left the bar and went outside to the street.

A few months passed and Kristina's story was accepted by the west coast magazine. She emailed the editor the good news. He wrote back, "Which story?" even though she'd told him.

At the office, when the phone rang, it was often someone calling with a head injury. They said things like "I was in an accident and injured my head, now I want to be an artist." Or they said, "I just got out of the hospital. I'd been hit in the head." Or, "I have a brain tumor."

Kristina decided the editor had head problems. He couldn't even remember the name of her story, "Parsas." Pig, in Lithuanian.

The next time they would see each other would be in the spring. They emailed and planned to meet for a drink at Temple Bar. Inside it was very dark, and when she got there, the editor was already waiting for her, slumped on a bench. He looked like a little mushroom in the corner, at a table that almost came up to his chin.

He drank a Bloody Mary and complained it didn't taste right. He was wearing his black shirt, the hole now sewn up. He'd put his arm up, over the back of the bench, and she instantly noticed the repaired seam.

He asked her how it was going.

She told him she had another story accepted.

"The one I edited?"

"No," she said. "Another one."

He shrugged. Then he told her about a student he was sleeping with. "She likes me. She's young," he said.

"Big deal," Kristina said.

"Why did you meet me if you don't like me?" He asked.

"Because you are a great editor?"

"Can I see your new work?" He asked. "I'll work at half price: fifty dollars. You won't find anyone cheaper. I am a great editor. An experienced editor."

They were back at the child's desk in the smelly dump, and he read Kristina's new story. She'd written about objects.

He read for awhile, then stopped, looked at her face and put his hand on her knee. She moved away, just a little.

He both intrigued and repulsed her. She wasn't here just for her writing, but for something she couldn't figure out. Every time she saw him, anger rose up in her chest. Perhaps he was like her father—insulting, then trying on some level to be nice. Perhaps it was a familiar role she was drawn into.

After they finished their work, he neatly arranged the papers of her story and then folded his hands over them.

"A chair, a table, a vase, a view of a field and a forest. This story doesn't work. You need people in a story. Aren't you ever going to write about anything other than Lithuania?" he asked.

"No," she said. It was all she knew. That and the people who phoned with head injuries.

"Would you like to, say, watch a movie?" He asked.

"What movie?"

"A French film," he said.

"I like French films," she said.

"Well then?"

"Okay," she said, wondering where they would sit. There was no couch. Only the little chairs and the thin mattress with a worn grey sheet. The TV was opposite the bed, and the editor propped the thin pillows and told her to take off her shoes and lie down.

He pulled a desk chair next to the bed so that he looked like a doctor next to a patient in bed. She felt odd. She didn't take off her shoes.

He put in a DVD and then turned off the overhead light bulb and they watched. It was a film about a lonely woman living at the seashore. She took in a stranger and ended up being killed in the stranger's tent. During the horrible scene when the woman's body is discovered, her vagina sewn up, the editor moved to the bed.

At the end of the film, he pulled off his shirt. Kristina looked at his chest which was puffy, like a doll left underwater. Bloated. Unappealing.

Then he reached under her sweater and felt around. He took her breast and squeezed it hard, worked at it with his hand.

Before she knew it, his pants were off and he was on top of her. Even though she was still in her clothes, she felt the heat of his body. She tried to move, but he was heavy, heavy for a short man. In the darkness of the room, he looked even smaller, dwarf-like, something from the forest of her homeland, near her town of white stallions.

His black eyes were closed. His mouth open as he moved and rubbed over her.

Her thoughts went back to the place in the forest where trees clear out. There is a patch, a clearing, and a monument to those who had been executed in that exact spot. Shot and left in a clump.

He kissed her. Then he bit her neck. It made her sick. She could only see the faces of those who were shot. She stopped him. She put her hands to his chest and pushed. She was thinking about those dead bodies and that spot in the forest, and she managed to move the short fat body off her own.

Later, they stood at the sink. She was in her jacket, ready to leave. She asked about the framed photograph. "Who is that?" She pointed.

"My wife. She lives in California," the editor said.

"She looks like a man," Kristina said. "A young man."

"Everyone loves her. She's great," he said.

"I see."

"Oh, I almost forgot. We have to schedule an appointment."

The editor was wearing a robe that was white and stiff and too big, as if he'd stolen it from a hotel or hospital. In the town of white stallions, in the great forest, is a castle where now the insane are housed. The patients wear robes like that, wide sashes drawn tight around their waists as they sit on a small bench outside the stone castle.

Kristina touched the editor's pock-marked cheek. She touched it lightly and carefully.

He smiled. "Oh. Don't forget to pay me," he said.

For a minute she was confused, hurt, then she remembered. The story, of course. He'd edited her story on objects.

She paid him and went to the door then out and down the wide stairway. She made her way down the six flights, down the gray painted steps, the banister reminding her of her youth and school. As she descended it became clear to her that being with the editor was like being in Soviet grade school. She was required to speak and write Russian just because they'd occupied her country. She'd had no interest in Russian and hated them. Hated. Her chest tightened with this thought and she began to take two steps, three steps at a time, all the while thinking of the editor and his red marks and the way he insisted that she follow.

When Kristina got on the A train, she took out her notebook and continued her story about the objects—the chair, table, vase. She placed a person in the room, sitting in the chair at the table. A Soviet. He was short. He is shot in the head. She felt better, less dirty and disgusted by the little editor who'd been biting at her neck and moving his hand down her tights, trying to reach places where he had no right.

That night in her northern Manhattan apartment, high over a courtyard, a garden of trees and bushes, Kristina stood and looked out at the dark sky. She then went to lie down on the bed and thought about the garden below. It was nice to have her own secret place, a place no one went.

She began to drift off into a sleep and as she did, she thought about her little stories and of her town of the great forest and of the stone windmill and pond with swans and a bridge that runs over it. How the bridge leads to cemeteries and a coffin shop. Whether she would or would not see the editor again, she wasn't sure. She'd tried it. She didn't need a man. He was no longer allowed in, in that place where it is dark, dark and black as a bullet hole.

 

 

D.S. Sulaitis: Fiction
Copyright © 2005 The Cortland Review Issue 28The Cortland Review