“The seven techniques of successful bodhisattvas,” she said.
“What would Siddhartha barbecue?” I said.
Eleanor Eames, two months before she dumped me for my failures, she and I were in a hotel, a real fleabag joint in upstate New York. We were there for the wedding of a friend of hers from the prestigious publishing house where she worked, where Ellie was an associate editor. That title, that job, her glass ceiling.
“No, no, simpler,” she said. “Just: What would Siddhartha do? That’s sufficient.”
“Like Buddha for chocolate?” I said.
We were back at the hotel after the Sunday brunch, after the Saturday-night wedding, getting ready for the ride back to the city in our rental. We had work in the morning. We dreamed of easy money. We were hung over, moving sluggishly, in disarray. We were slowly stripping off all our clothes, every article, one by one.
“That’s a bit silly,” Eleanor said. “The Buddha’s best practices, maybe.”
“You’re the expert,” I said. “Your own private Shiva shrine?”
We were wired on coffee and cigarettes, we were brainstorming, we were on the verge of sex. We had to have sex, couldn’t check out without having had sex. This was the rule, her rule—not kink, just ritual—sex at weddings, sex to sanctify weddings.
“Your own personal Vishnu,” she said. “Your own private Ramadan.”
“Tuesdays in the garden of Ben and Jerry?” I said.
People don’t know; people think the publishing racket is all good little girls from good families and good schools putting out good little books. And yes, that was her. But books are dangerous, and if it was Eleanor Eames at the office, then it was some other Ellie, some dark, inner Ellie, who got drunk on old-fashioneds and presbyterians at whatever open bar was nearby, rode bridesmaids, doggie style, on wedding-reception dance floors, said embarrassing things to writers at book-release parties about their height, their gut, their jowls, their faded talent.
“In the Zen kitchen,” she said.
But that’s a bullshit dichotomy.
“It’s a careful balance, this,” she said. She was down to her Sunday underwear: cotton, Swedish. “You need a number. Some scripture, some redemption, a little bit of financial salvation. An easy path, a key. Unlocked doors. An answer that’s been sitting under your nose this whole time if only you could see it. Wisdom from a familiar dead genius or dead civilization.”
“Also, dieting,” I said.
“Dieting helps,” she said.
Her boss was a famous editor, a gay man, famously closeted. He did sentimental yet award-winning highbrow fiction, he was girlish yet thuggish, he was married. A lavender marriage, Eleanor called it. She called his wife his beard, which was funny, because this was definitely a clean-shaven man, for one thing, and because Eleanor’s terms were accurate, but cute—cute in an old-fashioned way—and quaint, quaint like being in the closet in the late nineties was.
“How to win cheese and influence rabbis.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous,” she said. We were both naked now, starting to lie down on the cheap yet squeakless bed. “The power of positive baking.”
Eleanor worked like a dog for her boss, but it was a drag; she’d sign great books, great authors, he’d take all the credit. She quit one month after this wedding, which was one month before she dumped me for my failures. She gave a month’s notice at work, then dumped me, drunk, at her getting-out-of-publishing party. She wanted a life full of astonishment, she said; she wanted to write a book, she wanted a book with her name on it without having to write it, she wanted to get married, she wanted to write self-help. Self-help, her weakness. Her Achilles heel, slogging in the sentimental yet award-winning highbrow racket: self-help was all she read.
“The vomitorium that changed the world,” I said.
“That’s gross. But in the right ballpark, perhaps,” she said. We pulled the sheet over us. It was peppered with cigarette burns. “How the Romans invented the world?”
Her favorite: a book called Ablutions. It told her to get up in the morning and write all her first thoughts, write the raw stuff out of her, then burn it. Ellie did this religiously. The burning smell helped with her hangover. The ashes in her sink didn’t help with her page count.
“Okay,” I said. “How the Unitarians saved the world.”
“Shh,” she said. She widened her eyes at me, nodded her head toward the door.
“What?” I said.
“John,” she whispered.
John, her ex-boyfriend, in the room across the hall from us, twenty feet and a couple cheap hollow-core doors away. John, as a junior agent at a good firm, had sold Eleanor three award-winning novels, three of the many for which her boss took credit. Working late at the office one night, he’d had a divine vision at the copy machine; he passed out, dropped out, started divinity school in Minnesota. He’d begun tentatively, just planning on a career as an academic. It was only after his first year that he aimed his life whole-hog for the ministry.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “The excellent girlfriends of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
She glared. We were touching each other, gently. She mouthed the words “Stop it.”
The three of us were the only ones broke enough to be staying in the burned-sheets, thin-walls fleabag, thirty minutes down the road from the church and the good hotel. I had heard that, before the angel knocked him off his copier, John had been funny, and I’d had the impression that the Unitarians I’d met before had been funny, but the John he was when I met him was a dour and serious man. He was a Christian who took the whole of Christianity personally, took the weight of its history on his back, in spite of the fact that, what with the whole divinity-of-Jesus thing, some Christians say the Unitarians aren’t even part of their club. Not technically. It was none of my business, but I secretly felt that there was something odd about a conversion that serious for a denomination that loose, like falling in love with a piece of dry toast.
“Rich Saint Francis, poor Saint Francis,” I said.
“Cut it out,” she whispered. We were lying next to each other. She stopped touching. “Please.”
When Eleanor had said she wanted to get married, she’d meant she wanted to marry me, specifically, but I never intuited that, and she never explicitly said so. This had to be explained to me later, after Eleanor left town. She astonished everyone, after she quit publishing, by joining John in Minnesota, making it safe for me to sleep with her friend Rivka Schoenberg, a badly lapsed Orthodox Jew who also worked in publishing, whom Eleanor knew from the Radcliffe Publishing Course. Rivka had been an assistant editor at another house. Coincidentally, within weeks of Rivka and me first getting together, she made a move up in her career by snagging Eleanor’s old job.
“Seven divine secrets of the Sisters of Mercy?”
“Just—the game’s not fun anymore,” she whispered. She reached her arm across me, grabbed my far arm, tugged as if to pull me on top of her. “Let’s just do this, okay?”
The famously closeted editor thought it was hilarious, the first time he saw me show up at a book party with Rivka—same boyfriend, same job, new girl. He said something in French that I didn’t understand, but that Rivka did. I wanted to defend myself, tell him that she and I had slept together for the first time before she’d gotten the job offer.
“What would John the Evangelist do?” I whispered.
But it didn’t seem appropriate.
“This is important to me,” she said. She kept tugging.
Eleanor did not ever write a self-help book. Or if she did, she didn’t write it under her own name. It was Rivka—in bed one night, not long before she, too, dumped me—who finally explained to me what Eleanor had meant about dumping me because of my failures. I’d assumed she’d meant the fact that I’d dropped out of Hebrew Union, that I spent most of every day high, that I was slowly smoking my way through every last dime of the twenty grand I’d inherited from my bubbe. Wrong. She’d meant my repeated failure to realize that she, Eleanor, had wanted to marry me, since that was the only way anything would ever come of that want, since she believed that a girl could never tell a boy such a thing. A girl trapped in a high school from another time with no Sadie Hawkins dance to save her. A catch-22. But it threw me for a loop nonetheless. Eleanor and John eventually got married, I’m told. I’ve heard she’s a very happy minister’s wife, active and involved in their church. I heard she quit drinking. I’m assuming she quit smoking. I’m guessing she gave up on the dream of easy money. Rivka ended up a powerful editor of tough-minded yet uplifting women’s fiction, one of the ones who made it, but publishing is a sharp pyramid, and there are only a few spots up top. The ones who burn out on the climb end up cast off, thrown off the side—so many castoffs!—all these sharp kids landing on their asses, running broken and broke to other business, other lives.
“I can’t remember,” I said. I was on top of her now, but not doing anything, just lying with the weight of my torso on hers, propped up with my elbows on either side of her chest, tucked into her armpits, her arms above her head. “Did John of Patmos get knocked off his horse, or was that Paul, Paul the Apostle? How would John of Patmos fall?”
“Come on,” she said. “I just need to get this done. Okay?”
The short fiction of Thomas Israel Hopkins has been published in The Massachusetts Review, Fence, Cincinnati Review, Indiana Review, One Story, and about two dozen other publications. His first chapbook, What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird and Other Stories, will be published by The Cupboard Pamphlet in 2020. He has also written for Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, Tablet, and Poets & Writers. He has taught writing at New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University’s graduate creative writing program, the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Smith College, and Yale University. He is currently visiting faculty at Oberlin College. A finalist for the Calvino Prize and the Barry Hannah Prize in Fiction, he was runner-up in the 2012 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, and held residencies at the Albee Foundation and the Ucross Foundation.
Image: “Macho Man” by Matthew Klein