"Authorial Intent" (shortish story)

After seeing Thomas’s profile on Facebook, I'm already planning the names for our adopted Ethiopian kids as he drives to my dorm for the first time.  He's even hotter in person, prototypically tall with shaggy hair, but it’s mostly an aura thing with him; physically, his body’s so frail, it’s like his bird-thin bones are being held together by my attraction alone.  He says, "Hey," and I say, "Hey," then apologize for my total pigsty of a room.  I had to decide between cleaning up and taking a shower, but I don’t tell him this: that I bathe only for company is not something I want to advertise.
            Thomas lugs around the requisite messenger bag and he shoves aside the crap on my desk to unload a pile of manuscripts.  "Okay," he says, "so the piece I'm working on now, it's like I'm trying to capture, how, like," . . . et cetera.
            "I totally understand," I say.  I just want to kiss him.
            "Yeah," he says, "well, like, you'll see, when you read."
            He hands me the first story and I thumb through quickly.  It's split into dozens of few-paragraph fragments separated by asterisks that Thomas put in a special font.
            "Those are crots," he says, briefly intriguing me (Did he say “crotch“?), but he's already explaining, ". . . which is like, a literary term we use in class, for the divisions in your story."
            Thomas is a year ahead of me and taking the advanced creative writing course.  I get so busy tracing the creases on his jeans with my eyes that I forget I'm supposed to be reading his story.  When I do, I make a big show of nodding and ah-ha-ing.  The story's fragments switch between some epic playground encounter and a weird narrative about narrating that Thomas proudly proclaims as "meta-fiction," and his clipped, erotic pronunciation of this term erases any bullshit I might have found in the concept.
            "That's really cool," I say.
            "You liked it?"
             There’s a tap at my window and we both look over.  Thomas actually jumps up like a burglar’s scaled two floors.  “That’s just this bird,” I say.  “He’s out there all the time.  It’s like he never sleeps.”
            “Oh,” Thomas says, sitting back down and swiveling again in my chair.  “So . . . you think the story was okay?”
            "Yeah, yeah, I liked it a lot.  I can't wait to read more."
            Thomas takes my words literally and hands me another story.  "This one is kind of different," he says.  "I wrote it when I was going through this really difficult time with my parents. Our whole family was falling apart, and I just had to express it somehow."
            "The best writing always comes from emotions," I say, echoing my professor.  Of course, I’m only in the beginner’s course.   Thomas's jeans are fitted to his nice calves and his shirt's so thin it seems almost translucent under the light of my lamp.  I imagine his voice in my head as I'm reading, pretend that with each word he brings me closer to climax, that the characters’ endless talk of "metaphor" and "intrinsic irony" leaves me writhing with pleasure.
            "So, what did you think?" he asks, putting down the issue of The New Yorker he pretended to enjoy while I read, but I knew he was actually studying my face, trying to associate my every change of expression with his clever turns of phrase.
            "Really good," I say.  I didn't actually read much of the story, although I'm sure it was fine.   "You're a great writer."  And I pause, but I can tell from his eyes that I have a quota to fill, so I add, "I really liked the recurring, uh, bird imagery?"
            "Oh, you got that?"  He's overjoyed, knees bouncing.  "My dad's really into birds, birdcalls, bird watching, all that.”
            "Uh-huh," I say and just look at him for a second until I remember what a shitty host I’ve been.  “Hey do you uh, want a Pepsi or juice or anything?”  It comes out awkward, a blatant subject-change, but it’s not as if I’ve had a lot of practice at this.
            "I'm good," Thomas says, and pulls a bottle of Perrier from his bag.  "This is pretty much all I drink."  He swivels in my chair and fiddles with the paperclips and Post-It notes scattered around my desk.  I‘m worried he‘s pissed at me, that I was supposed to say more about his story, until he makes a rough conversational maneuver of his own. " So like, I still can't believe I found someone else around this shitty campus who likes Tear.  I mean, it's such an amazing book, and no one reads it."
            "Yeah," I say, "I haven't really found anyone who's read it either. I tried to get my friend Kat to, but she said it was too confusing and gave up after two chapters."
            "That's just when it starts getting really good," Thomas says, and I agree.
Tear is a brief novel by Jared Foster about a writer named Jared who lives in Manhattan.  He loses his cushy professor job and, not wanting to do anything other than finish his novel, moves to his hometown, which he hasn’t visited in years.  Nothing spectacular.  What makes it special is the execution, the way the book pushes the boundaries between entertainment and art, conventional narrative and post-postmodern literary devices.  At least, that’s what it says on the back of the book.
            Hailed by some reviewers as fascinating commentary on our "self-referential, meta-infused existence," Tear was equally derided by critics who called the prose "sloppy" and the structure nothing more than a "cheap gimmick."
            Me, I liked it for the feeling.  Some writing stutters; other writing hums.  Tear sang.
Thomas and I are lying on the floor surrounded by pillows, watching I Love the 90's and sharing the stories of our lives. While D-list celebrities drone on about the cultural achievements of five or six years ago, Thomas tells me about his family.
            "So one day my dad came in my room all, 'We need to have a family meeting.'  And I started to bitch about it, because those things were usually just about where we were going on vacation or some lecture on premarital sex.  But he seemed so serious, so I followed him downstairs, where Devin and my mom were already sitting on the couch.”  Thomas takes a swig of Perrier.  “Devin is my brother. Anyway, I was all like, ‘Dad, what the hell, do you know how much homework I have?’  And he said, ‘Son, Tom, sit down, this is more important.’”
            I giggle at the impression of his father—to accompany the voice, Thomas raises his eyebrows and tilts his head down, even adds a wagging finger.  “Was he wearing a suit?” I ask.  “In my mind he was wearing a suit, like Leave it to Beaver.”
            Thomas looks wistfully into the distance to an invisible music cue.  “Yeah,” he says, “but I still miss him.”
            I can tell by his wet eyes that this is serious.  Dare I place a comforting hand on his?  Carpe diem, I think. Carpe manum, I imagine my former Latin teacher joking.
            Not only do I touch his hand, I intertwine our fingers, lean close, as the bird starts chirping outside, maybe for his own potential mate.  This isn’t my ideal first date, but when I tell Bethany tomorrow I can frame it as profound.  We worked through his father issues, I’ll say, and I feel like we really connected because of it.  In my memoir I’ll write,

That night, holding hands and whispering by candlelight, Thomas and I realized that, blessed by sweet serendipity, perhaps a karmic reward for separate lives of hardship, we had, at last, found our soul mates. We—

but for now I have to listen: “What happened then? What was your father’s news?”
Tear opens with Jared Foster’s alter-ego (“author-ego,” quipped one reviewer) returning to his hometown, Scarlet Falls.  He is an only child—Foster’s real-life sibling, Jeremiah, has no clear analog in the novel—and his parents are dead, although he continues to pay the mortgage on their house, and has yet to box up their possessions.  When Jared heads to a bar (self-medication is a prevalent theme in Foster’s work; see also Glint, 1998) he meets Tom.
            “I was in your Latin class sophomore year,” Tom says. “I had the hugest crush on you.“  (Jared is visibly uncomfortable and shreds his bar napkin with tense fingers, one of many quirks he and I share.)  “Of course,” Tom continues, “you were always scribbling in your notebooks and never paid any attention.”
            One of the few straight characters I’ve ever sympathized with, Jared is less than interested (see “Homosexuality in Foster and Rolffe: An Intertextual Analysis” Stein 2005), but lingers, perhaps sensing that Tom is on the verge of telling him something important, or perhaps merely to advance the plot.
            Either way, the hardwood sticky table Jared rested his hands on, the damp torn napkin under their beers echoing the ripped napkin in Jared’s lap, the ambient chatter punctuated by an occasional outburst of laughter, the click of pool cues and chime of the door’s overhead bell—I felt like I was there.  Not the funeral of my drunk brother rushing headlong into traffic, not the endless arrangements for which my parents argued over everything from the choice of music to the font on the announcement, not the numb feeling (not happy, not sad, just dead—like him), but in a quiet, comfortable bar in my quiet, comfortable hometown with a quiet, comfortable friend.
Thomas talks for six consecutive minutes—I can see my alarm clock over his shoulder—and after all the build-up, his father’s huge, life-changing, earth-shattering announcement is nothing more than an imminent divorce.
from Tear (p. 5-6):

Tom shifted the conversation from their Latin teacher’s enthusiasm for Catullus with an unexpected u-turn:  “By the way, I read your book.  Tear, I mean.”
            Jared waved his glass of ice cubes in the air until a waiter came.  “Another Bacardi, please.”  He sighed and faced Tom, exhausted and halfway drunk.  Was this another one of his awkward come-ons?   “Oh really?  You mean the one only my editor has read?”
            “It was terrific.  Way better than your last book.”
            “Well, thanks.”  The waiter returned and passed Tom the drink, bits of wet napkin stuck to the bottom.  He took a big gulp and looked around as if for witnesses, eyes landing on the slightly disturbing stuffed birds on a shelf above the bar.  “Let me know what the ending was, because I’m still having trouble with it.”
            “The ending was fine,” Tom said.  He snapped a pretzel in two from the red plastic basket and nibbled on one half with his arms crossed.  “A bit anti-climactic, but then again, that’s you.”
            Tom poked him in the shoulder playfully and Jared’s eye twitched as he tried to suppress a cringe.  He thought he’d left this shit in New York.  He started to stand and bits of napkin fell from his lap.  “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
            Tom giggled, a bearded middle-aged man with a schoolgirl’s high pitch.  Unsettling.  Jared’s head pounded.  Maybe he’d drank more than he thought.  He just wanted to leave and was reaching for his wallet when Tom seized his hand.
             “I didn’t much like the characterization of Tom, though.  Too over the top.”
            Jared yanked his hand back, slapped a bill on the counter and stared into Tom’s glazed eyes.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Anyway, it was nice talking to you, see you around and all that—”  He grabbed his leather coat from the back of the chair.  It already smelled like cigarettes.
            Tom stood too, dropping his half-pretzel back into the basket and grabbing his messenger bag.  “What I don’t get is, why’d you call it Tear?  Because of the crying at the funeral?  Or is it Tear like a rip, like tearing something up?”
            The room narrowed—all sound stopped.  Jared stared at this man he couldn’t remember from class, this man who’d somehow got a hold of a manuscript that Jared had barely started, much less shown to anyone, a manuscript that did in fact feature a gay character named Tom.  Jared headed for the door, but Tom scrambled to block his exit.  A young couple sitting at the bar turned to look, sipping from the same giant margarita.
            “Not to mention the melodrama with the brother—”
            “Listen,” Jared said, feeling like he would puke, “If you ever come near me again, I’m calling the cops.”  Never good with aggressive gestures beyond the confines of his stories, he jumped straight to the cliché threat of calling the police.  Equally cliché but more masculine would have been kicking this guy’s ass—but he was too afraid.  He’d rather take a bath and read.
            “Well, you’re the author.” Tom laughs and raises his hands, surrenders. “I’m just a lowly reader, what do I know? All I’m saying is, if it were me—if I were you—I’d give it a few more drafts.”
            A few more drafts. The exact words his editor had used. “Fuck off.” Jared pushed past him to the chiming glass door, failing at ignoring Tom’s persistent, piercing laughter.
One thing my brother Jeremy tried to teach me before he died was the importance of interpretation. Positive attitude. Selective memory.
            “Think about your life like a book,” he told me in the car on the way to Six Flags, one of our few outings together.  “A book you write for yourself.”  I didn’t know it then, but he was probably on drugs.  He kept peering nervously at the sky.
            “You mean, I get to choose my own fate, and all that.”  Unimpressive.  I’d heard this same “everything-is-possible” bullshit at school and already sensed it wasn’t true.  There were too many adults with failed marriages and lousy jobs.
            “That’s part of it,” Jeremy continued, “—you’re certainly the main character, I mean, the book is about you.  But more importantly, you’re the author too.   You write the descriptions, you put the scenes in order.  Even when you can’t control your life”—and here I imagine that he paused, a moment of silence for the family he would soon smoke and drink away—“you can control how you present it.  Does that make sense?  You can make it a comedy or a tragedy, I mean, you can leave out the sad parts or focus on nothing else.  You can . . .” et cetera.
            I had an epiphany about life.  After that, I always tried to put a good spin on things after that.
            Or, I asked him if he’d get me a hot dog when we got there.
            Either way, now I’m hugging Thomas tightly and saying, “I’m so, so sorry.”  His revelation was typical and underwhelming at best, but Thomas and I are going to have our moment, if not now then when I relate it to Bethany.  As Thomas starts to cry and I stroke his head, fingers soon sticky from hair gel, I consider revising his revelation for my memoir:

“’I have cancer,’ he told us. My mom and I were devastated, but . . .”

Or maybe:

“—and then finally he said, ‘Son, I’m not really your father.’”

I’ll figure out something.  I free my hand, wipe it on my jeans and then try to casually place it on his thigh.  In between sniffles, he’s still talking about his dad.  I stare over his shoulder at my bookcase.
Tear stands out from Foster’s works as his most violent, but also his most abstract. For example, when Tom’s severed head appears in a package at the door of Jared’s home, why is it wrapped in manuscript pages?  In addition, the head is found stuffed with feathers, a recurring motif in the novel.  What is the significance of the birds?  However, many scholars gloss over such details, focusing instead on the message written in Sharpie on Tom’s forehead, the graffiti bizarrely complementing Tom’s frozen grin:
Imagine being so empty you obsess over fiction.  You don’t enjoy stories, you shroud yourself in them.  Your life is so dull, so pointless, so typical, that when getting wasted loses its luster, the only thing left is . . . imagination.
            “We’re getting along famously,” I tell Bethany as I drive us to the mall.  I keep running my windshield wipers in an attempt to remove the bird shit.  “We talked that whole first night—remind me to tell you about his dad sometime, such a sad story—and that was a week ago, we’ve seen each other every night since and we talk for hours.”
            “Wow,” she says, “Steve’s all grunts and monosyllables.  I’m so jealous.  What do y’all talk about?”
            Bethany is tan and at least four pounds lighter since she got back from Cancun.  Leave it to Bethany to come back looking better instead of worse from a week of drunken debauchery.  But my spring break was fun, too.
            Example: hours with Thomas working on his novella, answering questions like, “So do you think Version A, B, or C is the best?”
            I compared the three opening paragraphs again and still can’t tell the difference.  “B?”   It seemed to have more commas.
            Thomas sighed.  “Gosh, okay, well, I really thought that C was the strongest, but if you think—”
            I tried to convince myself this was a genius at work—so what if he’s annoying; it’s just an artist being eccentric.  How cool to have a boyfriend who’s so creative.  But then he wanted me to read his own stories to him, ostensibly to help him revise, but I think just to marvel at the sound of his words. I kept having to remind myself that at least he’s cute, and this was better than last spring break, which I spent alone.
            “Well,” I tell Bethany, “we’re both really into literature and stuff.  He’s a really good writer.”
            “Both of you are,” Bethany says. “Speaking of—do you think you could help me with this paper for Hewitt?”
            “I’ll try, but I actually dropped that class.”
            “Really? Isn’t it a pre-req for your comp class?”
            “Yeah, but I talked to my advisor and . . .”
            I won‘t be attending any classes period, but I’m not going to tell her this.  I search for anything to derail the conversation and settle lamely for, “Hey look, isn’t that weird?”
            Dozens of birds are perched on a traffic light at the next intersection with dozens more swarming around them.
            “Like that Hitchcock movie,” she says.
            “Yeah.  Spooky.  So where‘s this sale at again?”
Imagine being a confused guy on the verge of suicide and finding a book like Tear on your doorstep, some kind of post office mishap, or a miracle gift from the stork of novels.  Maybe to other people it’s nothing but a horror book, an ill-advised foray into genre by an author who should have known better, but to you, it’s like magic. Because here you are, expelled from college at the same time Jared leaves the university, moving back home just like he does, two failed artists searching for meaning in life as the world crumbles into oblivion, and all you can see is that bluebird at the funeral, pecking at your brother’s coffin like at a tree for worms.
Bethany, spearing a piece of lettuce with her fork asks, “How are your parents? What’s it like back in the house with them?”
            I moved back home a few days ago.
            “They’re gone,” I say. “I mean, on vacation.  They really like Thomas, though.”
            Actually, they haven’t met.
            “That’s great; it’s so much easier when the family’s on board, you know? My family loves Steve so much; it’s been way easier with him than it was with Patrick.”
            I sigh.  Steve and Patrick, impossibly unattainable; they’re hot and charming and would never make me evaluate a manuscript, or trick me with a few false compliments online.  But even if they were gay, they’d hook up with someone better than me, someone all smiles like Bethany.   Jeremy would have liked her.
            I try to console myself with fries, but like most things in my life, this dinner is doing far less to cheer me up than I’d hoped.
            Bethany leans in and lowers her voice, half-smiling. “So, have y’all . . . I mean, you know, how is . . .”
            “Great,” I insist.
            Actually, Thomas and I didn’t make it past kissing before he broke down again, and I had to endure a monologue about his fears of intimacy and commitment, tied back, of course, to his father.  As Thomas droned on I wrapped his arms around me, closed my eyes and pretended that he lived up to his online profile or to my ideas of how romance should go.  The epic romance in Foster’s Glint for example, from a chance coffeehouse meeting to passionate lovemaking  on the roof of her apartment.  Now there was a couple.
            Bethany checks her watch.  “Oh wow, we should probably get going soon.  I have so much homework . . .”
            “Me too,” I say.  I have a note to write.
Tear portrays Jared as writing continuously, almost obsessively. What started as a memoir becomes an investigation, and then something deeper. Even as bodies drop around him—in addition to Tom, a reporter from the local paper named Beth is slaughtered—Jared is focused not on surviving, or even on figuring out his connection to the mysterious Tom, but on the power of words.  Jared loses himself in his work, and the reader gets lost as well, as excerpts from his work in progress are interspersed within the text.  When Jared writes about writing, are we reading the novel itself, or the work of a character?
Thomas is waiting on my porch when I return home, holding a tattered copy of Tear I recognize as one of mine.  From his blank gaze and the way he just comes in without saying hello, I know something’s wrong.  What else is new.
            “Hey,” I ask, pulling him towards a hug, “what’s wrong?”
            He doesn’t budge and, gesturing to the empty house, asks in a flat voice, “Aren’t your parents supposed to be back from their vacation?”
            I laugh, surprised.  “They decided to stay another day, what does that have to do with anything?  Are you alright?”
            He waves the book in front of my face and I see Post-Its where he’s marked off pages. “Jared’s parents were dead, remember?”
            We go to the living room and I sit on the couch next to him.  “What’s going on?  You don’t seem like yourself.”
            When Thomas starts pointing out parallels, what am I supposed to do?  Don’t I have an obligation to bring the story to its close?
The few critics who bought into Tear still debate the ending. Some insist on the literal interpretation, that Jared is a mentally ill serial killer. They treat Tear as Foster’s sublimated revenge: on the parents who neglected him, on the editors who dismissed his increasingly convoluted work, perhaps most of all on the review board—allegedly chaired by a man named Tom—who questioned renewing his teaching contract at NYU.  While this interpretation potentially has merit, I think it falls short of explaining Tear’s power, its ruminations on the importance and influence of narrative.  But authors can’t control how their work will be read, or by whom.

I find a bottle of Bacardi in the cabinet above the refrigerator.  Do I drink it because it’s there, or because it’s Jared’s favorite?  I collapse onto my bed, too exhausted to undress.  Flocks of birds squawk, chirp, and crow outside, as if pressing against my window with their words.