101: A Romance
a short story by Miriam Fried
  

Roderick was a pleasant young man who suspected there was something missing in his life, which was strange because the organization he worked for offered such a good benefit plan. He had been working in Division A for only three years but already compliance management was losing its luster. Instead of taking heart in the detail-oriented team spirit of his co-workers, Roderick was bored. Not that he was some sort of non-conformist. Everyone else who worked there was bored too. 

Anxious to boost morale, the company hired a management consultant who recommended that its workers be provided with mandatory enrichment in the form of evening classes. Roderick looked at the bulletin describing workshops in yoga, plumbing, flower arrangement, and pornography, and realized that his employers really did care about him as an individual. He opted for pornography, because he was the creative type. 

The class met on Wednesdays right after work. On the first day, Roderick reported to a conference room on the fifth floor of Division K. The conference room held a large circular table and a large circular professor who was sitting at it. He didn’t seem to be wearing clothes.

“I’m Roderick from A,” said Roderick.

“Oy,” said the professor, looking at Roderick through enormous spectacles. 

“I only speak English,” said Roderick, alarmed.

“My name is Dr. Oy,” said the professor, and turned to greet the students who were now trickling in. 

Of the six of them, four were from outside Division A—probably because of the company's commitment to multiculturalism. Roderick steeled himself to encounter diversity. Meanwhile, Dr. Oy was explaining the syllabus. He would teach the class naked to encourage emotional vulnerability, and, if necessary, for remedial purposes. Each student would submit pornography to the workshop on a rotating schedule. Everyone would read the submitted work with a generous yet critical eye. Attendance would be critical. In-class writing exercises would be used to harness the energy of the moment and guard against the temptation of Internet plagiarism.

“Imitative form is one of the pitfalls of the genre,” explained Dr. Oy, playing idly with a lock of underarm hair.

As might have been predicted from his performance on the personality tests Division A administered during the hiring process, Roderick was determined to excel. The first challenge was to familiarize himself with the narrative preoccupations of his fellow students.

Melissandra, the other team member from Division A, was a slim, shy romantic who preferred metaphors to vulgar details. She did not use the word breasts when mounds, globes, pillows, orbs, cones, and other geometrically speculative replacements would do. Her heroines did not experience orgasm but rather exploded into a galaxy of burning stars, or deliquesced into dewdrops on innumerable tulips.

Lincoln was a hulking brute for whom the male organ was the sword of Alexander slicing through a series of impossibly tangled Gordian knots. The prodigious members of his heroes had the power to unlock secrets, repression and multiple orifices; to resolve neurosis, depression and stomach ache; and to create peace, joy and good will toward men, particularly Lincoln.

Eveline was a passionate idealist whose characters practiced safe sex in orgies of political liberation. Her masterpiece involved the inspired grappling of a three-hundred pound woman, a man with a mechanical penis, two West African pygmies, and a wheelchair.  Eveline made use of hegemonic discourse such as “gorgeous body” and “gasped with delight” only to signify rote acts of coupling devoid of any real pleasure. 

Edmund was a youthful virgin unable to imagine any circumstances under which any man or woman would realistically want to have sex with him.  Accordingly, he found it necessary to invent bizarre scenarios involving mind control, alien spacecraft, time travel, and celebrity raffles in order to ensure the eventual jouissance of his hapless heroes.

Claire was the brains of the bunch. She did not stoop to writing about a woman having sex when she could write about a woman imagining having sex, or better yet, a woman writing about the implications of a woman imagining having sex, or in her most fully realized piece, a woman developing a performance piece based on her experiences in therapy discussing her writing about what it meant to imagine having sex, or to be a woman at all.

At first Roderick felt somewhat intimidated and a little ill amongst these prodigies, who had shown no sign of such hidden depths when serving in their customary positions as information systems technicians, data-control specialists, input consultants, and keyboardists.  Melissandra, for example, did accounting work only a few cubicles away from his own, but he had never before noticed her trailing scarves, her honeysuckle cologne, and her inviting ...  Roderick had heard Eveline’s opinions on received language patterns and could not think of the right word. Even so, he began looking forward to Wednesday nights. He grew to enjoy the multiplicity of perspectives offered by his classmates. Eveline was likely to object to any story involving gang rape in which the multiply-orgasming female victim wept tears of gratitude. Lincoln found lesbian scenes boring unless a dildo was involved. Melissandra typically commented that a story was “not beautiful enough” and suggested the addition of candles, body oils, incense, and extended similes. Edmund had an open mind and appreciated everything. Roderick himself had always thought literary criticism meant saying whether he could relate to the characters, but when he tried this approach, Claire said, “I see our quaint colleague is interested in reader-identification,” and giggled.

“Is that so wrong?” Roderick demanded.

Claire patted his wrist.  “It’s a dangerous practice. Someday you’ll understand.”  

Roderick noticed that Melissandra was looking at him and wincing, as if to indicate that she found Claire every bit as abrasive as he did. Roderick felt that he and Melissandra had a certain understanding, though they seldom spoke to each other outside of class. He would have to say something impressive immediately in order to retain her esteem.

“We all bring different interpretive frameworks to the table, Claire,” Dr. Oy interjected, saving him the trouble. Dr. Oy is certainly a gem, thought Roderick.  Genial yet probing, he was as comfortable leading his novices in a philosophic, wide-ranging discussion of a particular theme (Is it valid to stage scenes of heterosexual simultaneous orgasm given the implausibility of same?) as he was in detailed analysis of sentence construction and word choice (In the sentence, “He made his cock dance in her throat,” does dance really convey what the author intends; and should the subject of the sentence be he or cock, i.e. “His cock danced...”?). But despite the intellectual fertility of these exchanges, artistic differences among his students made occasional acrimony inevitable. 

At the fourth session, for example, there was another disturbance. Dr. Oy liked to read an excerpt from each piece out loud and then initiate discussion with a few probing questions. Lincoln had submitted a piece bearing upon his usual themes. Dr. Oy cast a benign eye over the manuscript and began to read. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good–”

“Why?” said Eveline. “Why, why, why must we be subjected to more of the same?”     

“I beg your pardon?” said Lincoln.

“It’s redundant. We all know what it’s going to say.”

“We do?” asked Roderick.

“Of course,” said Eveline.  “Dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick, dick. And I quote.”

“I don’t remember that quote,” said Edmund.

“There is no dishonor in variations on a theme,” said Lincoln. “Look at Bach.”

“It depends on the theme,” said Eveline.

“People, people,” said Dr. Oy.

“Go ahead and read, Dr. Oy,” said Edmund.

“Perhaps,” said Claire, “you might substitute Lincoln’s most frequently employed epithet with a word chosen at random.”          

“Excellent, Claire,” said Dr. Oy, and began to read.

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good monkey, must be in want of a wife.  Nor did Mr. Hefty deny it, for after taking up residence at Allmonkey Hall he called upon his neighbor Mr. Humid without delay. That gentleman being not at home, or rather otherwise occupied by the perusal of monkey pictures in his private library, Mr. Hefty ventured to pay his respects to the lovely Humid daughters, none of whom had ever seen a monkey.  (To Mrs. Humid’s distress, all available monkeys had been entailed away from Mr. Humid’s female dependents.) The Humid daughters received Mr. Hefty in the front parlour. “I suppose you are all greatly accomplished,” suggested Mr. Hefty, adjusting his riding breeches in order to give greater scope to his monkey.  “Certainly,” returned Brandee, the eldest; “we play the piano.” “Have you ever played upon a monkey?” inquired Mr. Hefty.  “No,” said Cherry, the middle Miss Humid, “but we should very much like to learn,”  “And so you shall, my dear,” said Mr. Hefty, extricating his monkey and placing it upon Cherry’s sewing table. “Incidentally,” he added, “I have ten thousand a year.”  “Monkeys?” gasped Henrietta, the youngest.  “Indeed,” said Cherry, “the monkey you have placed upon my sewing table is so prodigiously large that I fear we should not have room for any more.”  “Foolish girls,” opined Mr. Hefty, “you have much to learn about monkeys.”  “Do say that you will teach us,” begged Brandee.  “Oh yes,” said Henrietta, “I am convinced that prolonged contact with your monkey will make me the happiest of women.”  Mr. Hefty made a sweeping bow, his monkey knocking several items from Cherry’s sewing table. “My dears, I cannot marry all of you.  I must select the Miss Humid best equipped to be a credit to myself, my estate, and my monkey. We shall begin the competition immediately.”  So saying, he promptly pounced upon Henrietta, who fainted at the first touch of his monkey.

Here Dr. Oy broke off.  “I think that gives us plenty to talk about.”

“Hardly,” grumped Lincoln.  “All those monkeys have spoiled the drama.”

“Personally, I like it better with the monkeys,” said Melissandra.

“Of course you do,” said Claire, “you are always figurative.”

What does Melissandra’s figure have to do with it? wondered Roderick, and began studying it himself.

“The suspense is good,” said Edmund. “Who wins Mr. Hefty? I really want to know.”

“You do know,” said Lincoln. “I emailed the story last week.”

“I read it,” said Edmund, stung.  “I know they start a utopian monkey colony in the New World.  I just meant, at this point, you’re keeping your reader guessing.”

“It’s not a damned monkey colony!” said Lincoln.

“People, people,” said Dr. Oy.

Roderick found the discussion terrifying and resolved to avoid Eveline’s wrath at all costs.  His first piece, submitted later that week, was sixty-five pages long and primarily intended not to offend. A nice young man meets a sweet young girl (“Instantly he knew that Susie was a girl he could respect”).  On their first date they hold hands (“May I, Susie?”); on their second they kiss (“The moment when he felt her soft lips on his he knew it was time to bring her to his parents’ house for dinner”); on their third they share a few minutes of unintrusive petting on the young man’s sofa (“Oh, Susie”).  On page forty-eight, the couple achieves intercourse (“Are you sure this doesn’t hurt?”). By the last chapter, they have progressed to props (“The girl in the store recommended this small silicone dolphin especially for female pleasure”) and a climactic act of perversity results (“You’re right, Susie, it does have a rather suggestive snout”).

Roderick’s classmates told him to pick up the pace and consider retelling the story in the first person, or from the perspective of the heroine’s ex-boyfriend or labia, or–this was Edmund’s suggestion–moving all the action either to a secret underground military installation or a submarine.  Roderick, quite overcome by his classmates’ active interest, could only mumble his thanks while peering at Melissandra from the corner of his eye. She alone had made no suggestion.

Not long after the discussion of Roderick’s erotic novella, Melissandra submitted a story which seemed to invite interpretation on more than one level, and not just because the action took place in and around a bunk bed. Dr. Oy chose the following excerpt to read in class:

  

M. Elissa moaned softly in Rick’s arms like a cat being massaged by a specialty veterinarian. The ruby tips of her creamy mounds rose to attention like bowling pins waiting for Rick to roll a strike. The scent of honeysuckle filled the air. M. Elissa’s former resistance was a dam burst by the rushing sea of love upon her palpitating shore. Rick carried her to the bunk bed and laid her slender body down to mine her fiery core. “But aren’t we inviting a sexual harassment lawsuit?” she gasped, halting his javelin at the gates to her foyer. “Just because we both work in Division Z?” panted potent Rick, shrugging one deeply muscled shoulder. “You’re right, Rick,” realized M. Elissa. “Nothing matters but the molten lava of our desire.”  “Oh, my little volcano,” sighed Rick, “it’s finally time to erupt.”

Despite this optimistic exchange, Rick’s javelin did not enter the foyer for several more pages, which elicited scathing criticism from Lincoln. Claire claimed that Lincoln was resisting the freeplay of multiple signifiers. Eveline claimed that Claire’s elitism made her want to gag. Meanwhile Edmund wanted to know what M. Elissa and Rick were actually doing. Roderick paid no attention to Dr. Oy’s patient explanation, because he was wondering whether the oddly familiar names of M. Elissa and Rick were coincidental. He decided to conduct an experiment, the boldness of which should prove to cynical detractors that the workshop format does in fact stimulate creative endeavor.

Preparing the experiment strained Roderick’s imagination to the limit, but the following week he submitted a story in which a circus clown named R. Derick rescues a trapeze artist named Sandra from the energetic admiration of a strongman and his gang of trained gorillas (“Rrrrgghh! Rrrrggh!”  “Stop that, you monkeys! Stop it at once!”). Sandra showers acrobatic appreciation on Derick (“What can I do to thank you?” ), a process caught on Super-8 video by their employer, the ringmaster (“He rewound the tape.  Then he rewound it again”). When the ringmaster gives them a raise instead of a pink slip, Sandra and R. Derick fall into each other’s arms (“Let’s work together forever”).

The story was generally a success. Even Eveline liked it. She complimented Roderick on using a nontraditional romantic hero. Meanwhile, Roderick thought he saw the results of his experiment in Melissandra’s sidelong glances. (This gave him a new appreciation for experimental fiction.)  At last Melissandra opened her lovely lips.

“This story was convincing,” she said.  “I felt sympathetic to the characters. R. Derick was so attractive.” She brushed her filmy scarf across the pages with one careless finger.

“Interesting exercise in metafiction,” said Claire, rolling her eyes at Melissandra’s textual naďveté.

“Thanks,” said Roderick, and was about to ask Claire what meta-fiction was when their teacher said it was time to move on to Edmund’s parable involving laughing gas and the graduating class of a Catholic high school for girls. For once, Claire had nothing to say about the repetitive nature of Edmund’s rhetorical strategies. Instead, Roderick noticed, she was watching him and Melissandra like a hawk.

The next morning in Division A, Roderick sent Melissandra an email inviting her to dinner and a movie that evening. Yeah, okay :), Melissandra emailed back.  The two remained at their desks all day, inputting data.  To Roderick, the minutes seemed like hours.  At five o’clock, he met Melissandra in the elevator. Together they proceeded to the company cafeteria, where they ate hamburgers and French fries and drank diet soda. Roderick waited for the double entendres and witty repartee to begin, but somehow it didn’t. Instead they had one scoop each of vanilla ice cream. Then they walked to the cineplex in the company parking lot and saw a movie about a troubled marriage in the suburbs. Roderick noticed Claire in the back row, taking notes and looking superior. He avoided her glance. When the movie was over, he offered to drive Melissandra home.

 “Yeah, okay,” said Melissandra. The drive was punctuated by feeble commentary about the movie and the personality flaws of their mutual supervisor in Division A. Roderick dropped Melissandra off at her apartment complex.

“See you in class,” she said.  Roderick could not smell even a hint of honeysuckle. 

For the rest of the week, he stayed in the data control area and avoided the accounting cubicles. He did not even run into Melissandra in the break room. On Wednesday morning, he thought about going home early with a stomach ailment, but his better angel won out. I’m no quitter, Roderick thought. He showed up for class on time, although he was careful to pick a seat as far away from Melissandra as possible.

That day, the class was scheduled to discuss Lincoln’s verse epic The Phalliad, but Dr. Oy announced that they would begin with an in-class writing exercise.

“I have been pleased by your willingness to engage the fabular,” he said, “but let us not forget, in our rejection of realism’s bourgeois consolations, that we are all real people, driven by real desires.”

There was an audible gasp as Eveline reacted to the stunning revelation implicit in Dr. Oy’s words.

“A closet humanist–I knew it!” she whispered to Claire.

“Are we to conclude, Dr. Oy, that you have fallen victim to Enlightenment ideals?” asked Claire coldly.

“Let us not overstate the case, Claire,” said Dr. Oy, who always responded to any challenge to his authority with grace and a touch of wit. “Shall we make an experiment? Your in-class writing assignment is to describe an incident from real life. Make it as complete, as true, as you can.”

“About cock, though, right?” said Lincoln.

“As you wish,” said Dr. Oy, and his students bent to their notebooks to write.   

Thirty minutes later, Roderick had made twenty-two false starts. His final word count was in the area of five. From across the table, he could see that Melissandra’s yellow legal pad was entirely blank except for what looked like a doodle of a squashed tarantula. Dr. Oy, oblivious, asked for volunteers to read their pieces aloud. To Roderick’s relief, Claire’s hand flew up.  

“Excellent, Claire,” said Dr. Oy. 

  

Rod and Mel [read Claire], two co-workers driven by uncontrollable passion, confess their lust and arrange a date.  In feverish anticipation of a torrid encounter, Rod spends his lunch hour doing push-ups in the company gym to improve his musculature.  In the shower afterwards, water plashes over his hard body and knocks the soap out of his hands, which he has difficulty bending down to retrieve because his engorged member gets in the way. Fortunately, the captain of the company soccer team renders him material assistance and Rod is able to return to his desk only slightly late.  Meanwhile, Mel, who works in accounting, is engaged in a dispute over billing with the copier repairman, a punkette bicycle courier, the package delivery boy, and the Brazilian ambassadress. The contretemps over what constitutes adequate compensation for services rendered grows deliciously heated before being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

With undiminished energy, Rod and Mel meet each other for dinner in an exotic restaurant where interesting substitutions are made for the usual tedious paraphernalia of table, plate, and cutlery, and the waiters personally ensure that every customer is filled, so to speak, to the brim. The story culminates at the vaudeville theater in the company parking lot where Rod and Mel seek entertainment following their meal. In fact, Rod and Mel themselves become the last act, or rather climax, of the show.

“Powerful,” said Lincoln, who liked the shower scene.

“Actually,” explained Claire, “my latest project is reclaiming classic ways of reading as sites of innovation.”

“Reader identification?” asked Dr. Oy.

Claire smirked. Roderick peeked at Melissandra from the corner of his eye. 

“Were the waiters paid living wages?” asked Eveline.

“Are there any vaudeville shows like that around here?” asked Edmund.

“That reminds me of one of my own experiences,” said Dr. Oy, which meant that no one else would get a word in edgewise for the next twenty minutes.

Melissandra smiled ever so slightly back at Roderick. Roderick, daring, managed a wink. Melissandra brushed the end of her trailing scarf back and forth across her copy of Claire’s manuscript. Roderick smelled honeysuckle. Now he remembered the crowd at the theater clapping in time to his triumphant thrusts, and Melissandra moaning and voluptuous beneath him. With his left foot he tried to nudge her ankle under the table. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite reach. 

Alas, I am fiction’s fool, Roderick thought. Still, he felt their relationship would succeed as long as the table with its burden of stories lay between them.

   

© 2005 Miriam Fried

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