By Tyler Thompson - Apr 9, 2018
I am going to bring a great deal of criticism on myself.
This is the opening line of Devil in the Flesh, by Raymond Radiguet, Cocteau’s muse and lover. He died in Paris at 20 from typhoid fever. Allegedly, Hemingway once said of Radiguet, he knew how to make his career not only with his pen but with his pencil.
I am about to lay myself open to many reproaches. This was the first line of the Nonfiction Portfolio I handed in at the end of the semester for an undergraduate writing class at Columbia. This is the same line from Radiguet’s opening, but from a different translation.
I went back to college at 25 after dropping out of San Francisco State when I was 20 to move to New York. Columbia has a program called General Studies, which is a way for people who’ve been out of school for a while to apply without their applications getting mixed up with students who are applying straight from high school. The idea is that those who have what Columbia calls life experience have something else to offer the undergraduate classes full of people in their early twenties. The brochure said General Studies was developed after World War I for soldiers returning from the battlefield.
When I first moved to New York at 20 I stayed at a friend’s house on East 12th Street between First and Second Avenue. He and his girlfriend had a dog that liked to wake me up early every morning by licking my feet hanging off the end of the loveseat, then the dog licked my face. I moved to an apartment on Centre Street with pink linoleum floors, neon office lighting, plywood walls and no closet. Once, I walked in on one of my roommates lifting weights in front of the bathroom mirror, smoking a cigarette. Rent was $700 in cash, but I was working. The store I worked for didn’t open until noon so I was allowed to go out all night every night and get drunk and do cocaine and I was young so I wasn’t hungover straightening the hangers on the racks on the shop floor. And the owners of the company, a few of them were worse than I was.
I moved around a lot but kept the job. I travelled. I met a girl, fell in love, found heartbreak. She disappeared. Someone called my mom in California and told her I was dissipating. By that time I was 24.
I burned out soon after. I quit the job and drove across the country with my sister to San Francisco where I was planning on staying for a few months to take a breather, to get a handle on the drinking and the drugs and the depression. I started seeing a therapist named Bruce twice a week. I stayed for a year.
One night I blacked out and woke up on the street in the Tenderloin. I took a hundred dollar cab ride over the Golden Gate Bridge to my mom and stepdad’s house on the hill. A few days later, after they asked me for the one-hundredth or thousandth time, what are your plans for the future? I told them, I’m going back to college. Great, they both said, where? New York, I said, I’m going to apply to Columbia.
When I told this to Bruce, he leaned all the way back in his chair and smiled and laughed to himself. Then he said, you’re not getting into Columbia.
But I got in. Thanks, Bruce.
My first two semesters were impossible. I had to drop Art History right before the final exam and my stepdad wasn’t happy when I told him all that tuition went right down the toilet. Really, it went down my throat and into my gut because although I tried, I was still drinking way too much and my ability to retain information was questionable. I did okay in my writing classes though. And I wasn’t working and didn’t want to go home to California for the summer so I took summer classes. One of them was a nonfiction course taught by a young woman with bright green eyes behind her glasses. Her name was Megan.
I was seeing a girl named Erin at the time that was very pretty but also small at five foot nothing. She wore glasses, too and she had huge, milky breasts she rubbed all over me as she told me to talk dirty to her. Dirty how? I asked. Tell me what you want to do to me, she said. I want to fuck you in the ass, I said. That’s not dirty, she said, that’s disgusting.
Another night when she was on top of me with her soft skin shaking against mine and I was trying to swallow one of her nipples, she told me to call her my baby. Tell me you want to fuck your baby, she said. I can’t say that, I said and pulled her long brown hair back and wrapped my hand around her throat and pumped up into her until she screamed through her vocal chords I could feel through my fingers.
But I didn’t write about Erin for Megan’s class. I wrote about past experiences and nights where I was up until sunrise in hotel rooms snorting coke from leather room service menus wearing bathrobes and fucking women named Kelly and Juliana on the bathroom floor.
Megan’s responses to these pieces weren’t all bad. But they weren’t all good.
I didn’t fight her or even try to argue. I was getting decent feedback from the other students and I was sure that if I kept being as honest as I could, I’d do okay. I wanted a good grade but I didn’t tell her this until later.
I made friends with another student who had tattoos up and down both of his arms. His name was Rob and he told me about how he’d gotten a blowjob in the stacks of Butler library. Nice, I said. But I really want to take Megan out on a date, he said, she’s hot for a teacher. I told him I thought she was pretty but I thought her brand new Chuck Taylor’s were corny, like she was trying too hard to look cool for her younger students.
She wore a lot of jewelry, too, but her smile was disarming.
On August 11th, she wrote an email with the subject line: Final Portfolios
Your Final Portfolios are due posted to Courseworks one week from today: WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18TH at 12:00pm.
If a portfolio is turned in late, it will be graded down one half letter grade (B+ to B) for every half hour it is late. In other words, post it on time!
August 12th, subject line: last conference
Nicole, Daniella, and Tyler,
As you are being workshopped on the last day of class, we need to find a time to meet for your last conference. I wonder if you might be able to meet tomorrow, Friday. I was thinking of coming up to campus around 2:00 and staying until 3:30. Does this day/time work for you? If not, we can work out something else.
I wrote back in the morning on the day of our last class:
I just realized we are meant to meet at some point today. I have a feeling your schedule is busy with other meetings, so should I plan on trying to see you before or after class?
Let me know.
Thanks so much,
The rest of conversation looked like this:
I actually just sent you an email. Might you be able to meet tomorrow afternoon? If not, we could meet today after class, but it would probably have to be after I talk with three other students, around 7:00 or 7:15?
Yeah, if that’s okay with you, I don’t mind hanging around until 7 or later. I live in Chinatown, so it’s a trek for me to come up tomorrow but I can if I need to, of course.
Okay, let’s meet at 7:00 today.
I went to our last class. I showed up at her office around 7 o’clock and she smiled and said, it’s really hot in here, I could use a drink, should we go for one?
Okay, I said.
I sent a text message to Erin saying I was sorry I was going to be late for dinner, but my professor moved our meeting to the bar.
We went to a bar for college students with a rooftop on Broadway. I tried to buy the first round but Megan didn’t let me. I asked her about her writing and she told me she was working on a nonfiction book about the short and long term effects of serious head injuries. I told her I’d hit my head too many times. She smiled her wide smile and I asked if that explained some of the lack of empathy in my writing. I don’t know, she said, how many concussions have you had? I don’t know, I said, I lost count. She laughed. How do you really feel about my writing? I asked, but before she could answer I asked, do you think I have what it takes? She took a sip of her drink and dug right in. She told me I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was, that I was sometimes half-assed in my assessment of other student’s work and a lot of my own writing was heartfelt but not thought all the way through.
I texted Erin, I’m going to be later than I thought, she’s giving me a full character assassination.
We ordered another round and drank it and I tried to defend myself but she asked me who I was on the phone with and I said, the woman I’m seeing.
Let’s go somewhere else, Megan said, and get another drink.
I said okay and we went to this pizza place on Amsterdam but we didn’t eat.
I’d eaten there with Erin once before, after she met me when class let out.
Megan ordered a pitcher of Stella and told me that I only think I’m tough, that my tattoos were only part of my facade. What? I said. She said the wifebeater I was wearing under my open shirt with the sleeves rolled up was all a front. But I wasn’t wearing a wifebeater, I was wearing a black tank-top and the sleeves of the shirt were rolled up because it was my favorite shirt and I’d worn it so much that there were holes in the elbows and I eventually tore the sleeves off. I rolled them up so I didn’t look like a derelict that couldn’t afford new clothes. I tried to tell her this but she interrupted me and accused me of only writing about sex. Sex and death, she said.
On the first day of class you told us to write what we know, I said. She laughed.
I finished my beer and went out to smoke a cigarette. I texted Erin that I wasn’t going to make it to dinner, that my teacher was really going after me and I wanted to stay to see how far she was going to take it. I’m trying to get an A, I wrote.
Megan came out and met me on the sidewalk and asked me for a drag. I used to smoke, she said. Smoking is really bad for you, I said, you should try smoking in California, they look at you like you’re a criminal. I’m from California, she said. Me too, I said. And I learned we were from the same county and had gone to high school a few miles from each other but she’d graduated ten years before I did. I told her what town I grew up in and she called me a rich kid. Just because I come from money, I said, doesn’t mean I have any. It’s okay, she said, I was the girl in school who had horses so I know what it’s like. I was the only one in my family who didn’t go to sailing school, I said, all I wanted to do was skateboard. Like my mom used to tell me, you can’t just skate through life. We both laughed.
Let’s go to that bar on the corner, she said, where all the students go. Yes, I said.
I’d been there before with some other dudes to drink beer and play pool. Rob wasn’t with us, he was a recovering addict with a two-year AA chip in his pocket.
Megan and I drank beer. We didn’t play pool.
She took a sip and looked over at me with her elbow on the bar and a grin showing the whites of her teeth and asked, what the fuck are you doing here?
You tell me, I said.
She grabbed my face and pulled it to hers and kissed me hard with her tongue in my mouth and across my teeth and back and forth against my tongue.
Let’s get out of here, one of us said.
She paid the bill with her credit card and I told her I had roommates. Me too, she said, but I live in a house in Greenpoint. Professors don’t have roommates, I said. Come find out, she said.
We were kissing in the backseat of the taxi and I had my hand under her shirt thumbing her small pointed breasts and she pushed my hand down below her belly and I paused and asked, did you have this all planned out? Maybe, she said, I knew I was going to fuck you when you agreed to go for a drink. I shook my head. Come on, she said, all you wrote about was sex, I told my roommate, I think one of my students is trying to seduce me. I laughed and said, I was trying to get a good grade. Oh yeah? she asked, and what grade do you think you deserve? I said, you’re going to give me an A.
A dog barked when we walked in her door. Her roommate shushed it and turned off the TV she was watching in the living room with a mix of antique and modern furniture and too many carpets spread out across the old hardwood floor. Megan introduced us and said this is Tyler, the student. The roommate grinned to herself and took the dog upstairs.
Megan and I went into the kitchen. She poured glasses of whiskey for both of us without ice.
I’m going out to smoke, I said. And we went out on the deck behind the kitchen and I leaned back against the railing and exhaled up at the stars we couldn’t see. She came out and asked me for a drag. She blew smoke in my face. I smiled and she told me my grin was shit-eating. That’s real original, I said.
What are you waiting for? she asked.
Nothing, I said, I’m going to finish this cigarette and then fuck you, hard.
Don’t you think you should tell your girlfriend that you’re fucking your teacher?
She’s not my girlfriend, I said, and I already told her.
We went up the stairs and past her roommate’s room where the dog was snoring too loud and in her room she pulled my shirt off and tried to rip my tank-top. I kicked my boots to the floor and sat on the edge of her bed and watched her undress with the light still on. I stood up to switch it off but she said no, leave it, I want to see what I’m doing to you. I sat back.
She took her glasses off and stuck her contacts in.
She threw a condom at me and I told her I was clean. She said she was too but it was better to be safe. Maybe she said careful. I put it on and she played some music I hadn’t heard and I told her to turn it off, fuck it if your roommate hears us, and she shook her head and pushed my head back and got on top of me and rubbed my dick around her clit and put me inside of her and rocked back and forth, her legs spread wide and her hips grinding into my hips with one of my hands on her waist and the other squeezing her butt and then her breast and then in her mouth with her sharp teeth biting down hard on my fingers. I tried to pull my hand away but she didn’t let go. I pulled harder but she bit harder and pushed my other arm away and said, hands off. I put my arms behind my head and stared up at her and her green eyes brighter or more beautiful without the glasses and the stray brown hairs coming apart from the bun on top of her skull and she smiled and rocked faster and pinched the black hairs on my chest and I looked down and she slapped me in the face. What the fuck are you doing? I said and she slapped me again, harder. I said stop and she made a fist and looked at her clenched fingers and then me and punched me in the eye. Stop, I said. She was laughing through her cheeks. Stop what? she said, you like it. And I tried to push her off me and she called me a pussy and leaned down and bit into my shoulder and held on and I tried to shake away with the sharp pain shooting through my arm and up my neck but she held tight and broke the skin. She dug her fingernails into my back and fucked me harder with her mouth open and blood on her lip.
I woke up in her bed at six the next morning and checked my phone. There were a lot of missed calls from Erin and too many messages.
Did you fuck your professor? The last one said.
Megan took the phone from my hand and threw it at her bookshelf. She tried to give me an erection with her mouth but it didn’t work, I was only half hard in her without a condom on when she fucked me again telling me to scratch her and hit her and I said no, I can’t hit you and she said yes, you can hit me, hit me, fucking hit me you fucking bitch and I shook my head no and twisted out from under her.
I took a long piss in her bathroom. I washed my hands and my face in the sink. I ran my fingers through my hair. I didn’t look in the mirror.
She walked me out and asked if she could buy me a coffee at the new coffee shop on the corner. I said okay.
I know you know this, she said, but you cannot tell anyone, especially Rob. I know, I said, nodding. She wrote her phone number on a napkin and snuck it into one of my pockets. She kissed me on the mouth and hugged me for too long and I walked away.
I walked from Greenpoint through Williamsburg and took Bedford to the Williamsburg Bridge and walked across. But I was on the wrong side walking up in the bike lane and the big guy with a beard racing down on a fixed-gear said, wrong way café latte.
I didn’t say anything, trying to laugh to or at myself.
I went home to my apartment on Henry Street and up the stairs to the fifth floor. My roommates were home but sleeping. I took a long shower. Brushing my teeth in the mirror with a blue towel wrapped around my waist, I saw the bite marks and I turned around and looked at the scratches up and down my back.
Sorry, my phone died, I just woke up and plugged it in. I wrote to Erin.
Fucking liar. She wrote back.
Because of the bruises and the scratches and the impressions of teeth on my skin, I couldn’t see Erin for a week. I told her I was really busy with the end of the semester. But the semester is over, she said.
She was right.
On August 20th, Megan wrote me an email with the subject line: final portfolio
I’ve been hard on you this semester because I think you’re strong enough to take it, and to use it to make your writing better. As you point out in your letter, you are capable of making sophisticated choices on the sentence level, but you seem to lack the clarity of intention to do something powerful and moving and real with those sentences on a larger level. The desire, however, is there: “I want to ask the tough questions. I do not want to supply any of the answers. But I want the reader to attempt to answer them his or herself. Maybe then, we will all have learned something.” So how do you go from style to substance?
As Rob said in his Retrospective Letter, “Drug addicts generally tend to think they’re very special. Recovering addicts often remind each other that they’re not and that humility is a key ingredient of sobriety.” If you can stop feeling so special (whether you identify as an addict, or not), and keep “quietly trying to get over [your]self,” I think you’ll begin to see yourself as one of us—the messy, gorgeous mass of humanity—and maybe you’ll find you have something to say to us, rather than just yourself.
To be a writer, you need to be able to see better, further, deeper than your reader can see—this is part of the gift you give. (Think of Didion’s sharp observations of the SF scene in 60s or Baldwin’s gorgeous analysis of hate; we understand the world, and ourselves, better for having read those essays.) This means being able to see yourself with some distance, which means giving up the romanticization of pain and suffering in your own life. As you point out, “I used to think that what I had put myself through was important because I had done it, I had put myself through it and I had picked myself up out of the gutter and kept walking. But what I have realized is that not only has this been done, time and time and time again, and expertly as well, but it is not interesting if it is offered without any insight.” This realization is, itself, insight. It reveals a crack beginning to widen between who you have been and who you are now, looking back at that other self.
Right now, I think you’re somewhere in between who you used to be and who you will become; the struggle of this metamorphosis is evident in almost everything you write, yet it remains mostly inarticulate and unarticulated. This is a writer still desperately hanging onto an idea of himself as wild and wronged and wronging. The problem, of course, is that if he lets go of that, what does he have to hang onto? If you are not that person, then who are you? As you wrestle with that question, I think your writing will reflect a necessary sort of growth.
Your greatest weakness as a reader echoes what is perhaps your greatest weakness as a writer. In your critique letters you often say what you like, but you can’t always say why. Often, you pointed to what I would agree were the strongest lines or moments in a piece, but were only able to say, “this is good.” When it came to offering a critical opinion of what was not working and what a writer might do to address it, your letters were much less astute, as if you couldn’t quite see the weaknesses or imagine alternate versions of a piece. Perhaps this was, as you say, your unwillingness to argue with people you don’t know. “On the first few days of class I had trouble voicing my opinion. I still do. I am willing to say things that not everyone agrees with. I am willing to be on the other side of popular belief. But I do not really have any interest in arguing with people that I do not know well. I think that mostly this is due to the notion I have of myself in my head. The notion that tells me, I don’t really care what you think. I think this is a defense mechanism, and a weak one at that.” But your lack of negative, constructive critiques (even late into the semester when you were more willing to engage and more generous in your interest) might also reveal this to be a defense mechanism masking the fact that sometimes you don’t actually know what you think (or feel?), or you don’t know how to articulate it.
I have no doubt that you will keep writing, and that you will continue to improve, whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or something in between. It’s been a pleasure to work with someone who takes the act and art of writing so seriously. (Though I noticed you managed to “misspell” a few words and you somehow got the word count “wrong.”
Feel free to be in touch if you’d like to continue this conversation.
I didn’t get in touch.
Eight days later, on August 28th, she wrote again with the subject line: checking in
I’m back in NY and while most of your classmates have responded in some way to the letters I sent about their final portfolios, I notice that you’ve remained conspicuously quiet. Not entirely out of character, perhaps, for someone who insisted early on that he wouldn’t be speaking up much, but a little surprising, nonetheless. I just wanted to check in to be sure all’s well.
I hope you know that I have great respect for your literary sensibility and the gut-wrenching work you did this summer.
I didn’t write anything back.
Three days later, on the 31st, she wrote again from a gmail address instead of her usual Columbia account, with the subject line: many reproaches, etc.
I keep thinking about you when I walk by the coffee shop. And I keep thinking about that letter I wrote and how it came out all wrong. The thing is, I’d love to see you again. Meet me for a drink later this week? You should have my number, but just in case: 415-324-144X.
I never wrote or called or said anything. A week later my grade was posted.
She gave me a B+.
Tyler Thompson is a graduate of Columbia University.