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2010 :: Issue 7/Fall :: Solitude

Writings Found in Jenny Staven’s Apartment

David Massengill

-met him at the publishers convention at the Javits Center. I’d told Jane I’d represent the agency at the “Quick Pitch Lunch”—where aspiring writers have two minutes to pitch their novels to each literary agent in the room.

“You can expect to hear from a bunch of nobodies going nowhere,” Jane said. “But we get paid for our presence, and we’d love our newest—and cutest—agent to re-”


-manuscript looked thin and slightly soiled. The top page was yellowed and had little specks of red and brown on it. I was about to push the stack of paper away.

“Please at least read the top page,” the man said. He looked even worse than his book. His eyes were bloodshot and tearing, and his neck appeared as if he’d been scratching it for days.

“I don’t want to pass it on,” he said, “but I don’t know what else to do to get rid of it. I’m sorry.”

I looked at the top page to avoid eye contact. (Jane had suggested, “Don’t make an emotional connection with any of them or else they’ll hound you for a year or more.”) I saw the same sentence repeated for paragraphs:

Cast out of the sky, I fell to my earthly prison.

“Is this a joke?” I asked.

The facilitator sounded the bell that signaled writers to move on to their next agent.

“Did you read the whole page?” the man asked. He was chewing the tip of a finger with no nail. He used that finger to point at the last paragraph, where another sentence began to repeat itself:

I am called H-


-cramps—like something dense forming in my intestine and having difficulty moving through.

I first felt the pain after leaving the convention. I was walking to my subway station with Randall, an editor at Promethean Books. I’d been trying to hook him on a chick lit series I was representing.

“So then the protagonist is in Rome with Gucci?” he asked.

I nodded, feeling a burning within my rib cage.

“I like the Anton character,” Randall said. “Love that he’s a chocolatier. But I don’t know about the miscarriage thing. Too many shades of gray. People like black and white these days.”

The burning felt like it was scorching my organs. I moved my hand over the place of pain.

“Do you have anything else for me?” Randall asked.

“I have something that was cast out of the sky,” I said. Shocked by my words, I touched my li-


-memories of my college years in the Bay Area came while I lay bent in bed, hurting and sweating. Inspired by Shelley and Coleridge and that mysterious typhus spring in Jane Eyre, I used to write little gloomy yet heartfelt rhymes and tales under the most interesting oak trees on campus.

But I was 21 in Berkeley, and now I’m 29 in New York.

Fiction is a business. Fiction is a business. Fiction is a-


-was ill,” I said. “Maybe something I ate at the convention?”

“And you couldn’t even call or email to tell me you’d miss work for two days?” Jane asked.

“I didn’t have the energy,” I said in a flat voice. I barely had the energy to be standing there, in her office with its piles of manuscripts to be rejected and its posters of the ’80s-era vampire books that had made her one of the industry’s most desired agents.

I started out of her office toward my cubicle.

“Jenny, did you talk to Redmond at Pillar Publishing like I asked?”

I turned around and saw my reflection in the glass frame of one of the posters. My dyed-blonde bangs were astray, and I looked as if I had violet welts under my eyes. “I talked to Redmond,” I said. “He likes the idea of a Hamptons cookbook, but he wants some quotes from big names, big names, big names, big-”

“Jenny, are you OK?” Jane asked, rising from her desk.

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling the agonizing swelling in my gut. “I guess I’m still-


-would think that this bulging, aching belly means I’m pregnant, except that I haven’t had sex in nearly seven months. I tried sleeping with Eli when I saw him at that rustic-themed bar in Soho a few weeks ago. He denied me, saying, “I told you when we broke up why I can’t be with you: I need my girlfriend to be passionate about something in her life.”

“Isn’t my job a-


“-you forget about what you need to reject?” Jane asked. She dropped a manuscript on my desk, partially covering a Post-It on which I’d been writing the words earthly prison.

I looked at the manuscript and wondered why I should have turned it down: Too literary/intellectual/experimental/political/ethnic/gay? I glanced at the title­ and author’s name and couldn’t remember either.

Jane snatched the manuscript and said, “Novelization of Laura Bush’s life. There’s already one on the market.”

“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” I said, feeling little remorse. “I should have known.”

“This is an important job,” Jane said. “Even if you are ill. You remember what I said about us being gatekeepers, don’t you?”

I nodded. Jane had informed me after I first started that agents and editors are the gatekeepers of literary culture. We’re the ones who determine what this country—and even other countries—read. She never mentioned that this is a position of responsibility, but she communicated very clearly that this is a position of power.

But what if people got rid of the gate-


-at night, when I’m icing my stomach and resisting taking too many Vicodins, there’s a voice in my head instructing me to share its story—H’s story—so I can finally write my own stories. In my head, I respond to the voice that I’m not crazy, that this pain in me is an ulcer, and then the tips of my fingers burn as if-


-inflammation, nausea, constipation, dizziness,” my therapist said. “Any others?”

I shook my head.

“Well, yes, those can all be psychosomatic. I’d arrange to get you on a higher dose of your anti-depressant, but you’ve been on the highest dose for some months now.”

“I know,” I said. The medication had been helping; I stopped having panic attacks, and my depression was something I witnessed rather than experienced, as if I were watching it at the drive-in movie theater I used to go to as a teenager.

“How is work?” my therapist asked. “Are things stable at the agency in this economy?”

“We aren’t having lay-offs or anything,” I said. “We just picked up some major clients. One of the women on that new reality housewife show, housewife show, housewife show, housewife show, housewife-”

“Jenny?” my therapist asked, touching my arm.

I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you believe in possession?”

“I believe that New York is an intense city. And I believe that very intense things are happening all over the world. And all this intensity can make a person feel…foreign in her own skin.”

I began to cry. I knew he couldn’t hear me. I guessed my New York friends wouldn’t be able to hear me. And both my parents had passed away, and our old home in Vermont was occupied by a new family.

“I think you should come see me again soon,” my therapist said. “Why don’t we increase your visits to-”


-you let something like this get out the door?” Jane asked. She showed me the hardcopy of an email I’d sent a potential author. The email contained our standard rejection language: Thank you for submitting your query, we receive hundreds of queries each month, publishers have higher expectations than ever, etc…. But the note ended with:

We’re sorry, but we just didn’t fall in love with your story love with your story love with your story love with your story love with your story love with your story

“Well?” Jane asked.

I snatched the paper from her and said, “I’m allowed to make mistakes, you know.” I was surprised by my anger.

Jane’s silence revealed that she wasn’t expecting such a response either. She scowled and said, “I don’t really have the time to write up a corrective action-


-closed my eyes on a bench near the reservoir. I pictured a rock-like tumor growing inside my stomach. I took the pad out of my purse and wrote a few sentences. There was movement in my bowels, and I scrambled to find a restroom on Fifth Avenue.

The movement ceased as soon as I caught sight of a fashionable bistro where the agency had held its well-attended Christmas party.

The voice in my head said, “Back into the park. First my story, then you-


-the ladder to reach a top shelf in the Strand Bookstore. I remained on the ladder while paging through the book of my choosing. I didn’t want anyone seeing me reading Exorcism: Risks and Benefits.

I stopped on a page with an illustration of a transparent, ghost-like thing hanging on a man’s back, placing its head inside his head. I scanned the opposite page and found the following text:

What seems like a demonic entity may actually be a guiding one. The entity may be mischievous, or even trigger episodes of insanity. Once gone, however, it may leave the host in a vastly improved-


-stood around him at the party like they were silently applauding him. He’d written a novel about a teenager who realizes her family makes up the core of a terrorist organization.

“Being on the Today Show wasn’t the nerve-wracking thing,” he said. “It was being approached about a movie deal in the men’s room.”

Someone laughed, and then almost all the others did the same.

“I think being a celebrity would distract me from my writing,” I said.

“Excuse me?” the author asked.

Some of the crowd gave me disapproving glances. An editor I’d worked with furrowed his brow and bit into a chocolate strawberry.

“I’m starting to write again,” I said. “I find I’m so focused during the process that the outside world just falls-


-put my head between my opened legs and felt the gushing into the toilet. The relief was far greater than the hurt and triggered a moan from deep within me. I wondered if anyone at the party had heard. I listened, but all I heard were the sounds of West Village traffic outside the bathroom window. Standing, I dared to look in the toilet and saw what resembled gravel filling the bowl. I attempted to flush-


-little time to update my diary since I’ve been working on my creative writing again. Keeping a diary requires energy enough. But writing something for others to actually read—that requires-


-blocked the door to the conference room. The agency was holding a meeting about 21st-century trends. Jane was wearing dark red lipstick and a white pantsuit for the occasion.

“You’re not going in there,” she said. “Where have you been all morning anyway?”

“Brunch with an author,” I lied. I’d actually been writing.

“So you suddenly have interest in our clients again? Even though you still can’t comb your hair or put cover-up on those sores on your cheek?”

I didn’t respond. I was staring through her into my future.

“I saw the pages you sent Ray,” Jane said. “He called me to say he didn’t appreciate the agency’s prank. Are you on drugs, Jenny?”

“I didn’t want to give the manuscript to him,” I said. I recalled typing over a hundred pages of repeating sentences. My fingers had been aching, but the searing at their tips was gone once I’d finished. “It was the only way to free myself for my own writing.”

“It’s also the way you wrecked your caree-


-writings to Times Square again. I don’t care if the cops bother me this morning. It’s not like I’m handing out bombs-


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