Thursday, 16 May 2013

Message in a Bottle by C.T. Kingston

Read by Matt Fleming

First off, I just want to say sorry. If you’re out there listening, Jen, I just want you to know, I shouldn't have done it. But at the time, you can see, you can understand why, can't you? I know everybosy says this, but I did it for us: I really did. And if you're heading for the door right now, please, just stop, wait half-a-minute, turn around baby, listen. Please.

Plenty of people write autobiographical fiction; it's a thing, right? It's so common it's more than respectable: Tobias Wolff, John Updike, Philip Roth, Sheila Heti ... I won't mention James Frey if you don't. And it's not like I was out of ideas. Short stories, so many stories, I mean they just poured out, right? Even got published, some of them. But Deborah was adamant, that way she is.

"I gotta see a novel, Robert ... you wanna make it in this business, right? You wanna give up the day job?"





"Yes, Deborah," I'd say, bowing my head over my gnocchi in that uptown Italian she favoured, glad of the free meal and ashamed to be glad. My teacher's salary wasn't half what you earned at the bank. I felt inadequate next to you, Jen; so glossy, so effortlessly successful and slick, so indulgent of my penny-ante scribblings.

"So write me a damn novel already! I got publishers asking! I'm not even kidding you, Robert. Mandy at Harper's would bite my arm off, I know it. We both know you can write, so find a subject - any subject - and get on it. OK?" Deborah's expensively moisturised fingers covered mine, her immaculate nails, paid for by six-figure deals for valuable, novel-writing clients, tapped lightly against her Patek Philippe.

"Time's a-ticking, young Robert," she said softly. "Soon you won't be so young any more."

__

I left that meeting with fire in my belly and determination in my heart. I was twenty-nine years old, had been writing and teaching part-time for two years, and only barely kept body and soul together. I wasn't going to be one of those assholes who lives off of their girlfriend - not any more.

But what could I write about? Write what you know, write what you know, beat in my head. What did I know, and what did I have to say about it? I was after something sexy, with hipster appeal, a serious undertone, and something to say. And then I was like, Fuck! I've been staring this in the face since we met. You. I'd write about you!

I was supposed to come round that night - remember? - but instead I went straight home and wrote six thousand words about the night you and me met, and I kept writing till I had three chapters, and I sent them off to Deborah and she phoned me back that afternoon - she phoned me, Jen, remember? - and then I knew I was onto a winner.

It was a pretty fucking amazing idea, Jen, you got to give me that at least. The economic and social dynamics of East and West played out through a couple's relationship? She's a high-powered Hong-Kong-Chinese banker: beautiful, bilingual, unflappable, with a slender high ass like pair of tan peaches in a basket - he's an older creative type - light stubble, piercing dark eyes - who teaches her to appreciate art and culture even while he cedes his traditional position of financial power to her?

It was pure, 24 carat gold and Deborah - and Mandy at Harper's - just lapped it up. Deborah loved all the financial and business metaphors that I worked in from listening to you talk about work over dinner (you always loved my puttanesca pasta, Jen - I'll make it for you again one day, baby!) Meanwhile, Mandy really went for the bedroom stuff. Admittedly I exaggerated that somewhat, threw in a little rope bondage and Kama Sutra to spice it up, create what the narrator, "Bob", calls "a Japanese-Indian fusion of passion". Mandy said it was like Fifty Shades meets Wild Swans. I hadn't read Wild Swans but that sounded pretty good to me, and I knew you had, so I was sure you'd be pleased.

That's why I didn't tell you about the book deal till the launch, baby: that's why I'd never let you read what I was writing, because I wanted it to be a surprise, a wonderful surprise! No more loans, no more covering my rent on bad months: no more "my boyfriend the unpublished writer" ... East Meets West was my tribute to you! You were my inspiration, Jen: I even dedicated it to you: how was I to know your parents would be offended by the sex scenes? How was I to know the COO at your bank would recognise the deals your character "Jan" talked about over dinner and fire you for breach of their confidentiality clauses?

Don't get me wrong, baby - I was sorry at the time, sorrier than I can say. I had no desire to be "intrusive", "perverted" or "patronising", to "violate your privacy" or "ruin your life", as you put it (somewhat overstating the case in my opinion, but I forgive you: you were angry). I would've come right after you the day you left, but I had an interview with Howard Stern that morning and Deborah was talking to Oprah. How could I leave the country at the start of a national book tour, especially follow you to somewhere as far-flung as Hong Kong?

So, I'm sorry I left it so late, baby. I really am. I don't know your address in Hong Kong and thanks to the way your interfering left it, I wouldn't be allowed to approach within fifty feet of it even if I did. So this is the only way I can reach you now: I remember you always loved going to story and poetry nights in New York - that's how we met, after all, and I thought that maybe - just maybe - you might come along to something like this in Hong Kong.

Are you here, Jen? Waiting in the crowd? Amazed, horrified ... delighted, relieved maybe? Wanting to forgive me? Secretly lonely, remorseful, wishing you'd never left? Wanting to tell me you love me too, love me still?

Well, that's what I'm hoping. And to be totally honest, this is gonna sound a whole lot better coming out of an actor's mouth than from me. They do sincerity and contrition so much better. Don't get me wrong, Jen, I feel sorry, sorrier than I can say, even after three years, I just - my face doesn't show it right, I guess. Plus, this way I don't risk having a drink thrown over me. Or getting arrested.

So baby, if you're out there, somewhere, in the darkness, on the internet, whatever: forgive me? Please? Look into the actor's eyes. Listen to the actor's voice; his pain, his passion, my words. I'm nothing without you. A dry husk, an empty shell echoing meaningless sounds. You're my Muse, baby.

Plus, I'm contracted to write another book and I kind of need you around for that. So, you, know. Call me?

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