“Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists,” a short story by Tao Lin
This was the month that people began to suspect that terrorists had infiltrated Middle America, set up under- ground tunnels in the rural areas, like gophers. During any moment, it was feared, a terrorist might tunnel up into your house and replace your dog with something that resembled your dog but was actually a bomb. This was a new era in terrorism. The terrorists were now quicker, wittier, and more streetwise. They spoke the vernacular, and claimed to be philosophically sound. They would whisper into the wind something mordant and culturally damning about McDonald’s, Jesus, and America — and then, if they wanted to, if the situation eschatologically called for it, they would slice your face off with a KFC Spork.
People began to quit their jobs. They saw that their lives were small and threatened, and so they tried to cherish more, to calm down and appreciate things for once. But in the end, bored in their homes, they just became depressed and susceptible to head colds. They filled their apartments with pets, but then neglected to name them. They became nauseated and unbelieving. They did not believe that they themselves were nauseated, but that it was someone else who was nauseated — that it was all, somehow, a trick. A fun joke. “Ha,” they thought. Then they went and took a nap. Sometimes, late at night and in Tylenol-cold hazes, crouched and blan- ket-hooded on their beds, they dared to squint out into their lives, and what they saw was a grass of bad things, miasmic and low to the ground, depraved, scratching, and furry — and squinting back! It was all their pets, and they wanted names. They just wanted to be named!
Life, people learned, was not easy. Life was not cake. Life was not a carrot cake. It was something else. A get-together on Easter Island. You, the botched clone of you, the Miami Dolphins; Coco-Puffs, paper plates, a dwindling supply of clam juice. That was life.
The economy was up, though, and crime was down. The president brought out graphs on TV, pointed at them. He reminded the people that he was not an evil man, that he, of course, come on now — he just wanted everyone to be happy! In bed, he contemplated the abolition of both anger and unhappiness, the outlawing of them. Could he do that? Did he have the resources? Why hadn’t he thought of this before? These days he felt that his thinking was off. Either that, or his thinking about his thinking was off. He began to take pills. Ginseng, Ginkoba. Tic-Tacs. It was an election year, and the future was very uncertain. Leaders all over the globe began to go on TV with graphs, pie charts, and precariously long series of rhetorical questions.
This was also the month that Garret and Kristy stopped experimenting with caffeine. They had, in their year and a half together, tried all the coffees, cut back to tea, tried tea and coffee together — thinking that tea caffeine was different than coffee caffeine — tried snorting tea, swallowing coffee beans, tea cakes, and had then gone back to coffee.
Now they were using caffeine pills. One per day, like a vitamin — tacitly, with only a little shame.
They went to college in Manhattan and lived together in Brooklyn, where the sky was a bleeding-mushroom gray and the pollution seemed to rise directly off the surface of things — cars, buildings, the ground — like a foul heat, a kind of gaseous, urban mirage.
Garret would occasionally glimpse something black and fizzy moving diagonally across the reddening sky. He often suspected that The Future Was Now. Was the future now? Or was it coming up still? He had seen all the apocalypse movies of the 90′s, and all the signs were here: the homeless people rising up and walking around, the businessmen entering the parks and sitting down, sitting there all day, leaving late at night — why?; the focus on escape — people always talking about escaping to California, Hawaii, Florida; and the stalled technology, how all that was promised — underwater houses, hover cars, domed cities on the moon, robots that would shampoo your hair and assure you that everything was going to be okay — was not here, and would probably never be here. They had lied. Someone had lied.
Garret’s dreams were increasingly of normal things that, because of their utter messagelessness, had very natural-seeming undertones of foreboding and impending doom to them. In one dream, Garret was in the shower. He soaped himself, dropped the soap, picked up the soap, put it adjacent the shampoo, and read the shampoo bottle. “Pert Plus,” it said.
“I’m thinking about taking a year off,” Kristy said. She was graduating a year early due to summer classes and AP credits. “To figure out who I am. I’m not a basketball star. I’m not Jane Goodall. I’m not Mary Stuart Masterson.”
It was a Friday morning and they were in bed.
“I always think Jane Goodall is the ape’s name,” Garret said. “But it’s not. It’s the name of the blonde lady.”
Garret had a psychology lecture today. They decided to meet after, at four, at the deli place.
“The deli with the red thing,” Garret said. “Four. Don’t be late.”
“I’ll be there at three-fifty.”
“I know you’re going to be late,” Garret said. Then he left the apartment. Why was Kristy always late? It was winter and raining. The city seemed a place undersiege, an undersea metropolis with a grade-school planetarium dome for a sky, newspapery and cheap, folding down like something soaked. The subway smelled of urine, and some of the streets had long pools of green radioactive sludge on them. Garret went and sat in the deli, which had a red awning. He disliked the word awning. The complete, incomplete word of it. Yawning; they just took the Y off. What was happening? His view was of the sidewalk, a craggy area of Washington Square Park, and some scaffolding. He sat there for a long time, until the deli owner came out from in back to tell him that he couldn’t just sit there all day.
Garret nodded and stood. “Sorry,” he said.
“Move to Hawaii,” said the deli owner. He patted Garret on the back. “Take a jet airplane to Hawaii and be happy.”
“Okay,” Garret said. He bought a pre-made salad, an orange drink, and a sugar cookie. He thought that he wouldn’t go to class. Jesus loves you, he then thought. But Jesus isn’t in love with you. He thought about that for a while. Awning, he thought. Gnawing. Woodpecker.
Kristy showed up around five. She ran in, her hair wet.
“I forgot you said four,” she said. “I was thinking that I was supposed to leave at four.”
They walked to Union Square, leaning against one another like a weary, wounded people. It was not raining anymore, but the sky was still gray. Kristy asked how Garret’s class went. Garret shrugged. They didn’t speak anymore after that. They began to sweat, as it was a warm winter. Global warming had finally arrived, maybe. For a long time it was on its way, it was coming, it was imminent, Hollywood made a movie about it, and now it was probably here.
They went in all the stores, then for coffee, and then Garret started making half-hearted jokes about the terrorists. “What if the terrorists opened their own store … and sold bad things?” Garret said. “What would they sell?” he said.
It sometimes seemed to him that for love to work, it had to be fair, that he should tell only half the joke, and she the other half. Otherwise, it would not be love, but something completely else — pity or entertainment, or stand-up comedy. “Well? What they would sell,” Garret said. “I can’t do everything in this relationship.” Sometimes, recently, coffee would make him sleepy and unreasonable and begrudging. He began to remember all the times that Kristy was late, all the times she promised not to be late anymore.
“Yes you can,” Kristy said. “You can do anything you want.”
“I’m always trying to cheer you up,” Garret said. “It seems like this. I’m always trying to make you laugh and you’re always depressed.”
“What if a terrorist kicked your ass?” Kristy said.
Some areas of the ground had steam coming out of it, and a gigantic truck was coming down the street, like some kind of municipal battering ram. There was always a gigantic truck coming down the street like some kind of municipal battering ram.
“I’m about to do something,” Garret said. He bought two rainbow-sprinkled ice cream cones from an ice cream truck, and that was his dinner. “I wanted to, so I did it,” he said to Kristy. He looked around to see if anyone was disapproving of this, of two rainbow-sprinkled ice cream cones at once. He almost sneered. Kristy bought a large package of Twizzlers and a coffee the size of a canteen. They went back to Brooklyn, and lay on their bed. Turned off all the lights. And they held each other. “I love you,” Kristy said. But she said it softly and Garret didn’t hear over the noise of the air conditioner, which bulged out from high on the wall, like a hoary, machine growth, a false but vexing machination — the biscuit-brown plastic appliance thing of it, trembling, dripping, clanging, probably not even working.
The radio hit that year was “Sigh (hole),” an R&B song by a pop-rock band:
There-ere’s a hole in you
Gets emptier, ah-oh, each day
But you don’t needn’t be blue Everything’s-uh gonna be, yeah, okay
For the chorus, the band sighed, caribbeanly, into their microphones. Except the rhythm guitarist, who had to sing-talk, “we are sighing, we are sighing,” to let the people know. The music video had celebrities who looked into the camera — looked right at you! faint! — and sighed like they really, really, truly meant it. They were sighing at all the distress in the world, people said. Or else because of the ever-invasive paparazzi. There were arguments. Name-calling. People stood up in chain restaurants, pointed diagonally down, and said, “It’s because of the paparazzi, you fool.” Then they requested a booth table. At night, they sent out mass, illogical, spam e-mails. The celebrities themselves had no comment.
After a psychology lecture, Garret asked a classmate out for lunch. The classmate frowned a little. She had been poking Garret in his shoulder and smiling at him all semester. “Hmm,” she said, “I don’t think so.”
Garret went into the park, where the trees were all leafless. Their petrified-gray branches clawed at the air, like rakes. There was a cemetery wind, dry and slow and slabbed as marble. Elephant graveyard, Garret thought. He sat on a bench and called Kristy. He asked if she wanted to see a movie tonight. She had just gotten out of class, but had another one. “I’ll just meet you back at the apartment then,” Garret said. He didn’t want to see a movie anymore. “I have to study in the library anyway.”
“I’ll meet you at the library, then,” Kristy said.
“I’ll just meet you at the apartment. I have to study.”
“I won’t be late this time,” Kristy said. “I’ll just meet you at the library.”
“No; that isn’t it. I just have to study.”
“What isn’t it?” Kristy said.
“Nothing,” Kristy said. “Fine then; bye.”
Garret went across the street to the library. There was a hole in the sidewalk the size of a bathtub. Construction was being done, was always being done. It was the journey that mattered, Garret thought woozily, the getting-there part. The mayor, and then the president, had begun saying that. “And where are we going?” the mayor had asked. “When will we get there? What will happen to us once we get there?” He really wanted to know.
A woman with a red bandana stepped in front of Garret and gave him a flyer for an anti-war meeting. It was vague to Garret these days what was happening in the rest of the world. He found it difficult to comprehend how large the world was, how many people there were. He would think of the Middle East, of strife and mortar, then suddenly of Australia, and then New Zealand, giant squid, tunafish, and then of Japan, all the millions of people in Japan; and he’d get stuck there, on Japan trying to imagine the life of one Japanese person, unable to, conjuring only an image of wasabi, minty and mounded, against a flag-white background.
Garret saw Kristy coming out of a building across the street. He turned, went behind a pillar, and looked. Kristy was with a taller man who had a tiny head. She laughed and the taller man smiled. They went together into another building.
At the anti-war meeting, they wanted to abolish the words “We,” “Us,” and “Them.” Some others wanted to abolish the word “I.” They were frustrated. “We this, we that; us this, them that; us vs. them, no wonder things are the way they are.” They wanted semantic unity. They were going to make friends with the terrorists. That was their plan. An older man — a professor? — stood and made the case that the terrorists did not want any new friends, had enough friends already, too many, actually; that what they really wanted was romantic love. He was probably a graduate student. Another man stood and said, ”Love is a thing on sale for more money than there exists.” It seemed an inappropriately capitalist thing to say, or else much too cynical, and the man was ignored. Finally, it was settled: whatever happened, they would just make friends. There were sign up sheets, and then a six-piece jazz-rock band played. The drummer had six cymbals, four of them tiny. People eyed him askance. Was six cymbals, four of them tiny, appropriate for wartime?
Garret walked out into the night, feeling very dry in the mouth, and with a headache. He stood around for a while, and then called Kristy.
“Kristy’s at her sister’s apartment taking a nap. She’s asleep now. I’m her sister.”
“You’re Kristy’s sister?” Garret said. “Okay. So Kristy’s sleeping.” She hung up.
One weekend they got out of classes and flew down to Florida, to Garret’s mother’s house, for a weeklong vacation.
They went to Red Lobster. Kristy ordered the house salad with crabmeat on top.
“I found out I have arthritis in my hands,” said Garret’s mother. She was taking piano lessons from a young person. Her husband was gone, had found a truer love and was gone, about which she was sometimes jealous, though mostly she felt just sleepy, which she usually interpreted as contentment. She had bought four gas masks, to protect against certain types of terrorism, had wept after she read the instruction manual cover-to- cover, alone, late one night after bathing the dogs.
“Four gas masks,” she said. “I feel so stupid. I mean, why four? Why not five, then, or a thousand?” She started to laugh but then stopped and yawned. Kristy looked vertically down at her crabmeat salad. Garret’s mother smiled at Kristy’s forehead, then asked her son to consider transferring to a school in Florida.
Garret made a noise. He shrugged. He forked at his lobster, which looked mangled and too much like a large insect.
At home, the three of them together tried on the gas masks. They held their faces to the dogs, the two toy poodles, who turned away, went into separate rooms and barked at the walls. They were almost ninety in dog years.
“If I gained thirty pounds,” Kristy said in bed, “would you still be with me?”
For love to work, Garret believed, you had to lie all the time, or you had to never lie at all. “I don’t know,” he said. You had to pick one and then let the other person know which you had picked. You had to be consistent, and sometimes a little stupid. “I can’t tell the future,” Garret said.
“Obviously. Can you?”
A few minutes passed, and then Kristy got up, called the airline place, called a cab, and flew to New York. The next day, though, she flew back, and the rest of the week in Florida was very calm and sunny. They went canoeing, saw fish the size of legs through algae-gauzy water. Garret’s mother made a cake. “To Garret and Kristy, with Love: Long and Happy Lives,” said the cake. They watched a lot of TV, the three of them on the sofa. Terrorism, polls showed, was now believed to be the largest threat to human safety, ahead of cancer, heart disease, suburban gangs, piranhas, and swimming on a full stomach.
Back in Brooklyn, the new fear was that the terrorists could live inside walls, were maybe already living inside walls — cells of them, entire families, with flashlights, plotting and training, rappelling down the pipes.
Garret began to say things like, “Without coffee I am nothing,” and “Terrorism Schmerrorism Berrorism Schlerorrism,” which he said mostly for the torpidity of it, the easy mindlessness of it. He felt that the bones of his jaw and skull were growing, felt the fatty pout of his lips, the discomfort of bigger bones behind his mouth and face. He stopped going to classes, and applied for jobs in Chinatown. He tried not to think. He tried just to love. Anything there was, he tried just to love. It didn’t work that way, though. It just didn’t. Love, after all, was not sold in bundles, by the pound.
Love was not ill-lit, enervated, Chinatown asparagus.
Though if love was an animal, Garret knew, it would probably be the Loch Ness Monster. If it didn’t exist, that didn’t matter. People made models of it, put it in the water, and took photos. The hoax of it was good enough. The idea of it. Though some people feared it, wished it would just go away, had their lives insured against being eaten alive by it.
Late one night, Kristy got up to use the bathroom.
“What’s this on it,” Garret said. “Kristy, why are you slamming the door?” He had just had a dream where he walked to a deli and ordered a bagel with cream cheese, but instead received a bagel with something else on it; he couldn’t tell what — and then the sound of a door closing.
“I had to use the bathroom,” Kristy said.
“Please don’t slam the door,” Garret said. “Be more considerate.” He shifted his head. His hair against the pillow made a loud, prolonged noise — a noise that, before it stopped, seemed as if it might go on forever.
They rarely made love anymore, and only in the mornings, when one of them would wake up, knead against the other, and then start grabbing in that direction. Their heads would be floury and egg-beaten, operating on a kind of toasted, bakery lust, and they’d have sex like that — faces turned away, mouths closed and puffy and hard, eyes scrunched shut.
Afterwards, Garret would feel masturbatory and boneless.
He attended another anti-war meeting. There was another war that was going to happen soon. People stood up and said things. One person said, “People are going to seek happiness. People need to understand that other people are going to do what they think will make them happiest. So people need to just back off, let this happen.” She had a ring in her nose, like a bull. The ring was a pale piece of bone. “Revolution is from the inside out,” she said. “It’s over,” someone else said, “the world is done for, doomed — and I say oh well, oh, well,” then stood and walked briskly out of the room, jumping to slap the top of the doorway on the way out. There was a long moment of nothing, and then a heavy-set, kind-faced man sitting adjacent Garret said loudly, at the ground, “Fuck war, fuck, war.” People gathered around and patted his back. Some of them, confused and tired, or else just lazy, patted Garret’s back, patted anyone’s back. There were, again, sign up sheets against the wall. Garret signed up for three different things. He walked out into the city. Drunk people were moving slantly across the sidewalks and streets, though it was only Wednesday.
Garret thought that he might go back to Florida. Maybe get a job on a golf course. He once had a friend who drove one of those armored carts around, vacuuming up golf balls on golf ranges. Maybe he’d do that.
“Come home,” Garret’s mother said on the phone. “You can take a semester off. Kristy can too. Both of you can come live here and be safe.” She said that the terrorists were planning to take hostage the entire island of Manhattan. She had heard on talk radio. They were going to attach outboard motors to Manhattan and drive it like a barge into the Atlantic Ocean. No one knew what the terrorists would do after that, though. Maybe have a cruise around the world, a caller said. Low-key, with virgin pina coladas. Maybe start their own country, another caller said, to legitimize and their terrorism, make it humanitarian and moral and —
He was cut off there.
Kristy had an appointment made to remove her wisdom teeth. She asked Garret to accompany her, but Garret said he had a class that morning. He would meet her after, though.
Kristy’s face became lumpy and hard after the operation. “I feel like a monster,” she said. They went into an ice cream store, and she began to weep. Garret thought about getting up to hug her, but then just put a hand on her head, across the table. “You look fine,” he said. “It won’t last, anyway.”
Kristy went to her sister’s place and Garret went back to Brooklyn.
They didn’t talk for a week. Then Garret called her. She said she hadn’t called because her face was swollen. She didn’t want Garret to see. Garret said he didn’t care. They agreed to meet for a movie that night at nine. She said that things would change from now on. She wouldn’t be late anymore. They’d go ice-skating.
She came running up for the movie at 8:59. Her face was red and blue on one side; it looked a little bludgeoned, or else diseased.
Garret had the tickets ready and they went in. They watched the trailers and then Kristy reached onto Garret’s lap and held his hand. Garret leaned over and whispered, “Come outside a minute, I have to tell you something.”
Outside, Kristy smiled at him, and then Garret wasn’t sure, but he said it anyway: “If a terrorist said to you that if you were late he’d kill you and your family, would you be one minute early? You wouldn’t; you’d be half the fucking day early.” He had rehearsed in his head.
“What the hell are you saying, Garret?” said Kristy. “Are you kidding me? Don’t do this. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But there were things that you had to worry about, Garret knew, that you had to care about. If he didn’t say anything, then she would be 20 minutes late, then an hour, then she wouldn’t show up at all. Or she’d show up and throw a pie in his face. You had to keep your life under control. Preempt it. You had to let it know that you were not happy. Though maybe you didn’t. Maybe it was that you should let things go, be tolerant and easy-going and not ever worry. Ease yourself towards acceptance and quietude, towards, what though — death? No; that didn’t seem right. You were supposed to resist death.
“Yeah I do,” Garret said. “I’m talking about you shouldn’t be late all the time. It’s inconsiderate.”
“Will you realize what you’re saying right now? I was early this time.”
“I know, but you ran here,” Garret said. “You could have easily been late.”
“So what? I was early.”
They stood there for a long time. All the moody emptinesses inside of them swelled and joined, and then ensconced them, like bubbles, and there, inside, they floated — the qualmish, smoked-out bodies of them, stale and still and upside-down. People around them drifted in and out of cars, into stores, across streets and over sidewalks.
“You should have been twenty minutes early,” Garret finally said. “You should have thought, ‘Hmm, I’ve been late so many times, maybe I should come much earlier this time, in case one of my excuses comes up to delay me.’”
“You should have been an hour early,” — once he started, he knew, he had to keep going; the anger came from nowhere, it came and was here — “sitting and waiting, to make up for all the hundreds of hours you’ve been late before, to compensate, to make sure.” The city lights overlapped in the air, became swimmy, blotchy, and brown. What was reasonable and what was required and what was just plain stupid? Should he apologize? All of life seemed just to be one thing — one slap-dash’ed, stuffed turkey of a thing, flying out of the oven and into the night, into orbit; something once familiar and under control, but now just out there, unknown, by itself, charred and brainless and rarely glimpsed.
“That’s it,” Kristy said. “I’m going to your place right now to get my stuff.”
They went back to Garret’s apartment. They walked the entire way. Across the avenues and over the Brooklyn bridge. She walked about 20 feet in front. He followed. The night was noisy and black, starless and warm. Maybe it was not winter at all, but summer.
At his apartment, Garret sat on his bed.
Kristy smashed her possessions into her piece of luggage. “You can keep these for your next girlfriend.” She held up two mud-green three-pound weights.
“Can you be quiet a little? My suitemate is probably trying to sleep,” Garret said. “Why are you so angry, anyway? You’re leaving me, so calm down.”
Kristy’s mouth began to bleed, a slow seeping at the edge, like an early sign of mutation. Her cheek had been swollen for too long. There was maybe something wrong with the stitches.
“Fuck,” she said. “You didn’t even come with me for my wisdom teeth.” She wiped her mouth with one of Garret’s shirts.
“You had to go to class? — you skip all your fucking classes!”
“That’s my shirt,” Garret said. “That’s inconsiderate.” Against the bureau was a stack of photos that they had taken together. “Take your photos,” Garret said. Kristy kicked them across the floor. She threw her sandals against the wall. They lodged in the window blinds and dust went in the air.
“Why are you acting like this?” Garret said.
Kristy set her luggage upright, the wheels aimed at the door. “Why don’t you install soundproof walls for your suitemate?” she said. “If you care about him so much, why don’t you?”
“I will,” Garret said. “That’s considerate of you, finally.” They looked at each other. Blood oozed again out of Kristy’s mouth, and then out her nose, like a crushed thought. She went and grabbed her sandals from the blinds. She set her luggage outside the door, got in position to properly slam the door with both hands, and then slammed it. The door bounced off its frame without closing.
Kristy wheeled her luggage down the outside hall. It made squeaky noises, and train track noises. Garret sat and listened. For a moment he felt sorry for her, for himself, for the whole wrecked and blighting world — it was hopeless, really — but then he felt okay, felt that things were not that bad; he felt friendly, and he felt that this moment of softness, of calm, though maybe it was just that he was tired, was good, was enough, that if there could be this feeling, then things would go on, month after month, one good and tiny feeling per; it was okay. And he wanted suddenly, badly, to share all this, and so he called out, “Have a good week.” He stood and shouted, “Wait; I hope you can be happy now; I hope we can be friends still, really,” and then Kristy was back, was looking, was saying, “You’re a real shithead,” was saying some other things, her face inflamed, and the door, then, slamming shut, making a loud noise.
TAO LIN is an American writer. He was born of Taiwanese parents and lives in Manhattan, NY. He graduated from New York University in 2005 with a B.A. in Journalism. “Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists” is included in his short story collection, Bed.