The Poet and the Novelist as Roommates
by Sheila Heti
The poet went softly to the novelist’s bedroom, while the novelist lay asleep, sleep coming out heavy like a stink through his nose. The poet stood in the doorway, watching, pressing down on the doorframe.
He loved his roommate. But not like that. It was four in the morning and why had he woken? Sleep was a burden for a man like him. And yet here was a man who slept through the night. “He must be in a state of guilt,” the poet thought, before turning and going to bed. Padding through the hall he asked himself quietly, “What am I doing in this city? Even looking at the clouds I feel I have lost my imagination.”
On the woman’s first day at work the poet helped her with her boxes, but as he was helping he was looking away.
“Do you know this is my seventieth sick day since I started here?” he asked.
“But you’re here,” she said.
“Yes, I know.” And he went to the bathroom and peed blood.
When he returned she was sitting upright, typing at her computer like a good girl. There was a calculated grace about her and it was this that caused him, eyes drooping and weary, to lean over the partition and say to her face, “Come with me after work. I will show you a good place to drink around here.”
“I’ll come, sure,” she said, looking up, and there was no guile expressed, just a big round smile and those hateful eyes that only women understood.
When the workday ended he took her by the arm and led her to The Poodle, which was seedy and disreputable and no place for a woman in a cubicle to be. He looked around. She was wearing a bra on tight beneath her clothing.
“Sit down here at this booth,” he said, pushing in her body with both his hands, “and I will get you a soda water.”
“I take gin in my soda water,” she said hopefully, and the poet walked away with a shudder.
These modern women. They had no sense of their own indecency.
When he returned with the drinks he slipped into the booth and began to twitch in boredom as he listened to her story.
“I have a husband and three children,” she began.
“But you look eighteen,” he said mournfully, and swished his drink. A husband and three children. “You should not be dressed like that then,” he concluded.
She furrowed her brow and sucked up her drink with pristine fury. “Thank you for this,” she said, smacking down the glass and dropping the straw from her lips as she walked. When he returned that night he found his roommate working on his novel. Looking up from the computer his roommate beckoned him over.
“I think there is a bug behind the glass,” said the novelist, pointing to a place on the screen, then tracing it, following it.
“I don’t see it,” the poet replied, his eyes crossed in intoxication.
“Go to bed,” the novelist said, and the poet did.
When the poet woke he remembered the woman, the one with the husband and the three lovely kids. Probably right now she was frantically diapering them, or shoving sandwiches into their boxes, not thinking anything, just scurrying around with a phone in her chin, talking to her sister in Ottawa.
“It has been so in politics, it has been so in religion, and it has been so in every other department of human thought,” he thought, and got up and undressed and went to the shower and rubbed himself hard, then went to his room where he dressed in brown and walked in the rain to work. When he arrived the woman in the cubicle was already there. Her spine was haughty and tense and she was turned away. But as he sat and arranged his folders he knew that she was thinking of him. “She can’t do any better than me,” he determined. Yes, he would destroy her. This woman with the husband and the three lovely kids; she was looking for an affair, a real sweaty romance, he could smell it on her skin. Indeed, by the coffeemaker at eleven a.m. she said, “I would like to go home with you tonight. I would like to see where you live.”
“It is not a sight for a lady,” he said, dangling this info in front of her. “It’s a small place. A man’s place. I’m a poet, you see, and I live there alone with my roommate of seven years who is cruel. Women fall in love with him but he cannot love them back. He is a novelist. He’s very messy.”
“I want to come home with you,” the woman said, pressing her eyes into him and spilling all the coffee.
That night they sat around the table: the poet, the novelist, and the woman from the cubicle. The woman from the cubicle, eyes all aglow, looked back and forth from one to the other. One was so gruff and silent and thick, like a real man! and the other was disinterested and distracted and edgy, like a real man! She was falling in love with them both.
The novelist, feeling violated for reasons he could not understand, stood up and left the table and went to his computer and peered in, and again saw the bug behind the screen. “Damn it!” he cried, pounding his fist into his desk. The poet looked dreary and did not respond.
The woman said, “Please, tell me about your life. You must be fascinating. I have never known a poet before, except for one in high school. And I don’t even know if he’s still a poet.”
The poet said darkly, “Don’t tell me that.” Then, “Come with me to the bedroom. It is my bedroom and I should like to show it to you.”
The woman put down her fork and followed in behind. She was delighted. She felt so bohemian. She wanted to take off all her clothes.
“Good,” he said, turning on a lamp. “You can see now on my wall two letters from Al Purdy, telling me I am good but not good enough.”
He sat on the bed which was low to the floor and spread apart his legs and looked up at her as she walked around the narrow space, fingering all the things.
“That is a picture taken of me when I was in Poland. I was a professor.”
“You look very Polish here.”
He lay back on his bed and looked up at the ceiling, hands adjusted behind his head. “Do you smoke?” he asked.
“Please go into the next room and get a cigarette from my novelist roommate. He should have a pack beside him on the desk. Tell him it is for me; he will understand. If he refuses to give you one or throws a fit, leave the room at once. Sometimes it bothers him to be interrupted while writing.”
The woman left the room and walked down the hall and saw the novelist hunched before his computer, deep in his chair, pressing his fingers to the screen. “Come,” he said, when he heard her approach, and she moved towards his desk and placed her hands upon it and leaned archingly forward. He put one hand on her ass, felt it shifting beneath her dress. “Do you see a bug?”
She held her breath, did not move. The she looked evasively away and said, “I have come here to get a cigarette for the poet. He says you’ll understand.”
“Sure I understand.” He sombrely pulled two cigarettes from the pack and gave them to her. She left the room and walked numbly through the hall towards the poet, and on the walk she remembered a dream. “I dreamed once I was in a room with other people.”
When the poet saw her he sat upright on the bed. “Close the door,” he said. “The novelist gets very jealous.”
She closed the door and sat down beside him. She put the cigarettes in his hand. He looked at them dumbly. She wanted him to throw his leg across her, push her down on the bed, slap her and rape her hard.
“Two,” he said. “He must like you.”
“Yes. He touched me on my bum.”
“Let me see.”
She lay down on her stomach and he examined her through her dress.