Image by John Kazior

Fiction Untranslatability

James Yeh

1.

It’s an old story. Two people together, simple, straightforward. She’s a translator; he is, I am sorry to say, a writer. Emily’s more successful, Charles more embittered. He hadn’t meant to end up like this — who does? But that’s life sometimes. 

Let’s say they’re in their early thirties, have been together a while, weathered the storms to emerge more or less intact, stronger even, when Emily receives a grant from the Swiss consulate to translate a novel by T—, the country’s greatest and most eccentric writer. She’s offered two months at a residency in Berlin, where T— had written the book. Charles supports this, of course. He’s an MFA graduate, not a troglodyte. Let her shine. Besides, he reasons, it reflects well on him.

Her connection to T— was something he cherished and couldn’t keep from bragging about to his friends, and occasionally some of hers, as if he himself were the one translating the book. 

 

2.

So Emily takes off while Charles stays put. She chips away at the T— translation while Charles spins his wheels on his own manuscript, but that’s no surprise.

He is, as I said, a writer. But really he’s an editor, toiling at a large media company in New York that gobbles up all his time and attention. You do what you do: field the emails, publish the posts, monitor traffic. They set aside an hour each day to skype, as he’s getting ready for work or she’s getting ready for bed. Not ideal, but they’re trying. Their growing rift won’t occur to him until later, though the signs are there, for instance, in the curious photos Emily sends from the residency. 

The images are less erotic than he would have liked. The first is of her along the riverbank, a somber look on her face. In the second, she’s at her work desk with enormous crazed eyes, seaweedlike hair as though she’s just emerged from the unmade bed partly visible in the background. 

And then there is the postcard from T—’s sanitarium up north, where the great writer had spent his final two decades on earth willfully rotting away, as the story goes, not writing but “being mad” — gluing bags, sorting twine. On the back of this card, Emily regrets not being more thankful for the concert tickets Charles bought them last Christmas. 

 

3.

They are, of course, doomed. Post-breakup he will understand it all as a roundabout plea for help, extending down to the lowercase e of her signature. ​​Was she, in some unconscious way, saying she was only partially there, no longer fully present? Perhaps she’d been signing off like this for weeks, months, years even — he wasn’t sure. His email service hid the signatures after a certain amount of repeated sign-offs. When he begins to expand them, going through each thread, clicking the “See More” button, it’s just too much to bear, and he exes out of it.

But for now, they’re still together, if apart. Charles requests two weeks off to go and visit Emily after the residency. His supervisor, the harried managing editor, pushes back, noting their new time-off policy, so he offers to work some days from the Berlin office. (The company has many branches, in many countries, or “territories,” as it refers to them, as though it’s an occupying force.) Emily won’t be too pleased, he knows, but she can take care of herself — translate, go to the theater, read. After all, she is a self-possessed, mostly independent woman. And he can save that time off for later.

He’s out walking his dog one morning in the park where she had so often accompanied them, its multiple fenced-in zones giving off a faintly carceral vibe, when he gets her email. “Dear Charles,” it begins — instantly he knows something is up. Earlier in the day, while he was asleep, she’d spent hours walking the city, reflecting on what’s been happening to her these past few weeks. That’s how she puts it: what’s been happening to me these past few weeks, as though she were a passive observer instead of a willing participant. The move is a bit like Charles, who can be rather spineless, it’s true, but even more like T—, whose butlers and clerks and schoolboy protagonists are always dreamy and servile and adrift — that is to say, powerless and free. 

Could we speak tomorrow morning, over video, so we can see each other?

e

 

4.

Later, lying in bed after their call, Charles will try to imagine how she is spending the rest of her day. It’s grim, but he turns it into a kind of quiz, in the style of those he is sometimes forced to publish at work.

Does your long-distance partner, after dumping you over video call:

A) call her mother
B) text some friends, or
C) hit up the new guy? 

And so on. He pictures Emily doing all three, then sobbing on the couch for a while before taking a deep breath and exiting the front door, leaving her phone behind, to clear her head. In this vision, she paces along a riverbank much like the one in her photo from the residency. Does she get herself ice cream? Definitely. But which flavor? What cone?

Here his imagination falters. He’s unsure what she would do next or whether it even matters. A more attentive partner would have known, he fears. Or if he did not know, he would not get so discouraged, like he’s getting now; he’d just come out and ask instead of worrying so much. (“Your worrying is worrying me,” she would say, gently, but with mounting frustration.) All that he labels as failure, with this being the inevitable result. During the call, blinking at her teary, pixelated features, Charles had asked whether she’d “slept with this person,” the fellow German translator she’d met at the residency and begun having feelings for. “Just kissed,” she’d replied. Charles had felt relieved, then depressed. They were actually serious. 

On a related note: The New Guy, or simply The Guy, is the only way Charles can stand to think of him, even after he finds out his name, which is Max. Charles will never learn his last name and never drums up the courage to ask, although he does halfheartedly google him from time to time, testing out terms like “Max,” “Emily,” the name of the residency, and “German translator.” The search turns up a rakishly Vandyked French-Austrian and a spindly Hungarian dude with large, mournful eyes — maybe it’s him? Something sympathetic about the guy, Charles has to admit.

In another world, under different circumstances, Charles knows (begrudgingly but with growing acceptance, even piercing joy): he and The Guy, they’d probably get along. He sees them at the small gallery opening of a mutual friend, poised before the cheese plate, each insisting the other go first.

 

5.

A couple hours after the breakup, Charles has someplace to be, a panel on diversity in publishing on which he’s agreed to speak. The large media company affords him a certain cachet; the organizer, a mutual friend of Charles and Emily’s, wants him to share the new media perspective alongside some industry professionals whom he vaguely knows or does not know. The panel takes place in a small bookstore downtown with maybe twenty people in the audience, the kind of sincere if slightly guileless types who attend such events, jotting down tips in spiral notebooks and on yellow legal pads while seated in uncomfortable folding chairs — in other words, a modest and entirely ordinary affair for everyone, except Charles.

Frankly, the thing should be a disaster. He has never been the most compelling public speaker, and his mind is obviously elsewhere. But really it’s fine, save for his sad itch to quote from Emily’s translation (“ragged animal yells addressed to an unseen, unseeing moon,” T— observes of his own efforts; sort of like trying to get published, Charles wants to say) and one moment backstage when he’s mistaken for another Asian whose talk has just ended. 

Still, he appreciates the distraction. In a moment of weakness, he agrees to join everyone for a post-panel drink at the bar. There, imbibing and being talked at by younger writers and peers with whom he has nothing in common save their shared marginalized status, he curses the cocktail of feelings — loneliness, fear, need — that led him there. And then it’s over and night and he is behind the wheel of his art-handler roommate’s truck, which he’s borrowed to get away to the beach.

On the expressway, his phone’s GPS app blurting out commands, he feels a dark urge. The desire to swerve, hurtle off the bridge, or maybe just up and go, shed who he is to emerge Bradley, Victor, or Ed, no Emily, no unfinished novel, no large media company (but still accompanied by one bed-sharing, elderly dog, whose legs sometimes kick him awake). Where he grew up, in upstate South Carolina, Charles was usually the only non-white, non-black kid in the room. At home his engineer father threw fits; his mother shielded and coddled him. Bullied, beaten, babied — you try coming up like that, see what it does to you. His response was to flee to New York for grad school, publish tossed-off autobiography as fiction for zero pay, busy himself with a procession of attractive, mildly-to-deeply tragic women: nose-ringed fellow graduate students, stick-and-poked baristas, servers, interns he would invite to openings and screenings, walk with across the bridge, introduce to the bed-sharing dog. All of whom, incidentally (or not at all incidentally), were white, a disproportionate number of whom were from the South. Something near-feral about the way Charles and the women flirted, fucked, and fought — was it, for him, about a kind of possession, power? (About Charles’s buried accent, said one, “It comes out when he’s drunk or angry.” Go figure.) He recalls this abject period, how he’d blitzed himself into a nightly fury culminating in a wintry bike crash. Broken front teeth, shredded upper lip — impediments to dating, was his initial thought. His new appearance startled him. After that he cycled more slowly, and watched the ice.

Then along comes Emily, dependable, on-the-rise Emily, who changes everything. Calm, hardworking, reflective, she wears boxy tweed jackets and corduroy skirts, tan leather boots to teach her beloved, predominantly foreign students. She puts her hair up, lets it down, braids it on occasion — that’s the kind of woman she is, not the tangled-nest creature from the photo. Guarded till you got to know her. Then the abrupt laugh, hard but safe too, for him, then. She’d first rejected him, actually, during his wilder days. He’d been so arrogant and annoying, such a shit. At literature-in-translation events, he’d sidle up to her with a phony, unearned intimacy. During these brief, unwelcome exchanges, he’d managed to dismiss her publisher, her neighborhood, and, incredibly, ice cream.

But he keeps at it, publishing his little fictions, editing a literary and arts magazine of lesser renown. One day, upon seeing in its pages a newly discovered story of T—’s by a rival translator, Emily picks up a copy. Truthfully, the story is rather slight — the lit mag only offers copies as compensation and her rival would have saved the strongest pieces for larger, more remunerative venues — but a few lines of “The Officeworker’s Tale” achieve the tender, exuberant quality characteristic of T— at his best. “Could it be that boredom really is the murmur of the soul?” wonders the narrator. “There at the desk, my limbs turn to wood, which one longs to ignite, so that it might burn: chair and person, one with time.” (The choices of murmur and “one with time” are enviable, if brassy; she makes a note to check the original.) Emily buys a copy and, pleased with the rest of the issue, gifts a two-issue subscription to her childhood best friend, who thanks her and never mentions it again. 

Fast-forward three years. After getting dropped by a mustached experimental filmmaker who, it’s true, resembles a younger version of her father, Emily seeks out Charles, who of course looks nothing like her father, at a book fair where he’s tabling. “Oh wow, it’s been forever,” he says, surprised by her newfound warmth, or else reduced hostility. “Let’s catch up sometime,” she suggests. On their first date, to a Greek restaurant in her neighborhood of Queens, he asks her stance on dogs. “Neutral,” she replies, a bit coarsely, knowing what a dealbreaker that could be. But then she falls for the creaky little bear of a dog, buying chew toys, tolerating the bed-hogging. She holds the leash, he bags the poop. One sunny day she texts him a series of photos: similarly ursine canines she’s spied over the past month.

So he teaches her partisanship toward a dog; she teaches him to care for her and himself, to be there for another person. She is principled, punctual, a dues-paying member of three guilds: one for translators, another for city university adjuncts, and a third for freelancers. This is who he lets lead. He listens more, is late less. Even his parents like her. During the Christmas holiday, his father relates stories Charles has never before heard, tales of work trips to Hamburg, to Düsseldorf and the Rhine-Ruhr, before Charles was born. “Germany is very beautiful,” his father opines. “And a lot of castles. The thing is, I don’t really care for castles.”

“Your father can be charming,” Emily admits, and Charles can’t disagree. Months later, his mother will still be gushing: “Our little friend is smart, pretty, and good.” And, just as important, willing to go to bat for him: like that time he accepted a head-spinning revision from an overzealous story editor. Over dinner, their mutual friends had teased him relentlessly until Emily put a stop to it. “You made your decision,” she said to him, then eyed everyone else at the table. “And now it’s done.”

Out on the sand, Charles has removed his shoes. The waves, the wind. Smear of clouds and moon. Finally he is calm, or more so. He releases Robert, his dog, to roam free, and the aged creature trundles around, digging up sticks, pissing in the dunes even though the rules for beach use don’t allow pets during the busy months, and Charles watches, thinking of his roommate’s truck, which he’d parked without locking. These were the risks he was now accustomed to taking.

 

6.

One night, a week after the breakup, Charles is googling Emily’s translations, most of which he’s only hastily skimmed. Back when they were together, he’d had enough to read, too much, for his job. But now, poring over her translator’s notes, Charles is pleased to find that she really is good at what she does. Her tone is lofty yet modest, erudite yet self-effacing. (“For me, translating is like acting,” she writes. “Or, perhaps, being both Pierre Menard and Sisyphus.”) Her way with words reminds him of an idea he’s carried around from T—, how reading something beautiful can make you think that you, too, have become beautiful, or at least changed. And right then, with an optimism that can only occur at three in the morning or while drunk, he decides, heart-full and clear: he will go and deliver his grand gesture. And if she rejects him, chooses The Guy or even no guy at all, he will accept it, like an adult, like a man, he thinks, laughing at the trope: trite, tried, true.

From there it’s administrative. He’s kept his plane tickets, hoping that she might change her mind, so he only needs new lodging, since staying with her is no longer an option. Once that’s settled, it’s just a matter of arranging dog care and getting through the rest of the week at work, where he decides to phone it in. Quite literally: every hour or two he’s again pacing his office’s rooftop garden, again dialing up a series of friends. Each he badgers for advice on what to do, what to say to Emily when he sees her. From these friends he receives support, advice, instructions, and in one case, insultingly, a warning. “You have to listen to her,” this friend says, implying that wasn’t usually the case. 

Charles also writes Emily’s childhood best friend, the one who’d received the magazine subscription, and whose wedding they attended the previous summer. “I’d love to support both of you,” she emails back, “but obviously I can’t betray anything Emily has told me in confidence.” He replies that he totally gets it, though of course he doesn’t. Couldn’t she throw him a bone? But no. Charles understands this as the beginning-to-early-middle stages of everyone — Emily’s friends, mother, father, uncle, that uncle’s husband — lapsing into indifference, which pains him since it means he never really surpassed the other men Emily had let into her life. And now he’s joined them: the father-resembling filmmaker; the preening actor to whom she’d been engaged; other, less significant boyfriends — not even boyfriends, just people she’d dated or “seen,” including, he was surprised to learn, one fellow Asian (a grad-school fling, although fling isn’t the right word). These poor fools, like him, lost to the wreck of former affections.

 

7.

The day before his flight to Berlin, Charles drops by his favorite used bookstore, which occupies the ground floor of an inadvertently dystopian residential building. The Cemetery Gates is an A-plus purveyor, with its vintage editions, reasonable prices, and unabashedly goth decor. Before his job at the large media company, he’d frequented the place with such consistency he’d achieved the glum gutter punk-turned-booksellers’ highest honorific: “ghoul,” as in estimable regular haunting the shelves.

On this afternoon, amid beat-up ex-libris penned by dead and forgotten scribblers, these phantoms he’s longed to join, Charles laments trading poetry for posts, literature for listicles. He picks up one of T—’s early works and three titles by one of T—’s forebears, a better-known German-language writer, who is one of Emily’s favorites, despite (or because of) his “deep untranslatability.” At the register, he engages the clerk, an unfamiliar younger woman with a peroxide bowl cut and a severe expression. He asks after one of the other booksellers, “Is Pato still off in, was it Greece or Spain?” She replies blandly that she doesn’t know but assumes so, and he nods and she returns his change.

Back at his apartment, he digs in. T—’s words move him, like they’ve always moved him — “Poetry is as useful as a machine!” — but it’s the better-known writer who is the real revelation. Sifting through his haul — two collections of poetry and a novel — Charles is struck most by the one humorously (he thinks) titled Love and Other Difficulties. “You must change your life,” the poet exhorts, and, “Almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious,” and then: “You must work! You must become somebody!” 

He resolves to work his feelings into words. A physical letter would have been best (he can easily picture her clutching the thick folded paper, scanning the dried ink), but he’d be back in New York by the time the thing arrived, if it arrived at all. He recalls her issues receiving mail at a previous flat.

Time disappears as he writes and revises and rewrites the email. Beyond his curtainless bedroom window he finds it’s full-on morning — sirens, honking, the elevated train, yelling people, silence. Charles saves what he’s written in “drafts,” tosses his things into a few bags, and then is off.

 

8.

After this, one might expect one of two outcomes, namely, that Charles succeeds, or else blows it spectacularly, all anger and accusations. But neither happens, exactly.

At the gate, with some time to kill, he connects to the free wifi and downloads several German language apps. He picks the one with the green cartoon owl to try first, clicking through the exercises with boredom and bemusement (“You are now 3 percent fluent in German”) until he suddenly remembers Emily and the email draft. He’s unsure whether he should send it before taking off, once he arrives, or at all — he recalls two disastrously lengthy emails over the years, one to a then-girlfriend, another to a then-bandmate; neither had been well-received, and he’d stuck to a hard thousand-word cap ever since.

But when he rereads what he wrote, it’s not so bad. The email is indeed very long — twenty-five-hundred words’ worth of exertion and flailing and more than a few typos — but he’s fine with that. He’s done being afraid and closed off. He sings, pantingly, her praises, makes as many concessions and allowances as he can possibly cram in, and hits send.

 

Eleven hours later, after a layover in Zurich spent checking to see if Emily has replied (she hasn’t), Charles finds himself in Flughafen Berlin-Tegel. A part of him hopes she will be there to greet him, like the last time he visited, eight weeks of sunlessness and bickering that he now perversely regards as idyllic. But of course the only people he sees today are strangers with sling packs and rolling suitcases.

On the shuttle Charles is chatted up by his seatmate from the flight, a frohawked guy with chunky headphones who’d dominated the elbow rest but who, it turns out, is otherwise chill. André is a professional opera singer from Detroit, about to tour Germany — Dresden, Frankfurt, Munich, and other cities he can’t right now remember. He asks why Charles has come to Berlin and, feeling emboldened, Charles says it’s to win back his ex. “Oh, wow,” says André with what seems to be approval, or not disapproval. 

“How… old are you?” Charles asks in line for passport control, and his new friend answers that he is thirty-three. “That’s how old I am, too,” says Charles without really thinking. “Well, actually thirty-four,” he clarifies, laughing, and by now André, with eyebrows raised, is laughing too. 

It’s possible that, over the course of this conversation, Charles has developed a kind of crush on André, something tender and lonely that he will never fully understand, let alone realize. And it’s possible, too, that André feels something not dissimilar for Charles, this guy with an ex, whose knowledge of self excludes remembering his own age. Before parting, the seatmates turned fellow travelers swap info, sketching a vague plan to meet again. But when Charles invites him to a museum, André can’t for whatever reason, and when André invites him along for drinks with some other Americans, the suggested venue is so unappealing to Charles, such a tourist trap, he can’t bring himself to go. And then they’re off to their separate lives — André to his tour, Charles to his ex — and that’s that.

 

9.

What happens in Berlin? Not the worst: just the low-grade tolerability that is so much of life. Emily, moved by his email (or perhaps pitying him) suggests lunch at a café halfway between them. For once, he is early. (You must change your life!) Seeing her walk up the wide, tree-lined street, soft light filtering through the leaves, Charles takes in Emily’s makeup-less beauty and unadorned style. She’s shed the fall tweeds for a white top, snug jeans, hair up in a neat bun.

“I wore my new suit,” he announces, literally spinning around in the summer heat. Dress pants, blazer, tie, tie clip. Before she can respond, he throws open a tote bag full of gifts, each meant to activate a specific memory: a bag of nice coffee beans, a mutually beloved author’s new novel (a spiritual descendant of T—’s, Chilean instead of Swiss but equally depressive), those same corn tortillas they used for breakfast tacos.

She smiles at his obvious effort, touched and increasingly embarrassed: she’s empty-handed.

 

And so it goes. Over tuna and arugula salad he says heartfelt if commonplace things: he loves her, is still in love with her, would do anything for her, quit his job, move to Berlin — he’d even consider an open relationship, if that’s what she needs. And Emily is once again touched and, now, flustered. Why hadn’t he spoken up months ago, back when they were so miserable in New York, or when they were trying couples therapy — or, really, any other time? 

“Well,” he begins, rattling off a catalog of the excusable and inexcusable, while missing the point, that there is now someone else in the equation, that it’s she who has changed her life. Charles finds himself asking, with some malevolence, “So, does he have a name?” Emily recoils, but then tells him anyway, conveying a merciful version of the truth that neither hides nor twists the knife: clean cuts that will scar but heal. She explains that Max is a translator from the English and Hungarian, but he’s really an avant-garde, interdisciplinary artist, which irks Charles because he sees in Max himself, only transposed to a brighter, more courageous key.

Meanwhile Emily forges on with the guy’s biography: “He lives in Geneva but he’s from Leipzig and is visiting his parents later this — ”

“Okay, okay,” blurts Charles. “I know enough now.” 

There’s a silence for what feels like a long time, and then Emily gets up. She clarifies: “Bathroom?” and he nods, still sulking but relieved. Alone he forces himself to look around. Somehow everyone appears to be a happy couple, though there are actually others — unhappy couples, for instance, resentfully stubbing out cigarettes — as well as families, groups of friends, and so on. The mind sees what it wants to see. An unexpected number of these enthralled lovers, Charles observes, are interracial. He watches a lively unibrowed woman, chin tilted up as she adoringly gazes into the narrowed, skeptical eyes of her goateed boyfriend, who’s playing it cool. Charles wonders what Emily’s parents are up to. Surely they would have heard by now. Her mother, he knew, wouldn’t have been opposed. Janet was a gruff former art history professor with drooping, leathery skin; he feared Emily would one day become her. The mother and daughter often butted heads. At the wedding of the unhelpful childhood friend, she had yelled at him for making them almost late. “This is an extremely important day to me!” she’d growled, to Charles’s amazement. Emily’s father, wizardly and deferential, would have been more cautious. Charles can see him supporting his daughter with gentle reservations. (“Are you sure?” he asks in the scene imagined by Charles. “Just making sure you’re sure.”) Doug was retired now, and low-level sick, but he’d been a labor organizer, and before that a touring vibraphonist. Charles’s guild membership and appreciation of the arts — his class solidarity, in other words — went a long way with him. And, truthfully, with Janet too. Charles remembers their handwritten thank-yous whenever he brought Christmas gifts, meager as they were, how unfailingly they asked after the health of his own low-level sick mother.

This Charles knows: they would have made excellent parents-in-law. 

 

10.

When Emily gets back, Charles searches her face for clues as to how she is feeling. But he can’t detect any, or else detects too many. In a composed voice she asks, “Shall we?” and the two former partners split the bill. She suggests they hit up her favorite ice cream spot before she “has to go.” Charles agrees, of course, knowing better than to ask where, or who with. And yet, scanning vats of Schoko-mint, Himbeere, and Pfirsich, her faintly haired arms close enough to touch, he is overwhelmed by the small miracle of them there, together. He asks if he can walk her back. Before he knows it, he’s taken her hand in his, and for one victorious half-block of trees and construction and sidewalk cyclists she lets him, before yanking it away. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she says, avoiding eye contact. He references an inside joke — a border official she’d helped him deal with named Regina Fuhrer, Queen Hitler practically — asking if she remembers; now it’s her turn to look stricken. Her cheeks flush, and she meets his eyes when she responds, too loudly, yes, of course she does. And then she embraces him in a controlled way, instructing him, “Take care,” and he replies, swallowing, “You too.”

Returning to the sixth-floor walkup where he has booked a room, his dress shirt soaked through, it occurs to Charles that he’d been hoping for something climatic — a speech, a shouting match, hours of makeup sex with intermittent crying that jolts you to life, this state of emotional electrocution he’s confused for love. Or, barring that, something more art-house, sophisticated yet gripping, naturalistic yet moody as hell, smoldering long takes, shots of too-red lips and teeth — any drama, really, good or shitty, beautiful or bad, in which he and Emily could star, no longer supporting cast, ushering and uplifting others, but the leads in their own lives.

Instead, what they got was something steady, muted, and adult. Like so much of their relationship, up till now and through the end. 

 

11.

That’s not all that happens in Berlin, of course. And this sidebar will remain with Charles, for reasons he can’t yet decipher. He works his agreed-upon three days from his job’s Kreuzberg branch. On the industrial bookshelves are German editions of their print magazine. Charles notices a translated version of something he’s written (“Auf eine Schüssel Ramen,” begins the headline) and he instagrams it. (Another key difference between him and Emily, the performative impulse.)

One afternoon Charles has lunch with Johanna, the piece’s translator. Over döner in the park, he tells her everything — about Emily, about the breakup and the other guy, about the purpose of his trip, his failed attempt to win her back. “She’s a translator, too,” he remarks with more bitterness than is intended, and his Berlin counterpart kindly shakes her head. “They’re the worst,” she laughs as children splash in the fountain across from their bench. Johanna relates a story she says she’s never told anyone else, how she too cheated on her partner when things were bad between them. Drugs, misery, weirdness — the story is a bit vague, and Charles drifts in and out, watching the ecstatic kids and their exhausted adult minders while thinking of his own problems, refocusing when she tells him they’re still together, and things got better, though she’s never admitted to the infidelity. She’s not sure why she’s telling him, and he isn’t sure either, except maybe, unconsciously, to let him know things like this happen, and that’s just the way it goes.

What else does he do? Well, he walks a lot, works his way through the language app (“You are now 5 percent fluent in German”), signs onto his reactivated dating profiles. It’s depressing, but he finds his language skills improving here, too: “Ich wohne in Berlin,” “neu in Berlin,” “Grafikdesignerin,” “Store Managerin,” “Account Managerin,” “Schokoladen-Junkey,” “ach ja, keine ONS,” “nicht Penisbilder!” By this point Charles has managed to have an okay-enough time, save for his last night in the city, when he drinks too much and almost goes home with a racist. “I went to UBC,” declares the steely-eyed woman at the bar. “You know what that stands for? University of a Billion Chinese, because it’s true.” Still, she invites him back to her place, and he, drunk with travelerly abandon or loneliness, genuinely considers.

Eventually Charles, swaying and alone, makes his way through the emptied streets. Trudging back up the six flights to his room, he registers a newfound strength in his calves. Strength, and wariness, but also strength. Over the course of the trip he has paced kilometers and kilometers from Prenzlauer Berg to Tempelhofer to Neukölln, across footbridges and along waterfronts, to historical sites and cafés and used record shops — it’s a period during which he’s come to think of himself in the third person, this hapless character wandering around a place not his own, speechless and confused. Since his fiction-writing days, he’s followed a certain method of storytelling where you imagine someone a bit (or a lot) like you, come up with what they want, then put them where they can’t get it. It seems only fitting that’s where he would find himself now, thwarted by the thing he was drawn to. Reality into fiction into reality again.

 

12.

Back in New York, Charles begins extricating himself from his job. He’s never been the best employee — too prone to daydreams, too many issues with authority. He transfers his email contacts, burns through his commuter budget, schedules a teeth cleaning while he still has dental. Freelances for better publications, eats healthier, downloads more dating apps, starts thinking of himself as “very” single, seeks out a shrink. Despite the failure of the couples therapist, Charles knows he needs professional help, more than what his friends can provide. The one he chooses is based on her looks — “like someone I would date,” he confesses during their third session. He thinks it will help him to be a good patient, this desire to impress her with his recovery and hard work, and she assures him it’s normal, cites transference, and things are fine.

To everyone’s surprise, the good patient begins to improve, to get his life in order. He’s still not ready to date — on the apps he just lurks, passively collecting “likes” — but he slims down, buys nicer clothes and shoes, opens himself up. Another project: cleaning his room. He’s accumulated so much crap over the years — unread galleys and books, clothing from previous roommates, spare bike parts, a defunct laptop. All that shit he sets out on the curb. Gradually, more and more of his room begins to appear — he’s reclaiming it and it feels good, healthy. Plus, in the event they do patch things up and Emily moves back in, she’ll have a tidy workspace for finishing the T— translation, and for working on whatever adjuncting and freelance gigs she’s hopefully lined up by now. 

But then Emily writes to say her father is sick, now suddenly and gravely so. An ambulance was called, invasive surgery scheduled. She’s back in DC. Charles replies immediately, offering his help, whatever he can do, though the uncomfortable thought of this advancing his cause does occur to him, death and near-death being the catalysts for so much — who wouldn’t want the comfort of someone familiar, somebody you know and who knows you? She thanks him without taking him up on it; he resolves to give her space. But, each day her New York return is delayed, he comes home to find her would-be workspace transforming into a sad shrine, a mummy’s tomb of love. Her father survives, thank god, though he’s still a bit loopy. He has trouble focusing, can’t really read. “And they’ve put a stent in him,” she says when she calls, ever matter-of-fact, no mention of Max.

One night during this sad-sack period, Charles phones his mother to have someone to talk to. “Guess what I’m doing?” he asks, his way of being playful, and she brightly answers, like a student, “Walking your dog!”

“How’d you know?” 

“Your sister always call when she is driving, you always call when you’re walking the dog.”

The elevated train clatters by, obliterating what she says next; by the time he can hear again, she’s pivoted.

“You will laugh at me, Char,” she says, her way of saying his name, “but I still pray for her. I say, ‘Let her be’” — here she switches to Mandarin — “pretty and good.” She brings up the time he had to borrow dress pants from Emily’s father, for the childhood friend’s wedding, because his had been too torn up.

“You need to dress like professional,” she goes on — to her it’s solely a matter of immigrant respectability, of problem-solving. “I don’t think you present yourself right. You tell her that you really have good job, and you think you should be able to provide her with good life. Because, I tell you the truth, no girl want to marry someone who cannot support her. If I think Daddy cannot support me, do you think I marry him?”

Charles laughs, but she ignores him. Suddenly her voice is urgent and grave: “Mommy know you don’t like to hear, but do you think it is really over?”

“It’s okay,” he says at last, comforting his mother, their roles momentarily reversed. 

 

13.

This is what it’s like, until it’s not. The night before she’s supposed to come get her stuff — she’s finally back in the city — Charles hounds his friends for advice over beer and tacos. “Cancel on her last-minute,” one of them suggests, provocatively. “Dude, still?” gripes another. (Charles really has been harping on the topic these past months and the friend, it’s only fair, wants to talk about his love life for a change.) But Charles is intent on doing what others, in his view, don’t have the maturity or strength to do. And wasn’t that maturity, to know the path and then to actually stay the course, hardships and haters be damned? (Again he hears the famous German poet, on everything being both difficult and serious, and is further encouraged.)

And so, on the morning of the move, Charles pulls out some empty cardboard boxes he has lying around and tapes them up for her to put her books in. He wraps an old towel around one of her lamps. He brings down her cast iron pan and her coffeemaker, her typewriter and winter coat and rugs and the less solid boxes of stuff, which he’s in the act of gingerly stacking in the entryway, when he’s struck by the sight of her walking in, haloed by sunlight — this decisive, accomplished woman he’d first met years ago, when she was the idealistic publishing assistant and he was the excitable fledgling writer, and they’d had a long, or at least indefinite, time together ahead of them.

“Is that new?” he asks of her boldly patterned dress. “Oh, it’s just something I picked up,” she says, looking at him a little funny. “You know. Mudcloth. Sample sale.”

“Ah.” For a final drink they go up on his roof, a no-frills zone his landlord had cheaply tarred over but is still nice in that way 5 p.m. in New York in the open air is. “To . . . ,” he says, lifting his Mason jar of rosé, unable to say more. “To . . . ,” she echoes, with a clink. Instead of asking directly about Max, he inquires about her “plans.” She says she’s staying in New York for now — she has her fall classes to teach, a new crop of students to bring her end-of-term chocolates and request last-minute letters of recommendation. And she’s got her singing group, whose seasonal performances Charles had, for years, dutifully attended. Beyond that, she’s still figuring it out. She’d never loved New York, even when they were together: its warehouses and piled trash on the sidewalks, dirty snow in winter, ratty piss in summer, stressed-out commuters, mindless tourists eradicating her sense of joy and self. That she’d stayed was a testament to Charles, he likes to think, or perhaps just her ability to endure. But now that they’re through, she wants to get back to Germany soon, definitely by next summer, she says, swirling around the pink liquid in her jar, her large eyes looking off determinedly at some unknown, future thing.     

“What?” he asks.

But, really, he does know. Back in Berlin, between licks of ice cream, she’d told him, “I feel more myself than I’ve felt in years,” which was about how long they’d been together. It had slipped out, this inadvertently crushing, though not unfair, blow. Another time, months earlier, they’d been out walking his dog through the carceral park, their drab coats piled atop gloomy sweaters, when he proposed they “buy new clothes,” his way of saying she buy new clothes. She’d been taken aback, of course. But then she’d done it anyway, purchased bright tops and funkier scarves and earrings, giving it a shot.     

And now here they were, together on the roof, apart. He in his cutoff pants, she in her mudcloth tent dress.

 

Just then Emily gets a call. It’s her new roommate, a college friend, outside with the truck, and Charles watches them, wanting to see what she’s like when he’s not around, how she now moves through the world without him. She’s noticeably more buoyant, girlish even, and he is both pained and relieved to see this other, truer side of her.

The editor in him would prefer to end on that beat — his watching her like that is, to his mind, poetic, clipped, dignified. The writer in him, however, craves something messier, heated, a scene that is a valentine but also an indictment, him drunkenly biking past her new place, hoping to see her but of course not seeing her, then as a response vowing to be her good, good friend and never disappear from her life. Then doing exactly that, disappearing. 

 

14.

The way it ends is undramatic (though not unmelodramatic: post-Emily Charles resolves to stop dating white women, then unstops). The T— book is made into galleys and the publicist sends him one, which he tosses onto the pile surrounding his desk. One year has passed since the breakup, and he’s still at his job at the large media company — it really does suit him (though, some months later, he and seventy-two of his colleagues will be laid off in an “expansion” to video) — and while Charles wants to publish a T— extract to show how noble and professional he is, capital-L Literature above all else — his bosses have been cracking down on the “author interviews” he’s run, by which they mean anything literary or books-related — too niche, too lightly clicked, they say — and, as usual, he folds.

Then one morning, short on blog posts, he decides to call Emily up, forget the publicist, forget pageviews. “Hey,” he says. “Hey,” she says. “So . . .” he says, launching into it. “Is the third section still available?” And so an extract is published to some likes and shares and retweets (though fewer than his handlers demand), and then the book is published too. After a lull, during which Charles pities her and her lack of professional savvy (she was always translating books for obscure presses that never received any readership, let alone coverage; this is what he’d been trying to change when he’d connected her to an editor at a glossy magazine) the T— book lands a positive review in a major publication. Emily invites him to the book’s launch in the basement of a reputable arts space in Manhattan, and after some hesitation he decides to go. She’s in the middle of talking when he saunters in late, that habit of his that used to irritate her but over which she no longer has any claim, and it causes her to stammer into the microphone, just another of the ways he’s supported while stepping on her, and he mouths, Sorry, before hurrying to an empty seat in the back.

As Emily resumes what she’d been reading (T—’s character, out for a stroll, that treasured routine which “ennobles him with goodliness, sobriety, and youth”), Charles takes it in. There, in the cramped room with low ceilings, are people from the many parts of her life — fellow translators, singing friends, colleagues with whom they’d gone on double dates, and others, less close friends and contacts he’s already forgotten the names of, vaguely familiar people whose lives will be forever shut off from him. 

Seeing her parents in the front row, slightly off to the side, is a punch to the gut: Doug’s rumpled shirt and Janet’s gray bob trigger a rush of emotions and memories — the stays at their lake house, the thank-yous on nice stationery that are, he realizes, still on his bedside table, beneath some papers — and again there’s the dark urge to make a scene, to act out and shatter it all. But he deals with it. During a pause in the Q&A segment, the two former partners find themselves looking directly at one another, that shared sense that hasn’t yet left, and Charles, to help keep things moving, asks about T—’s arduous and self-defeating process, something they used to discuss and had agreed upon, two steps forward and two steps back, the sort of thing that makes you either great or doomed, or just, simply, you, and her parents turn to face him, having still remembered his voice.

James Yeh is a writer, editor, and journalist. He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn.

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