Apr/May 2016  •   Fiction

Pop Guilt

by Michael Mungiello

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Neil smokes on his walk to work. Blue American Spirits. During his lunch break he reads Will Kymlicka online at a hotdog stand. He watches Stolen Kisses. He wakes up at eight a.m. He falls asleep at one a.m. He texts Jessica. He thinks about Jessica. He listens to Eroica and shillyshallyingly touches himself. He looks at a globe in the window of an antique shop. He buys pen and paper. He writes a letter to his mom. He reads the postcard from Gainesville she sends in reply. He frowns. He calls Jessica. He buys a Trojan 36-Pack. From the dirty counter to their dirty table he ferries two slices of Ray's Original Pizza. Meat Lover's. Outside men ogle Jessica, and inside Jessica stares at him. He and Jessica wake up at eight. Jessica watches Neil smoke a cigarette with his cereal. She brings him a can of Arizona Iced Tea from his refrigerator. At work Neil reads manuscripts and rejects them or forwards them to his bosses so they can be rejected later. He browses Amazon for Women's Clothing. He minimizes the window and pretends to look for something and reopens the window. Kate shoots him a termagant's knowing smile on her way from the water cooler. He whispers Je t'aime to Jessica in her kitchen in the morning. She has been going to Paris to model since she was 16 and says nothing about his accent. On his walks home he smokes and listens to Jessica's post-noise songs on Soundcloud. She corrects him after a fight: they're actually just rock, not post-noise. He wonders why she is not more serious; he can't stand her Instagram, jam-packed with pulchritudinous selfies. He has never enjoyed taking pictures of himself. (Imagine a Woody Allen who, upon reaching maturity in the early 2000s, discovers another Woody Allen, the real one, already exists. This is Neil.) They watch the sitcoms she likes after dinner. Soon he falls asleep at ten p.m. next to her, who has fallen asleep at nine. Soon she leaves before he wakes up. She begins running 33 blocks every morning. Their Trojans have run out. He smiles at Kate, Kate who is dowdy, bespectacled, and has a flair for decorating her desk with framed photographs she's taken of original photographs of famous writers. She asks him what he thinks of Céline, Genet, Rimbaud. He buys Kate a crocheted J. Crew tie for Christmas. He hopes she likes looking like Diane Keaton. Kate orders Squid Bucatini at a fancy restaurant. He buys a Magnum 3-Pack. He doesn't call Jessica. Jessica doesn't call him. Jessica sees him with Kate in Times Square, she coming from the Disney Store, they coming from having bought tickets to a new Broadway production of Bullets Over Broadway. Neil listens to the Tristan und Isolde overture on his wayward walk to Jessica's. They agree it's best to "end this."


Neil still drinks Arizona Iced Tea. He and Kate get into fights, fights about food, fights about money, even one time a fight about Monet. He goes to the Museum of Modern Art and sees Willem de Kooning's Woman III. He buys a used blue "leather-like" armchair from Craigslist. He begins ironing his pants, tries smoking Marlboros, Camels, Newports, briefly tries wearing a cowboy hat on a quotidian basis. He saves his bonus. He watches Love in the Afternoon. He watches many French films about affairs. He and Kate have stopped "seeing each other," although she has continued with the Diane Keaton thing. He chases a dog, salt and pepper toy poodle, who bit his ankle and tore through his yellow silk sock. He receives a letter from his Alaskan father. He wakes up in Florida. He falls asleep next to a 6" x 6" poster of Woman III, his mother's goodbye and thanks-for-taking-the-trip gift. He learns how to crochet from online videos. Ditto for folding origami, which his father doesn't understand. He downloads the audio from the YouTube video "ELECTRO & DANCE HOUSE MUSIC MIX 2015" and listens to it each morning as he runs five blocks. He searches for pornography and deletes two pop-up windows and once more masturbates, free after dinner. He wakes up in Alaska. He smokes on his walk to Jessica's apartment. Green American Spirits. People on both the floor above and below her apartment hear various noises. He smokes with Jessica's new boyfriend on the police station's stoop. He makes Jessica a vaporwave playlist he does not send her but makes public on YouTube and saves as JESSICA VAPORWAVE PLAYLIST. (First song: "Disconscious - Fountain Plaza.") Kate comments: "tergiversator." He cultivates a splotchy beard. He considers buying a bicycle. He considers taking a cab. He considers going vegan. He refills his MetroCard and buys an Arizona Iced Tea and a chocolate-chip Cliff Bar from the subway station newsstand. He sees Tao Lin on the N train. He sees Tao Lin eating raw kale. He sees on a St. Yves billboard the lower half of Jessica's body, mid-de-jeaning. He sees Jessica's boyfriend's new nonfiction book on post-reunification German economy. Wir Sind Wie Ein Ander. It is on a display table at the Strand, where he has come to sell all his old books. His tears fall on its back cover blurbs. One is from Woody Allen.


Now he smokes in bed. Over the phone Jessica's boyfriend reads him W.H. Auden. From the museum he no longer frequents, Jessica sends him postcard Picasso paintings. Girl before a Mirror is a favorite. As an exercise he translates My Life as a Man into French. His boss asks if Jessica's boyfriend has an agent. Neil goes to church. He actually goes to church; he even sings psalms. He cancels his Hulu and Netflix accounts. He rereads for the first time in over a year the early and middle emails between him and Jessica. It is like looking at an old family photo: the clothes you wore were hideous, but it was a nice moment. He masturbates to his memories of Jessica. And his memories of Kate. He masturbates to his fantasies of Jessica with Kate. His boss becomes Jessica's boyfriend's new agent. Neil attends a funeral in Alaska and another in Gainesville, no more postcards or letters about terminal diseases. He empties his savings account. He buys a dog, almond dachshund. He puts Arizona Iced Tea in the dog's water bowl. He names the dog Erich Rohmer. He cardboardboxes his things and embraces his boss. He mouths the phrase "C'est vraiment dégueulasse" to newly promoted Kate, who doesn't look up from the cup she's currently filling with water-cooled water. Today she looks like Annie Hall. A few days later she will send him an email to thank him for "turning [her] on to Diane Keaton." He drives a red rented Chevy to Iowa without listening to the radio or music on his phone and passes it off to the person who will drive it back to New York. He shaves his head and learns the names of constellations. He begins compiling personal fastigiums, arranging alphabetically his friends, his parents' favorite colors as they changed through the years, his favorite animals, his favorite meats. He writes on his hand in the middle of the day, "I am beginning to get organized." He sends Jessica's boyfriend a postcard, a letter, this short story, Erich Rohmer. In the pews he prays for the success of Jessica's just-rock band.