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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Severance

A Novel

Ling Ma

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


The End begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary. I had gone over to my boyfriend’s place in Greenpoint directly after work. I liked to stay over on hot summer nights because the basement was cool and damp at night. We made dinner, veggie stir-fry with rice. We had showered and watched a movie projected on his wall.

The screening was Manhattan, which I’d never seen before, and even though I found the May–December romance between Mariel Hemingway and Woody Allen kind of creepy, I loved all the opening shots of New York set to the Gershwin soundtrack, and I loved the scene in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton get caught in the rain in Central Park, and they seek shelter in the Museum of Natural History, wet and cocooned in the cavern darkness of the planetary display. Just looking at New York on the screen, the city was made new for me again, and I saw it as I once did in high school: romantic, shabby, not totally gentrified, full of promise. It made me wistful for the illusion of New York more than for its actuality, after having lived there for five years. And as the movie ended and we turned off the lights and lay down side by side on his mattress, I was thinking about how New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.

I was saying some of this to him, the shapeless mass lying next to me in the dark, when he interrupted and said, Listen to me. Look at me. I have something to tell you.

His name was Jonathan and he liked to party. Not really. His name was Jonathan and he was high-rolling. He owned a laptop, a coffee maker, a movie projector; everything else went to rent. He ate air and dust. We had been together for almost five years, about as long as I’d been at my job. Jonathan didn’t work in the nine-to-five sense. He did odd freelance gigs here and there so that he could spend most of his time writing. Divested of most obligations, he lived cheaply, held jobs when he could find them. Once, for a secret Wall Street club, he was hired to slap middle-aged businessmen for a living. I used to clasp his face between my palms, his expression wrought with worry, with unassuaged anxiety.

Okay, I said. What is it?

He took out his retainer, didn’t place it in the mug on the floor but held it there in his hand. It was going to be a short conversation. He said, I’m leaving New York.

What, you didn’t like the movie?

No, I’m serious. Be serious for once.

I’m always serious, I deadpanned. So, when are you leaving?

He paused. In another month. Thom is sailing up to this—

I sat up, tried to look at him, but my eyes hadn’t adjusted. Wait, what are you saying?

I’m saying I’m leaving New York.

No, what you’re saying is, you’re breaking up with me.

That’s not— He looked at me. Okay. I’m breaking up with you.

Lead with that.

It’s not you.

Okay.

No, it’s not you, he said, grabbing my hand. It’s this place, this city and what it turns a person into. We talked about this.

In the past year, Jonathan had become increasingly disillusioned with living in New York. Something along the lines of: the city, New York fucking City, tedious and boring, its charms as illusory as its facade of authenticity. Its lines were too long. Everything was a status symbol and everything cost too much. There were so many on-trend consumers, standing in lines for blocks to experience a fad dessert, gimmicky art exhibits, a new retail concept store. We were all making such inspired lifestyle choices. We, including me.

Me, nothing really weighed on me, nothing unique. Me, I held down an office job and fiddled around with some photography when the moon hit the Gowanus right. Or something like that, the usual ways of justifying your life, of passing time. With the money I made, I bought Shiseido facial exfoliants, Blue Bottle coffee, Uniqlo cashmere.

What do you call a cross between a yuppie and a hipster? A yupster. Per Urban Dictionary.

Then he said, You should leave New York too.

Why would I do that?

Because you hate your job.

I don’t hate it. It’s okay.

Name one time, one time when you really like it.

Every Friday night.

Exactly.

I’m kidding. You don’t even know what I do. I mean, not really.

You work at a production firm in publishing. You oversee the manufacture of books in third-world countries. Stop me if I’m wrong.

I had worked at Spectra for almost five years. We worked with publishers who paid us to coordinate book production that we outsourced to printers in Southeast Asia, mostly China. The name Spectra suggested the ostensibly impressive range of book products we were capable of producing: Cookbooks, Children’s Books, Stationery, Art Books, Gift and Specialty. I worked in Bibles. The company had huge collective buying power, so we offered even cheaper manufacture rates than individual publishers could achieve on their own, driving foreign labor costs down even further. Obviously Jonathan kind of despised what I did. Maybe I did too.

I changed the subject. Where are you going? When?


Copyright © 2018 by Ling Ma