read this instead: three revised pieces + a novella opening!exercises
- single page story
- real single page story
- no sentence over 10 words
- lists lifted from the internet
- storrs, ct
- domain knowledge
A week into November, my dad lost his job serving orange chicken and chow mein at Panda Express. None of us were surprised. We didn’t know until Thanksgiving, because after he was fired he would drive his car, which had trash stuck in the cup holders, in the direction of Panda but swing back behind the neighborhood to go to his friend Margaret’s apartment. Margaret was trying to start a business selling soap made from the fat drippings she snuck from her shifts roasting pig sucklings at Kam Po Kitchen. My dad would drive her to the rich neighborhoods, where they would take walks and pluck herbs from people’s gardens to mix into the soap to mask the sour smell of pig grease.
Then, on her way to buy the Thanksgiving turkey, my mom saw them together.
“You came to America to study to be an anesthesiologist, but you flunked out of school,” she said as she set the table with the porcelain dishware my uncle gifted her before she left Indonesia, which we only ate off of twice a year. “You then wanted to become a chef--Daddy’s food is so good!”--my mom raised her voice, mockingly, while slicing chunks of turkey breast with an electric knife--“But said your Mexican co-workers were dirtying the food and stopped showing up. Now you’ve been fired--from fast food! I didn’t think that was possible! What example are you setting for your son?”
There it was: my function in this family as a scapegoat, like a hundred dollar bill crumpled and spitballed through a straw. At 7, my mom, who had sacrificed everything in the world and more to raise and protect me from daddy, was my best friend. At 11, I stopped sleeping in her bed and in my own. At 15, I became the family messenger boy, passing on correspondence to my dad from my mom who had constructed an additional bed and bath with their own locks in what was once the vast courtyard of our Eichler house. But instead of building more walls to keep out the noise, I wanted nothing more than to be no part of them.
“Stop with it. You know nothing,” spat my dad. “Me and Margaret will make a successful company. The luxury bath market has 15 billion, I read it on Forbes. Many whites who spend a lot to feel clean. Then I will be rich, and you will always be poor woman.”
My mom forked some turkey breast onto her gold-laced plate and got up from the table. “Your son comes home for the first time in three years. You can’t even give him a proper Thanksgiving dinner. I was delusional to think this could happen.”
She went to her side of the house. I heard the door lock, and then the muffled hum of the television.
A few months later it wouldn’t stop raining. My walks to class were cast in grey, peppered with the smell of car exhaust released from the damp asphalt. In the middle of this my mom called. She never called.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I’m divorcing your daddy,” she said.
“Congratulations,” I said. You’re an adult.
“Thanks. Just wanted to let you know.” She hung up.
An hour later came a text from my dad. Your mommy cheat on me, I see semen in Volkswagon passenger seat, she wants she cheat and I cannot pleasure her. I will contact the pastor Thio and Her daughter Claudia that she gave suggestions not to marry Mommy, I will contact her boyfriend Alex who studies Architectur in Berkeley, her boyfriend destroyed her Indonesian Passport, all these people will be my witness in the court, and some more.
Then my mom called again. “I need you to serve your daddy divorce papers for me.”
“Okay,” I said, half punctuating it as a question. “How…would I do that.”
“You can look it up online. I’ll pick you up from school this weekend.” My house was an hour drive away.
At home, I handed my dad a manila folder of documents awaiting his signature. He threw the folder on the floor, papers scattering like bugs under an upturned log. “No, I will be homeless,” he protested. “You don’t want daddy on the streets, daddy’s life will be in danger, the homeless people carry knives and are all crazy. Mommy has her side of the house. Daddy has his side of the house.”
“You can live with Margaret,” I offered, staring at the paper jetsam. “You’re always there already.”
“No. Her apartment not as big as mommy’s house and smells too oily, the countertops very sticky, not good for eczema. I stay here, Mommy give me a loan for rent, I will pay back in three months, or I will pay increased interest rate.”
I thought of the supposed semen stains in my mom’s Volkswagon, which I last rode in 9th grade before my dad stole her keys and lent the car to one of his co-workers who drove it to Vancouver and never came back. I thought of the last time I came home: three years ago, when I asked my dad for a ride but Margaret showed up instead, and we exchanged not a single word, her Beatles CD filling the space in the car. She’s leaving home. At that time, I thought I could, that I had fled, like how my mom fled from her parents to attend college in America. But thirty years later, she was still on the run, trapped in the house and life she built to escape in the first place.
a single page story 1/19
At 5pm on Monday Chris Christie was browsing his favorite website, HentaiNation. If he stayed until 6, his secretary would bring him Pizza Hut, which was more appealing than his wife Mary’s cooking lately. However, he had showed up to the office at 9 in the morning today. He had to stay true to his American values of an 8 hour work day, so he had time to kill.
What am I feeling today? Chris Christie asked himself. Usually his first search was “diaper inflation”--he never even knew how he stumbled upon it in the first place, but as he navigated to the search bar, at this point it was all muscle memory.
Then Chris remembered the workplace training he received earlier in the day, when a pretty young woman with huge, soft pink breasts tastefully overflowing from her low cut sweater came in and talked about how to spark innovation in existing large bureaucratic structures. Chris really only remembered the tightness of her skirt against her round ass, but he did catch her saying, “We need to change it up, boys! Follow your most disruptive role models.”
Chris thought of his good friend and colleague, Ted Cruz. Ted once liked a RealityKings video on his Twitter that was pretty hot. After a bit of deliberation, Chris typed “hot threesome cuckold” into the search bar.
Even at the first sight of the thumbnails, he could feel his member growing, hungry to be touched. He chose one where a brother fucked his S-cup mom, to the jealousy of his pink-haired baby sister who then joined in.
By now, Chris’s rock hard cock was glistening with precum. He unbuttoned the wide waistband of his pants, hand aiming to palm at the fabric of his boxers for a bit.
Except, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to locate his underwear. He moved his hand around, like a metal detector, but he was only rewarded with the blubbery flesh of his belly fat. Where did his penis go?
Chris now tried with two hands, getting more tense by the minute. It didn’t help that his anxiety softened his dick again, which made it even harder to find. No matter where he put his hands, he found them enveloped in the sweaty folds of his stomach. He broke out in a sob.
Right then, his secretary, who was a petite brunette with perky breasts, barged in with four cardboard boxes, still steaming hot. Chris was thankful his desk was obscuring the pitiful evidence of his failed nutting session.
Trying his best to hide his tears, he took the boxes from her and opened the first one, an XXXL Meat Lover’s Supreme Combo. Chris took a giant bite, pleasure filling his mouth, his tears elegantly dripping onto the pizza and down towards his stomach, where they too were lost like his cock.
the real single page story 1/24
I was doing it for the money. It would have just been another show had the house lights not caught her sequined red dress, pulling my gaze away from the hands on the piano, past the rows of elderly gentlemen in tuxedos, finally to the back corner where she sat, arms linked with those of a man who, even from across the room, looked liked he had his life together--I hated him, immediately and intensely. When the lights flipped to shine on me, in the seconds before the audience receded to dark anonymity, I discerned no reaction nor recognition on her face: for her, it must have been too long, but for me, I knew. Nadine. Do me the incredible honor of playing for you.
My brother and I grew up with a pool, so we were popular. He had girlfriends. Every summer they would float in and out of the house, distinguishable only by the color of their bathing suits. When they were done dipping their bodies in the water, they would drape themselves across our lounge chairs, waiting for my brother to come back with two whiskeys. I would watch from the deep end while practicing my underwater somersaults. Sometimes their nipples would jut out from under the fabric of their bikini tops, and I wondered if I too would have their shapes and slopes, feeling my chest underwater where no one could see. Sometimes my brother came back with not only drinks but also a guitar. He knew one song--the soundtrack to all our summers, Wonderwall--and the girlfriends would sip their whiskeys, tongues rolling ice cubes around in their mouths, eyes closed in faux-admiration of my brother’s fledgling methods in seduction.
If the girlfriends knew how to press their fingers into some strings, or the keys of a piano, or even how to jangle a tambourine, we would move to our living room, where they marveled at our family’s vast instrument collection, and, after much coaxing from my brother, pick one to join him in a childish display of flirtation. There was only one--Nadine--that needed no coaxing, who planted herself on our small black piano bench and threw us overboard with her performance. Still in her red bikini, she commanded the keys with a nimble gravitas, the sinews of her back transforming to create what I thought then was magic, but know now as Rachmaninoff.
When she finished, my brother was stunned into silence, hunger creeping into his eyes. I, unable to conceal my excitement any longer, filled the too quiet room with applause. She looked at me and smiled, not the tight lipped politeness of the other girlfriends, but a radiance that stretched her whole face. To me, she said thank you, and bowed. And we crossed paths forever once.
Were I to call my brother now and say it was Nadine who was now listening to me, he would say, Nadine who? and also, Have you brought back dinner? But this is love: sequins in the corner, somersaults in the deep end, songs to be shared. My fingers hit the keys, and I am transported back.
in class writing assignment: no sentence over 10 words 1/29
You were in my dream.
My dream was about missed flights, he says.
It was stressful.
Mine’s embarrassing, I say.
I 3D printed a vase for you.
It had a low polygon count.
The printer extruded ceramic, but
You know those green glass bottles?
The ceramic looked like the glass.
A true technological breakthrough.
I put it on your bookshelf, but
You already had three.
I would have liked that gift, he says.
The lab mates came back from Denmark.
They gave me a “I <3 Copenhagen” fridge magnet.
He is not from Copenhagen.
With the vase, I could grow my brother’s chili peppers.
The weather is warming up.
I too am looking to blossom, I say.
For Christmas, I got a gourmet flower kit.
Who the fuck eats flowers?
No it’s not, he says.
You’re seizing the means of production yourself.
I complicate Marxist analysis by mentioning it’s a luxury good.
It’s lunchtime in my timezone.
Wait, he says.
Pretend you said Who the fuck eats flowers? again.
I oblige the fantasy.
Who the fuck eats flowers?
He sends an elongated wink.
My face burns.
A boiled lobster.
The office mates don’t see.
Are we on the same train of thought.
The same page, the same wavelength.
I need the clarity.
We’re aligned, he says.
Like pieces in a puzzle.
I go to a meeting.
The research is hard, the model convoluted.
Also like a puzzle.
The post-doc draws diagrams.
The post-doc draws arrows connecting the diagrams.
My gaze wavers.
I am connecting myself to myself.
Living inside myself.
Does it make sense? she asks.
Yeah, I say.
It’s okay if it doesn’t, she says.
It barely makes sense to me either.
I am thinking about his mouth.
I am thinking about consumption.
Of goods, of food, of bodies.
I return to my office.
I stare at circuit schematics.
I check the train schedule.
I open an incognito window.
I search, yonic flowers.
No one knows the word yonic.
The world runs on dicks.
I consider sending him one that’s pale purple.
Native to Asia. Used as food coloring, tea,
Battered and deep fried.
The butterfly pea.
Scientifically, Clitoria ternatea.
We haven’t touched each other in a year.
We first touched each other three weeks after we met.
It was summer.
I was in Europe.
I was supposed to be researching, understanding.
I was very good at understanding myself, and
What I desired.
Then he had to go to America.
It was his best friend’s wedding.
The wedding was in Nebraska.
The three flights were delayed.
Then I had to return to San Francisco.
Nebraska! What a shame.
I want to take him around the Bay.
There is so much life here.
I guess there was life there.
But the Bay’s better.
The people are hotter.
One time he had two beers.
I’m red to the tip of my ears, he said.
But I want to know.
What gets you going?
Attention. A hand over my heart.
The rise and fall of a tummy.
Is that boring?
Women with nice eyebrows, I said.
It has to be,
Is that embarrassing?
It has to be workshopped, I said.
I am a fan of workshops, he said.
I am over the moon.
In the first week we barely talked.
I don’t want to get attached, I said.
We barely know each other.
We’re in our mid 20s.
We’re driven by horniness.
I was driven by horniness.
I was a gullet of shame.
Pandora’s Box of bodies.
We start sending each other papers.
This reminds me of your work!
Maybe you’d be interested?
We send each other stupid things.
Sometimes they aren’t mutually exclusive.
This paper did wind tunnel simulations with anime boobs.
The chat colors change.
We try video chatting but the wifi’s shit.
I come clean about my horniness.
Forgive me, Daddy, for I have sinned.
Bathe me in the waters of the Bay.
Strip me of my clothing and--
Stay cute, he says.
lists lifted from the internet 2/7
We miss you @horse_ebooks
- You have the unique power to make it a beautiful place or a real mess.
- You are the last one here.
- You’ve seen all the suffering, the exhaustion.
- It’s your job to prevent the overflowing.
- In your forage you uncover traces of earlier life.
- You are their keeper/guardian/collector. You safeguard them in your bags.
- You run the route two, three times. You pride yourself in being thorough.
- Once you’re sure nothing has escaped, you dispose of them.
- It’s heartwrenching, but someone’s gotta do it. You play god with entropy.
- And not all stories are worth telling.
- Then it’s your favorite time of night.
- You push your bags back in the closet, lock the building doors, start your truck.
- You head to the only place open at this hour.
- You order a $4 Everyday Value Breakfast Slam.
- On Mondays/Tuesdays/Fridays it’s just you and Muppet.
- Or Tuesdays/Wednesdays/Saturdays. Technically the day transitions while you eat your sausage/eggs/pancakes.
- Muppet always brings you a pot of coffee without a bill. Leftover brew, he gruffs. Waste if it ain’t drunk. He knows you know all about waste.
- Muppet’s wife left him last year.
- She left when she found out he spends his paychecks commissioning artists he finds on internet forums to draw animals. Except the animals always stand on two legs and have large breasts. It is like Arthur or Madagascar, but sexy.
- Muppet tells you this after you spend at least $100 of your own paycheck eating his sausage/eggs/pancakes. It’s called a fursona. But damn me if that woman weren’t over reacting.
- You ask to see some of the pieces.
Letters from summer camp
- Energy: Follow it, study it, and fuel it with words. Energy indicates love. Energy is a gift. Where there is energy, there is excellence.
- Today after dinner we lie down lengthwise on butcher paper. Frankie and I trace each other’s outlines and Mr. Bergmann asks us to color where in our bodies we feel happiness and sorrow. Mine: two targets bleeding from my chest and stomach. Frankie’s: a patchwork quilt.
- Envy: Recognize it, capture it, banish it. To count another’s blessings instead of your own is futile. Envy is thin because it bites but never eats.
- Behind our cabin I find a dead bird. It is so small, crumpling in my hands when I scoop it up, and from here I can see each soft feather. I ask Frankie if we should tell Mr. Bergmann. Frankie says she loves keeping secrets and it was about time we had our own.
- Fear: Only as deep as the mind allows. Fear is an opportunity for growth. Without fear, there is no hope.
- In the morning session Mr. Bergmann asks what we’re most looking forward to in high school, and what we’re most nervous about. For me it is the same thing: I want to go to a good college. It is a chance to prove myself. While we eat Sloppy Joes I ask Frankie what she wrote. She says it doesn’t matter. What she really meant, but didn’t write, is that she wants a boyfriend.
- Risk: Heroes take risks. Without risk, there is no reward. To go out of your comfort zone is to extend yourself to who you truly want to be.
- After dinner we hike down to the beach. Mr. Bergmann distributes wooden sticks, flashlights, and a warning of poison oak among us. As we march on, the balmy night coaxes a chorus of crickets and frogs. When we stop for a water break I glance at the sky and I am overwhelmed by the stars. If I squint they change colors, edges flickering between red and green and blue. It is during this moment of existential smallness a hand lands on the small of my back. I jolt from unfamiliar touch. Do you want half of this cookie I stole from the dining hall, asks Frankie. I nod and chew, crumbs dropping down my jacket. When we continue, she grabs my hand, weaves her fingers into mine, and it is like this for the rest of the way.
- Trust: Do not expect it to be given, for you must build it. Five minutes can erase twenty years of trust. But the most important person to trust is yourself.
- I am sitting on the bottom bunk clipping my fingernails and watching them disappear in the floorboards when Frankie walks in. Let me show you a secret, she declares, pulling my arm, and we are on an adventure. I think we are going to the beach like yesterday until Frankie steps off the trail and into the trees. I am worried about the poison oak but keep pace with Frankie who darts through the branches like a deer.
- We arrive at a small creek that feeds into ocean. Frankie lets go of my arm and points at some white-capped mushrooms sprouting on the banks. If you write the name of a person on your body and then eat a mushroom, they’ll fall in love with you, she says. She pulls a pen from her back pocket and hands it to me. Who would you write?
- I tab through everyone I know—from school, from orchestra, from the grocery store—and a creeping panic settles when no faces stay in my mind. Well, who would you write?
- You, she says, plucking a mushroom.
storrs, ct 2/21
My mom says when we first set foot in this country it was my dad and Liping Shu Shu who waited through the night for us. I had fallen asleep at approximately hour nine out of thirteen in our flight from Beijing, exhausted from unfettered questioning and touching things I shouldn’t and the general anxiety of sitting in one place for too long. I was still sleeping when my mom carried me out of the plane through the sticky east coast summer to the backseat of Liping Shu Shu’s old Toyota. Even as the car bumped along the potholes in the nearly three hour drive to Connecticut did I not awaken. I entered America eyes closed.
“Well, here we are,” my dad said when Liping turned into a side street a few miles from the university campus. Four apartment complexes popped out from a manmade opening in the forest. Crows sat on the power lines.
“The playground looks good,” said my mom, who had already accepted the destruction of her American fantasy of skyscrapers and men in suits. “Our daughter will enjoy playing there.” She did not comment on the paint flaking from the building faces or the oppressive quiet of the woods.
“The inside is quite spacious,” said my dad, as Liping pulled into our designated parking spot. “There are two bedrooms.”
“What would we need two bedrooms for?” asked my mom. “Our daughter is not even four years old. She is sleeping with us.”
“When the time comes,” replied my dad.
It was a game of waiting. To them, the apartment was just a rental, a two bedroom partially aided by the state, sufficient for the time it would take my dad to finish his PhD, for my mom to learn English, for us to move somewhere with a highly ranked public school system. But to me, it was the only home I would come to know: the home of the funny scar on my elbow before I learned to not ride scooters down curbs, the home of the first time I was told to wear a bra when my shirt rode up as I showed off my cartwheel, the home of adventure confused and glorified by the passage of time.
Our next door neighbors were also my best friends. To the left lived the Quioñes, Monica with her straight cut bangs and light up shoes following at the heels of her older brother Clemente who already knew how to drive. To the right were the Fasihuddens, Labib, much taller and fatter than the rest of us, inseparable from the dribble of a basketball. Next to the Fasihuddens were the KCs, Pratik the class clown who would end up dropping out of college, adopting cryptocurrency early, and subsequently posting photos of himself with Rolex watches and lingerie models on Instagram. At that time, when I could not yet discern ethnicities other than my own, I thought Labib and Pratik were both Indian until the former said he was from Bangledash and the latter from Nepal. Not only were all of us the same age, but we were also connected by the thread of optimistic parents who threw all their eggs and children in the melting pot that was America, only to have jobs at Dunkin Donuts and kids on free school lunches and in ESL classes when their English was no worse than their peers’, but also kids who got pulled out of the classroom when it was time for math and made to do accelerated workbooks which they finished in 20 minutes before taking out their Gameboys and battling each other in Pokémon.
Even with all the ferrying we still lead cheerful lives, our eventual grown-up tasks of self-actualization at insurmountable levels of privilege compared to our parents’ one of survival. We never had homework. We had balls and bikes, mainly from Walmart. We hung out with each other outside every day until dusk, sometimes shooting hoops, sometimes racing our bikes around the big hill at the center of the complexes, sometimes swinging our feet and doing nothing at all.
By the playground there was a dip in the ground with a collection of cattails so thick we deemed it The Swamp. We declared The Swamp to be full of quicksand, daring each other to step and sink into this foreign land. But even after all the shoving and squirming, none of us ever ventured forth.
If we stood on our tip-toes on the grassy knoll too short to be called a hill on the opposite side of the complex, we could see, through a clearing in the forest, the top of a rusty factory building. We were sure it was abandoned; no road could have made it to the building past the trees. This was The Haunted House. Every year when the end of October approached we would plan our break-in, engulfing someone’s living room with maps and plans scribbled on the back of assignments, boxes and arrows like a football diagram. On Halloween, after we had traded candy and crammed sugar into our small bodies, we would sit around vibrating until one person suggested it was too late in the night and we should try going to The Haunted House next year and we all nodded in agreement.
During the summers we would wander to the very outer edge of the woods, hunting for frogs and dumping them into a tall bucket full of tap water. We would inevitably forget about them when our mothers called us home for dinner, and the frogs would float there, bucket walls too high to escape, croaking and soundtracking our meals where others might have put on the news or a classical record. During the winters, when the snow never arrived as white puffs but as brown slush, we would dirty our mittens with futile attempts at slushmans and then pile into one person’s toboggan, slipping down and stumbling up the center hill like dogs playing fetch.
Shortly after Pokémon entered my life on my sixth birthday, my dad came home with a new toy. Before I only had played with Happy Meal Boy Toys (I always made my mom ask for them, not the Barbies, which infuriated me) so I knew this was a big deal. “I bought you Pikachu!” he exclaimed, grinning as he turned over the red box to reveal a yellow duck.
“No!!!” I screeched. “This is Psyduck!!!! Misty’s Pokémon!! Everyone makes fun of him!! He’s so stupid!!!!”
“If you press his beak, his eyes light up blue. See?”
I ripped Psyduck out of his red box and threw him against the wall as hard as I could. This was the first time I remember sobbing until my throat was sore from screaming and my eyes were sore from producing so many tears which just mixed with my snot into a pathetic puddle.
The next time Liping Shu Shu visited, he presented me with a Pokéball on a keychain, which, when pressed, revealed a tiny Squirtle inside. I had seen these in the machines outside of All You Can Eat Chinese buffets that would pop out for five quarters, but my parents would never indulge my lust no matter my begging. I put the keychain on my backpack and turned around the Squirtle in my palms under my desk in every class.
When my parents bought their first home in a Southern California suburb they concluded their dinners with walks outside. Sometimes, if I had finished my homework at lunch or wasn’t on a yearbook deadline, I would join them. We lived in a townhouse indistinguishable from the neighboring townhouses at the start of a hill the community looped around. We paid Homeowners Association fees but the only time we exchanged a word with a neighbor was when one of their dogs had taken a shit in our lawn. On these walks we would search for the stars through the light pollution and try to feel less full from the beef in our stomachs. A small gutter ran down the adjacent street, filled with fallen leaves except for in late January, when we would get the rain for the year, and then the frogs and crickets would come out and sing.
domain knowledge 3/14
The human body is a resistor. Some parts resist more than others. Dry skin tends not to let much electricity pass through. A wet tongue: slightly more conductive.
To demonstrate this, on the first day of class the professor takes a 9 volt battery out of his suit jacket, holding it above his head for the whole class to see. He presses a finger along the terminals and nothing happens. He hangs his tongue out like a dog's and licks the battery. It tingles. His students release nervous laughter.
At night, the television shows many bodies resisting, with hashtags and hats and clever signs. The professor watches as he eats curry. He has cooked too much, but he hates eating the same thing two days in a row.
The professor lives in an apartment with 3 bedrooms and 0 other people. One room has a bed. Another one has a piano. The professor isn't sure what to do with the last one--he moved in last month, right after defending his PhD thesis.
After the defense, he took his parents to a steakhouse. None of them had ever been to a steakhouse before. Even though he had told his parents they wouldn't be able to understand his talk, they insisted on flying in to watch their only child graduate, despite having to drive 4 hours from their patch of land where they herded ducks to get to the airport.
When the to-be-professor noticed his parents cutting into a leaf he couldn't pronounce, he laughed. Ma, Pa, I'm pretty sure that's just a garnish, he said.
It is too precious to not eat, they replied. During the dinner they never stopped beaming. They added: We are so proud of you.
Eating curry and watching the protestors in the company of the television, the professor thinks, I have it all. And yet I am still dissatisfied.
The professor is a professor of computers. He doesn't say computer science, because the kids do not do experiments as scientists should, they only write code, he jokes.
The professor's date laughs. He also writes. Mainly short stories, but he's flirting with a novel.
The professor makes a note to search the writer on the internet later.
The writer laughs again. No, you're probably published way more than me. I only have two stories in magazines. The professor thinks he sees a flash of sadness in the writer's eyes as he says this.
Well, which one should I read first? he asks.
When they have enough data, computers can make some amazing decisions. This image? It is of a dog on a beach chasing a frisbee. This man? It is safer if he awaits trial in jail instead of at home.
Every little part of the object in question--the dog's nose, the man's race--is turned into a number and twisted and turned through many layers, a mess of sewage pipes. The computer switches millions of valves on and off, choosing which numbers are important enough to impact the final decision. It is a great muck: the humans can't interpret these choices, but they were taught from an early age numbers are one of the few objective truths left in the universe, so they hand the numbers their trust. It is called deep learning, but where is the learning if no one knows how it works?
The discussions the professor sees on the television about this are misguided at best. The computers will take our jobs, our houses, our children. The professor thinks the bigger threat is the faith in the unknown. It is like the civil engineers building a bridge and the bridge is made out of wood or stone or steel, or maybe paper or clouds or cotton candy. Most cars safely cross the bridge. But who knows when it'll collapse.
On occasion, the professor wakes up collapsed into himself. He is all body--sweat and pulse entangled in the sheets, until slowly his brain reconnects with his muscles and his sense of self. But he never remembers anything before the reboot. How can he possibly get better when he only sees a black box in place of his dreams.
There was a point in the professor's life, as there is a point in all our lives, when he was terrible at writing code. The best programmers are the ones who can think like a computer--tracking each object they create as it leaps from command to command, like an overbearing parent--which requires giving up some humanity.
There are two common mistakes in this process. The programmer-parent can write something the computer doesn't understand--leave one parenthesis without its partner, or try to add a word to a number. Or, when the computer does understand the code, the child-object can misbehave. Follow commands the programmer thought it couldn't hear. Change its values to those the programmer didn't want.
Sometimes it takes the to-be-graduate-student-to-be-professor several days to figure out what's wrong with his child-object. But other times, they are so in sync, as soon as his fingers leave the keyboard his children echo his wishes. When this happens, he breaks out in a little dance, forgetting to look around him to see if anyone else is watching.
To experience magic like this, he thinks. But with real children.
The writer is over at the apartment for dinner. The scent of roast duck fills the professor's 3 rooms and the writer is impressed.
Tomorrow, in the professor's class, the students will learn how to represent their code as a finite state machine. Everything is in either a state (waiting, eating, fucking) or a transition between states (the beep of the oven timer, the walk to the bedroom, the hands undoing the belt). This organization reduces the mess. Knowing where your child-objects are at all times is half the battle.
The writer chews. Transitions: stories are also all about the transitions, he says. To connect the scenes seamlessly is the mark of a great writer.
Here is a transition: the first time they touch it is electric. A hunger bubbles out of the professor and then he is leaking everywhere, pressing himself against the writer, the writer pressing back.
There is a class of problem solving techniques formally called greedy algorithms. As soon as they see something that works, they take it, not caring if better things lie in the future. One well-known algorithm is used for finding the shortest path.
The professor's path: the shirt unbuttoned and slid off the writer's freckled arms. Kisses toward the navel, a tongue under the waistband. He collects the writer in his hands, minimizing the space between them until only their electrons push against each other, quivering.
The writer is adding a third story to his publications list. He has invited the professor to a small celebratory reading at the local bookstore. The writer sits at the front of the room. Above his head is a poster of the city, the skyscrapers stark against a fading purple-pink sky.
As the writer reads his writing, the professor stares at this poster, its purple-pink gradient. The gradient of something is the measure of how much it changes. The gradient of a cloudless day: relatively flat except for two humps at sunrise and sunset, as the sky transitions from black to pink to blue and back again. In pictures, finding the gradient is the same as finding the edges of the objects in the picture. The gradient of this poster: a trace of the skyline.
The writer's story is beautiful and the professor is so proud when the room's empathetic applause acknowledges it too. The writer bows and lists thanks--his parents, his teachers, his residency fellows, his partner the professor.
The last time the professor was a partner was when he was a to-be-graduate-student-to-be-professor making a robot. Even though the four of them were supposed to all be partners, he was the only one up all night, unplugging wires and plugging them in again.
The gradient of the professor's life was a smooth solitude. Then the writer appeared, and he climbed mountains.
The professor is in a sauna. It is hard to breathe because of the humidity, his sweat. It is hard to breathe because he is swaddled in someone's arms.
Hey, says the writer. Hey. It's okay.
The professor wakes up. A hand on his chest guides the inhale, exhale. Actually, the writer is so gentle.
The professor remembers: he had just bought a house. But when he went furniture shopping, all the stores were empty. Just him and the kitchen and rooms gathering dust.
The writer feels like he has written the same chapter five times. No matter what combination of words he chooses, they always form into rough approximations of each other.
You're stuck in an infinite loop, says the professor. He has just taught his students recursion, one of the hardest topics to understand in computer science. In recursion, the solution to the problem depends on the solution to smaller versions of the same problem. The same code runs over and over until the problem is reduced to its smallest state, which has a known solution--the base case.
But it's easy to mess up recursion. Plenty of students write poor base cases, so their code runs forever, doing meaningless laps around the track, waiting for permission to halt. In solving large problems, it is crucial to know when to stop.
The novel the writer finishes goes like this: There was once a great professor who did everything he was told in life and was widely revered for his intelligence and insight. But the professor was lonely and lost. What good was his view into the world if he had no one to share it with?
The professor met a writer. They started sharing meals and stories and their bodies. The writer moved into the third bedroom. The professor was now less lonely, but no less lost.
The professor operated in the discrete world of computers, of electronic components that flipped from 0 to 1 but nothing else. But real life was infinite. The professor had to become comfortable with mess, with ambiguity, with possibility. Endings could be left unwritten, and no one would complain.