Consent
By Ben Schrank
Published by Random House 
March 2002; 0-375-50707-8; 304 pages

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Consent by Ben Schrank1

In the room I keep at the Gouverneur Hotel, at the bottom of the Lower East Side, in Straus Square, I’ve got dozens of handkerchiefs. The cotton ones have raised needlework, often in more than one color. Some have leaves in the corners, diamonds, or Hebrew words. One has elaborate curls, which I’m quite sure are sewn with golden thread. The silk ones are more elaborate, with patterns of orange flame, waves, quarter moons, or women’s faces. I dry my tears with these handkerchiefs. I masturbate into them. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. And when my eyes grow red from heat or smoke, I press them lightly with a handkerchief to cool them.

I launder each handkerchief by hand. I won’t let them fall further apart. I got them from my father years ago, when I was home for a holiday break from the University of Chicago and he happened to be moving out of the apartment he shared with my mother on the corner of Rutherford Place and Seventeenth Street, where I grew up. He didn’t want these handkerchiefs because her parents gave them to him, a half dozen each year on his birthday, and some had grown frayed.

I need to use one now, because the warmth in here is making my eyes water, so it’s become difficult for me to smile at strangers. I move quickly across this crowded living room and I feel lucky when I find enough space on a windowsill to first steady my hand and then set down my glass. I take a folded handkerchief from my back pocket and press it to my eyes. Soon I’ll go and find my friend Bear, drink another scotch, and then I’ll be bold and look about me, with the hope that there’s someone else I might speak with here at Professor Weingarden’s Welcome the Spring party.

This handkerchief is made of blue-and-gray checked silk. My father’s initials, JGZ, are stitched in one corner. His name is Jefferson Gerard Zabusky. I’m Mike.

“Today must have been terrifying for you.”

It’s a woman speaking. My eyes are covered, and I can’t imagine that she’s addressing me. She’s probably asking someone about the market, which slipped again. March is just ending and it looks like we’re going to have a messy April. We’ve had a strong allergy season, studded with bouts of rain. The markets have done nothing but falter, and even people like me, with few or no investments, have begun to watch. But tonight, after a full day of storm clouds and thunder, amid consistent reports of our financial doom, at least the sky is clear.

“Come on, no two-day blip is going to hurt me,” a man says. “We went through this in February. This happens all the time.” He laughs impatiently, and the noise he makes is like a scoff. These people have taken over the rest of the window, to my right. I put my handkerchief away, blink, and look at the woman’s back. The man bobs his head, as if he’s trying to catch her eye. “So no, it wasn’t terrifying,” says the man, “and it won’t kill me.”

“I didn’t say it would kill you,” she says.

“The worst is over,” he says. “We’ve maintained a substantial cash reserve. Too bad you couldn’t stick around to see me do well again.”

At an inch or so over six feet, he’s my height, but he’s at least ten years older than I am and he’s wearing good clothes—a black blazer and a freshly pressed white shirt. Though I’ve got a strong memory for languages and names and ideas, I can’t be counted on to remember to dress well for parties. I’m wearing navy blue pants and my favorite shirt, which is dark as a red rose forgotten for days in a vase.

She says, “Really, I only asked if you’d had a scary day. But you’re tough. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Because I’m close to her, I can hear her sigh. I like the way she sounds. She’s got rust in the lower registers of her voice and she does not speak quickly. But the man is cracking. He rolls his shoulders and splays out his fingers, as if he wants to grab hold of something, of her, but he must know that he can’t touch her when they’re talking this way. Her back is upright and calm.

 

“Katherine,” he says, and shakes his head, “when I don’t see you for a while—I forget what an awful bitch you are.” She does not speak immediately. Her shoulders do not move.

Then she says, “I’m not. But clearly, I’m also not what you were looking for. We can agree on that now.”

“No, you sure as hell weren’t,” he says. And then I watch with this woman while he walks away, toward the dining room. She turns then, to look out the window. She bends forward with her whole body and stares down at the cars on the West Side Highway.

“Wasn’t that a bit much?” Katherine asks. She doesn’t look up and she isn’t loud, so she must be able to feel that I’m standing close by her.

“First he wasn’t smooth, and then he wasn’t nice,” I say. I’d like to tell her that he repulsed me, but they may have been affectionate with each other at one time, and so she might not want to hear him called repulsive by someone else, regardless of whether she knows it.

“True. He’s only someone I used to date. He runs a company and I guess these last few days have been hard going. I bet his board of directors are feeling just like me, like they chose the wrong man. He isn’t smart. That’s partly why he’s mean. I’m sorry that I saw him tonight.”

“Complicated,” I say. “It was good of you to be so gentle with him.”

“Gentle?” she says. “I’m wrong to rationalize his behavior. I don’t feel the least bit benevolent toward him.”

There are lines at the edges of my eyes and these lines crinkle down when I smile. I smile now. I don’t say a word.

She says, “In fact, he’s married. But he keeps bothering me. I should tell him to leave me alone.”

“Why didn’t you call for help?” I say. “I could have yanked him away from you. I would have thrown him out of this window.”

She glances around the room. She acts as if she is concerned that someone has overheard me.

“That doesn’t appeal to me. If I want to throw him out a window, I’ll do it myself. Why don’t we go find a drink?”

We leave the dining room and approach the nervous undergraduate who Weingarden has set up behind a high table in a corner of the foyer. Katherine points, and he gives her a glass of red wine. He sets me up with another scotch. Oddly, he ignores my request for fresh ice. I don’t recognize him, so I know I haven’t taught him and he can’t be angry with me. This makes me wonder if I’m slurring words, or if I haven’t bothered to speak at all, and in turn, if either of these things is true, if I’m not entirely sober.

There’s a table next to us, and I turn to it. It’s thick with cocktail food: cheeses on a wood board, some fresh berries, a chopped-up pile of bread, green dip, red dip, crackers. I don’t know if it’s nervousness or the dip colors, but I lose my appetite immediately, which is typical. And I haven’t eaten since breakfast—one lonely egg on a biscuit and black coffee in a paper cup, from a diner on Montgomery Street. Ninety-nine cents. This is why I often find myself going to bed hungry. I eat too little at the beginning of the day and then I’m left with an unquenchable nighttime hunger. I lack foresight. That’s my problem. But it’s just the sort of dilemma that’s difficult to fix.

I take a piece of cheese that’s studded with peppercorns and I eat it quickly. Incredibly, Katherine is still here. She’s staying with me. Now I’ve got a sticky mouth and a stunned feeling that clenches at my ribs, because she continues to smile through my second and third glance. The room isn’t bright, but the rims of things have taken on a glow, perhaps because of the scotch.

“In fact,” she says, “we’ve met before.”

Because she’s said this, I feel as if I’ve been given clearance to look at her again, more carefully, and I do. She’s in a simple dark dress, with an ache of red-brown hair grazing her shoulders, and difficult eyes. So she is no longer only a still figure in a window. Her eyes are opaque. I cannot discern a dominating color.

“Have we?” I ask. I don’t recall a prior meeting. I look again at her eyes.

There is a problem with such eyes: they always seem willing to be intrigued. You try to entertain them, with the hope that maybe, for some moment in your life with her, you’ll be able to get beyond a fleeting interest, and somehow find out—and it’s doubtful that you’ll get the opportunity—more about the wonderful and truthful things that happen inside of her. They are eyes filled with imperviousness, so that though they can show amazement and pleasure, they are equally sure of their ability to show no interest at all, and by doing so they can make you miserable. They are impossible because of this combination of opacity and excitement. Though I feel all of this, I choose to ignore it. I’m talking to a woman I’ve just met at a party. At thirty-one, with one marriage behind me, I am no longer truly stupid and young, but I can still behave as if I am. My eyes are dark green. They are shaped like almonds.

“You don’t remember,” she says.

“I do,” I say. “It’s just—I can’t recall the circumstance.” This isn’t exactly true. I don’t remember her at all, but complete honesty can be hollow and confining—and really, just because I don’t remember her now doesn’t mean that I won’t remember her later.

“I believe you used to know my friend Miriam,” she says.

She has to come up closer to see me, because someone has turned off more lights. Behind her, Weingarden has taken over the middle of his living room. He begins to dance with Elsie, an attractive woman who was the other TA for the medieval heretics class he ran in the fall. A few more of the uninhibited join in. Weingarden winks at me and I smile back at him. I’ve been one of his teaching assistants and he’s been my adviser for years now. He motions for me to bring my new friend and join him, but I shake my head, and he gives me a mock frown. He’s always after me—trying to get me to enjoy myself as much as he does. Again, I look around for my friend Bear. Perhaps he has met someone he likes. Bear may be acting uncharacteristically, by taking advantage of the fact that his wife, Jen, is out of town.

“That’s right—of course,” I say. “That’s when I met you.”

Copyright 2002 Ben Shrank
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

Mike Zabusky meets Katherine Staresina at a party given by Mike's doctoral thesis advisor, Mathew Weingarden. They are instantly drawn to each other -- so instantly that they have a sexual collision against a bathroom wall less than two hours after they meet. Mike immediately feels surer or his love for Katherine than of anything else in his life-- his moribund thesis about the Golem (an artificial creature in Jewish folklore); Wiengarden, who appears to simultaneously support and undermine Mike's studies; and his lonely, angry stock-trading father, soon to commit suicide and thus further entangle the emotional knot, first tied in childhood, that Mike must try to untie.

When Katherine begins a mystifying game of intimacy and rejection and Mike learns more about her troubled past and seems to lose more ground with every effort to win her heart, he finally comes face-to-face with his own Golem-like existence. Who is controlling him? What can he do to escape-- and determine-- his own fate? What is the truth behind his father's death?

Consent paints a poignant, surprising, and ultimately profound portrait of a young man who faces the universal challenge of balancing passion with wisdom.

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Author

Ben Schrank has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Ledig-Rowholt Foundation, and currently writes for The New York Observer and the Financial Times, among other publications. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he now lives.

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