the cabal

Excerpt from “The Moderator”

In this video, Lilian is waiting for you on the couch, carefully poised in a violet bustier and knee-high stockings. She is twirling a strand of her hair, biting her lip with a single tooth. You wonder how long she’s been sitting there holding that pose, that face. In a normal universe—not if she were a different woman, but if you were a different man—you would glide toward her as if drawn by an invisible cord, expertly removing all of your clothes before arriving at the couch. Instead, in the current universe, you think about fat women and dildos. You think about bald men, teenage girls, epileptic seizures. You imagine Lilian being projected from a windshield in lingerie, her head falling to the pavement with a viscous thwack.

Lilian runs a hand slowly up her thigh, and the paper bag of groceries you’re holding suddenly feels like an interference, an oblivious child come between its parents. You put it down on the table by the door.

“What’s this about?” you say. “Oh, I think you know,” she says. “Don’t play coy.”

“Coy? What? What do I know?”

“What today is.” She stands and sashays towards you now, a slender burlesque dancer. Her arms slide around your neck. Your hands go to her waist, but you feel ashamed for touching her.

What is today?

Lilian is wearing a brothel’s worth of cheap perfume. You picture a series of stalls, a dozen girls lying on bare cots, their skin black in the low light, their eyes feral and white, and imagine the smell of cheap perfume and male sweat hanging heavy in the air.

Lilian bats her eyelashes at you. She touches your face and says, “Hey. What is it?”

You try to smile. “What is what?”

“Where are you right now?” she says, and this, more than anything, seems to be the right question.

You tell her you’re right here and pat her shoulder, which you both know is the kiss of death to an intimate opportunity—the polite way of saying no thanks. Not right now, thank you.

She steps back and makes her hurt, humiliated, angry face. The side-to-side glances, searching for an explanation, the licking of the lips, the tucking them in to keep them safe. All of this is your fault.

“What’s wrong with you?” she says, and when you don’t answer, “You really don’t remember, do you?” Then she forces out a nose-laugh and marches back to the bedroom, where you hear the lingerie hissing and snapping against her skin as it comes off. You want to tell her about the people in the Philippines, about all of the other victims, about how you feel like a victim, but you can’t figure out what or who is victimizing you.

Then you remember: today is March 1st. The first on the first, you called it then. It was the first time the two of you made love. She’d invited herself over to the house you were sitting in West L.A. There was cuddling first, a movie on a 90-inch flat screen in the great room, a glass of wine, a slow kiss, some discussion . . . then you held hands and walked to the master bedroom. It was a calculated, but spiritual decision, and one that you’d agreed to commemorate on its one-year anniversary. Lilian wanted to be different that way. She wanted an anniversary that truly reflected the beginning of union, but the idea was that you’d be married now, and that you’d celebrate by having the wildest, most uninhibited sex of your lives. You can’t imagine wanting to do this now, today. You can’t imagine taking off her delicate costume, seeing her under it, can’t imagine writhing on top of her like some oaf trying to lift a heavy refrigerator. How could you? She’s just a Lilian, for god’s sake.

“We were supposed to be married,” you call back to the room without knowing what you mean.

“Oh, and I guess that’s my fault,” she says from down the hall. “I had to be selfish and give my old dad a stroke. How inconvenient.”

Her voice falters under the words, even as she shouts them. You approach the bedroom door, planning your next statement and the soft, conciliatory tone you’ll use. This tone, this affected vulnerability, has worked in the past.

Having thrown her underthings into a sad heap, Lilian is now standing nude beside the bed. She looks at you with her jaw protruding forward, as if to say, “How do you like me when I’m naked and pissed off?” You turn away in embarrassment, feeling unworthy, disenchanted.

* * *

I started working on “The Moderator” after reading a 2014 Wired article about the joyless lives of people whose job is to search and destroy obscene content from the various repositories of the internet—YouTube, Google, Facebook, etc. Imagine spending 8-10 hours a day watching pornography and bestiality and acts of terrorism, then going home to your family with a paycheck smaller than what a tech exec spends on a replacement watch battery. Imagine seeing animals beheaded, children exploited, variations of lasciviousness and violence that you never knew existed in an infinite loop all week, then trying to be intimate with your wife or enjoy a meal or not drink yourself into oblivion.

If you thought the internet was a dark place and a dark industry, you don’t know the half of it.

The majority of these content moderators work for overseas contracting firms, performing their drudgery at a scale unimaginable in the U.S. The internet is so full of filth that the army necessary to defeat it is twice the size of Google’s staff and 14 times the size of Facebook’s.

I’ve been pretty stupefied by/terrified of the internet lately, so when I read this article, I knew I had to “treat” the subject. Since the Philippines are foreign to me, I placed my character in San Jose—a recent liberal arts graduate desperate for work and seduced by the prestige of working for a Fortune 500 company. Predictably, the job takes a toll on his psychological health and his relationship with fiancée Lizzy. He suffers from frequent nightmares and a looming existential crisis, which I think all writers can relate to.

All of this is exactly what one would expect from a young man in this position. I believe my work portrays the situation in sharper relief than casual speculation might afford, but my biggest struggle hasn’t been with detail; it’s been with innovation. Stories that put all of their weight on existential crisis always seem half-cocked, and “The Moderator” suffers from this. The stakes are real. The world is painted. The characters are developed (I hope). But the drama is a slow boil, at best. My narrator is caught up in a sad, destructive universe, but not an actor in it. He is disturbed, not implicated. For this story to stand on its own merit, he must become more than a victim.

I’ve tried to think of the ingredients of a strong narrative—setting, protagonist, singular desire, conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. What have I missed? If only I had a panel of critics to read and judge the work, like the painful but enlightening workshops of an MFA program. If only I could be my own keen critic, with a head full not of my own ego, but a chorus of literate voices.

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