Michelle McCray had a habit of staring into the distance, her head turned slightly to the left and her eyes just above level, when she was trying to think of the perfect way to phrase a sentence. She stared now, focused on the three quarter wall that made up her cubicle, as the cursor flickered tauntingly on the open, blank Word document on her screen. Opening phrases tumbled through her mind, each as banal as the next - “Dear Pearl, I never thought it would happen to me…” - and she let out a soft snort at the ridiculousness of it all, of her perfectionism creeping into the opening line of a story, if you could call it that, that the average man might scan for three seconds as he flipped pages between pictures of vulvas spread open, pink and glistening with the KY jelly the staff photographers used to simulate female wetness.
“Were the walls always this dingy?” Michelle thought to herself, her focus slipping away from her struggle to set the scene for a standard menage a trois. (“Dear Pearl, I always thought these letters were fake…”) They’d seemed white, or at least close enough to it that an untrained eye wouldn’t notice, when she’d started at the Pearl headquarters a year prior. She’d graduated Columbia with $23,000 debt in student loans and an English degree that she’d stopped wanting her junior year that May. All of her friends from school drifted - that was the right word - into jobs in tech. The bubble may have popped in the late ‘90’s, but the Bush economy was bouncing back from 9/11, and the people who used to struggle to buy a dollar slice of pizza found themselves with salaries on the edge of six figures writing copy to sell new products that felt destined to disappear within months. It was sorely tempting, and Michelle flirted with the idea of joining them in the corporate world often, but she always circled back to enough fear of the idea to make the leap. Not because she thought she’d hate the jobs, with their catered lunches and weekly happy hours, but because she knew she’d love it too much and never return to the novel that sat an alt-tab away on her infuriatingly blank computer screen. If she went corporate, that would be the end of being a writer.
Instead, she’d answered a Craigslist ad for recent English grads - “Required:Two references, a writing sample (fiction preferred), and an open mind” - and found herself as the the second writer for a slate of porn magazines. It was a shocking reveal, when Ed, the editor, had called her, not because she carried any sort of puritanical sensibility, but because she’d never considered porn having writers. After a brief interview that was surprisingly bland and formal, she accepted the job at enough money to live in a loft in Brooklyn and not starve, and began the process of learning the finer technique of describing breast shape and blowjob technique. Her friends thought it was hilarious, though they were disappointed to see that the offices looked more like a Des Moines insurance company than the Hustler Club. Her parents… only knew that she worked for what she called an “alternative magazine,” and somehow divined that they shouldn’t ask further questions. It was the quintessential survival job, and at least, she told herself, she was still writing and getting paid to do it. Though for all the work on her novel that actually got completed, she might as well have accepted the money at the tech job, whose cubicle walls were probably pristine white and not the used dishrag color she was looking at now.
“Michelle, can I talk you to for a second?” Her musings on the wall color were interrupted by a Pittsburgh-tinged request from Ed, her boss. How long had he been hovering there, and did he realize she hadn’t really completed any work for at least 20 minutes?
“Sure - what’s going on?” she asked.
“In my office,” he said gesturing to the only closed space in the entire floor, other than the bathrooms. The gesture struck Michelle as off-putting, but she wasn’t sure why. She murmured an assent and sat down on what was once likely a nice leather chair, but was showing the same wear as the rest of the office. Ed sat pensively in front of here, his hands tented together like the old “here is the church” nursery rhyme, his foot tapping a metronomic cadence on the rail of his chair.
“Michelle. Look… I…” This wasn’t good. “We’re rethinking things here at Pearl, and… I mean… did you know that over seventy-five percent of pornography is consumed online now? And that’s only going to go up.” Ed jumped from thought to thought, clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation, while, ironically, a large spread of a woman holding a black penis in each hand sat open in front of him. “Kenny thinks that in ten years you’ll be able to watch videos online as easy as turning on your TV.” Kenny DelPetrio was the famous CEO of the Pearl corporation, and the defendant in a landmark Supreme Court case in the ‘80’s, when he’d sold a famous starlet’s “audition tape” from her early days in Hollywood when she’d briefly considered softcore porn.
“We’re looking at digitalizing almost everything, and immediately - Cherries and Teen Dream won’t be in print in six months and will just be websites with photo spreads. And we’re looking to make more video content, you know?” Michelle nodded, praying that the inevitable next line wouldn’t come. Her prayers were futile. “So we… just don’t need two staff writers anymore. And we think Dustin is better positioned to…”
“Why Dustin?” she interjected. She knew the battle was unwinnable, but she wasn’t going to go down without at least a cursory nod toward fighting it.
“Well, he’s been here longer, for starters.”
“By two months! And I had to help train him on…”
“I know, Michelle, you didn’t let me finish. He also… he just understands the word differently. Your writing is so pristine, so well put together. It makes it hard to jerk off to, you know? Dustin doesn’t have that problem.” Michelle wanted to argue but she knew it was true. The stories they wanted were simple - graphic descriptions of the sizes of organs, of bodily fluids and orifices. Michelle could conjure that when she needed to, but she inevitably wrote about things in a way that turned her on instead - descriptions of how two bodies moved against each other, or how the cut of a dress fell off of a shoulder. She couldn’t argue that her imagery didn’t necessarily inspire a quick three minute rub-and-tug.
“It’s nothing personal, and we’re going to pay you through the end of the year,” Ed added. It was just before Thanksgiving, so the gesture was meaningful. “And I’m happy to write you a reference.” This time Michelle didn’t try to hold back a laugh, as she pictured walking into the Village Voice with a laudatory note about how well she could always frame a new reason for three people to find themselves in a threesome.
“I appreciate that, but… I know it’s not your problem, but I have to… I can’t survive without something. If there’s any open role, ads, layout, whatever, I want to be considered.” She decided, rashly, to add, “It’s not like you’ll have tons of applicants for a failing porn company.”
“We’re not failing,” Ed fired back, his tone that of a parental lecture. “We’re re-strategizing. Porn is just too easy to find these days, there’s no reason to pay for it. We’re dealing with that reality. And the reality that pictures sell and words are filler.”
Michelle wanted to argue, but at this point it felt like weakness. She knew everything Ed was saying was completely correct, and she’d spent considerable time fantasizing about leaving anyway, to take time to travel on credit card debt, or to lock herself in a cabin for a week and force herself to finish “A Gift to be Simple,” which was the third and latest title for her nascent masterpiece. But now that the uncertainty of it all lay spread out before her, it felt like an impossibility - to interview, to job search - how did people manage. “Fuck, I am not going to cry in front of Ed,” she silently willed, as a tear formed just above the corner of her left eye.
“Look.” Ed was completely oblivious to her turmoil. “It’s not the same as salary, but I can keep you on for a freelance gig for a magazine that we’re going to launch.”
“I thought you said you were ending magazines,” Michelle said, praying that her voice wouldn’t quiver and betray her.
“For the most part, yeah, but Kenny also sees this as a way to pick up some of the… stuff… that the Internet hasn’t yet. To distinguish ourselves, you know? But… it’s not going to be the same as Pearl and writing basic sex scenes. Though actually, now that I think about it, it’s probably more in line with the way you write anyway.”
Michelle cut him off before he could jump thoughts again, “OK, I’ll do it, what is it?”
Ed laughed derisively, “You should hear me out before agreeing. I’ve actually already pitched this to two freelance guys I’ve worked with before and they both refused immediately.”
“They weren’t paying for a Williamsburg loft and a Columbia education,” she thought to herself, but out loud said “I’m willing to listen.”
“Well, so we’re going to have to tap into the more… niche… markets with the new magazine. You know, off-the-wall stuff.” For someone who traded in sex, Ed got weird about actually talking about the ins and outs of it.
“Like what, like foot fetishes?” Michelle fired back.
That same derisive laugh made Michelle want to punch him right in his oversized, alcoholic nose. “No, foot fetishes are basically mainstream now. I think Sex and the City did an episode on that last week. We’re talking really out there stuff.”
“There’s one in particular I think you’d be great at writing for, but… like I said, it’s real fucking strange.”
“Ed, it’s fine, just say it.”
Ed took a breath like he was inhaling from a cigar, and then let it out slowly with a slight whistle. “You ever heard of adult babies?”
There were a million things Michelle had steeled herself for, but those words didn’t even register. “I… no? What’s…”
“I told you. I told you it’s out there. But apparently there’s this Australian magazine that makes a ton of money off of them, so…”
“Ed,” she interrupted, “Just give me a little bit about what that is.”
“It’s what it sounds like,” he snorted. “There are people - a not-insignificant number of them - that like to dress up like babies and, I don’t know, be fed from a bottle or suck on their wives tits or something. And… well, you know…” He trailed off.
“Ed, assume I don’t know. I literally have no idea.”
He leaned across the desk at her, and for a fleeting second she thought he was going to kiss her, as absurd a proposition as that was.
“They wear diapers. And, you know… wear them for actual reasons.”
Michelle paused for a second, trying to parse out exactly what he was saying, and was surprised by her lack of a strong feeling about the issue either way. On the one hand, she wasn’t completely sure everything that this would entail, and had approximately a thousand follow-up questions. She didn’t have an instant revulsion or reaction though, and wasn’t sure what that said about her. Her mind drifted to Charles, a stand up comic she’d dated for about four months when she was a junior. Charles drunkenly confessed one night, surprisingly early in their relationship, that he thought it would be hot to watch her pee, if that wasn’t too weird. He’d tried to play it off as a joke, but it was clear he was serious, so the next morning Michelle barged into the bathroom while he was shaving and set herself down on the toilet with no sense of shame. She was worried she wouldn’t be able to go, but her body surprised her and ignored both her anxiety and Charles’s presence. The sex they had that morning was the best - passionate and demanding and focused - and so she’d made a game of “accidentally” letting Charles watch. She even went as far to pee outside for him once so he could see the stream trickle all the way down. This didn’t seem that much weirder, when it really came down to it.
“Fine, what do you need?” she finally blurted out. “I’ll do it.”
“Look, that’s… I know you need money, but make sure you’re sure about this. You’re going to have to find ways to make women’s shitty diaper changes sound appealing. I’m not sure even Faulkner was that good of a writer.” Michelle realized she hadn’t thought about… poop.
“It’s fine, let me take a crack at it. I’m willing to try anything once, and if… if it’s too weird I’ll be honest about it.” She knew it wouldn’t be, if for no other reason than to prove him wrong. Michelle had a furious stubborn streak that dated back to early childhood, and she wasn’t going to let this yinzer be the one to beat her.
“OK, well… I could use a first draft my a week from Thursday, if that’s possible. Say around two thousand words? I’ll pay twenty cents a word - that’s double what I pay for normal sex stories.”
“Yeah, that sounds good.” It sounded great. Four hundred dollars was basically her two week take home now, and she could knock this out in her pajamas at home with a bottle of chardonnay open. “I’ll get something to you in ten days.”
Ed made the cigar-shaped inhale again, and looked at her dead in the eyes, full of the most seriousness he could muster. The dick in the woman’s left hand, Michelle realized, was uncircumcised. “Let me know by Friday if you can’t do it, ok? I’ll have to find someone else.”
“I can do it, Ed.” Zero waiver to her voice, uncertainty, sadness, or otherwise. “I’ll be fine.”
“OK Michelle, have at it. You can take the rest of the day off if you want, but come in tomorrow to grab your stuff, ok?” He smiled an uncertain smile, as if he were holding back a secret from a lover.
“Fine. I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She walked herself out.
It was only then that she realized she had no idea where to even start with this… project.