The New Canon Starts Like This:
Her second husband loves her and loves their children and his skin is smooth when he sleeps and wrinkles only when he laughs, which he does occasionally but never in excess. He’s mostly warm smiles that come with a hmmm: a good man’s response to good conversation, to an anecdote or a joke, or just a noise to mumble over done dishes. He dies suddenly and tragically, an accident that she later finds out wasn’t an accident at all. Her past coming back to haunt her. For a long time her life revolves around avenging his death, which is thrilling and distracts her from her pain. She finds new depths to herself, caverns she didn’t know existed. In the process, she meets someone nice who helps. He is very handsome and respects the memory of her late husband. In time, she will marry him too. He will not push the topic but will get flowers on the anniversaries of her late husband’s passing. On those days they will fuck frantically in the hallway and she will cry in the bathroom with the door locked. At times, she will think back to her first husband and wonder at how different that was. How she used to disappear into the wallpaper whenever he walked by in a hurry; how on some days she wasn’t sure she even existed if he wasn’t around. How she pulsed in color only when he snapped at her in public, or when she wailed on the doorstep the day he left her. He had fallen in love with a student who was very intelligent, very mature for her age. She can’t remember much of the time after, only that she had ceased for a while. She’s not sure why she came back. She’s not sure how things have changed, only that they have.
Sometimes she looks up and it takes a while for her third husband to sharpen into focus from his perch by the window. He bubbles in and out of shape, until she says his name, and then he pulses: into color, face bright, saying, “Hmmm?”
She doesn’t notice the change right away because it starts as small as this: he reaches out for a glass of water and knocks it over. It spills into her lap and he’s so apologetic, tries to help her clean it and then gets embarrassed over trying to dap at her lap. She’s charmed, it’s charming, and they go on a few more dates but she finds that he drops a lot of things and that maybe she’s looking for someone with a bit more substance. Someone who has the same taste in music as she does. But then the next guy her friend sets her up with chews gum before dinner and saves it for later by sticking it under the rim of his plate. The next guy asks her how much money she makes, straight up asks her, and when she looks at the menu and says they should try the side of labneh he says, “what, like, the country?” A different one laughs at literally everything she says. “You’re easily amused,” she says, and he laughs at that, too.
She meets up with a guy friend of hers and tells him about this. She wonders, aloud, what’s happening with men these days. Her friend, who’s been quiet until then, starts crying — the heels of his hands dug into his sockets. “It’s happening to me too,” he tells her. “I don’t know what it is. I just — can’t think. It’s like I can’t think."
She’s uncomfortable. Tries to make a joke of it, says, “Could you ever?” He laughs at that, first a little, then a lot. He laughs uncontrollably. She tells him to stop, please, but he can’t. “You’re so funny,” he says, voice syrupy through his tears, and puts his hand on her arm. His skin is soft.
There’s an apocalypse where she lives, though it’s not very clear where that is. Maybe America. Probably America. What the apocalypse is isn’t very clear either, something that sounds like a metaphor if she says it out loud, so she won’t. She has a daughter and her daughter’s alive, and all that matters is that they get to safety. The trees are on fire and things are coming out of the ground. She meets a man who dies after they fuck. She meets a man who dies after she looks at him a particular way. The daughter is asleep through most of it. She used to have a husband, but he is dead. She left him somewhere, in a bathtub.
The TV isn’t clear about where or how the apocalypse is taking place and she’s zoning out anyway. There’s always an apocalypse happening somewhere, she thinks, and then writes that thought down. Later that week she’ll write an essay based on this quote, which will in time win her a prize. “It makes sense that in their old age most women turn, sexually, to other women,” reads the most famous line from that essay, “in each other they recognise a genius that men simply do not possess.”
She does a benefit concert for the apocalypse rescue efforts and the feedback is so positive she kind of has to take it on tour, get more people to donate, give what they can, you know. It’s difficult to do the right thing but she tries. There’s a lot of temptations. She puts a lot of those temptations up her nose and hopes the cocaine isn’t eating at the lining of her sinuses. After that she cuts open the hotel bed with a letter knife. The guy she’d fucked on that bed has draped himself over the couch and watches her at it. Then he watches himself in the ceiling mirror and inspects his body. His inner thigh. The taut line of his breast. I am this body, he thinks to himself, running his hand over the soft of his belly. I am warm.
Has she ever loved him? She’s not sure. At this stage she’s not even sure she knows what love is. He used to be so pretty when they were kids, and she remembers so brightly how she couldn’t focus in class because of small things like how light played off his hair. How the seam of his jeans was pulled tight along his thigh. When he first asked her what she wanted to be when they were older, breathed it into her mouth when they were both coming up from a kiss, she said, “I’m gonna be an artist, baby.” He thought it was the hottest thing he’d ever heard. “Are you gonna paint me naked?” he’d asked, nonsensically, turned on by anything at that point. “Yeah,” she told him, and then never did. His hair has dulled over time and he doesn’t wear jeans anymore. Says they’re not representative. He asks her about money when she tries to kiss him. She yells at him, humiliated and angry, and he says, “Fucking yelling at me won’t pay the rent. Your shitty art won’t pay the rent. Then you look at me, your husband, who’s given you the best years of my life — and you tell me. What’s gonna pay the rent? What is going to pay the fucking rent?”
“That’s all you care about, isn’t it?” she says, calm with fury close underneath. “Money. Always fucking money.”
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s right. I care about money.”
It’s been a while and she doesn’t even notice it with the same surprise, how much softer their voices are these days. Speak up, they used to tell them when it’d just happened — when the shift was just starting. We can’t hear you. Speak up. But the men just answered in mumbles from the back of the room, in breathy whispers to the shell of their ears. She’s not friends with a lot of them these days; she is an educated woman who needs an element of intellect in those she calls friends. There is one man, though. He goes with her to dinners or movies and agrees with her no matter what she says. He thinks she’s brilliant, tells her this in his small little voice, says, “You’re brilliant you know,” and, “How do you know all this stuff?” She sees it all in perspective, though, tells him, “But you have your own kind of knowledge, baby,” and softly cups his crotch.
He reminds her of someone. She’s been teaching for so long, has stared at so many blank undergrad faces staring back unfocused, at a spot right above her head. But there’s something about him that’s different, and her parents have seen an apocalypse and there was a picture of a young man from that time that reminds her of him. She knows the man from the picture is long dead, that this young man can’t be him, but — she’s drawn, still. He lingers after class, shy, asks to be mentored. She agrees, and can see his heartbeat thud in his neck. And while he eats her out under the table in her office, she looks down and sees him in faded colors, post-apocalyptic.
He works at a shop she’d never go to generally — she was there by accident, looking for a gift for her anniversary. She’d forgotten about it, had goddamn forgotten all about it. He’s nice to her and looks warm, looks a kind of shy that will grow into wilful. Her husband is a lovely, tired man, a clever man, but that night when he fits his mouth to her breast she finds the smile of the shop boy comes to her, roils up her heat something good. She goes back to the shop the next week, buys something nonsensical, leaves flustered and desperate. The boy has written his address on the inside of the paper bag, and that night she fucks him well and proper into his couch in his downtown one-room apartment. It’s got character, surely: he reads, he has plants. A cat. A poster that says, “Start the cat-volution!”
He makes her a better woman. She leaves her husband for him, but then leaves him, too. He’s taught her so much about herself. He deserves better than her. He will have a nice life.
After a while it turns out most of the animals are women. All of the dogs are women, and the snakes, and the cats you see running across the street at night like they’ve got somewhere to go. Cows are men. House cats are men. Also all the dangerous objects — turns out they are women too: the guns, the knives, the bombs. It makes sense because of their shape; it’s not something everyone thinks about much but it’s generally agreed — it’s because of their shape. The barrels are like our cunts, after all. A knife like our spine, like when we stand up tall, which we do more often than the men, who seem to slouch quite naturally. The bombs, round and swollen and devastating, like our breasts. There are exceptions, of course. Cars are men. Women stroke the wheel of the car going fast on a freeway saying oh yeah baby, you’re a hot piece, purr for me baby. And the car, who is a man, goes: vroom, vroom, vroom.
She doesn’t take on a lot of pro-bono cases but there was something about this guy, something about the way she could hear his voice in his written testimony that made her feel like she could really help him. Do some good in this fucked-up world. She works nights and sometimes he calls with questions, is quiet and patient on the line, and more than once she wonders if maybe he really did it. They fall out about that, and he tells her to drop his case. If she doesn’t believe him, he’d rather have no one defending him at all. As he’s shouting at her she suddenly gets it — the clue, the missing link. It just comes to her, genius. She kisses him, she’s so happy, and he’s stiff at first but then softens, kisses her back. She wins his case for him and he’s so grateful, eats her out under her desk at the office. He’s fallen in love with her, but she leaves him in the end. He’s taught her so much about herself. He deserves better than her. He will have a nice life.
She’s had tenure for two decades and she’s bored with the work, angry with the work, with something she feels is off about the world around her, can’t quite put her finger on. She writes an essay about it, makes a modest proposal, a what-if, an intellectual game: a curfew for men. A way to allow them to thrive amongst themselves, not to mention how much safer life would be for them away from the peering gaze of women. Her most important point, however, is this: how much more would women thrive, how many more breakthroughs would they have, if not distracted by the company of men? She gives the essay to several colleagues who say, brilliant, brilliant, so thought-provoking. Arguments so eloquent. It gets published, and her university is thrilled. How lucky we are, they say, to have such great minds in our midst.
(Years later her protégé — now with tenure of her own — discusses this essay in a seminar. One boy — feminine, unattractive — raises his hand and says something like, “I feel like the premise is problematic,” or, “why do we have to read this? I mean—” and she cuts him off quickly. “It’s an intellectual exercise,” she says. “Not a suggestion. And besides, you can’t dismiss great minds just because their philosophy offends you.” All the women in the classroom give him looks, nod and agree that yes, no, you can’t, you can’t dismiss great minds.)
Her cat who is a man stares at her as she gets out of the shower. She’s naked, and the cat, a man, sits by the door and watches her, naked. He’s cleaning his paws. She’s suddenly aware of her body in a way she’s not sure she’s been before. Women, in general, are less in their bodies — more in their intellect, in the buzzing of their logic, their turning cogs of whats and hows and how comes. She writes a book about this, about her mancat and how he stared at her naked body. It wins a Pulitzer, and on the night that’s announced, she’s at home stroking her cat saying, oh yeah sweetie, you did this for me. And the cat, who is a man, goes: purr, purr, purr.
They’ve been married for twenty years and she still loves him. Maybe not like when they first met but it’s still a love, a hot simmering thing, a flowing underground thing. She takes him somewhere for the occasion, a country he’s always wanted to visit. It’s hot. He doesn’t seem to like it as much as she thought he would. On the first night he leaves the hotel room while she’s asleep, and she wakes up knowing in the way a partner knows. She finds him on top of the hotel roof, staring out onto the city and he’s naked, overwhelmed by life. “I feel everything,” he says. “My body is so warm,” he says. “So welcoming.” She doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, but the words set something alight in her she hasn’t felt in years. And when he offers himself to her, the soft, pearly arm of him, lifting from its nest like a modest bow, she takes him, lovingly, into the loaded barrel of her cunt. To that he says hmmm, a good man’s response. And he is that, he is a good man.
Yael van der Wouden is a writer, editor, and mixed-bag-diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She wishes she could get back all the agonizing hours she once spent reading "the canon," whatever that means, amirite? Her words can be found all over the place, though most recently over at Cheap Pop Literature, Split Lip Magazine and Cotton Xenomorph. She's currently working on a collection of short stories about monsters. Find her at yaelvanderwouden.com or on Twitter @yaelwouden.