An Awkward Look At First Love, From Lena Dunham

Illustrated by Valerie Suter.
In case you missed it amidst the persistent post-VMA dissections of Miley, Taylor, Kanye, and more, here's a small PSA: Some beautiful new (and excerpted) fiction came into the world on Monday. Lenny, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner's no-such-thing-as-TMI email newsletter, sent out its second preview, in the form of a mini-fiction issue.

In celebration of women writing fiction, Lenny debuted an original short story from Dunham, an excerpt from Rebecca Dinerstein's new novel, The Sunlit Night, and a brand-new work from Jenny Zhang. All three are compelling and evocative in their own ways. Up ahead, we have a full reprint of Dunham's "Six Sausages."

But first, a Q&A with Jessica Grose, the editor of Lenny, exploring the importance of women in fiction and digging into the sexism often facing "women's fiction."
Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Grose.
Why a fiction issue?
"We’re running a number of previews before our official official launch, in order to get our subscribers really excited for the content we’re going to be giving them in September. We already had an exclusive interview with Sandra Bland’s friend and mentor Chenai Okammor, that we sent out when the website she worked on with Sandra, woman4woman.net, launched in mid-August. A summer fiction issue seemed like a great way to show the breadth of work we’re going to do — from hard news and exclusive essays, to beautiful fiction. Lena has also been writing a lot (she is literally the most creatively productive person I’ve ever met), and we wanted to feature her amazing work."
You're featuring three strong women writers here. Why is that important to you?
"It’s important to us for a few reasons. For one, as the VIDA count shows, even though women read more books than men do, the majority of writers who get reviewed in major publications are still men. This was a way to shine a spotlight on writers we think are brilliant. Two, our audience is majority female. We need as many women writers as women who want to write — I’m not sure the problem is that we lack in women writers, it’s that there are so many great ones not getting the attention they deserve."
So many men say, "I don't read fiction," and sometimes denigrate it as a trivial thing. Do you think there is something gendered about reading fiction? Should there be?
"I don’t think there’s anything gendered about fiction. There are a lot of genres where most of the published authors and their readerships are male: science fiction and thrillers, for example. I do think there’s a belittling of what’s considered “women’s fiction,” which generally means just that it’s written by women, about women. And I think that’s a shame. It’s about the human condition, and we should all be interested in it."

What do the women of Lenny want aspiring writers to know, as they embark on what is often a punishing, difficult journey?
"If you want to be a writer, write as much as you can, and get as much trustworthy feedback as you can. That doesn’t mean that you can expect to support yourself as a writer exclusively, especially a writer of fiction. I’m about to publish my second novel with William Morrow/Harper Collins in 2016, and I’ve had a day job either editing or writing nonfiction while I wrote both novels."

Who else are you reading this summer?
"We recommend books on Lenny’s Facebook page every Thursday! Check it out for Lena's and the rest of the staff’s weekly recommendations. Two of my favorite recommendations so far have been Blackout, a memoir by Sarah Hepola, and Local Girls, a novel by Caroline Zancan."

***
Illustrated by Valerie Suter.
Six Sausages

By Lena Dunham

She picked him up at the airport at 9:30, just as the sun was setting, orange and blue above the hangars at JFK. She had cut and flat-ironed her own bangs, which were longer on the left side and came to a gothic point, and purchased a shapeless blue cotton dress at Old Navy. Despite her mother’s feet being as big as paddles, she always borrowed her shoes for important occasions and this was as important as anything, so she limped across the median towards the terminal doors. He came off the plane with a dazed look like a just-landed astronaut. She clapped her hands when she saw him, and then back-tracked to a shy wave.

In the cab back to her parents’ house he stared out the window. He was more transfixed by the nothingness surrounding the airport, the broken-down pre-fabs and mattress warehouses and tortilla factories, than he was by the city’s bridges, hanging like fine necklaces and which she could never accurately name. When she explained the geography of New York to him, she was really explaining her personal geography.

“Look!” she said.“That’s where I went to pre-school and got a bean stuck up my nose.”

“Really?” he asked, distracted by a pack of teens skateboarding boldly through traffic. “That doesn’t look like a school. It looks like a store.”

He’d been to New York once before, in that way groups of boys come to New York after high school, walking cockily around Times Square looking for fake IDs and suspicious looking people to dupe them into dangerous purchases. “Once,” he told her, “I accidentally bought ether.” She laughed, but she wasn’t really listening, just breathing in his smell—laundry, mixed with sour hungry breath—and letting herself forget the torture of June and July. He didn’t have a cell phone and so she never knew when he’d call or what number he’d be calling from. Mostly he called from his friend Greg’s phone and they had to keep the interactions brief—she could hear Greg in the background muttering, “Dude, my minutes.”

She had asked him, again and again, if he would visit, finally offering to buy the ticket with her own money, which really meant her parents’ money. It took him another three weeks to decide if he could live with the ambiguous morality of this before he finally accepted the flight.

And now he was here. Distant, tired, but holding her hand as tightly as he had the last three weeks of her junior year when they finally noticed each other and spent most afternoons on a twin bed he had shoved up against a window in a creaky Victorian, fucking until her inner-thighs were raw. She didn’t tell him he was the first person she had ever had an orgasm in front of, but she did admit she’d never had an “official” boyfriend. They hadn’t made any solid deal but when he asked her to shave his head using Greg’s beard clippers, it was as good a confirmation as any. They took goofy pictures throughout the process, of his hair in a Prince Valiant bowl cut or just the front shaved, like a lobotomy patient, until finally she quieted down so she could focus on making it smooth.

Now they were inching through the angry gridlock of Chinatown. “How do you know which restaurants are good if they all look the same?” He turned to her for an answer and smiled, touched her cheek—she was crying because he was finally here.

“Summer has felt like a thousand billion years,” she said.

“Yeah, seriously.” She hoped he would tell her how much he’d missed her, how the minutes had passed like hours, but instead he said, “I should never have taken this job. All I do is wander around the library, moving books no one reads to the basement and cleaning gum out of drawers. I don’t even know if it’s useful.”

“But are you reading a lot?”

He nodded. “I’m always reading a lot.” It didn’t come out snarky—he wasn’t really capable of that—but like a sad fact, evidence that he had too much time on his hands, eternally. In bed one day he had told her about Jincey, his high school obsession. She was a rock-climbing enthusiast and part-time mall model who only considered him a friend. Still he had written her a rap song called "Take My Hand," and she had broken his heart when she deemed it “cute.” When he finally asked her why she couldn’t see them as a couple, she said, “You just can’t seem to get outside yourself.”

“It’s weird being in a library without people,” he said now, like it was a fresh thought and not the basis of multiple books, movies and conversations between stoners. She paid for their cab with a credit card and he watched closely, like he was learning a new skill he might have to employ soon.

When she opened the door to her parents’ house, she expected him to be impressed, but she realized he had not seen enough New York City real estate to comprehend how exceptional this was, all gleaming white fixtures and full-length casement windows. She had come to enjoy a certain reaction to the place, especially from New Yorkers whose apartments were roughly the size of her mother’s “vintage closet.” She liked inviting people over, because it seemed to make them feel special to peek in all the rooms and that made her feel special, too.

He asked for a glass of water and she filled one of her mother’s confusing blown glass goblets, which had been made by an independently wealthy artisan named Sue. He took it without comment and held it in both hands, head bowed like a monk, leaning against the radiator.

After the requisite number of minutes, she pressed her pelvis against his and he set his cup down and followed her lead, as he seemed to do on most things. He was possessed of a certain pliability that was either a result of weakness of character or attained enlightenment from his semester abroad in India. He tried to move her bangs off her face but they were stiff with product and she guided his hand to her ass. Despite her parents’ wishes, they slept in their bed—or, rather, on it so she wasn’t quite lying—and she couldn’t believe how exciting it was that someone was waiting just for her while she washed up.

***
The next morning they woke up around eight, which was early for her, late for him. She had expected a slow, easy wakeup, kisses on the forehead and hands, but he walked naked and alone to the kitchen, where she found him staring deep into the freezer. He seemed a bit disappointed that there weren’t more breakfast foods in the house, maybe even a little angry.

She had imagined that after their morning in bed, alternating between laughter and intense eye contact, they would head to brunch hot and hungry but he said he needed “protein, now” and so they got on bikes. She rode hers, he rode her father’s, which was too small for him—she hadn’t realized until she’d seen them next to each other at parents’ weekend that her father had been lying about his height for years and was not even close to five foot ten. They went to a diner where he ate six sausages and seemed to perk right up. Outside, on Hudson Street, she called her parents in the country and told them everything was “very fun and beautiful.” He said he wasn’t due to call his parents for a few weeks. “We do the third Sunday of the month.”

She suggested they ride their bikes along the Hudson River, which was not something she would normally volunteer for, but she knew it would sound good in a recap of the day. He suggested they ride all the way to Central Park and she cried out “but that doesn’t begin until 95th street!” and he laughed and told her she was wrong. She was secretly impressed with herself for never having learned, felt there was an odd glamour to her ignorance. People just get me where I need to go.

In the Museum of Modern Art, they walked inside a Richard Serra and she demonstrated her entitlement by running her hand along it and he demonstrated his lack thereof by tearing up at the sheer mass of it. Some tourists disappeared around the bend of the sculpture and he fingered her for a moment and she thought this is what it is to be young. But she could tell his heart wasn’t in it and that he was hungry again, so she found him a Fortifix Fit Crunch Bar in a roach-filled deli and he ate it in three bites, standing by their locked bikes. She held her helmet against her stomach like a pregnant belly. She was slightly worried she was running out of things to say. But what had she even said?

He always got sad around dusk and there wasn’t any cure for it so they lay quietly on their backs on her parents’ bed, the AC blasting, and she tried to distract him as the sun went down, blowing raspberries on his still-grumbling lower stomach. Around eight they walked a few blocks north for Mexican food and he bounced back, laughing at all her jokes. She exclaimed, “You’re so funny!” when what she really meant was “I’m so funny!”

That night she had him lie down on a bathmat while she gave him what Cosmopolitan would call a “lavish” hand job using all her mother’s fanciest bath products. He didn’t finish, as was often the case, and they put on bathrobes and crawled back onto the bed, greasy and spent. “This place is like a hotel,” he said and she realized her home had always felt that to her in some ways, too.

As he slept she marveled at him like he was a toy she had saved up for and tried to imagine how his profile would change as he got older. He slept on his back in a way she found very adult, like her father after he quit drinking, always prepared for a disaster or disruption, arms crossed like a mummy.

“I want to tell you something,” she whispered. “Do you know what it is?”

“I think so,” he muttered and that was as close as they were going to get for now. She wouldn’t tell him how she had been waiting her whole life for this, someone to claim, or that the last guy she’d thought might be her boyfriend had asked her for twenty dollars to get home to the Upper East Side after she gave him a blow job. On her parents’ bed.

***
He would take a train back to the airport because it was easier and less expensive for both of them, and she sat on the edge of the bed and watched him pack his pajama pants and book of Foucault and tighten all the straps on his bag. The night before they had taken a quiz that measured how happy you were in contrast to most people in your geographical area. She was deemed happier than 67 percent of New Yorkers, but then again she had lied on a lot of the questions.

“It was a good weekend, right?” she asked and he smiled sadly, which was the only way he ever smiled. She walked him to the subway and looked into his eyes, and he said, “Thank you,” and hugged her hard but in the way you might hug a beloved aunt you weren’t sure would make it until your next visit, not a girlfriend. She remembered when they said goodbye at the end of the semester and he didn’t promise her that he would try and see her soon. Instead he stared mutely at her like a recently drafted soldier without options.

She walked home aimlessly, all the urgency now drained from her being, and her mother’s huge wooden clogs slapped the sidewalk. She wondered what she would do until school started again in September.

In the cool silence of the elevator back up to her apartment it occurred to her just how young they were—nineteen and twenty-one—and how little chance there was that they’d know each other in twenty years. According to magazines almost no one stayed married, even if they met as grownups, and she knew enough to know she wasn’t special. The pure unlikelihood of a future with him reduced her to tears—who else would turn her over and dutifully unhook her bra?— the same way she could make herself cry imagining a time when she wouldn’t live at home any more, and she wondered whether he would call when he landed in Iowa and made his way back to his apartment. There was no way he would accept another plane ticket.

One day was what they’d had, one day of summer to try and fall in love the old-fashioned way. For now, she thought, he is mine. And she comforted herself imagining that the version of her who would someday lose him probably wouldn’t want him anymore.

Lena Dunham is a writer and filmmaker from New York City. This story was reprinted by arrangement with Lenny.

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