10 December 2010

How Should a Person Be?

The following is a series of excerpts from Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?, published in Canada this October by House of Anansi. It does not yet have a US publisher, but individuals can order the book from Anansi. A longer excerpt appears in Issue 10.

That night, after spending several hours staring at my impossible play, I finally decided I would tell the theater to pull it. I had been laboring on it for so many years, never getting any closer to making it a thing of beauty. It resisted my every advance. I got up and left my apartment in frustration and went out to a party to celebrate three more books of poetry in the world.

The party was in a wide and cavernous room with a stage up front and the ceiling painted brown, hung around the sides with brown velvet. A large disco ball rotated in the center, and everything was polished wood, semi-formal and awful.

Standing alone by the bar, I wondered if I could love the boy I noticed at the end of it — the one with the curly brown hair, who looked like a washed-out, more neutral version of the first boy I loved. When he stepped outside onto the front steps, I thought, If he has gone out there to smoke, I will love him. But when I got outside, though I could see a cigarette dangling from his lips, I did not love him.

I went back inside to get myself a drink, and was standing by the bar when a man, slightly taller than me, stepped out from the crowd and moved toward me. My stomach lurched. I turned away. I felt so attracted to him, I couldn’t let myself speak. I knew him: his name was Israel. This was a guy whose girlfriend I had complimented the year before, running into her on the street and saying, Your boyfriend is the sexiest guy in the city. Later, when I learned that she was mad at me for saying this, I got upset. I had genuinely wanted to compliment her!

I had met Israel once before, several years ago, and never forgot it. I was married at the time, and was going down in an elevator in a building of artists’ studios. He entered on the same floor and stood there beside me. He had killer eyes, huge, jaded soul-sucking eyes, a nice, easy, lazy smile, big thick lashes, and the lips of a real pervert.

Watching his face in profile, I had felt faint at a sense of destiny between us — as though we were not standing beside each other in an elevator but were on the peaks of two separate and faraway mountains, a deep valley and gorge between us. In that moment, I felt aware in my body of how impossible it would be to cross that distance to get to him.


As we stood at the party, talking up close, a trembling was going through me. I started to worry about finishing my play. I had only just left my marriage and I needed to work on it, not cancel it! I needed to think about women, not men! I chastised myself: The flower of love soon fades, but the flower of art is immortal! But it was as if I was stuck to the floor beside him. When he asked me to leave the party with him, I startled myself by saying, “I’m celibate right now.”

His eyes came alive in a different way, and his grin was the grin of a bear.

“So you’re one of those people,” he said.

“One of what people?”

“One of those people who thinks they can control themselves.”

I blushed unhappily, then followed him out. I didn’t want him to think I was one of those people who thought they could control themselves.


We walked together through the chilly night air for two or three hours, all the way down to the lake. I felt, as we walked, I could walk with you anywhere. He noticed the shapes on buildings, other things I didn’t see, pointing out this and that to me. He disagreed with me when I said you could love anyone. “No you can’t,” he said. “It matters — the person that you’re with.” I felt delight run through me and took pleasure in the happiness of just being near him.

We passed an ice cream truck and he bought me an ice cream. Then we wandered back toward his place, which was on the way to mine. I told myself that I was only walking him home—that I would leave him at his door, let him go inside to change for his early shift at the bakery. But when we reached the door, I said, “I would like to watch you getting ready for work.”

We went up the dark stairwell to the top of a rundown boarding house. He had two rooms at the top of the stairs: one for his painting and drawing and the other where he slept. He had no other possessions than a table, a mattress on the floor, a few dishes in the sink, and a hot plate plugged into the wall. I felt like I could just close my eyes and lie down on that mattress and go to sleep forever. There were no chairs, so I sat on the messy sheets and watched him move around the room, then leave for the bathroom, then come back, showered and changed, coked up, his shirt open and untucked.

He got on the bed and put his hand on my thigh and rubbed it up and down, then got up and walked around the room and forgot what he was doing. Then he came back and kneeled beside me, and said close into my ear, “I’ll decide if you’re celibate or not.”


Last night somebody said to me, Come on—all the five, six times I have seen you, you have been drunk out of your mind. I was drunk last night too, when he was telling it to me. I resented the implication that I had been, in the five, six times we had seen each other, any drunker than he had been. For we are all, all of us, drunk all the time, and it’s no fair for him to single me out like that and make me the exception, when if it comes to the drinking habits in the circles I run in, I am the rule. The rule is: drink as much as you can afford to drink. We all, anyway, work better when we are drunk, or wake up the next morning, hungover. In either case, we lack the capacity to second-guess ourselves.

People now say there is no direction to evolution—upward to any height; that the proper metaphor is the outward webbing of a bush, not the striving of a tree toward the heavens. When we were children, we would lift our arms to the skies as high as we could—as tall as we could make ourselves—stretch, stretch, stretch!

When I look back on those gym classes and how we all stretched ourselves to be as tall as the tallest tree, I can’t help but think, Those were the most religious moments of my life.

If now in some ways I drink too much, it’s not that I lack a reverence for the world.


All right, Israel, cum in my mouth. Don’t let me wash it out, so when I talk to other people, I can have your cum swimming in my mouth, and I will smile and taste you. And if you see something you don’t like, you can correct me later. You can take your hands and bruise my neck, keep pushing till you feel the soft flesh at the back of my throat, so the tears roll down my cheeks like they do every time you thrust your cock to the very back of my throat — like it never was with any other man. I never had tears always rolling down my face. Even when you hear me gagging you don’t stop. It is your unconcern that makes me want you to do whatever you want to my body, which can be for you while yours cannot be for me. I can see that your body must be for many women, and though I once thought the same of mine — that mine must be for all the men who wanted me — I can just tease with it if you will keep on fucking me. I wouldn’t want your cum wasted on just one girl, not when there are so many girls to take your disinterested thrusting. Fuck whichever sluts it’s your fancy to fuck. You will find me in our home one day, cooking or doing your laundry, as you wish, washing your slutty underwear that some girl slutted on while you were out. I’ll make you your meals and serve you them, leave you alone to paint while I go to my room. Then in the morning when we wake, you can look down, touch your cock. It’s hard. Do you need me then? Tell me, as you did the first time I woke in your bed, I like to have my cock sucked in the morning.


I don’t know why all of you just sit in the libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don’t know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard — with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done.

What’s there in that book anyway? What is there to be learned tonight when you could learn to suck Israel’s cock? What is there to think about when your brains could so easily be smashed against the headboard, in which case there is no way to think of anything?

I don’t see what you’re getting so excited about, snuggling up with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson, pulling down your arms, adjusting your face so he can see it, stuffing your hand into your mouth and fucking your brains right out of your head.

I don’t see why you walk down the street so easily, not noticing that you are living half a life — or how you move up to the counter to order a tuna sandwich like there is nothing else in the world — when there is only one thing in the world to be paying attention to right now, which is that you are not getting your brains fucked out of your skull by Israel, and don’t you think that’s a problem, you stupid brain-dead slut?

I am just saying — because I was watching you there and I thought, This stupid fucking know-nothing slut needs her brains scrambled by the cock of Israel. Her throat has never been bruised down its back by him — is all I was thinking when I saw you ordering your sandwich. Tuna fish, lady? Do you have no dignity? Is your body a limp half-body? Or is it impossible to have any dignity unless you are getting nightly reamed by Israel?

If you would like to call your mother, go and do it. The sun is shining, it’s half past noon, the time for tears is now. Please tell her I said hello and that I think her daughter’s a stupid cunt if she thinks she can go around the world with her priss-ass high in the air like a queen on a throne while not having known the humiliation of being fucked by Israel.

It is afternoon. It is evening. All the people are going to sleep except Israel, who is a working man. But sleep has no friendship with him this week. His sleep is being slaughtered and slit.

It’s Sunday now for all you lonely fuckers, but for me it is always Sunday afternoon. There is nothing but Sundays and three in the afternoons for me now — and even midnight is as leisurely as a stroll, all the leisure of being battered and bashed by Israel. You poor beautiful lonely suckers whose lives I never wept for until now, whose sorrow I never noticed until now, whose dreariness I never dreamed of till now, till now. Enjoy what you can of a life without the magnificent cock of Israel.


My ancestors took what they had, which was nothing, and left their routine as slaves in Egypt to follow Moses into the desert in search of the promised land. For forty years they wandered through the sand. At nights they rested where they could, against the dunes that had been built up by the winds. Waking the next morning, they took the flour from their sacks and moistened it with their spit and beat together a smooth dough, then set off again, stooped, across the sand, the dough spread across their backs. It mingled with the salt of their sweat and hardened in the sun, and this is what they had for lunch. Some people spread the dough flat and that dough became matzo. Others rolled tubes and fastened the ends, and those people ate bagels.  


When I strip away my dreams, what I imagine to be my potential, all the things I haven’t said, what I imagine I feel for other people in the absence of my expressing it, all the rules I’ve made for myself that I don’t follow—I see that I’ve done as little as anyone else in this world to deserve the grand moniker I. In fact, apart from being the only person living in this room, I’m not sure what distinguishes me.

Yet there is one character in history who is reassuring me these days: Moses. I hadn’t realized until last week that in his youth he killed a man, an Egyptian, and buried him under some sand. The next day he saw two men fighting. When he tried to stop them, they said to Moses, “What? And if we don’t—are you going to kill us too?” He became afraid. He thought, Everyone knows what I have done.

Then he fled town.

And he is King of the Jews—my king. If that is what my king is like, what can I expect for myself? If the king of my people had to be told by God to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground when God addressed him for the first time, I should not worry that I —who have never been addressed by God—am all the time standing on holy ground with running shoes on.

I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus, but yesterday I remembered who was my king; a man who, when God addressed him and told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, “But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?”

So it should not be so hard to come at this life with a bit of honesty. I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling murderous coward like the King of the Jews.

Image: Gary Kinsman, "Mark's Balcony." October 2009. From Flickr.

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  • Sheila Heti
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