AN O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE MUST-READ LGBTQ BOOK OF THE YEAR
AN ELECTRIC LIT BEST SHORT STORY COLLECTION OF THE YEAR
"Riveting… Every lie reveals itself so exquisitely that the parallels become an added pleasure, as soon as we uncover the ways they diverge." —New York Times Book Review
"Dazzling. Here is a confident, psychologically astute new writer with a bold new vision." —Garrard Conley, New York Times bestselling author of Boy Erased
Throughout this striking debut collection we meet characters who have lied, who have sometimes created elaborate falsehoods, and who now must cope with the way that those deceptions eat at the very fabric of their lives and relationships. In the title story, the narrator, desperate to save a love affair on the rocks, hires an actor to play a friend he invented in order to seem less lonely, after his boyfriend catches on to his compulsion for lying and demands to know this friend is real; in "Aim for the Heart," a man's lies about a hunting habit leave him with an unexpected deer carcass and the need to parse unsettling high school memories; in "Rorschach," a theater producer runs a show in which death row inmates are crucified in an on-stage rendering of the New Testament, while being haunted daily by an unrequited love and nightly by ghosts of his own creation.
In I Know You Know Who I Am, Kispert deftly explores deception and performance, the uneasiness of reconciling a queer identity with the wider world, and creates a sympathetic, often darkly humorous, portrait of characters searching for paths to intimacy.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I KNOW YOU KNOW WHO I AM
It's a true story because it's a story I tell myself. But you want the story with the true facts, the stuff I can prove, and even though that's impossible-well, here it is.
When I asked a stranger to pretend to be Finn, just for ten minutes, I was surprised he agreed to. Turns out he was an actor with some small theater-always up for a challenging role.
My boyfriend Luke had been in the bathroom fixing his hair while I appraised potential Finns in the coffee shop-the kind of man, I imagined, whose careful attention to his sideburns suggested his biting sarcasm. Having spent the last three weeks trying to cast him over the Internet, the Finn I'd hired was a no-show, which left me minutes to find and coach. I was searching for a particular face, one that simultaneously read I've seen some shit and I'm pretty hilarious. I was also looking at a lot of eyebrows; the more expressive, the better-it was the one physical detail about Finn I'd accidentally let slip.
"Here," I said, sliding a black-and-white photo of a model toward the man: dark, swooping hair, a smile that seemed impossibly sincere (though now he seemed to be laughing at me), a chiseled chest. I'd clipped the photo from one of the magazines Luke shoots for, or used to shoot for, before the incident that got him fired. "Go off this." "Is this him?" he asked.
He smiled. The man clearly hadn't seen success as an actor. A teenage girl looked on, witnessing the bizarre transaction. I rolled my eyes at her, letting her know I saw.
The story behind Finn had been stitched irregularly and out of necessity into a complex fabric of a lie, a thing so false it now seemed absolutely true. Where I was in the story of Finn depended on who I was with. He became an excuse to miss work, to cancel plans last minute-fleeting moments that held small thrills at their candy centers. The story of Finn with Luke had been mostly written; just never entirely finished. I planned to cut ties with him in a few weeks, or to maybe kill him off somehow, in a car crash or by way of some little-known cancer, an accidental overdose, something like what happened to my father. This was all to say: I had lied. I had made him up.
"Okay," I said, trying to relax. "In a few minutes, my boyfriend will be out of the bathroom, and he's going to ask you questions. He just wants to make sure you're real."
I briefly summarized Finn's situation as Luke knew it: He is living with two friends here in New York; he misses me; he is sick but pretending to be on the mend; he listens to indie rock and doesn't need to honor questions about our relationship, citing instead that he is still processing a recent fight over why he isn't considering chemo. He once fell off a canoe with me at midnight while wearing only a plastic gold smock. But that's not important.
"Ian!" Luke's voice carried over the hiss of the espresso machine.
"Found him! Hiding behind a newspaper," I called back, giving the man a You're on look. I tapped the back of the chair, thinking of that beautiful smile, trying to replicate it as I slid the photo back into my pocket. I looked to Luke, who walked toward me, drying his hands on his jeans. My breath hitched in my chest.
"Typical Finn," I said, and watched as they shook hands.
Finn was born on one of our first dates-or, the idea of him was. We were eating at a new chain family restaurant, its walls covered in faux-dated decor, worn horseshoes and skis. Luke asked if I had friends in Burlington, and I said I did. Truthfully, I didn't. I'd resigned myself to being alone, managing a bakery, living a largely abstinent gay lifestyle, and watching bad reality television religiously every night. My loneliness embarrassed me deeply, constant proof of my unlovability. Luke asked what my friends' names were, and suddenly imagined people came bursting forth: Jessica, Lindsay, Andrew (who goes by Andy), Finn.
"Finn," he said, flicking condensation off his glass. "I like that name."
"Yeah," I said. "He's a pretty cool guy."
As it turns out, Pretty cool guy is dangerous territory. Pretty cool guy is lighting the fuse.
It wasn't that I'd never lied before, or even that my lies weren't frequent. They were. The problem was that I'd made this person, this ghost, who could walk through the walls of my life, disorienting and rearranging, forcing me to recalculate every time Luke asked about him, which was often. And even more of a problem-it was working: Luke believed me. If I wanted him to think I was generous, I could work into conversation that Finn had been in some trouble with his landlord and I'd bailed him out. If I wanted him to think I had self-control, I'd explain that there had been another incident and Finn needed to learn I couldn't do everything for him. After a few months, I had given Finn his own, terrifying breath. Luke said he wanted to meet him, maybe take some headshots for casting calls. (At that point, Finn was trying his hand at acting.)
Pretty cool guy.
"He's kind of a loner," I'd said. I was very aware it wasn't true, that even this particular ghost of a human would be loud and inviting, unrestrained.
"Well, when he's back in the area," he'd said. And I'd nodded like I meant it.
The moment ended and I watched him eat, the careless way he considered his plate comforting me into the knowledge he had believed me once more. Luke finished his meal, and I pushed my potatoes around enough to look like they'd been at least seriously considered.
"Wonder whose family this is," he said, pointing to a photo fixed to the wall behind a stand of menus. I knew instantly it was posed: a bunch of restaurant employees fitted in old uniforms, filtered through grayscale. The kids didn't look like the parents at all. The photo's edge had a hard diagonal crease. I could see someone making it, easy.
"Probably no one's," I said. "Probably fake."
On our way out the door, I noticed that same photo above the doorframe-the same crease, the same family. On the drive back to my apartment, I said, "You know, I think that was a real family photo." I had no idea of what prompted me to say this, but something in me wanted to inch closer to showing that I had the truth, only I knew those people could not have been related, and that I could prove it.
"Yeah, I think so too," he said, nodding. The light turned green, and the truth stayed behind us.
We were hiking in the Adirondacks when Luke caught the first lie.
Overhead, sunlight shone through the leaves in mottled greens, and wind rushed through the trail. It had been nearly a year since we had begun dating, and I was falling for him-had been since I first saw him, really. Luke was talking about how he'd get the perfect shot at the marble crown of the mountaintop, how he wanted us to take a photo together, something to remember the day by and to prove to his friends on the coast we were dating. I found it funny those friends didn't, couldn't, believe him when he'd told them about me, weeks before-a kind of endearing vulnerability, though I wasn't sure if he saw his admission that way. I guessed, swatting a fly away from my ear, that he was just telling me the truth.
"That'll be nice," I said. "We do need a photo. This is my first real hike, you know."
He gave me a look, figuring something out, and paused. I wasn't able to tell if he was catching his breath or catching me, in the middle of my story.
"I thought you said you went camping with Finn. That time in New Hampshire."
A flock of geese passed in formation overhead, their caws echoing. He furrowed his brow.
"Oh, that," I said, summoning a laugh to suggest some funny memory, some distant thing I'd only now brought into focus. "Yeah, but I mean really hiking."
Luke squinted, suspicious for a moment.
"Okay," he said, and lifted the lens to his eye. "Turn to your left. Two steps back. Watch your arms. Good, just like that. And smile."
"So, how long have you been in New York City?"
Luke had a list of questions, and with the delivery of each came a quiet shudder. If the lie collapsed, if Finn was revealed to be the empty shell he was, Luke would stop seeing me. It was only after he figured out I wasn't allergic to dairy like I'd claimed that he demanded he meet Finn. His suspicions about god knows what else I'd told him had led him to ask me to get ice cream with him one night, at a place next to a mini golf course. Beetles and moths dumbly buzzed and struck the tall lamp next to the counter, which cast a harsh orange glow onto us as we waited for our cones. I could tell something in him had shifted then, saddened, and he explained what I had mentioned, months ago, about the time my neck swelled up from only a sip of milk. On the way home, the air in the car constricted me. As we pulled up the driveway, he said that he needed to know I was not capable of such flagrant deceit.
So there I was: willing a lie into being.
"Oh, four months or so," the man said. It was-astonishingly, thankfully-an acceptable response. He did some weird stage flourish with his hair. It looked like acting.
"Are you living around here?"
"Yeah, with a few friends."
"And how's the acting going?"
"Well, it's-it's going."
There was a moment of real sadness in his face, when this stranger was quietly revealed. Through the heart of the moment, all I thought was: Thank God, something genuine.
A family moved to the small table next to us, crowding with extra chairs.
And that's when I saw her.
Of all the coffee shops in New York, of all the people, my high school prom date, Diane, was sitting among them-her blond hair like a bird's nest, her sputtering laughter, her fit frame all still intact, though weathered, aged. My stomach tightened, as if I'd ingested bad milk. If I really had met Finn as a sophomore like I'd said, Diane would've known him, even just his name, his vague presence. I considered how I might obviate the problem-maybe Finn had changed his name? Who did this man look like, and why could I not summon him among my old classmates? I felt pale, vulnerable, caught in the crevasse between truth and fiction.
Turning back, I saw Luke nodding at something Finn said, strangely at ease, and I began to wonder whether he'd figured out the whole thing was a ruse. When given the upper hand in the past, though, Luke had always made a point to show it-mentioning how bad my chess move was or how I could've saved more money at a restaurant. I moved my chair carefully away from Diane, which placed me directly opposite Luke.
"So," Luke said, ripping a straw wrapper. "Tell me about Ian."
And then: me. Of course.
Luke had lost his job in a fit of rage for being "too honest" with a model about her poses, which he considered stiff and ugly. This from the same man who slept with me, a "stocky" (his generous word for it) five-foot-six ex-wrestler who tried and gave up yoga on several different occasions for being unable to hold even basic poses.
"You'd think they'd want a good shot," he said, reaching for a wineglass. "You think they'd, like, just want me to be honest."
"I thought you threw something."
"It was a lens. It was just a lens."
He poured himself a glass of wine; he had a habit of reaching blindly for a bottle in the cheap section of the grocery store and finding whatever he'd purchased disappointing.
"Good wine," he said, acknowledging the glass. "Want some?"
"No, thanks," I said. "I'm not into red." But actually, I didn't mind it. I had chained myself to this new detail I had to follow to its dead end, no matter the cost. The me here, and the me out in the riptide. I had taken to lying not just about Finn, but the minutiae of my life, things that would never return to either of us, that would just drift away unseen, unnoted.
Which was, I knew even then, a warning sign.
"Well, Ian here wants me to go to chemo," Finn said, smiling. He clapped my thigh and forced a short, loud laugh. The man was probably the worst actor in a ten-mile radius. Which was, in New York, saying something.
"So he's told me," Luke said. "Sorry to hear, by the way." He pushed away the torn scraps of straw wrapper.
"Oh, it's fine," the man said.
I wanted to take this man aside, to lecture him on proper use of the word "fine," and how-the way I'd described it-he was not, in fact, fine. He was four or five years, tops. Maybe next week if I could kill him off and save Luke from ever uncovering the truth: that there is no Finn. Just this "actor," "acting."
As if by some unreal cue, a stage direction written right into the story itself, I heard Diane spill her coffee. The sudden screech of moving chairs as she reached for napkins. The perfect time, I thought, to clean a filthy floor. To look up and notice me.
Luke met me after he'd had-in his words-the best croissant since he lived in Paris, back when he thought he could make it big, debuting in one of those foreign glossies. He bought the pastry earlier in the day, before work, and I'd remembered his token indecision, his tan skin, serious hazel eyes, camera case in hand. I'd tried to flirt with him by asking if he wanted samples of a new truffle, but he didn't hear me. Which was probably for the best. (As it turned out, they dried out your mouth; a few customers in this way choked, quietly gagging, out of the store.)
He came back in while I was closing, turning up chairs onto the tables and sweeping. I usually brushed the dirt to the corners and blamed the cashier for it, but when I saw him again, I grabbed the dustbin.
Table of Contents
Part I I Know
I Know You Know Who I Am 3
River Is to Ocean as_Is to Heart 25
Human Resources 43
Aim for the Heart 45
How to Live Your Best Life 63
Part II You Know
Please Hold 89
Be Alive 111
Breathing Underwater 114
Goldfish Bowl 147
Diving, Drifting 149
Part III Who I Am
Master's Thesis 161
Touch Pool 166
In the Palm of His Hand 188
Double Edge 207
Publication Credits 223