The Planets We Inhabit
By Paul Smit
I get to tell my story. The sad part is that it’s not the story I wanted to tell.
Those who know me might not think it’s sad. More likely, they’ll think an eon of monotony and restricted movement is a kindness I don’t deserve.
To make my case, let me take you back to a time when the world moved for me, with me, to a time shortly before the heist.
The year was 2020. I’d been writing since 2012, waxing and waning in those sharp rises of creativity and the inevitable self-doubt that flows in the wake of no success. Since completing my first novel in 2012, I’d applied every year for The Labado Emerging Writers Retreat for LGBTQ people; I’d always received a rejection letter a few months thereafter.
But 2020 was different.
Two months after the Coronavirus outbreak, a month before New York was set to reopen, I got word that I’d been put on the waitlist for the retreat in August. I stared at the screen and read the notification at least ten times. My chest swelled; my tongue wet itself. I was on the precipice of something. A few weeks prior I’d met the director of the program, and I’d landed a short story of mine in a decent journal – lucky was cozying up to me, change was in the air. Far beneath the warring energies of the literary world, I was clawing my way out of the pig-pen.
Then, along with millions of other Americans, I lost my job. Thrust face-first back into the lower echelons of society, I lamented my life. Thirty-five, paltry savings, never in love, and finally jobless, I asked myself, ‘what the fuck is my life worth?’. The unemployment checks from the government, meant to keep peasants like me from looting and burning, were a weekly reminder of what tier I belonged in, and what tier I would surely die in.
When the virus’ symptoms showed up and I lay in bed floating in my own rank sweat, looking up at my humdrum ceiling, I accepted I’d never have a coffered one, or a cute cottage in the countryside to escape to on the weekends. Every dry cough reminded me of how dispensable I was. And when I rushed to the bathroom, my body cracking and moaning each step of the way, I sat on the toilet thinking that I was no better than the runny shit coming out of me.
You won’t die, I told myself. Nah, you’ll survive. You’ll live out your days making other people rich while you beg friends to read your work, longing all the while for strangers to lay eyes on it. The sum of your life will be will be a fraction of its parts.
More sweat. Bruised muscles ached and throbbed while I melted deeper into my bed.
Then, I got better.
Back with the living, I wanted no part of their trivial cook-offs and garish online shopping stories. Yuck. Don’t ask me what I’m watching. A country of couch potatoes. I can’t be like this – a part of them - anymore. I won’t.
Eight years in New York were long enough. I was never going to make it. Nobody was going to show me kindness, that much had become clear. I had to make it happen. In every great story, somebody takes a risk. I knew the names of the five people who had been accepted, and almost instantly, I knew what I was going to do. I knew the risk.
Four boys, one girl. The only way for me to get into that retreat was if one of them didn’t show up. She was safe; the boys were not. I had ten days before my symptoms would be too weak to transmit.
So much about transmission was unknown at that stage - I had to strike while the virus was still hot…and while my desperation could stoke the fires of Hades.
Boy # 1 – Charlie Latham
He was only 24, and from what I could tell, brimming with life and talent. Living in Hell’s Kitchen with a massive online footprint, he was the easiest to track down. I drove my car from Williamsburg to his address listed on the Gotham Volleyball Club website, and began searching. Every gay man is on a dating app, or has been on them at some point. And if said man lives in Hell’s Kitchen, odds are he’s on the riskier ones. Within twenty minutes, I’d found Charlie on Scruff. Bingo!
We chatted. He was coy, but confident, with pictures that made me jealous: a 6-foot body, slim and toned, porcelain skin, tortoiseshell glasses and a mop of shiny brown hair. He even looks writerly.
After divulging that he’d recently been the recipient of good news, I slowly caressed him into celebrating with me.
Me: Wow, that’s amazing dude. C’mon, let’s celebrate with a glass of wine. We can keep six feet apart.
Charlie: Is it safe?
Me: At some point we all have to go back into society. I haven’t seen anyone in two weeks and you have this big news. We gotta celebrate! You’re a writer – let’s live!
Charlie: Okay, just a drink though. Nothing else.
Me: Okay, sexy 😉 I’ll be up in ten minutes.
A toast on the couch. Conversation flowed as I lobbed question after question about his writing. I moved closer to him. I knew he was acutely aware of what I was doing. Our masks were around our necks. Knowing it wasn’t safe, he didn’t pull his mask back up. Knees touched. Shoes bumped. My hand moved onto his knee…he stopped babbling mid-sentence and stared at me in horror. I smiled and leaned in – he didn’t stop me. The warmth of our mouths touching ignited a fire inside of me. I cupped the back of his head with my other hand and pushed his mouth harder onto mine. When my tongue slid into his mouth all my desire for his existence slid in with it. My ambition followed closely behind, and I willed every cell in my body to show up, to align my heart and body for once in my pitiful life. He moaned and I thought to myself that the proverbial kiss of death is misunderstood, for death only comes to one half. To the other, it’s a rebirth.
Boy # 2 – Bao Udong
Didn’t need to do a thing with Bao. He got Covid all by himself and posted candidly about it online. Idiot. They’ll never let you in the retreat now. How empty is your life that its headline is a disease? There’s nothing newsworthy about getting Covid. You and a million other people.
What if someone else on the waitlist was playing the same game, hunting down the attendees one by one? May the best man win.
Boy # 3 – Dimitrios Mikroulis
I couldn’t find his address anywhere. But I found his Instagram account, and studied the hashtags closely enough to figure out that he lived in Williamsburg. When I found a picture of a coffee shop I regularly frequented, I chuckled out aloud. He’s right around the corner from me. I sent a private message introducing myself; after a bit of back and forth I asked if I could join him and his French Bulldog on their daily walk. We could wear our masks, I offered. He agreed. My spirits stirred.
Three times we met at Cooper’s Park in Williamsburg. The first meeting was sweet, but reserved. On the second date he finally mentioned the retreat, and I stroked his ego with all the finesse I could muster. When he bemoaned not being able to go to his favorite bar, Reclamation, to celebrate, I grabbed his ass and told him I could think of other ways to enjoy the good news.
Date three was in the same park, but after the sun had set. It ended with his dog tied to a bench and us kissing against a tree. Best part about it was that he kissed me without any plotting on my part. As I slid my hands down his pants and grabbed his muscular ass, I told him, ‘We’re never going to forget this time of our lives.”
Boy # 4 – Christian Gladden
Untraceable. I loved him when I met him on the retreat and then hated him when he brought everything down on me like a ton of bricks. Christian is why I’m telling this story.
Neither Charlie, Bao, or Dimitrios showed up to the retreat. In their place was me, the writer with the thinnest body of work, and two others I’d never heard of before. I eyed them with suspicion.
What a week. Immersed in my craft, consolidating fragments of knowledge into weaponry for my armory, I had no regrets about how I got my seat. Sentences were cut and molded into new life – the same power that got me to the retreat embedded itself in the pages of my novel. Beneath every writers’ words is someone scratching for crumbs of truth about why we’re alive. The stronger the writer’s armory, the higher the chances of securing the crumbs.
At night I’d sit with Christian, sipping whiskey and swapping stories. Unlike everyone else there, he’d really lived. Not through some faux-privileged trauma, but through violence and heartache: A messy scar on his right shoulder was from a shark; he’d lived in Uganda for two years; he played guitar for a school band; his sister had been kidnapped when she was eleven; he’d quit a high paying finance job to write full time. Now this is a man. This is a writer. When he smiled at me, his sun-kissed crows’ feet fanned out in beautiful peacock fashion. His curly black hair bounced up and down in the middle of his stories - I had to sit on my hands to keep myself from grabbing him. Because I felt I’d also lived, I was open with Christian. Not about anything devious, but about my dreams and past events: how all I really wanted was to entertain people, how I’d been held up at gunpoint, bathhouse experiences, about a cruel staged suicide two old housemates had made me live through. The more I spoke, the more he encouraged me to. His every smile secreted a vast access to elder knowledge, willing me to seek it out myself.
As the retreat approached its end, I felt confident about my novel, an amateur sleuth story involving two men who inherit a three-million-dollar Victorian home by looking after an elderly woman for fifteen years. They were already independently wealthy, and she wasn’t their mother, so why did they agree to it? In a nutshell, the story was about how the accepted social morays of yesterday evolve into tomorrow’s indictments. The faculty staff member assigned to our group called it ‘psychological fiction at its best.’ Christian congratulated me with a hug. When he wrapped his arms around me, I could feel the trauma of his shark bite dig into my body; his commitment to a penniless lifestyle spread across my skin like an expensive lotion. This is a man. This a writer. Outside of my immediate family, I’d never given a novel of mine to anyone to read. Asking Christian to read my novel was more intimate for me than losing my virginity. With a great gusto he agreed to read it. My heart rejoiced as if it was marrying the Northern Lights in a dazzling ceremony ordained by the Southern Cross.
When the claws of reality came to collect us there was no talk of me moving to join him in LA. Our embrace was the effigy of my heart turned still. I made no fuss, instead choosing to believe the moment would sustain me for years to come. But while my heart stopped, my mind raced. Imagining when we’d meet again was easy; so was plotting how to force our paths to cross again. If you want something, you have to take it. I wanted to take Christian with me.
Returning to New York, I waited for his feedback. Each day I didn’t hear from him was a slow drip adding to a nauseated feeling growing in my guts. It’s garbage. You’ve embarrassed him by putting him in an uncomfortable position. After two unanswered and unreturned phone calls, I gave up the chase. What were you thinking?! You silenced him by asking him to read your work.
The Northern Lights fell from the sky and fell further still, to the floor of the Mariana Trench, where the darkness swiftly extinguished them.
I put my manuscript in a drawer. When I searched for the joie de vivre I thought I’d encapsulated in my characters and plot, I came up emptyhanded. All I found was a cast of aliens and oppressive fog. The engine of my story had been filled with the wrong fuel - I couldn’t drive it to where I wanted it to go.
Thanks to years of rejection, I’d been galvanized somewhat to moments of creative stagnancy. Life carried on as usual.
When Labado Literary sent out an email announcing that Christian had a book deal and where to pre-order it, I had to remind myself to breathe. He was the only attendee who’d been able to capitalize on the opportunities the retreat provided. Of course I ordered a copy.
By page two it was evident what he’d done. He’d studied my manuscript to extract the very best of my style and then subsequently applied it to his own. Motherfucker. It was a heist so brazen that the victim has to ask themselves if they invited the crime in for tea. More disturbing than the crime’s basic facts was the genius way he’d interwoven the best of my talent with his. He’d stolen my baby name, my wedding dress design, my dinner party menu – every bit of magic I had – and woven a blanket of illusion to wrap his work in. Exact sentences of mine had been rearranged, for the better; more than the theft, that’s what caused my heart to convulse in its cage.
What goes around, comes around.
Could I prove it? With great determination, yes, I probably could have. Would anyone listen? I doubt it. As any unpublished author knows, until your work is widely read you exist as a phantom, as a creature lurking between the living and the dead. We watch the living in order to write about them, but live in worlds that bloom and die with the passing of each project. Our time amongst people is transient, even more so when we’re unpublished. Without any prior credits to my name, a feud with Christian would cement my presence in the real world…tether me to the crude workings of the daily commute.
Get better – hone your craft. It’s the only way to stay alive now.
Christian had swept our own private beach onto the shore. He’d raised mountains only we could scale. Winds riding on our berserk ambitions moved through this new world, seeking out seeds of truth to carry away and deposit in soil so rich in deceit and guilt that only comeuppance could sprout. I was banished to roam this place while he raced outwards into the galaxy.
Mark my words: just when you think you’ve found the greatest planet in the universe you’ll be summoned back here. This place is brimming with untapped power. I’ll dwell here until I unlock it all; until seas swap with skies and birds live underground. When your return, the terrain will be foreign to you. It’ll be as it was, but it’ll be mine. And when I finally allow it to collapse in on itself like a neutron star, only one of us will make the jump to a new world.
When I learned his New York book reading was scheduled for early March of 2021, I knew I’d attend. What for? To do nothing more than sit ominously in the second row, in the hopes that Christian would see me and be flown to our world to defend his very essence. Back on earth, his voice would rise and fall while he read to the audience, he’d smile when asked questions. The audience would smile in return even though Christian was really elsewhere - dueling with me on the plains of true power.
Open the sky and you’ll see the stars. Give in to your lust and you’ll love your scars.
Paul grew up in South Africa and now lives in New York. The Planets We Inhabit is a playful take on risky behavior during the Coronavirus outbreak. His short story, Burnt Avocado Toast, appeared in the March 2020 edition of The Wild Roof Journal and was the most read story of that issue. The Army Nestled in our Shadows appeared in the March 2019 edition of the Write Launch. Paul has completed his third novel, titled The Secrets of Sea Cliff, and is happily on the hunt for an agent. He has completed writing courses with the Sotheby’s Institute of Fine Art and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. In January of 2020, Paul enrolled at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), where he hopes to complete the Graduate Gemologist Program before the end of the year. Feel free to follow paulus_1 on Instagram if you’d like to see more.