The Book of Tom
“Don’t write about me,” he warned, lifting his calf against the mattress and kicking the covers away. “I don’t want to be written about.” I say nothing, knowing it will frustrate him, but unwilling to lie. It’s the end of autumn, and the smoke burns high in the white skies beyond the window panes. We had woken late and my mind was numb to his thoughts, slurred with the night before.
“I mean it, Cass,” he orders. “I don’t want to go down in history as one of your monsters.” Again, I say nothing. He is so young, impossibly young in the garish light of a Thursday morning. “Promise me, promise me, that you won’t write about me.”
“I can’t promise you that. I don’t even know how it works when I’m writing. I don’t ever plan to.” He turns and stares at me, eyes round and cold with fear. I think it’s fear. It’s a fear I’ve seen many times, but this time it looks more like bemusement.
“What do you mean? Don’t you love me?”
“Of course I do. I just don’t ever plan to write men into my books. They just-” I stare back, uneasy at the panic in his eyes. “They just happen. They just appear. I never mean to write them in until they are there.” I wait for the usual spiel, about how I could just send him the manuscript first, how I could just try to leave him out of it, or even the bitter stabbing comments about how I must see him as wicked to write like that.
He says nothing, looking up at the leafless trees that spinder up into the sky like cracks in broken white glass. “I always thought I’d be remembered as a good man.”
“You are a good man,” I respond, truthfully, wrapping my arms around the hot shape of his waist. His neck tastes of washing powder and American coffee. “I know you are a good man.”
“Then why am I so scared, Cass?”
“Why am I so frightened-” he says, pulling my jaw up to his with a finger and thumb “-Of what you’ll do to me?”
“I’m not a witch, Tom.” I say flatly. “I can’t make you into something your not because of my stupid book.”
“You can.” He says firmly, half believing it. “You’ve ruined other men.”
“No,” I say back, a little too harshly. “David played into the hot hand fallacy and lost millions of dollars. That’s what ruined him. My book just made him famous. Cause and causality.”
“Wasn’t it enough to make him lose everything?” he asks, his voice wavering with fear. “You just had to twist the knife and write about it for the world to see?”
This made me laugh. “I wrote that book long before he did it. It was with my editor before he even thought about it. The book wasn’t even about him, the critics just picked up on it. He just- well, he just seemed to appear in my work and months later, it came true.”
“So you are a witch.”
“I’m good at reading people and how they might behave,” I say, coldly. “Don’t be cruel to me. I haven’t done anything to you.”
I sigh, kissing him deeply on the cheek and clinging to his shoulders. “Fine,” I say lightly. “I promise to try very hard not to write about you, ever.” He relaxes a little, squeezing my hand under the pillow. “Now can we get up and put the kettle on? I’m so late.”
Of course, I did write about him. I think he knew I always would. The first crackling of his soul appeared in the way a character moved his hand on his desk, spanning the digits and tapping one after the other when he thought. I sewed the first stems of him into an article a few days later, an anecdote that swelled into the paper until I saw his grin in the tone of the character. Late one night, after I had found his letters to Ida hidden within an old shoebox, I sat down in the attic, hunched silently over my notepad, and started The Book of Tom.
I let my anger trickle down my hands and into my words, every stroke of graphite smouldering with temporary hatred, carving every inch of his ugliness, his cruelty, his narcissism and his lies. I twisted him, hard, aware of my bitterness. My head swam with one word, old hebrew, burning up my love for him.
I wasn’t lying when I told him I didn’t know how it worked. I watched the monster unravel in my words in a way I had never predetermined, driven by some unconscious energy to a place I had not even thought of. I wrote of a motel bedroom, plywood wardrobes and fly paper, and the woman there, her stockings around her neck, her mouth grey and contorted in a way that lacked any of the fetishation of popular literature. I let the monster stalk the pages and hide the body, fake the papers, scrub the walls. I sat and watched him panic and vomit into the sink, silent with my sadistic voyeurism. The sweet young man I knew wasn’t on this paper. The beast limped and lingered through the book, growing more detestable with each word. I didn’t feel guilty when I had finished, only a cruel desire for him to see what I had done to him, what I had made of him, and what his name and shape and voice would mean to all people for all of time.
I wonder if I knew, then, what I had done. If I still believed in coincidence after David. My mother had a saying, when I was a kid, and it came into my head when I took out the first edition from the package my editor had sent me.
Don’t wish for a man to drown and cry when it is yours
I brushed it aside, of course. Tom was taking me out for dinner, to apologise for Ida, and in truth, I planned to burn the copy. I was ready to forgive him, take back the manuscript and my anger, my hatred, my sadism.
We drove to a hotel on the edge of the city, him chatting and listening to cassettes, me laughing with him and staring out at the sinking sun over the highway. I didn’t even realise until I heard him shut the room door behind me and click the lock.
No, before then. I knew when I saw the plywood cabinets and fly papers and felt the hard terror swell inside me. I turned as he shut the door, wondering if I could escape a fate I had written for myself.
He grinned at me, eyes hard with hate.
“I’ve got to say, Cass,” he said, spinning the room key in his hand. “You’re a great writer.”