issue 43: July - August 2004 

 | author bio | interview with Nic Kelman

extract from
Nic Kelman 

      You were in Pusan.
      When you flew in, the port was hidden by cloud. You couldn't see the city at all, only the tops of mountains. The man to the right of you, a Korean, said, "Ha! That's smog. Smog! Not so pretty now, huh? Smog! Ha-ha! Ha-ha! Smog!" He went on laughing to himself as he picked up his paper again and read some more. You were still working for that investment bank, were there to find out why a container ship was behind schedule. You had been told it would probably be necessary to make an example of someone, that you should determine who.
      And when you landed, it was drizzling, grey. The whole city was grey. Built of concrete and iron, built for budding. You couldn't see very far down the streets in that rain that was almost a mist. Through the haze the odd red or green punched – neons, traffic lights, trash-can fires. But that was all. On the way from the airport to the hotel and the next morning from the hotel to the office, you became completely disoriented. You tried to follow your route on the map your girlfriend had given you but it was useless. You didn't know where you were.
      At the office you spent a day going over the numbers, over the tonnage of materials brought in, over the daily costs of delay, over the percentage of the ship complete. The day after that you visited the ship itself. The fog had not cleared and when you stood near the command tower, you could not see the end of that unfinished deck. About halfway down it dissolved into a skeleton of girders which then itself dissolved into the mist. As if the mist were acid, as if the mist had halted construction.
      And when you took the man off the job he yelled in Korean. In front of everyone he yelled at you in Korean. His face turned red, he was stocky, his stomach bulged against his belt, he threw back his shoulders, pointed his finger.
      And you grew furious at him because he did not understand. This had nothing to do with him. Did he think he was playing a game here, that some conception of fairness applied? You picked up a phone to call security but he stormed out of the room. As you opened your mouth to say something to the others in the room, something about not caring, he opened the door again, yelled one last thing, and was gone. You remember thinking how puffy he looked as he stuck his torso through that gap, how the arms of his glasses splayed outwards as they ran back to his ears, remember wondering if it was the salty Korean diet that made him that way. It was only natural. You hadn't understood a word he had said.
      But when you left the building, when you got in that black car that somehow ferried you from the office to the hotel in Haeundae Beach, you noticed you were shaking.
      And as you shaved before dinner, looked in the mirror, you grew angry at him again, angry at him for making you feel that way, for making you feel ashamed that you did not feel ashamed. "I mean, what the fuck does he think?" you said, waving your wet razor at your own face, half-hidden in lather. "He can have the benefits without the liability?" "Screw him," you said.
      The local office people took you to a vegetarian restaurant. "I don't really like vegetarian," you said but the meal was actually quite satisfying. Everything was fried and you had a lot of soju.
      And when you got back to the hotel, the carpet outside your room was wet.
      You had no way of knowing it was because he had been there. No way of knowing he had been too ashamed to go home to his wife and so had wandered in the rain for hours before finally sitting outside your door hoping to appeal to you. No way of knowing he had only just given up, only just decided that what he was doing was ridiculous, only just taken the stairs down as you took the elevator up. You fumbled with the card lock momentarily. As you closed the door behind you, the smell of the wet carpet was overpowering.
      You are in Pusan.
      You sit on the edge of your bed, drunk. You want to lie down but you can't, you feel sick when you do. Somehow your eyes find the clock. It is only 10 P.M., your girlfriend will just be getting in to work. She is a graphic designer. You pick up the phone, you call her on the company calling card.
      "Hey babe!" she says, happy to hear from you. "So how is it? How's it going?"
      You open your mouth but you don't know what to say. You think you may want absolution so you tell her what happened today, leaving out the part about the wet carpet, the part you don't know. But when she gives it to you, tells you you did what you had to do, you realize that wasn't it at all. You didn't want her to tell you you did the right thing, you didn't care if she thought you did the right thing or not because you already knew you did, you just wanted her to say, "I know what that's like."
      But of course, she can't say that, will never say that. And if she ever could then you could no longer be with her. Then you would both be tired. Then she would be a better friend, but a worse lover.
      You haven't been listening to what she's been saying. You have been thinking. But as you open your mouth to say, "Listen, do you think I should be doing something else? Something I enjoyed a little more?" you decipher the sounds she has been making.
      She has been telling you how she finally used that spa certificate you gave her for her birthday, the one you could afford to buy because last year's bonus was so huge it paid off your college debt. She has been telling you how she went there for the full day and how they pampered her and how they rejuvenated her and how she felt so good afterwards, like a new woman afterwards.
      There is a pause. She says, "Were you about to say something?"
      "No," you say, trying to sound surprised.
      "Oh,"' she says, "it sounded like you were about to say something." And you wonder how that could be because you're certain you didn't make any sound at all.
      "Anyway, listen, babe," she continues, "I have to go – I have a meeting – but when you get back Mommy will make baby feel all better – she pwomises, OK?"
      "OK," you say, chuckling. But you don't feel any better after you hang up. Just like you didn't need her to tell you you did the right thing, you also didn't need that. Mommies are for sick little boys. You aren't sick, you aren't a little boy, you don't need sympathy. There is nothing tender loving care could do for you right now, right now there is nothing even your real mother could do to make you feel better. She wouldn't, couldn't, understand what it was like any more than your girlfriend.
      The headspin subsiding but not gone, you turn on the TV. There is a channel that shows only Go, twenty-four hours a day nothing but Go. This really is a different place. You change into a bathrobe, you flip through some channels. There is a channel that has some kind of beauty contest. You watch it for a few minutes and realize it's actually a talent competition. You try to masturbate a little but it's no good, you're not interested, it's not enough.
      You turn out the lights. You get in bed. But you can't sleep. The Korean girls in the talent competition keep coming to mind, you can't get the Korean girls in the talent competition out of your head.
      Then you remember the card. After he had told you he was sending you to Pusan, after he had told you it might be necessary to make an example of someone, your boss had looked around, had made sure there were no female employees nearby, and had said,". . . and if you get bored, they have the best fucking hookers in all of Korea there." Then he had taken out one of his business cards and written a name on the back, the name of the concierge at the hotel to ask for, the one who'd "take care of you." "Come on, Saswat," you'd said, "you know I have a girlfriend!" "Yeah," he said, "I know," and tucked the card in your breast pocket.
      You turn on the light again. Naked, you find the suit and pull out the card. You sit on the edge of the bed turning it over and over with your fingertips. You study the printed name of your boss and the Korean name written on the other side, written with a $1,200 pen. So many things run through your head. It's not really any different than masturbating, is it? I wouldn't tell her I jerked off, would I? At last you decide you'll call down and see how much it costs. Just out of curiosity.
      And you can't believe how cheap it is. The high end is less than a first-class dinner in Manhattan. Now you remind yourself you could send her away. You could just see what she looks like and if you change your mind, you could just send her away. You'd have to pay her, of course, but so what, you can afford it. The Korean girls in the talent competition flash through your mind again. You tell him to send up the best thing they have. You use that word, "best."
      You turn the light off. You lie on the bed. You get up and turn another light on, a less intense one, one that you imagine provides a romantic glow. You put on a robe, take a breath mint. You look around the room and realize it's a mess. In a panic because she might arrive any second, you tidy up. You throw your socks in the closet, make the bed, straighten your papers and laptop on the desk. You want her to like you, to see that you're not one of those guys, that this is – will be – something special for her. Something unique. You don't want her to think you're an animal.
      There is a knock at the door, a gentle little rap at the door.
      When you open it, it's not what you were expecting at all. You were expecting a Penthouse Pet, a tall woman, young but not very young, heavily made up, fake eyelashes, hair thinned from treatments, fit and sexy but with a hard, worn look, with breasts that do not sag but that do hang down enough for there to be a thin line of shadow beneath them against her ribs, with long, shapely legs that are hard and have good muscle tone but the beginnings of which, from behind, can no longer be said to be clearly distinct, with a taut stomach furrowed by two lines of muscle down its center but that still bulges slightly outwards below the line of her hips, with her skin still tight over her neck and jaw but that seems more pulled that way than pushed and is still somehow loose enough to no longer be able to follow precisely the dips and rises of the tendons in her throat. In short, someone you would want to fuck.
      Instead the girl before you is not very tall nor heavily made up. Her breasts are small and natural but still find the strength to resist against the ribbed tube top she wears. It doesn't seem like she has ever exercised yet her exposed stomach is completely flat, is lean, is smooth – above it the gentle inverse V of her rib cage disappears into her top leaving a tiny shadow where the material bridges; at its bottom corners, just before it is channeled into her low-slung skirt by her hips, the bones of her pelvis form two small bumps. The curves of her legs are newly formed, have only recently grown upon the bone, are not yet done growing, have not yet begun to die. Her black hair is fine and thick and lustrous and healthy. There is a white band of reflected light across it on one side. You had forgotten what healthy hair looked like. Around her large, Eurasian eyes and small mouth, on her brow, you can't see a single wrinkle. Not one. Her skin closely follows the line of her jaw and then suddenly angles down where it meets her throat, flows into three cords on either side of her neck, one reaching for her shoulder, one touching the middle of her collarbone, one touching its end, forming the hollow that her larynx grows up out of, back towards her jaw. And her smell, her smell utterly obliterates that of the still damp carpet. Her smell is the only smell in the world.
      Her whole body still strives outwards, her lips, her breasts, her thighs, her whole body has not yet decided to stop, to petrify, to crumble. You have never seen anything so ripe in all your life. That is the word that comes to mind, "ripe."
      You are surprised. This is not what you expected. You desire her more than what you expected, certainly, but before the blood begins pounding in your head, you crush your desire down, push it down and away in a little box. This girl can't be more than sixteen, this girl is illegal. Illegal, that's what makes you control your desire. Not "wrong," "illegal." Your eyes flicker over her collarbone, you find yourself thinking how the hollows above it would cup sweat.
      But you find yourself saying, "I think there's been a mistake. Do you understand, 'mistake'? There's been a 'mistake'?"
      "I speak English," she says without an accent, without being able to help rolling her eyes slightly.
      "Oh," you say. "Well, I think there's been a mistake – I asked for something else."
      She shrugs her shoulders. "Fine," she says. "They can send up someone else. No problem." Without another look at you, she turns and heads off down the corridor. You watch her go, notice how tiny her ass is, how even through her skirt the dimples on either side of it are visible, how the material seems to be draped over bobbing stone. As she walks towards the elevator she begins to play some game with the pattern on the rug, stepping on only certain colors, avoiding others, almost toppling herself
      You are shaking. She is so close to being yours. This isn't some Catholic schoolgirl on a bus, this isn't some girl to look at and think, "Damn, if only that were legal," and shake your head and not give it a second thought because it is illegal and you don't want to take the risk and what would you, could you, do anyway – you are in public. This is a hooker. This time, in this case, you only need to say the word and she can be yours. You could have your hands on her body, your mouth on the back of her neck, on her nipples, your cock inside her as her inner thighs rubbed against your pelvis, as her hands pressed down on your chest, as her upper arms squeezed her firm little breasts together, as she tossed her hair to one side of her head and looked down into your eyes and said with that tiny, pert little mouth in her accentless English, "That's it. Fuck me." You look up and down the hall. It is empty. "Wait a minute," you call out. And without a pause, without a lost step, she turns and walks back to your room and walks through your door without even looking at you. You find yourself thinking, "This probably isn't even illegal here anyway – the age of consent here is probably fifteen or sixteen – she could even be seventeen or eighteen." And you close the door behind you.
      You want to devour her. You can't get enough of her in your mouth – her neck, her arms, her belly. You could eat her pussy for hours. With your girlfriend you always did it out of fairness. She went down on you so you went down on her or you wanted her to go down on you so you went down on her. You don't mind it – you know some guys who don't like to do it but do it anyway for the same reason you do – no, you don't mind it, but it never turned you on like this. All you can think about is having her in your mouth. You make her lie back on the bed, spread her arms out on the bed, and just let you pull her pussy to your mouth. Beneath your hands, the skin on her thighs is so smooth it makes you think of fax paper. You can feel the calluses on your palms scraping it as you hold her legs. You hear your stubble scratch against her right leg. Worried you might hurt her, you push her legs farther open. The tendons on her inner thighs flex out like little steel cables and where they end, where they push out the farthest forming little cups of skin above and below, the mound of her pussy drops down towards her ass. She has shaved herself completely bare, you hope that's what she's done, and the slit between her legs is so delicate it looks like someone has cut her with a scalpel. Carefully, gently, you pull the slit open with your fingertips revealing the folds of tan flesh inside. You never noticed how clumsy your fingers were before, how enormous, how ugly. Like a gorilla's, you find yourself thinking. You look at her spread open like that for a second, like a sea creature, like an anemone in that moment it reaches out to swallow a fish, and then you glance up her body. She isn't moving, she stares at the ceiling, you can't see her face. Then you put your mouth on her. For a second you are relieved to feel the odd piece of stubble pricking your lips. For a second you wonder if your girlfriend would shave herself like this. And then you are lost.
      Suddenly she taps you on the shoulder, taps you on the shoulder as if you were in a line for a bus and she needed information. You look up at her, one of your ape fingers still inside her. And she says, "If you want to fuck me you should do it now – you only have fifteen minutes left." You can't believe it. You can't believe you have been doing what you have been doing for forty-five minutes. You feel like you have only just begun. And you find yourself wondering how she has been keeping track of time.
      You don't really want to stop what you've been doing but you feel that you should, that you didn't pay to make her feel good, that you should get what you actually paid for. You only have to make a slight motion towards flipping her over and she is immediately on her hands and knees, thrusting her shoulder blades and her ass in the air, keeping her belly low. As you go to put yourself inside her from behind, you follow the curved groove of her sunken spine with your eyes down to the small of her back where it ends in a tiny, flat V of skin rising up like an arrowhead, its sides carved out by the two hemispheres that began sloping up at her hips, its point the beginning of the cleft of her ass – small, round, taut as a balloon – and again you are overcome by the urge to put her in your mouth. Without realizing what you are doing you find yourself licking her ass-hole. Tomorrow, on the plane, as you think back over the experience, as you try to reconstruct every detail, you will suddenly remember your body did this, and you will wonder where you were when it happened. There and then, on the plane, as the stewardess asks you if you want beef or chicken, the thought of it will make you ill. But here and now, in your hotel room, this thing you would never do makes you want to cum. You push yourself inside her, grab her waist with your hands, your hands that almost encompass her waist in their grip, and thrust in and out of her. The tip of your cock pushes against the roof of her uterus and every time it does she lets out a little squeal. You can't tell if it's from pain or pleasure but you think it's probably both. You worry a little bit about breaking her, about crushing her rib cage as you squeeze her little breasts that feel as firm as oranges, about snapping her arm as you pull her back onto you, about suffocating her when – after just five or six strokes – you cum and collapse on top of her.
      But she is fine. She lets you lie on top of her for a second, carefully pulls you out of her making sure the condom stays in place, wipes her hand on the sheets, and squirms out from under you. You cannot move. You watch her dress. She disappears into the bathroom for a minute to fix her hair and makeup but it doesn't take long and when she is done, when you still haven't moved, she says, "I have to go."
      You pull yourself up from the bed, out from under the enormous weight crushing you to the bed, and, in a daze, give her her cash. It's less than a quarter of what you had in your wallet for just one day's expenses.
      She takes it without ceremony and puts it in her purse. You are still naked. At the door, after she's opened it a crack, she turns and says, "I'm sorry I reminded you about time – they always do what you did and forget about time and then get mad when they find out time is gone.
      "Oh don't worry about it!" you say congenially, you say wanting her to know you're not the same as the other men, that you'd never get mad. She just nods and says, "If you want me again, ask for Jin," and is gone.
      When you get back in bed you wish you felt worse about this. You wish you felt terrible, in fact. But you don't. Instead you feel fucking fantastic. Reborn. Your head is clear, you can actually feel the sheets touching your entire body.
      As you drift off to sleep you realize the concierge hadn't misunderstood, hadn't made a mistake at all. This must have been what Saswat was talking about. The best fucking hookers. The two older men simply knew what you needed better than you knew yourself.
      The next day you buy your girlfriend a gift before you leave, an antique necklace. You were going to get her something anyway, you just spend a little more than you had originally planned.
      You were in Pusan.
      The example worked. The ship was finished on time. You saved 25 million dollars. You were a hero. The ship's cartel took you and your boss out to a restaurant that overlooked the entire city. At one point, as they served the nine dozen Wellfleet oysters, Saswat leaned over and said quietly in your ear, "Welcome to the club." You had been thinking about the man you fired, about whether he would ever eat in a restaurant like this, drink wine like this wine, but when Saswat said that, you stopped feeling guilty, alone. You at last felt like you had a companion, someone who understood.
      It was a clear night. Afterwards they took you to a loud strip club, sent you to the Champagne Room with a girl named something-andy. The next morning you had a vague memory of her blowing you there, but you couldn't be certain, you were very drunk. And as you lay there that Saturday morning, your girlfriend's arm draped over your chest, the sunlight diffused over both of you by the curtains, as you lay there you thought about the last time you were that drunk, about Jin standing there outside your door, about how she looked standing there outside your door, about how she smelled standing there outside your door, how there was no other smell there, no other smell at all.

© Nic Kelman

interview with Nic Kelman

This electronic version of  the extract appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and the author. It is taken from the author´s novel girls, Serpent's Tail, U.K. 2004 . Book ordering available through Serpent's Tail, amazon.com.

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Nic_KelmanNic Kelman studied Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. After spending some years working in independent film, he attended Brown University on a full scholarship for his MFA in Creative Writing and was awarded the James Assatly Prize for graduate fiction for girls. He now writes and teaches in New York City.


issue 43: July - August 2004  

Short Fiction

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women
Nic Kelman: girls
J.K. Mason: A Caricature of Faith
Juan Bonilla: Mónica’s Letters
picks from back issues
Julie Orringer:
Javier Marías:
Fewer Scruples


Nic Kelman


The Iliad
answers to last issue’s quiz Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Book Reviews

Do the Blind Dream? by Barry Gifford
The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes
girls by Nic Kelman
World Famous Love Acts by Brian Leung
Deadfolk by Charlie Williams
One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi (review available August 7)

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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