Somewhere, a notebook decomposes in a landfill. An acidic churn fades those delicate loops of lessons learned on deadline and promptly forgotten, once, in a room doomed to forever smell of logoed sweatshirts and stale air. As warm earth re-absorbs the pages, nature remains unaware of what those faint blue lines contained. Beetles have no brand affinities, no use for price-earnings ratios. Ants can’t distinguish a merger from a takeover. They don’t see, scribbled in the margins, hopeful initials, hearts that hint at something happening outside of office hours.
You already know the signs of the takeover, a muscle memory forged from an endless series of bad decisions. At first, it feels like an exchange between yourself and another person who believes taste matters more than character. Instead of saying what you feel, you offer something someone else said, better than you can say yourself. In return, a mutual offering from him.
You listen, or watch, or check it out from the library. You like having an assignment, and anyway, you have too much time on your hands. Something he recommends makes you feel something. Knowing you like some hidden part of him seems to please him.
Has he listened to, or watched, or read any of what you’ve shared? You’re not sure. But you want to feel his tongue in your mouth enough that you don’t mind. While you wait, you re-listen, re-watch, re-read what you’ve recommended, envisioning his thoughts as he experiences it for the first time.
This is how the takeover begins. When you’ve noticed, it’s too late.
You might spend every Sunday matinee sitting side by side in the dark, even when you’re not in the mood to read subtitles. Sure, you like film, though you sometimes slip and call it a movie, but you fail to grasp why you must witness every festival, every retrospective, every 70mm screening. You remember it’s because, sometimes, he’ll reach over and squeeze your thigh during the credits.
You might find record-store visits becoming a chore. He won’t let you leave without clearing out the inventory for an artist he recommended, that first furtive glimpse of himself. He loans you some cash for the side projects, the influences, the protégées. You feel like someone’s protégée, but you know better than to say so. Whenever he lowers the needle onto that record, he gives you that look, and you know what happens next.
You might start reading for extra credit, though finance has always bored you. You tell yourself it can’t be a takeover when it’s someone who grades your papers, but that’s the only thing it can be. As you struggle to take notes, the awareness that you’re powerless to stop it makes you so wet you leave class to make yourself come, in the same stall where you made him come two Sundays ago. He’d unlocked the building; you had the whole place to yourselves.
You might run away, in search of something different. You move, get a new job, change your last name, monogram towels with your new initials.
You’re smart enough to know better. It keeps happening anyway.
A novelist she met at a conference slides into her DMs with a link to the short story that went viral. She’d devoured it a week earlier while baking a quiche for a postpartum friend. Still, she re-reads it, this time considering his thoughts on this tale of bad sex and the casual cruelty of oblivious men. It becomes a filter that silently slips over her own experience. She struggles to remember which of her opinions predate the screed he later emails — how the story knocked him sideways, its relatability despite the fact he’s been married eighteen years and has only ever been with his wife.
She responds with three links to other, better stories. Below, three books. She can’t help it. Since she lost her brand management job, she’s had more time on her hands. From behind new bifocals, she taps her tablet with unprecedented urgency. It’s not a takeover, she reassures herself. They share an aesthetic.
The novelist ignores her links and rattles off his own favorites. They already feel like assignments. Teacher’s pet, boys teased her, in first grade, third, sixth. It wasn’t her fault it kept happening. She’s always been so conscientious.
His letters arrive, sometimes minutes after hers, occasionally weeks. They trade stories of sexual histories alongside book recommendations. It’s all very confusing.
While awaiting responses, she tackles his suggestions. Even the shortest stories feel long and male. In one, she reaches the phrase jism on the Bible and throws the book across the room. The shows hint at kinks not yet discussed. The songs are sad and make her want to lie on the floor, but she has another quiche to bake. A neighbor just had her second.
She replays whiskeyed memories of their sole conversation, inventing future offline arguments. She wishes herself into someone who doesn’t care to know him beyond his character-limited bio. Recalling mention of an infant, she tallies the months, running odds on whether he and his wife are having sex again. She refrains from texting him a photo of her nipple. It takes unusual restraint, which worries her. Things start to feel hostile in a way she can’t quantify.
She panics, breaking the takeover’s first rule by acknowledging it. He denies everything: “This wasn’t a takeover. It wasn’t even a merger. I’m sorry you got confused.” Toxic bullshit non-apology apology, she taps into a reply she’ll keep in her draft folder for months before deleting. Just because he doesn’t call it that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one.
Lesson learned, she returns the library books, purges unwatched shows from her queue, deletes the playlist blending bands they’d both recommended. That night, she runs a bath a few degrees too warm, lights a candle, and cries until the faucet stops running — the only way to grieve a takeover without your husband finding out.
Colleen Rothman’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Okay Donkey, and Mutha Magazine, among others. After more than a decade living in the Midwest, she is proud to once again call New Orleans home. Find her on Twitter @colleenrothman.
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