Sunk Costs

Sunk Costs

On a day of pouring rain, in the lobby of a hotel that has seen better days, here I am sitting at a low, colorless, circular coffee table across from a man I do not know. He wears a blue suit, a white shirt, no tie. He holds a small flask in his lap (I cannot help but notice), from which he drinks occasionally, discreetly. The man is reading a book by Walter Benjamin (One-Way Street). I am also reading. We’re a couple of readers. We, leaning back on our separate islands, catch each other’s glances, like flashing semaphores. He motions with his eyes to the book in my hands, an anthology of essays on things (Things, edited by Bill Brown, University of Chicago Press). He asks me if the book is any good. I tell him it is a useful sourcebook.

We talk a bit. The man has come to the city for a lecture titled, if I recall, “Fascism’s Aestheticization of Politics and Communism’s Politicization of Aesthetics,” by a visiting professor to the university across the way, a university where the man himself—that is, the man sitting across from me—is also a visiting professor. He pulls out his ticket to the lecture, a printed page, waves it in the air. “I was to have gone with a lady, a beautiful brand-new young lady friend,” he says, gesturing and looking around the lobby, “but she, it seems, has left me stranded.”

Rachel and I are here for just the weekend. She had been swimming in the hotel’s indoor pool and is up at the room, showering, etc. We are drifting, Rachel and I. That’s clear to both of us by now, if not yet shaped into words exactly.

I have my books scattered around. They come with me. They are my brood, these little feathered creatures, these unruly little devils. They demand my strict attention. The novel I’m working on—researching for—is now in its ninth, tenth year. I suspect it will never come to end. I call it this—my endless novel—in a display of ironic modesty that I hope somehow conceals my growing anguish on the matter. (Or perhaps I have subconsciously conflated the novel and the woman. Perhaps I have sabotaged things. Perhaps I never want it to end. There is sometimes a comfort, languishing like this.)

In any case, the man doesn’t ask me about my novel. There is a silence and we sit and listen to the rain, although we actually cannot hear it, or even, from where we are seated, see it. And yet we know it is raining, it is “in the air.”

The man has begun to tell me how he met the “young lady” in one of his classes (I note that he has not referred to her as a student), how they walked together around a little square, talking of the fictionality of all discourse and other such topics. “She grabbed my hand at a curb somewhere,” he says, “pulled me like a child the several blocks to her building, where, in a little apartment with absurdly bright lighting, she disrobed.” The man tells me how she had tattoos: letters in Arabic, Eastern logographs, runes, calligrams—all blue and green and black, “swirling across her skin, everywhere,” he says, lowering his voice and leaning in a little, “her breasts, her stomach, her buttocks, everywhere—not one word of which I understood.” He leans back, takes another swig of his flask. He does not offer me a drink, which is fine. “She was beautiful,” he says, “as beautiful as anything so completely indecipherable. And now she is gone.”

“Will you go anyway?” I ask, thinking of the lecture. I find myself worrying he will be late.

“I have spent the money, whether I go or not,” he says. “But I don’t want to go. It really makes no sense for me to go, not now. In economics, someone said, history is irrelevant. What matters are my options at this very moment. I may go”—he raises one hand, palm up—“or I may stay”—he raises the other—“but I must admit,” he continues, “that there is an unconscious calculation of the debt of my emotional balance, a debt which only going seems to absolve.” (These are his approximate words. I will copy them down a short time later.) He tells me how the pain of his regret in not going will be richer, more multifarious, than his pleasure in staying here in the hotel lobby, reading Benjamin.

“Pain, we know,” he tells me, “has a much more complex grammar than pleasure.” He holds up the book. I guess it is a quote.

A second silence comes over us. Next to the table where the man and I sit is a fountain. The fountain is turned off. Now and then someone walks into the hotel and shakes off an umbrella. I fall into my thoughts again. Here’s one: I read somewhere that infants are able to hear the shadowy echo of colliding air molecules, but by the time the child would be old enough to contemplate these sensations and formulate them into memories and words, the ability is lost, the bones of the skull—the mastoid, the temporal—too dense, too smothering. These are the places my mind goes. And suddenly I look up and the man has left, he’s practically disappeared, like the ghostly evaporation of a fingerprint on glass, or a million other metaphors, and I am alone here in the lobby, with nothing ahead of me but my books, my ridiculous novel, and the end of love.

Where is this going? What am I hoping to achieve?

One must persevere, I write on the page.

I’m in way too deep, I write.

I’ve paid too high a price to quit now.

I turn the page, continue my research.



About the Author

Erik Harper Klass has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee (Cola Literary Review), Summerset Review, Slippery Elm, and Blood Orange Review, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. He currently has a novella available from Buttonhook Press. He writes in Los Angeles, CA.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash