Excerpt from ‘Getting Off’ by Jonathan Reiss

'Getting Off' by Jonathan Reiss

In our second segment of The Magic Behind the Indie Press with Instar Books, author Jonathan Reiss discusses his heart-shattering first novel Getting Off. Instar Books founder Jeanne Thornton describes it as, “about a young aspiring actor who ends up being kind of a vector in the online sex work economy, masturbating on webcam in order to keep buying heroin.” Here, Reiss takes our hand through publishing with an indie press and the nicest parts of hell.

Why did you opt to sign with a small, indie press rather than self-publish?

JONATHAN: I never looked at self-publishing as an option. It’s not my intention to denigrate self-publishing. It works out incredibly for some people, but for myself personally I needed at least a couple people to want the novel to exist.

This is my first novel, not just the first one I got published but the first one I tried writing. I’m pretty confident that most first novel attempts shouldn’t be published, although there are of course exceptions. Sometimes when I feel like I can’t write, I desperately yearn to see to my favorite writers shitty first novel that they never published. I think it would be inspiring. In my case, instead of putting this book in a drawer, I kept working on it and polishing it, adding new scenes and honing the voice until it was practically a new book.

My agent and I did a limited first round of shopping the book to publishers, and the process was driving me crazy. I couldn’t stand waiting months for these people to respond and then hearing about close calls or absolute misses. One major publishing house said that they loved the story they just wished it wasn’t so filthy. That’s an absurd statement to me. I think that if you’re first novel is something that a major house is willing to publish it’s probably not filthy enough.

After that first round, I went to Jeanne and Miracle for two reasons. One, I felt like the book needed a strong editor, and Miracle was clearly the perfect person for the job. I liked the idea of getting a big chunk of my royalties rather than being a slave to some advance. I also wanted to be actively involved in getting the book out there and making sure it got read, but I didn’t want to be solely responsible for it, either.

Basically, I think it’s better for writers who are making their debut or are early in their careers to start smaller.  Alex Shakar is a great example. His first novel The Savage Girl is incredible, and it had all the trappings of successful debut novel. But I believe the pub date was not long after 9/11, and it came and went with nary a whisper. The publisher just let it die quietly. Then his second novel Luminarium was published by an indie and saw the kind of success he deserved in the first place. The moral of the story is: don’t go with a big house if you’ve got a September 2001 pub date.

What are the strengths and shortcomings of working with a small press?

JONATHAN: The shortcomings mostly come to down to time, money and relationships. Fortunately, relationships are free so if you’ve got a good publisher, that one shouldn’t really matter.  When I was first weighing my options for getting this book published, I thought that the biggest sacrifice I’d be making going with an indie was in terms of publicity. It’s true to the extent that you only have one or two people working on the publicity for your book and are therefore competing with just about everything else in their lives. Time can be a pain: if you want to get the thing out there fast with an indie and your editor gets scabies or something and has to spend a week delousing their apartment, there’s really nothing you can do about it but wait.

But that’s really no different than being at a major publishing house if you’re a literary fiction writer. There, your publicist knows where their bread is buttered, and they damn well know that they better finish making sure The Hipster’s Haberdashery Handbook is well-publicized before they start worrying about your podcast appearance.

I’ve been close to the publishing industry for a while, but I really don’t understand it or how it still exists, to be honest. All I know is that everyone is worried all the time, and the indie houses—or the houses that are employing something new and daring—tend to be a lot less worried.

Excerpt from Getting Off by Jonathan Reiss

At the start of this scene, the narrator—an aspiring actor who currently feeds a heroin habit with online webcam sex work—is returning from an uncomfortable encounter with a client, a suburban married man named Will. While at Will’s expensive house, the narrator found a photo of himself on Will’s computer, on a website called “Boho.”

It took me almost an hour of tromping through the woods to find a busy street again. My shins itched where my pants rode up. The suburban ivy and nettles and weeds left red marks and hives on my ankles. My arms were covered in white hash marks that reddened with time. It cost me thirty bucks for a gypsy cab, but twenty minutes later I was home again.

After being in Will’s house, my apartment felt surreal; unfamiliar. I bent down to refill my dog Fat’s food bowl and he stretched up on his hind legs, pawing at me in gratitude. For a moment things felt okay again.

I dashed to my computer and searched for “Boho,” but nothing came up. Then I searched for “Boho” plus “Sid Licious.” There were a few links that connected to the Camboyz entrance site, and then a few links down I saw the page I had seen in Will’s bedroom.

Review for SidLicious

(Hair: Blond, Eyes: Blue, Build: Medium)

SidLicious is a prude, vanilla, thief and junkie cumslut. Do not entertain. He was prude and stuck up from the start. He does not engage well with others and after a few minutes he passed out because he’s a dope fiend. Also, he messed up my Live Stream. He also stole my cash, pills and dog. Byer beware!

The review has been submitted by a member called DonaldJuan and there were comments.

“Pics please?” asked BigFun.

“Not even worth it, he’s a chubby little twink with chest hair,” replied DonaldJuan.

“DJ is a bit of a sick puppy as most of us know so let’s not take his comments as gospel,” replied GeneralScrew.

“I have actually seen SidLicious in the flesh and he is not as DJ describes,” replied Guest02224.

That’s where it ended. The final comment was left the day after I met Will for the first time in his car. Here was the picture of me again, walking to the train. I clicked on his handle but there were no other posts from him.

Clicking on DonaldJuan, however, was a different story: the amount of reviews he had done were staggering. There were at least fifty. Not to mention hundreds of comments on other reviews.

Boho was just the tip of the iceberg. I spent almost the entire night searching other escort review sites, but there was nothing else that pertained to me specifically. There were, however, posts about missing boys. One mother posted on the board about her lost son, and as I read her post, pleading for any information about her brown-haired son with chestnut-colored eyes and buck teeth, I tried to imagine how it must have felt reading rent boy reviews, knowing her missing kid could have been any one of them.

He had it coming. That’s what people would think when they read about me, the twenty-one-year-old boy gone missing, his short-lived failed acting career and long-term drug habit. His body found floating in some body of water.

*

The following day, things felt off for me. I didn’t feel the same in my own body. I felt like somebody was hiding in the corners of my apartment, watching me. I wasn’t alone in my own head. The quality of the air even felt different.

I flipped through the stack of twenties from Will’s envelope a few times. I wanted to remember everything about where I had been the night before, but it didn’t feel real. I thought about all the posts about missing boys I had read.

I called my dealer Repo, looking for at least one familiar “hello.”

“Hello,” answered somebody new, somebody different.

“Repo?”

“Nah, Repo’s up North. Where you at and what you need?”

“Repo’s in jail?” I asked, unable to mask my sadness.

When the new guy, Slay, arrived, he explained that Repo had been caught buying from an undercover and would be at Rikers for a while. I was sad, but I bought a bundle anyway. Repo would have wanted it that way. I thought about sending him some kind of care package.

Slay gave me my bags and then he left. I watched him through the blinds as he walked off. He turned around and looked back at me all of a sudden like he knew I was watching.

*

My computer dinged. I had a message. It was from my classmate Todd.

Simon,

I’m not sure if I mentioned this to you but I’m currently in town and I think we should get together. How about Union Square, this afternoon, 3pm? Let me know.

For months I’d wanted nothing more than something like this, to go see Todd, to hang out with an old friend. But right now, today, it felt wrong somehow. I wanted to just be alone. The only thing that felt familiar was my computer, the message boards and the wikis, the cam rooms and video clips.

I looked over at the bags I’d just bought.

There was another ding from my computer. Another message from Todd.

What do you say? Are we meeting?

At the time, I didn’t pay any mind to how drastic a change this was from any other recent communications I’d had with him.

I went back to the bed. My poster of the actor, Jackson Agnew, had fallen onto the bed next to me, crumpled. I buried my head in a pillow.

I got up. Carefully, I loaded two bags into a spoon. Did everything I needed to do. Pushed the plunger.

My heartbeat finally slowed. I looked around at my room, at the poster, at the drugs. I took a few deep breaths and grabbed the computer.

The idea of seeing Todd wasn’t so scary anymore.

I typed a note to Todd, agreeing to meet.

With less than an hour to meet Todd, I grabbed a rig and a few more bags, and set up another shot on the surface of my fallen poster. My spoon rested on Jackson’s chin, his downcast eyes staring at me as I filled the spoon with powder. He watched as I ripped the tops off each glassine bag and emptied each one into the bowl of the spoon. I tried not to look at him as I tied up. Not that he was judging me. Jackson didn’t judge, not in all the years I’d had him up on my wall. But his disappointment was palpable.

I was almost out the door when I stopped. I looked around at my disgusting apartment. The yellow couch was the centerpiece for the meadow of trash: discarded papers, books, and plastic bottles. I suddenly knew that Todd was going to see what I’d become. I was getting worse and worse at hiding it; less in control of my own habits. I had forgotten how to be a person. I was a shitty actor.

I could still see my laptop on the bed, open and shining. The glow from the screen was inviting and warm, a safe alternative to the horror of going out into the world. All it would take to cancel was one quick and painless message.

We could still be the friends we’d always been. Just not out there. Maybe I’d message Todd and ask him if he wanted to just hang out in a chat room. We could check out one of those online role-playing games and play together.

That seemed like it could be a good direction to take things for now. Let’s just keep it online, I’d say. I didn’t want to have to keep up a constant stream of conversation without lines on a page.

Instead, I closed the computer, said goodbye to Fat, and headed for the train, determined not to give up on real life just yet.

*

When I walked out of the subway station, I craned my neck, suddenly realizing how hard it would be to even find Todd in Union Square. I was anxious. A man in a button-down dress shirt was watching me from a few feet away. Did he recognize me from Boho? I moved to the other side of the park.

The green market was in season. There was a woman hosing down freshly-picked turnips. She was beautiful; all her features round and strong. She looked like she could give birth to a litter of children and carry them on her back in the fields through the harvest. Her skin was tan from the sun and her cheeks were dappled with freckles. She wore overalls that were cinched tightly at the waist and clung to her buttocks as she knelt by the turnips. I imagined her carrying a bow, draped in furs. She finished her load, washed her hands, and then took off walking south through the park.

I heard a voice behind me.

“Nice ass.”

I didn’t even have to look to know it was him. Both of us just watched her walk away together. “She’s a turnip farmer,” I said.

“Beautiful,” Todd said.

“So!” I said, slapping my hand on my thigh.

“So,” Todd countered.

“You want to …” I extended my arm eastward, and Todd slowly took off in that direction. We walked a block before saying anything else. Todd seemed to have something on his mind. He was distracted. People kept walking in between us. Our speeds kept falling out of synch. We bumped into each other.

“Have you talked to anyone from home lately?” I asked.

“No,” Todd said, sneaking a look at his cell phone without fully removing it from his pocket.

My palms began to sweat. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to this person who I hardly recognized. “I’ve been playing the stock market,” Todd offered, almost shyly. This was the last thing I expected to hear him say. “I’m pretty good at it, I think.”

I knew the right thing to do was to encourage him, but I felt like I’d be betraying the version of Todd that I grew up with. Where was the Todd who played in punk bands?

“That’s … something.”

I searched for a common thread between us.

Then, it dawned on me.

“Dude!” I exclaimed, my eyes burning with enthusiasm. “I read that book. Well, I’m more than halfway done.”

“What book?” Todd asked.

Todd had a strange, sarcastic sense of humor that was sometimes tough to identify. I took a moment to see if he was kidding

“A Fistful of Stardust!”

“What’s that?” Todd started walking again.

“The Scientology thing.”

“I haven’t heard of it,” he said.

We passed a plastic garbage can. I wanted to kick the crap out of it.

“Yes, you have!” I shouted. “You’re the one who told me to read it.”

“Oh right, yeah.” Todd said. “Scientology.”

“Right!”

“They’re creepy as hell,” Todd said, still pre-occupied.

“Oh my god, there’s so much. Okay, listen …”

“Okay,” he said.

“First, I saw that protest …”

“Right.”

“Right. Okay, so then … I read this stuff … They’ve killed people, dude. But you know. You recommended it!”

“Right, right,” he said. “So what else is up with you?”

I didn’t know how to answer this. I was still put off by his utter lack of interest.

“I got a dog,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Where’d you get a dog?”

“I went …”

I stopped mid-syllable. I couldn’t tell Todd about how I got Fat. I couldn’t tell him anything about my life. I couldn’t tell him about Caps. Or what happened at Will’s house. I had this whole life of intrigue. What could I talk about for real? I had that one shitty audition and that was it. That was all I had to offer.

The subway station back to my apartment was only a block away and I could feel it begging to me, begging me to go home, begging me to nod off back in my comfort zone.

“You went?” Todd said. “You went where?”

“It’s not much of a story. Just a dog, you know?”

“Well,” he said. “I’m glad you told me all of that. Your life sounds very exciting.” There was the trademark Todd sarcasm I remembered.

I found myself walking toward the subway automatically.

“Well, I guess, thanks for checking in,” I said, wondering why he’d even asked me to meet him, but too full of sudden despair to stick around and find out.

“Hey, hold up a sec,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Coming here was a mistake.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Stop for a second,” he said.

I stopped.

“Simon, I want to let you know that I wanted to see you because I am a person that cares about you, and that I have concern for you.”

At that moment I wasn’t sure what was happening, only that I had to get away. I started walking again, twice as fast as before.

Todd followed behind me, reading from his phone now.

“I want to let you know the ways in which your drug use has hurt me.”

“This isn’t happening,” I muttered, racing now toward the subway station steps.

“The day after our senior prom when I needed a designated driver, and you said you’d be there, but then you didn’t show up because you were in a crack house in Newark? Remember that?”

“Oh, please!” I said, not allowing myself to take this seriously.

“The movie we were supposed to make together, that fell apart because of your drug use?”

I couldn’t believe it. This was all a joke. This wasn’t real. I stopped again, and faced him.

“Are you kidding me? You’re giving me a goddamn intervention?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never done this before.”

“Listen man, you’re wasting your time,” I said. “I’m clean.”

“We both know you’re not. At least, you weren’t on your mom’s birthday.”

“How do you know about that?”

“I spoke to your dad a few months ago. He said he might be able to get me a job interview at Gurwitch. He told me everything.”

The thought of my dad helping Todd get some sell-out job, the two of them discussing my fuck ups over scotch and tuna tartare. I hated everything.

“This is pathetic.”

“You think people don’t know, but they do. Everyone knows …”

I wanted so badly for him to shut up. I had to stop him somehow. I was at the foot of the subway steps. I was blocking a huge line of people that had formed behind me trying to get into the station.

“Come on!” someone yelled.

“I used to believe in you,” Todd said. “I thought that we were going to do things together. You let me down.”

He was blaming me for the ways in which his life didn’t pan out.

I threw my hands up in the air.

“And what have you done?” I asked him “You still live in the same town we grew up in.”

Todd shook his head.

“The Todd that I knew would fucking hate the person I’m looking at right now,” I said.

The punch landed. I hurt him in the way I intended. I stopped myself from ranting more. Todd looked like he was about to burst.

“You’re sad, you know that?” he said. “You’re an actor? Yeah, right. You know what you are? You’re a junkie. You’re just another dumb junkie.”

I wanted him to not really mean what he was saying. But what I wanted didn’t matter. The world just kept going. The more time I spent in it the less I felt like I had any idea how to be a part of it.

I turned and walked down the stairs into the subway, trying to ignore the tears in my eyes. I could feel Todd watching me from behind. He didn’t follow me. Dizzy, I passed through the turnstile. I stood on the platform, waiting for the train. I began to yawn uncontrollably. It was six thirty and the station was crowded with people coming home from work. I was just a junkie, though: no different than the people who nodded off on street corners. Maybe a little less brazen, maybe a little more lucky.

A train came barreling into the station. I boarded it. Avoiding eye contact with anyone, I stared at the advertisements. A dermatologist promised better skin. Seamless offered a one-night-stand with Chinese food. A new miracle root in pill form promised a six-pack of abs. There was a handmade flyer taped to the plastic; the same flyer I’d seen a thousand times before.

Opioid Dependence Drug Treatment and free Therapy at St. Sebastian’s Hospital

Incentives are available for participation.

TAKE BACK YOUR LIFE!

NO PAIN!!!

I stared at the flyer the whole way home. At my stop, I grabbed it and jumped off the train.

*

Walking into my apartment, I pulled the flyer from my pocket. NO PAIN. Who were they kidding? There was no such thing as “no pain.”

I crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it into the garbage. If I was going to stop drugs for anybody it wasn’t going to be Todd.

I was ready to get high. I was nearly sick, but then: tragedy.

I couldn’t find my last couple of bags.

I searched the empty waffles box in the freezer for my bags. Nothing.

I pulled all the cushions off the yellow couch. I shoved my hands down into the cracks. I tossed aside my clothes and checked the heating vents. I looked under my bed. I destroyed my apartment and still I had nothing.

Panic pulsed in my chest. The roots of my teeth were stinging. I’d had three bags remaining when I left the apartment. I was sure of it. Things were missing and people were acting differently and it was fucking me up.

I pressed my face to the cold of the window, eyes darting around to see if the person who took my bags was out there. Nobody.

I closed the blinds, collapsing into the dark.

My laptop was open. The Boho post for SidLicious was still on the screen. When I looked at it, I didn’t notice anything different at first. But then I looked again. At the bottom of the post there was a comment that wasn’t there before from a new user.

“Pics please?” asked BigFun.

“Not even worth it, he’s a chubby little twink with chest hair,” replied DonaldJuan.

“DJ is a bit of a sick puppy as most of us know so let’s not take his comments as gospel,” replied GeneralScrew.

“I have actually seen SidLicious in the flesh and he is not as DJ describes,” replied Guest02224.

“The boy is dead,” replied Guest04445.

“I’m not dead,” I screamed at the glass

Click here to learn more about Getting Off by Jonathan Reiss

Click here to purchase a copy of Getting Off an Amazon

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