In the mirror, I was happy. Lisa and I had made love in the early part of the morning, when the curtains held a faint gray glow. It was Sunday morning—my second Sunday morning—and Sunday was her day to sleep in before getting the family to church. So I let her roll her flushed face back into the cleft of her pillow while I left the bed to brush my teeth and prepare for the day. I brushed for an extravagantly long time (I had a dentist’s appointment the next day—my first in thirteen years) and studied my face in the toothpaste-flecked glass: yes, I was happy.
We had made love six times in a little over a week. They told me at the office—the women and the men alike—that this was a lot for a married couple. But Lisa and I were enjoying a kind of honeymoon, I supposed. At first, she had said that we didn’t have to make love at all. To this Philip LeBon had declared, “Horseshit! Women have needs.” So at our first dinner alone on the Friday before our first weekend together—the kids had gone to stay at her mother’s—she served me not only soba noodles with greens, chicken breast, and tamari, but also a Viagra. To be honest, I took it; Lisa was not what I thought of as my “type.” I used to like pale, tall, skinny girls: the Lizzie Siddal model, essentially, in keeping with my earlier self-conception. (My former self would perhaps also not have written with such casual command about women’s bodies—I had taught CULTSTUD1001: Introduction to the Reading of Gender for two semesters, after all—but such talk was common around the office, and I was becoming inured to it.) Lisa carried more weight even as she only came as high as my chest, and her face was round in a way I might have found matronly in my past life, despite her playful red-plastic-framed and oversized glasses and her plump lips lipsticked into the shape and scarlet of a heart. But when she took her clothes off that Friday night, I found myself irresistibly fascinated by the heft of her breasts, by the lengthening of her tight red heart into a mischievous smile. I had spent so much time worrying over whether or not I would desire her; now that I did, and avidly, I worried that she would find me unacceptable. Before he wasted away, Mike had been an athlete, while I was at once skinny and paunchy—and weak. But we enjoyed ourselves, Lisa and I; we explored every part of each other. I memorized the landmarks and natural paths of a new territory, from the whitening blonde roots of her auburn-dyed hair to the fading tattoo on the side of her left foot that read in cursive script, Choose Your Bliss.
I left the bathroom and went quietly down the carpeted stairs, careful not to wake the children. In the kitchen, I flicked on the coffee maker. While the machine wheezed and gurgled, and coffee aroma saturated the room, I slipped onto the back porch. The sun had not achieved its full daytime intensity yet, but it burned brightly through the treetops. The first week of September, the air hinting of fall: a cold, sweet, leaf-rot edge on the breeze. The lawn—my lawn—rose from the porch steps about a hundred feet up to a small bank of woods. I felt I could see the dew glinting like jewels.
* * *
How did I come into possession? The process began about six months before that September Sunday, on a very different Sunday, on the eve of spring break at the university where I worked as an adjunct professor. Looking forward to a week free of assigned texts and agrammatical student essays, a week I could devote to my own intellectual work, I had gotten up early (nine in the morning was early for me then) and had gone to a neighborhood café with a satchel full of books. I would decide over coffee which of these books would contribute to my research and fuel my writing over the course of my free week. But the coffee (in truth, a raspberry mocha latte) only made me scatterbrained and tremulous, unable to gather into any coherence the tortuously dialectical sentences of Adorno or the abstract precision of Blanchot. I found myself sitting there at the brunch hour, pretending to read, my mouth sour with decaying sugars that had never borne any relation to a raspberry. I listened to the conversations all around me.
One in particular rose to my attention: two girls of early college age sat in unequal dialogue. The girl with short blonde hair, hoop earrings, an oversized sweater, and a private-school skirt sat straight-backed as she spoke loudly and without pause, her pale lips smirking. Her friend trailed her long dark hair along the tabletop, slouched in her seat, bowed under the weight of the words piling up on her, absently sloshing her coffee in its mug and making a quiet, desultory answer from time to time. The dominant one was complaining about a professor who didn’t take seriously her—or, rather, her so-called committee’s—recommendation to warn students in advance about potentially traumatizing course materials. “They are just so bound to tradition,” she said, “they are so afraid of change.” She led the conversation rapidly on from topic to topic: “The way you’ll be thinking about someone, and then they immediately call you,” she said. “It’s a program I recommend to those who need structure,” she said. “She’ll challenge you on your avoidance of emotion,” she said. “Are you disappointed in your teachers?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Your teachers will disappoint you. Oh, endlessly.” Then she said, “But I like to read their bios on the faculty website. It’s interesting what they put down. You can sense their personalities.” She smirked brightly.
“Or lack thereof,” said the frailer one without merriment in a hoarse, strangled voice.
These girls frightened me obscurely; I felt sure they could read my personality across the room, sense beneath my elaborately cultivated worldliness my own fear of change. (Why not fear change, anyway? What was death but change?) I reacted to them with unaccountable repulsion, seeing in them something like junior Red Guards, with a dunce cap in the frail one’s purse to crown my intellectual arrogance, and a red brick in the other’s to cave in my skull in the event that the pedagogy of humiliation should fail. There was something else, though, something in the way the dominant one talked. Young people should believe that they know better than their elders, should be entirely and gnostically certain that the world would be more just and give more pleasure if they were allowed to control it. But this girl had the bearing of one already in power. Her tone was that of a polite but brisk administrator; in her mouth, wisdom torn from straitjacketed poetesses and exiled philosophers became the authoritative and standardized formulations of a bureaucracy staffed by those who had never really suffered. Was this what I had fought for in my protracted education? A rebellion so routinized as to be veritably clerical?
Eventually, the girls got up to go. The conversationally dominant but physically shorter one held the hoarse and fragile girl with the long dark hair around the waist.
I kept trying to read, but a full maudlin fit had taken me over. It did not help that the male barista (baristo?), in what I took to be an access of advanced irony, played a soft-rock mix—Rod Stewart, Elton John, Phil Collins, Chicago, The Eagles—that extended my melancholy via mémoire involuntaire. This was the lite-FM music my mother would play in the car on those long suburban rides home from my pre-school, all those long-gone, sun-yellow afternoons: the dip in the hill so steep it seemed like the wheels of the car would leave the ground, and my stomach would leap up in my abdomen, and my body would lose contact with the seat, and my mother, every time, would reach over to put a steadying hand on my chest. The baristo is too young to have listened to this music when new, too young to associate it with such memories; he must just be an aesthete. Huey Lewis and the News; John Cougar Mellencamp; Don Henley, alone this time: “The End of the Innocence.”
It was about then that Mike and Lisa entered the café, along with Philip LeBon and another woman I failed to recognize. I knew Mike, Lisa, and Philip from high school, and, lately, from the occasional Facebook update when I deigned to log in, but I had not spoken to them in almost twenty years. Mike had been a jock, a baseball player, but one who smoked enough pot to be friendly with the hippies, stoners, and other assorted resisters to the regimes of ambition and responsibility. (Not like to me; my teachers had told me that I’d go far.) Mike had always had a pleasant lassitude that kept from the coarseness or brutality through which so many of the other athletes distinguished themselves socially. He was forever freeing goth boys with black fingernails from the bathroom wall against which the football players had them pinned. He habitually wore a vague half-smile, as if forever lightly stoned in the outfield, watching the distant action expectantly, neutrally convinced some chance would come his way. He was a simple, good man. Lisa had been his consort since junior year; a girl who had concealed her very ordinary interest in fashion and romance behind certain extremities of dress and decoration (purple streak in her hair, skull choker at her throat), Lisa, like Mike, demonstrated a certain originality that nevertheless had definite limits. I was sure they would be very normal together someday, with two children and a mortgage, and nary a dime bag in sight, and here they were. As for Philip LeBon, he would have been the one to sell Mike his marijuana and maybe a tab of ecstasy or acid. All four looked more or less ordinary now, the men in golf shirts, the women in sundresses. Only LeBon’s tattooed forearms and the ever-so-slightly overt artifice of Lisa’s hair color suggested that they had ever transgressed the bounds of common sense.
But Mike was quite clearly dying. He wore a baseball cap, but I caught glimpses of his scalp’s mottled bare and bluish flesh; his eye sockets and cheekbones seemed unnaturally lengthened, as if his face were gathering more and more darkness until it would finally disappear. His golf shirt hung askew on his frame like the garment of an anatomy-class skeleton dressed for fun at an end-of-the-semester party.
When I saw that Mike was dying, I tried to look away, but Lisa pointed me out, and all four waved—even the woman I did not know—as they carried their coffees to their window seat. Some in Mike’s vicinity frowned and whispered. I snuck glances from time to time; the group was held in dazzling sunlight, so that I thought I could see Mike’s bones through his papery skin. It seemed unlikely, but all the same, I felt they were discussing me. I could not leave right away, though, or they would attribute it to their entrance—even to my discomfort at the sight of a dying man. I tried again to focus on my reading. I had almost re-absorbed myself into the conceptual world of Blanchot when I looked up to see Philip LeBon and his wife standing over me, blocking the ferociously eager springtime sun.
“Hey, man,” LeBon said, as if he had last seen me yesterday, seen me in our studio arts class, covering a canvas in pitted impasto, my fingers stained red as a surgeon’s, while he fashioned a bowl out of clay, clammy and wet until fired in the kiln.
“Hey,” I said. My throat was dry, and my voice broke the word in squealing halves.
“This is Sophie,” he told me.
“And I know who you are,” Sophie said in a little-girl voice, sliding into the seat next to me and complicatedly entangling her legs beneath her. Now that I saw her up close—the straight dirty-blonde hair fanning below her shoulders, the faint paisley print on her well-worn sundress, the Birkenstock sandals peeking out at odd angles from her intricated lower half—I knew that she had kept some of the high-school faith, was perhaps even LeBon’s vital cord, now that he (according to Facebook) ran three separate companies, to a life in which accounting did not figure.
LeBon pulled out a chair noisily and sat down across from me. He folded his hands on the table like one accustomed to negotiation. His thick wedding band was of a lusterless metal and did not glitter in the light. Flames, a little dull now, swirled in orange and red up his arms.
He leaned close and said, “You see our old buddy, Mike, over there?”
“Yes,” I said without lowering my book, hoping they would read my signal to leave me alone. They both stared silently at me, LeBon’s eyes faintly smiling, Sophie’s wide and guileless. “Is he sick or something?” I asked to fill the silence.
“Well, how does he look to you?” LeBon asked.
“How sick would you say?”
“Pretty fuckin’ sick!” LeBon said.
“Pretty fucking sick,” Sophie agreed with a stoner giggle.
“What does he have?” I asked.
“Some long word,” Sophie said with bright dismissiveness. “Something –oma, something –ima.”
“Whatever, it’s big,” LeBon said, whether word or illness he did not specify. Both, I guessed. “You were always good with the words. Remember how you edited the literary magazine, what was it, some damn bird.”
“The fuckin’ Nightingale. And you wrote all that poetry?”
He snatched the book out of my hands and leafed through it.
“Pfft. I was never too into that shit. That was my fruity brother, used to act in plays. He teaches high school now, sometimes my mom sends him money, probably the money I send her. Me, when I think, I want it to be something useful. And when I don’t want to think, I don’t want to think. You know?” At this he slid the book across the dirty tabletop to Sophie and lifted his pinched fingers to his lips and sucked.
Now Sophie paged through Blanchot. “I always liked poetry,” she said. “Ginsberg, Bukowski, stuff like that.” She rubbed the fingers of one tiny hand along my back and with the other hand clenched the book open, cracking the spine. “This looks too heavy though: ‘Literature and the Right to Death.’” She frowned cutely, like a baby.
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” LeBon said, raising his voice. “That is the shit that pisses me off. It makes no sense. ‘Right to death’? Fuck that! You know what I want? The right not to fucking die!”
“Come on, babe,” Sophie said.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m sorry. It’s this thing with Mike has me fucked up.” He passed his palm over his face harshly.
“That’s actually why we wanted to talk to you,” Sophie said.
“That’s it,” LeBon agreed. “Fact is, our buddy, Mike, he’s at death’s door. You could say it more poetically, I bet.”
“No, man. Go on. Lay it on me. Say it pretty like.”
I whispered, “I can see the skull beneath his skin.”
“There you fuckin’ go,” LeBon said.
Sophie playfully put her elbow into my side and said, “I like that!”
Across the room, Mike was looking at the window dreamily, maybe bidding each thing farewell as it passed. Did I, however obscenely, envy him briefly? Envy the peace that comes from knowing it will soon be over? Lisa stared our way, directly at me in fact, with a moue of disapproval.
“Anyway,” LeBon went on, “we’re doing a bit of a benefit, pooling our resources, to leave something that will keep Lisa and the kids on their feet for a while since Mike was—is—the breadwinner. And we were thinking you could pitch in. I knew you’d want to as soon as I saw you, knew you’d be the one to help an old buddy.”
“Sure, I guess…”
“It won’t cost much,” Sophie said, her small hand flattened earnestly between my shoulder blades.
“Hey, what do you do?” LeBon asked.
In those days, I never knew how to answer that question; not like now, when I just say, “I’m in pharmaceutical sales,” and my questioner nods politely and with some admiration. I did not like to say I was a writer, because I was hardly a famous, successful writer, and I certainly made no money at it. I did not like to say I was a teacher, because that word retained overtones of the laboriously or even heroically selfless—the kindergarten teacher giving the children the love they fail to receive at home. And I could not say I was a professor, because I was only a contingent laborer, hired to lecture at the indifferent about the valueless on terms closer to those of migrant peach-pickers than those of whatever disheveled don, handsomely rewarded for his eccentricity, the word professor still evoked.
“I’m an instructor at a few local colleges and universities,” I finally said.
LeBon narrowed his eyes and smiled sardonically. “Do you make enough money doing that to give some to poor Lisa and the kids?”
“Sure,” I said again. “Is there an address you want to give me, or some website…”
“Tell you what, man, we’ll pick it up in person.”
“Your place, silly,” Sophie said.
LeBon stood: “I’m a businessman. I get all kinds of directories, man. We know where to find you.”
Sophie unknotted her legs as she slid them to the floor, her sandals hitting the tiles with a cartoonish slap. She leaned her head on my shoulder for a second before she stood. She said, “We appreciate this so, so much.”
“We’ll be in touch,” LeBon said.
Too unnerved now for ceremony, I gathered my books and quickly left the café, averting my eyes from the table where my old acquaintances still sat in amiable conversation. But I could not resist turning back to the window as I stood on the sidewalk sweating in the premature heat of mid-March. From the sun-struck pane, only Lisa’s sad eyes met my own.
* * *
It was far too early in the morning when they knocked on the door of my basement studio apartment. I had almost forgotten about them after that weird Sunday in March; I had deleted my social media accounts in hopes they would forget about me. By then it was July, a swelteringly hot July, the kind where your glasses fog as soon as you step outside. My apartment had no air conditioning, but its underground situation kept it cool as a cavern; all my books, though, were curved and damp with the humidity. For the summer I was unemployed, living on last semester’s savings and the odd check from my bewildered and dissatisfied parents. I had planned to get to work on a book proposal for an academic study—“visions of the artist’s vocation in the Romantic novel,” or something akin but more euphonious, would have been the subtitle—to increase my so-far inexistent prospects for a tenure-track job. I also wanted to write a novel of my own. But the days just kept evading me, boiled off in the heat wave. When I staggered in a T-shirt and boxers to the door to find Philip and Sophie LeBon standing there, it came to me that this day, too, was a Sunday.
“Hey, man,” LeBon said, but he kept his hands in his pockets. His tattoos made it look as if gouts of flame were erupting from his sides. Sophie pulled me into a friendly hug and kissed my rough, unshaven cheek.
Over her shoulder, I could see to the end of the hallway: a gang of about five men, silhouetted in the light from the ground-level window above them, lounged against the walls, checking their phones or appraising the wall sconces. LeBon saw that I saw them. He said, “Some of my employees. Friendly guys, mainly. I figured it’s a nice morning for a walk. So I said, ‘Come on in, I’ll give you time and a half. Come meet my buddy.’”
I still had not said a word to them. LeBon and Sophie entered my apartment decisively, leaving me on the threshold. The other end of the hallway was clear; I considered bolting in that direction, up the backstairs to the ground floor and out to the street. But then what? Spend all day outside, barefoot and in my underwear? These two probably just wanted money; I would write them a check, even if I could not cover it, just to get rid of them and go on with my life. I shrugged and walked back through the doorway and shut the door behind me.
LeBon stood at my mismatched shelves, scavenged mostly from garbage bins, and carelessly rifled through the curled and damp pages of my books. He would take one down, flip its leaves harshly, and then throw it to the floor. “Really,” he said, “what the fuck do you do?”
“I’m a writer, I’m an adjunct prof—”
“Not asking for job titles. I mean, how do you fit into the world? What do you do to keep the gears turning? How do you help people?”
To be honest, I do not know now what I said. Maybe I said something about critical thinking. Textual analysis makes better citizens. Careful reading calls into question our received categories. Scholarship in cultural history tells us where we have been and where we are going. While no one had yet given any evidence of having read my article, “The Rationalizers’ Tragedy: Subverting Enlightenment and Restoring Commons in Brown’s Wieland and Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften” (Journal of Comparative Literature, 16:3 [Spring 2012]: 201-227), I nevertheless thought it had the potential “to revise significantly our understanding of the trans-Atlantic epistemological networks connecting the early American novel to German Romanticism,” as I believe I wrote in a grant proposal once.
While I spoke, LeBon hurled book after book to the floor. Sophie kicked off her sandals to curl up in the tangled sheets of my bed. She grabbed my phone from the nightstand and started scrolling through my music.
Whatever I was saying, LeBon finally cut me off with a peremptory wave of the hand: “Fact is, our good buddy Mike has passed away.”
Sophie rolled over, dug in the pockets of her floral-printed shorts, and passed me a much-folded printout of Mike’s obituary. The picture was from before he had fallen ill: he showed a full head of hair, a robust face, clean white teeth—a man of substance. Survived by beloved wife Lisa, beloved children Max and Taylor. Send donation in lieu of flowers.
“Mike has passed away, and we have to figure out what the fuck to do.”
“It’s tough,” I said. I sat on the bed next to the Sophie and spread my hands in my lap.
“Mike filled a role,” LeBon said. “You have to see it my way, man: I’m in business. I move money and people around all the time. Something’s missing, you fill the gap. Somebody’s not productive, they have to go. You ask those guys out there.” He jerked his thumb toward the hallway. “But Mike was productive, man. It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t stand things that don’t make sense. I have to make them make sense.” Now LeBon started pacing in front of the pile of books he had made. He kept one in his hand—Schiller, I think, the Letters on Aesthetic Education—and started turning the pages from the beginning, as if to read it. But every time he turned a page, he tore it out of the book. The pages drifted to the floor, and he shuffled through them, kicked them up: a boy in autumn.
Sophie spoke over the violent ripping sounds. “You put things too harshly, babe. Nobody wants to hear that.” She turned to me. “What Phil is trying to say is that you should see life like a big ecosystem. It needs balance, a very delicate balance. Everybody has to do their part. If you kill the plankton in the ocean, then the smaller fish will die off, and then the bigger fish will die off too, and pretty soon the whole ocean will be dead. So even the smallest plankton has to do its part.”
“And Mike was no goddamn plankton,” LeBon said, flinging down the empty covers of the Schiller volume.
“No,” Sophie said sweetly. She flipped her taut body around and laid her head in my lap, her fan of hippie hair spread out across my thighs. “Mike had a job in sales—pharmaceuticals, you know, things that help people, make them better. And he had a devoted wife. Him and Lisa barely spent a night apart since they were sixteen. She’s not used to sleeping alone. They say people with the closest marriages get married again the quickest when their spouse dies. And he has two little kids—a little boy who needs a father to show him how to ride a bike without training wheels and how to fix a car engine, and a girl who’s just a teenager this year, who’s starting to act out, who needs a father in the house to show her what a good man is so she’ll know one when she sees him and won’t be taken in by the jerks of the world. These aren’t big things. It doesn’t take a genius to do them, to take care of a family, to work in a simple but necessary business. And you’re a smart man.”
“But we figured if you were a genius, we’d have heard about it already,” LeBon said. “You like to think you might be. You like to hang around in a genius-type atmosphere, because you’re too good for any other. But what—I mean, really—what the fuck are you doing with your life?”
“Phil, babe, let me talk,” Sophie said. She cast her gray eyes on me. “We think you’re a good man. We can see it in your face. We read it clear across the room. You want to help the world—why else would someone be a teacher, and for such low pay? But you’re barely working in your profession. The world might have enough teachers.”
“Has too many fuckin’ books, I’ll tell you that,” LeBon said, kicking at the pile with his Converse.
“Babe,” Sophie said with a monitory smile. To me she said, “What the world needs is another Mike.”
“Mike was such a good guy,” LeBon said as he wiped his leaking eyes. “We’re paying you a hell of a compliment.”
“And you deserve it,” Sophie said. “Lisa told me she thinks you’re a good-looking guy. You just need a haircut. Some new clothes. Maybe a dental check-up.” She teased my lips apart with her childish fingers and tapped a nail on my yellowing front teeth. “Lisa is looking forward to getting to know you again.”
I lay back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling so that I could not see them, and I tried not to hear LeBon’s observations about what a fine piece of ass Lisa was. In that moment, I could almost imagine my life was what it had been before their invasion, what it had been for the last decade and more. Outside, the sun was coming into its full strength, the streets were on fire, but my basement studio was cool and dark, a shelter in the earth for knowledge that would, if it emerged, be burned to ash up there. There were men in the corridor now, and a different bed waiting for me. There would never be peace in my burrow again.
“What will happen to my books?” I asked, still flat on my back.
Sophie, taking this as my agreement, squealed and hugged my hips.
“Well, you can’t take them with,” LeBon said. “They’ll set the wrong tone, confuse your purpose.”
“Will you get rid of them? Burn them?”
“Fuck no, man, we’re not Nazis. I’ll sell them. I can sell anything. Money will go to you, of course.”
“For Taylor’s college fund,” Sophie said. “And the marriage, it can start slow. You don’t have to worry about anything else. Phil took care of everything already. They’re expecting you at the office tomorrow morning. Tonight, you’ll have dinner with the family. Next weekend, Lisa’s mom will watch the kids. She even said that you don’t have to, you know…”
“Horseshit!” LeBon roared, slapping my knees with both hands. “A woman has needs.”
Ten minutes later, we were up on the burning street. Sweat was already gathering at the small of my back. By reflex, I checked my email on my phone to see about responses to my many literary submissions and teaching job applications, even though I knew that life was behind me forever. I thought of Orwell or maybe Tolstoy—one of those sober realists, anyway—on how the man being led to the gallows decorously stepped around a puddle in his path.
Sophie took my hand and said quietly, “You are about to lead a life that is the envy of the planet. I am so fucking happy for you.”
* * *
So that is how I came to find myself—in the mirror, at least—happy on my second Sunday, with the smell of my wife’s warm body still clinging to my T-shirt, with my children sleeping down the hall. My children. Max was easy to love, just five years old, so energetic and earnest and uncomplicated in his feelings; I loved to see him in the morning amble blearily into the kitchen and take the cereal box from the counter between both careful hands, his pale brown hair stuck up in crisscrossed quills as a smile of ingenuous pleasure-in-effort spreads beneath his pert nose—my little hedgehog. As for the job, it made up in ease for what it lacked in mental stimulation. Mostly I enjoyed the company of my co-workers. They spoke fluently of necessity and just as fluently of freedom. They—even the women—told the filthiest jokes; they made the most decisive moral claims. Their values and their politics proceeded directly from their interests, without the tortuous mediation of study. Was it Emerson who said that only professors hem and stammer, while the blacksmith’s words fall like hammer-blows? Well, they were not blacksmiths, my family or my co-workers, but I loved to hear their intelligent, untutored speech. And reading? I do not miss it. Do you know how much time you’ll have to think if you just quit reading?
In my former life, I did everything with the goal of evading time. I read books, and I wanted to write books, and what is a book but an attempt to preserve all those thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be carried away, first by the days and then by the years? So I avoided all those realities that submit themselves to time, that cannot be protected from it: the love of bodies, the concern for generation, the respect for profit. All of these will decay; all have to be maintained within time. With none are you permitted to forfeit the race. In my former life, I never looked in the mirror for fear of seeing time’s marks on my face. In this very bathroom mirror, our old buddy, Mike, no doubt saw the first clouds of the dust raised by the galloping malady that would trample him under. The same will happen to me, I know, but it only makes this strange love I feel more fierce.
Here is a story about a writer that you may have heard before. The writer, solitary and saturnine, portly hoarder of les mots justes, celibate these long years except for a whore or two, embittered hater of received wisdom and conventional minds, prosecuted mocker at dreamy schoolgirls, contented matrons, and respectable businessmen, is out for a walk one day by the Seine when he spies through a lamplit window a family around the fire, wreathed in warmth, the children sleep-eyes, the parents quietly proud, and this writer says to himself, “Ils sont dans le vrai”—idiomatically, “They are right,” but quite literally, “They are in the truth.” When I was young and foolish, I wanted to know the truth. Now I am so grateful to be in it.
You may have noticed that I failed to mention my daughter, Taylor. This is not because I love her less—far from it. I am learning to savor the challenges of common life. Taylor is thirteen years old; Mike and Lisa had her when they were just out of high school, and she endured some difficult times with them, years when there was no money, years when her parents acted like the children that in some ways they still were. Then she had to watch as her increasingly confident, increasingly well-off parents had another child, a child of ease and maturity, had to watch them bring forth in their ripeness little Max, so easy to love. And then she watched her father dwindle to nothing, as if some vacuum at his core were pulling him back into the void little by little. On the cusp of adolescence, as she saw her own body gain heft and rondure in the bathroom mirror, she discovered in the face of her father the skull beneath the skin. She dyed her hair black; she began to dress all in black; she found in an old jewelry box her mother’s skull choker, and now she never took it off. Her grades have gone down, especially in math and science, and she’s begun to refuse to go to church. She writes morbid poetry and paints cemetery scenes in gray watercolor. She is very clearly not impressed by the stammering, graceless stranger who came through the door less than two weeks ago claiming to be her father now. I imagine she hears him through the bedroom walls, rutting with her mother in the naïve bliss of erotic novelty, and I imagine she grows disgusted with the whole cycle of flesh and fluid, the tides of birth and death, and wants to call an end to it all.
“So please talk to her, okay?” Lisa said. “Spend the morning with her and just listen if that’s what she wants. Look at her poetry—you were a writer once. I’ll take Max to church, and you stay home and let her know she’s loved.”
On my second Sunday at home, I drink my sweet and milky coffee and listen for the heavy tread on the carpeted stairs, for the thick-soled, eighteen-holed, knee-high boots to shake the frame of the house as she comes down for breakfast. She stands in the kitchen in front of me as I write this and pours herself a black, black coffee, but the fact is that I can hardly see her: she has dyed her hair such a glossy black that it catches every particle of morning light and flings it in spangles all around the kitchen. She loses herself in a golden haze: my goth daughter!
John Pistelli was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches literature and creative writing. His reviews and essays have appeared in Rain Taxi, New Walk, Ragnarok, and The Millions. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Three Rivers Review, The Legendary, Whole Beast Rag, Revolver, The Squawk Back, and Winter Tangerine Review. His short story “How People Live” won Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train May 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. His novella The Ecstasy of Michaela was published by Valhalla Press in 2012. Find out more at johnpistelli.wordpress.com