This essay is one of the many nonfiction essays entered in the Dan’s Papers $6,000 Literary Prize competition. We liked this entry and present it here, hoping you’ll like it, too.
Breakfast with Maureen at Hampton Coffee Company. She orders grapefruit juice and poached eggs. I have two beers and rye toast. She’d like to come by and pick up the last of her things from my hall closet. “You could probably use the space,” she says. Right. Space. The one commodity I lack. To store my barnacles and my disappointments. Then we step out into a cold February morning on Montauk Highway, conspiring to look like a Fairfield Porter painting. The sun just rising at our backs, touching the tops of buildings and turning them rose and orange. I give Maureen a squeeze and walk her to her car. How many times have I held her face in the early morning half light believing it would always be mine to behold? People are like that. Believing that their prized possessions will always be prized. Will forever be possessed.
Feb. 17: I stare into the hall closet before Maureen shows up to empty it of any evidence that we were once a couple. Somewhere inside is my pitiable porn collection, which consists of one solitary title, Rena Ryan: Reference Librarian. It’s been years since I looked at it but I remember it vividly. I never fast-forwarded through the dull parts. I’d watch every scene. There was actually a kind of plot to it. Rena was freakishly intolerant of any extraneous noise in the library. The movie catalogued the lengths to which she’d go to enforce the “no talking” rule, employing her own body parts to achieve compliance. Scholar or scoundrel, being caught between the stacks took on a whole new meaning when you were up against this literary vixen. Her erotic disciplinary measures included something she called “the Dewy Dismal System,” which could leave one panting and moist, if it ever came to that. And it always did.
I felt sorry for the actress playing Rena. She was breathtakingly beautiful and more than capable of rudimentary acting skills. Couldn’t she have found a place in the legitimate theater? To my mind, she was at her most appealing in the non-sex scenes. Her fiendish insistence on library protocol was reminiscent of a Rosalind Russell performance. It was only in the sex scenes that Rena’s eyes would glaze over, her thoughts undecipherable. With my Maureen, it was just the opposite: the fierce clarity of Rosalind Russell during sex; the pathological discipline of Rena Ryan during everyday life.
March 2: Sitting up listening to Gluck’s Iphigenia In Aulis at four in the morning and running dangerously low on Johnny Walker. Increasing despair as it becomes all too clear, early in Act One, that Athens will lose the Peloponnesian War. Drat the luck.
March 15: It’s a sad thing when a man loses his confidence. Oh, how to get it back once you discover how easy it is to lose it. At the moment, it’s impossible to summon up belief in myself… so the world lacks charm.
And to think I used to be the apple of every law professor’s eye. Bright, charming, most likely to succeed. I was fooled into believing that practicing law was a vocation of honor and nobility. By whose definition? Certainly not corporate law. These corporate gods of greed. These gatekeepers. They usurp all of nature and then sell it back to people in little pieces. They have no respect for the law or for the lawyer. And I have nothing but contempt for them. What I was doing could be done by anyone with a law degree and an $800 suit. How amazing it was to have garnered so much self-esteem… and so little self-respect. So many of us, nothing more than well paid clerks, whose job it was to keep the government off their backs. They wanted to be able to continue storing coal tailings in unsafe sludge ponds. They wanted to be able to continue dumping polyethylene terephthalate into the Lehigh River. Even when they know plastics are not inert. They are biologically active. They are toxins. All they want is to be able to continue making money with as little interference as possible. And I’m supposed to defend that? That’s not why I became a lawyer. The world has changed its aspect so much since I started out. It’s so much grimmer than my expectations. I’m on the other side, for Chrissake. This was the hypocrisy that drove me into shedding my skin. So be it.
March 17: Finally arrive at the Coveleski’s for dinner. Mibbs and Charley are there, Joanne and her sister and two Italians who recite Irish poetry with their Sicilian accent. Yeats said that “art is a quarrel with oneself, not with others.” He might have changed his mind had he known any Sicilians. After dinner we all paraded to the Blue Collar and sang Irish songs and had a great time until someone came in and put on the juke box and spoiled our fun.
March 23: Leaving voicemails on cell phones is like leaving hostages to fate. I left a long rambling message for Maureen about shedding my skin. It was late at night and probably made little sense. I just wanted someone to talk to. She texted back three days later: “Shedding your skin? Really? And now you think you’re going to make me shed mine. No thanks.”
April 20: Breakfast with Jugger on Mecox Road. A friend of his drops by and joins us for coffee. “Ian Amberley here. Earl of Antrim. Delighted to meet you,” he says in a crisp British accent. He’s a tall, heavy set man with greasy, stringy hair, curly and decidedly too long. His complexion is ravaged and he’s dressed in a white suit, alarmingly formal for so early in the day. We get on well enough and he insists I join him for cocktails at the Maidstone Club this evening. “8:30 should be fine. Just say you’re a guest of the Earl.” I arrive 10 minutes early but it doesn’t matter. The Earl is 40 minutes late. His excuse has something to do with the excessive burden of peerage and his recent appointment to the Board of the Art Society of Ulster. He rambles on about the necessity of physical beauty in life and how it has become his solitary addiction. “Ahhh, the analgesic power of beauty,” he proclaims. His addiction to liquor seems not to register with him, although it makes a strong impression on anyone in his midst. He tells me all the details of how his father “introduced Eddie to Wallis Simpson and how he lived to regret it. It all came about because of a casual remark Mrs. Simpson made about the lack of central heating in British country homes.”
At one point, I silently question whether anything about the Earl or anything he says can be credited but decide to go along for the ride. What a ride. Home on Deer Run at 5:30 a.m., sober, refreshed and exhilarated.
May 25: It takes supreme fortitude or supreme ignorance to survive in this world. Being neither blessed with the one nor cursed with the other, I stumble and fall into that expansive tract of uncertainty. Not an excuse here; just a stab at explication. Oh, the fragility of confidence.
I was never aware of how difficult life was, and now that I am aware of it… I’m not sure the knowledge helps.
June 5: A tall, long-haired woman has just moved into the house across the street on Deer Run. Tonight she is silhouetted against the light from her living room. She appears to be watering the plants on her porch. She pauses. Then she bends her head forward and starts brushing the cascade of her inverted tresses. Using the drawstrings on my venetian blinds, I Morse Code her a “hello,” a feeble pebble tossed into the ocean, to sink without notice. A prodigal leap of faith. She takes her brush and her watering can and steps inside. Her lights go dark. Her lights come back on. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. She’s flicking them on and off! She is signaling back to me in Morse Code, repeating my greeting. Dear God! Then a phone number. Then a rendezvous at Muse. Who needs new media when old smoke signals work just as well.
Her name is Patty Powell and she’s a pilot for Delta. We sit at the bar and watch an electric eel slink past a porcupine shrimp in a tank. She orders grapefruit juice, straight up, and tells me that Switzerland seems more like an arrangement than a country. “Don’t you agree?”
I want to laugh but dare not risk it. I pat the back of her hand resting on the mahogany and say, “Oh yes, I wholeheartedly agree.”
David Risk, a South Shore Suffolk County resident, translates Sicilian poetry into English with a collection to be published in 2014. He’s currently at work on a Tennessee Williams memoir, “Tennessee And Me.”