American Fiction, by Andrew Madigan.
She thought of him, now, as someone committing a slow suicide, butter knife to his neck. If he had the patience and nerve, the skin would eventually redden and, one day, break through.
Before, it had been different. Paul was a young, energetic, occasionally surly assistant professor. Carla was in advertising. They lived in the West End of St. Louis, an artsy neighborhood just a few blocks from the childhood home of William Burroughs.
It was said that Paul had a fire in the belly. In her most honest and reflective moods, Carla might come close to admitting that angry, childish, self-absorbed and aggressive were more apt descriptors. Since he was Scotch-Irish, on both sides, it was easy for Paul to ascribe his behavior, his personality, to ethnic identity. That's how I am, he liked to say. That's me. Of course, he also claimed to be an existentialist, which meant that existence precedes essence, that he didn't believe in a discrete identity or personality that came with, in fact preceded, human birth, like a bar code whose lines and numerals told an encrypted, immutable version of our story.
Carla never called him on this, never asked how he could justify his actions according to principles he claimed to reject, scoffed at, denounced in conversation, demystified in print. She enjoyed his tempestuous side and was amused by his simplistic justification of it. It gave her something to talk about at faculty parties. There was always a Paul Story moving around, something comic and vaguely shameful, like an email forwarded around the office that everyone laughs at but quickly deletes, afraid the tech guys will trace the message back. How he made the sorority girl cry, asking if she had an opinion about Hawthorne or if she merely thought what everyone else thought. Everyone shook their heads and cleared their throats, feigning discomfiture, but they were secretly pleased. How he tried to fustigate the Dean, but could only manage to say Go Yuck Fourself. Even the Dean had laughed it off.
Carla liked being near the center of these narratives. It gave her an anchor, a sense of place in the story. She was a round character. Is this too facile? Probably not. People are dying for something to talk about and, if they can be talked about, so much the better. And it verified the notion that Paul was interesting. She couldn't tolerate boredom or silence.
Carla appreciated his contradictions, and she had read enough psychology to recognize the shadow, the submerged element, in Paul's angry tirades. When he asked to be held, when he was bitterly depressed, when he cried during a made-for-TV movie: she felt privileged to witness the other side of his personality.
Like Andrew Jackson, Paul's family came from the Scotch-Irish backcountry of Appalachia, where people spoke their minds. His people tended to fear big government and big business. They used cash to buy things, not checks or credit. They were proud of fistfights and broken friendships. Although this tradition has all but vanished, the brutish stereotypes no longer hold, and the backcountry has been subsumed into the McOpolis, Paul still maintained a rhetorical connection to this mythic wilderness. He appropriated the myth to suit his needs. He didn't know any of his rustic ancestors. He'd never been in a barroom brawl. If he could claim to be a victim of heredity and conditioning, however, then he most certainly would.
At some level Paul must have recognized his own contradictions. The discrepancy between the philosophy he embraced and the excuses he made was vast. Aporia was the literary term. Greek for "impassable path." The gap, or better yet the lacuna, between meaning and understanding, signifier and signified. The tension between rhetoric and logic. In class, teaching American Fiction, he was quick to explore these tensions within literature. But he spoke so quickly flailing his arms and even spitting, so that students avoided the first two rows that any parallels to his own life were passed by.
As a husband, Paul was neither vicious nor rash. Instead, he was moderately generous, periodically naughty, and generally easy to live with. It would never occur to him to help around the house, even though Carla's workload was heavier than his. This simply wasn't compatible with his image of his a priori assumptions about maleness.
Paul also wrote fiction, a hobby which aroused his aggression, which caused immense frustration. He knew so much about narrative, about subtext, about language and craft. Writing a novel should be easy, he thought. But it wasn't. After more than six years of labor, he'd produced nothing more than a boxful of dead ends, bad ideas, cliché and experimental nonsense. When Carla asked after his progress, he squinted, bore a serious expression, and spoke of aesthetic distance, structural difficulties, questions of technique.
After several aborted efforts, Paul settled for the short story. It wasn't the monument that a novel was, didn't have the bulk or the seriousness. But it was manageable.
Paul spent a great deal of time at the university library. When he should have been at his desk, maintaining office hours, he posted a sign on the face of his computer-Dr. Wallace is conducting research in the library. This was a double lie. He wasn't researching but, ostensibly, writing. In fact, he was doing neither. Paul usually spent the time reading stories. T. C. Boyle, Martin Amis, Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, Haruki Murakami, Chinua Achebe, Rick Moody.
First, Paul would align his pens, pencils and high-liters in a neat row to the right of his spiral notebook, tips pointing upward. Then he would sharpen the pencils and check the pens for messy leaks. He might even snip the nib from a green high-lighter if it were spoiled with ink. An idea, a character sketch, a scene? When nothing came, he prowled the stacks for a new book of stories, like a sexual predator lurking in back alleys for fresh meat.
"Dr. Wallace? Hello. What are you doing here?"
"I read too, Wendy. Right?"
She giggled, moving her books from one arm to the other. "Yea, I guess. I'm sorry, that was stupid."
He smiled. "No, not at all. I'm just looking for something to read. For inspiration." He tried to appear ironically lofty.
"Are you working on something, Dr. Wallace?"
"Yes and no. I'm stuck. A-" He screwed up his face and made a waffling gesture with his hands. "-technical problem. Dry stuff. I won't bore you with the details. Need a break. I've been writing for hours."
She shook her head, impressed.
"What do you have there, Wendy?" Paul moved next to her, craned his neck, and ran his fingers across the cover of her topmost book until they rested on her arm. "Molecules of Emotion? What's that? Sounds fascinating. Some type of...scientific study of the chemistry of human feeling?"
Wendy giggled, embarrassed. "Not at all. You wouldn't like it. Forget you even saw it, okay?" She tucked the book into her purse.
"What is it? Now you've got my attention." He smiled, self-consciously.
"C'mon, Wendy. You have to. I'll owe you one. We'll go out for a drink."
Wendy moved her mouth to the side of her face, looked at the ceiling, adjusted her feet, and played with her hair. "Okay. But don't laugh, okay? And don't get mad."
"Of course not."
"It's Deepak Chopra. Sort of self-helpy..." This time, she made waffling motions, with her head. "But good. He's so intelligent."
"Hmm." Paul didn't know what to say. He'd seen Chopra on television, Jay Leno. Hard to take a guru seriously after that. She'd heard him rant about Self Help books a hundred times in class, and he knew this. Normally, he'd vent. Anyone could write that crap, he'd say. Bunch of lies, misleading half-truths, pastiche of world philosophies and gobbledy-gook. Like Prozac and soft-liberalism: easy answers to complex questions. Crap. Crap! CRAP!
"I know what you think about this type of stuff..."
"If it helps..." Paul said, but he didn't continue. The conversation moved forward and their bodies, perhaps unconsciously, moved closer together. They agreed about everything.
Paul had done this before, many times, so he knew how it would play out. Wendy responded in much the same way as Heather and Lisa and Megan. In fact, each experience was pretty much identical to the others, as if they were using a formula derived from a book. Narrative Structure of the Being-Hit-Upon Coed (Houghton Mifflin, 1967). To Paul, they were stock characters. Awkward introduction, a vague disagreement, some coy defensive measures, common ground, support, empathy, intimacy. Drinks.
It was only lunch time, but Paul insisted they go across the street to Shooters, a college hangout decorated with memorabilia from the university basketball team, which was good enough for the NCAA tournament, usually.
The place made Paul sick to his stomach: dozens of televisions set to sports channels, cardboard cut-outs of Jagermeister Girls, posters of beer bottles personified as long-necked athletes. But he knew it made them feel comfortable to be on their home turf, so the battle was half won the moment they stepped inside. If he'd taken them to his favorite Old Man Bar, where ravaged drunkards grew on barstools like moss, they would be frightened, alert, defensive, reactionary.
After a pitcher or two of whatever cheap beer she preferred, usually Old Style Light, Paul suggested dinner. If she said yes, Paul knew it would be a victory. And they always said yes. They were hungry, without inhibition, feeling secure and desired, feeling special. The Italian restaurant he chose the same one each time was cozy without being threatening, tasteful without being too expensive, laid back without being a dive. It was also quite dark, with a low ceiling and cheap red wine. They usually adored the Chianti bottles swaddled in straw.
He never pounced during the meal. This might be perceived as desperate, over-anxious. Something a creepy old guy would do. But Paul was a young guy, so he played it cool. As cool as a thirty-five year old professor can be when he's luring a teenaged girl into bed.
On the way out, it always hit her. The wine, the darkness, the low ceilings. Especially the low ceilings. If you were sitting for a few hours, you forgot about that. When she reached for Paul's shoulder, for support, he would slip his arm around her waist. By the time they reached the car, she was licking his tongue.
There was always something in the back of Paul's mind, a voice, telling him to stop, trying to dissuade him from a new conquest. When he heard this voice, Paul would speak more quickly, more loudly, focus more intently on the hunt. With Wendy, the voice had been particularly intrusive, but Paul was an old hand so he managed to squash it.
When they were leaving the motel, however, he detected a look and it was much more effective than any voice could be. You could always gloss over the interior monologue, the inner voice, but actions were unavoidable. Wendy gave him a subtle look, afterwards, when Paul asked if she wanted a ride home. She said no and seemed to scrunch her face unpleasantly, perhaps inadvertently. Maybe that was just a habitual expression, maybe it was just her way. Wendy's dorm was close by, and he knew this, so walking was reasonable. And anyway, if anyone saw them in the car together, it would look suspicious.
Paul watched her walk away. Wendy's pace was quick, jerky and regulated, like a goose-stepping soldier. Her arms were tucked efficiently into her sides, she held her purse violently. She looked around nervously every few moments. Paul watched her for a few blocks, then turned onto a side street.
When Paul got up the next morning, he felt a vague twitch of guilt, but he also remembered the fantastic sex. The eidetic image of her firm, young body and taut, clear skin was enough to liberate his conscience. A whole army of Presbyterian ministers was no match for an eighteen-year-old ass. Paul smiled at this thought and rushed toward his notebook to write it down.
It was Saturday. He could hear Carla downstairs in the kitchen putting away plates and spoons. His son was watching television.
Paul got up, pulling on his trousers from the night before. From the weight, he could tell that he'd forgotten to empty his pockets so he took out the wallet, keys and coins and placed them on his bureau. There was also a matchbook. The Tioga Motel. Visit our Samba Room.
This was bad, Paul thought. His father taught him the first rule of being a man: never take matchbooks as souvenirs. They can get you in trouble.
Paul checked himself for scratches, lipstick and girlie scents, then headed down to breakfast. It only took a moment, seeing the top of Jeremy's head rising above the high chair, to remember that he'd forgotten about the school play. He hadn't even called home. Striding through the hall toward the kitchen, Paul knew this would be tricky. He was fairly certain that Carla knew, had known for some time, but he was also fairly certain that she had no intention of questioning him, or leaving, unless he were indiscrete or abusive.
"You missed the play, plunkkh." Carla smashed the coffee mug down in front of Paul. The plunkkh floated above her words like a diacritic.
"Sorry." This was all he could think to say, for several moments. He was surprised she was being so forthright. Their ability to not discuss an issue, to find rhetorical loopholes through which to fearfully scurry, was of Jamesian proportions.
"Sorry? He's been looking forward to this all week. All month. The whole year."
Paul shrugged noncommittally.
"Where were you, for chrissake?"
"Library. Writing." Pause. "Then out for drinks. With colleagues. Sorry. I...forgot."
Paul felt more embarrassed than he ever had, at least since he was a child. Not horribly guilty, but he seriously considered not sleeping with any more students. When Jeremy walked over to the table, though, he felt truly depressed and ashamed.
"It's okay, Dad," he said. "I understand."
Paul was still thinking about his son, and what a poor father he was, on Monday morning. Something impelled him toward the library, first thing, rather than to his office to check email, answering machine and fax.
He stopped at New Arrivals, hoping to spot a recent novel by Nick Hornby or Philip Roth. What he got was something much different. Middle-Aged Men Who Chase Young Girls and the Girls with Low Self-Esteem Who Allow Themselves to be Caught. It was a two-in-one book. The first part, about men, began at the beginning and ended at page 150. At this point, the reader had to flip the book over and read the second part, about girls, which progressed in the opposite direction, also from page 1 to 150. The book had two front covers and two separate titles.
As improbable as it seemed, even to himself, Paul sat down in a comfy chair by the magazine rack and read the whole book, cover-to-middle-to-cover-to-middle. Although he'd probably never admit this to anyone, Paul described the event to himself as an epiphany. He felt like Sammy in "A & P," like the young boys in "Araby" and "Barn Burning." He would be forever changed. And all because of the egalitarian spirit of the New Arrivals section, where Foucault and John Gray sit at the same table.
By the time Paul got to his first class, he'd made a few resolutions, ones which later found their way into the meticulous script of index cards taped to his office wall. Form does follow function, he thought. I would never have written inspirational messages to myself. Before.
I will be faithful to my loved ones.
I will be honest to myself, first, and to the ones I love.
I will offer support, not temptation, to the vulnerable.
I will admit that I am one of the vulnerable people.
I will not be afraid to show my vulnerability to others.
Paul looked at these messages every day without irony or scorn. People marveled at the changes in his life, secretly thinking that he'd been more interesting when he was a thoughtless asshole. Carla was mildly amused, at first, then genuinely pleased. Paul spent more time at home, helped around the house, played with Jeremy, took the family to dinner. His sudden interest in Church, however, and his desire that she accompany him, was less appealing. Carla found religious people to be dubious characters. What were they hiding from? she wondered. What problems did they have? Why did they need the illusion? She grew suspect of Paul's sudden reversal, as he liked to call it, wondering how an intelligent man could swallow so much nonsense. To Carla, all conversions, all changes in personality, were spurious. In reality, Paul's index cards were no more absurd than any other neurotic illusion materialism, alcohol, pop culture, eastern philosophy, entertainment, art, science, Scientology but she found the simplistic, cheery trappings insufferable. They reminded her of AA, which she had attended for fourteen months in her mid-20s.
While Paul was busy becoming a better person downloading casserole recipes and watching Shrek with his son Carla became bored.
Paul had stopped writing, which led to endless discussion. At least a debate, an argument, would have been better. She could have respected a nasty blow-out. But Paul insisted on speaking to one another, not at one another. These phrases disgusted her. She began to drink again.
"Why don't you start something, Paul? You need to write."
"I don't feel like writing. I'm too happy now, too content. I can't write some kind of silly-willy feel-good book."
"Could have fooled me."
He didn't bite. "Get happy, Carla. It won't hurt."
She wanted to scream. "You've got to write something. You give me the creeps lurking around the house all the time, refilling my drink every few minutes. Washing the floor every day"
"Every other day."
"Whatever. The point is, you've got too much nervous energy. And your eyes look glazed over, or something. You used to be so...passionate, so angry."
"No, not anymore."
"You want me to write some type of bodice-ripping sex novel...? I can't do that."
The question hung there, unanswered. Paul was too happy to write. No one quite believed him, of course. He grew his hair longer, joined a few Church groups, read more Self-Help books.
What Carla hated to admit was that the sex was much better before, when he was cheating on her. Whether it was to assuage his guilt or because his pump was continually primed, running from one seedy motel and one hot young tramp to another, she had no idea. But it was true enough, regardless of the reason. He made love gently now, and kindly, never from behind and never drunk and never with his teeth gritted, arms tensed, sweating, trembling, rucking like a rugby player. Now he smiled absentmindedly, like a cult member.
One morning, doing the laundry while Carla slept in, Paul found a matchbook in Carla's jeans, which were thrown over the back of a chair. The Rodeway Inn, Your Home Off the Highway.
Andrew Madigan writes from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates: "I've published poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction. My work has appeared in The North American Review and I'm the poetry editor of Arabia Review. I've also co-written an independent film that was produced in New York. For the last several years, I've been working my way around the world the Middle East, South Korea, Tokyo, Okinawa, and exotic Northwest Ohio. Currently, I teach English Literature at Zayed University, a government school for Emirati girls, who are all veiled and cloaked in black silk."
His poems appeared in Offcourse #18, Fall 2003.
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