Close Readingby Albert Mobilio
It’s too brutal to believe. To suck it down till it stews spoils in my gut. To end up sitting here, my sorry ass aching on a palm-thin slab of foam, my body bunched up like a sick dog’s in a kennel cage. Is believing a big enough sack to hide it from sight, make it one more dirty pearl in a long string of swallowed shames? But, whether I believe it or not, there he glides with that home-on-the-range casual stride that he probably practiced in a full-length mirror, just aw-shucks strolling toward the podium, the overhead lights soaking his winter-tan face in a warm terra-cotta glow. He crosses the stage as if he were its new owner pacing off where he’s going to put in the pool. My stomach goes dishrag sour, and before I finish crunching down a dry mouthful of Rolaids, the eye starts in too. At first, it’s only a neighborly tap on the windowpane behind my left eye, a dusting really, but when I see what he’s got in his hand, I know the ball peen hammer is ready to be swung.
What he holds so brazenly in this clean, well-lit place is a bitten off and chewed up piece of me. My life, my story typed up as his manuscript. And what’s bookending the pages is the creamy smooth leather binder Dana gave me when I finished my novel. The leather was as sleek as the small of her back when baby oil pooled there the time I massaged her on the beach in St. John’s. I remember she fell into a deep sleep and left me there alone, my sunglasses in the bag she used as a pillow, to squint into a mile-wide sun until the incoming tide finally roused her. That portfolio had been the plush, skin soft shelter for three years worth of my late-night typing. When I told Dana to take it back when she left, I didn’t think she would. Sure I can live with the Indian-giving, but it’s too much to believe she would then go and give it to him, probably without a word that it was mine, or no, precisely because it was mine, and they could chuckle over my novel going nowhere while his nabs a one-hundred-and-fifty-grand advance. Well, you can see how this would burrow in like a tick. Even through clouds of overripe perfume— what kind of crowd is this?— I can still smell the leather back here behind the last row. The stench off that swab of dead cow’s ass is choking me. He sets it there on the podium, slaps it open, and, I swear he does this, bows his head to take a thick sniff of the rank thing, looks up and beams a savoring smile in my direction. My left eye begins ringing with the first measurable blows.
What is the point of writers reading in public anyway? It’s not enough to print it, ship it out to every Waldenbooks in the land, not enough that the Book-of-the-Month Club drops it on your doorstep? Better, I guess, that we should trudge out and squeeze ourselves into a crowded auditorium to endure some scribbler droning on through his precious, when-will-it-stop prose. This valedictory speech for writing class groupies squirming in hope of the recess bell. Jesus, what a farce. Myself, I never read. Hardly ever. Not that I wasn’t asked, because I was. A lot. But for me, the written word is just that, written. Why tear it off the page, have the author mush it around in the mouth and then spit it in your ear? When I did read, I put something extra in the mix. Some people said that I practically sang. And if I’d ever gotten a real shot, like the one he has here— uptown, ads, mailings, reserved seating, well… But the music has to be on the page in the first place. That’s why this is an audio crucifixion. How can these people weather the slush that’s oozing out of the loudspeakers? Maybe his campfire and rawhide vocals went over back in Sante Fe, where he should have stayed, where he could have kept winning small town penmanship awards and diddling crystal-happy divorcees from his community college fiction class. Local hero with an MFA. Two years in New Mexico and Mr. Born and Bred in Hempstead, Long Island, comes back looking like a Ralph Lauren range-rider with a shitkicking drawl rolling off his denim tongue. A deaf dog could tell after hearing just one first sentence that this cowboy cannot croon.
To wade through his spiel, I’ve got to hold myself real still and replay in my head each of his lines read the way I would read it. Lay on enough backbeat to drown out his cowpoke vowels. And there’s everything right with me doing exactly that because, after all, it’s my story he’s reading. It’s my life he’s ransacked second-hand from Dana. Here is a thief who landed a truckload of cash writing about our breakup, which he caused, and now he stands there spilling my guts right in front of me like a rat too bold to scurry when the lights come on. How bold? He’s wearing a bolo tie, that’s how goddamn bold. Somewhere inside my head a punter drop kicks my eye to the ceiling where it quivers a long second before snapping back with an elastic smack. His voice booms everywhere. I try to breathe deep and count, but the sound engulfs me like bad air. Like a poison cloud. I need to breathe, to swallow something. I hear him reading about Dana and me, about how we used to be.
They always had these talks in the dark. Not that they consciously arranged this, but somehow it worked out that when they talked about their life together, they did it with shades drawn, lights out, in the darkest dark. In summer they talked late, in winter they could talk right after dinner. But whenever they unpacked their hearts, they did it out of one another’s sight.
Unpacked their hearts. He lifted that right out of Dana’s mouth. She’s much too fond of mechanical metaphors. I didn’t lie to her, I “built deceptions.” She didn’t clam up and brood, she “withdrew her investment.” We didn’t merely talk, we sweated over some heavy lifting, we unpacked our friggin’ hearts. And big deal that we did it in the dark. Clearly, that wasn’t enough to keep his prying eyes out of it. To think of him worming his way into every private crevice of our life, of him hovering there in the blackness, scribbling away. That’s the feeling. Like he had actually been there, bolo tie and all. Even worse, how could she tell him all of this when she would never tell me anything. Instead, she would sit cross-legged on the couch, running her fingers over the seam in her jeans as if it contained a Braille message far more compelling then anything I managed to unpack.
Who can say why we ended up talking in the dark? It just seemed to happen. There’s a lot of night to begin with, you know. Maybe I did steer things. Maybe she did. No matter who, neither of us realized what a fixture it was until near the end when she started turning on a light whenever I got pissed. There I’d be, standing in the middle of the living room, chewing air, my arms outstretched like I was giving a lunatic sermon on the mount, and she’d calmly flick the lamp leaving me hung out to dry, like a stagehand caught by a sudden curtain rise. I would shut up and fold into a chair. But when it was good between us, the darkness was good too. We were a conspiracy. Two kids whispering under the blankets. I rubbed her foot while we talked, or, I guess, while I talked, and that seemed fine. Some words get said easier when you don’t have to watch them arrive in someone’s eyes. The movies sell those soul-plunging stares because darkness ain’t so visual. But dark things should be told in the dark, in the confession booth. I think Dana believed that too. Even if she still kept most of her sins to herself.
He’s raking his hand through his hair again. So damn thick, it seems, a comb won’t do the job. He leans forward against the lectern, tilts earnestly toward us, practically tonguing the microphone. He finds women’s faces in the front rows and speaks right to them, breaking away only to graze the pages, then he snaps his head back up, flipping his mane like he’s coming out of a pool. The hair flipping doesn’t bother me even though I may have lost a little myself. It’s just, you know, a bullshit move. If the writing’s good, who needs the showmanship? And boy, how full of yourself do you have to be to memorize your own prose? He must be stone in love with those little bits about losing pills in a taxi and holding the door open so the driver can’t run off with them. Or the “Copacabana” song. That’s me, damn it! I was the one who got stitches from the cab door. I was the one who sang that Manilow song into Dana’s answering machine. But nobody knows this. They only see him, saddled up, riding the dips and swings of his sentences, sprinkling them with sad smiles and husky inflections. He plies the room like a fiction-workshop Robert Goulet and they’re buying it. I look around me and see quite plainly, they’re all buying it.
She felt herself grow smaller under the piled up weight of his judgments, his rules, and even his love. He could conjure stones out of thin air— her looks, how she talked to his friends, how she ordered dinner— but he never criticized her shoulders which only she knew were too weak to bear anymore.
He shovels this drivel in a voice drenched in show-biz righteousness; you’d think he’s auditioning for a role in Judgment at Nuremberg. A woman next to me, who’s my age, maybe a little younger, alright, much younger, sits posture-class straight, a leg tucked beneath her, and holds one black pump in her lap like a beggar’s bowl. She’s nodding an emphatic Yes, as if she knows this kind of man. Guess what chance I’d have with her now that I’m a on a literary wanted poster for being a controlling asshole. Did Dana ever think of that?
There was a time when she would have cared. She knew how tough it was after I stopped, more or less, drinking. All that excess voltage and no place to plug in. I smoked twice as much and wore down the buttons on the TV’s remote. And with the writing not going very well, or really not going at all, I had too much time, too many unused words in my head. OK. So what, his big revelation about what I did in the restaurant, but it is also true that Dana ordered dinner like it was a high-school chemistry class, quizzing the waiter about the ingredients in every dish. Is that sea salt or regular? Have the fennel seeds been roasted? How could I not help twisting my napkin until it shed tears. Of course, no waiter knew the answers, so they would have to run back to the kitchen. By the time we finally got our order my stomach would be lit like a torched oil well. Not wildly different from the present moment. Not to mention the Rockettes who have taken up residence behind my eye. Cap this feeling off with his voice, which now digs in my ears like a screwdriver.
He lived so much outside himself, there was no room between them where she could build an inside, a place bordered by her own skin.
Again with the building and packing. Jesus, this guy should be shot for looting, if not for impersonating a therapist. He’s shuffling emotional breakthroughs like a baccarat dealer. He probably interviewed Dana’s shrink to cover any ground she didn’t spoon feed him. He listens, Dana told me. Obviously with pen in hand. What didn’t she tell him? Nothing about the sex so far. But she told him. She had to tell him. I mean you don’t get that fat an advance for a book with no sex. My sex life in someone else’s book. Dana and me coupling on pages 107 through 121. Baby-sitters marking those pages in their neighbor’s copy. And what if a movie gets made? I’ll be a 70-millimeter deviant with some balding Jeff Goldblum-type playing me. No way will I take all the blame for the sex mess. Not that I blame her, I just won’t take all the blame myself.
When we first got together, Dana was patient. Drinking can drag a bit on bedroom performance. Still, she hung in there. Eventually I got back on track with a little, what I’d call experimentation. It’s not categorically odd to want to keep your clothes on, is it? To want your lover to keep their clothes on too? To touch only at essential junctures? And to want to keep the lights out and want us both to keep quiet as safecrackers? This was not necessarily suspect behavior. More like stylistic innovation, I’d say. A way to distill real excitement from all the tired scenery: couples locked in embraces, cries of passion. Crap from perfume ads. Besides, it introduced an element of distance that allowed me some much needed breathing room. I might as well be in the next room, Dana said. But I still craved the ritualized feel of it, the barely kept silence, and most of all, the fact that, except for an open zipper or a wrinkled skirt, we could part as if nothing had happened. Between us, we cooked an intensity, which, I see now, Dana appreciated only up to a point. Perhaps, given the restraining order she recently got against me, that is an understatement. Yet I’m sure things could have changed, would have changed for the better, if he hadn’t come clomping out of the West, with sagebrush breath, big sky talk, and a lame novel about growing up with a blind brother that won a batch of awards for feel-good books. He bends to his task, into it now with syrupy gusto.
All the old hurts flooded back, each with its own colored bruise, its own way of possessing her.
He’s lathering it on like icing for their wedding cake.
She lay still, watching him sleep, unable to escape the thought that somehow he still was watching her.
Jesus, he’s in our bed, stealing the covers. The room is thick with it. Am I the only one who’s suffocating here? My eye pounds so hard I’m sure my head must be rocking back and forth. The people around me see it, but they’re too polite to stare. Of course, they know the reason why. Know that this is my story, one that was mine to write, to publish, to read here tonight. But it’s his voice, his mouth swallowing all of us. His mouth spilling out more words than this room can hold.
She packed quickly, pulling from the drawers whatever her hands found first. She had to struggle to bend to pick up her shoes because her body was stiff as a tuning fork that could, at any moment, be hammered into unstoppable shivering by the tiniest click of his key in the door. With every sound, her ring against a hanger, the radiator pipes, she felt that cold key turn at the base of her neck.
All I really wanted was to explain how I felt about her. So I did it with a shade too much vigor. She stopped taking my calls. Wouldn’t answer my letters, even though she knows how hard it is for me to sit down and concentrate enough to write a decent letter. And they were more than decent. Attempts, in their own way, to recalibrate the genre. I could easily read them here and done a far better job than him. And then the incident with her doorman, which was blown way out of proportion. I mean, there is a level of rudeness that demands a response. After that she wouldn’t even talk to me on the street. Sometimes I’d wait an hour or more for her to come out of work or the gym. If it wasn’t insulting enough to have someone you love, someone you’ve lived with, practically run from you in public, can you imagine her shining knight dashing up to interrupt us by making threats, actual threats to my person. Called me, and this I will not forgive, a pathetic bozo. A low blow at my lack of hair on top and the way the sides tend to fluff out. Conjure, if you will, this won’t-touch-a-cigarette Marlboro man calling me a clown, doing it in that goddamn drawl of his, standing there wearing steel-toed lizard boots and a red bandanna around his neck. I ask you, who is the real bozo in this picture?
But then Dana loves him, doesn’t she. Loves him enough to hand over whatever we had together for something as pointless as a novel. Something as brutal as him up there, his smirking eyes bearing right in on me, boring hard through the back of my head. He can hardly keep reading, he wants to laugh so much. What a joke he thinks I am. My throat’s too dry for me to swallow, my eye, by any known laws of physics, should no longer be in its socket. Static is beginning to flutter at the edges of my vision, and I need a drink of something cool. I wobble upright, pins and needles flooding both legs, and start toward the main aisle, stumbling some, people giving me looks. At the door I turn to see he’s watching me too. His mouth is going like he’s reading but I can plainly see he’s not, that he’s lost control of himself. He’s laughing out loud, a smug, beneath-contempt kind of laugh. And this, I am compelled to admit, is simply not permissible. I turn around and walk fast, my legs feeling quite fine. I almost fly down to the stage and mount it with a hurdler’s lunge.
As soon as he sees how ready I am to claim my story his eyes go round as if I smacked him; the mouth she kisses freezes in an impolite gape. Draw cowboy, I sneer inside my head. He turns to front row center and there’s Dana. Who else? She seems caught half in and half out of her seat. All that time at the gym has paid off because the way she’s gripping those armrests, her muscles show chiseled cuts. Couldn’t be bothered with working-out when she was with me. Couldn’t make the smallest effort to keep us going.
What are you doing? she hisses, just as he asks the same question, only louder. They’re doing harmonies for me. Her boyfriend moves toward me but I reach in my coat far enough to brush the serrated edge of the kitchen knife I lately feel the need to keep close. That finesses him backwards, gets him squealing for security, security please. Dana’s on her feet right in front of me saying out loud, Get away from him. She’s screaming really. Why don’t you leave us alone. Other voices swoop and crackle in the wings. I step over to the podium, look down at her, find her eyes, just the way I know he’s been casting to her all night. Dana silently cheering him on; his quiet acknowledgment. But now her eyes are fierce as she locks in on mine and really, finally sees me, and I’m thinking, it’s not dark in here, Dana, now everything’s out in plain sight.
Why are you doing this? She spits these words out with a stutter, as if they started out soft as a plea and then picked up uncontrollable velocity in the struggle to escape her clenched jaw. Her hands are bunched into blood-red fists, her thumbs turned up like she’s trying to hitchhike in two different directions. The pounding in my eye is gone, or seems to be, or maybe it’s going so fast now I can’t feel it anymore. I pick up the bound manuscript by its cover and shake out the pages. They flutter to the glassy hardwood floor in clumps, fan out from my feet, then spill out over the edge of the stage. Dana springs back from their breaking wave, from its poison crest. The leather is still smooth, still creamy. This is for my novel, I sing to myself. I raise the leather binder up over my head, all the pages gone, and take the microphone. My voice booms in the speakers, my voice is everywhere in the room; it’s my best reading voice. It’s pure music. And I say, Thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind, kind attention.
Albert Mobilio is a poet, novelist and critic. He is the winner of a Whiting Writers Award and the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Park Slope.
Albert Mobilio is the author of several books of poetry including Bendable Siege, The Geographics, Me with Animal Towering, and Touch Wood. He teaches at the New Schoolâs Eugene Lang College and is an editor at Hyperallergic Weekend and Bookforum.