He thought about what he’d say to Miranda if he saw her now, which was nothing, and he thought of what she’d say to him now, which was nonsense. Toward the end of their marriage and toward the middle and even toward the beginning of the end of the beginning, she’d mostly talked a lot of gobbledegook. ‘If the King of England says he’ll love the Queen of England forever and then remarries, does he mean he’ll love the first wife forever or whoever his wife is at the time?’ she might ask. She fancied herself a Wittgenstein philosopher and often followed whatever she said with the phrase, ‘That was very Wittgensteinian if I do say so myself, and I is who says I.’ This had been during the Cuckold Period, as he now thought of it. In France, to be a cuckold was not to be pathetic. It was to be the star of a French film! And this was who he was in their marriage: a French movie star, never mind if they were living in Jersey, since you wouldn’t specify French movie star if you were actually in France. Before the Cuckold Period, there’d been the Manifest Destiny Period, in which he believed he was accomplishing something greater than himself by settling down with her. (The children, the blessed unborn children!) And before that, there’d been the Great Awakening, in which he’d taught her a lot of things that he thought she’d like to know and which, she later told him, gently bored her. But that was Miranda. You just never knew with her.
For example, that she’d been with someone else.
Often when he was delirious, which was often, he wondered how he hadn’t seen the signs. She’d said things like, ‘When his expression is genuine, he has two identical faces.’ He’d thought she was quoting – and she was – but also she was meaning, and what she’d meant was not that the philosopher had meant something incredible but that the philosopher had meant something pedestrian.
On good days, he could believe that that was exactly what he appeared to be: pedestrian, a pedestrian, a walker, walking, going places, on the ups, possessing two healthy feet at least. There’d been the book, seven, eight years before. He knew someone who assigned it at Montclair State in an intro course. But the things he did to women were not as cute to them as they had been thirty years ago. Some of the things were flirtation, and some of them were getting older. He needed his secretary to tell him the times the laundromat closed and the birthdays of his two sisters. He asked for help with the ratio of coffee grounds to water, referring tirelessly to this ratio as her secret recipe. ‘And what if I wasn’t around?’ Clara would say.
‘I’d die of heartache and weep rose petals,’ he said.
‘You talk the talk,’ Clara said.
‘But I don’t walk the walk, I promise you.’
And it was true, he really didn’t anymore. Once, he’d been attractive to his students. Now he was a man older than their fathers. They spoke to him kindly and loudly, and it depressed the hell out of him. Sometimes they brought him cookies cut in the shapes of candy canes or reindeer, as though he was so old he’d returned to a pre-prehensile state in which the id was driven by sugar rather than sex, and, oh God, didn’t they know they could kill a prediabetic – his doctor’s term – this way? Death by chocolate was more than an expression.
‘Thank you very, very much!’ one girl hissed through a smile on the last day of the semester. ‘I learned a lot about the Protesting Affirmation, Professor Douglas!’
‘I think you mean the Protestant Reformation,’ he said.
‘Yes!’ the girl shouted more loudly. ‘The Protesting Affirmation!’
It didn’t even make sense, he thought bitterly; he hadn’t lost any hair yet. In fact – that is, in the mirror – there was a significant – abundant, even – sprawl of the stuff, which he wore neatly combed over. So he told the mirror all the ways it was a ludicrous, vapid object with no soul or eyes; a parrot; monkey see, monkey do; a sorry wannabe if ever he’d seen one. He told it it was a mere proxy, and he told it it was a dime a dozen, though still a homewrecking slut. No, never again would he cry a hot tear for this mirror. Then when he was done berating the instrument of his own reflection, he sat down in his office chair to berate his young charges.
On his desk, typed stacks of pathetic blather towered. ‘When Martin Luther King Jr posted the Ninety-Five Theses,’ one paper began, ‘black and whites were still not equal in rights in America. It took busses and courage to change the coarse of history and reformation.’
Douglas sighed. ‘You’re conflating centuries,’ he wrote in the paper’s margin. ‘Be careful to remember the difference between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century!’ He didn’t even bother with the two Luthers. For thirty years his career had been reminding young people to be vigilant in their delineation of centuries, and the worst part was that he could never be fired anymore. Wasn’t that the irony of it all? That you could be ousted from your real life, but not your public life?
But Miranda could not, after all, claim custody of Manhattan, and he would make a trip to the city on Christmas. It was bad enough she’d gotten tenure at the New School while he was stuck at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, considering she hadn’t even had a PhD when they’d first been married. He had loved the city first, just as he’d loved academia first, and he wouldn’t be locked out this time. If he saw Miranda, he would think of something to say, and he would say it well. He would let her know what he thought of the New School (hippies, frauds) and tell her about all the holiday invitations he’d been forced to turn down what with the inconvenient finitude of time and all.
His sisters, kind, whitening women, had invited him to spend Christmas with them, their children and their grandchildren. Laura had two children and three grandchildren, one of whom was already ten. The other sister, Ramona, had one child and two grandchildren, and a lesbian partner whom she’d met at church thirteen years ago. Now her ex-husband and her lesbian partner and her child and grandchildren did things like have Ice Cream Sundae Funday Nights and veritable singalongs.
‘Billy,’ Ramona pleaded on the phone, ‘you’ll be all alone. Why do this to yourself – on Christmas? Don’t you know you have family? Clarence is walking now. You haven’t even seen his little baby walk.’
‘But can he talk the talk?’ Douglas tried to remember which one Clarence was.
‘Talk?’ Ramona was bewildered.
‘You know, seduce, inveigle, slither into false intimacy?’
‘Billy, have you spoken with Miranda recently or something? You sound awful,’ Ramona said, ‘again.’
Professor William Douglas coughed a little and made an excuse about a lozenge, then walked to the History office to see if anything particular was happening. If he wasn’t by the phone, he wouldn’t be lying when, eventually, he explained to Ramona that he’d missed her call. He might even run into Marlene, the boring little cutie from his night course. Sixty-two, and the thing that kept him functional was the possibility of running into minor crushes. Good God.
‘I’m not making you more coffee,’ Clara said.
Professor Douglas bowed. ‘Happy holidays to you too.’
‘Have you been drinking?’ Clara sniffed.
‘No,’ he said, cupping his hand to smell his breath. He must remember to keep mouthwash in his office.
People in New Jersey talked about going to the city ‘all the time’. ‘If they’re in New York all the time, then how can they be here now?’ Miranda used to ask. ‘I wish they were in New York all the time.’ Douglas and Miranda had met and begun dating in the city. Back then, she was a young woman who enjoyed dressing beautifully for parties. Afterward, they’d return to their little one-bedroom apartment and undress beautifully. She was a legal assistant to an acquaintance of his, Robin Grubler, who had a tremendous unrequited affection for her.
‘A tack!’ Grubler would tell Douglas when he was drunk. ‘Miranda is sharp. As. A. Tack.’ It was the highest compliment he ever paid anyone and essentially equivalent to a statement of undying devotion. ‘A tack,’ he said, ‘you dusty bastard.’ Douglas had never understood what dusty was supposed to mean. He wasn’t dusty. Maybe Grubler had said lucky. Maybe he was lucky.
Then a couple of years into the marriage, Douglas got an offer, and the offer was in New Jersey. Miranda complained about the food and accents, missing her job, loneliness. ‘Oh, we used to live in Manhattan,’ Miranda would explain to neighbors when she met them. ‘We moved to New Jersey to make my husband’s life easier.’
Sometimes, when she was depressed and unmedicated, he encouraged her to develop an inner life. What he meant was that it would be wonderful for her to have a place to retreat into too when the real world wasn’t to her liking, so that he, her real-world husband, needn’t talk her down into polite despair, which was the best he could do anyway. These talks, brief as they were, took him out of the sixteenth century when he should have been writing something about Luther that would recast the great Protestant himself as a rebel, sexy. Tenure, after all, wasn’t guaranteed. But Miranda always wanted to visit with his sisters in Brooklyn. She became hysterical watching movies about the adventures of sassy secretaries. Sometimes when he was working through a manuscript, she stood by the doorway in her beautiful dinner clothes until he agreed to eat a meal with her. She was nothing like his first wife, a jazz musician, to whom he’d been married quite happily for ten days when he was twenty. Occasionally, he became so irritated that he had to masturbate to the thought of one of his students in his office after class, just to manage Miranda’s antics at home with a smile. Finally, Douglas suggested she take a course in the city once a week, work on her relationship with herself. It sounded like something a sensitive husband would say to a sensitive wife.
But now, wasn’t he the one working on himself – he, a man without a care in the world? It was just him and the entire run of human history – and his specialization once every four semesters when his elective course was offered. He didn’t need to fix anyone except the only one he could. Which should be easy, but the city was a terrible snooze on Christmas. For a while, he walked through the East Village, and what was more awful than realizing that it was empty of actual counterculturalists was the reality that even the vomiting fraternity glutes were behaving well today, somewhere behind closed doors. He passed by a tattoo parlor, then a nail parlor, then a hair parlor. ‘We’re not hair today,’ the sign said. ‘Come back another dye.’ It wasn’t even witty. If they were going to be unavailable, they could at least be witty, like some of the women he’d pursued. ‘A knock-knock joke is never clever,’ he’d had to tell one girl he dated for a night. Then he’d added an addendum about street-crossing jokes before eventually giving up.
Beyond Tompkins Square Park and west a little, he was certain the city would indulge his fantasy. He didn’t know what the fantasy was exactly, but he was certain he’d recognize it once it materialized and wasn’t fantastical. He believed it had something to do with commerce or drinking or women, a feeling he thought he might have had thirty years ago. The feeling was that his words would land on someone and that that someone would respond in a way that the words landed back on him. He huddled inside his coat, walking purposefully, running almost, his face chilled pink. It wasn’t so bad. The cold inspired character and briskness. Except in Stalinist Russia, of course.
A yellow cab slowed suggestively by the curb. Douglas raised his arm and jumped in quickly, then grabbed at his thigh.
‘Where to?’ the cabbie said.
‘I think I pulled a muscle.’
‘Bellevue Hospital? Is that Bellevue Hospital I hear?’ the cabbie asked like an auctioneer.
‘No, you’re not listening,’ Douglas said. ‘Listen.’ But he needed a moment to think. It had become increasingly difficult to remember which thoughts were his and which were his mind repeating those of Miranda. For years, ever since she’d enrolled in that ridiculous graduate program, he’d think of things she might say, then shoot them down within the privacy of his own mind. Lately, though, he forgot to shoot down her hypothetical speech. Its regularity matched his own thoughts. Rivalry could do that: confuse winning with a victory. In fact, he wondered whether Miranda hadn’t ruined his previously above-average brain a little just by her presence, reciting her passages, exclaiming her Wittgensteinianness, though, of course, no one was Wittgensteinian except Wittgenstein, and even she had become un-Douglasian post hoc. But the cab driver was waiting for him to say something. They’d go nowhere unless he said something. His leg seized painfully when he rotated it in the hip socket.
‘Almost there,’ he said. He was on the brink of remembering someplace wonderful.
‘Where?’ the driver pointed a finger left and right expectantly.
‘You know, there.’
A sigh from the front seat. ‘So is that a yes to Bellevue?’
‘Washington Square Park, please,’ Douglas said to say something.
At Washington Square, there was hardly anyone to be seen walking around at all. A teenager ran shrieking down the street. Then he watched a woman with legs like pole-vaulting poles charge through a section of tamped-down snow in nothing but sandals and a cocktail dress. She didn’t seem cold at all. For a moment, he thought he’d ask the girl if it wasn’t painful to walk through snow in open-toed shoes. But what would that mean anyway? Miranda would say that even if he did take off his shoes and try walking sandaled through the snow himself, he wouldn’t know what the girl meant by pain at all. Miranda would say it would be his pain, not hers, he was feeling. Miranda would do very kindly to get out of his head. And yet, wasn’t she the person he was looking for on every street corner?
But she wasn’t here wherever he had been that day. He’d walked around in the cold all day, and the only place he’d spent much time was a filthy little deli that smelled like mentholated cigarettes and halal food. The libraries were closed. The museums were closed. The shops were closed, and half the restaurants were too. He looked between the slats of blinds hanging in a twenty-four-hour diner window. Even this place, with its spongy shoestring fries and overpriced tuna salad, was closed for Christmas. Wasn’t anyone Jewish anymore? he wondered.
‘Is you racist or something?’ said a man standing on the corner. He took a lollipop out of his fat little face with a loud suction sound just to say it. ‘Ignorance is bliss.’
‘I didn’t realize we were having a conversation,’ Douglas said.
‘If you don’t want to converse, don’t talk,’ the fat man said. He waved the spitty lollipop wildly, and blue sugar drool trickled from the corners of his mouth.
Douglas walked toward the train station. There was no reason to be here, and there never had been. He was always misinterpreting his own needs. It was half the reason he was in this mess. He thought of Miranda, how he’d wished she had an inner life when she had one already, a good one that stayed inside except for the occasional blue day. And now that Miranda, that life of hers, and also that life of theirs, was gone, replaced with ideas, and those ideas were not for the outer world. In fact, they were all ideas about the irrationality of interacting with it much at all. ‘We identify a day as a Wednesday,’ she might say. ‘But what makes Wednesday Wednesday, not Tuesday or Thursday? And if I were to ask of a day whether it was a Wednesday, how would I prove it?’
‘I’m not racist!’ Douglas called to the candy man. ‘I, for one, know what day it is!’
‘Thursday! I do too, bitch!’ the candy man said.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ Professor Douglas began to say. But what was the point? How would he prove it was Christmas?
In retrospect, the trip to the city had been a ridiculous idea. After all, the beginning of the beginning of the end had started on a trip to New York. On the train, he tried to engage Miranda with complaints about the departmental budget cuts, but all she wanted to talk about was this wonderful Wittgenstein she was learning about in her college course. ‘“Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? In use it lives. Is it there that it has living breath within it? Or is the use its breath?”’ she said, an eager sheen in her eye. ‘Well?’
‘I didn’t think I needed to respond,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t seem to have to do with real life at all.’
‘Maybe when you say you didn’t think you needed to respond, you didn’t need to. Maybe I needed you to respond.’
‘Is this still philosophy or do you just talk like that now?’
‘What?’ He looked at her looking out the window. From the side, her lips were two red jelly beans. He could absolutely bite them. This was real life: lips like jelly beans! Historical facts! He was a man of events, not ideas, a historian, a knower, not a philosopher. ‘We’ll be there soon,’ he said.
‘When is soon?’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ she said. ‘When you imagine soon, the word soon, what do you see in your mind? When is it?’
‘I feel like I can’t say anything without it becoming a fucking discussion anymore,’ he said.
‘Lucky we’re going to a play then,’ she said. They didn’t talk for the rest of the ride.
Now, when he groped at his memory, he was certain he could sense something that was almost a clue. But the more he tried to grab at the germ of their alienation, the less he knew what exactly the clue was. It just seemed that after that trip, nothing went right. He remembered one night she said was feeling a little sick on their way to a gallery opening in Chelsea. She told him she would drop him off before she went home, then kept her eyes closed the entire cab ride.
He’d assumed she really was sick, therefore settling on a dapper exit to cheer her. ‘Promise you’ll make sure my little girl gets home safe,’ he said smarmily to the cab driver. It was a wry little joke that had always gotten a good-natured chuckle from a stranger the first time he was married.
But this time, the driver looked at him gravely. ‘I promise you, sir: I will take care of your daughter.’ Douglas tried to explain the irony – the husband, overprotective to the point of fatherliness, though of course he wasn’t actually anyone’s father – but the cab driver just kept saying, ‘Your daughter is in safe hands, sir.’ Later, when he came home, she pretended to be asleep, and the next day he couldn’t make her admit her own pretense. Another time, they visited Ramona, and it was all a very nice afternoon until she began crying on the way back. He asked why she was crying. ‘Because you don’t know what I mean even when I mean what I say,’ she said.
‘When don’t you mean what you say?’ he asked.
‘Sex,’ she said.
It was January the second, and he’d managed to avoid his sisters and their offspring for the major winter holidays. The trip to New York had been disappointing, but the next semester was coming, and there were things to do, things to photocopy. He’d selected a new reading about the indulgence, redemption as a consumer item, the symbology of the forgiveness of sin. He would argue that the popularity of the indulgence itself revealed postmodern epistemological concerns. Then Ramona called, Ramona who was always self-improving, annoyingly enough, and had recently started trying to improve him too. He tried to bore her from fixing him, spoke about the chic new theories in history, which really weren’t even all that new anymore.
‘Happened is over. Happened has happened already,’ he said, his voice cycling through octaves manically. ‘Narrativity. Now there’s something.’ He didn’t believe in these trendy theories, but with any luck Ramona would get tripped up on five-syllable words. His sister’s lesbian partner could be heard humming in the background, as the ex-husband syncopated with a wooden spoon on a pot. Should it bother him that he couldn’t remember the lesbian partner’s name?
‘But what the hay does narrativity have to do with you, Billy?’ said Ramona.
It was a good question, actually. He sometimes did wonder what had happened to the form and thrust of his life. But the larger part of himself, the part that was hypothetically Miranda, was stuck on something he’d just said. ‘Where is there when we say there’s something?’ he asked. ‘For that matter,’ he added, ‘what do we mean by is, anyway?’
‘Billy,’ Ramona said. Her voice was rising with fear. ‘Do you know what day it is? Do you know where you are? What’s my name, Billy? Have you hit your head on something?’
He didn’t know what day it was. ‘I don’t know, Sunday? That’s really not a fair question during the recess, Ramona. R-A-M –’
Ramona told him he could stop spelling right now. Probably she wanted to go play the recorder. Her partner and ex-husband were still having a jolly time somewhere near the phone, or else very loudly. ‘Anyway, I just thought you’d like to be included. That’s the only reason I called.’
‘Included in what?’
‘In the new year’s resolution. You stick to it better with a partner.’
‘I don’t have a resolution, though. I don’t –’ He paused. ‘I don’t resolve.’
Ramona cleared her throat. ‘Well, maybe you should. Maybe you should work on your interpersonal skills. Like forgiveness.’
William Douglas closed his eyes.
‘You should resolve things with Miranda, for example. Put yourself in her shoes. Anger is toxic waste to the soul, Billy. Do you want your soul to die, Billy?’
‘I don’t know why you think I have a soul, Ramona,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you do.’ It was difficult to know which was more irritating, preaching or pity. He avoided preaching and pitying equally, mostly because he was generally too delirious to do either. So, in fact, it was not that he avoided either. He was just too busy for them.
‘You’re just trying to hurt me now, Billy. That’s not productive. When Andrea and I are angry with each other, we say, “Right now, I feel anger toward you, but I know that this is a temporary feeling.” Then the other says, “I validate your feeling, and I also feel X.”’
‘Yes, that’s the fill-in-the-blank.’
‘I’m not trying to hurt you. I don’t think you can be hurt at all. I’m probably the only real person alive. That’s what Miranda would want me to think, anyway. You see? I’m in her shoes. Her lousy philosopho-figurative shoes.’
‘You’re talking like a crazy person.’
‘Exactly!’ said Douglas. ‘I’m talking like my ex-wife, the crazy person.’
‘Billy, I feel anger toward you, but I know this is a temporary feeling.’
‘X,’ William Douglas said.
A man standing outside the strip mall and wearing tight yellow pants thrust a pamphlet at him. On the front, the words turn your gut from gutter to glitter appeared in red letters. Where had this man come from? Professor Douglas looked at the man’s legs. To call them legs was to miss something of their fundamental meatiness, the striations and muscle weave. Why did you have to compare a thing to another to describe it? Nothing meant what it was supposed to anymore.
‘By Day Ten the asshole starts blubbering mucus, and that’s when you know your colon is immaculate as our savior Jesus Christ’s conception,’ the man told a woman wearing a bright pink parka. ‘Take any sixty-something-year-old man and stand him naked by my side. Not only will he be more constipated, but ten times out of nine the triceps will hang like wet laundry in the wind.’
The woman was rapt. She had removed a small notebook from her purse and begun jotting notes.
‘I cannot stress it enough: fiber fiber fiber! Do you think I chiseled my way down to 8 percent body fat with squat thrusts alone? Wake up, Terri Schiavo! This is science! And you, yes even you’ – he pointed at Douglas – ‘can follow my diet plan for a mere hundred dollars
‘No thank you,’ Douglas said, alarmed. ‘I don’t like science.’
‘Don’t like science!’ The man in spandex was cheerfully bewildered. ‘But science is everything!’
‘Yeah,’ the woman said. ‘Science is the sun and the moon and
‘Ideologues on every corner!’ Douglas shouted, though he hadn’t meant to do more than think it.
‘Did you just call us idiots?’ the woman said. ‘Because I’m in college, you know.’
‘College!’ Douglas walked quickly into the office supply store to buy something he needed but didn’t remember anymore.
Toward the beginning or end of an aisle, he picked up a tape dispenser, then put it down. He touched gum erasers and thick résumé paper. But it was no use. Everywhere it was college students and language and ideas and betrayals. Every item in his life had been coded to evoke her. There she was in diet propaganda. There she was in the city. There she was in every word, smiling, as she said she was leaving him for someone who knew how to talk to her.
‘Talk to you? What am I doing right now if I’m not talking to you?’
‘Talking to who you think I was,’ she said.
‘It’s not enough that you’re sleeping with somebody else. Now you have to be pedantic?’
‘But I’m not sleeping with someone else,’ she said. ‘Neil and I, what we have isn’t sexual. I find him actually a bit ugly. But he’s willing to think about what I think about. We have an ordinary language. He’s with me.’
For a long time, Douglas had wished that he was the sort of man who could derive pleasure from the thought that Miranda was now with an ugly man. He could tell people that he used to be married to Miranda Shelby, the Wittgenstein scholar, and now she was with an ugly man. But the truth was, he didn’t even understand what she meant by with her. He only knew what it meant to be without. And to be without her was to see her always, as if the very symbols of his misery had married themselves to the designs of life. It was for the world never to answer his pleas.
But should he see Miranda now, he would know finally what to say. If a man becomes better too late, he’d ask, was he worse than if he never got better at all?
Artwork by Eduardo Paolozzi, Wittgenstein in New York, 1964, © Tate, London 2015 and Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS, 2015