By Stephen Lewis, Published in North Atlantic Review, No. 14, 2002/2003
After quitting the last of a long string of therapists, who all proposed
different theories to explain his personality deficiencies, ranging from classic
Freudian emphasis on restrictive toilet training to the last a New Age type who
recommended that he just smile at himself every morning in the mirror, Joyce
reached his own conclusion: his problems could be traced to the course in
English Lit in which his parents met while they both wrestled with the
intricacies of Ulysses. Their
efforts to solve the Irish novelist’s massive work proved a failure, but they
found comfort in each other’s arms, and when their son was born they
commemorated the basis of their union by naming their bouncing baby boy after
the writer they could not understand and had come to despise.
From kindergarten on, every teacher looked at the girls in the class
after having come to his name while reading the first day roll, and he would try
to deepen his voice, which remained stubbornly soprano well into his teens, when
he responded. The fact that he had
been named after a famous writer did not impress the boys on the street as they
chose up sides for a stickball game. Since
he was quite near sighted, and uncoordinated to boot, he missed the ball when he
swung at it and dropped it when he tried to catch it.
According to the cruel rules of choosing up sides,
he would be picked last as an act of mercy, tinged with contempt, his
shame compounded by the lisping pronunciation of his name as he was selected.
As a young man at college parties, he found that only profoundly
unattractive women, generally either anorexic or seriously scarred by acne,
often both, were amused enough by his parents’ literary pretensions to talk to
him, but then they only wanted to know what he thought of his namesake, and as
he had not read any of the writer’s works, he had precious little to say at
these rare opportunities of connecting with a woman whose bony frame and
cratered face made her the female equivalent of himself as failed athlete, both
ignored leftovers at the feast of life. He
practiced his bedroom stare for hours before his mirror, but all he could
produce was an imitation of somebody lapsed into coma.
He wore expensive Pierre Cardin aftershave, but always nicked himself
when he shaved, and a woman he had approached at a club once asked him if he had
been eating chicken soup, proving that the smells of his mother’s kitchen
outweighed the most expensive cologne.
When he started law school on a full scholarship, he shared a tiny
apartment with George Wilkins, who remained his one good friend. His grades earned him entry into a top law firm, but he saw
how other, less gifted attorneys, were invited to play golf with one or the
other of the partners and he knew in his heart that he would never join that
club. He lived on the fringe of
fashionable Brooklyn Heights, but his brownstone seemed stuck in its
century old decay, utterly immune to gentrification.
He plunged into dark despair. The
kids on his block snickered when he walked by. His career was a dead end.
He had no love life. The
attractive paralegals gravitated to the other attorneys on the track to make
partner. He contemplated either
suicide or opening a bike repair shop in a small town in South Dakota.
He rejected the first because he could not yet admit such abject failure
and the second when he realized he had difficulty remembering which way to screw
in a light bulb. But then at the
nadir of his hopelessness, he discovered his body.
Because he was now breathing more deeply as he ran, he became sensitive
to the quality of the air. He noted
how he swerved around the benches on the Promenade on which sat individuals, who
with criminal indifference to his lungs, filled the air with noisome tobacco
smoke. He stopped once, it is true,
with mixed motives to talk with an attractive young woman who had a cigarette
dangling between her otherwise luscious lips, but her response to his earnest
plea to cease poisoning herself and everybody near her was one deep drag and
then a well aimed billow of smoke that had him coughing for the next several
hours. He decided, then, to focus
his efforts on more arable ground, his old college roommate George and his wife
And now this Sunday morning, sitting on the first train to Medleyville,
he was happy. Kate had agreed, and
George more reluctantly, had also consented after a long telephone conversation
Thursday evening. He settled down
with the weekend crossword puzzle, and only gagged once or twice as the ancient
diesel blew its black smoke into the sky and began to pull the short train of
three cars toward the suburbs and fresh air.
As soon as the distance between stations began to widen, and the green
leaves of trees replaced the weathered bricks of buildings, he wrestled with the
window, cemented closed with the city’s smog until he could raise it a couple
of inches. He inhaled to capture
the breeze from the scented countryside, holding his breath so long that the
conductor dozing in his seat at the front of the car roused,
looked at him with concern, and reached for his CPR manual. Joyce exhaled
and smiled at the conductor, who shrugged and closed his eyes.
The train slowed, and Joyce spotted George behind the wheel of his new
Bronco, an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth.
Joyce clucked to himself as he watched George maneuver his paunch from
behind his steering wheel.
“Do your five miles this morning, buddy?” George asked.
“You know,” George wheezed, “I’m getting too old for these early
morning runs. Kate was just saying
how much easier it would be if you came out for the whole weekend. Then we could take the train out together on Friday
“But...” Joyce began.
George took his cigar out of his mouth and waved it while his face formed
an expression of mock disgust.
“I know,” he said. “Your
meeting Friday night with your tree hugger friends, and then your run through
Prospect Park on Saturday morning. But
you know, we do have trees out here you could run around and through.”
“Maybe I could do that some time.
But I have offered to take a taxi from the station.”
“Wouldn’t hear of it. But
one of these days maybe they’ll make a car that runs on bottled rhetoric or
something, and then you’ll be able to ride up to my house like a proper man of
leisure, and I’ll sleep in.”
Joyce contented himself with a nod.
He looked out of the window at the pink and white dogwoods, the yellow
splashes of forsythia, and took one deep breath after another.
Kate met them on the driveway and threw her arms around Joyce.
He felt her press against him from knee to shoulder, and he smiled over
her head at George, who waited by the front door, cigar stub in his beefy hand.
Kate punctuated their embrace with one more press of her middle and then
waved toward her husband. Joyce
thought he saw a little smirk on George’s face, but decided he must be
mistaken. There was nothing funny
or untoward, he felt, about Kate’s warm greeting.
She was, after all, his best friend’s wife.
Still, he noted with shame that he enjoyed the press of her body against
his. He coughed to cover his
“Too much good clean air, eh Joyce?” George slapped him on the back,
and his paunch shook like a bowl of jello, and Joyce found himself remembering
that Christmas rhyme.
Brunch was over an hour later, and Joyce pushed himself back from the
table. He looked over the platter
still heaped with bagels, the plates of cream cheese, the slices of pungent lox,
the stack of pancakes, and pitcher of Vermont maple syrup.
He permitted himself a contented burp. This was the one day of the week
he let himself eat for enjoyment rather than nutritional correctness.
“Well, how’s the campaign going?” he asked.
George picked up the stump of the cigar, a large ash still on one end and
the tobacco chewed ragged on the other, and stared at it.
“Still need my crutch,” he answered after a long pause.
“But he’ll make it,” Kate smiled, “and I keep telling him how
much better I feel since I gave it up.”
“I’ve always meant to ask you,” George said. “Why are you so
passionate on the subject? Why, as I recall, you never had the habit to give
“I smoked once, but like somebody else you know I never...”
“Inhaled,” Kate said . A
bemused smiled played around the corners of her mouth, and her eyes seemed
Joyce threw back his head and howled, a strange, almost noiseless,
choking laugh. He had to grab his
“I heard that one at the last Non-Smoker’s Alliance for Pure Air
George groaned and chomped down on his cigar, but Kate smiled even more
“I thought it was cute,” she said.
“And after all, his cause is our cause.
Don’t you think so George?”
George only snorted.
“You really should come to a NAPA meeting, George.
It’d do you a world of good to see others fighting your fight.
You, too, Kate. Even though you’ve won your personal battle, you know the
war goes on for others, like George, and millions like him in the grip of
George’s eyes began to glaze. His
cigar rolled from one side of his mouth to the other.
“I’d love to go, sometime,” Kate smiled, “especially if you would
be there to introduce me to your friends.”
“Next week we’re having a special action workshop.
We’ve decided to become more aggressive.”
George leaned back, his eyes closed in contemplation of someplace known
only to him.
“Aggression is sometimes good,” Kate said.
“If it’s in the right cause.”
“We intend to take a page out of the sixties.
Sit-in smoking sections of restaurants.
Action speaks louder, they say.”
George’s lips curled behind a snore.
“It surely does,” Kate replied.
A mist hovered over the sullen waters of the harbor, and the air hung
damp and cool after an early morning rain, but Joyce felt warmer than he had in
years, even as his sodden running shoes sloshed through yet another puddle.
The workshop had gone better than he could have hoped, with plans laid to
equip protestors with bottles filled with pure mountain spring water with which
to douse offending tobacco products. Even
George had seemed a little motivated, if that is what his grin indicated, and
Kate, well she had positively glowed with enthusiasm.
He remembered how she had jumped to her feet to applaud the keynote
speaker’s attack on the cigarette companies’ continued, obscene use of sex
to sell their lethal products, particularly to hormone driven adolescents.
He had never seen her so moved. Her
whole body had trembled, and it was as if all the energy for good in the room
had coalesced incarnate in her. He
recalled, with a blush, how her breasts had heaved beneath her new T-shirt,
which bore the logo of the organization, a pair of obviously clean and healthy
lungs, the red of the image expanding against the white background with each
He shrank from this distracting image and turned his mind instead to the
unfortunate moment he had caught George lighting his stale cigar in the men’s
room. He had come in just in time
to see the beatific smile spread across George’s broad face.
One puff, and then George had extinguished the cigar under the water
faucet, and returned the wet butt
to his mouth. Joyce had coughed as
he entered. George had smiled and
clapped him on the back as he passed by. When
the door shut behind him, Joyce washed the ashes down the drain.
His thoughts, unbidden, returned to Kate just as he approached the lamp
post that marked the point on his run where he turned back. However, instead of circling the stanchion as he usually did,
he saw, too late, that he was heading right into the pole.
He threw out his arms and caught most of the impact on his extended right
forearm, but his momentum carried him forward until he stopped with his arms in
a clumsy embrace about the post, his knees buckled and astraddle the fat lower
portion of the stanchion and his face pressed against the cold and fog moist
metal. He rubbed his bruises and
bent down to retrieve his glasses. The
right lens was shattered. He turned
to jog home, and tried to shut out the pain in his eye with images of Kate.
“But Joyce, you must tell me what happened to your eye. Were you in a fight?”
Kate steered the SUV out onto the road and glanced again at his black and
“No, it’s nothing, really,” he said.
“George didn’t tell me anything about a business trip this
“The trip came up last minute,” she replied.
His knee ached, and he rubbed it. She
watched his hand’s motion with interest.
“There, too,” she said. “What
did you do?”
“I’m a little ashamed to tell you.”
He paused. “A lamp post.
It was foggy, and I ran into a pole.”
He stopped himself from completing the picture by saying how he was
thinking of her right before impact.
“You must ache all over,” she said, and he heard much more in those
words. “We’ll just have to try
to make you comfortable.”
Brunch started out as usual, with Kate slicing bagels and pointing out
the different flavors of cream cheese. But
as Joyce was about to bite into a cinnamon raisin bagel, thick with strawberry
flavored cream cheese, and while he was planning how he could tell Kate that it
would be a good idea if he took an early train home, Kate pushed his hand away
from his mouth, leaned across the table, and ground her lips against his.
“I’ve tried to fight it,” she said.
“George asked me to call you and tell you he’d be gone, but I
didn’t. I wanted you to
She put her hand behind his neck and pulled him toward her.
He lost his balance and his elbow landed in the dish of strawberry
flavored cream cheese. He struggled
for a moment, but then he threw his other arm across the table, and knocked over
the pitcher of maple syrup. They kissed, and he felt the warm and sticky liquid ooze onto
“You don’t know how lonely I’ve been,” Kate declared when they
broke apart. “George has
become,” she shut her eyes as though in a dream, “so distant.”
“I had no idea,” he stammered, and brushed at his pants.
Her eyes snapped open.
“Here, let me do that,” she said, and ran a napkin over the stain
until he gasped.
“Am I so wrong to find you attractive?” she asked, and continued to
rub. “Is there something wrong
with me? Do you find me ugly?”
She rubbed harder. He found himself deprived of speech. “I know I’m not as slim as I used to be.”
Her words stopped but not her hand.
He struggled to regain the power to form words.
“You are,” he announced, “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Kate beamed and gave him a squeeze.
“We will be very careful. George
will never suspect a thing.”
Joyce looked at Kate. He
knew he was blushing.
“It’s just that I was so excited,” he said.
“Don’t worry, baby, the sheets can be laundered.”
She rolled over onto her stomach and settled her head on her pillow.
“Would you do my back?” she asked.
He massaged her back for ten minutes.
His hands began to tire, but she showed no signs of wanting him to stop.
If anything , her murmurs intensified as he labored.
He straddled her naked buttocks and was again ready.
He had his first orgasm inside a woman in more than three years, and he
did not care to remember the circumstances of the last occasion. Kate smiled up at him, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
At least one thing in this crazy day had gone right.
Right? What was he thinking?
What about George? But Kate snuggled into his arms and he closed his eyes.
She stirred and whispered in his ear, her breath moist and content.
“Reach into the drawer, babe.”
Joyce felt for the drawer, his eyes still closed.
Hurry up,” Kate demanded.
He forced his lids open and stared into the drawer. It seemed empty except for a copy of a recent Cosmopolitan.
“In the back,” she said. “Under Cosmo.”
He reached in and pulled out the square glass object with its unholy
burden, and he held it toward her. She
extended her palm. He stared and
dropped the ashtray as though it were flaming.
The pack of cigarettes fell onto the bed next to the ashtray. Kate retrieved the pack, set the ashtray on the table and lit
The decision had not been easy, and the pain lingered. After a week of double jogging, a dusk run added to his
morning schedule to chastise his rebellious flesh, and an emergency visit to the
shrink he had finished with six months ago, he had made up his mind.
George had agreed to the meeting with impatience.
He had a lot of work to catch up on after his trip, which had not gone
well, but if Joyce insisted he would find the time. He waddled into the plush, empty conference room adjacent to
his office. Joyce looked with a
pang at the diplomas on the wall that documented part of their shared past, but
still he had steeled himself to do the right thing.
George furrowed his brows.
“Well, old buddy, what’s so important?”
“I’ve got something to tell you, George.”
George glanced at his watch.
“I hope so. I have a
client scheduled in five minutes.”
Joyce was happy to hear that. As
bad as this was going to be, it would be interrupted by business that George
could not, and would not, ignore. Joyce
paced around the table.
“You’d better sit down, George,” he said, before noting that his
friend had already lowered his bulk into a chair at the head of the table.
“For God’s sake,” George muttered, “out with it.”
“It’s about Kate,” Joyce said.
George’s face relaxed.
“What, another affair?”
Joyce did not fully process the question.
He had his speech all prepared. He
paused to gather himself. He had
never been very good at thinking on his feet.
He sat down for a moment. When
he stood up, he felt again in command..
“Worse than that.”
tone was crisp, as though he were talking a client through a pre-trial
“With two men?” George wondered.
Joyce began to understand, but he pressed on.
“And another woman?” George
whispered. “I can’t believe she
would do that. Not again,
a deep breath and reached into his jacket pocket.
“She has been untrue to you.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” George declared.
“Haven’t you been listening?”
“Yes, but not that way.” Joyce’s
fingers found the evidence he had protected in a cellophane envelope.
He opened the envelope and pulled out the cigarette butt.
George’s expression changed.
“She didn’t,” he muttered.
Joyce did not hesitate. He
knew his friend would have difficulty believing what he must tell him.
“I saw her. I was there.
In your...” but his courage faltered.
“In my bed. With my
“Well, I’ll be damned,” George said.
He shook his head in disbelief and anger.
Joyce felt panic. Perhaps he
had gone too far, pushed his friend to the
“What are you going to do? Leave
George rose and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Hell no.” He pulled a
fresh cigar out of his suit coat pocket and lit up.
“I have to thank you for exposing Kate’s infidelity.
All the time I was smoking in the garage, she was lighting up in the
bedroom Don’t that beat all?”
“You mean, you never,” Joyce stuttered.
“You didn’t quit?”
“Never, not for a moment,” George said.
“See you on Sunday, as usual?”
Joyce did not answer. The
intercom buzzed. George’s client
“I need the room,” he said in a gentle voice.
Joyce nodded and walked to the door. He paused long enough to drop the butt, held by his fingertips, into a wastepaper basket. He reached for his cell phone only to remember that he had erased his therapist’s number, not only from the speed dial list but the directory. There was only one thing to do. He would start with the early stories and work up to Ulysses.
It was either that or file the papers to change his name, to something like Ernest, and then he would learn how to fish, or maybe go on safari. And if that didn’t work, there were a lot of other names he could try.
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