She told me its length was the best part. In bed that night, Maggie, her naked body draped alongside my own, said, “What I mean is, I was expecting something big, but it’s actually kind of short.” She tiptoed her fingers across my hip. “That’s the part that got me. How something so tiny can still be so beautiful.”
We were discussing Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, a novel I had recently lent Maggie. It is 144 pages long.
In less than a week, Maggie would be moving away. We both knew that night could be our last time to see each other. Rather than address the situation, though, I avoided it entirely—similar to the way I had never tried to define our relationship—by talking to Maggie about a book.
Part of the problem was I genuinely wanted to know her opinion of the somewhat-forgotten work I was excited to have discovered. One issue in particular, the covert reason I’d asked Maggie to read the novel, was bothering me. “Did you notice any weird connections in it?” I said.
“Like, did you notice any similarities between one of the characters and, um, me?”
Maggie sat upright. “Oh, thank God. The whole time I read it, I kept thinking how you two are exactly alike. That guy in the book is the literary equivalent of you,” she said. “Till you asked me about it just now, I thought it might be all in my head.”
One evening when I was a child, during the commercial break for an episode of L.A. Law, my father explained to me how exactly the bees related to the birds.
That was exactly the same thought that had been worrying me. Could I really be the kind of reader who imagines having qualities similar to those of the romantic lead in a book? The answer to that question should have been obvious.
My sexual development has always been linked to cultural artifacts. I got my first erection while watching Grace Jones in A View to a Kill. One evening when I was a child, during the commercial break for an episode of L.A. Law, my father explained to me how exactly the bees related to the birds. I lost my virginity while imagining myself in the music video for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” To this day, whenever I browse viable matches on dating websites, the first thing I look at in a profile is the person’s favorite movies, books, television shows, and music.
So, taking into account my intensely personal connection to all forms of media, not to mention my general solipsism in most aspects of life, I should not have been surprised by my tendency to recognize aspects of my own personality, however exaggerated, in fictional characters. I saw myself as Madmartigan from Willow during my grade-school years. I saw myself as Joel Goodson from Risky Business during my high-school years. But that night with Maggie in my bedroom, discussing my similarities to another such character, I began to feel something more than idolization. The character in the novel seemed so similar to me as to invoke rivalry.
In Lives of the Saints, set in New Orleans during the Reagan era, the narrator, Louise, hides her love for Claude Collier, my novelistic analog, beneath the guise of mere friendship. Her depiction of him uncannily mirrors the good and bad qualities I’ve often seen in myself during moments when I feel my point of view take on the discernment of the third person.
“He drank rum and Cokes in the Tulane bar by the tennis courts until he was too drunk to drive home; then he drove home.” I got my first DUI when I was 20.
“He was always polite. It was one of his greatest traits. It is hard to be truly polite. It is an elegant trait.” My father taught me to address him as “sir” by thumping my ear whenever I did not.
“I saw him take a pack of cigarettes out, and his hands were shaking so badly when he tried to light the match that I saw him give it up and leave off trying.” It took years of therapy for me to get over an anxiety disorder.
“I heard he was hanging around with wino lunatics and racetrack habitués and other weird types of wrecks.” In college I often frequented a bar called Five Olde Nugget Alley, where I once made out with a lesbian townie whose mohawk was six inches tall.
“Claude was not worried about himself, because he was the type of person who does not think of himself in the first place. He had no introspection.” So terrible am I at understanding myself that only in personal essays can I express my feelings.
“If you can imagine a person whose heart is constantly breaking but who thinks it is great, then you can understand Claude Collier and his reckless life.”
Perhaps I felt competitive with Claude because of the similarities between his relationship with Louise and my relationship with Maggie. Both situations involved a degree of avoidance. I avoided discussing with Maggie her move across the country, and Claude avoided discussing with Louise his plunge into depression. Instead of learning from the problematic nature of the personality traits he and I shared—warped thought patterns, social misbehavior, strange mannerisms, put-on verbal tics—I focused, absurdly but fittingly, on not letting his problems resulting from those traits outdo mine.
Near midnight, I asked Maggie, “Do you think he’s better-looking than me?” thinking, What a ridiculous question immediately afterward.
“What a ridiculous question,” Maggie said.
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
“You do realize you’re jealous of a person who’s not real?”
My mind is such a landfill of pop culture trivia that I have trouble saying or even living original content.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I hadn’t asked Maggie to read the book in order to prove my similarities with Claude, but rather to make her aware of them. Claude had become an inkblot of my self. I saw the explanation of my psyche through an interpretation of his. What I wanted was for Maggie to see the same thing.
“I’m nuts about you,” I said, quoting one of Claude Collier’s lines from the book. “I’m coconuts about you.”
“What a relief. For a second there I thought you wouldn’t use someone else’s words to get your point across. Crisis averted.”
As usual, Maggie was right. My mind is such a landfill of pop culture trivia that I have trouble saying or even living original content. Once in college, a friend bet me $5 I couldn’t make it through the day without quoting a movie; I lasted the 10-yard walk to the campus food court, where I tossed out a joke from Dumb and Dumber and could no longer pay for my veggie wrap. On request as well as on a whim, I do serviceable impressions of Chewbacca, Sloth, and John Kimble—characters from, respectively, Star Wars, The Goonies, and Kindergarten Cop. I know that Action Jackson’s real name is Jericho. I know that Crispin Glover’s middle name is Hellion. The first three letters I ever wrote were H, B, and O.
Does seeing our troubles reflected in art make them any less honest? I wanted to respond to Maggie’s criticism with that question, but she had fallen asleep by my side, the corner of her mouth garnished with a thread of drool.
The next day we behaved not so saintly for the last time. No matter how many different ways I tried to avoid it, shutting my eyes to the morning light, cataloguing every taste on my tongue, my present experience with Maggie bore traits of future nostalgia, so that our pleasurable acts in bed, nuzzling at the sweaty camber of her neck, raising her thigh for better leverage, were insensate because I was not yet able to remember them. I left things unfinished in the literal sense.
Afterward, once she was dressed and had collected her stuff, Maggie said, “Can you take care of yourself without me?” as I followed her to the door of my apartment.
“God looks after fools and drunks. I’m both of those. So I’ve got double protection.”
Despite the self-doubt that hit me after I made this quip, wondering if it was something Claude Collier had said or if it was just something Claude Collier would have said, I somehow managed to register Maggie’s rebuttal.
“Such a character.”
That seemed an appropriate if unhelpful note on which to land. Our subsequent kiss in the doorway was cut short by a neighbor walking down the hall, and that could also have been the reason we felt compelled to say goodbye in a whisper. I started to close the door when there was nothing left to say.
“Oh, wait.” Maggie rummaged through her bag till she found my copy of Lives of the Saints. “Don’t forget this.”
I thought of telling her to keep it. “Let it be a reminder for you,” I thought of saying theatrically, my finger pressed to her lips, “of our final moment together.” I could see it as crisply as a movie. I could hear it as clearly as a song.
What I did in real life, though, was take the book from Maggie and place it on my shelf, where, as a work of fiction, it remains to this day.