Updike for Beginners
“You know. I’m naked.”
Since the age of twelve, one of my greatest dreams in life had been to snort a line of cocaine from a beautiful woman’s inner thigh. Meredith Simpson may not have been beautiful, but she at the very least was a woman. The dream had everything to do with my yearning to make my life worthy of narrative. I’d once seen a movie with a guy doing coke from a girl’s leg, so then I wanted to see myself doing coke from a girl’s leg. Therefore, naked with a woman ashamed of her nudity, how could I resist being the jerk from countless films, television shows, and books who doesn’t assure the girl with low self-esteem that she is, in fact, beautiful?
“No problem.” I reached for the switch. “Lights out.”
The next day, I woke with Clara in my arms, predawn summer light painting the room in shades of blue, a condom withered at the foot of the sectional. She was still asleep. On top of us, I had somehow managed through my post-coital, drunken fugue to situate a stained, pilling, fleece blanket. Clara stirred when I combed my fingers through her hair. I kissed her forehead and said good morning.
“Same to you.”
Her voice was husky with regret. I recognized the sound because I had heard it so often in my own voice. She might have simply forgotten my name.
“You know what I want you to do right now?” I said. “Show yourself to me. Don’t put on any clothes,” I said. “Walk around the room naked,” I said. “So I can see how beautiful you are.”
I wish I could say I did not then know why I did it. I wish I could say I did it to boost her sense of self worth. Yet, at such an early-morning hour, watching a naked woman walk back and forth down the catwalk of my apartment, my thoughts were directed not to her but towards the memory of a short story by John Updike I had read years ago, when I was still sexually inexperienced and had only of late lost my virginity. The story concerns a man whose wife has a twin sister. In the end, the protagonist, divorced from his wife, finds himself starting an affair with her twin. He asks the sister to walk naked around the room for him.
“Seeing her undress and move self-consciously, chin up, through a little ‘parade’ in the room, Hank thought her majestic, for being nearly skeletal. Plato was wrong; what is is absolute,” concludes the short story by a writer often accused of misogyny. “Ideas pale. The delay Susan imposed, the distances between them that could not be quickly altered, helped him grasp the blissful truth that she was just another woman.”
In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom expounds on the conflict poets feel towards the precursors of their craft, sort of like the daddy issues of prosody. Shakespeare bit his nails sitting next to Marlowe. Stevens got clammy hands thinking of Emerson. My actions with the girl in my apartment that night added a new layer to the idea, a writer’s influence over my work becoming a writer’s influence over my life. That did not, however, make me anxious. Although Updike’s work had for years influenced my writing, particularly the thesis sitting on the coffee table, what the author influenced even more was the idea I had of myself. He made me think I wanted to be like one of his characters. He made me wish I were a more callow version of myself. In the apartment that night, I reverted to the idea of a person I mistakenly thought I wanted to become, puerile and pitiless, the type of man who makes woman strut around the room naked.
Only later would I feel ashamed for having asked such a thing of Clara. These days, however, now that I try better to live original content and understand life is not fiction, now that I know my past ways were fraught with cruelty and believe no woman is just another woman, I still think fondly of what happened next in my room so long ago. I had an idea. It was the perfect culmination of my mimicry of narrative—life imitating art imitating life—whereby I could play out a role I had created myself. I asked Clara to stop parading and lie down beside me. With her naked body in my arms, I kissed her cheek, her nose, and her mouth, allowing just enough moisture on each. I gave her a quote. That’s all. I gave her a quote.
“This is you,” I said. “This is perfect.”
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