know enough

The younger and I stepped out to walk to school this morning.

“it’s a beautiful day!” I exclaimed as the sun pierced through the June gloom skies.

“I guess.”

Her tone felt like a rebuke.

“What???” I protested.

You, what????” she countered.

“It is a beautiful day!” I insisted.

She shook her head and sighed.

We crossed the street, catty-corner, and as we made our way down 21st street in silence I barely took in something on the sidewalk, indistinct, grey, a piece of gum, maybe, a dirty fragment of a squishy toy.

“I have to stand up and give out awards today, like at the Oscars,” I began.

“Ugh!” she exclaimed, a little too vehemently, I thought.


“I just saw a dead baby bird.”

“What? Oh! Was that …?” I half-turned back as we walked. “I saw something, I didn’t realize.”

“It was so tiny.” She looked at me.

“Oh!” I exclaimed.

“It didn’t even have feathers.” She looked at me again, as if she was asking me a question.

“Oh that’s sad,” I said. “No baby bird. No bird life.”

(The evening before, looking at an agitated bird I had disturbed by picking a lemon from the tree in the backyard, I had wondered aloud, “What do you think it feels like to be a bird?” The younger had rolled her eyes and shaken her head.)

“What do you think happens when we die?” I asked.

What?” She wrinkled her face and shook her head. “No!!”

“What?! No, what?!”

“No!!!! You are always asking these …. questions! Like, from your podcasts or something.

“They are not from podcasts,” I insisted, indignantly.

She continued to shake her head while sighing and growling in irritation.

Now I sighed. “I’m sorry it’s just that, I, I like you, so I want to know you, I want to know what you think about things!”

“You do know me,” she fairly spat. “You know enough.”

Now I remembered my friend telling me yesterday that her friend had told her that her daughter’s school encouraged parents not to ask questions, nor to react emotively to any disclosures that might be made.

“Okay, fine,” I conceded, chastened.

We walked in silence then, except for when a quickly suppressed giggle escaped me when we heard a boy walking behind us exclaim to his friend, “Dude, the Across the Spider-Verse soundtrack just dropped!”

The younger glared at me and shook her head.

On the last block before we reached the school, a girl about the younger’s age was trying to stuff her sweatshirt into her backpack on the sidewalk and shot us a sheepish glance as we walked around her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

“It’s all right!” I said cheerfully.

Stop,” spat the younger at me under her breath.

I sighed and we crossed the last intersection before the corner where we would part ways. This is always a moment that demands immaculate timing in executing precise choreography.  

“OK, have a good day,” I said as we approached the sidewalk.

“OK,” she mumbled.

“I love you,” I said as I reached to pull her head towards me and leant in to kiss it just at the moment we stepped up onto the sidewalk corner and before our trajectories divided.

Today, though, she tilted her head away ever so slightly as I leaned in so that all I kissed was a gauzy curtain of hair, my lips never meeting scalp, the missed kiss leaving me slightly off-kilter like the sensation of trying to step up onto a step that isn’t here.* I half- gasped, half-laughed as our paths divided, she continuing straight, me veering right, and we both looked back, her eyes narrowed, a glare with a smirk not quite piercing through.


*“Another part of the ritual was to ascend with closed eyes. “Step, step, step,” came my mother’s voice as she led me up—and sure enough, the surface of the next tread would receive the blind child’s confident foot; all one had to do was lift it a little higher than usual, so as to avoid stubbing one’s toe against the riser. This slow, somewhat somnambulistic ascension in self-engendered darkness held obvious delights. The keenest of them was not knowing when the last step would come. At the top of the stairs, one’s foot would be automatically lifted to the deceptive call of “Step,” and then, with a momentary sense of exquisite panic, with a wild contraction of muscles, would sink into the phantasm of a step, padded, as it were, with the infinitely elastic stuff of its own nonexistence.” Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (1966).


Day 150: literary pursuits?

I have been obsessively refreshing the “my classes” webpage for the last two days hoping to see something other than 0/10 under the “enrollment” tab for my seminar this quarter. At this point I am actually sitting in the large, empty classroom, at the assigned class time, on my own, and I’m still refreshing the webpage on my laptop. I believe that this is called “denial.”

I feel more perplexed than insulted because of all the classes I’ve ever come up with, this may be the one that would have most appealed to me when I was an undergraduate. It’s called “Literary Pursuits.” Here’s part of the course description: “We will consider pursuit as a theme and plot structure in literary works, and we will also think about literary criticism as itself a form of pursuit: is literary interpretation a form of detection in pursuit of a smoking gun or missing piece of the puzzle? Or is interpretation much more open-ended than these metaphors would imply and therefore, inevitably, unfinished? What kinds of questions can literary critics answer and what sorts of questions are worth asking?”

Each week takes up a particular concept—examples include puzzle, mystery, and maze. The plan was to read literary works that imagine the literary object in these terms: so we would have read Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” for puzzle; and Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” for maze. In the second half of the course, we were going to read two novels—Pale Fire and Possession—that both imagine the literary scholar’s work as a form of pursuit—whether hermeneutic or archival.

Last night I emailed our undergraduate advisor asking if I should show up for class today. She wrote back that I should because “at this stage of the game, some students may be skittish about formally enrolling … but that doesn’t mean they won’t possibly show up today to check it out and make sure it’s ‘real’ before signing up …”

At this point, I’m not sure it’s real.

After about fifteen minutes a guy stopped outside the classroom and stood for some time looking at the number next to the door as if trying to figure out if he was in the right place. I said in my most friendly and real-sounding voice, “Are you looking for literary pursuits by any chance?” He ignored me. I noticed he had earbuds in and so I said again, more loudly, “excuse me, are you looking for literary pursuits?” He continued to ignore me and then walked away.

Then another guy walked into the classroom. “Literary Pursuits?” I said, hopefully. He threw his banana peel into the garbage can, and walked back out again.

Am I actually here?

Another guy comes over, looks at the door doubtfully and then walks away again. I hear him ask someone in the hallway, “Do you know where A26 is?”

“Here!” I yell, a little too loudly. “This is A26! Literary pursuits?” I enquire. He walks into the classroom slowly and scans the room with an anxious expression. I don’t blame him: for some reason the classroom I’ve been assigned for this course is not a normal seminar room, but a large classroom with a podium at the front. It’s hard not to be struck by its … emptiness. He doesn’t look thrilled at the prospect of having a one-on-one class.

“So you’re here for literary pursuits?” I say again.

He kind of squints at me, and I wonder if he’s making an on the spot decision to deny all knowledge of the course.

I start thinking about what my counter-move will be. He’s just skittish, I think to myself. Reel him in slowly. Don’t make any sudden moves.

“Is this … Japanese?” he finally asks.

Well-played, I think to myself. I take a few seconds and think about saying “yes.”

Finally I decide against it. “No,” I admit, sighing.

“It says here my Japanese class is here,” he says.

“Really!” I say, brightening. That would explain it! I think. It’s just a room mix-up! He looks at his notebook. “Let me double-check. Ohhhh, no, it’s A62, not A26!”

At this point an hour has elapsed. It’s kind of peaceful sitting here on my own. Maybe I really don’t need the students, I think to myself. I could just come here every week and sit in this classroom by myself for three hours. It could be a kind of performance art … a willful embrace of the solipsistic sort of literary pursuit that a character like Charles Kinbote embodies. Students wouldn’t be able to participate themselves, but they would be welcome to eat bananas and watch.

I decide to go home.