None of It's Been Good
I had this professor in college, one of those washed-up, moody types who hadn’t published in years, but who commanded student respect despite or even because of his ruined aspect. He would pace in the front of the room, posing questions without looking at the class, lighting his next cigarette with the one he had just smoked down to a nub—if he went more than a minute without puffing, his yellowed hands would shake.
Once, when we were discussing the French Revolution, I trotted out some Wordsworthian dream I had encountered in my British Romantic Poetry class, and he said, “See now, there’s your trouble. Literature gets caught up in possibilities, imagining that things can be glorious and new. When you study history, you realize that, where human beings are concerned, everything possible has already happened, and none of it’s been good.”
I thought he was a dried-up cynic then. When you’re that age, you are so caught up in that passionate desire to be doing, to make some mark like an animal scoring a tree with your claws or antlers—and surely you will make it, how can you not? All these years later, I find myself caught between thinking I should push myself to do more or convince myself to be contented with less. But as for history, I can’t help hoping for a world in which the kind and gentle ones are more than a sidebar, more than a brief interlude before the carnage comes again.
So when I lie next to you, my fingers entwined in what I like to call your belly fur, my head nestled into that place where your neck meets your collarbone, I find comfort in listening to your heart thrum, not looking at your face, but at the sparse, coarse hairs around one square, brown nipple. We can joke about how we have the same taste in women, and when you make quips like, "My love life has always had two speeds: the women I can't get and the women I can't get rid of," I tell myself you don't include me in either category, or else you wouldn't have confided in me this way. You are the only man I've had at any speed, which is supposed to make this easier, less consuming: intimacy without vulnerability. That's how we can get this close.
So you'll go on hurting and acknowledging it too little, and I'll go on hurting and dwelling on it too much, and we'll both go on tripping over each other's feelings just like we have before with everybody else, although this time the clumsiness seems to matter more, at least to me. Because after almost a half-century of living, sometimes you can't help but look back and think none of it's been good. But, then, you have to admit, it's all we have.
Stephanie Friedman is an administrator at the University of Chicago, where she also teaches in the Writer’s Studio, a creative writing program for adult students. Her work has appeared in venues such as Michigan Quarterly Review, Blood Orange Review, and Riverteeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, and has been listed among the “notable” stories for the year in Best American Short Stories. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
For my wife’s sake, I want to stress that this is FICTION—entirely made up. The first half was part of another piece originally, but was excised in revision. Eventually, I realized it was an anecdote told by another character entirely, and the piece came to its conclusion.
What is one thing about you that people assume?
I don’t know what people assume about me. I think I would rather go on not knowing. I don’t know that I would see it as such a gift if we could see ourselves as others see us.
What is your spirit animal?
I couldn’t say that I have a spirit animal, but I am very taken with hawks at the moment, particularly the Cooper’s Hawks we have that live in the city. To see glimpses of them, or to be unexpectedly caught in their gaze, is to experience a moment of wildness. And then, I saw one mobbed by crows the other day, who drove it off into another stand of trees. To see one bear up under this indignity made me only love them more.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
Rock and scissors destroy their opponents utterly. Paper covers the rock, leaving it whole, and is itself creased once the rock is uncovered again. But doesn’t the metal of the scissors mar the rock in the breaking, and the paper dull the blade of the scissors as it cuts? We might think it weak and foolish to approach our opponents like paper, rather than leaving them shattered and rent behind us, but how much strength does it take to hold an antagonist close and then let him go? What would the rock say to the paper when they met again?