Dakota had learned I was a serious reader of Borges, and she asked me if there was any other book besides Ficciones she should read. I recommended to her The Book of Imaginary Beasts, not because I’d read it, but I’d read about it. Someone was hailing it as the kind of wonderment I’d come to expect from the Argentinian master. I was even waiting for my copy to be delivered to Schwartz’s direct from the publisher. I was grateful it was still in print.
When I actually read The Book of Imaginary Beasts I felt distressed. I kept flipping page after page, hoping it would improve, but it turned out to be the kind of thing that made you realize even great writers were human beings. Mortified, I thought of Marianne Moore, who’d done a better job in two pages with “Poetry.” Of course I hadn’t forgotten Dakota and what I knew she must now think of me.
We had a mutual friend who lived near campus, a rather skinny young man named Frederick, an androgynous fellow with flowing blond hair, who owned a cockatiel that he allowed to fly about his apartment whenever he had guests. I often dodged as I heard it flapping behind me, imagining bird shit, even conceptualizing a complete line of designer outerwear – Birdsplash!! – with irregular white stains as from an emulsion exposed to gravity and its dark center posited like the poisoned yolk of a rotten egg on the shoulder, or centered on the sternum, the solid turd inside the whitey wet. That night, I sat in a lounge chair in the front room, drinking a diet soda with a plateful of munchies, watching in dread as Trouleuce, or whatever the hell its name was paced sideways back and forth along its perch, nodding its head up and down. Dakota suddenly materialized before me and asked me a question she’d devised specifically for my bewilderment. “You don’t like the word penis, do you?” she uttered. “Dick, cock, pecker, schwanz, skinflute, Johnson…none of those words bother you. But penis makes you uncomfortable…Am I right?”
This was her effort at revenge, a little Psy-Ops while I stuffed my face with Bugles slathered in French onion dip, set out specifically for me while the others shared veggie fragments. I was the only South Sider in their little group, connected to Old Milwaukee, half German, half Polish, a halfbreed even in my neighborhood. Dakota and her sister were Scottish imports paying out of state tuition, purely ethnic, like the rest of this crowd I didn’t quite fit into. Her question implied neurosis, an accurate diagnosis, but she hadn’t guessed right. My weakness was literally right in front of me on the plate. I’d altered my wardrobe every year of Grad School. Half a dozen belts of incremental lengths hung in my closet like a set of percussionist’s chimes. I chewed and swallowed, took a drink of my Dietus Cokus (my liquid irony) to wash it down, then unreclined and leaned into her with my elbows on my knees. She waited for my answer.
“Actually,” I told her, “the word penis doesn’t bother me at all. But I know a word that bothers you.” I spoke the word loudly and clearly. Of course it was the c word and she flinched. I said it again with equal volume and direction and her mouth opened slightly, like the pickerel smile of Theodore Roethke’s Jane. She began to turn away. I said quickly and sharply, “Cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt!” She fled.
I didn’t hear from her again for weeks, however my victory was compounded through no effort of my own. One day my roommate Byron, who was a beautiful mix of Columbian and German blood, came home and explained to me he had to get in touch with her. “Why?” I asked. He clarified he needed to contact all the sexual partners he’d had in the last month, about a half dozen women. I asked, “Do you have the clap?”
“No,” he responded, “genital warts.”
“My god,” I said, “what does that look like?”
He described it and I winced. I said, “Dakota? Really? I wouldn’t have suspected.”
He said, “She just suddenly one day came on to me.”
“I see,” I replied, “When was this?”
“About a week ago. She mentioned that awful book you recommended to her.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “I felt kinda bad about that one. So what do they do about genital warts?”
“They have to freeze it and then they cut it out. It hurts like hell after the anesthetic wears off.”
“Really?” I asked. “Is it the same with girls?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Good question.”
I thought about Dakota carefully sitting, resisting the urge to shift in her chair. I was happy for the better part of that day.
Years later, however, Dakota notched a decisive victory, planted her flag in my corpse even. By chance we ran into each other on Wells Street in front of Real Chili. I withdrew half my pocketful of Kleenex and wiped the sauce off my face. She looked thin and lovely as usual and explained she was completing her dissertation on Rimbaud and Baudelaire at Marquette. She was defending in a few weeks. I looked at her surprised.
She had outdistanced me, had mastered two of my favorites. She’d immersed herself in the very works that most compelled and angered me to type. She understood my Cockaigne, the place I went to out of hunger when all the stupidity of the earth held me contemptible because in all my years I’d changed nothing but my own waistline. No one read me. At the time I was taking donations in the street, volunteering for Wispirg, a bunch of tree huggers my one remaining Goth friend chortled after me when he bothered to speak to me. Was I inspired by Ralph Nader? No, like always, I was chickhunting. At this point they were so young in comparison to myself they couldn’t see past my rolls of fat and wire rims. They treated me the way a white blood cell consumes to an offending virus, literally eating my groveling ass alive, overwhelming me beneath a chorus of ho ho ho’s and no’s.
Dakota said she’d found a position at Arizona as an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature. She’d even met N Scott Momaday. Genuinely happy, she wasn’t bragging or one-upping. Having discovered who she’d sought to be since the time she’d dressed in tie dyes with her Deadhead sister, she became herself now in a prune dress and flats. And indeed, I noticed immediately her transformation: Her hair now short as would befit a new member of faculty, her eyes engaging, not looking past or away. Guilt and shame had departed her, and not only had I no means of attacking her, I had no desire. She’d accomplished everything, had usurped my knowledge, my position. Unable to rely on me as an authority, she’d redefined herself. She’d contributed, even outsourced, while I lagged and begged in the streets. I fumed went home and grieved for my failed ambitions, all of them trailing me like a string of phantom telomeres. After days, I returned to my books, then to my stories. Ignoring hygiene I bit my thumb, writing, tasting printer ink. Having fallen, I immersed myself once more. Bitterly I took to prose. I read and wrote, once more embraced rejection.