He thought about what he’d say to Miranda if he saw her now, which was nothing, and he thought of what she’d say to him now, which was nonsense. Toward the end of their marriage and toward the middle and even toward the beginning of the end of the beginning, she’d mostly talked a lot of gobbledegook. ‘If the King of England says he’ll love the Queen of England forever and then remarries, does he mean he’ll love the first wife forever or whoever his wife is at the time?’ she might ask. She fancied herself a Wittgenstein philosopher and often followed whatever she said with the phrase, ‘That was very Wittgensteinian if I do say so myself, and I is who says I.’ This had been during the Cuckold Period, as he now thought of it. In France, to be a cuckold was not to be pathetic. It was to be the star of a French film! And this was who he was in their marriage: a French movie star, never mind if they were living in Jersey, since you wouldn’t specify French movie star if you were actually in France. Before the Cuckold Period, there’d been the Manifest Destiny Period, in which he believed he was accomplishing something greater than himself by settling down with her. (The children, the blessed unborn children!) And before that, there’d been the Great Awakening, in which he’d taught her a lot of things that he thought she’d like to know and which, she later told him, gently bored her. But that was Miranda. You just never knew with her.
For example, that she’d been with someone else.
Often when he was delirious, which was often, he wondered how he hadn’t seen the signs. She’d said things like, ‘When his expression is genuine, he has two identical faces.’ He’d thought she was quoting – and she was – but also she was meaning, and what she’d meant was not that the philosopher had meant something incredible but that the philosopher had meant something pedestrian.
On good days, he could believe that that was exactly what he appeared to be: pedestrian, a pedestrian, a walker, walking, going places, on the ups, possessing two healthy feet at least. There’d been the book, seven, eight years before. He knew someone who assigned it at Montclair State in an intro course. But the things he did to women were not as cute to them as they had been thirty years ago. Some of the things were flirtation, and some of them were getting older. He needed his secretary to tell him the times the laundromat closed and the birthdays of his two sisters. He asked for help with the ratio of coffee grounds to water, referring tirelessly to this ratio as her secret recipe. ‘And what if I wasn’t around?’ Clara would say.
‘I’d die of heartache and weep rose petals,’ he said.
‘You talk the talk,’ Clara said.
‘But I don’t walk the walk, I promise you.’
And it was true, he really didn’t anymore. Once, he’d been attractive to his students. Now he was a man older than their fathers. They spoke to him kindly and loudly, and it depressed the hell out of him. Sometimes they brought him cookies cut in the shapes of candy canes or reindeer, as though he was so old he’d returned to a pre-prehensile state in which the id was driven by sugar rather than sex, and, oh God, didn’t they know they could kill a prediabetic – his doctor’s term – this way? Death by chocolate was more than an expression.
‘Thank you very, very much!’ one girl hissed through a smile on the last day of the semester. ‘I learned a lot about the Protesting Affirmation, Professor Douglas!’
‘I think you mean the Protestant Reformation,’ he said.
‘Yes!’ the girl shouted more loudly. ‘The Protesting Affirmation!’
It didn’t even make sense, he thought bitterly; he hadn’t lost any hair yet. In fact – that is, in the mirror – there was a significant – abundant, even – sprawl of the stuff, which he wore neatly combed over. So he told the mirror all the ways it was a ludicrous, vapid object with no soul or eyes; a parrot; monkey see, monkey do; a sorry wannabe if ever he’d seen one. He told it it was a mere proxy, and he told it it was a dime a dozen, though still a homewrecking slut. No, never again would he cry a hot tear for this mirror. Then when he was done berating the instrument of his own reflection, he sat down in his office chair to berate his young charges.