Thursday, August 8, 2013

I suppose so

Recently I found myself rereading The Great Gatsby, a book I've come back to countless times since I first picked it up more than thirty years ago. I was reading it this time because, after all these years and entirely unbidden, a thought that had never once occurred to me crossed my mind with alarming clarity: Daisy Buchanan is a vapid, empty bimbo. This was disconcerting because, of course, my image of Gatsby as a genuinely and meaningfully tragic character depended upon Daisy: without her, Gatsby is little more than a cynical perversion of the Horatio Alger mythos, a shameless, unscrupulous social climber for whom the means are entirely justified by the irrepressible allure of the gilded mirage at the horizon's edge. Daisy gives direction to Gatsby's odyssey, and if she is lovely and pure and deserving of his intense affection, Gatsby's ascension from Jimmy Gatz of North Dakota to Jay Gatsby of the glittering palace on Long Island Sound can achieve a sort of nobility. "The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption -- and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-by." That was Nick Carraway's assessment upon wishing Gatsby good day for what turned out to be the very last time. In the book's opening pages, Carraway also offered this: "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope."

As I stretched out on the couch with the book open in front of me, I imagined I was looking for a scene, a passage, as little as a brief phrase, that would prove me wrong about Daisy. I believed that was what I was doing because my own history tells me I am just such an idealist, just such an incorruptible dreamer. Sadly, though, I suspect my true intent was to prove myself right. Regardless of my motive, I found nothing that caused me to reconsider my newfound opinion of Daisy Buchanan. I saw that she is pretty and stylish and rich, that she is anxious and self-absorbed and disappointed, that she is selfish and weak and, in her way, cruel. In a word, I found her unworthy. The character of Daisy Buchanan is, without a doubt, lacking in anything that could even remotely be called character. What, ultimately, can be said about an abiding affection that has no basis in the character of the beloved?

Perspective is trigonometry: the sine of what you know now and cosine of what you thought you knew then creating the arc of how you see the world right now. Once upon a time I met a girl in college and thought, because we were all grown up and out in the world, "This will be the girl." She wasn't. A few years later I met another girl, and we changed diapers together and read bedtime stories and talked late into the night about plans and fears and hopes, and I thought, "This will be the girl." She wasn't. A lot of years went by before I met the girl who claimed to be so torn she could cut off her hands and feet and wrote text messages like, "I was brushing my teeth, thinking of how to say I love you in an oblique way," and god did I hope she was the girl. What can I say -- she wasn't. They were all devastating losses in their own particular ways, but except in the case of the last one, my mind's eye doesn't recollect the dark and desolate days nearly so much as it does the sorts of images that accumulate when two people find some measure of delight in each other. I used to sit in an overstuffed leather armchair in the grand marble lobby of the bank where Charlotte worked, reading a book while I waited for her to get off, and on the best days I would look up just as she passed under the sprawling archway and see her face break into that perfect smile, the one that said, "Let's go home, just you and me." When I first lived with Michele, there were nights when I walked the mile and a half home through howling blizzards, and when I stepped through the door, she'd throw her arms around me before I'd even shaken off the snow. Those are the kinds of things I tend to remember.

A few days ago I found a package addressed to me sitting on my desk at the library. Inside were three books I'd lent to someone in 2010. No note, not even a return address, just three books I'd long since given up on ever seeing again, my name scrawled in the corner of all three title pages. I sat and stared at them for I don't even know how long. It didn't seem possible, after all that time, after everything that had happened in the years since I'd last seen or spoken to her, that they could just one day arrive in the mail like any old thing. I picked up the top book -- Drown, by Junot Diaz -- and flipped through the pages, looking for some sign of her. She has a tendency to circle words she doesn't know (based on my copy of Gatsby, which she also borrowed long ago, she was unfamiliar with, among others, the words supercilious, rotogravure, impetuously, vinous and punctilious). Twenty, thirty, forty pages in I found nothing. I stuffed the books into my shoulder bag and shuffled off to a meeting. I don't remember one thing from that meeting.

In the ensuing days it started to bother me, this simple act of finally returning my books to me. If it could be done now, why couldn't it have been done last year or the year before that when I asked for them? And what about the courtesy of a note that simply said, "Sorry it took me so long." I mentioned this to my buddy Hank, who wisely pointed out that there was nothing she could say that would make me feel better about any of it. He's right about that. In his inimitable way, he often is. But it's not as simple as that. It's not just about making me feel better about any part of it. When you've run out the string on anything, nothing that is so obvious is nearly enough. It's still a long way to vindication.

Which is why I started with Gatsby. That poor, sad son of a bitch. Upon departing on what will be the last afternoon of Gatsby's life, Nick says, "I'll call you up," and Gatsby, desperately, pathetically, offers, "I suppose Daisy'll call too."

Nick replies, "I suppose so."

I hate to ruin the ending for you, but she doesn't call.

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