Prelude to a Friendship: “Denise Was Near to the Bone”
Paul Lisicky Remembers the Moment He Met a Lifelong Friend
The following appears in the current issue of Conjunctions.
We were walking beneath thick trees, laughing too hard, and we both felt it at the same time. It passed from eye to eye, quick, gone. The awareness felt like the click on a cap of medicine. We were here, now. And though we’d only been taking long walks for two weeks, it was already getting harder to imagine when we hadn’t been trying to crack each other up. I hadn’t even known I’d been a corpse. I’d been in dead time, waiting to be undead. What follows is an outtake from my book, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, which wants to think about my twenty-six years with the novelist Denise Gess. I think of this as a prelude to the action in the book: those late, last minutes before an unexpected best friendship got under way.
I’d heard her name before I saw her face. It came from the mouth of my first creative writing teacher, a lithe, athletic woman whose impeccable appearance summoned up a bygone Hollywood: part Janet Leigh, part Tippi Hedren. She said Denise Gess as if it was a name I should know, or was going to know very soon. There might have been a current of resentment in this news. After all, my teacher was a gifted, dedicated writer. She’d been a student of Donald Barthelme. She had already written several novels, none of which had been published, and every time a book of hers cycled through the rounds, she altered her name a little, adding a syllable or clipping off a name, as if she were starting all over again. She led me to think that Denise Gess, a student in the graduate program in English she was encouraging me to apply to, was a name I should know. Denise’s first novel, Good Deeds, was already getting rave reviews months before it even came out.
* * * *
For me “Denise Gess” inevitably summoned up Judith Guest, the author of Ordinary People, a novel that had been popular back then. Or maybe not so much the novel, but the movie, starring Mary Tyler Moore in a devastating, eviscerated performance. I was scared of this performance, maybe because I couldn’t find Mary Richards, the vulnerable character she played on TV, anywhere in her face, wrists, ears. This role seemed to swallow her whole. Where was her big, happy head, her tiny body, her dancer’s legs, the personality of a sixteen-year-old girl attached to the body of a woman, so determined to be perfect? Where was her funny voice with the endearing slide in the vowels? Always about to burst into tears even when she was smiling, soldiering on? This Ordinary People Mary leeched all the playfulness out of her eyes, which might have been why I associated the name Denise Gess with something curated, moneyed, and clean. It couldn’t have been further from my own last name, which I didn’t say aloud so I didn’t have to take in the confusion in anyone’s face. I just introduced myself as Paul, as if that was all you ever needed to know.
* * * *
She was already at the seminar table of my romantic poetry class when I first walked in. It didn’t occur to me to sit anywhere close to her. Instead, I took a chair at the opposite end of the room so I couldn’t be subject to any conversation. I opened my textbook, aimed my face down at Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I tried to imagine a compelling point about how the two sets of poems fit together: maybe there was something to say about how “A Little Boy Lost” dialogued with “A Poison Tree.” For the next five minutes I tried coming up with a scrutable perspective to slow the dense, high panic in my chest. I thought of a bat, a chirping brown bat, knocking on my collarbone from inside.
And yet I couldn’t stop stealing looks at this Gess. People were walking in, taking their chairs, tossing down their backpacks, but the room was a lot more alive in her corner. It was as if a dog whistle were being blown and only I could hear it. She sat in her chair as a dancer would, right leg folded and tucked under the left, dressed in black, black scoop-neck top, black linen slacks, flat black shoes, an immense flat cordovan purse on the tabletop in front of her. Everyone else sat relatively still, obedience shaping their postures, while she slid around in her chair, fingertips extended in dual directions, her body both talking and listening at once. Most of the other students, all women, cultivated an air of practicality about them. They were softer; they required scarves around their necks, the plushness of their skin. Denise, on the other hand, was near to the bone, as if it didn’t matter to her that her heart, liver, lungs, breasts, and sexual parts were closer to brute danger.
* * * *
The professor had an air of benevolence about him. He smiled in the manner of a parish priest, as if he were about to lift his arms, raise them high above his head to say, “Let us pray,” after which we were to bow our heads. He opened his book, asked us to open our own books, and started to speak at length about Blake. His sentences were so sculpted that it was hard not to wonder whether he’d spoken those same words, in the same order, for the last dozen years. Once he got going, the kindness seemed to come less from inside him than outside the room. He rarely looked any of us in the eye, even though he certainly wanted us to feel seen. Maybe it was nerves. Or perhaps too painful to take in the fact that he was teaching Rutgers faces rather than Princeton faces. The Princeton faces would have focused on him; they would have looked right through him to their sunlit futures. The Rutgers faces were likely more complicated. We all wanted multiple things, things we couldn’t put a name to. How do you look at people who want to leave their husbands, or find their husbands, or shoot heroin up into their fingers, or fuck on the garage floor rather than in a bed, or move away from the state of New Jersey, without yet having an inkling of any of that?
The afternoon sun saturated the fabric of the rolled-down blind. What was I doing here? I had never been a fan of school: most of my creative work was animated by a desire to bypass it, as well as all the dreads I’d associated with it, the pressure of conformity, competition—years and years of sour stomachs, anxiety enough to compromise the immune system. And now here I was pinned to those hard chairs again, the most banal kind of resignation, although the idea of graduate school certainly sounded credible to my parents and their friends. I should have been designing houses. I should have been playing my guitar in a too-tight coffeehouse, risking the crowd’s indifference. As for writing? I knew I could write a story, a funny story. But a lot of people could write funny stories.
* * * *
There was no doubt Denise always knew she was a writer. I’d never known anyone with so little doubt about her capacity to handle the task set out before her. It was not a task she believed she needed to earn, all the more intriguing given that she didn’t come from a literary family; her father was a mailman, her mother sold cards in a Hallmark shop. If Denise did have doubts about her vocation, she kept them hidden, as one would the airplane-size vodka bottles behind the stacks of dishes in the china closet. In the weeks ahead she developed a theory about Blake’s line breaks. The professor agreed with her up to a point; there was a shove in his reply, which invited Denise to push back. She was never afraid of pushing back. Her face went gold. It smoldered every time she called the professor by his first name, Bob, as if she and Bob were equals, had always been so. Or not equals. Maybe she knew that when her book came out and her face was on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Bob would be standing in line at a bookstore, waiting for her to sign it. Then later he’d try to teach the book and get it all wrong, and she would have to walk into the room, ready to interrogate his simple assessment.
To see them banter was a little like watching sex, or some version of it.
I looked around at the women around the table. They couldn’t take their eyes off Denise: the hands always in motion, the bracelets ringing on her thin olive arms. The expressive eyes that believed literature could take care of you, could make you feel known to yourself, less alone. She was onto something, whether they wanted to take it in or not. They’d gleaned that a devotion to literature insisted on a pact with the body. You covered it. You made sure it wasn’t noticed. Denise, on the other hand, was body. She didn’t hold that body against you. She didn’t use it as a threat. She invited you along, as if you could be as vital as she was if you were willing to come along. But what was I to do with her instruction in an English Department in which the professor who taught James never once mentioned same-sex desire in relationship to that work? If only he’d been bold enough to speculate about Marcher’s withdrawal from May Bartram, or just questioned the root of the relationship between Mallet and Roderick Hudson: “You came and put me into such ridiculous good humor,” says Roderick to his mentor. So many contradictions around those tables, it was no wonder I spent half those years blinking, looking for the correct stanza, in a fugue state. Occasionally when I couldn’t process the contradictions, I drifted up toward the ceiling and pictured Denise’s face up on a screen, the big screen, playing a vulnerable but tough woman who fell in love with all the wrong men, surviving everyone who tried to fuck her, destroy her.
* * * *
To push out the walls of the seminar room. Not at all to be at the center of that room, but what? There was a village inside me, but I didn’t have a clue as to how to get that village out. The enclosure I’d built around that village was exhausting me. Words: more treacherous, and potentially full of trouble than any of the tools of music, where you could hide between the notes, enfold yourself between pauses and breaks like a bat inside a crack in a wall. You could be a great dancer and hide, a great sculptor and hide, an architect, a city planner, an oboist, an actor, and I’d chosen a field that required you to stand naked in front of your reader. Words did not give you safety. Words were magnificently scary in what they exacted of you. I both wanted to run away and slide into the great furry arms of them, be mauled and screwed senseless if that was what they required.
* * * *
My writing place was in the far end of the basement, a few feet from the huge metal box of the heater. I felt drawn to the purr of the motor, the way it kicked on and off every five minutes, as if it were sucking fresh air into the house, then blowing it out into the yard, atop the barberry. I’d made a cage for myself down there, at my father’s drafting table. I figured my writing would possibly be better if it were conducted in the most unappealing conditions possible. I made sure I didn’t shift too much on the high metal stool. I only went upstairs to pee at least fifteen minutes after I felt the urge. Perhaps in part I was trying to appease my father, who believed that hard work justified a human life. It didn’t so much matter what the product was, but how you pushed, bullied yourself. It could not look like I was playing—or having fun. I made myself a little med school there, but with pens and paper instead of scalpels and forceps. I felt far away from the outdoors, from everything that mattered to me: plants and animals and music and sex and God.
The door opened. “Paul?” my mother called from the top of the steps.
I stared at the words on the page. Where was syntax? No cause and effect. It unsettled me to see how easy it was to deface a piece of paper.
My mother called my name again.
I could have cried, I’m writing, but that would have translated to: selfish. I knew she was deliberately distracting me from my concentration even as I knew she wanted me to succeed at my writing. Achievement was as important to her as it was to my father. If I were to be published in a magazine, my mother would have shown up at the newsstand at 7:00 a.m., carried all dozen copies to the cash register, then, on the way home, slid them individually into the mailboxes of all the women from the church choir she had a wish to feel superior to.
Out in the garage, I lifted the grocery bags from the car, burning in the face. It wasn’t like I was actually writing anyway. Possibly I was even grateful to be summoned out of the cage.
I slugged cans into the pantry shelf. Her back, shy; her shoulders tight as she ran a hard stream of water at the sink. I couldn’t stay upset with her for long, for she was my other half, right? There was no way I’d ever be otherwise, as she’d named me after her twin brother, Paul, who had died when they were seventeen. She talked about Paul all the time and never let me forget how funny he was, how smart, how sweet, how beloved, how curious—I’d never measure up to the myth of him. But connections are always deeper than names, and I suspected I’d learned how to watch over her long before I’d been able to form sentences. Her rolled eyes, her glances, the movements of her fingers, which were always sore these days, none more bent than her wedding-ring finger—I was always attuned to her like a guide dog, as if it had always been my duty to check in on her emotional temperature, especially when she and my father had been fighting noisily into the night. And whenever my watching was too acute—when she caught me doing it, though she wanted me to—she pushed me away, for there was something not right about a child being too close to his mother, particularly if that child was a boy: everybody knew what that meant. At such moments, it was hard not to believe she was the saddest human alive, even though she’d always appeared to be happy. You’re always smiling, said a woman in the supermarket when I was five. And I remember looking up at my mother’s mouth, the swipe of coral lipstick at the tips of her white teeth, and thinking, she’s right. How lucky I was to have a happy mother. Happy was the mark of love, happy the sign of being chosen—we all wanted to be known as happy, right? And I held on to all the possible meanings of my mother’s happiness as the two of us stepped over the grate by the automatic doors. So many objects fallen through the grate, into the soot and lint, never to be scooped up again—dimes, a makeup compact, blue plastic gum-machine rings, coupons, receipts, two S&H Green Stamps, ballpoint-pen caps. Unhappiness beneath the soles of our shoes while the two of us walked forward, across the parking lot, the sun heating our heads.
* * * *
If you were to tell me that someone was to come along to replace my twin, I’d have said: impossible. And if that same person was to say her name would be Denise Gess, I’d have said it once more. A skyrocket, a shelter, a skylark: what would Denise have wanted with me? No, absolutely not. I did not have time for a real best friend. Besides, I already had a head full. Not to mention a house balanced across my shoulders, even if I was lurching now, right leg so far ahead I was practically on the ground.