“Some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”
The café is crowed tonight when I have no patience for a crowd. Minutes will be lost in the long line for a Frappucino, not to mention the relentless effort needed to secure even the smallest of tables-this will cost me precious writing time. A cold urine spot on my underwear rubs against my skin, adding to the increased frustration. It amazes me how after a lifetime of daily practice I still can’t efficiently shake and squeeze the excess pee from my penis. A violent spasm takes over my right knee-my pressure valve. Perhaps I should just go back home and attempt to work through an eight-year-old’s constant demand for attention and the futile arguments of two teenage girls over phone time, nail polish, and all that’s trivial in the universe. The words of my colleagues come to mind: “You are not a true writer until you have produced under the most deplorable conditions.” They’re quick to remind me of the words of the great Toni Morrison who explained in an interview how she wrote around her baby’s vomit:
“While I was writing he spit up orange juice on the
manuscript, on the tablet that I was writing on and
I distinctly remember writing around it because I
thought I had this really perfect sentence that might
not come back if I stopped and wiped up his puke.”
So, I resolve to abandon the romantic notion of a productive night to creamy Fraps, smooth jazz, and the comfort of unified chatter. Making my way through the customers, I head home determined to write around it…when I see Jake coming in. His left hand already in the air signaling for me to join him at a nice table near the windows that is freeing up. Confirming his invitation with a similar wave, I shout over a few heads to ask what he’s having.
“Tall Latte. No whip!” He yells back taking off his coat and draping it over the chair.
Others have been waiting for more than fifteen minutes (their coffees turning cold) hovering over seated patrons, like hawks watching their pray from an elevated position. But not a minute through the doors, Jake’s set up at one of the most sot after spots in the entire place-the lucky bastard.
Jake Hathaway is the shortest man I know, at five feet, two inches. His receding hairline and pudgy fingers makes him look grossly overweight at forty-eight. His once pink complexion has morphed into an uneven number of red patches around his face. As a divorcee father of a beautiful four-year-old named Jenny, he depends greatly on babysitters. His ex-wife refused any custody of the child. This odd arrangement makes some of our friends take pity on him. But I remember back for enough to hold a grudge (back when he deserted all of us). Jake committed the ultimate betrayal in college, when he changed majors from English to Engineering. He never gave a real reason for his radical behavior.
“Just a change of heart.” He would say.
Years later he buckled under the pressures of his first job and the firm’s unrealistic deadlines. The declining job market forced him to return to our university, where he still teaches mathematics-introduction, intermediate, and advanced calculus. Two months ago he decided to grow a beard, convinced it would make him look sophisticated. None of us had the heart to tell him otherwise. Tonight these reluctant clumps of stubble only serve to augment his sloppy appearance. Jake is the kinda fella that makes it easy for older men to feel as cool as the Duke, or as smooth as James Bond-a man’s cure for the middle-age crisis.
At the table I place the two drinks in the center, spilling some of his Latte and burning my fingers. Jake wasn’t smart enough to pat me on the back after I released the searing hot liquids.
“Hey Shakespeare boy, how’s it been? Working tonight?” He greets me and decides to ignore the caffeine trail headed for his New York Times.
“I’ll get some napkins.” I announce, nodding ‘yes’ to his second question.
I situate my dark blue backpack on the empty chair next to me after trashing the brown absorbent squares.
“What’s up with you?” My question doesn’t intend to dredge up any extensive details on Jake’s life.
Nevertheless, I sense the second the question ends, a Pandora’s box is opened; unnecessarily long explanations, unimportant accounts of faculty meetings, and lost memories from years past. All these accompanied by an occasional spray of spit. He wraps up by hurling a few questions at me.
“How was the conference? And what’s up with the ponytail?” He was in the habit of asking two questions at a time.
“It was the usual workshop, chain smokers, and cheap food. I’m just glad to be back so I can get a descent slice of pizza. About the hair…” I stir the whipped cream with my super-long straw, knowing he won’t give up on the ponytail issue.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not half bad. I was just used to that crazed, hippy look.” He pours over fifteen packettes of brown sugar to dissolve at the bottom of the ceramic cup.
“Karen got tired of the hair on my face.” I explain to a dissatisfied Jake.
The minute I take out my work, I know I’ll catch shit for it.
For over two years now I’ve been working on my dissertation. An entire year devoted to research and the second year writing the first draft. Four months ago, after an exhausting holiday season, I began the mutilating process of revising my work. The key to revision, I tell my students, is to first deconstruct the word itself. The prefix ‘re’ (to redo or repeat) before the word ‘vision’ demands a new look, a different perspective. In reality it is the hardest part of the writing process. How does one really detach oneself from our creations without bias or prejudice. For weeks I sat in my office, at my desk rereading the introduction and trying to decipher what the hell I was thinking when I drafted such a cloudy beginning. In my own defense I can only say that, the task I have set myself seems at times an impossible one; to prove without a doubt that William Shakespeare in actuality created all the plays accredited to his name. Even if I collect an obscene amount of evidence (as I already have), the opposition possesses twice as much against my claim. Colleagues have warned me about selecting a thesis topic so personal to me. They foretold of the monumental sense of failure if I don’t succeed and the recurring nightmares and cold sweats in the middle of the night. They deem it bad business to make a profession out of a long-life obsession.
His eyes lock on my backpack when I retrieve my notebooks. Some writers get their inspiration from fancy stationary, but for me there’s nothing better than stacks of spiral notebooks scattered over a table. Every line, including the margins filled with my thoughts, opinions, and ideas-my brain flooding the pages.
“You still working on that stuff?” Jake shakes his head in disbelief when he sees my yellow spiral, with the taped cutout of The Bard.
“I’m wrapping it up. Putting the finishing touches, you know how that goes.” I explain myself, suddenly realizing I will get no work done tonight.
“This isn’t some theorem your trying to prove, with some absolute answer, Sam. It’s as futile as planning your next move at chess, when I’ve called check-mate.” He clears his throat and gets serious.
“You make it sound like I’m wasting my time. Don’t forget I’m the lit expert here. All you do is crunch numbers, so stick to what you know.” I assure him we’re not roommates debating Khafka, Twain, or Hemingway over pizza and beer on a Friday night anymore.
“Just because I don’t have a masters in English Literature, doesn’t mean I’ve lost my ability to think logically. Logic is the name of my game. And logic tells me you won’t finish.” He takes a long gulp of Latte and leans back against the deco chair with a smug look on his face, like he’s harboring some secret.
“And you have evidence to prove I won’t finish?” I put on my serious face.
“You can’t finish because you’ll never be satisfied with it. And you won’t be satisfied because you don’t believe it yourself.” He continues.
“Am I going to need a decoder or will you be kind enough to translate.” I grow tired of his game.
A young woman comes over to ask if we could spare the chair holding my pack. Her tits are pressed up and her low-cut sweater reveals a firm cleave. My mind is frozen, my eyes pulled like magnets to her round breasts. When my indiscretion becomes obvious, Jake jumps in to save me from further embarrassment.
“Go right ahead. Let me move this.” Jake reaches around the table to move my pack off the chair and kicks my foot.
“What?” I come back around after the girl and her perky top have disappeared in the crowd.
“Shakespeare boy, keep your dick in your pants. Don’t embarrass me, I’m a regular here.” Jake warns me.
“You’re an ass man right? You’ve always been an ass man. Well I’m a tit man and I won’t apologize for it. Besides Karen’s right; after hours of preparation a woman wants to be noticed.” My Frap melts.
“Notice is one thing. Drooling quite another. Now, don’t change the subject.” Jake says in an unfamiliar tone of concern.
“I’m not skirting the issue, I just don’t have time for your bullshit tonight. I was hoping to get some work done before you showed up.” I pull notebook back from the ring of water collecting at the bottom of my plastic cup.
“I’m trying to save you the disappointment. I know your buddies at the college don’t have the balls to tell you the truth. They stick to following you around all day long throwing roses at your feet.” His resentment perfectly bottled in this remark.
“So this is what it comes down to? You’re jealous of my success. You’re jealous I got the better job and the girl.” My head tilts in disappointment.
I remove my work from the table just as my knee starts getting out of control under the table.
When I started at the university I knew I would find a friend. My high school yearbook crew voted me the friendliest guy in my class. Jake’s honesty struck me during orientation night. He was the only one who dared to ask the resident assistant what we were all wondering but too shy to ask: “Are we allowed to have sex in the co-ed bathrooms?”
We had some of the best discussions on everything from politics to the proper way to fold socks. I never expected to dislike Jake and still consider him a friend. It was a strange arrangement from my part, especially after the Christmas party when he tried to come between Karen and I. Once he switched teams and went over to Engineering as assistant professor I didn’t see him as much. The years passed in this fashion and I dismissed him as a transient friend; those people that seem to have potential at first but turn out to disappoint greatly, able to dispense only temporary joy.
“Look man I’m not trying to burst your bubble. I juts call ‘em like I see ‘em. You know once you’ve accepted the truth you’ll be a happier guy. You’re not exactly looking your best lately.” Jake reloads.
“What truth?” This is all I can think to say.
“Everybody’s shit stinks and you know it!” He finally reveals his wisdom.
‘Everybody’s shit stinks’ was Jake’s crude way of declaring that we are all flawed.
“Don’t try feeding me that crap again. You can’t win this argument with that…” I retaliate, my knee shaking out of control as I lay my hand on it to settle it. “…In any case why does his flaw have to be his writing? Why not the womanizing? Why not his drinking? Or even the possibility that he was really a fag?”
After decades of research, ‘the possibility that he was really a fag’ is my best response.
“Why not the writing? Why not? All it means is that they’ve been putting the wrong face on all the English Lit anthologies, and some merchandise, which will have to be reprinted. Why are you taking it so personally? Who’s this really about?” He takes a long sip of his coffee, his eyes studying my face.
“Don’t psychoanalyze me! His work is his own and this is backed up by centuries of unquestionable findings, historical facts, and distinguished scholars.” I reply.
“It is exactly that unquestionable aspect I don’t trust. I’ve got one name for you…Galileo.” Jake slaps me on the back again on his way to refill his cup.
Skirting the tables I follow him to the line, pulled by the gravity of the argument.
“You’re telling me you’re actually conceived Shakespeare didn’t even exist? Don’t be an ass.” My voice startles Jake who doesn’t expect me towering behind him.
“I don’t know about existed. All I’m saying is, we as men of logic must consider all sides of an argument, all the angles, and probabilities. In Galileo’s day they all lived and died by false believes. They wouldn’t even listen to his suggestions no matter how credible. By denying the possibility of truth, you too are burning Galileo.” Jake finishes off in a whisper and turns to ask for more coffee.
“I’m not burning Galileo! I know what I know and that’s eating you.” I close our discussion, unwilling to continue any further exchange with this demi-man and return to the table.
I toss my wilting drink in the trash. My pen keeps slipping off my sweaty fingers as I hurry to gather my things. Before I can dash off, to avoid any more nonsense, Jake is back at the table.
“So you see Shakespeare boy, you may be better off saving Galileo. It maybe your own soul your saving.” Jake opens the first pages of his math journal and doesn’t notice I’m standing.
“Karen just paged…I have to head home and–” Before I can contrive the entire lie he interrupts me.
“Do what you want. But remember, you’re burning Galileo.” He dismisses me without another word.
“I’ve got a better idea. How about the next time you and I meet, you pretend you don’t know me?” I snatch my belongings and strap my backpack on-a rush of blood overheats my face.
“That’s the best idea you’ve had all night. What good are you anyway if you can’t be true to yourself.” Jake throws up his shoulders, rests his jaw on a fury backhand and returns to his journal.
Outside an April breeze cools my flushed cheeks. I spot Jake’s Euro-green Saab at an expired meter across the street. The meter maid coming down the street puts a smile on my dry lips.
Too excited to go home yet, I turn the corner and park myself on the wooden bench in front of Starlight Bakery.
How can he believe it doesn’t matter-It’s not just the covers of English anthologies, my bookmarks, my favorite t-shirt, or my three coffee mugs that would be rendered obsolete; Hundreds, thousands, endless numbers of people would have to redefine, rethink, and reorganize their lives. People who have always attached a face to a name, the name to the works, and the works to themselves will be lost, like sailboats without the winds to power them or the lighthouses to guide them home.
The lights flicker on an old street lamp nearby that intercepts my thoughts.
Am I really burning Galileo? Truth. What is truth anyhow? Is it ultimately worth the sacrifice? Could I give up Shakespeare to save Galileo from perishing forever? Going with the opposition would definitely make my work easier, but how could I after all this time…proving the existence of God is a far greater task than disproving Him. The evidence is all there, or… not there.
My pack slides off my lap. Avoiding the hypnotic buzzing of the streetlights I pick up my pack and head back to my car. The meter maid is only two cars away from the Saab now. I can’t believe those fuckers give tickets this late on a Friday night. I deviate from my course and head for Jake’s car instead. Through his smudged rear window I can see Jenny’s car seat, chocolate smeared over the leather seats, five naked Barbies, and an Ultra-absorbent pack of Huggies Nightimes. From my jeans pocket I retrieve enough change to fill Jake’s meter with two hours worth of quarters and dimes. Just in time to avoid a citation I wave the meter maid off, as she continues to ruin other people’s evenings.
A strange sorrow comes over me. I will miss my debates with Jake. Our college days may not have fostered a solid friendship, but they counted for something, or so I want to believe.
In my car I start the engine and pause before jamming it into first gear.
How do I go about saving Galileo? Karen will get a kick out of the whole thing. She’s never gotten Shakespeare. She’s never been able to hear the music and power behind every line. I know she’ll want me to save Galileo.
Shakespeare looks back at me from the travel coffee mug resting on my cup-holder. His eyes seem to plead with me and I hear the words, “To thine own self be true” as I swing out of the parking space.