Defiance by Carole Maso

BOMB 63 Spring 1998
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Who is that child forced to dance through streamers and confetti and alcohol on a table for Kennedy half dollars? A jig, a reel, her brother before her, ten at her birth—in a kilt or some such thing, like a little Mickey Rooney, like a teeny dancing Fred Astaire. Dance, dance, little man, little chip off the old block, little lady-killer, don’t disappoint. What am I thinking? No, of course, he is never asked to perform.

By the time I was born my mother was already a bitter and worn woman. My inauspicious arrival when she was 40, a mistake, of course, conceived one New Year’s Eve on the boozy floor. I am conceived cynically on a desperate New Year’s Eve and greeted, darling zygote, in my one molecule of being by the dying salutations of 1960. A screaming awful baby, a punishment for my mother’s carelessness, a tether—and at this late date. To ensure my mother will not sing again, will not dance—and only the minimum of laughter. While my father and brother go out roaming. My father slamming the boy on the back saying, one day you’ll be a lady-killer all right.

Little chip off the old fucking block.

As midnight approaches I can hear them all cheering me into dubious existence from inside the walls of her body. Waiting already with arms lifted, waiting to pelt me with Kennedy half dollars. The president’s not even dead yet and his head hasn’t been splattered onto a dress or emblazoned on a coin yet, but they’re waiting. I, in my forced and mortified girlishness—dressed in frills and patent leather. And it hurts. Didn’t that occur to anyone? That it hurts. Didn’t anyone ever know that? What was wrong with them anyway? In my bows and petticoats, wrapped up tight like a ludicrous present, to be given for the pleasure, the gratification of the other party guests. Dance. Keep dancing.

And so I am forced to perform, spindly, miserable, humiliated creature—awkward girl. I know they are making fun. Bernadette! they shout, clapping, patting me, teasing, their throwing arms poised. Six years old, the targeted one. Bernadette, dance on the table! And it is awful,Dance, Bernadette, dance. It is ghastly, barbaric, unforgivable really—as the year turns. And my mother too, clapping, tipsy, determined—bent on joviality and new starts.

 

Small yachts dot the harbor. Can you see them? A thousand points of light. How pretty!Percival leads his polo pony into its stall. Charles lobs a tennis ball. Indeed, yes, they are an altogether exalted lot, my students. My young men. Jaunty, bouncing, brilliant with privilege, and its attendant attributes: confidence, optimism. Summering in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, still children, only several years away from little boyhood, digging on a beach, constructing great towers in the sand. Mother is not far away. Come now, Preston, Theodore, Sterling, to lunch, to lunch. The winds blow gently on them, in the distance a boat’s mast bisects the horizon on Donner on Blitzen. The extraordinary blue where they’ve detected already great mathematical properties, harmonies, proportions. With their natural aptitude for living, their love of assonance and pleasure. Lobsters, crabs, Wellfleet oysters please, on their plates. Danger is still some ways away. It is part of their ease, their largess to believe it is elsewhere, and always shall be so. Even in these times, they are protected, or so they think. A modern-day plague then, or so they say. A ravaging death, but not for them, only a latex sheath away.

They are altogether too cozy, too gentle, too slack for my purposes, alas. Too protected. Not in love with the right things. Not much flexibility there. They are all safety, these baby birds. Having never ventured far from their downy nests. They must be pushed, must rise to the challenge, or remain forever in a minor light. In order to make the kind of progress I have in mind they must be broken. I don’t think they understand. How essential it is to their creative thinking and to their growth. I expect a great deal from the handful of boys I decide to shepherd, to guide. I don’t think they quite get it. They should at least know that; they should enter knowingly. I plucked them like jewels; I offered them sanctuary, respite; I handed them the way into their potential. I took time away from my most precious research. And I, so accommodating, so accessible, so modest, given the enormity of my own talent, so reasonable, given the absurdity of the set-up. My level of commitment, of sacrifice, of interest in them strains credulity, at times? I agree. Two of them I even granted the privilege of touch. Consorting on that most intimate and crucial of levels. Bad luck. Two of them, alas, are dead. Oh it is hard to feel sorry for any of them. My nursery of pampered weaklings, my bald baby birds, little dreamy, downy things. Birdbones presiding. I am well acquainted with the harm just outside their nests, the edge of the precipice, the glittering electric night. Without me they will not even come close. Oh they know this; they are no dopes. And yet they have no idea what it will take to get near the thing they now have only intimations of. The most fleeting of intimations. What it will take to make the very least progress. Having been sheltered so nicely to this point. How to harness their intensities (mostly sexual, they are 18 or so after all) and from that cultivate the passion and discipline and hunger and rage so necessary. Yes, of course I remember—their testosterone highs, their desire all over the place. They must learn to focus, to channel, to maintain it, to control. Control—to know when to release and when to keep it. Oh any one of these boys might have the capability of going to that most coveted, most sacred place—but obedience would be required—and disobedience; reverence—and irreverence. Look, otherwise it is a waste of my time. Oh this wretched present tense. At any rate, if they are not willing to entertain what it will take, then they are in the wrong place. And a few did drop out but most of them stayed around to take it. I had the most distinguished Peter Piper Percival Preston Chair, after all. No time to waste on those who are not serious. May I remind them that they are no longer young—enter this now, or don’t. I’ve got much work to do. Oh the highly guarded, the most extraordinary project that I have been forced all these years to keep under my lid. A much hushed project. They would have thought me lunatic, impolitic, and worse, if they knew. And so I led that double life. Keeping up a respectable and excelling front, throwing the community a bone now and then, while all the while harboring the secret, the true, the blindingly brilliant secret work to myself. The Distinguished Peter Piper Picked a Peck Professor and her handful of bleary, tender, budding Peter-geniuses. Traipsing behind her with their desultory, their yet unfocused talent. They’ve got far to go.

 

Don’t you think my boys come fresh-faced and rather luscious on the first day of class? Earnest, worried, proud, virginal. Having left their anxious check-scribbling parents at the door. Their preciouses now in my care. Their sweet overachievers. On, on then to further glory, our sons. On Payson, on Preston. They come with all the earmarks of privilege, entitlement, some of which I quite admire: their stubbornness, their unwillingness to give up, collapse, or fade. Their health, their good teeth, their perverse Presbyterianism—even the Chinese students are Presbyterians these days—their good looks. The breezy, ordinary, easy way of them, their carefree jauntiness, their endless tact, the drinks at 5:00, their gentle careerism, their assumptions. Assume, assume. Their bird books and binoculars, their love of music. The altogether humane and civil stature of the haves. I walk down the aisles and gaze at the venerated, anointed, chosen ones. My delectable innocents. In shiny shoes, in jeweled crowns, in fig leaves and cod pieces and cocoa butter, in cloaks of mad ambition. I had waited a long time for this class.

 

And weren’t you always in one way or another singing for your goddamned supper?

Never sang.

No, never sang. That much is true.

Danced.

 

This is the light of the mind: surgical, perfect. These are the saving, perfect chilly directives of the mind, my youngsters. And so, for another year, class commences. Not the lesser wish for immortality, but rather a nostalgia for the eternal will fill you, my friends. So welcome to the Hotel Infinity with its infinite possibilities, permutations, perversions. Pleasure, if you’ll allow it, off the fucking Richter scale. Do I scare you? This class is not for the meek. Nor for the mediocre or otherwise inconsequent. I ask you in good faith, each and every one of you—What are you prepared to do? What are you willing to give up? Where are you willing to go? And most importantly of all. Who are you prepared to be?

 

What do you know? You have no notion of beauty. No notion of sex—what you call sex—what is that? The grinding of bone against bone, hip to hip, for release. My poor, pathetic undergraduates, you would deplete your passion, your precious small energy on such an inauspicious and transitory activity, lamentable really, Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Wells, isn’t that correct then? My lamentable, my silly, my priapic, my hormone machines, my well scrubbed, my perfect scores—you are everything but innocent. No, never innocent: one does not get to Harvard University these days on innocence. Who are you willing to be? Mr. Newington?

 

Don’t you love the arrogance of the gifted male child? Yes, Mr. Pratt, I am speaking of you.The take-for-granted attitude of your money—so ingrained you do not even realize what it means—oh all right, in that way I suppose they were innocent. You’re here on scholarship you say, Mr. Price? Save your stories for someone else. Let us begin, shall we, my little god heads?

My sweet phallocentrics. You lead with your penises. Your inchoate desire is everywhere. I ask that you focus. My one genuine demand of you. My one gift. My austere aesthetic. Just for one moment try, try to approach the brilliance that is mine (they lift their head to the glare): woman.

 

Fall River is not far from Cambridge. One imagines being able to throw a fucking stone at it. We’re that close, but we’re worlds apart. They are your age, the last time I saw you. Night follows night. There’s no day in sight.

But we were worlds away, weren’t we, Fergus? I think of all the humiliations. I think of all the goddamned places we tried to escape. Tried to get lost. While over here they are fuckingfound, sitting on their beefy thrones. I swear to you, brother, it’s a stone’s throw—that close.

 

These were my young men—a mélange as it were of contemporary social mores and manners, quiet rebelliousness, guilt, and self-aggrandizement yoked with a healthy dose of self-loathing, of sentimentality, of baby talk, of urgency. Not to mention nerdiness. Geeks their whole lives.

Oh see how quickly my Adonises turn gawky, pimply, miserable. In a turn of my head toward the prison wall. In a change of light. Fickle, aren’t I? The light of the mind indeed. Tonight they are a pitiful lot. Poor little rich boys.

They had had altogether too much pressure from the check-scribblers. But more important it was the demands of their talent which had exhausted them—there had been too many intellectual burdens and responsibilities too early on. As a result they displayed a kind of guarded restlessness, a newly surfacing desire to throw the self away, surrender—to become only the passionate receiver of attention. Many of them having been deprived the attention they most longed for. Despite their brilliance with computers, their aptitude at science fairs, and whatever else young men had to do these days to get into Harvard. The dude ranch, the spelunking, all great on the resume. The rich I presume are as the rich have always been—absent, off making investments, or traveling the world. The offspring having everything of course and nothing at all, simultaneously, grew up into some of the most extraordinary fallen fruit. Every year a select few were always completely ready for the descent by the time they got to me. Oh the thrill of it! And I, veiled missionary, dared them, urged them to allow whatever it was that had, in fact, already begun to happen. The dizzying freedom of the intellect! Let us look then you and I for what Yeats described as the click of the well-made box. The fit, the bliss, in the mind. And I was privileged, and I do not use the word lightly, to work with these men. In concert with all else I have described, many of them had considerable intellectual gifts. And so I dared them. Dared them to be better than their little simpering, hurt selves, neglected, poor dears, misunderstood yes. It was a dare they were scarcely aware of. They didn’t know what hit them and were genuinely surprised to find themselves day after gloomy day in my small office, asking for it: more talk, more theorems, more stimulation. And the ones shut out would appear at my steps as well, murmuring, caught off guard in some strangeness, some unrequited love. Caught in complicated, surprising need. I was immensely popular by then—the combination of my particular brand of chic sadomasochism, and my simple, straightforward brilliance proved, I suppose, irresistible. I do not mean to sound self-congratulatory here. Much credit must go, must always go, to my passionate subjects. It was the extraordinary, mind-altering material of the class itself that so floored us—face to face with the great thinking, the great uncertainties, beautiful, heart-stopping configurations, the gorgeous patterns, the deep design. The rings of integers. The set of points which a function approaches arbitrarily close to but never attains. Alas, what chance did we have? They gave in, all of them.

And they look at me with the utmost gratitude. They are like those who had all along presumed themselves free only to realize slowly, yet violently their true predicament. And I give them a taste. Where the mind moves towards embrace, towards thorough engagement—the only bliss for some of us this stay provides. But oh what a bliss! And I too, despite everything am not without gratitude.

—Carole Maso is the author of five works of fiction, AureoleThe American Woman in the Chinese HatAVAThe Art Lover and Ghost Dance. She is a recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Fiction Grant from the NEA, among many other rewards. She is currently a Professor of English and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Brown University.Defiance will be published by Dutton in May.

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Originally published in

BOMB 63, Spring 1998

Featuring interviews with Gillian Wearing, Mona Hatoum, Jim Lewis, Dale Peck, Maureen Howard, John Sayles, Steve Earle, Martin McDonagh, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina.

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