And, of course, it was a con, this art. Which was why she couldn't help but approach a podium, any podium, with a mantle of slight chagrin that she could never quite manage to hide, her shoulders hunched inside her jacket or blouse, her eyes not meeting those in the audience, as if the men and women in front of her might challenge her, accuse her of fraudwhich, in the end, only she appeared to understand she was guilty of. There was nothing easier nor more agonizing than writing the long narrative verses that her publisher put in printeasy in that they were simply daydreams written in ink; agonizing the moment she returned to consciousness (the telephone rang, the heat kicked on in the basement) and looked at the words on the blue-lined page and saw, for the first time, the dishonest images, the manipulation and the conniving wordplay, all of which, when it had been a good day, worked well for her. She wrote poetry, she had been told, that was accessible, a fabulous and slippery word that could be used in the service of both scathing criticism and excessive praise, neither of which she thought she deserved. Her greatest wish was to write anonymously, though she no longer mentioned this to her publishers, for they seemed slightly wounded at these mentions, at the apparent ingratitude for the longand tedious?investment they had made in her that was finally, after all these years, beginning to pay off. Some of her collections were selling now (and one of them was selling very well indeed) for reasons no one had predicted and no one seemed to understand, the unexpected sales attributable to that vague and unsettling phenomenon called "word of mouth."
She covered the chintz bedspread with her belongings: the olive suitcase (slim and soft for the new stingy overheads); the detachable computer briefcase (the detaching a necessity for the security checks); and her microfiber purse with its eight compartments for her cell phone, notebook, pen, driver's license, credit cards, hand cream, lipstick, and sunglasses. She used the bathroom with her coat still on and then searched for her contact lens case so that she could remove the miraculous plastic irritants from her eyes, the lenses soiled with airplane air and smoke from a concourse bar, a four-hour layover in Dallas ending in capitulation to a plate of nachos and a Diet Coke. And seeping around the edges, she began to feel the relief that hotel rooms always provided: a place where no one could get to her.
She sat again on the enormous bed, two pillows propped behind her. Across from her was a gilded mirror that took in the entire bed, and she could not look into such a mirror without thinking of various speakable and unspeakable acts that had almost certainly been performed in front of that mirror. (She thought of men as being particularly susceptible to mirrors in hotel rooms.) Her speculation led inevitably to consideration of substances that had spilled or fallen onto that very bedspread (how many times? thousands of times?) and the room was immediately filled with stories: a married man who loved his wife but could make love to her but once a month because he was addicted to fantasizing about her in front of hotel mirrors on his frequent business trips, her body the sole object of his sexual imaginings; a man cajoling a colleague into performing one of the speakable acts upon him, enjoying the image of her subservient head bobbing in the mirror over the dresser and then, when he had collapsed into a sitting position, confessing, in a moment that would ultimately cost him his job, that he had herpes (why were her thoughts about men today so hostile?); a woman who was not beautiful, but was dancing naked in front of the mirror, as she would never do at home, might never do again (there, that was better). She took her glasses off so that she could not see across the room. She leaned against the headboard and closed her eyes.
Copyright © 2001 by Anita Shreve
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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