Lindsay Chudzik, “Little Fish” (essay)

orange line

Little Fish

I

I never choose good men. I never ate enough bread while drinking. I never understood how to make my student loan money stretch or how to balance my checkbook. I spent my last $7.50 on a signed first edition of Impossible Vacation, Spalding Gray’s only novel wherein his protagonist searches for just a moment of pleasure, incapable of finding it because happiness is always just a blip no matter where one lives or where one travels. I talked down the bookstore clerk from $13.75.

The former owner of the book’s name was neatly penciled on its inside cover—Jenny Withey. Jenny had underlined many passages, then erased most of her markings, charcoal smudged, indicative of a woman who couldn’t tell where to look or what she should see but still tried. I traced my fingers along her signature as I entered Gristedes.

I grazed the fruit aisle, lining my pockets with wine-colored grapes to eat while traipsing through the market, buying nothing. I knew I would dump corn into a bowl at home for dinner, the vegetables still swimming in the water from their can, goods that arrived in a recent care package from home. I knew I would walk the forty-six blocks to Marymount for my evening playwrighting workshop, bypassing entrances for the 4, 5, and 6 because subways cost money and cabs were unthinkable. Still, I felt like ignoring Spalding Gray would have cost more.

II

That same night I dreamt of other people sleeping. A teenager napping on a bus as it barreled down Lexington, his body origamied with his backpack. A housewife slouched in a beach chair, waves filling in the holes she’d dug in the sand, proving water has no memory. Whenever I saw these strangers’ seamless escapes from life when I closed my eyes, someone I knew had died.

When I woke up I scoured the obituaries and news from Delaware, the Internet an isosceles cage anchoring me to the people I knew when I still had a specific location to call home. I couldn’t keep anything in its place no matter how I tried with moving. Sure enough, one of my closest friends from high school had died in an automobile accident, possibly drinking-related. She was on her way to another party because the first wasn’t enough.

Before going home for the funeral, I had to sit through a dress rehearsal of The Pajama Game at the theater where I interned. The world where saccharine-sweet music could settle a labor dispute and result in love made me sick. I read from my Spalding Gray book in between dance routines.

In the weeks that followed the funeral, there was an initial outpouring of kindness from acquaintances and strangers alike. My professor bought me a drink at BBQ’s, a garish barbeque joint that served oversized margaritas to minors. The clerk at the bodega who was always changing names on the corner of my block took one look at my puffy eyes and gave me a free lottery ticket. My landlord stopped yelling at her daughter in unintelligible Greek from their shared apartment on the first floor. Ultimately, everything returned to normal and everyone forgot.

III

At 22, I was certain I saw Spalding Gray at an airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, haggling with a TSA employee. “We need to see identification.” The worker wasn’t even in uniform, which made the request seem even more insulting. The man who was or wasn’t Spalding Gray rifled through his carry-on luggage. The men behind him in line grumbled.

“There goes our chance of getting beers before boarding.”

“Does that man think he’s so fucking special that he can hold up the rest of us just because he’s old?”

“Men like him shouldn’t leave their houses.”

Men like Spalding Gray? I could vouch for this man, and I wondered why no one else could. But I said nothing, and the man who was or wasn’t Spalding Gray said nothing. The security guard escorted him away to inspect his shoes.

I thought of Zelda Fitzgerald, how she once threw herself down a flight of stairs at a party because her husband was flirting with another woman. Zelda had been called a “woman before her time,” a nice way of saying no one wanted to take the time to understand her and instead opted for the shorthand, calling her crazy. That hadn’t stopped her from demanding attention, but now, nearly a century later, we’ve regressed further. So few of us are of our time, but even more so, so few of us even ask to be acknowledged.

IV

The next time I encountered Spalding Gray was in an airport two years later. It was just after my last night in New Orleans and, though as on most vacations I tried to remember the glimmering moments in between—the jazz, the laughs, the beignets and hurricanes—I felt like it would be impossible to forget the leaving, the hangover I carried through baggage at Louie Armstrong.

I dozed off while waiting for my flight and dreamt of someone else sleeping—a child in his father’s arms during the seventh-inning stretch. When I awoke, I scanned the obituaries and news stories on my iPhone from all of the places I had tried to call home, but I came up with nothing. I considered that dreaming of sleep might have come to mean nothing more than dreaming of sleep, indicative that my day-to-day had left me feeling overextended.

Then I saw it: a small blurb in the Times suggesting Spalding Gray’s body had been recovered from the East River. He had been missing for two months, and there was speculation that he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. Spalding’s widow told the press he saw Big Fish the night he disappeared, a movie that closes with the sentiment, A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal. She thought the film gave him an excuse to die.

I needed to scream. I wanted to shake the businessman to my right, pacing while shouting into his cell, frantic about someone’s stocks that weren’t his own. I wanted to talk to the woman to my right who was breastfeeding her child. The circles under her eyes were deep, grayish-blue half-moons, and she’d given up trying to be discreet.

Instead, I veered toward the airport bookstore. Even though all of Spalding Gray’s work was housed together on one of my bookshelves back home, I scoured those shelves, desperate to find something tangible. I came out empty-handed.

 


Lindsay A. Chudzik received her MFA in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in FLAR, Haunted Waters Press, and Pembroke Magazine, among others. Her short story “Check Yes If You Like Us” was a finalist for the 2015 Dogwood Prize, her short story “Pinning” was a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her creative nonfiction has been anthologized. Currently, she is editor in chief of Feels Blind Literary, an assistant professor of writing at VCU, and a recent recipient of a Gulf-South Summit Award for excellence in community engaged teaching. She spends her free time brainstorming creative ways to work Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna into her store and syllabi.


 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s