The book Naked appeared on a couch cushion in my living room not long ago. It remained there for several weeks. Every time I walked by, I wondered why the book was there, just sitting on the sofa, instead of on the shelf where it belonged. Eventually, I noticed that the book had moved to the arm of the couch. I suppose some people think couches are meant for sitting. Go figure.
How the book appeared on a sofa shouldn’t have puzzled me so, since I’m the only one in our household who reads incessantly. Though I couldn’t remember putting it there, I must have. Blaming the dog would appear childish, perhaps even deserving of a reprimand from the ASPCA.
That I allowed the book stay on the couch for a long time shouldn’t have presented much of a mystery, either. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce from that single bit of evidence that I’m a lousy housekeeper. But let me tell you something, you second-rate detectives: leaving the book in plain sight, in a place where it clearly didn’t belong was a clever strategy on my part, not an indication of an innate slovenly nature.
Seeing that book on the couch, over and over, every day, was my way of reminding myself to remember why the book was out in the first place. Other people make lists; I prefer visual aids.
And my method proved fruitful, I think, because I was finally able to draw a conclusion. Most likely, I thought, I had pulled Naked from its place on the shelf to loan to friend. I belong to a loosely organized book club (no reading lists or meetings, just recommendations and exchanges made while sipping cocktails at a nearby watering hole), so it was certainly conceivable that I’d decided it was someone else’s turn to risk death by David Sedaris. (Sedaris, the author of Naked and other best-selling memoirs, is so dangerously funny that a decibel-based scale will someday be invented to measure the volume of chortles emitted by his readers.
I’m about 57% sure that’s how Naked wound up on my couch. And since I still can’t remember to whom I promised the book, I can draw one indisputable conclusion: I was drunk when I pulled Naked off the shelf.
A huge Sedaris fan, I thought I might as well reread Naked and give it another opportunity to make me snort cheese popcorn out of my nose before I put the book away. I took Naked to my bedroom, the arena where all recently read and soon-to-be read books reside-and where, despite the staggering linear footage afforded by the bookshelves in every room of my house-dozens of books litter the floor. A literary topographical graph, in my opinion; in my husband’s, each volume represented an opportunity to break a toe. I offered him some gentle advice one night: “Put some shoes on, for crap’s sake! You know we can’t afford another ER co-payment.”
Since I’d read Naked before, I didn’t open it up for a few days. But when I did, I flew through the first couple of essays. Boy, were they funny…oddly original and decidedly unfamiliar. I paged through the rest of the book, and realized that I didn’t recognize any of its contents.
I had never read Naked.
Maybe there are places where unread books just pop out of the ether and land on furniture, but not in my house, brother. Unless I’ve just received a shipment from Amazon, there’s only one unread book around, and I proudly display it in all its post-modern glory. It’s Jacques Derrida’s 552-page grad-school ball-eating monster, The Post Card. I laughed my ass off when I read its back cover-which I’ve reproduced, in its entirety, at the end of this essay. But by page 12, The Post Card made me seriously consider dropping out of Georgetown to pursue a career in cross-stitchery. Row after row after row of Xs (look at the pretty colors!) would make more sense to me than a sentence randomly extracted with forceps from the depths of Derrida-who, following his death in 2004, rapidly descended into Dante’s 4th Circle of Hell.
So how did I get Naked? And why had I assumed I’d read it? Had I neglected it for very long? I know I had seen its title on a bookshelf on many occasions, but by leaving it there, I acknowledged its status as a book I’d previously read and enjoyed.
And the book had been read, all right. By whom, I do not know. Though my Naked hadn’t seen too much traffic, I noticed slight creases on its paperback spine, and minor wear to the corners of its cover. Since I often buy used books online, these hints weren’t even remotely helpful. A label on the back cover contained virtually no information, either, though it did confirm that Naked had been shipped from somewhere, noting it had been item “1 of 1.”
Then I found a perforated, stub-end of a boarding pass, the old cardboard type used in the olden days before Travelocity and Orbitz. It appeared that someone used the stub as a bookmark, because I found it stuck in the middle of the book.
A mere stub of a boarding pass-and the smoking gun I’d been looking for: the boarding pass was in my name. But the more I read of Naked, the more certain I became that I’d never, ever read a single word of it before. I think you’ll all agree when I say no matter how drunk, delusional or stupid I might be at any particular time, nothing short of advanced Alzheimer’s would enable me to forget an essay titled “Dinah, The Christmas Whore.” Words like that never fade away.
So, clearly I’d taken Naked to read while flying somewhere. Perhaps by deciphering the boarding pass, I could figure out why I hadn’t read the book, and yet managed to convince myself that I had.
The stub stated that I had flown from Sarasota to Charlotte. Poor Charlotte. Always a gateway, never a destination. I’ve changed planes in Charlotte more often than I’ve changed my hair color. Talk to LeAnn at Nuovo Salon. She’s known me for ten years, and can attest to the fact that my hair’s been dyed as many shades as Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. My first “clue” from the boarding pass was useless.
The July 28 departure date (no year listed) was equally unhelpful. Yes, I’m terribly bad with dates. But I’ve gotten pretty good at the months. And in late July, my family often vacations together. We meet to participate in a venerated family tradition: the Scrabble Bloodbath.
I read on, and had my first true “a-ha” moment. My flight that day had departed at 7 a.m. If I’d carried the book to read on the flight, at that hour, I would have fallen asleep the second I sank into the comforting confines of my center seat.
Since I’d made little progress in resolving the appearance of Naked, I called my brother. I always find him to be quite a helpful and practical problem solver, even if I natter on for 30 minutes without a response. And when I time my calls just right, I can catch him during the window that opens between his second and third cocktail of gin & juice. Some people say they like to think outside the box. Screw the box-my brother climbs out the damned window!
Gin & juice, in case you haven’t experienced its singularly heady buzz, is to creativity like gin & juice is to your liver…all things seem gloriously possible, and then you die suddenly, and in excruciating pain. So catching my brother before he pours gin & juice #4 is crucial if he’s to be of any assistance at all.
When he answered the phone, I knew immediately that the window was WIDE open. He listened to the entire story of my neurotic and outwardly pointless quest with the deep patience found only in a bottle of Tanqueray or a milligram of Xanax. But when I mentioned July 28, the date I had found on my boarding pass stub, he cried “Ireland!”
It’s touching to see how excited my brother gets when he’s reminded that our humble ancestors hail from the Enchanted Land of Guinness. But watch out. A few drinks later, and he’ll remember that while legions of aunts, uncles and cousins remained in Ireland on their never-ending search for the pots of gold hidden by the little people, our grandmother-that greedy floozy-hopped into steerage one fine, wet Irish morning and headed to America. America, where the very streets were paved with gold. At least until all those grubby immigrants chipped away its early infrastructure, bit by bit.
“She abandoned the dark, heady nectar of her homeland, yes she did,” my brother despaired. “Everybody knows that money can’t buy happiness, but Guinness certainly can.”
Ireland! The destination of my July 28th flight. The very day my American Irish family gathered in Boston to fly away home. We spent three weeks in Ireland, moving slowly from the country’s westernmost outpost-the desolate and haunting slabs of solid rock known as the Aran Islands-to the Emerald Isle’s gem that is Dublin. We met our Irish cousins. We drank whiskey with our Irish cousins. We asked directions from shirtless Irish farmers. We drank whiskey with shirtless Irish farmers. We lodged in Dublin’s finest 5-star hotel, where we drank very expensive, undoubtedly 5-star whiskey. Even if I’d wanted to read Naked, I doubt I’d have been able to.
The only books I read during our grand tour of Ireland were travel books and hiking guides. Travel guides are great when you need guidance, especially if you’re traveling. They’re also useful when you’re crammed into the backseat of a European rental car, screaming in fear as thousands of tiny Irish cars careen toward you on streets with no names (U2’s Bono wasn’t kidding when he sang that). Little cars, like little men, compensate for their stature with sheer meanness. Everyone talks about how friendly the people in Ireland are. And it’s true, as long as they have a whiskey or a pint in hand. But once they leave the pubs to climb into their tiny cars, all that inborn, alcoholic charm dissipates, and they begin sullen, mean and high-speed races to the next drink.
I am convinced the only reason my family remains alive today is because I frequently thwacked my husband (our intrepid driver) in the back of the head with the biggest travel guide our tiny car could accommodate. I’d experimented with other, more accepted methods used to warn of oncoming danger as we made our approach into Dublin. About 10km from the city’s center, I began to quietly shriek each time a car passed, or when we entered a roundabout, or when we exited a roundabout, or when I saw a bus. My quiet shrieks-no more than delicate snuffles, really-escalated into an uninterrupted scream as we closed in on the city proper. Unfortunately, the screaming set my mother on edge-and nobody wants that.
So whacking my beloved on the head seemed a logical technique to ensure his alertness. Rather like opening a car window to let in the brisk air, or turning on the radio, don’t you think?
My husband was unappreciative, though, and took to stopping on every corner to ask kindly Dubliners for directions to our lodgings. If you’ve never asked a Dubliner for directions, pick up any of James Joyce’s novels and read a page or two. You’ll have better luck finding our hotels than we did.
Fortunately, my husband formulated and expertly executed a plan of his own, in spite of his severe head trauma. Dodging tiny cars, drunken tourists, Bobbies (or whatever they call cops in Ireland), and a donkey or two, he deftly pulled over and stopped. Without a word, he began to empty the car, placing everything-travel guides, luggage, camera bags, even snacks-on the sidewalk.
When he was done unloading, my husband approached a nearby man in uniform, and started talking. Then I saw the man point to something across the street-all six lanes of it. When my husband returned a few minutes later, he helped my mom and brother carry their bags to their hotel, which the official man had pointed out without the slightest hint of mockery.
My husband’s next move was to call the car agency and inform them that we were abandoning our rental vehicle. Given the company’s placid response, I think Americans ditch rented cars all the time in Dublin. Within 30 minutes, two men arrived to collect the keys and paperwork from us. All that was left for my husband to do was flag down a taxi, which would deliver just the two of us to the city’s finest hotel, for a luxurious weekend alone. Unlike Mr. Uniform, the taxi driver did laugh. Our hotel was just a block away.
Would anyone have had the time to read Naked in the face of such excitement?
Those days in Dublin were our last in Ireland, and among the finest. When we boarded Aer Lingus to fly back to the U.S., we were so exhausted that everyone slept quite soundly during the brief pauses between my brother-in-law’s thunderous snores. Though I’d brought Naked overseas with me in case I needed a good read, it had ended up in the bottom of one of my suitcases.
There’s so much catching up to do after returning home from a long vacation, it’s understandable that I didn’t jump into Naked right away. Or do a thorough job of unpacking, which becomes arduous and unpleasant the very second you take out the last bit of vacation booty. After pulling out my new frocks, I closed my suitcases without even touching the clothes I took with me…and I didn’t remember to root through them and grab Naked.
Naked could have remained in a suitcase for a long, long time. If I opened the door to our home office right now, the unpacked bags from my last three trips (one of which was eight months ago) would be right where I shoved them. Rather than waste time and money trying to diagnose this issue, I prefer to think that all I need to do is minimize a bit. Perhaps I’ll donate a few shirts to Goodwill.
I never unpacked the Naked suitcase. I suspect my husband eventually took action, fearing injury should one of us collide with my hard-sided luggage. There are a lot of husbands out there too cowardly to attempt a feat as intimidating as unpacking, laundering and putting away their wives’ clothing. But not mine. Have you ever admired the perfectly displayed clothing in a Benetton store? My husband pioneered their famed folding techniques. He worked in retail for years, and owns twice as many pairs of shoes as I do. I would trust him with my most prized outfits.
But books? Just stick ‘em on a shelf. And that’s what I think he did. And since I’d traveled a great distance with Naked by my side, when it appeared on my sofa, I mistakenly recognized it as a book I’d read.
For me, finding a book that I haven’t read yet-by one of my favorite authors, no less-was like pulling on a wool coat on Florida’s first chilly evening and finding a $100 bill in the pocket, or having the Publisher’s Clearinghouse crew knock on my door to announce that I’d won, and that the IRS will be pulling up in a few minutes to congratulate me.
Once I figured out how I got Naked, I was able to relax and enjoy the end of Sedaris’ book. Reading memoirs of dysfunctional families like his remind me of how completely normal my own family is, and what an idyllic childhood I enjoyed.
Yet after I finished Naked, an image of Sedaris braining a loved one with an Encyclopedia Britannica volume was firmly planted in my head.
Apparently, those tiny cars can break even the best of families.
NB: For your enjoyment (and/or confusion), the text on the back cover of Derrida’s The Post Card follows. As I mentioned earlier, it almost made me pee my pants laughing, because it’s so indecipherable. Then I nearly dropped out of grad school when I tried to read the book itself. Read on, at your own risk:
“You are reading a somewhat retro loveletter, the last in history. But you have not yet received it. Yes, its lack or excess of address prepares it to fall into all hands: a post card, an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably.
What does a post card want to say to you? On what conditions is it possible? Its destination traverses you, you no longer know who you are. At the very instant when from its address it interpellates, you, uniquely you, instead of reaching you it divides you or sets you aside, occasionally overlooks you. And you love and you do not love, it makes of you what you wish, it takes you, it leaves you, it gives you.
On the other side of the card, look, a proposition is made to you, S and P, Socrates and Plato. For once the former seems to write, and with his other hand he is even scratching. But what is Plato doing with his outstretched finger in his back? While you occupy yourself with turning it around in every direction, it is the picture that turns you around like a letter, in advance it deciphers you, it preoccupies space, it procures your words and gestures, all the bodies that you believe you invent in order to determine its outline. You find yourself, you, yourself, on its path.
The thick support of the card, a book heavy and light, is also the specter of this scene, the analysis between Socrates and Plato, on the program of several others. Like the soothsayer, a ‘fortune-telling book’ watches over and speculates on that-which-must-happen, on what it indeed might mean to happen, to arrive, to have to happen or arrive, to let or to make happen or arrive, to destine, to address, to send, to legate, to inherit, etc., if it all still signifies, between here and there, the near and the far, da und fort, the one or the other.”