Truth, art and beauty

Truth, art and beauty
Photo by Lunita Lu, [CC BY-NC 2.0] via Flickr

I once dated a guy who was published in The Paris Review. Brad Balducchi was his name, or close enough. He’d been my TA for “Short Story I: Workshop” the semester before. I thought of him as Hemingway, James Joyce, Faulkner, or even Picasso or Michelangelo if writing was “art.”

He’d held The Paris Review aloft for a good 30 seconds before passing it from the front to the back of the class. At the time, I didn’t know how amazing it was to be in The Paris Review, or maybe I did. Should he have dated me? Technically, it was legal. I was 19, and he wasn’t grading my papers anymore.

I’d admired him, and admiration is not only an aspect of love but essential to it, at least according to me.

I waited outside my apartment building. I didn’t want to make him enter a code and call up. I was trying to be considerate. I’d received an “A” in the class, but a lot of people had since you got extra credit for attending university plays. I told myself he had to think I was smart or he wouldn’t have asked me out, right? So, it was partly about me respecting him and believing he respected me. I was also bored with the shallow college guys I usually dated. I choose Brad because I thought he was deep and I thought he saw the same in me.

I’d seen him at the play my roommate was in two weeks before. “Thanks for picking me up,” I say. I’m not sure if this is a real date or not, so I add, “It was so cool I ran into you at my friend’s play.” I try not to bite my lip but do anyway. Still, he can’t possibly see because he’s driving. “I’m going to be in a play too, Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. It opens next month.”

Brad inhaled. “I don’t really like plays. I’m more interested in text.”

“But then why were you there?”

“I had a current student in the play. I wanted to be supportive.”

So only current students deserved support? I thought. “Oh,” I said. Then, even though I knew I shouldn’t, I asked what he really thought of my short stories from class.

“I gave you an ‘A’ for effort. I could tell you were trying. But, it’s too common a trope to talk about wanting to be ‘an artist’ for it to get serious attention. You can’t write about writing until you’re already famous.” He stopped at the light, then turned to me, “A lot of your stories felt like that they’re aware that they’re stories.”

I thought about telling him he could remove the extra “that” 2x from his speech, but I didn’t. Instead, I thought about the fact he was fat and nearly bald, as bald as anyone can be and still have hair. However, when I talk smack about him, I exaggerate if I say he was ”fat” because I grew up in Cardiff-by-the-Sea in SoCal, between Del Mar and LA. I only ended up in Illinois because of my Volleyball scholarship

Thus, nearly everyone is “fat” according to my standards. So, technically it might be a non-issue if he had a waist 36 instead of a waist 29. Still, he was mostly bald. And he was mean or at least selfish.

So, we were at a pub with peanut shells on the floor—so tacky, so Midwest, but whatever, called “Esquire” — and this woman with stringy hair (I mean greasy and flat — like she had never had a chat with her local stylist) lured Brad away from me as she played mediocre pool. (By this I mean her skills and charms could have been worse, but they absolutely could have been better.)

I sat there on my bar stool trying hard not to bite my lip or my nails (that had just had a gel fill) while Brad played pool with the graduate student in Medieval Lit. with the stringy, greasy hair. I reflected on the most brilliant thing I believed he’d ever said. “A true artist breaches the gap between picking lint out of his (notice the male-gendered pronouns) navel and making something the popular presses wet their panties over (female-gendered pronoun for those paying attention).” The subtext of “wetting one’s panties” I took to mean an absolute sell-out. In other words: a writer who just wants approval and nothing else should be ignored.

He continued, “True art exists in the space in between.”

I wondered if Hemingway’s or Picasso’s ex-mistresses used the same criteria as the “little sisters” of a guy who’d been on my freshman floor but pledged to the most sexist frat in the whole system. When said frat boy offered to buy me a drink to distract me from what my Paris Review-published-date was doing, I was confused.

I debated whether I should put up with my fat, bald, former TA, who treated me like a retard (no offense to those with an IQ below 100), or should I shove my worth home? But, in the end, I stayed on my bar stool and only talked casually with the TKE (Tau Kapa Epsilon: “Better Men for a Better World”) just enough to keep me entertained.

On the way home. I asked Brad what he thought about Keats.

“’Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is the best poem of all time.”

For a moment I was excited. “So, truth is beauty and beauty truth, and that’s all you need to know?'” I knew I was “hot.” So, didn’t this make me “art” and help me know what “art” was?

Brad seemed to read my thoughts. “There are different ways to interpret Keats. True art is at least a little bit ugly because the truth is ugly.”

I thought about the Paris-Review-published-story Brad was so proud of and dared what I would not have in class. “The POV — the guy who just discovered he had Alzheimer’s — do you really think some dude who wants to die via Alzheimer’s would be that articulate?”

Brad paused. “It’s the ‘truth’ he would have told if he could have.”

“Hmm,” I said. “‘If he could have.’ So, are you saying there’s an ultimate truth? I thought all truth was subjective. My truth is different from your truth, right?”

My former TA “Hmmed” back at me.

To my surprise, he parked the car and walked me to the building door. What was he thinking? There was no way I was inviting him up. I loved the look on his face when I spied him through the glass door before I turned and walked up the stairs. I hoped it wasn’t too late to give him a gutter review on “Rate My Professors.com.” It’s annoying when you rate someone but can’t give them zero; the lowest score is a “1.”

I wrote more or less, ”He seemed like an awesome teacher at first. Class was easy. He seemed like he cared. Turns out, he doesn’t care and is extremely rude out of class. Bummed. A real let down” — I didn’t sign my real name or even give the real class because real “art” isn’t about recognition but “truth.”

I opened a new document and began to write.

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Silver Damsen grew up in Southern California and attended University of California, Riverside and California State University, Long Beach. She received a PhD in English literature from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She currently lives in Charleston, Illinois. Her fiction has appeared in Your Impossible Voice.