Lee Upton is the author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, which was released from BOA Editions on May 1, 2014. She is the author of twelve other books, including the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and a fifth collection of poetry, Undid in the Land of Undone. She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.
Excerpt from The Tao of Humiliation
© Lee Upton 2014
reproduced with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.
From “The Undressed Mirror”
An actor is an undressed mirror
reflecting an audience’s light.
The audience must never know
the mirror is what they see—
and that is why the mirror rises before them undressed
as an ordinary creature of
yet casting silver light.
—Yanis Karlotz, trans. by Eavan Liss
I hadn’t been able to renew the lease on my apartment, and that was the least of it. It was a miracle when Jocelyn called and asked if I would watch over The Blue Oyster while she was in Ghana for three weeks. The hotel would be closed during her absence, but she still needed a caretaker. The woman Jocelyn had hired for the purpose bailed.
All this was arranged over the phone. Jocelyn’s warnings and recommendations grew so complex that I began taking notes. I wished then that I could talk about the entire situation with my mother. I still regularly have the urge to phone her until I remember. No calling her. No hearing that voice ever again.
Had Jocelyn known she was saving me? When I was a kid I seldom entered Jocelyn’s quarters behind The Blue Oyster’s reception desk—not into the tiny rooms dank with humidity, including the miniature kitchen. Instead I spent a lot of time in the foyer where Jocelyn and my mother drank vodka with lime and reminisced until they bored my brother Robin and me, while hotel guests came and went.
And now I was, once again, after all those years, looking around the foyer, relieved that I had somewhere to live and wouldn’t hear over the phone Robin’s relentless stock advice and my sister-in-law’s nervous questions. Everything in the foyer looked eerily preserved: the dried pampas grass in jade urns, the mahogany buffet, the liver-colored marble fireplace shadowed with decades of soot. Even the afghans on the foyer couches were the same as I remembered, except that their orange yarn was faded to pale sherbet.
I was the changed one. No more stage work. No more even trying to call myself an actress. Eamon used to correct me: You’re an actor. Say actor, not actress. I never minded being called an actress. It rhymes with distress, progress, regress, undress, I told Eamon.
I had been lucky in actors, Eamon being my favorite. I had almost worked as well with Esther Eilno-Medi who could unfreeze most actors, thaw and remold instincts—who even turned a switch on Paulie Matheres, who went on to survive on standup comedy alone. But in the end neither Esther nor Eamon could work magic for me.
It was Eamon who had to walk me offstage, Eamon who took my arm and drew me away when I was unable to speak another word in the second act of a play that should not have given me any trouble whatsoever.
One of the tasks I set myself at Jocelyn’s hotel: cleaning out the lost and found room. Fifteen years of accumulated junk. Jocelyn asked me to keep anything I liked but to give away the rest or to dispose of what couldn’t be saved. In the first box I pulled out five hooded jackets and three negligees with butterflies, twelve socks, and at least twenty pornographic magazines. Within four hours I had cleaned only half of the room—enough to fill twelve boxes for the Clauden Charities, ahead of the annual jumble sale advertised in the bulletin that turned up on the hotel’s doorstep that morning.
After another half hour of sorting, I was making quicker progress when, at the bottom of a collapsed cardboard box, a filmy square of cloth slipped between my fingers. I shook the fabric into the light. A dress, its fabric so fine it could have been spun from thistledown. The stitching looked done by hand, and the material smelled faintly of lavender. You were lost and now you’re found, you beautiful thing.
I hung the dress behind the door of my room where in a draft the featherlight fabric rose like a pale Titania.