One: The Autograph
I walk through Harvard Square to a concert. Lydia Davis drives by in a white Mini Cooper. I stop. I run. I recognize her. I’ve been watching her interviews on YouTube for years. It’s her face half out of the window as she changes lanes, her black-framed glasses, and her hair with silver streaks riding on the wind.
The car stops in the middle of the street. I run to her window, wondering if I should have said “Ms.”
“I knew it was you, Ms. Davis,” I say, panting.
Yes, I suppose it’s me, she says. I’m in a rush, but you should receive something for sprinting to me. I’m not sure I’ve been run to before.
She reaches into the backseat of her car, returning to me with a tattered copy of Varieties of Disturbance.
Here, she says, as she puts the car into drive. I flip through the first few pages. “It’s not signed,” I say.
Just sign it for me, she says, before speeding away, leaving me coughing in the exhaust, holding the unsigned copy of a book I already own. I run my fingers over its deckled edges. No one will believe me.
Two: The French Cows
This time, when she reaches into the backseat of her car, she produces not her book, but a flier on expensive paper, inviting me to “a workshop of sorts” on her estate in New York. I think of nothing else until that weekend finally arrives.
Her assistant shows us to the den, then disappears. We sit around her piano and writing table on uncomfortable folding chairs, waiting. When Lydia Davis arrives she seems only recently to have caught her breath, her small frame engulfed in overalls, a thick flannel jacket, and boots to her knees covered in mud.
She has an exercise for us, she says.
Her neighbor’s cows have escaped, ambling up the solitary gravel road. The four students, dressed in our finest writers’ threads—black sweaters, turtlenecks, sport coats with those pads at the elbows—help our host and her neighbor herd the black mooing beasts with white faces toward the gate. The grassy smell of cow dung fills my nostrils, while the actual dung fills my black leather shoes.
I push the rear end of one cow with no response. I give it several slaps, and am struck in the face by its tail.
Like this, Lydia Davis says, delivering a single, sharp strike with her delicate hand to where the cow’s leg joins its rear. I mimic her, showing off my larger, more manly hand. She gives me a nod, and I know I will ride high on this approval for years.
Once the cows are safely inside the gate, we are led back to the den. . We are all a little out of breath, sore and muddy, as she thanks us for coming. She tells us with a languid smile that in France cows don’t “moo,” they “meuh.” We laugh as she nods off in her rocking chair. Her assistant removes her glasses, setting them on the table beside her.
Three: The Photo
I know she was born three years before my mother, but as she leans against her car, she is the breezy photo of herself in Paris, 1973. When she approaches, she shakes this version off into the street, becoming her author photo on the back cover of The End of the Story. With that reluctant smile, her eyes capture every detail about me that she might one day rearrange and stylize into someone else entirely. I long for her to rearrange me.
She stands close enough to take my hand, looking down upon me in her knee boots with six-inch heels. She bends to kiss me, but with our height difference she misses, hitting my forehead.
We try again.
Then our glasses knock together, first when she goes right, then when I go right. She stands upright, giving up.
I get on my tiptoes, trying once more to kiss her, but she is taking out a cigarette and doesn’t notice. She lights it. As she blows the hot smoke into the fall air, she seems tired.
It’s getting late, she says.
Four: The Correspondence
I copy the address from the slip of paper Lydia Davis passed through her window in my most precise print. I use a fan letter template I find online for my first draft. After a professional greeting, I praise her writing, share how it inspires me (leaving out the numerous magazine rejections of my attempts at her style), with a final inane line about the lost art of letter writing in an attempt to guilt her into responding. I close with: “
Sincerely,” “ Yours,” “ Love,” “Warm regards.”
The second draft I write at 4 a.m., flying on coffee, nothing holding me back from telling her I love her, need her, and that I don’t care about our forty-year age gap.
The third draft was a revision of the first.
The fourth draft is a revision of the third, with elements of the second. I write that her essays do more than therapy, transforming my nebulous feelings into a door that she has not only opened for me, but built through her craft. And as we walk through it together, she hands my unrest to me in tiny manageable words I can hold.
I write that I am grateful.
Her address on the empty envelope glares at me. But I will enclose the final draft of my letter just as soon as it’s ready. I’m on draft 42.
Five: The Beginning of the Story
I walked through Harvard Square to see a band I don’t remember, the evening eclipsed by Lydia Davis driving past in her black Mini Cooper. It had to be her. I’d been watching the same interviews on YouTube for years by then. It was her face half out of the window as she changed lanes, her black-framed glasses, and hair with gray streaks indecisive in the wind.
I couldn’t believe my luck: I hadn’t been to Cambridge in years. As she drove out of view, I thought about how I’d write about meeting her, but forgot to call out her name.
I’ve spent so many hours in that moment of my life.
D.J. Pileggi is a father and a writer. He has been paid both to dose antibiotics for septic shock, as well as install cast iron plumbing at Harvard University, and in that order. He grew up outside of Chicago, has lived on both coasts, and currently resides in Massachusetts.
image: Jade Hawk