Conjunctions:17 Tenth Anniversary Issue

Four Stories
The Actors

In our town there is an actor, H.—a tall, bold, feverish sort of man—who easily fills the theater when he plays Othello, and about whom the women here become very excited. He is handsome enough compared to the other men, though his nose is somewhat thick and his torso rather short for his height. His acting is stiff and inflexible, his gestures obviously memorized and mechanical, and yet his voice is strong enough to make one forget all that. On the nights when he is unable to leave his bed because of illness or intoxication—and this happens more often than one would imagine—the part is taken by J., his understudy. Now J. is pale and small, completely unsuitable for the part of the Moor; his legs tremble as he comes on stage and faces the many empty seats. His voice hardly carries beyond the first few rows, and his small hands flap uselessly in the smoky air. We feel only pity and irritation as we watch him, and yet by the end of the play we find ourselves unaccountably moved, as though he had managed to convey something timid or sad in Othello’s nature. But the mannerisms and skill of H. and J.—which we analyze minutely when we visit together in the afternoons and continue to contemplate even once we are alone after dinner—seem suddenly insignificant when the great Sparr comes down from the city and gives us a real performance of Othello. Then we are so carried away, so exhausted with emotion, that it is impossible to speak of what we feel. We are almost grateful when he is gone and we are left with H. and J., imperfect as they are, for they are familiar to us and comfortable, like our own people.


Trying to Learn

I am trying to learn that this playful man who teases me is the same as that serious man talking money to me so seriously he does not even see me anymore and that patient man offering me advice in times of trouble and that angry man slamming the door as he leaves the house. I have often wanted the playful man to be more serious, and the serious man to be less serious, and the patient man to be more playful. As for the angry man, he is a stranger to me and I do not feel it is wrong to hate him. Now I am learning that if I say bitter words to the angry man as he leaves the house, I am at the same time wounding the others, the ones I do not want to wound, the playful man teasing, the serious man talking money, and the patient man offering advice. Yet I look at the patient man, for instance, whom I would want above all to protect from such bitter words as mine, and though I tell myself he is the same man as the others, I can only believe I said those words, not to him, but to another, my enemy, who deserved all my anger.



A friend of mine goes with her three-year-old girl to a family therapist. This therapist has guided her in her troubles with the child’s bed-wetting, fear of the dark, and dependence on the bottle. One by one these problems are solved. The mother, acting on the advice of the therapist, is careful to avoid attempting to solve more than one problem at a time. The child is unhappy and nervous and holds her body in a cramped position, as though protecting herself. Her mother is also nervous, and is never still: her hands flutter and her eyebrows fly up into her forehead. There is a dark brown mole on her cheek, and this dark point is the only color in her face. 
      Another friend calls her husband’s therapist and tells him she is going to ask her husband to move out. Naturally, the therapist has to report this to his patient. The husband is hurt and indignant. My friend is adamant. Her own therapist thinks she must now be under great pressure from her husband, and this is true. Encouraged by her therapist, however, she persists in asking her husband to leave. At last he does. He now sees his children in his own apartment several times a week, including all day Sunday. Insulted by his wife’s behavior, he tries to complain only to his therapist, as his therapist has advised, but he cannot help complaining to everyone—his therapist, his friends, his lawyer, his wife, and even his children, The older boy comes home angry at his mother because he does not know what is the truth anymore. He breaks two of the dining-room chairs. His mother, a frail and small woman, sits on him for several hours before he is calm enough to tell her what he is feeling.


What I Feel

These days I try to tell myself that what I feel is not very important. I’ve read this in several books now: that what I feel is important but not the center of everything. Maybe I do believe this, but not enough to act on it. I would like to believe it more deeply. 
      What a relief that would be. I wouldn’t have to think about what I felt all the time, and try to control it, with all its complications and all its consequences. I wouldn’t have to try to feel better all the time. In fact, if I didn’t believe what I felt was so important, I probably wouldn’t even feel so bad, and it wouldn’t be so hard to feel better. I wouldn’t have to say, Oh I feel so awful, this is like the end for me here, in this dark living-room late at night, with the dark street outside under the streetlamps, I am so very alone, everyone else in the house asleep, there is no comfort anywhere, just me alone down here, I will never calm myself enough to sleep, never sleep, never be able to go on to the next day, I can’t possibly go on, I can’t live, even through the next minute. 
      If I didn’t believe what I felt was the center of everything, then it wouldn’t be the center of everything, but just something off to the side, one of many things, and I would be able to see and pay attention to those other things that are equally important, and in this way I would have some relief. 
      But it is curious how you can believe an idea is absolutely true and correct and yet not believe it deeply enough to act on it. So I still act as though my feelings were the center of everything, and they still cause me to end up alone by the living-room window late at night. What is different now is that I have this idea: I have the idea that soon I will no longer believe that my feelings are the center of everything. This is a comfort to me, because if you despair of going on, but at the same time tell yourself that what you feel may not be very important, then either you may no longer despair of going on, or you may still despair of going on but not quite believe it anymore.

Lydia Davis is the author of a novel, an essay collection, and seven story collections. She is a National Book award finalist and the recipient of a Man Booker International Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. Her second collection of nonfiction, Essays Two (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)—on the experience of translating Proust, Flaubert, and Michel Leiris, learning a foreign language through reading, and an extended immersion in the city of Arles—is forthcoming in November 2021.