Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them – Thoreau, Walden Pond
Thoreau certainly had a point, although a checkered past of both fulfilled and unfulfilled ambitions is perhaps more accurate. Missed opportunities are what trouble most men, especially the sexual roads not taken.
Bradley Phillips remembered playing hooky on an unusually warm January day years ago, finding the one excuse that to his ethical mind seemed the most justifiable. How many Spring-like days were gifted in the middle of the winter; and especially this one not only warm but foggy and still, perfect for being alone in the city?
He took the Erie Lackawanna to Hoboken, crossed the river by ferry, and made his way from South Ferry to Wall Street, the meat market, Washington Street, the Village, Midtown, and finally Central Park.
He headed to his favorite corner of the park – out of the way and far enough from the avenues that street noise became background and hardly noticeable. There was no one in the park. Stillness in a place which was always trafficked (not noisy in an intrusive way, still busy and distracting), was always exciting, almost creepy when the park was not just lightly visited but empty and, in the damped, muffling fog ,absolutely quiet.
As the fog lightened Bradley noticed a young woman sitting on a bench by the flower bed which in the Spring was planted with daffodils, in the Summer roses, and in the Fall geraniums and zinnias; but now was just turned earth, muddy after the thaw, and grim.
He knew from her dress, her relaxed but correct way of sitting (good posture like his probably learned in dancing school) that she must have come to the park for the same reasons he had. She was too happy with the empty park to be at loose ends; but there was no real reason for her to be there other than to sit like Bradley on a warm day gifted to New York in the middle of winter, playing hooky, getting out of a blindered office in Brooklyn like he did in New Jersey. She could only be a romantic like him, an employee who, because she needed only the slightest, although reasonable excuse to get out of town.
Everything was right – the warmth, the fog, the quiet, the way she sat so properly with calm and reserve but without primness or exaggerated decorum, the unexpected weather, and the unlikeliness of two very similar people out of millions sitting in the same place on the same day in the same year – and yet Bradley did nothing.
He sat for twenty minutes looking at the girl, deciphering who she was like a semiotician – hair and scarf meant New England, boarding school, modest wealth, English heritage; uncrossed, demurely placed legs meant patience and shyness; steady eyes, hands, and lips meant determination not willfulness. She was young enough and content enough to still be idealistic without illusion; and old enough to have sorted through her priorities and come to the park.
Bradley had never been shy with women and had always spoken up, introduced himself, and begun to chat. He was never obtuse about women, knew when they were open and when they were shut, gave them a wide berth when everything from eyes to feet said keep your distance; but walked up – even sidled up when he saw a coquette and came on with confidence when he smelled sex.
“What’s wrong with me?”, he remembered himself saying. “Why am I still sitting here?”
“Blame Watteau”, he said, recalling the painters treacly, stylized pastoral scenes of he French countryside, trying to interrupt the uncharacteristic sexual stymie with the irony he had learned from Vincent Scully at Yale whose dismantling of the romantic and idealization of the mythic were the stuff of sophomoric imitations (“The great, thrusting, phallic, powerful, irrepressible, heroic horned mountains of Croesus”) of the great man.
Still, Bradley never moved off the mark let alone charge out of the gate. This was not only an opportunity, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. She was his emotional double, his doppelganger, his soul mate; and yet there he stayed, tethered to the park bench, reduced to ogling instead of looking and frustrated at his own uncharacteristic insecurity.
Finally the girl left, turning back to wave at him as she crossed the bridge towards 57th Street. He waved back, in far worse shape than he would have been if she had walked straight out of the park, but still paralyzed.
The last way that anyone would describe the life of Bradley Phillips would be one of quiet desperation, a man with an unsung song in his heart. On the contrary, he struck everyone as a fulfilled, generous man who had many lovers, friends, business colleagues, and casual acquaintances ;and many remarked about his unusual combination of resolve and rectitude. He was a man without a purpose, perhaps, but one who knew what he wanted when he wanted it.
As he entered late middle age and about to retire, Phillips thought back on his life and realized that there was nothing about it that he would change. Thanks to his experience in Central Park those many years ago, he had taken advantage of every opportunity. He had travelled throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Caribbean; eaten the best and the most exotic foods; stayed in five-star luxury hotels and funky beach cabanas; was friends with drivers and ministers; and all in all did everything that any one person could possibly do.
It was too bad that he had never made it to either Cairo or Istanbul before the Muslim world started to fall apart at the seams; and he knew he missed his chance to see Isfahan and Qom before the Ayatollahs; but he had been to Afghanistan before the Russians, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda; had worked in Romania just after the fall of Ceausescu, and from the small window of opportunity which was open to both the Stalinist past and the capitalist future, he saw a country few others had.
He had travelled deep into the African bush not long after independence and before corruption, crime, and civil war ruined the entire continent. He had missed some things, but in his mind he had missed nothing.
He didn’t even regret the end of this charmed, adventurous life. It was enough to have lived it and to remember enough of it to keep it intact. He was no memorist like Nabokov who trained himself to remember the present so as to preserve the past, the only durable and meaningful part of the past-present-future continuum; but was aware enough of his good fortune while it was happening to have engraved it in his memory.
He had some regrets over things he had said or things that he never should have done; but he had either atoned for his mistakes or let bygones be bygones.
He was sorry that he had had no grandchildren. The only reason for having children, he said, was to experience pure innocence for once in your life; and being a grandparent gave everyone a second chance. He, however, had brought up his children to be independent and to think for themselves; so he was not surprised that both of them had concocted their own brew.
Most of the people Bradley knew, however, had not been so lucky. There were friends who had married too early or too late; had stuck too close to home or strayed too far from it. There were those who regretted their fidelity and others who, because of their infidelities had no wife to return to. Some colleagues regretted business opportunities passed up, promotions denied, and investments missed; and others regretted foolish financial decisions.
Emerson was fond of pithy quotes about the life well-lived. “Every particular in nature, a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole”, he wrote among hundreds of others. Bradley, however, thought that all of them were nothing more than treacly homilies, feel-good nostrums that would make good greeting cards. His life well-lived was one without expectation and therefore without regret; one with no noble ideals and therefore no failure; one with no ambition and therefore without loss.
The best way to lead life was to follow one’s nose, always pleasantly surprised but never disappointed when the turning leads nowhere.
Bradley never considered his professional life a career, so episodic was it; so when he began writing, teaching, and studying literature and philosophy he never called it a second career like many retirees did. It was simply part of a long continuum which had no particular value or merit per se but always had something in store. Everything he did added inventory to his memory and expanded the past. Like Nabokov, he understood that the present was simply the tool for engraving memory, and the future a limitless trove of opportunity.
No, Bradley Phillips did not lead a life of quiet desperation. Not in a million years.