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Spies Like Us

I’m stealing your soul. Are you nervous? You seem nervous, peering over my shoulder like that. It’s killing you isn’t it, the curiosity? You don’t really want me to steal your soul—that has such an ominous ring to it, doesn’t it? It’s so B-grade horror movie. You can almost hear the creepy organ soundtrack. Soul-stealing—it sounds yucky. But then again, you wouldn’t mind seeing—just once, just one quick peek—what I’m fashioning with it. Just out of curiosity, not that you approve. Stealing people’s souls. Really. What kind of job is that? But, um, maybe just a glimpse, because what if, just by chance, by sheer accident, what if maybe I make better use of it than you do? What if by some subtle kink of my art I trick you up in some way you’d never thought possible? What if I make you pretty? OK, so I can’t steal it, but maybe you’ll let me borrow it for a minute, just a minute. Can you look, can you sneak a glimpse just once before it’s done, can you see what’s there, what’s been made of it? Can you look under the curtain? Can you listen to the acoustic demo? Can you see the preliminary sketches? Can you rifle through the pages of the notebook?

No, no you can’t read my notebook, that’s what I told her.

I was sitting at the far end of the bar, late. Me and a Guinness and my notebook, scratching away the last minutes of a prodigal evening. Trying, I suppose, to provide punctuation to a run-on night. I chose a bar where I was unlikely to know very many people, and in which I was likely to be overlooked by dint of my age. I’m the old guy (comparatively), drinking alone and raving into a little black book.

But you cannot be inconspicuous with a notebook.

“What are you doing?”

She had sidled up to me without my noticing, and stood at my shoulder glancing down into the open pages.

“Drinking beer,” I said.

“No, what are you writing?”

I just shrugged, noncommittally: “Just scribbling.”

“Do you work for a newspaper?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“The New York Post?”

“No.”

“Can I read it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because it’s mine and it’s private, and because I don’t know you.”

She persisted, and out of my own curiosity I gave in, reading her the first line of the entry: “She breathes through her mouth.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I pointed down the bar, where a very pretty young woman sat alone, staring off into a middle distance, slumped into a bar-stool-induced arch, breathing through slack, parted lips.

I don’t work for the Post, and, I suppose, my sentence painted her no pretty picture, so she left me to my beer and my scribbling and returned to the side of her drinking buddy—a pretty mouthbreather, it turned out. I must have looked right past her.

What had she expected, I wonder. Had she thought I was looking at her? Did she feel me dropping from her eaves? Pillaging her privacy, translating her offhand remarks and throwaway poses, and making her material? Was she offended or excited?

It’s not the first time my notebook has inspired such investigation, or suspicion. And, my friends tell me, they’ve had related experiences on either side of that equation. An artist I know has abandoned the pleasure of sketching in public, because she grew tired of the interruptions of people who wanted to flip through her work. On the other hand, though, I have a friend who absolutely hates the roving photographer. It’s an invasion of privacy, she contends, relating how she once observed a shutterbug shooting from a highway overpass:

“What if someone in a passing car was with somebody they shouldn’t be with? Or doing something they didn’t want people to know that they’re doing?” she asks, pointing out that those folks don’t want to turn up on the front page of a newspaper accompanying a story about construction kickbacks—even as a coincidental backdrop.

But if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, the sanctimonious scoff.

But you do. You do have something hidden. You’ve got something in a confused little knot down beneath all the artifice you call your personality. You’ve got something you hope is greatness or beauty, but fear is just neurosis or infantile preoccupation. And you want someone to drag it out of you. You want to play Beatrice to someone’s Dante, Maude Gonne to someone’s Yeats, Zora to someone’s Joe Millionaire. You want to be discovered in the coffee shop, elevated above those who misunderstood you, celebrated for that dark little tangle in your gut that makes you say such stupid things out loud. You want that weirdness to crawl up and out to be snared in a portrait or a poem or a pop song or sitcom with your name on it.

But you also want final edit, and that’s the rub.

Chances are, they’re going to tell you that the tangle is just a tangle. You’re going to be misinterpreted by onlookers and passersby and critics. Many of them will not find your weirdness anything other than weird.

But some of the strange ones scribbling in notebooks alone at the end of the bar, or in sketchbooks in the park by the fountain, will find it beautiful.

And all of them will find your most successful attempts to bury it, to misinterpret it yourself and to jealously hoard it like a secret or a dusty heirloom, sad.

—John Rodat


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