In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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At the table in the convention center I looked at you and thought, That is what a face should look like. That is the face I would design if I was God. Like a dark-red rosebush I once saw against a white wall, like a pale-green balloon floating toward the bone-white moon in a rusty autumn dream — your face flashed into my life and made me feel I’d be fine, eventually.
Yours is the best e-mail I’ve received all year. I guess you heard I was a poet. I had the feeling you might also be some kind of poet. Something about that coat you wore at the endless conference and the way your eyes moved. And you were scribbling those lines in that little book of yours with the deer on it. I could tell you weren’t just “taking notes.”
Yours in a rusty autumn dream,
P.S. I will send you my book, Saints in My Pants, soon. Though I’m mostly spoken word.
Um, I meant Saints in My Past! (Sorry.)
Yes, I’m pretty much a poet when not working the X-ray-tech job.
I actually overheard you say you were a poet when you were talking to that huge pharma-rep guy with the laugh. Yes, it’s true my coat needs to be updated. (Thank you for noticing.) Also. There is an urgency in me I can’t explain. To tell you everything. Can I tell you everything, Antoine? Even though you’re a complete stranger? I wonder sometimes if the urgency means I’m dying, and you were sent my way by something celestial. You with your searchlight face.
Yours truly, and a bit drunk while watching
George W. give the State of the Union,
P.S. Do you like the poet W.S. Merwin? And who else do you like? How does Lucille Clifton fit on your list? I mean where?
Dying? Hmmm. Don’t think so. But maybe you should give yourself some X-rays when nobody’s looking. You got a lot of fire for a white-girl technician from Pittsburgh. I don’t even mind how you walk like an ape. But let’s be clear, poet: I’m not looking for a significant other. Do you understand? I had a disaster, otherwise known as a marriage, to someone who had a college degree in poetry. I got a long spoken-word thing about her on YouTube, but you don’t wanna see it. Fact, I took it down.
To be clear, I am not built for living in close quarters with a romantic partner, and I am taking care of my grandmother every night, and she often wakes up not knowing who or where she is.
Besides, we are getting older, you and I. No longer kids, right? When there is free time — which, notice, there never is — maybe we should read books and do a little thinking. A little contemplating.
I like hearing from you, though.
P.S. I looked up those poets. What’s not to like about Merwin and Clifton?
Your absence has gone through me / like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color. (Merwin)
Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. (Clifton)
OK, OK, Mrs. Clifton, let’s hope so.
P.P.S. Why would you watch that damn State of the Union nonsense???
Thanks for writing back. Last thing I want is romance or marriage! Please, no. But I’m thinking of you tonight and I’m pacing — not like some great thinker filled with ideas, but like someone who has too much energy and feels like a caged animal on the tenth floor with a view of the river. When I can’t sleep, I stand and look out at the city lights throbbing in the water like fallen moons, as I imagine many in this building do. Next door is a redheaded vet back from Iraq. He’s in a wheelchair. He’s being tended to by his mother. They keep the TV at top volume. They watch violent shows, explosive shows, or television news, which is often like a violent, explosive show, and one time at midnight I couldn’t take it and went and knocked on their door and said, Can you kindly turn it way the fuck down? I felt worse than terrible after this, because this man had gone to war, and here I was acting like a little noise was a big issue. And his mother kept calling from somewhere behind him, Who is it? Who is that at the door? And the young man finally said, Shut the fuck up, to her, so I felt like I’d transferred my anger into his body. Really felt bad, and the next day I got them two dozen Dunkin’ Donuts, since I’d heard the vet say once, I could live on Dunkin’ Donuts.
So now you’re probably thinking I contributed to his possible future diabetes, but it is hard to know what to do in this world.
And have you noticed I’m ignoring your “walk like an ape” comment when most would say, WTF?
Here we have a snowstorm like the one that fell when I first met you in that convention center, when you sat beside me at a table, and I thought, Look, he’s the only one not wearing his “I’m just going about my business until I die” face, or his “I gotta sell you all my lies” smile, and though we were supposedly there to discuss how to become happier underpaid and ultimately voiceless employees of a certain hospital system that will go unnamed, when you managed to confide, as we ate our tired salads, that your father had died exactly a year ago, and that you had slipped into depression after his death but now you were out of it, it made me wish we could run from the table and rush through the harsh light of that convention center, right down the silver teeth of the endless escalators and out the glass doors and into fourteen inches of snow. I wanted us to find a field so we could fall down like kids and put snow in our hair, in our mouths, all over our faces, down each other’s pants and shirts, and wake up! We would look up at the black night sky and find a star or two and breathe. Just breathe in the black sky together and the stars and the faraway moon. Then I wanted us to make a snow fort together, like children, and crouch in that shelter, with the night sky framed in the little round doorway, and live there forever.
Hope you’re staying warm and that your grandmother is OK.
Are you yanking my chain? Seriously?
I’m not yanking your chain! Where did that horrible expression come from, anyway? Last time I looked, we’re not dogs in the backyard.
I’m making dinner for the vet and his mother while wishing I could write you a longer e-mail. Next time I’ll start off with the story of a terrible road trip I took last summer. So terrible it might be interesting.
P.S. I’m a good cook. Give me some eggplant, peppers, and a little Xanax, and voilà.
All that snow.
I like it. I’m in a hurry now. But I like it. I think I like you.
But I’m not sure, actually, about you. I have some hesitations moving in heavy, like the barges I saw hauling coal down the river before I stepped into that convention center. Do you have some issues you should put on the proverbial table? You bipolar?
Forget the snow!
I get that way, and then I think, Who was that individual? I’m really nothing dangerous or unhinged. (Have held down my X-ray-tech job for almost seven years. People at work have been known to describe me as “pretty nice” and even “fun.”) Just tending toward hyper lately, maybe due to the TRT (terrible road trip)? I use the question mark because I distrust all explanations. To explain is to reduce, said somebody. Maybe I could tell you the story of all the road trips in my life before we get to the disaster that wrecked me. And you could tell me yours, if you have any.
P.S. Let me get this on the table. When I was twenty-three, I somehow ended up with my sister’s husband. I would say it was his fault, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll probably hear this and want to stop our little correspondence, which I’d understand. My sister never really got over it, nor did anyone in my family, so I have been an outcast for years, though they still let me come to holiday dinners since my sister is a Christian who has to forgive me, but when she sees me, she crosses her arms while saying, How are you? Never saying my name. Ever.
Dear Sincerely Gina,
Seriously? Stealing your sister’s husband? Stay clear of me, will you?
OK, I’m not being serious: everyone steals their sister’s husband eventually. No biggie. I would like to hear the story of why you stole your sister’s husband before I condemn you.
Cough it up, Gina. In all the gory details. Does the whole world hate you or just your whole extended family? And what about the road trip was so terrible? Did you kill someone? Are you a husband-stealing, murdering, crazy-poet type of individual? What kind of X-ray technicians are they employing out there in Pittsburgh? (Here in Ohio we’re more behaved.) Should I call the authorities? OK, I’m not being serious. Except for the fact that I’m being serious. And my grandmother and I have to watch Family Feud now. Best show ever!
Go ahead, call the authorities. Lock me up. Just keep your e-mails coming. They are lifelines.
By the way, I, too, watch Family Feud.
I’m a little shaky tonight. Work was terrible because my coworker Michelle had some kind of breakdown, and I tried to be her life coach/psychiatrist in the bathroom, and one of our superiors was in a stall, listening.
I will have to write a poem called “Someone Is Always in the Stall Listening”!
By the way, are you a forgiving and compassionate soul, or is that just your face?
I believe in forgiveness, and have forgiven so many people in my life, so before I tell you more of the terrible road trip and/or why I fucked up my sister’s whole life, maybe I should tell you about the people I’ve magnanimously forgiven? Meanwhile next door the vet and his mother are watching what sounds like Fox News (again at top volume, it is killing me). In the hall yesterday the mother was pushing the vet in his wheelchair, and when I passed by, both of them said, What’s up? in unison. You don’t usually hear a mother say, What’s up? like that, much less in unison with her vet son. The vet is growing a beard the color of cinnamon, and his eyes have that unfocused quality you see with blind people, but he’s not blind, because sometimes he’ll say, Lookin’ good.
Your friend wearing a blue star-studded evening gown,
P.S. Just kidding. I’m in a big ol’ flannel shirt and my dead grandfather’s bathrobe.
P.P.S. I won’t intrude on your “real life.” I’ll bet you have a stable of admiring women. You had the face of a man who couldn’t help understanding everything — all of it, the whole pathetic, tragic human thing — and that draws people in. To me you were a magnet of kindness. Here’s what I want to know: Have you ever walked down a road with a lantern? Because you did that in my dream last night. Seriously, you did.
Just a quick note to say I hope you’re well. I have the flu. Serious flu. My grandmother has the flu, too. Even the parakeets in the kitchen seem to have the flu. But please keep writing me, it is helpful in some way.
Stay outta trouble,
I am sorry you are all sick. Thank you for writing back anyway. That’s so kind. I love parakeets. Please read this only when you are feeling better. Please!
Tonight I meant to drink a decaf and instead drank a large caffeinated coffee, so I am going to plunge in and tell you about the road trip I recently survived, after I tell you about the other road trips that weren’t so tragic, because they count, too, and I’m unsure whether or not I should tell you about the recent one, though I believe it may be cathartic. And then maybe I’ll tell you about my whole life. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. Actually I’ll tell you mine even if you tell me nothing, because that is how much caffeine is running through my veins.
Sadly, at nineteen I was already divorced for the first time — I married, at eighteen, an Italian boxer in Atlantic City during a fiasco known as “senior week,” when hordes of high-school seniors get in cars with lots of alcohol and head to the Jersey shore just after graduation. Did you have “senior week” where you were from, or is that just a white thing? I noticed that the few black students in my high school were smart enough not to go to senior week and marry a boxer.
Anyhow, that’s a story I’ll need to tell you later: my first wedding, my first marriage, my first heartbreak, unless you count the heartbreak of being born, which is how my mother said I looked when she first laid eyes on me — heartbroken — but you can say that about every baby, I assume.
The Italian boxer really did look like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, so, considering that, and my youth, and some serious alcohol (which used to be a real problem with me), you might understand my stupidity.
I got impatient and ordered Saints in My Past, but it still has not come to my mailbox. What is up with that? I’m going to put some of my poems in an envelope for you soon.
So I drove cross-country with two dogs once — my Labs — when I was twenty-two, while listening to cassette tapes by a spiritual guru who believed (correctly, I think) that we are all mired in illusion and the only way out of pain is to abandon our attachments to our poor, sick minds, which long ago were programmed by the evil that is separating us from truth and joy. Stop blocking the light, people! the guru begged, mile after mile. The light wants in, people! The dogs and I slept in the car, or in fields, for ten whole days. I loved my dogs and they protected me and I felt the light seeping in. So that was a good trip.
Do you spend any time thinking about whatever it is that preceded the Big Bang? I know a girl who used to pray to the Big Bang.
Someone’s at the door.
You still there? I hope you’re all right? I hope the flu is fading? A grown man cried on my X-ray table and told me the story of his life, and that he was dying and so afraid. I may go next door and ask the vet and his mother if I can watch TV with them.
I understand if you’re too busy, etc. Being in hospital administration is often like being in hell. Maybe you are just mired or tired or wired or fired. I am sorry for my addictive personality. Actually? I would not have chosen it. I would not have chosen to be myself.
Well, it was good while it lasted. I will never forget you. Hope to see you on the other side.
Your book came! I don’t care if you don’t write back. These are excellent poems! Especially the one about the guy who set himself on fire in McDonald’s. I really felt for that guy! The power of the written word. You have a fine sense of detail. That guy’s shoes will live in my mind always. And the one called “Phyllis and the Mission” put chills down my spine. Did you really know someone called Phyllis, and was she really that saintlike? I hope so. I can see her on the roof of that old building, surrounded by those rapt children, as well as I can see my own hand. Hope comes into me as I read about her.
So this is a letter straight from my heart saying thanks. And I wish I could meet every saint in this book. Are they all really for real?
Dear Ginabear (???),
For real for real.
And thank you for singling out “Phyllis and the Mission.” And yes I believe in God, but not in the God of my childhood. It would be impossible to describe what I now believe. My belief system, such as it is, can be found in my poems. Or maybe not. I am sorry to take so long to write back to you, but my grandmother disappeared on me — just snuck out of our house one night and started wandering and ended up miles away in the house of an old fat white lady whose marbles needed even more polishing than my grandmother’s, and the two of them lived in the lady’s house like candy-eatin’ girls having a weekend sleepover. (It made the local papers — picture and all. Not pretty, and my brother wants to kill me now, since I guess I forgot to lock the side door.) Stay in touch because my grandma is talking to ghosts and freaking me out. Every night with her. Every night. Sometimes I can’t sleep, so shoot me an e-mail if the same goes for you.
I’m sorry you had to worry like that! Tell your brother I said he has no right to be angry because you are the one staying there every night. Sounds like your brother is staying on Planet All About Me.
My brother can’t stand to be around my grandma for too long. And he has a girlfriend who has him tied up. Before my grandmother lost her mind, she was so great that when people said, Your grandmother is a caring individual, I laughed because it was such an understatement. See the poem called “Jesus in the Moon Days Breaking” and the one called “Peach Pie on Ninth and Summer.” She steered the ship alone and raised us after my mother passed. I tried to capture that.
It is midnight here, and my grandma is up with wide eyes watching a long commercial about an exercise contraption and drinking grape juice. She says she wants the exercise contraption. OK, we’ll buy it tomorrow.
Because tomorrow comes
and you’ll want something else
something free, like the sun
and Yeah, me too.
It’ll set soon and we can catch
that orange ball in a butterfly net.
Just don’t go wandering off ever again
because I almost died of worry
and if I die of worry
my brother Gregory is going to take over
and you will hate that because he lost his mind
on the paleo diet
bread is the devil
also lifts weights 24 hours a day
no thank you
say it louder
no thank you, Gregory
I think I will eat a whole loaf of bread
and watch it rain.
But Gina, when you gonna tell me of the “terrible road trip”?
I’m all ears. (OK, picture that.)
Raped on gravel,
That was me.
Big Moon watched,
So did Tree.
Don’t know how
To get back home
To who I used to be.
I am sorry. I do not know what to say, but I am very, very sorry!
Where did you go? Write back, OK?
You still there? Write back soon. I appreciate that you confided in me and I don’t want you to vanish.
You are the only one I’ve told, the only one who even knows, except for a counselor who told me I had to tell one person. Thank you for being someone I wanted to tell. I know probably everyone tells you things because your face is so kind, and they, like me, love you. You have light in your face like a magnet. And it is hard to find people to tell things to, since everyone and everything goes so fast. I never want to mention it again, though, OK? Ever.
P.S. The vet was taken by ambulance to a hospital last night. I don’t know why. The mother was back today listening to loud TV, but she wouldn’t answer when I knocked. I am up reading Pablo Neruda.
You don’t love me, you love the idea of me. This is fine. I have nothing against it.
I think loving the idea of someone can sometimes be the way to go. Very safe.
We can all use a little safety in this world. Everyone’s got a hammer aiming for their heart.
Anyhow. Remember that I am just an idea. Right?
I’ll tell you what else. It is hard to watch my grandmother sail away. She said tonight, Who are you? Looking right at me.
Send me the poems you mentioned weeks ago, OK? Are you OK? I hope so.
I am sorry it is so hard with your grandmother. I wish I had a helpful word or three.
And I don’t care if you’re just an idea. One day soon I will send you my poems. Here, have a little Pablo Neruda while you wait:
. . . we are only one dark space,
a chalice filling with celestial ashes,
a drop in the pulse of a long slow river.
Thank you, Antoine. Please don’t disappear. Even though you’re not here, believe me, you are here.
OK. You’re here, too. My friend.
Just when I thought I had forgotten how to cry at beauty, I read J.E. McCafferty’s short story “The Only One She Told” [January 2019]. It touched on everything I care to read about: the longing for connection and distance, the pain of our stories, the risk and relief of sharing them.