Imaginary Friendships I Have With Poets
by LAUREN QUINN
Jim and I meet in the back of a bar. We’re both drinking soda water and fidgeting our cigaretteless fingers.
We’re there for the open mic, a poorly attended and dimly lit event we both show up at every Wednesday night, I suppose because we don’t have anything better to do. We both wear leather jackets and spend a lot of time outside smoking. We stick together because neither one of us drinks, at least not for the moment.
We read to the sound of shoes shuffling and glass clinking, the coughing louder than any applause. Afterwards we walk each other home. The city crunches beneath our sneakers and the streetlight casts sharp little shadows on our pocked skin. No one likes our poetry and maybe that’s another reason why we hang—because we’d once seemed so promising, like such prodigies.
We stand on the sidewalk in front of his stoop and give each other one of those tentative hugs, the kind heterosexual male-female friends who aren’t sleeping together do. We won’t ever sleep together, because it’d make all the disappointment and loneliness we both carry collide and explode, the way we always feel something about to explode—something itching, clawing, scratching around inside us, that we can’t quite ever get out. Not even our poems can get it out.
So instead we hug and say, “See you next week.” Which is what we always say, until one week when one of us just stops showing up.
Which one?, you ask.
You’d be surprised, I say.
I’m fifteen when I send Sylvia an adorably demented fan letter, the kind angsty/suicidally-depressed teenage girls are apt to send. I enclose with it some of my own poems, which are basically blatant rip-offs of hers. But Sylvia’s gentile upbringing causes her to respond graciously, saying my work displays “promise.”
So I show up at a reading she’s giving with Anne Sexton one night in Berkeley. I stay after to get my Ariel signed. Sylvia’s sitting tired-eyed at the table and when I get up to the front, I remind her who I am and ask if she wants to hang out. In an equally gracious manner, she agrees.
It’s Saturday, so I take her and Anne to Rocky Horror. We spend most of the time in The Alley. It’s raining. I squat beside the wall, pull that fake fur coat over my head and flick my lighter, spin a hollowed-out light bulb over the feeble flame, pinch a straw in my teeth and suck the smoke that rises. My hair stands up and I feel alive.
I introduce Sylvia to Sophie, who’s shithoused in a black slip and combat boots, purple mascara running down her face. Sophie grins at Sylvia, leans her head back against the brick wall and begins to scream the entire poem “Daddy” at the top of her lungs.
By the time she gets to the end Sophie has hot angry tears running down her cheeks, annihilating the rest of her mascara. She slams her eyes shut and together we shout, “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard I’m through.” The words echo off the sides of the buildings, ricochet and rise, and all the other strung-out fifteen-year-olds in their underpants howl.
Sylvia looks utterly horrified at the whole display. Anne, on the other hand, takes a long slow drag of her cigarette, throws her head back and laughs.
I pass Lucille’s house every night as I walk home from the train station, after a solid day of classes at that commuter college I go to. My backpack is heavy and dogs bark from inside chain-link fences. I check my back every half-block, hands in my pockets and head down.
Lucille comes out to her porch. She’s taking the trash out or checking a burnt light bulb or else just looking at the night. I swear it’s like she’s timed it, like she knows when I’m coming each night: “Well, good evening,” she says; “Hi,” I say. Neither one of us admits to the farce.
She invites me in and there’re pots on the stove, big bubbling murmuring pots. There’re trays in the oven; she opens the door and peels back the foil. It crinkles; steam rises. She fixes me a plate, and I don’t have to heart to tell her I’m vegan, and she doesn’t have the heart to tell me that someday I’ll give that up.
We sit on the stuffed, faded furniture in her living room. She watches me. As I eat I start telling her about things, about my classes and writing workshops where I feel hopelessly out of place; about the boys I like who don’t like me; about the long shifts at the restaurant and the varicose veins that are beginning to bloom behind my knees. Some nights I cry.
When I think she’s not looking, I stare at the empty space in her blouse where a breast has been removed. I see the way the fabric sags. A lamp behind her illuminates her short frizzy hair into a kind of halo.
Sometimes foxes come to the window. They don’t ever scratch. They sit on their haunches and press their warm snouts on the glass, leaving little wet rings. Their eyes are small and black.
When Lucille opens the door to let me out, the foxes have all vanished.
Roberto and I meet at a dusty old roadside café, somewhere far from here. It’s a long time from now too, when we’re both old — older than he lived and than I probably will either.
We sit there in the stinging shade, the wind whistling hot air and bits of sand against our cheeks. We drink coffee at our separate tables, hunched over our separate notebooks and thinking our separate thoughts, or else just staring out at the big blank desert.
Eventually we start sitting at the same table. At first we don’t talk much—not about our pasts and definitely not about poetry. Only after a year or so do I start asking tentative questions.
“I started writing fiction because you can’t make money as a poet,” he says.
“I started writing personal essays because you can’t make money as a poet,” I say.
We look down at our cheap clothing, our skin weathered by years living in countries not our own, and laugh.
We don’t ever say the real reason.
“Do you still hate Octavio Paz?” I ask one day.
He looks out at the desert for a moment, at a mountain that rises up far in the horizon. I haven’t ever been there, don’t know its name. Part of me suspects that the mountain isn’t even real, that it’s a mirage I’ve created cause everything else in this town is so damn flat. I’ve never even asked anyone about it, worried that my seeing it was a sign I’d finally gone crazy.
But I’m sure in that moment that Roberto sees it too.
He looks down at his notebook and smiles.
“You didn’t answer me,” I say.
He smiles wider.
"Wingspan" - Carlton Melton (mp3)
"Smoke Drip" - Carlton Melton (mp3)