Authors: Joseph Riippi
The Orange Suitcase
“Something (Entirely True) About Your Grandfather”
“Something About Birthdays”
“Something About Perfecting A Love”
“Something About Marriage, Part 1”
“Something About A Nail”
“Something About The Rest”
“Something About Lâ”
“Something About New York City”
“Something About Borges and the Blind in Chelsea”
“Something About Ben Jensen”
“Something About The Unpublished and Unfinished Novels”
“Something About A Joke”
“Something About My Book”
“Something About Maxine”
“Something About A Valentine's Day”
“Something About The Zombies”
“Something About A Finger”
“Something About A Painter”
“Something About Ipek (On A Valentine's Day)”
“Something About Poetry”
“Something About Drinking In Baton Rouge”
“Something About Rings”
“Something About Someone Else's Poem”
“Something About Moby Dick”
“Something About Marriage, Pt 2”
“Something About A Promise”
“Something About the Orange Suitcase”
“Something About Swimming With Sea Turtles”
“Something About Remembering A Couch Or A Person”
“Something About Vegas: A Note on the Second Edition of a First Novel”
“Something About Last Time At The Cedar Tavern”
“Something About Marriage, Pt 3”
“Something About My Blood And Yours”
for my family
“Let's start again.”
A baptism. Seattle, Wa. 1983.
e was carrying an orange suitcase when we met. Wearing his crisp green dress uniform and carrying this absolutely hideous suitcase. I remember it clear as day. He approached me in Point Defiance Park, rose bushes and daffodils around us, bees, a blue sky, Mt. Rainier. I was on my lunch break, and he invited me for an impromptu picnic under a white gazebo. Such a handsome man. He just appeared out of nowhere and asked if I would do him the honor of joining him for lunchâit was quite scandalous in those days, let me tell you. Anyway, I remember sitting there with him and thinking to myself, Now what kind of a lady would fall for a man like this? A man who carries a sandwich and coffee thermos around town in an orange suitcase? No kind of lady I know! But later my mother told me: You can hate the suitcase, Bernice, but still love the man who carries it. And that's just what I did, and he carried the damn thing for the next 63 years.”
his happens: I am sitting in the basement of the old house in Tacoma, in the leather chair my mother will make my father sell the summer we move to the valley. I am trying to make sense of the huge metal computer on the desk. I can't find a mouse; the keyboard is a sheet of heavy metal. Childhood photographs of my sister and me are set in small faux-wood frames before the wall. Then I hear a voice behind me: You look old, it says, and I turn and there's Ben Jensen, my best friend from grade school. He doesn't have braces yet; his front teeth stick out like white erasers. He must be around seven years old, and I look down at myself and see that I am still 26, still the me that went to sleep in New York after too many beers. Ben is holding a bow and arrow, the kind we used to make from the springy cedar saplings in the empty lot next door. Slice a notch in either end with a Swiss army knife, his dad taught us. Bend the stick and tie a length of weed-whacker string between its notches. Arrows were straightish sticks; pop cans on railroad ties were enemies' heads; our squealing sisters were moving bulls' eyes. Ben reaches behind his shoulder and shows me the arrow he's made, the tip whittled to a jagged point. He raises the weapon, pulls back on the orange weedwhacker, fingers' tips at his cheek. Whatever happened to you? I ask, but I know he can't reply. I remember your dad left when we were in sixth grade. I remember he abandoned your family so he could be gay, so he could live with the orchestra teacher and move to California. I remember my mother told me this when I asked her, years after we moved, Whatever happened to Ben's dad? All she could explain was: He left Ben a note. But what did the note say? I've always wanted to ask you that. What did it say? And did you understand? Does he call you on your birthday?
e were sitting at the cafÃ© on our third date. The waiter brought us our drinks: a cappuccino for me, loose-leaf tea for her. Monk's Blend? I asked. Monk's blend, she replied, and ordered it always thereafter. We fussed with the mugs and saucers for a bit, and then I coughed and looked at her, still a bit nervous in those early conversations. So, what's the funniest joke you've ever heard? I asked. She didn't say anything, just dipped her tea bag up and down in the browning hot water. She laughed to herself. I sipped my foam and was about to say something when she asked: How do you get a nun pregnant? I shrugged. Prayer? She shook her head. You fuck her, she answered. She stressed the hard consonant and squeezed the wet tea bag between her fingers; she pursed her lips to blow cool air across the surface of the drink. I remember her stare over the rim of the mug. I remember her fingers, her bracelet, music.
hen I think of our wedding I think of a blonde curly-headed child dressed all in white, pouring slow water into the ocean from a great glass pitcher. It takes both hands, and a very long time passes before all the water has passed. The sun sets and the moon rises and the sun sets again. There is warm wind; the arcing water is the only sound. I think maybe we are the water leaving the pitcher, or maybe the pitcher. Maybe we are the ocean, or the moon, or all of it. I know none of this makes sense.
hen I was maybe ten or eleven years old my grandfather hammered a nail into a tree with his bare hand. My cousins will tell you it didn't happen, but we called his bluff; we didn't believe him when he said that, as a carpenter in Tacoma after the war, he'd never used a hammer. He boasted: My hands are like the Finns. My hands are stronger than Russian tanks. And then he did it, right there in front of us. He held a three-inch nail against the cedar tree and swung his gigantic frame, no hesitation. When he pulled away that nail stayed sticking out, a monument, humongous, gray and wet, with a piece of skin as its rainy flag.
lean back from the roof and wipe rain from my faceâfingers smell like wet pine and cigarettes. My grandfather used to say he built this house with his bare hands. He laid these shingles and hung this gutter. Beyond the wooden peak and weathervane the sky is a dripping scrim. Are you watching me? I pull the green string of Christmas lights and hook the final length around a bent nail and wipe my face again. He pounded this nail decades ago. He carried railroad ties on his shoulders. He crushed rocks between his fingers and threw logs for fun. Now I stand at the top of the ladder and peel white paint from the gutter. Dry flakes fall away like fake snow, revealing more original layers beneath.
I climb down and wipe my hands on the sides of a borrowed jacket. Sniff my fingers and breathe on my palms. You look exactly like your grandfather's older brother, my grandmother said when I put on the coat. I watch her hurry to the bookcase, watch her come back with a photograph of a great uncle. He left the farm in Finland to go and fight the Russians, she said. That was the last time your grandfather saw him, you know, when your grandfather was still a little boy. She took the photograph away, left me to walk into the rain alone, not knowing how the story ended.
I flip a switch in the metal box on the side of the house and look up. Less than half the lights work; the last reflects off a knot of electrical tape, one of the ancient splices holding the long strand together.
I walk into the kitchen where my grandmother sits with a cigarette and a yellow romance novel. She smiles when I open the door and looks back to her book. These books get dirtier and dirtier, she says, pretending surprise. I wipe my face with the sleeve of the coat that makes me look like a dead soldier. I kick my feet on the mat. The lights only work halfway again, I say. Should I drive into town for some new ones? She pretends not to hear me and flicks ash on a dinner plate. How often does she pretend? Maybe the aids are just for show. Maybe she smoked even when my grandfather was alive and this isn't so new. Maybe she's nothing at all like the grandmother I remember. I stand in the doorway and kick my feet some more, watch her not watching me.
She pretended not to see me take her car keys. She pretended not to notice when I took a cigarette from the pack hidden in the junk drawer. An hour later she pretended not to hear me ripping lights from the roof, replacing them with a brand new set.
The rain fell fat and slow, like very wet snow.
I wrap the clean white wire around the rusty nail and pretend I am setting a bomb to kill Russians; the sky is growing dark and no one sees me peel off the price tag and crumple it in my jacket pocket. No one sees me pick a scab on my thumb. No one sees me if no one is watching. No one will notice, I tell myself, not until January when my father comes to take them down, and I'll be gone by then. I walk back inside. My shoes are soaking wet and squirt on the linoleum floor. Merry Christmas! I yell, to be sure she hears. Lights are up! She brings me a towel and a bowl of meatballs on mashed potatoes. I take off the coat; it is heavy and I feel more like myself without it. She smiles and sits next to me and pats my head, pretends not to notice the empty coat and puddle forming around it. She kisses my hair and sniffs it like a dog would a stranger.
Grandparents. Tacoma, Wa., 1942.
woke early; still black beyond the bedroom curtains. Rain dripped from the roof gutters and ricocheted across the restaurant courtyard. I rose and dressed; I listened to the rain and her breathing and tried not to wake her. In the kitchen I filled a dirty wine glass with tap water. I gathered my folders and the laptop from the table, checked the clock above the stove. I hurried back to the bedroom for my sweater and tie, watched her roll to my side of the bed, clutch the pillow. The best part of this day, I knew, would be bending to kiss her goodbye and sliding the comforter up to her chin. She would smile and murmur to have a great day, good luck with your presentation, I miss you. I would whisper back something the same. I reached for the sweater pinned beneath her shoulder. The courtyard beyond the window grew silent, and dawn outlined the roof of the restaurant white against the sky. By the time I left the apartment, rain had turned to snow.
here used to be a fishing supply store on West 22nd and Tenth Avenue where the owner would demonstrate fly-fishing in the street. Whenever he was at it, the people walking past would slow or stop to watch the orange-glittering fly, alive at the end of the salesman's line, sail in long arcs across the surface of the road. One almost expected a great stony fish to leap from the asphalt in a hard spray of gravel, only to disappear again through a pothole with the fly in its mouth. But no fish ever did, and so the store closed down.
ometimes I pass them with their tapping white sticks on the sidewalk and I'll think of Borges. Yesterday I watched a man in black sunglasses at the Starbucks on Eighth Avenue reading Braille. He seemed to be staring out the window at the butcher's shop, petting a cat. Does he write, too? Maybe with one of those complicated typewriters. I watched him run his old fingers back and forth across the pages for a long time. It made me a little jealousâI would like to know what a Borges story feels like. I'd like to know what the word goosebumps feels like. This morning I thought of him when I passed five men tapping their sticks together, almost in unison, moving past the art supply store on 23rd. They weren't speaking, which seemed odd. I remember a cousin once gave me a book for my birthday called The Book of Questions. One of the questions was, Would you rather be blind or deaf? Another question was, Would you rather be burned alive or drowned?
I had a dream in which an army of blind men and women tried to beat me to death with their sticks outside the Chelsea Hotel. Tap! Tap! Tap! I didn't see if Borges was among them before I ran inside and hid. I don't know why I needed to hide. I woke and decided I would rather be blind than deaf; people could read to me while I learned Braille. I would write stories that felt like the sidewalk or a rash or a basketball. I would write a novel called Acne; my memoir would be called Listening.
In Borges' “The South,” a man gets in a knife fight with his country. The story ends with us not knowing who wins. I suppose his country wins; just by the act of fighting I suppose he is beaten. In the sixth grade my next-door neighbor Ben punched me in the face when I teased him for liking the neighbor girl. The three of us were walking home from the bus stop and I told the girl: Ben wants to suck your pussy. I didn't know what the words meant but I knew they were powerful and would make the kids at school laugh. Ben punched me in the face and the girl ran home when she saw all the blood. We were never friends again; that was the last day we walked home together. Sometimes, not often, I wonder where he lives. If one day we meet on the street, in New York or Seattle, maybe I'll ask him to get a drink. Will we shake hands? Hug? Maybe he will pull a knife; maybe he will lead an army of the blind and they will beat me to death. I suppose I deserve not knowingâit was me who ruined everything. I was the one who took him for granted; I was the one who moved away.
o he isn't dead. That's what I thought when I saw Ben Jensen today. It happened on the bus, the 14D. I was sitting with my feet against the back wheel-well and trying to read someone else's poems. I kept getting distractedâthere was a paper sac on the floor next to me, of beer and the frozen turbot filets I would make for dinner later. I kept picturing the bottom of the bag getting wet. We would brake to a stop and I would stand and lift the bag by its brown paper handles, not thinking to lift from the bottom. The fish and beer would spill out across the floor, fizzing and spitting, ruining everything while everyone stared.
Even now, having just eaten, drinking this beer, the thought gets my eyes pinching.
Jensen got on at Fifth Avenue. I recognized him by his height and knit fingerless gloves. I'd remembered his gloves being red, but these were blue. He made his way toward me and he looked like he'd lost weight. I couldn't be sure, and I don't think he saw me. I hope he didn't see me. I wondered if I looked different, too.
I thought of calling out, but there were too many strangers between us, and I didn't want to move until my stop. Almost everyone would be off the bus by then and if my bag spilled fewer people would stare. I watched him over my book. I peered. I remember thinking that word, peered. I remember my foot fell asleep against the wheel well. I remember wanting to say, I've missed you.
Jensen was reading advertisements for skin cream and cable channels; he held the metal pole and rocked back and forth with everyone else. I wanted to ask him where he'd been the last three years, if that last story he'd told me was true, about the guys beating the shit out of him in Washington Heights.
He got off at Seventh Avenue. I didn't chase. I didn't even put down my book.
The bus pushed forward with the rest. Only then did I get the courage to look back. I thought I might get a glimpse of him, entering a coffee shop or electronics store, a church or synagogueâsomething that might give a clue as to what he's been doing. There have been no new poems. No cryptic emails from Europe or the Bosporus or the Caspian Sea. No sightings in the usual bars, restaurants, bookstores, parks, streets, readings, grocery stores, avenues, benches.
We kept moving forward and I didn't have a choice; I accepted he'd disappeared again.
Three years ago was the last time. I got an email he'd been attacked by four men in hoods. Somewhere up by City College.
The sun wasn't even down yet, he'd written. Somebody should make a rule.
I tried to picture a person being mugged at 136th and Amsterdam in the middle of the day. There would be so many people. I pictured the old Dominican man selling sneakers and underwear in front of the bodega, the women sitting in neon lawn chairs by the ball field. The long accordion-bellied buses, pigeons fleeing barking dogs, children running from landing pigeons. And then Jensen, a guy just like me, just exactly like me, being attacked right there in the heart of it all. Jensen wrote that he'd been able to roll away and outrun them, even after getting punched in the back of the head, even after getting kicked in the corners of his ribs. Even then, they still hadn't gotten his phone or wallet. I remember reading his email right here, at this same kitchen table.
I am still trying to picture it. I've never seen Ben Jensen run. I drink this beer and try.
When I think of Jensen I think of red fingerless gloves rolling cigarettes and us arguing about other poets behind their backs.
I don't deny I loved him.
When I picture the mugging, I picture a man selling sneakers and those women in lawn chairs and a black patch where Jensen should be; he's a patch burnt from a newspaper I can't read.
I remember a time Jensen and I met for wine somewhere. When he arrived he had a patch of bruise beneath his left eye. He'd been in Berlin for a week and an Austrian woman had thrown his own boots at him; one had kicked him in the face.
I remember he laughed as he told the story. Then he took a pack of rolling papers from his pocket and started making cigarettes with his red gloves and fingers.
I can still picture the boots. The purple bruise-stamp of the heel beneath his eye. I can picture it very clearly.
When I got off the bus at Eleventh Avenue I was so distracted I almost let the bag of fish and beer spill out across the floor.
I started to cry and the bus driver stared at me until I cried harder.
I hope that was him. I still can't accept the story the others told. That there was an explosion and he just disappeared.
W 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. NYC, 2008.
Last known location of Ben Jensen.
he first was called Paddles for a year. After the love interest appeared it lost the quotation marks and paragraph breaks and became We Love Harder. I'm proud of one scene: the photographer walks down 22nd street and watches the edges of gray sidewalk fold down and separate to become the backs of long gray whales. Geysers shoot from blowholes to become pear blossom trees. Buildings fall away into flat, transatlantic horizon. Pigeons are seagulls or flying fish. The sun is setting and the photographer walks along the backs of the whales as they slumber and breathe. Maybe the streetlight is the setting sun and maybe the road is the current. I forget exactly.
The next was called Heart! Heart! Heart! and then Love! Love! Love!. One of these was Whitman, I think, or Carson McCullers. Regardless, I am still trying to save the mother:
Her son is born in Queens Hospital at the stroke of midnight September 12, 2001. He has hemophilia and is a very delicate joy in her life. When the anxiety of keeping him safe overwhelms her she retreats to the small extra bedroom in the Seattle house they bought in November.
She closes the door and shuts the blinds and turns off the lights and baby monitor.
In this complete dark she sheds her clothes, her underwear, and she feels her way to the treadmill. The treadmill is the only thing in the room besides bookshelves full of non-fiction. She presses a button she knows by touch and begins to walk in the dark. She accelerates into a jog, a run, a sprint. Fast, faster, and then she is running as fast as she can in a room like a black hole. She can smell her deodorant and the slight burn of the motor. She is a beating heart in flesh and nothing moreâthat's what she thinksâand then there's the rhythm of her heart repeating: a-heart, a-heart, a-heart, until it stops, which it will, because a heart, a heart stops.
That is where the first title came from.
Searching For The Heart Of It All was one title. Who Art In Heaven? another. A book about a boy with a suitcase. He is on a journey in the beginning, and maybe it ends with a war, or a return, or maybe he falls in love with a woman who takes him on a different journey, one more terrifying and exciting than the original. (This one is still growing). Maybe the boy opens the suitcase and there is a great reveal, or an explosion, a bus with a bomb on it. Maybe there is just disappointment, when he realizes how unoriginal he's become, or is, and then.
n weekend afternoons in the spring I sometimes walk to the Chelsea market to buy flowers and a cup of coffee. The way home passes a loud neighborhood park; from over a block away I can hear high-pitched girls on squeaky swing sets, their laughs and giggles, and their mothers or nannies yelling for them to Hold on tight! Sometimes walking that way reminds me of a dancer I dated before I met my fiancÃ©e. I remember little about her, save for a joke she liked to tell:
Why did the girl fall off the swing set?
Because she didn't have any arms.
I sometimes wonder if one of these days I'll be walking that way with a bunch of gladiolas. From down the street I'll see one tiny girl soar high above the leafy trees and across Tenth Avenue, smiling and armless, like a yellow-haired doll some bully vandalized and tossed over a fence.
t's a few years ago and I'm drinking at El Sombrero on Ludlow with the great poet Ben Jensen when he tells me: The thing about your book is that people only read for fun nowadays. And your book, wellâ. My book isn't much fun, I interject. He nods. Reading your book was like fucking a knothole, he says. He pauses, lets the comment settle. Then he takes a drink from his beer and nods again in affirmation. I feel ready to throw up, my throat thickens; but then he laughs and slaps me hard on the shoulder. I say that with a great deal of admiration, he assures me.
hey didn't look like baby rabbits. More like pink balls of unbaked dough with caper eyes.
Can I â
My grandfather gathered up the five or six of them. Max, their shaky mother, wrinkled her nose again and again and again and again in the corner of the cage.
There'll be rabbits everywhere, he grumbled.
From the house, my grandmother called out my name.
I stood on the toilet and watched through the open window; my grandfather was at the end of the dock tossing globs of dough into the lake. Ducks stirred the water in a rush; they thought he'd thrown bread. He wiped his big hands on the side of his jacket and watched the frantic mallards dive after the sinking things. Shiny green heads popped up wet, smacking orange beaks.
I took some pieces of lettuce to the garage and held one into the near-empty cage. C'mere Max, I called, extended my hand further. We didn't know you were a girl, I said. Mom says we should call you Maxine. Maxine wrinkled her nose again and again and again. I remembered the time she bit my cousin and pulled my hand back. I tossed the lettuce onto the pink towel we laid down the night before for the babies. I wondered if we would throw that towel away.
remember a night before I got engaged: I went to Arlington to visit a friend. We drove into the district, to the bar on 14th that's not there anymore. He wanted to introduce me to the girl he was seeing, the beautiful bartender. She was older than I expected; with pink hair and enormous breasts that made her the kind of woman my friend would be with. After an hour of talking about the high-academic music quarterly we would never start, snow began to fall. My friend stumbled back from the bar; we would spend the night at the beautiful bartender's apartment, he said. She had called her roommate. I asked my friend if the roommate was beautiful too. No, he said, She's just a bitch. Does she have pink hair? Later we'd drunk plenty and decided on three new features for our quarterly. Then the beautiful bartender announced she needed to close her till. We were the last left. My friend lit a cigarette and I rose to pay what the beautiful bartender charged us. She watched as I wrote a tip on the receipt. Thanks, she said, and smiled. Thank you, I wanted to say, but I don't remember if I said anything. My friend walked over and offered cigarettes. The bartender declined, and my friend and I sat and watched her count from a giant stack of dollar bills. After she'd counted fifty-two, fifty-three, fifty-four, I felt him tap me on the shoulder. He looked like he had something important to say. He said: I am incredibly drunk. Good, I answered. He nodded, rose from his stool. I'm going to the bathroom, he announced, more to himself for encouragement than to us. He went, and him leaving is what I remember best.
en Jensen and I are listening to The Zombies when Meg shows up around the brick corner. She's wearing a tight white sweater and black jeans combination I love and hate. She would be beautiful, drop-dead-gorgeous if I didn't know her. You guys playing chess? she asks. She leans against the side of the building, next to a window. We don't answer. In the window a guy and a girl are framed sitting across from each other at a small round table. They type as fast as they can on their matching white computers; their screens touch like in a board game. I wonder if they are chatting with each other. Outside, Meg lights a cigarette. She blows smoke and watches Ben move his pawn. I glance and move my bishop and stare at the trees. Wind blows and some leaves fall and the air smells cold. The Zombies are singing. Ben moves another pawn and Meg says: So Elliott Smith stabbed himself. Ben looks up and so do I. Is he dead? Ben asks. Mmm, she answers. He stabbed himself in the chest twice. She looks at me: Bet you're pretty upset, she says. Should I plan on seeing you crying at the house tonight? I look back at the board. Fuck you, Meg, I say, and move a piece, doesn't matter which. Ben gets up and heads for the computer inside the coffee shop. I don't believe it, he mutters. The screen door flaps shut. You know what that sound is? Meg asks. She jabs her cigarette at the door. It's you, she says. I don't say anything. She doesn't either. Wind blows and The Zombies play “The Time of the Season.” The record is on its last track. Meg finishes her cigarette and lights another. Black cigarettes, cloves. They smell delicious like I know they smell and I hate her for smelling like that. Ben comes back to the porch. She's right, man. Fucking Elliott Smith is dead. The screen door flaps shut again. Meg shifts against the wall. She would be beautiful if she weren't such a cunt. Are you listening to The Zombies because it makes you think of Laura? she asks. She blows that smoke at me again, laughs and moves to walk away. See you tonight, she calls from her shoulder. I look back to the window and the couple typing. They've sped up; it's a race and this is the final sprint. Push, man, push, I think. I listen to the last bars of the song; I love and hate this song.
here was one girl who had a broken finger. Her left hand, the ring finger. Everything was perfectly normal until the last knuckle, where it bent at a hard angle across the pinkie. She said it happened when she was a little girl; she crashed her tricycle into a rock wall at the end of her driveway and it never healed right. It's like I'm always lying, she'd tell me, Because I always have my fingers crossed. We dated for a few weeks and I didn't much notice the finger. But one night she was undoing the buttons on her coat in such a way that it was like watching a monster's hand: How can I ever buy an engagement ring for this girl? I thought. Will I have to buy it extra large, so it can slide past the broken part? Will she wear the diamond on a different finger, or on the other hand? And does she ever think about this? Does she have a plan? I never asked because I didn't think it was my placeâwe'd only dated those few weeks. But I think I stayed interested in her longer than I would have otherwise.
here was a girl who painted on stretched thrift store t-shirts instead of canvas. Her pictures were heavy and bold, like the fingers and brushes she used to make them. She said she wanted to be a costume designer on Broadway; she read yellow-paged paperback plays but never designed anything but these unwearable shirts. One purpose replaces another, she would say, That's how everything should be. She was younger than me and very beautiful. She told me her mother used to paint, that in her mother's paintings there was never any trash or fences or rain. Sometimes there were clouds, she said, but the clouds were only for contrast, to make the sky look bluer. I love your blue eyes, I would say, and she would put down the brush and sometimes she would smile. It was easy with her.
This one is called Memory 1, she said. And this one is Memory 2. She held them in the dark as I directed. I propped myself against her headboard, maybe I peeled a condom wrapper from my shoulder. Creative titles, I said. She smirked and I pointed. The next was black with an orange smear through itâI recognized its shape from when the lights were on. In the dark the smear looked like a gray arrow pointing. This one's called Asshole Joseph, she said, and I heard her laugh. I could hear her smiling, too, and I told I was writing a poem called “Bitch Painter.” It didn't take long before we realized we brought out the worst in each other.
No, I don't remember her name. But what I do remember of those few minutes after my friend disappeared and left me alone in the empty bar with his beautiful bartender girlfriend is this: me trying to look anywhere but her enormous breasts. She kept counting the till money and the only noise was my breathing and her counting to herself. Like I said, this was before I met my fiancÃ©e. I wasn't dating anyone; my friend was the one who dated. Beautiful women, too, like this, always. How did he do it? I don't know. He talked to them. I guess that was the secret, because it was only when I started talking that it worked for me (I was a very quiet drunk before that.) What got me talking on this particular night was thinking how, in an hour or so, my friend would sleep with this beautiful woman. He would feel her enormous breasts pinching his nose; would scratch his beard between them; her pink hair would stick to his mouth. Why I said what I said I still can't answer, but thinking of my friend and his nose against those breasts I coughed and asked: What do you think about when you're making love? As a woman, I mean? Is it about finishing, or delaying the finish? Do you think perfect love-making between a man and woman is what happens when they meet exactly in the middle? Him holding out just so long, her getting there just so fast? Do youâ¦ And she cut me off. I think you're incredibly drunk, she said. But she said it very sexy.
West 22nd Street, between Ninth and
Tenth Avenues. NYC. 2010.
A structure that will not hold water
and should never be confused with,
The poet held a pink lighter to the end of the glass pipe at his mouth and sucked. He coughed on the exhale and lay back against the cheap headboard, tossed the pipe and lighter onto the table between his bed and mine. We were sharing a motel room near the river. It was a bit after five a.m.
No thanks, I said, and he leaned over to gather up the pipe and lighter and smoke again. I took a long drink from my beer and swung my legs off the side of my bed. You want a beer? I asked. I got up and placed the now empty bottle in a tiny trash can. I opened the small fridge for a full. He shook his head, his eyes squinting on another inhale. I don't drink, he choked out. He coughed. Remember?
He held out the pipe again.
I don't smoke, I answered. Remember?
The poet and I were introduced earlier that evening, at a party outside Baton Rouge to kick off the annual literary festival. The city's art council had paid for a few hotel rooms for festival readers traveling in from out of town, and the poet and I had to split one; we were the least important writers thereâme coming from New York and he from somewhere in the Midwest, St. Louis maybe. We were the only two invitees that didn't have books, and we were only invited because the journal sponsoring the event had published us a few times. According to the editor, they wanted “some young blood.”
Our names were the last two printed on the festival poster. His had a spelling error.
When the party ended a designated-driving intern from the journal dropped us off at our hotel. It was a little before four in the morning, and our first readings were beginning at noon. We thanked the exhausted intern, and I crossed a highway to buy beer while the poet went in search of the room. When I found the room there was a haze of weed.
I get fucking nervous before readings, man, he said when I walked in.
I get fucking drunk before readings, I answered. I cracked a beer and threw the rest in the fridge.
We offered each other our vices and mutually declined. I told him I gave up smoking a couple years ago. I'd cheated a few times but thought it was healthier in the long run to stick to beer. The poet told me he didn't drink anymore; he had gone to LSU, gotten his MFA there. But he moved back to the Midwest six months ago. He's been in treatment and off booze since. He's been smoking a lot more.
The poet told me: I was drinking a lot, man. It got bad. I was having DTs in the liquor store. Like a movie or something. I almost had a stroke.
I sipped my beer quietly and promised myself I would cut back. Writers drink and smoke, we both knew that. It was part of the fun of trying to be a writer. I'd given up smoking for a few years, he'd given up drinking for a few months. We each thought the other had an amazing will power to do what he did, and we both knew the reality of the natural balance found in trying to live wellâthat giving up one vice means you start doing more of another. We lay on our separate beds silently, neither turning on the television. We tried to ignore how much the other was enjoying their smoke or drink. I drank more and faster; he put down the pipe and lit cigarette after cigarette. We talked about writing and journals and how hard it was to get published, how hard it was to sit down and just fucking write. We talked about how Raymond Carver said he never wrote a line worth a nickel when he was drinking, and how it was kind of funny that it was the cigarettes that got him in the end anyhow. We talked about how Richard Hugo said the only good advice he ever got from other poets was to stop drinking, and we laughed at how all our favorite poems of his were about bars.