Poets

By Justin Taylor

They met at the mixer the week before their classes started. He seemed like a pleaser; she walked away annoyed. But it was a small program and she was resigned that they would see each other in hallways and at events, perhaps even have class together. They were poets and this was their graduate school.

There was a computer lab in the basement of their program’s building on West 11th Street and she could usually be found there before class checking her email or reading some Goth band’s tour schedule. She was a smart girl, but young — fresh out of her undergrad with no “time off,” and the city made her feel younger still. Her classmates were mostly in their late twenties, early thirties; some were older yet. She was quick to anger and to judge, and knew these things about herself. She had some mastery over her emotions, but it was hard to sustain. Often she did not even try. Dark circles weighted her bright brown eyes; below those, a perfect nose and pout. She drew people’s attention but couldn’t keep it — or maybe could have but didn’t want to. Frequently she herself was uncertain which it was, and refused as a matter of inchoate principle to consider the question at any length. Psychology was for losers! Her name was Abigail Paige. A loner in tight black jeans and fingerless gloves, whatever she threw on for a shirt was somehow exquisite; she was a hard lithe beauty despite greasy hair the color of late wheat.

When Cal came into the lab and Abigail was there he took a station close to hers; the next one over if he could get it. He’d interrupt her to ask how things were going, what was new. She ignored him, typically, but sometimes slipped and gave an answer. He lit up when she did that and she felt a hot sharp shift inside of herself, like a needle between her guts. Then she’d clam up, furious, as though she’d been taken advantage of in some small but definitive way.

When Abigail came in and Cal was already seated she made a point of sitting far down the row from him, every unoccupied terminal between them another condemnation. But if Cal felt rebuked he did not let on. In a way, she was coming to realize, he was as guarded as she was. He broadcast his pleasantries, kept everything else to the vest. Cal was a wall masquerading as a window. When she sat far away from him in the lab he simply did his work, or whatever it was he was doing, and then when he was finished took a stroll by her station to say hello before he left.

Somewhere early on she told him a lie. It came unprompted, a non sequitur, practically: she said that she had a boyfriend in Baltimore with whom she was quite serious. She said they had been together several years and saw each other as often as they could. He was getting his start down there and who knew but maybe she would ditch New York and poetry school to go be with him. The imaginary boyfriend had a big house in a bad neighborhood, tended an organic garden, played drums. They’d get dogs and take them running. If she went.

Cal was apparently undeterred by this boyfriend. But then, he hadn’t declared himself, or made a proper move on her either. Was it possible he did just want to be friends? This thought, she found, sent sine waves of dread thrumming up from the base of her spine to the base of her skull. Abigail wanted to be wanted, and to be asked a direct question to which she could reply with an equally direct negation. As in: Fuck you, hopes.

But he didn’t ask.

She allowed that he was kind of all-right-looking. In a way. A little shorter than her — which she liked, actually — and somewhat koala-faced, but with lips so full you could tug them (she guessed) like a dog with a chew toy and needless to say but she liked that, too. He looked better when dusted with a few days’ russet stubble and if he ever let his haircut grow out he would pretty much be there. Artfully ripped blue jeans and vintage plaid shirts made his uniform. It fit. As the chill slid in, he layered on cardigans and hoodies. He hated winter coats, he said, and meant to hold out — if possible — until he left for Christmas break.

On New Year’s Eve it fell below zero. She smoked pot alone in her Queens sublet and watched the ball drop on TV, unable to believe her own proximity to where this ritual idiocy was actually taking place. When her mom called just after midnight she was too blitzed to form words so she set the phone to vibrate and watched it jitterbug across the coffee table. She wanted to choose the perfect album to masturbate to, but the studious care she brought to such deliberations quickly lulled her to sleep — clothes on, lights on, stereo still off.

By the time classes resumed in late January she had made up her mind. She was all set to go to the computer room as usual, and what would happen was she would get there second, see Cal sitting, and sidle up to the station next to his. She’d sit down. He would notice the chair moving in the corner of his eye but wouldn’t register the identity of the person. Then, when she was settled, she would turn to him and say hello, and he would understand instantly that things had changed.

Instead they ran into each other in the lobby of the building, the first time such a thing had happened. Cal was in predictably high spirits, smiling. “What’s new in Baltimore?” he asked.

“I broke up with that asshole.” Abigail practically spit the words at him. The lobby had high ceilings and a bank of windows. Students swirled around them, headed hurriedly to and from. The poetry program met in the evenings. Outside, the day had waned to a dim gray wisp. He hadn’t responded to the thing she’d said. What was he waiting for?

“So if you ever want to, you know, hang out.” She heard these new words enter the world, spoken in her own voice. After all this time, she had asked him out? She could have slapped him, scratched his eyes from his head, for teasing this out of her.

Oh, but the look on his face was priceless, and Abigail felt with some satisfaction that even though the plan had gone totally FUBAR, the main goal — to turn his world upside down — had still been achieved. “Yeah, I’d really like that,” he said. “What are you doing after class?”

“I have plans tonight,” she said (another lie), “but we could do something Thursday.” It was Monday.

“Great,” he said. “How about Chinatown?”

“Yeah, Chinatown’s cool,” she said. And who knew, maybe it was.

Part Two

They ate soup dumplings and a noodle thing with mushrooms in a brown sauce, and maintained their good cheer even upon learning that the place did not serve hard liquor, only Chinese beer. Afterward, they wandered the chilly fetid streets until they saw a sports bar on Baxter that would have made more sense in Hell’s Kitchen. They ducked in and drank a round, then she said it was getting late and he took out his wallet to pay. They’d split dinner, but he wanted to please at least buy her a drink. There was only one bartender and he had his back turned, down at the far end. It was busy in the place; on the blaring TVs the so-and-sos were up 56-49 over the who-gave-a-shits. She put her hand over his hand. He looked up. She put her lips to his ear. A husky whisper rich with urgency: “C’mon.” He furrowed his eyebrows; she kept her hand over his. They walked casually out of the bar, but as soon as they hit the sidewalk she broke into a run. He, still by the arm, was dragged along behind.

“What the fuck was that?” he said at a corner two or three streets up. He was working to catch his breath, which came in long labored plumes.

“That was fun,” she said, and only then released his hand. He looked at her sideways.

“Yeah,” he said, “I guess it was.” They stood at the mouth of the Canal Street station.

“Thank you,” she said, and there went his brow again — she could see he was about to ask her, For what? Well that wasn’t a question she was prepared to answer, so she threw her arms around him, the hug nearly over by the time he even realized it was happening. She released him and was off running again: down the stairs, away. She sent a “good night” echoing up from around the corner of the landing where she’d disappeared.

Second date: let’s do something outside. They were in the midst of a warm spell, strange surprise in the dead of February and he wanted to take advantage of what he called the “temporary reprieve.” She was from New Hampshire and chalked the weird weather up to global warming — we’re so fucked, she said; the whole world is — but anyway she agreed with him as far as getting some fresh air while they could.

They met in Long Island City, where the G and the 7 lines cross. (She lived in Sunnyside and he lived in Bushwick; they were fifteen minutes apart by car, though neither of them had one.) They walked down to the waterfront where new high-rises were under construction. They snuck onto the private piers then ended up on a baseball field in a nearby park, where she could feel him working up the nerve to kiss her but they were interrupted by cops who drove right up onto the diamond with their lights on to inform them that city parks close at dusk. They went deeper into Queens, through a vaguely dangerous-seeming industrial area, past unfenced lots and over half-buried train tracks. The neighborhoods continued to shift until they found themselves on a small street with groomed trees complementing a bench. They sat down and had their first kiss, finally. She took him back to her house. She wouldn’t let him remove her pants, but guided his hand into them. She was hairy, out of step with the times, and this knowledge made him rabid. She was astonished to find herself the target of such wild, heaving need. Deep within her a lock came unclasped, a book or a door was flung open.

Afterward he excused himself to the bathroom and she stayed supine, goggle-eyed in the low light of a desk lamp she kept on the floor at the room’s far end, its neck craned back at the wall casting a big bright spot like a shadow on fire.

In the morning they went to a Greek diner near her apartment and got breakfast specials. She mopped her syrup with her toast and said that places like this were the reason you lived in Queens. They saw each other again a few days later — she stayed over at his place — and before long it was almost every night: one apartment or the other, but mostly his. He liked to be in his own space, he said, and she was surprised to find herself readily acquiescing to him on this and other matters. He wasn’t demanding or bossy, he just said what he wanted — that film looks insipid; I’d rather have Mexican — and assumed that if she disagreed with him she’d let it be known. That was reasonable for any couple, besides which she was no pushover. He’d learned that last semester, hadn’t he? He seemed to have a very clear vision of her in his head: a righteous bitch whose attention he’d fought hard for and won. It made sense that he thought this; it was the bill of goods she’d sold him. She saw herself this way, too, sometimes, but in passing flashes: a phantom only ever glimpsed as it was slipping away. To herself she was the same insecure striver she had always been, who made a mantle of all forms of outsiderness not because she didn’t want to be an insider but rather because she could never figure out where the inside of anything was. There was a part of her that had never left middle school and never would. She knew this about herself, and didn’t like it. Her heart had an outer layer, steel-tough but eggshell-thin, but beneath that she was all seething core.

He didn’t care about music enough, and had the worst taste in poetry. He read the silliest things imaginable — Stephen Dunn! It was impossible to respect his work, and she horrified herself with the lying reverences she produced by way of praise. He read her work with exacting patience and returned it scribbled blue with suggestions and line-edits she had made a point of not asking for. They were three months in and had started to say “I love you.” It was true.

Part Three

Then one night in the fourth month he had a crying fit. They were in bed, laying close but apart, drowsing, when suddenly he sat up straight. Balled fists on the mattress and everything, like a little kid.

At first he was incoherent, not making words even, but eventually he got around to them. He ranted for an hour, maybe longer, through and between choked sobs. What was he talking about? His argument — if that’s what it was — had too many particulars and sub-points; they entered the discourse then dropped from it without notice or priority. The main gist, she gathered as he settled himself into timid sniffles, was that he was breaking up with her but hoped most earnestly that they might remain close as friends.

Her disbelief defied all analogy. She was cotton-mouthed and wide-eyed, had sat up at some point during his long aria, now fell flat backwards as if pushed (a feather’d have done the the job nicely) and the schizoid snit slimed in for a presumptive farewell turn — wiped his face cursorily, incompletely, on a snatch of bedsheet and then was looming over her. So shocked was she that she kept still as he slid her panties kneeward. She regained herself and tucked those pantybound knees up to her beautiful tits — she liked that word for them; he didn’t and refused to say it, but no matter, they were dead to him now. She planted the rough flats of her feet against his soft furry chest and kicked him off her. He flailed and flew clear of the bed. She got dressed. He watched her from behind the bed, peering like a meerkat. How had she ever fallen into loving him? She stormed from the site of her shame into the deep city night.

He emailed her the next day. Remorse without retraction — the bastard truly seemed to wish to bury her in words, words, words. She blocked his address. Cal left her alone now, was even frightened of her or so it seemed and maybe he was right to be. He cut her wide berths in the hallways and at poetry readings. They didn’t have class together, at least, and there was little risk that they ever would: their tastes were too far at variance. Once she was riding an elevator alone and he stepped onto it and the doors clunked shut before she could step out and he, oblivious in the depth of whatever was tinkling in his over-the-ear headphones, did not see her at first. By the time he did look up — she could feel his gaze snake across her body—she had smeared her own face over with a look that preemptively negated anything it might have occurred to him to say. She stared straight ahead into the gray brushed steel. The seconds ticked off and then the ride was finished. All told, they would not speak for eleven years.

Abigail finished the MFA (as well he must have) then decided to go for a Ph.D. She studied abstruse, devastating theories and soon enough could drive them like knives through the soft guts of any TV commercial or radio hit—not that these field mice of low mass culture ever took note of their having been hunted and skinned. The work was not particularly easy, but neither was it overly challenging. It was interesting at first, and then it wasn’t, but you got into a rhythm and then it was like anything you did for a living. Any job. And occasionally, when your pet theory pushed to its terminal point somehow turned inside out on you, you called this dialectics, turned the paper in anyway, and then let the long-haired guy from your German class take you out for a drink or two or five. He was Continental, indeed French, and looked like a true and total asshole with his ponytail; but she knew the rules were different with Europeans and something about him whispered that he would not disappoint.

It turned out that she was a genius for German. She was tutoring, basically carrying, the poor Frenchman who was merely bilingual—not that his English was any great shakes either. On her own time she rendered Holderlin and Rilke into English with a felicity and art that her own work — the poetry or the crit stuff — had never so much as glanced.

Abigail cut Frenchie loose when her orgasms became predictable. He gave them to her, still, but seemed to be doing it somehow lazily, which was not to be endured. She passed nearly two years without company. She took her degree. A university press took her thesis, made it into a boring and sophisticated treatise that eight people would ever read. She was proud of it, but also felt that it didn’t matter. She took an assistant professorship at a private college in the Pacific Northwest and at the age of thirty-one found herself in a position to think about buying a little house, which is just what she did.

She knew some men out West. One was an inveterate loser in perpetual self-consolation over a childhood episode of sexual abuse. He had stumpy blonde dreadlocks, refused to give up on heavy metal, and had never held a job of any kind. She did not love him, but he wasn’t as dumb as he might have been, and she appreciated his utter incompatibility with every aspect of her professional life. Also, there was his awful taste in music, which was the same as her awful own. That part she did love. He kept up regular correspondence with his molester, an old family friend with a position in state politics and a string of car dealerships up and down the coast. Dreadlocks drove a Lexus SUV — he’d been blackmailing the old pervert lo these many years. But the patron-criminal had carcinomas in remission and she knew Dreadlocks would lose his mind whenever the old man finally kicked, so she gave herself three months longer for indulgence’s sake and then broke things unequivocally off. Dreadlocks plowed his SUV into a utility pole, and was lucky to escape from the accident — if that’s what it was — with nothing worse than two fractured ribs, a mild concussion, and a pile of fines from the city. These and his hospital bills were paid off by the molester and likewise was the car replaced, though his license had been suspended a year. She went by the hospital to see him, but he was sleeping. She didn’t go again.

Part Four

Who else did she date? A woman artist. A reticent priest. She finished many translations but did not publish them. It would be too easy and they’d garner her far too much acclaim. It was still her own verse that she loved, mediocre though it was and she knew it. She sought for a poetry press small, earnest, and middling enough that she might be its star.

And so Woodpile Editions, out of a suburbanized farmstead in Wichita. Woodpile ran an annual contest which cost ten dollars to enter. The prize was your book perfect-bound in an edition of 500, 25 of which were yours to keep, gratis, and you could buy as many more as you liked at the author discount (plus shipping). As soon as she saw the business card-sized ad in the back of Poets and Writers she had known that she was home.

The publishers were a married pair of Midwestern veterans with matching silver ponytails. Her verse was gloomy and fitful and at first shocked them badly. Imagine her treasured Rilke at his highest-strung, and the concerns of George Garrett in “Buzzard,” crossbreed these, then refract the result through the operatic doom music to which she for some reason gave equal credence. It was not bloodless, at least; her lines were stormy and kinked. Without question she was the most talented thing to have ever come their way so they called her on the phone and told her she had won the contest. She volunteered to them that she meant to purchase the entire print run herself and in their instant and total thrill at this news they insisted she come out to Wichita for a visit to the home office and to confer on the question of her cover art.

Abigail spent an excruciatingly charmed weekend on the plain, the result of which was the inevitable chiaroscuro calla lily set in a burnt umber field. Her name and the book’s name appeared above and below the flower, respectively, in passable white serif. (She’d put her foot down, perhaps even offended them, in articulating her opposition to the employment of a “handwriting font.”) She gave a reading to an audience of seven, then went home. Two months later she received her shipment of the complete edition of her poetry — ten small boxes, fifty books in each one.

Her school gave her a reading, too, though somewhat begrudgingly. The creative writing department did not like to see their action elbowed in on. But they knew what was politic, and there was even a reception afterwards with crackers and three different cheeses, ice-cold soda cans and headache champagne. She drank more than she should have while a grad student volunteer sold her books for her. He was studying Chaucer as an antecedent of hip-hop and claimed to have actually read her book—not the one of poems, which he had only just purchased that evening, but the theory one. She had ridden her bicycle to campus, as per usual, but now was quite drunk. He offered to drive her home. In her driveway he looked at her with big dark moist striving eyes and she told him to recline his seat all the way back. She was thirty-six, but if you got her out of her professorial dress suit and into, say, jeans and a peasant blouse with her hair tied back, she could still pass for twenty-seven. Naked you could see she was at least thirty, but her thirty made it seem like thirty was the great perfect age: a goal. Who needed those magazine teenagers hocking underwear and vodka? This woman looked like what it meant to be a woman, in her stunning adult prime. Not that the grad student was treated to such revelations. He never even saw her out of her coat. “Don’t you make me regret this,” she said in a flat serious voice, leaning low over his lap, and he promised that he wouldn’t, and he didn’t, and so neither did she.

She wanted to go to the National Creative Writing Annual Conference (the acronym is pronounced “nack-wack”) and so appealed to her school for funds. Her request was denied. Her publishers agreed to split the cost of a table with her. She paid out of pocket for the rest. They sent a large stack of fliers announcing this year’s incarnation of the contest; she herself was to be its honorable judge. She liked seeing her own name and thumbnail author photo on the top of the flier. There was also a Woodpile banner to tack to the front of the table.

The conference was in Denver that year. She sat for hours at her table, not selling any books at all. There were many seminars taking place in conference rooms, also panels and readings and lectures, but nothing that she cared to hear. In the evening she insinuated herself with some friendly strangers who claimed unanimous fealty to “avant-post-meta-narrative,” though it was possible she’d gotten the prefix sequence wrong. They hailed from around the Southeast and ran some kind of website together. She followed them from one hotel bar cocktail hour to another, then retired to her own hotel for an On-Demand movie followed by a hot bath that lasted as long again.

The second day she put all the books she’d brought — a hundred of them, in a wheeled blue suitcase — out on the table in a great careful pyramid. She made a sign that said PLEASE TAKE ONLY ONE. She remembered to put out the stack of fliers for the contest, and then she got up to walk around the fair, sneaking sidelong glances at university journals and small presses of every niche and distinction. She was barely curious as to the natures of these enterprises, and sought mostly to protect herself from being shanghaied into chitchat, the inevitable segue to the sales pitch. This lack of interest, she recognized, was equally present in all of her would-be readership no less than in herself, and in this knowledge one could locate the precise central flaw of the entire enterprise. A cult of self-expression was throttling the life from the world.

Well, why not? All her favorite music of youth — which she still loved and believed in, and blared constantly, both at home and in her office — heralded and celebrated Apocalypse, judgment, doom. She was nobody’s savior and had no wish to be. Let the world save itself, if it could. She personally aspired to be part of the problem — to exacerbate the mess.

Part Five

Abigail saw Cal sitting second from the end in a row of five men crammed cheek by jowl at a single table. Cygnus Loop Collective, their banner read. Cal’s face was grooved now and his hairline had hiked back a ways but sure as anything it was him. He was signing a book for somebody, and did not see her. All around them young people rushed: boys with goatees and girls with ponytails, everyone clutching official maps and shouldering tote bags misshapen with bulk. Maybe she was wrong about the conference-goers, the future of literature, and who knew what else. Or was it possible to be both wrong and right at once? Cal’s customer walked away and he became focused on twirling his pen. Her shadow spilled over the white tablecloth and his books; he looked up.

They found a small sunny patch of grass between the convention center and the road, and leaned with their backs to a giant decorative hunk of Colorado stone.

He’d worked construction at some point, he told her. His mother had died. He had left New York, returned, then left again. He was involved with the Unitarian church in his new hometown, which was conveniently just over on the other side of Boulder, though he’d been there four years, so was it really “new” anymore? (He actually asked her this — she shrugged.) He worked in I.T. for a regional brewery, did his books thing on the side. The year after they graduated, he said, he’d written the best poem of his life — the only good one he’d ever written, if the truth was to be told about it, and why shouldn’t he tell the truth? He was content with his life now. He had long figured out who he was. He looked at her meaningfully as he said this, as if his strange parenthetical glance could somehow hyperlink back through the years to both acknowledge and disown his behavior on that strange night that had ended their intimacy. So anyway he’d written the good poem and sent it to The New Yorker and had even had it published there, a victory which had nearly ruined him. There was a long struggle he mostly glossed over, the upshot of which was that he wrote prose now, considered himself a novelist. “But enough about me,” he said.

She kept most of it to herself. If he really cared to know, he could always Google her. Perhaps he already had. She deflected their conversation back toward his life (it wasn’t difficult) and in service of this aim feigned a metered interest in his “project,” as he had called it with no hint of irony, no trace of shame.

“A sonnet in novels,” he said.

“You mean a novel in verse?”

“No,” he replied with a flash of the old maddening self-confidence. “I meant what I said.”

It was to be a cycle of fourteen books, and their several titles taken together would form a sonnet — the very sonnet he’d had in the New Yorker, in fact. He expected to write one book every two years for twenty-eight years and complete the cycle in time for his sixty-fifth birthday. He’d finished and self-published Book One earlier this year and had brought it to Denver for its official debut. Cal, short for Calvert, was actually his middle name. “Cal” was the only thing anyone had ever called him, but as a published author he was F. Calvert Donovan.  She felt sure she had known about the F., but couldn’t remember whether she had ever known what it was. She did not ask after the initial now. Book One in his cycle was called I Molt Backwards through Time.

Abigail was sure that whatever had broken loose in him that hellish evening long ago had never been righted or healed. She felt special, now, to have witnessed the birth of such a deep and unyielding derangement. She said she would look his sonnet up. He said there was no need, because it was printed as the frontispiece to the novel — and would be printed in each subsequent book as well, with the given titular line in boldface. She said she’d come by his table later, maybe tomorrow, and they could trade books.

A book of hers! Why hadn’t she said anything sooner? But of course because what else would she be doing here? And a trade! It was too perfect! He’d be honored. What was it called?

“Beloved Predator,” she said.

“It’s so damn good to see you,” he said, and reached over and gave her a hug. He was firmer now, more muscled in early middle age than he had ever been young. The construction work? The good mountain air? He probably drank less. She bristled at his touch at first, those old instincts, but then leaned forward, pressed her chest against his and even got one arm around his shoulders — squeezed and counted three Mississippi before pulling back. He was slow in releasing her, then smoothed his shirt and said he had to get back to his table. He didn’t know the Cygnus Loop guys too well — they were fringe sci-fi geeks he’d met through a listserv — and he didn’t want to impose on their good will, but maybe they could meet up later that evening at his “off-site” reading. This seemed to mean that the event was not a part of the official conference program and therefore not held on the convention center’s grounds. He’d secured the back room of a restaurant which unfortunately was vegan, but supposedly the burritos were decent and anyway the drinks were cheap. He produced a small spiral notebook like a reporter might carry, flipped it open to a blank page, scribbled down the restaurant’s name and address and his own phone number, then ripped the page out and folded it over. On the outside of the fold he wrote in spindly block capital letters the title of his novel, then underlined it: I MOLT BACKWARDS THROUGH TIME. “So you don’t forget what it’s for,” he said. “I know how hectic Nack-Wack can get.” He pressed the folded paper into her palm with both hands. They stood, he hugged her again, and then he turned and jogged, nearly sprinted, back in. She lingered in the grass, watching the tall glass faces of the downtown buildings flash firegold in the sinking Western sun.

Back at her table she saw that all the fliers for the contest had been taken, and her sign knocked over, but her pyramid of books had not been so much as jostled. Not a single volume was gone. She did not know whether to be injured or pleased by this information. Her monument was perfectly undisturbed. She left the pyramid in place: all those copies of her precious book. Let the janitors puzzle over them or slide them unread into a black vat of trash. It no longer mattered, if it ever had, and there were 400 more copies boxed up unvanquished back at her Oregon home. The little torn page with Cal’s phone number on it seemed to warm the pocket in which it lay. She was a beautiful woman in a smart dress and dark stockings. The world itself seemed to barely know what to do with her. She had no old friends.