“She kisses a man over coffee.” The black metal square usually contained a mishmash of the little magnetic words. But Julie had arranged these at the top, flush left, and pushed the rest into a brick wall at the bottom. She was so proud of her six words.
She liked to visit me at the writing center. She would come up to be around “the artists.” She would beg me to invite her to poetry readings in the city, hanging out on Lark Street under the lights with the poets and sculptors and novelists.
She loved it. But hated to admit it. I’d catch glimpses of the cracks in her Cliniqued and coiffed exterior, her Wayne Hills breeding chipped, showing the artist she maybe wanted to be. Maybe. If she had enough wine from the bottle in an alleyway. If she lost herself in the smoke of a shared clove cigarette. But there would always be that moment. That snap back to reality. And you could see it coming from a mile away: the pursed lips, the flip of her gorgeous hair, and out came the inevitable comment. The one that she had to hear, not just think, to know that she was still on the right path. “Someday we’re going to grow out of this.”
But I didn’t want to grow out. I wanted to grow into. I wanted to have an apartment on the street (one that was filled with books and notebooks and papers I’d scrawled brilliance on), to hang out with the guys in front of the tattoo shop with a cup of black coffee in my hand and a pencil in my hair. To be inspired by their tales of motorcycling across Thailand. And to make my way back to my apartment to write my novel. To put down my literary roots as so many had before me.
One Tuesday a month, my short fiction teacher hosted readings in the bookcase-lined apartment she shared with her lover. I don’t know why I always called him that. And still do. They may have been married. They were obviously committed and deeply connected. But something about them hinted at frenzied sex starting in the staircase after meeting on the street on their way home from the various colleges where they professed. Of lounging in bed naked on a Sunday morning sharing a joint. A newspaper. I pictured them sharing a king mattress on the floor. White sheets. Two cats. And far too many books. If there is such a thing as that… far too many books. Natalia Laslo. She was everything I pictured my future to be. And she liked me. She pushed me. She shared my fiction. She tried to get me to enter things. “Writing is just something I do…” I’d start. She smacked me on the arm once for saying that. Hard. “I’m going to teach. I’ll still write, though.”
“No, you won’t.” Natalia had refilled my glass of wine.
It may have been the same Tuesday, it may have been another, it doesn’t matter. Julie was with me. Natalia was chiding Julie about how she kept coming to the readings but never shared. You had to share. It was the rule. For each time you came, you’d better be prepared, down the line, to share as many minutes of your words. “I don’t have words,” Julie had said. And I had smacked her on the arm, but not nearly as hard as Natalia had done to me. Because I didn’t want Julie to have words.
Words were mine.
Before leaving the kitchen with a charcuterie board, Natalia looked down at Julie’s shoes. It was a strange moment. She stared for too long. “I love your shoes. Are they Prada?” And Julie couldn’t answer. She was so impressed that one of these beatniks would know such a label. That this starving artist, this tiny bird filled with words, would think Julie had Prada shoes. I could see this. I’d been with her when she’d slummed it and bought them at Payless.
In the car she lit a cigarette, rolling down my window. She slumped down in her seat. I waited for her confession, that she wanted to be like us. The ones who would drink and talk and read and share in the cramped booky space on those Tuesdays. She said nothing.
The next morning, on my whiteboard, her familiar, unique scrawl: THOSE WHO CAN, DO. THOSE WHO CAN’T, TEACH. It was late, but I had known her reality would come at some point. She loved to interject it. She was going into social work. Felt that teaching shouldn’t require a college degree. She liked to assert her worth. I told myself it was because she was jealous.
And yet she showed. She came to visit at the writing center. And while she never spoke about it, she would find me in the parking lot on those Tuesday nights. We lived together. She knew where I was going and would just happen to fall into step and open my passenger door. (What would have happened if I hadn’t unlocked it? Had only clicked the button once instead of twice?) She’d ride to Lark Street with me. Shared the clove cigarettes her boyfriend would have killed her for smoking. Her mother, too. I encouraged it.
Senior year she decided to live with the social work students. She was only across the path, but the change was clear. Natalia had left to teach in Prague. The readings stopped. I lamented the loss of a teacher. I mourned the death of Tuesday nights with the friend with whom I so desperately wanted to jump into this artist’s life but also keep out. I couldn’t do it alone. But what if she was better made for it than I?
“I made a poem.” She was so satisfied with those words. Six words. Six happy little words. I knew she was picturing her boyfriend. The one with the serious stick up his ass. Who picked her up for dinner on Friday nights and left her with a chaste kiss close to her lip. They had sex during the day when they thought no one saw him sneak in and out. Julie kept up appearances.
“It’s not a poem.” The days were counting down toward pomp and circumstances beyond our control. Would we remember each other in ten years? Five? One?
“Why, because it doesn’t end in death and despair?” She laughed at her joke. No one else did. Or maybe I was the only someone else in the room. But I felt it. A clear snipping of whatever cord had held us together. Whatever had bonded us had been fraying since Natalia had left. Since the boyfriend had come into the picture. Since the diplomas were being printed.
“At least you didn’t ask me if it’s because it didn’t rhyme…” I seethed. I hurt. I’ve always hated endings. I don’t know how to handle them. I never have. It’s easier to leave mad.
I picked up the magnet board and skimmed, random words becoming eager children raising their hands to be picked. I slid and I thought. I checked cadence and texture. I placed it back on the table facing her as I started preparing to leave.
she kisses a man over coffee
and awakens his decaying desire to breathe
“You stole my words.”
“I made them better. Now people want to know why. And about what came before. And what happens next.”
“All the questions a social worker would ask.” She stood up and pretended to look for something in her purse. Made a face like she was forgetting an important appointment. Her not Prada shoes pointed toward the door. She had minimized art to something clinical. I was sad for her future.
“All the questions a poet makes the world ask.”
They were the last words I spoke to her.