Loneliness

Apocrypha

Codex_Tchacos_p33I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was 20. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.

Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.

Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.

I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.

Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:

1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.

2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.

3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.

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Out of sight, out of mind

you forgot me

My brother, who is some years older, once said, “When I don’t see you, I don’t think about you.” This meanness nearly felled me, but it was just one of an infinity of cruelties for which he had become known.

Now, memories of these sadisms live in me as if they were another body with a separate respiration, and I continue my lived life in the other vessel, the more fragile of the two, which nevertheless still sustains me.

I have been thinking, though, that my brother simply gave voice to what many of us could never be honest enough to admit but to what is likely true for most human beings: we really don’t think about others—not deeply, not at length, and not over the long haul—in part because we are consumed by our own often desperate needs, which, when you really think about it, are born out of this wish we have not to die.

Here I am, for instance, feeling terribly sorry for a sweet student who tells me her boyfriend has just passed away; then, a few days later, forgetting all about what seemed in me a genuine compassion, I am irritated that she has not come to class and that she has not handed in several assignments.

Or this: a friend is ill, with a ravaging and protracted treatment ahead of her, and I am solicitous and well-wishing at the start. I even offer assistance and seem to mean it. Ask me a week on about how she is doing, though, and, if I am honest with you and with myself, I will have to confess that I have not thought of her once since I made my offer. It seems, instead, that I have been busy worrying about bills. And about a man.

With my friend, whom I really quite love, It is as though the offering is nearly the same thing as the doing, and I can convince myself I am a pretty terrific person by conveniently mistaking the former for the latter.

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Star stuff

torn screen

A thin, naked

branch scraping

her lacquered nails down

and up the bedroom

window like a pointless

backscratch reminds

me we are the same

star stuff the same

sorrow the same

sackcloth of bones

and wails the same

hunger and heat

we hide from

the one

who says,

“You know we love you. Right?”

 …

Alone in her bedroom a young mother shouts,

“Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!” and smirks,

those teeth, front-gapped,

those eyes, dark and empty—

on the walnut nightstand sits

a drained bottle of bourbon,

beneath it an oval

burn mark the size of a

child’s scabbed knee.

 …

 By the pond a peeper

announces the arrival of

spring, his biology

unhiding a loin-longing

he cannot escape.

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Discernment

Sign

A golden eagle glides

down a mountainside & midair

drops the oily serpent

she has been holding in her talons.

This is God telling us to worship the unseen.

A young man with black eyes removes his two shoes,

throws them into the street,

& gets down on his knees.

This is God saying that our fear will be our death.

A husband beats his bride because

she will not sleep in their bed.

This is God telling us our dark thoughts

will create a dark world for our children.

A moth beats its wings against a backdoor screen

& plummets to the pavement, exhausted:

There is no way in or out.

This is not God speaking.

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When love leaves her beloved

Waxing crescent moon

 Even love will catch her death

under a cold moon will become

a patch of brown grass buried

beneath an early frost will shiver

into a single dark vine winding

around a splintered trellis will crawl

panting across a desert floor will dry

up to a trickle of water down the

face of a stone mountain will run

frightened through a long hallway will slip

unseen out a side entrance will know

when it is time to turn and pull

the door closed behind her.

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Tripping then falling

alice-falling

1. night

In the fever dream I mean to write a love poem,

an ode really, but without any edges,

and begin to think how I can sardine together

tender words you would have wanted to hear:

loverdarlingsweetheartdear

(as a woman might call to a sailor tossed over the bow)

or try and imagine a blue-black ocean crashing waves

of churning conch pearls onto the brown sand and

burying you knee deep in abalone shell.

2. dawn

Hearing the laughter of a Siren from another dark sea

I look up just as she touches your mouth with a fingertip and

whispers something saucy enough to make you

grab hold her hips and quick swim away from me.

3. day

In the morning dream I awaken

belly down on a bed of cracked earth

and somehow know that our hot-dim world

has been without rain and bright light for years.

Off to the right stands a ramshackle cottage

where we once lived with our young children —

well kept then, our cottage —

with the front window kicked out across its middle and

looking like a row of jagged teeth.

Just inside sits our long table,

now made of red hickory,

where we ate a last meal together, the twins,

as you may recall,

spooning sweet potato pie onto the good plates

while two flickering honey candles dripped wax

on the turkey platter and our kind but unlovely

Charlotte, your dear girl,

quietly carved her first name into my sideboard.

4. and down

At some point I notice the basement door

and am eager to remember what else we left behind

so slowly descend the wooden stairs though

cannot see much of anything and

missing the bottom step altogether

fall forward into the silent wide open.

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