My month with the Blond Poet was, on the surface and in all other ways, a terrible idea. Two hopelessly broken writers in the midst of ending marriages start frantically screwing between poetry readings and art shows. “You’re in trouble,” said the injured poet, his bruises still visible. “I’m trouble for you. I don’t want to, but I’ll hurt you…”
And I, the grieving mother, replied: “Well, don’t hurt me, then. You don’t have to, you know.” No way was this ever going to end well.
The night I meet the poet, it has been one week to the day since Lev died. With the mourners mostly gone, I’ve begun to feel convalescent, frayed. I’m still on leave from work, alternately sleeping all day and climbing the walls. I accept all invitations. I arrive late to this reception on the roof of an art space downtown (The elevator up plays a video loop of “The 900 number” by The 45 Kings, interpreted into sign language). I am so hungry, but have missed the food. My friends feed me wine instead. A girlfriend has arranged to introduce me to this poet, having shown me a photo of him on her iPhone a month earlier. In the photo, he stood in a dressing room, a bearded blond in a light blue suit. The pants of which were, it could be argued, much too tight. When we meet in November, the poet is wearing a winter vest and dirty grey jeans. A season has passed. He is handsome despite the stitches in his lip and scrapes on his arms, the result of a bike wreck in which a car hit him and he went flying; his second serious accident in a year. He has no sense of humor about this. The night on the roof, his eyes keep finding the part of my leg between tall boot and short skirt.
The poet doesn’t laugh at my jokes on the roof, but he’s listening. When he smiles, his expression reads as suspension of disbelief. Some drunk twenty-something girl the poet knows spills a full glass of red wine into my purse. Everything is soaked. She doesn’t apologize, keeps talking about semiotics and fashion. Her boyfriend rolls his eyes. I excuse myself to the restroom and throw away most of the contents of my purse. I try to shake the wet warmth out of my head, but it’s mingled with the cold and I become fog. My legs are goosebumped from sitting on the roof for too long, and from meeting you. You’re blond; have a beard; are a poet. You’re tall and indignant. You have watched me this whole night. You have kept up. You are mine; like a mink cape I want badly enough to steal from the coat check. I think all this, I try to sop it up but the wine has soaked into everything.
It gets cold and late and couple of us move across the street to a restaurant with cowhide pillows and a fireplace and drink more red wine. In the lounge of the restaurant, I show the poet three of my tattoos. Later, he tells me this moment is when he knows he’ll see me naked. Afterward, while we wait for the valet to bring our cars around, I touch his stomach with the palm of my hand and I ask if he’s kissed anyone yet with his busted lip. He says he hasn’t, but he’d be game to try. I’ll bet you would, I say. And I drive off. Or at least that’s how it happens in my head.
The next time we meet, everyone plays Threes at a dance party in a printmaker’s studio. People have their own dice. One girl has fingerless gloves. It’s legit. Everyone looks French or bohemian or East Coast preppy. I win some money, lose it again, and make an excuse to drive the poet and his bike home (he doesn’t have or want a car, content to keep bouncing off cars indefinitely, it would appear). We spar about music all the way to his place. He says my favorite New Pornographers song is not the best. The best, he says, is on Twin Cinemas. He can’t remember what it’s called. We should go inside and he’ll play it for me. To which I reply: “What are we, 15?” But I go with him. “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” Yeah, that’s a good one. We make out on the couch in his freezing house with no heat till our lips hurt and I’m fairly certain I eat his stitches at some point.
There’s an abundance of research out there around grief and loss—some dry and some colorful—that points to sex as solace. This holds up mostly for men, who (per the research) typically intellectualize their pain and look for physical release in the wake of sorrow. Women are deemed “feelers.” I don’t exactly know what this means. What I do know is this: sex with the poet was like meth and opium stirred into a bottomless glass of warm milk; intense comfort after which I could not sleep. Too much was never enough. Morning: he would kiss me awake and we’d tear each other limb from limb, he’d make me coffee with honey and trace his fingers on my shoulders while I drank it. In between sips, I’d rest the mug on his divorce papers. Noon: we’d hide under heaps of blankets, warm and rushed. Night: he’d bring glasses of water and wine to bed for us, help me off with my boots and we’re back under the covers, not sleeping.
We carried on a nonstop, rambling intellectual conversation that never became an argument, never a debate. Me: “Semantics is my God.” Him: “Semantics never saved anyone. Except Bill Clinton.” The rapport was fast and strong and natural—which, in turn, made us both uneasy. It was not a good idea for two people as broken as we were to get too relaxed. The worst was yet to come for each of us and we both knew it. In the meantime, we were busy drinking Malbec and eating fancy cheese and warm olives. He tells me one night as he opens the car door for me that he’s trying to impress me. I tell him I’m impressed. We are like younger versions of ourselves. New. He touches me constantly. He cannot watch me across a table, on adjacent stools, sitting quietly, without grabbing some part of me and us falling. Words fail me. I say things anyway. I think: I want to memorize him and text him to my friends. I think: I love him. One night while he was dressing to leave, I buttoned his shirt for him like we were a couple of settled old folks. He smiled. Kissed my face. I scratched his beard.
The company of the poet and his cadre of art-makers made me anxious that I wasn’t writing, that I had strayed so far from what I’d always done. So I wrote. At first I edited old stories. Then I started re-working abandoned ideas in a new voice. The poet was encouraging. He never asked and I never offered to let him read anything of mine. He woke early each morning and wrote before biking to his office. I preferred to write at night. If we’d not spent the night together, he would text or call me first thing to check-in and I’d rouse myself, join the world. A routine. Like clockwork. I wrote, now. Again.
There is this kind of construction crane—the sort you have to get a whole crew of skilled workers to assemble before you can build the thing you needed the crane to lift into being. These cranes are stories tall and when they begin to take shape, they appear sturdy, permanent. And as you watch one getting built, you think you’re watching an end unto itself, but it’s the making of the means. The moment when the crane-not-structure realization hits you is confusion, longing, recalibration of expectations and a little bit of awe. I recount this analogy at lunch one day with the poet. We pull apart our grilled salami sandwiches and wipe grease from our fingers as we talk. Building these things—this marriage, this home, this family—and then dismantling them: my life thus far has been spent building a crane I needed to build the life I was building all along. He says all women want everything to turn into something, to evolve. But I don’t think he’s right. He tells me that he’s moving to the East Coast (he doesn’t). I feel like maybe I shouldn’t see him again (I do).
After he watches the ghost of a drunk John Berryman being interviewed on the BBC, the poet lets his beard grow like rambling weeds for weeks. He tells me about Berryman over breakfast one Saturday morning. My broken cell phone calls my ex-husband and leaves this conversation on his voicemail. The poet’s not-blue eyes are deep and wet. He tries to tell me he’s breaking down. I try to hear him, but I can’t help. I’m not here to help. He writes lines of poetry about my hair, my skin, my tattoos and texts them to me. I watch him read 40 of his poems (none of them are about me) on a stage at a bar. That night, I predict it. The end:
Me: You’ll read me like a book, till you’re sure know the story. Then you’ll put me back on the shelf and not open me again.
Him: No, not like that.
Me: You’ll see. I’m the poem that wrote you.
Him: Go to sleep, little girl. [ snore ]
The End, after so much banging, is all whimper. The poet breaks up with me via text message because he doesn’t want to help me move my car. He immediately starts sleeping with a 23 year-old blond cheerleader from the Midwest. There is talk—among our mutual friends—that he has had a minor breakdown, an after effect of his bike wreck(s) et al, and he simply couldn’t handle the intensity. Maybe he just needed to fuck more and new people to solve his ontological despair. It doesn’t matter. We never spoke again. Not one time ever. That was it. Fin.
In the winter, months after we are done, I buy his new book—a book he was putting the finishing touches on when we met. I pre-ordered it the first week it was available and hoped that in the months I’d have to wait for it to arrive from his small press, I’d finish pining, sober up. When the time came, it took me by surprise. I had been home a week with the flu. Chills and shakes and hallucinations. The first day I could get out of bed, I went to the mailbox and the book was there in a hand-labeled envelope. I read it cover to cover. Cried. Sobbed, really.
At its core, the book is about deciding to leave comfort behind, and then upon burning bridges, changing everything, starting a new life—realizing the new life is just as deadened and even more brutal, but you can’t go home, because you belong nowhere when all is said and done. It’s about divorce. It’s about being an artist. It’s about being in your thirties. It’s about all of these things or none of these things. And it is brilliant. It made me feel better, somehow, that of all of the things I had gotten wrong, he most certainly was not a shitty poet.
Months later I will run into him on the street. I am on a date with a tall, handsome inconsequential fellow who is holding my hand at the time. I see the poet but it doesn’t register until he’s passed me that I had actually just SEEN THE POET. I hear the friend who’s walking with him call out my name, I turn around to look and I yell back, wave. We don’t stop. We keep on, walking in opposite directions. The poet sees me too now. He looks haunted. I’m the ghost. Or, at least, that’s how it happens in my head.