The Poet
by J.M. Parker

I don’t know you, but I want to talk to you.

Once I had a job with afternoons off, and liked to spend them in the cafes and bars along Broadway and Pike Street, where people normally only went at night. I liked seeing them in the daylight, and having them to myself. One afternoon as I came in, a pair of eyes met mine, followed me up the stairs, then came close to where I sat. “I don’t know you,” he said. “But I wanted to talk to you.” That was how it began.

The eyes belonged to a poet who spoke with his hands to recite lines of Dante in bed. “I don’t want a silly love affair,” he’d said. “I’m tired of silly love affairs.” In his apartment were nothing but a mattress, a lone sweater stretched on the floor and a lemon-scented candle. He had just quit his job and finished his lease, and was leaving for Australia. Australia, he said, was a vacation, but I already knew the word “vacation” doesn’t mean the same thing to a European that it does to an American and that, as far as Australians are concerned, it often takes on even more elaborate connotations. We burned the candle, he left me the sweater, and we carried the bed out to the sidewalk. I sent letters. He mailed poems. I wanted him… I wanted his life. When the poems stopped, I occassionally got notes with lists of curious details: he had bought a bicycle, camped on a beach, fallen off the bike, flown to Los Angeles.

One day he called. “I’m coming back,” he said.

“I’m moving in with someone else,” I said.

“When?”

“Today.”

A storm moved over the city as I hung up. Like an eclipse, the thundercloud descended over the skyscrapers downtown and darkened the sidewalk outside. Streetlights were coming on as I pushed my bags out the door, and the massive vapor that had subsumed the city hovered at the bus windows, condensing on the sills, running into the seats.

I couldn’t have described what his face looked like anymore. But that winter it bloomed on my eyelids as I dozed. “Where is the red rose?” asked a voice in my dreams, “What have you done with it?” and sometimes I’d look at my face in a mirror and see the light had gone out of my eyes. A few times I filled out a Peace Corps application and planned to get away and do something different, but instead, for a while, I went where someone else’s life took me.

Years later on an overnight train, I thought of stopping in the town where he was born, but at the last minute found the idea pathological. Several times I wrote to his friends, but my letters came back undeliverable. In that Gothic age before internet, it was still possible to lose a person by accident, and to lose them completely.

In just a few days he’d shown me something incredibly important that seemed to have an immediate bearing on my own life. Then he left and all I had was the feeling he’d left me with. I didn’t think that could ever go away. I didn’t imagine it would ever disappear, this feeling I had when I thought of him. But it did. Slowly, at first, and then quite rapidly. But by that point, of course, I had dreams of my own. Still, in the end, I think I wrote always, and everything, for him.

Ten years had passed when he found my address, and wanted me to tell him everything that had happened since that last phone call. I asked where he was, and he mailed a series of blurred photos which, on close and prolonged examination, appeared to be of the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog. I flew across an ocean and two continents. He met me at the BART station.

We drove to a beach, pointed at cranes, got lost. He still didn’t know me, and he still wanted to talk to me. “The last time we spoke,” he said, digging his hands into his pockets, “I was standing in a phone booth at the airport with a ticket back to you in my pocket. Your phone had been cut off by the time I got there. No one in your building knew where you had gone. There was no trace of you. I walked up your street every day, until the front of your house began to look like your face. I stayed in the city three weeks. Finally I ran out of money. I had friends in Prague who could get me a job.”

I asked him to tell me everything that had happened to him since that phone call. He asked me to promise not to write it into a story. I refused to promise anything. He told me anyway.

It was a story of looking for me, in all kinds of other people. Of travels across oceans, of writing things curiously like things I had written myself, in cafes curiously like cafes I had written mine in. Of sickening losses and mistakes and retrials mirroring my own so closely that as he spoke part of me sadistically gaped, and part felt as if my stomach had been punched in.

Prague was beautiful beyond imagination. He stayed through a summer, an autumn, until something happened. One night, outside a bar, he found a drunken American who had thrown himself face down under the lamplight in the snow, having been neglected by his Russian mistress. The poet pulled him up and half-carried him through the street, following the American’s directions to his apartment, where he stayed for the three best days of his life. When the Russian mistress reappeared to reclaim the American, he decided to leave for Australia, but stopped first to look for me one more time in the city where we had met. When he still couldn’t find me, he changed his mind suddenly, gathered his courage, and went back to Prague, only to find that his American had married the Russian mistress and taken her back to America. He stayed on another five years in Prague, then went to Berlin, and finally to Vienna, where he met another American, this time a boy who couldn’t stop seeing his ex. This was where everything had really gone wrong. He knew he would never be rid of this last boy. “There isn’t a thought in my mind that doesn’t pass along the channels he worked into my mind. His words were a worm, eating a trail through my brain,” he said, almost with embarassment, holding up a finger up to show a drilling motion over his head: the worm eating its spiraling trail. Finally, he had decided to move to Australia again for good, but when his visa was refused at the airport, he found himself stuck in San Francisco, and decided to search for me again. His words came in spasms as he drove. His gestures had become angry, and I felt as though I, too, was being led through the spiraling channels someone else had left in his mind as he spoke. I could see he wasn’t the same. We were driving above Berkeley now, the lights of the city nodding below us in the fog. “You didn’t tell me you were in love with someone else, too,” he said.

“He, also, is with someone else.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“I’m not even sure what my options are.”

“Well, you could live with the fact that he has someone else and try to be happy. You could probably find another guy who’d put up with the fact that you’re in love with him. Or you could find someone else and just keep it a secret.”

“So what were your plans after stopping by to see me?” he asked.

“I didn’t have another plan,” I said, realizing my mistake when I saw it on his face.

He was quiet for a long time. “We’ll move back to Seattle,” he said finally, staring straight ahead. “We’ll find jobs. We’ll start over.” We were approaching the bridge now. Below us, the lights of the city blinked and glittered beyond the water.

“It’s just,” I heard myself saying, “I’ve thought of you for ten years, and I think I was thinking of someone else.”

We crossed the bridge, and now he pulled over and turned to me. I got out and stood on the sidewalk by the open car window.

“Get back in the car,” he said. “Talk to me.”

“What should I say?”

“Get back in the car.”

“I should go.”

“Talk to me.” But I just stood there, so he put his hand out to be shaken, and I shook it, and pulled in front of me and sped off. I walked down the hill, found a hostel and stretched out on the bed under a snoring backpacker who’d left his Walkman on low. I didn’t feel too bad, though. In fact, I felt pretty good.

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