A. J. Gnuse

Even years after college, he sent her an email, BCC’d, saying he’d received recognition for an analysis he’d published of an old book of poems they’d both studied in their senior year. And even though she’d never heard of the award, and thought she’d risen above giving a shit about awards in general—still. It was enough for her to want to climb in her car and drive straight to wherever he lived now.

And then, what?

Break a window, maybe. Pour a bottle of water into his gas tank. If he had a dog, then go into his backyard to take the dog and keep it as her own.

Ridiculous thoughts. She tried to swallow them deep inside, to forget about them until they burbled up again some other, tired time—she had to stop re-reading the email. She had to get up and out of the house. To pull away from her laptop and her bed, from those heavy college books above her on the shelf, still there for some reason. Away from the cloying scent of the aromatherapy candle on her nightstand that really did nothing but mask the sour smell of the kitchen garbage she hadn’t had the energy to bring out the night before. Get out, for a minute, from what seemed like a sealed jar of a house, where too often she’d sunk into empty, resentful thoughts of people like him, most often, just him. Too often, she’d woken from long naps with hollow hopes that, wherever he was, he was trying to be something and not quite making it.

She needed to drive. Needed the wind against her cheeks and houses flitting by her on the road. Needed her body effortlessly in motion. She pulled on her shoes. She stepped out, blinking in the afternoon light, and climbed into her car.

But, then, with the car door still dangling open, one foot grounded on the asphalt, she found herself pulling her phone from her purse. Opening the browser. Searching his name in the Whitepages online. There he was.

“Of course,” she said.  

He didn’t live far.

This began freshman year in a poetry class, where their professor would sit cross-legged in a circle of desks, like a yogi. Sometimes, while listening to the discussion, she would hunch over the poem on her desk and whisper the words, feeling their shapes in her mouth. Thoreau and Emerson. Hughes, Plath. Even their names were music. To her, these poets were putting images to—what was it? Not just feelings. More like a kind of memory, like reading a play written by a friend and finding yourself a character in it. Even if she couldn’t fathom writing a poem, a real one, and pouring herself into some narrow container of text—she’d think, how do you talk about that in class? How do you explain how some other thing feels like it’s you?

Soon, not long, a few weeks into that semester—she came to the opinion, rather suddenly, that love doesn’t necessarily mean aptitude, brilliance. Whatever it is that made the best students best. The thought occurred to her and tightened into place. Those other students seemed like they’d taken the class before or they knew this all intuitively. Didn’t have to learn. They wouldn’t even need to speak—they’d just sit there, appearing much lighter than the way she felt, as if they were some completely different creature, unencumbered as a gas, one that could float right up through the vents in the ceiling, leaving only her.

And him.

He was there, too. And though his comments often missed the trail of an argument, tended to slump away without real insight, and though he was not at all like those other students—not at all better than her—he didn’t realize it. He slouched in his chair, rubbed his neck stubble, and talked the way she imagined she might if she didn’t realize how witless and wandering her thoughts would sound. Worst was how he treated her when she did speak—how he, speaking almost always directly after her, ignored whatever idea she’d been collecting the past few minutes, and instead referenced, often inaccurately, whoever spoke before her. It was if she hadn’t spoken at all. As if she hardly existed, no more than a faint reflection on the class window.

Once, at a house party, they stood in a circle of mutual friends, and when she told a joke, he stared at her—others laughed, but he just stared. Seemed to suck the laughter from everyone else’s mouths. Felt like a skipped heartbeat. Made her uncertain: about herself, what she was doing there, whether she’d been funny in the first place.

But she was funny. She knew that. One of those few, reliable things a person can know about herself that can’t be dampened or contradicted, and can be proud of, even if her jokes did lean heavy with self-deprecation. And that night, at once, she was livid.

Her temper rose like bile.

So. She mocked him for what he’d said earlier that week in class. When he’d said, slouching as always and gazing above the reach of her face to the window, how the poem they were reading seemed to be about one theme, but was really about another. And how in the future, he’d like to analyze a whole number of poems like that. To do a whole series, a collection, once he started getting published.

A whole series,” she told their friends at the party. “Once he’s published.”

As if there were no uncertainty for him at all.

“So, tell us,” she asked him, swirling a full cup of beer in front of her lips. “About this future collection. How many awards do you think you’ll win? Do you think poets will fly from all across the world to learn from you? To hear your analyses of their poems?”

He stared at her. Their friends squirmed, looking over their shoulders for whoever else might be around. But he just stared, until she figured his skull must be too small to facilitate whatever thoughts wanted to turn inside. She watched his jaw droop forward. She took a sip of her drink and shrugged.

After, with the night winding down, she sat alone on the front porch with a cigarette, and the door swung open behind her, and he passed without telling her goodbye. She considered telling him, I’m sitting right here, asshole, but didn’t. He descended the steps and walked down the sidewalk toward the dark. Before he was fully gone, just on the outer edge of the last streetlamp light, he paused. He turned deliberately. He flashed her a slender middle finger.

Which was fine.

But once she’d finished her cigarette, she went to her car and found her side mirror had been smashed.

Later that semester, when she met with her professor during office hours about their final research project and his name arose—a potential partner, maybe, since he was working on a similar idea—she, on an impulse, told her professor that, though she’d rather not get into details, she’d heard (looking at the carpeted floor, thinking not much of him, exactly, but that feeling of him) that he, honestly, what others consistently said was, he’s, let’s just say he wasn’t worth anyone’s time.

When he started a poetry podcast, and made posters advertising it, then plastered the posters ostentatiously to the stairwell walls of the English department, she tore one down and kept it. Downloaded the podcast at her home. Listened to all his banal thoughts. And she continued listening, each week, even to that eighty-minute episode that veered into a twenty-minute monologue on how something like depression can make a person stronger, how at times it can be a fuel for a person.… It sounded truly pitiful, even worse coming from him. It was like her own, lamest thoughts were being paraded around like something necessary. She took pleasure in predicting when he’d give up on the podcast. Just six episodes.

Often, she found herself thinking about how he ignored her, his eyes gliding over her when they passed in a hallway, or how in their classes together he would sigh each time she spoke—softly in and softly out, consistently, as if the practice had been prescribed to him. And when she was at other parties, he’d be there. And even if he were far off in another room, she’d picture him standing only just behind her, staring dead-eyed and sighing whenever she made a joke, especially when it failed to land.

Throughout college, she dwelled on him—during afternoons, when she lay exhausted in bed from class or during long weekend showers when she sat down in the basin to recollect herself. She remembered the way he’d made her feel, even later, after college, once grades, recognitions, opinions of professors and classmates had all grown to seem a bit ridiculous, or at least inapplicable to who she was now. Now, the degree framed above her desk seemed almost a silly thing to display. Increasingly more like an expiring coupon, engulfed in a pile of mail.

And when she’d lie there, with the overhead fan’s pull-chain clinking and the shadows drifting slow across her sheets, she would think of how unattractive he was, really, on the inside and out. And how miserable he’d likely been during all that time, taking all that effort to sigh at her in class, trying so hard to ignore her. She’d conclude, about every other week, that he was probably still miserable.

And the email he sent her, she decided in the car that day, his analysis of poems, didn’t actually undercut what he was, she figured, didn’t really change what she had recognized in him. He could act like he was right, that he was someone better than her, but she understood people like him well enough.

You know, she had a life now, a job. She was someone separate completely from who she’d been. She made money now, had pulled mostly free of student debts. As she drove farther from home, the wind lapped cool against her through the open windows of her car. Gray buildings rose up and pressed like open palms against the sky. She breathed.

When she slowed for a stoplight, as if to scratch a needling itch, her hand dropped to the passenger seat and picked up her phone where his address was still plugged in.

Soon, she pulled up alongside his house, and what she had for him—what was it exactly? contempt?—welled up within her. And with that feeling she became a more comfortable thing than herself. She idled in her car on the street. His small, brick home, with its patchy lawn, might as well have been his own slouching body, gazing blankly at her. She wanted to look in through his cheap, white blinds. Wished she could pull open the façade, like the hinged front of a dollhouse, so she could see him hunched and heavy on a couch or bed, exposing the way he existed when he thought no one else was looking.

She’d look insane to do what she wanted: step free from her car, climb the steps to his door, and tell him—tell him that his email meant nothing. That accolade, award or whatever, that was only words. And what he held, there, in him? That was the real truth. That’s all there was.

Clearly he hadn’t moved on at all, either. He’d emailed her! He’d exposed himself as still retained, still miserable. But she? She could drive away from here, right now, if she wanted. Step away from him, from the sad brick house.

Seriously, who gives a shit about him? Just another house, like any of the others on the block. Not even all that different from her own.

She put her transmission into park. She opened the car door and unbuckled herself out into the road. She wouldn’t knock on that door. She wouldn’t just stand there, stupid, waiting for him to open it. By the base of his steps, there was a flower pot with a sad, half-dead plant. She lifted the thing. Felt the small force of its weight against her. Stupid, she knew. But she was a container brimming over. And she needed to let something go.

She launched the pot at the gray glass of his window.

A satisfying crack! across the quiet afternoon.

The pot didn’t make it through the window, but it still sprouted hairline fractures along the pane. The pot lay there, with the plant and dirt half-spilled into the grass.

She got back into her car. Steered quickly around the block. Turned the corner fast enough, so that, through the rearview, she saw he hadn’t yet opened the front door.

She’d cracked his window. Stupid, but exciting—she’d slipped away unseen. And soon enough if not already, he’d be standing there on the stoop, slack-jawed, wondering who did it.

She turned again around the block. Actually, she’d like to see that. The way he’d look out from his doorframe, down to see her. Her car passing just a second faster than it would take for the recognition to set in.

But on the second loop down his block, his door was still closed. Was he not at home? All of the doors on the street were still sealed shut. No one at all around. Not even the neighbors had seemed to notice.

On her third loop, she realized that she was crying. She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. Halfway on the fourth, she had to stop. The road was tight with parked cars, and she worried she might hit one. 

She knew she should go home.

She stayed anyway, idling there, because the thought had occurred that she needed something first.

Something specific. Didn’t know what.

Whatever it was, her body longed for it: a thing she could hold, tight, just below the base of the sternum.

Like a flickering light of a candle.

Something that weighs even less than air.

Whatever it is that makes poems any good.