richard siken

we just keep walking and sometimes, we get to run

Over the phone, C. explains to me the complications of living as the other woman:

“So I’m in Bloomingdale’s the other day and I see this brush – this shaving brush. What are they made of, the good ones? Badger hair? Is it possible that it’s badger hair?”

I have no idea, I admit. Badger, really?

She goes on: “Anyway, so I see this brush and it’s beautiful and soft and full and it has this wooden base and I just want to buy it. Let them wrap it in that silver paper and put a little ribbon on it, take it over to his house. I don’t even have to see him open it. I’d just leave it on his doorstep and run.”

I am not sure what to say to this. “Oh,” I say. And then quietly, “Wow.”

“That is totally deranged, isn’t it?” She pauses. “On the upside, I guess, I’ve gotten very adept at managing disappointment.”

When I am at a loss for words, I turn to the poets. Here then is Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff:

Two brothers: one of them wants to take you apart. Two brothers: one of them wants to put you back together. It’s time to choose sides now. The stitches or the devouring mouth? You want an alibi? You don’t get an alibi, you get two brothers. Here are two Jeffs. Pick one. This is how you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space between them. Jeff or Jeff? Who do you want to be? You just wanted to play in your own backyard, but you don’t know where your own yard is, exactly. You just wanted to prove that there was one safe place, just one safe place where you could love him. You have not found that place yet. You have not made that place yet. You are here. You are here. You’re still right here.

In college, my friend S. and I would pass many summer evening hours sitting on the stoop in front of her apartment and wax philosophical about life and love. She smoked clove cigarettes and the scent of them lingered in her hair, her clothes – a little sour and sweet. She had been to a drumming performance – of course, of course – this was Brown, after all – and she had gone up to speak with the drummer afterward. She said: “He said that what makes the rhythms is not the beats themselves, not when you hit the drum, but the spaces that come in between.”

How we loved the sound of that, said it over and over again, a kind of shorthand for all the more complicated things we didn’t know how to say: “It’s not the beats, but the spaces in between.” Nineteen-year-olds can be forgiven, I think, a bit of romanticizing.

I ran into her once, years later, when I was in New York for work. There wasn’t much time, but she walked me from my hotel to the train station, and sat with me there in the waiting room until it was time for me to board. She was admiring my shoes and sitting there on the molded blue chairs, she took hers off, slipped her feet into mine, stretched her legs out off the ground to examine them. “They look better on you,” she declared, and put her own back on. She had a tiny hole in the toe of one sock.

There is another woman I know in the process of divorce. Her husband of decades is not taking this well. “What will I do?” he asks her, as if requesting a grocery list or driving directions. “What will be my future?”

There is someone else, for her. Not the cause of the parting, but not unwelcome. “Tell her you are in love with me,” he says to her, when he knows that she and I will be speaking. And she does. She is beautiful and flushed when she says this to me. Like a woman who has walked slowly for many years and can suddenly break into a run.

What a strange time of life this seems, here in the middle place – a time of things ending and beginning, but even beginnings are not unencumbered, so full as they are, of the lives we’ve already lived, the choices already made. I get a message from a friend of mine who, weeks ago was so madly in love, so certain, so blissfully sure. “It’s not working out,” is all he says.

We want to believe that we can outrun the things we carry and for a time, perhaps we do – sprinting ahead, feeling the rush of wind cool against our skin, feeling the heart pounding with possibility.

But aren’t they – our ghostly companions – always there just behind us, waiting for us to slow down? When they see us falter, don’t they rush on up to us, with a towel for the sweat on our brows, and a cup of cool water to still our racing hearts?

Richard Siken, from You Are Jeff, again:

You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and he won’t tell you that he loves you, but he loves you. And you feel like you’ve done something terrible, like robbed a liquor store, or swallowed pills, or shoveled yourself a grave in the dirt, and you’re tired. You’re in a car with a beautiful boy, and you’re trying not to tell him that you love him, and you’re trying to choke down the feeling, and you’re trembling, but he reaches over and he touches you, like a prayer for which no words exist, and you feel your heart taking root in your body, like you’ve discovered something you don’t even have a name for.