Your best idea was silence. She followed you, against the current of the river, west on 80, north on 81, and lived in the dorm across the street. Northampton one-ways, but when you leaned against the brick partition you immediately saw the value of driving into oncoming traffic. In 1996 you discovered John Berryman and As Safe As Milk. There was a quote, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” You wrote it on your hand, transferred it to a flyleaf, later married it to Joe Strummer’s philosophy, and even later, you started to believe it.
Bad at haiku. Cheating at solitaire.
There was a homecoming dance. There was a prom. There was a double date. There was a bar with nobody in it. There was breakfast after getting lost in Connecticut. There was Starbucks in York. There was a friend’s cabin. There was a pick-up truck full of furniture. There was a U-Haul while nobody was home. There was a walk home alone. There was a conversation in a parked car. There was an art gallery in Philadelphia. There was a missed flight and a surprise visit. There were flowers pulled out of a hotel planter. There were roses stolen from a victory garden. There was a limo of stargazer lilies. There was dress shopping for an unattended wedding. There was a parents’ basement. There was a Replacements CD I took. There was a box of graphic novels I left for her daughter. There was a house key I threw in the river. There was a car key in a shoebox.
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore, west bank of the Mississippi.
It would have been easier to not love her if you weren’t so afraid to be alone for the rest of your life. Your friends at the all ages hardcore matinees would remind you what sparks actually looked like–how steel strikes flint and flames ribbon from a mangled twist of concert bodies. She loved Billy Joel and you resented her for it. Yet you felt wronged and robbed when she finally left you. It didn’t fit your narrative. So you re-made and remodeled. Roxy Music and a chain letter of first dates. There are college textbooks molding in your parents’ garage. How could you understand what lonely looked like at eighteen? You were all absolutes without a sense of measure. Stressed/unstressed syllables–the iambic line which cuts diagonally along your palm. A future imperfect tense. You were as unreliable as you were insecure. She had bad hair and started smoking right before you split. She married years ago–an old college buddy. The wicker blinds in the coffee shop are sunbleached and weathered to the point that they barely hold back the sky on mornings like these. You let the days turn rotten and wilted between you. It only comes rising to the surface when you run errands at home. The smallest part of you genuflects at the bend of an interstate guardrail, miles from the Buckhorn travel plaza.
Elvis in the ground. Wrap this fist in leather.
Your parent’s development just devolves into a field and standing water. Your father mows the lawn for elderly neighbors, still puts a string or two of Christmas lights out. The plywood shed will not survive another winter. You wake up on the couch to the sound of swinging hammers. Roofers at dawn, hungover, pour their thermoses out on the driveway. Your father’s car idles. Later, you will unpack your undergraduate years in reverse. There is a copy of Leaves of Grass that you have been looking for, but you won’t find it. You remember when Dr. Terry died and how your American lit professor made you read out loud in class. Your knuckles feel the shock of frost, crack beneath your gloves. All these boxes but somehow that part of you you on the edge of twenty is long gone from here. You are sitting at a cafe near the mall you used to call “seasonal employer” with a cardboard box full of somebody else. That’s when you are reminded of the first girl you didn’t sleep with–
I’ve got my spine. I’ve got my Orange Crush.
Your girlfriend gets into a car accident on the way to her uncle’s funeral. You cancel class, forget to pack half of what you wanted to take home, and bring her a chocolate croissant. She writes you letters–not emails. You barely have a poem in you some days. Berryman lept to his depth from the Washington Avenue Bridge, but Whitman has his arm around your waist. He sidles up next to you on a barstool in the Detroit airport. You have too many names for home, but only one way to measure distance. The angel’s share and your bartender’s St. Christopher’s medallion remind you to listen.
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,/This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.