[ToC]

 

POETRY APPRECIATION IS ALIVE AND WELL IN MANHATTAN, KANSAS

Paul Vega

 

 

Dear You,
     Do you remember the last time we talked when you said that if I got into ZYZZYVA then maybe we'd get back together? As if ZYZZYVA possessed some kind of magic. As if ZYZZYVA could make you love me again, or make you forget all the ways I trapped you into watching me disappear completely and then blamed you for that very disappearance. Well I never got in. And anyway, you've met the man you're going to marry and he's not me. Even The New Yorker couldn't change that.
     I sent you a text when you got into Hella Big Deal Writers and you didn't respond. I congratulated you via email you when you got your book accepted and you didn't respond. Which is chill. All I've gotten into in the last year is recovery.
     The guys in my Tuesday night Relapse Prevention group at Pawnee Mental Health tell me not to contact you. My therapist tells me it's unhealthy. My parents tell me nothing because they don't know. I am 30 years old, I live with them, and deep down they must wonder what they ever did to deserve it. What they ever did to deserve the death of their first born at twenty-seven, and whatever I, their younger child, have become. So I try to shield them from my neuroses and worries and sickness. Any inkling of unwellness that might make them wonder: Is he still okay? Is it time to start searching his room again?
     But, no worries. These days I am an ascetic. I live in Kansas. I don't drink, I don't do drugs, and even the obese cat lady English teacher I assist in fifth hour—the teacher who spends most of the period browbeating special needs children into agreeing with her about stupid shit, like who is better, Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, and who thinks Castro is dead, Mao is Kim Jong-il, Stalin is Italian, and "poignant" is pronounced "poe-ig-nant,"—probably gets more action than I do.
     My closest friends here are a recovering alcoholic felon who used to be Willie the Wildcat—the terrifying half-man, half-wildcat sports mascot of Kansas State University whom you once deemed the living totem of my "K-State Sports Sadness"—and a Tourette's suffering mother of two who works with me at the high school and shouts, "MY NAME IS PAUL AND I AM A HOOKER" when she sees me in the halls, and who also steals my school planner and tapes pictures of celebrity cats in it, and then yells "CAT PLANNER, BITCH," when I notice.
     I spend my days trying to convince tenth graders that the Ivory Coast is too a real country, that Fallout 4 is not more entertaining than Julius Caesar, and that Snapchatting that picture of your dick, playing with your father's loaded 9-millimeter, and going to One Direction concerts, could all come back to haunt you.
     I spend my nights working as a deliveryman for the chain grocery store that when it pulled its advertising from the local newspaper caused my dad to lose his job as publisher of that newspaper. For $9.00 an hour, I take funeral arrangements, pallets of Monster energy drinks, and chaffing dishes of twice-baked potatoes to places like Alma, Wamego, and Wheaton. Driving the work van west into another Flint Hills sunset, I smoke flavored Swisher Sweets (two for $1.00 with a fuel saver card, but free for me since I steal everything to get back at my evil corporate employer for contributing to my father's firing), and yell at the radio when it tells me Donald Trump believes he's so popular he could shoot a man in the street and then watch his polling numbers rise.
     So what am I left to do except what the unmoored and unwanted have done since the dawn of Wi-Fi: follow your life on the Internet.
     The reading with all the raccoons projected on the wall was so you.
     Hawaii looks amazing this time of year, the impossible jade color of the water, the wind in your hair,
     You still do that head tilt thing in every photo that for most people would come off as incredibly cloying, but for you, works.
     I see your new boyfriend has a beard too.
     I study your photos of him searching for big ears, bad teeth, a dorky smile, a gleam in the eye that suggests douchebaggery—but I see none of it. You look too happy, and he looks far too handsome, far too much like All-Star Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals for me to be angry.
     Alex Gordon, who posted 6.7 Wins Above Replacement in 2014. Alex Gordon, who was once a failed third base prospect until he swallowed his pride, took a demotion to the minors, and then re-invented himself as a Gold Glove-winning left fielder. Alex Gordon, who believes in hard work, clean-living, the cool of the grass between his toes on a hot summer day, and sticking with the girl that brought you.
     Alex Gordon, who, when he hit the game-tying home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series brought my father to tears. Who, for one moment, made:

  • the dog's hip dysplasia,
  • my grandma's stroke and complaints of "petrified feet" (THEY FEEL AS THOUGH THEY'RE MADE OF WOOD, PAUL),
  • my father's firing from the dying newspaper industry,
  • the incredibly disappointing fourth season of Arrested Development,
  • the way the pills I take for my heart are making my hair ghost, ­
  • EVERYTHING,

better.
     Which is to say, if your boyfriend is even half as cool as Gordo, he's okay in my book.

It's ridiculous, I know, especially since everything was my fault, but these days even traces of you still have the power to undo me:
     Like how the new season of the X-Files brings me to tears because when we started dating we would text each other late at night about episodes we were streaming and you'd say things like, "There's paranormal activity...in your butt." Because all I want to do is re-hash the details with you. Why is Mulder still so thirsty to believe? Why is Scully allowed to watch YouTube clips in the operating room? Where is their half-alien love child???
     Like how I have a best friend named Your, which is basically You, except one letter different, and Your still likes me as a person.
     Like how if I try hard enough I can map myself and all my faults onto everything you write.
     Like how washing my bedding still makes me think of throwing a warm, white comforter over you at the Harvard apartment on laundry night and yelling "GHOST YOU," because you've always loved ghosts.

"And so you'll probably never get over her," Willie the Wildcat tells me.
     I nod and google a poem of yours on my phone for Willie to read.
     It's Tuesday night and we're standing in the alley behind Pawnee Mental Health smoking and waiting for our meeting to start. Snow flurries fall in the gathering dusk, and Carson from Clay Center, a father of five and former meth addict arrives from jail in a van driven by a Pawnee employee. After the meeting, he'll have to return to jail, but for now he is free, for now, he is—like all of us—almost normal.
     We say hi and I bump fists with Carson, the "W-H-I-T-E" tattooed knuckles of his right hand meeting mine, while Willie's fist meets the "T-R-A-S-H" knuckles of Carson's left hand.
     "I was high as balls when I got those tattoos," Carson said a few meetings back. "Did you ever do something you regretted while using?" he later asked me earnestly, sobriety still brand new to him. "Something you couldn't undo?"
     "Quite a few things," I said.
     In the alley, Willie takes my phone to get a better look at the poem.
     I hold a flashlight to your organs, Willie reads.
     A liver should not be transparent.
    
"Damn, bruh, sick burn. That's what's up," Carson says.
     I hold your liver like a dead, stinking shark, Willie reads off my phone.
     "Dayuuummm," Carson says. "That line is bomb.com."
     "Dude, listen to this, Carson," Willie says. Willie reads on, an entire poem of yours. It is, he claims, the first poem he's ever read.
     "The imagery, dawg. The imagery," Carson says after Willie is done.
     "Yeah, man, and the word play and shit," Willie says. "The stone in the revolving door. It's like I can hear it, but also see it happening. Like, I dunno, it's deep."
     Yes, poetry appreciation is alive and well in Manhattan, Kansas. And like always, the audience loves you.

By now, you must be asking yourself: Why write again? What's left to say? What's left to know?
     But there's still so much.
     For instance, did you know that diapers for old folks are called Depends?
     As in: "Mom, after I strip Nan's bedding, do you want me to throw her Depends away?"
     Did you know that when it came to us my timing was always bad? Like the first time I ever sent you a dick pic and it turned out to be the exact moment you were visiting your blind and dementia-suffering grandmother with your estranged father by your side.
     Did you know that in the urn in my parents' living room I dug through my sister's ashes and found her tongue ring, melted, but intact?
     How about when my father was fired again—less than a year after moving his family across the country and risking everything—how my grandma's response was, "It isn't the end of the world, Paul. The end of the world is only for when you're dead, and none of us are there yet."
     Did you know the room where you cover, when you cover my mouth, was every room, every terrible inch of our moth-eaten lives together? But that sometimes, still, we loved each other, the light was.
    
Did you know at the rate my heart is going, it will only hold out so long? Did you know that in the end we are all getting what we deserve?
     Did you know that just like Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore with second baseman Omar Infante, your problem is you could never write me off as a sunk cost? That even though I did not cost you 8.5 million dollars a year, surely a more rational person would have cut me loose and used the money to sign Alex Gordon much sooner?

"Step 9: Make amends," Willie reads from the Big Book after our meeting is over. "I always have a problem with that step," he says. "Like how do I make amends with someone I can't talk to? How do I seek forgiveness from a person I have to avoid?"
     Willie's problem is the bounds of his probation. How it keeps him from apologizing to his victim. My problem is I was such an asshole to you the only way you might actually read what I have to say is if it appears in the form of a weird personal essay in a literary magazine.
     "I don't know," I say to Willie. "I feel like Step 9 is bullshit." And for that matter, I feel most of the other steps are bullshit as well, but Willie is a friend, so I try my best to help. "I feel the problem with Step 9," I say, "is that it's really just self-serving. Like saying you're sorry means nothing to most people once they've moved on. Like apologizing is really just a way to make you feel better about yourself."
     Three months later I see you on the streets of Seattle holding hands with Alex Gordon. The real life Gordo has just made a Web Gem of a catch and slapped an opposite field homer to beat the Twins. Gordo is still my guy just like AG is yours.
     I want to tell you that I am happy you're happy. I want to tell you it makes me sad and envious, because it could have been us, because you gave me every chance for it to be us. I want to tell you, throwing away the love of someone who truly cares about you is the worst kind of self-harm. That I have read and re-read your work. That it's good. That it's mostly accurate. I want to tell you what it was like to read your autopsy of my life, even though I wasn't dead, I was just in Kansas. But I don't.
     I sit in my dead sister's Ford Focus, a car I recently purchased from my parents and drove back to Seattle from Kansas. The key is stuck in the ignition, the blower for the heater is broken, the radio is playing a warbly, barely listenable version of Diarrhea Planet's "Ghost with a Boner." Even when things look fucked, they can still be a triumph.
     You see me and all I can do is raise and lower my shoulders in the biggest shrug of all time. As in, "I am sorry to exist this close to you in this moment. As in, I have come back from the brink, and I am just here to live."
     Willie the Wildcat calls me later that week. He's seen the girl he felonied walking the streets of Manhattan, Kansas. 
     "I freaked out." Willie says. "I started to have a panic attack and just froze up. What should I do if it happens again? Should I ignore her? Should I say anything?"
     "Don't say anything," I say. "Just do you, man. Just go about your day and stay sober. Just show people that who you were is not who you are, that who you were is not who you want to be. Even if no one cares, Willie, even if it's too late to do anything but not make the same mistakes again. Because that's all you can do. Because that's all we have left."
     "Damn, that's poignant, dawg," Willie says.
     "I think you mean poe-ig-nant," I say.
     "What does 'poe-ig-nant' mean?" Willie says.
     "You know, like us," I say. "Ignant, but real." 

Anyway, that's all I have left to say.
     Respectfully,
     Me

 

 

 

__

I was driving to St. Mary's, Kansas from Manhattan, Kansas in the Hy-Vee grocery delivery van when I realized it was finally time to write this essay. A song called "Night Job" by a rapper named Bas was on the local college radio station. Huh, interesting, I thought. I mean, I was on my night job, so it was kind of synchronicity. Plus, I'd been reading a lot of poems by my ex about me, and friends back in Seattle were telling me how she was just absolutely incinerating my personal character. That's chill. Whatevs. Anyway, St. Mary's is pretty far from Manhattan, so I wrote most of the essay in my head on that drive. Dashed off a few details in my iPhone "Notes" app while sitting in the back lot of the grocery store smoking a flavored Swisher Sweet and drinking gas station coffee. I think the line about seeing your life autopsied in someone else's work when you aren't even dead kind of says it all. Where I struggled in writing this essay is how to make something that wasn't the exact same shit about Step 9 of AA that I hate. Making amends. Wtf does that even mean?. Not just saying you're sorry, but saying something more was important. It was something a dear friend helped fix after she read an earlier, shittier iteration of this essay. And still, this essay is an apology of sorts, but it had to be more. It had to be honest and not make me seem victimized or cloying or hateful. Shit was my fault. I own that. Dunno. The person this essay is directed towards may never read it, or it may only infuriate her more. I hope it doesn't. She's a great person. A far better writer/human than I could ever hope to be. But I had to respond. And that's it. I've said my piece and, look, here it is in DIAGRAM, a living testament to what happens when you fucking try and and don't quit and finally get over yourself.