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| Category: || General Fiction |
Posted:|| August 27, 2018 Views: 225|
A Fictional Story
"The Poetry of Marriage"
by Mark Valentine
Take a look at youth in love
See poetry and roses
Look again in twenty years
Where once were poems, now prose is
There’s some truth to the sentiment expressed above, I suppose, but I also know that marriages do not survive on prose alone -- they need some spice occasionally. I made sure to strategically scatter some poetry throughout the length of our thirty-five year marriage, seasoning the seasons. Though I’m no great poet, I loved writing them and, with Katie as my inspiration, I was quite prolific. Now that she’s gone, the poems won’t come.
But that’s the end of the story. I should start at the beginning.
Like many writers, I’m an introvert. As a youth, my natural inclination toward shyness turned into paralyzing anxiety in the presence of the opposite sex. My father never had “The Talk” with me. He assumed that my inability to talk to girls would be the only birth control I would ever need.
I think if today’s technology had been around when I was of dating age, I might have done quite well. You wouldn’t know it to talk to me (especially if you’re a woman), but I’m actually a pretty intelligent person. Give me a five-to-ten second delay between your statement and my response, and I can sound downright witty. It’s those pesky real-time interactions that trip me up.
For instance, I once had a crush on a girl in my Poli-Sci class in college. She had a cute smile, and I thought that commenting on that would be an innocuous way of breaking the ice. I rehearsed my approach in my brain -- Tell her that she has a nice smile. It’s not too forward, but it still breaks the ice - who could take offense at that? Don’t overthink it – just say, “Did anyone ever tell you, you have a great smile?” OK then, here goes…
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have teeth?”
Those were the exact words that came out of my mouth – not even, “Did anyone ever tell you that you have NICE teeth?” – just, “Did anyone ever tell you that you have teeth?” I knew I could never face her again, so I dropped the class the next day. I realized that if I continued this pattern, I would never graduate, so I decided to stop trying to talk to girls in my classes.
From then on, I vowed to sit in the back and keep to myself.
Turns out that Katie liked to sit in the back also. The class was . First day of class – I have trouble finding the room – by the time I arrive there’s only one seat left. To my relief, it was in the back of the class. It was also next to a seat occupied by a very cute redhead. Just don’t try to talk to her, I told myself. You can’t drop any more classes.
As the redhead went to take her book out of her backpack, a periodic table of the elements fell out. My first thought was, ‘Uh oh, a science major – too smart for you. Pick up the paper, give it back to her and for God’s sake don’t open your mouth!”
I picked it up and handed it back to her – pausing a moment before I did to hold the periodic table midway between us and remark, “I can’t help but notice that there’s a certain chemistry between us.”
She got the pun and smiled. I thought to myself, ‘Where did THAT come from? ‘ Like the little leaguer who closes his eyes and sticks his glove out to find that the ball actually landed in it, I had, without having any idea what I was doing, said something clever and flirtatious – to a girl! Granted, it wasn’t Oscar Wilde clever, but it made a pretty girl smile. The words that came out of my mouth were coherent and avoided any mention of her teeth. This is how normal people must feel, I thought.
Apparently she thought it was clever too, for after she laughed, she said, “You’re very witty.”
“Only periodically,” I replied, looking at the table to make sure she didn’t miss the pun.
This time she laughed out loud.
Holy crap, I had done it again! Two clever remarks in a row. What were the odds? I thought to myself – Just do like the comedians do – stand up, thank the audience, and walk out of the room. End on a high note. Instead, I continued.
“So, what’s your major?”
The magic was over. What’s your major? Great – now that THAT’S out of the way, I’ll take ‘Lame Questions’ for $200, Alex.
Her answer confirmed my suspicion that she was too smart for me.
“I’m pre-med. How about you?”
“You probably wouldn’t guess it from my conversational skills but I’m an English major.”
OK, not bad – a little self-deprecating humor – I might get out of this yet.
“Oh, that’s interesting. What do you plan to do with that?”
“I hope to go into journalism. What do you plan to do with pre-med”
“Perhaps something in medicine.”
Oh my God! Did I just ask a pre-med major what she plans to do after college? It’s called PRE-med, you moron – it’s right there in the name of the major! Quick -- do something to stop the bleeding.
“Oh, so that’s what the ‘med’ in pre-med stands for. I thought all those people were going on to graduate school in the Mediterranean.”
To my surprise, she continued to sit next to me in future classes. I learned that her name was Katie Dunleavy. She somehow got the impression that I was not a complete idiot. The class was boring so we’d exchange eye rolls or sarcastic sotto voce comments to alleviate the tedium. I was on safe ground. Sarcasm was in my wheelhouse. Other forms of communication? Not so much. My mouth couldn’t produce the sentence “Would you like to go on a date sometime?” if my life depended on it. No matter, she was out of my league anyway.
My mind being prone to wander, I tended to doodle a lot in my notebook during class. At some point, toward the end of the semester, Katie noticed that, among the doodles, were a few poems. After class, she remarked:
“So, you write poetry?”
“Yeah. Mostly just for fun.”
“Maybe you can write me a poem sometime.”
Maybe you can write me a poem! That’s gotta mean something, right? You don’t just ask a guy to write you a poem unless you’re flirting. Unless… maybe she was mocking me… yeah that’s it… she’s going to be a doctor and do something important with her life, whereas I am going to write obituaries for a living. Professor Harkin will keel over in class and she’ll come to the rescue. I’ll ask if I can help and she’ll say “Yeah, why don’t you write him a sonnet while I save his life.”
That night I consulted with Greg, my roommate. As a normal human being, he had held many intelligent conversations with women. He had even gone on dates. I asked for his advice. He advised me that I was an idiot.
“Write the girl a poem,” he said in exasperation.
There were only a few classes left in the semester. I couldn’t worry about quality. At the beginning of the following class, I slipped a piece of paper onto her desk. It read:
Roses are red
And this class is boring
It’s only your presence
That keeps me from snoring
Your smile and our banter
Helps lighten the drear
What say after class
We go grab a beer?
Not a work of art by any stretch, but the payoff was better than an acceptance letter from the New Yorker. We had that beer. Even knowing that she had a test the next day, I boldly suggested that we have a second beer once we had finished the first.
She replied, “Sure, why not? Two beers, one beer – what’s the difference?”
What’s the difference? The difference between two and one was everything. One beer is fulfilling your obligation, two is voluntarily re-upping. She was no longer here because she was too polite to say ‘no’; she was here because she wanted to be here. After the second beer, I was feeling a little bolder, so I suggested that we go out for pizza. She agreed.
It was going well, but “it” was not yet a date. I don’t know what the rules are now, but in 1980 there were clear, if unspoken, guidelines as to what did, and did not, constitute a date. Dates ended with a goodnight kiss. I knew that, and she knew that. So the question was – would this be a date?
As you might imagine, that question and the various scenarios that might answer it, rattled through my brain as we left the pizza place. It was snowing outside. Though I lived in the other direction, I offered to walk her home. She didn’t say no. So far, so good.
We walked through the quad in the snow. For reasons I would discover later, the quad was eerily empty for a Monday night. Each step brought us closer to the moment of reckoning. How would I handle the good-night situation? Do I just go in for the kiss when we get to her door? What if she doesn’t kiss me back? Do I ask her first? That involves speaking words and I’m not good at that.
I thought about her eyes, her lips, her teeth. Again with the teeth? What was wrong with me? I wondered why my mind always came back to teeth at moments like these. What kind of Freudian nightmare did I live through in my oral stage of development? I told myself, There will be plenty of time for psychotherapy later. For now, focus on the issue at hand. Screw your courage to the sticking place and figure out how you’re going to kiss this girl.
The more I thought about this, the faster my heart raced and the shorter my breath became. This potentially magical night ran the risk of ending in the emergency room unless I got myself under control. I tried to focus on the beauty of the snow. That’s it. Focus on the snow. Breathe. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. At one point, as I walked along deeply immersed in my own thought process, I glanced to my right to notice that Katie was no longer at my side. She had stopped a few steps back, in front of Lincoln Hall. I turned toward her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
She replied, “Kiss me.”
Someone once said that we don’t remember what happened – what we remember becomes what happened. That being the case, I’ll have to allow for the possibility that the scene as I now recall it has been modified over the years, but I don’t think so. I think the trees really did dance.
The whole scene was a slow-motion, dream-sequence, ballet that occurred out of time -- a one-night-only performance staged for an audience of two. It was if all the angels in heaven that had been dancing on the heads of pins while waiting in the wings, took the form of snowflakes and burst forth onto the stage in a divinely choreographed terpsichorean tapestry. While descending from the heavens, they pirouetted gracefully, each having its moment to shine and glisten in the illumination of the old lamplights that had lit the quad’s paths since the 1920s.
The snow fell softly and gently, gracing everything it touched. Each imperfection, each blemish on the earth down below was gradually enveloped in ivory beauty until all that remained was a perfect blanket of smooth virgin snow. The limbs of every tree were adorned in sleeves of silvery white giving them a look of grace and elegance as they danced across the set that, just an hour before, had been the University of Illinois quad. The winter air was windless and silent.
It was more than beautiful. The pristine snow gave the night a numinous quality that transformed a walk across campus into a sacrament.
And here’s the thing – neither the dancing trees, nor the virgin blanket, nor the angels themselves, were the most beautiful thing on the quad that night. The lamplight on the path just to the south of Lincoln Hall cast a light on Katie’s face. In its light I could see the snowflakes that nestled in the bangs of red hair that extended from under her woolen cap. I could see the soft curve of her cheek, the playful, expectant twinkle in her eyes, the gentle smile. I didn’t notice her teeth, just her lips.
Then I kissed her. Now it was a date.
I would kiss her again as we said good night at her dorm.
I don’t remember the walk back to my dorm – I may have floated. Once I had arrived, I do remember my roommate sharing the news; the reason why nobody was out on the quad that night. Like people everywhere, they had been glued to their TV sets: John Lennon had been shot and killed outside of his Manhattan apartment.
I’ve always felt a little guilty about regarding December 8, 1980 as such a wonderful date, but then I’m sure there are people who fell in love on November 22, 1963, or who gave birth to a child on September 11, 2001. Life’s blessings, like its tragedies, come when they come. And so each December 8th as I remember the kiss, I raise a glass to John Lennon, and recall one of his lyrics in particular:
There are places I remember.
None so fondly as that spot in front of Lincoln Hall. Years later I would write of it:
After class through virgin snow we strolled,
A blanket on which no-one yet had trod.
To brace ourselves against Urbana’s cold
We stopped to share a first kiss on the quad.
And with that kiss a beer became a date
That set us on the path to man and wife
I know that I shall always venerate
That moment that forever changed my life
Who was that younger version of myself?
So much I had in college is now lost.
That kiss however stays upon my shelf,
I take it down when I feel winter’s frost.
So long ago that brief moment of bliss,
Yet always near to me will be that kiss.
Now that we were dating, my poetry shifted into full romance mode: sonnets (Shakespearean and Petrarchan), odes, and, once the physical portion of our relationship had sufficiently progressed, the occasional bawdy limerick.
I’ve not seen those blue jeans before
Their tight fit I simply adore
They go well with your sweater
But they’d look even better
Lying on my dorm room floor
Once again, not Shakespeare, but it did the trick. And, to quote Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.
Once we were married, I would find that, when romance was the objective, written poems were not as effective as recited ones. If I were in a particularly amorous mood, I would break out the Spanish. An example is provided below, but I must warn you – Spanish poetry is potent stuff. Don’t try it at home unless you have clearance from your doctor. Side effects, as I would find out, may include children.
Me muero de sed
Y solo tu amor me puede saciar
Como el jugo de las uvas
Tu abundancia gotea sobre la barbilla
Loosely translated, it means…
I die of a thirst
That only your love can quench
Like the juice of the grape
Your abundance drips down my chin
I recited this poem to her on March 2, 1985. Casey, our eldest child was born exactly nine months later.
There were other poems and other babies. Each of their births was announced to the world in the form of a pastiche of a well-known poem. Casey’s poem chronicled the drama of her labor and delivery, and was a pastiche of “Casey at the Bat”. It opened with the lines
The outlook wasn’t rosy for an easy time that day
Kate’s water broke at 4 am, and we were on our way
To the hospital in Evergreen Park where the doctor was waiting to greet us
We went in and asked for a room for three – two adults and a fetus
And closed with…
O somewhere there is famine, and somewhere there is war.
Somewhere old men yearn for days when bones were not so sore
And somewhere a child has the measles, and somewhere a dog has the gout,
But there’s nothing but joy in Evergreen Park, little Casey has finally come out.
The following Christmas brought an unexpected gift – our twin boys, David and Patrick were born on Christmas Eve. “A Visit from the Stork” started thus:
‘Twas the night before Christmas at the Hannigan House
And two creatures were stirring inside of my spouse
Not my best effort, but I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience of parenting twins. I found that, like the experience of going out for beers with a “friend”, the different between two and one is everything. I would not get a full night’s sleep for the next seven years.
In spite of the sleep deprivation, we had a fourth child less than two years later. Luke’s birth announcement was patterned after Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain”, and described his birth by C-section. I should mention here that Katie is short for Katherine.
O Katherine, my Katherine, the time is drawing near
The doctor makes one final check – the baby’s almost here.
Our starter home is on the verge of gaining one more tenant
We’ll love him longer than it takes the Cubs to win the pennant
But wait! The doctor feels his feet
Where ought to be his head!
There’ll be no birth in here today
To the O.R. instead!
Having four children under four can make it difficult to access one’s poetic Muse. It’s hard to envision fragrant meadows when one is elbow deep in dirty diapers. Romance and alone-time were rare commodities.
Sensing our need for a night out, Katie’s parents offered to babysit one night so that we could go out to dinner. We went to our favorite Mexican restaurant, La Hacienda de los Gutierrez on 26th Street. What happened next is a blur. I had a couple of Tecates, Katie had a margarita. The food was good, a mariachi band was playing. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but romance was in the air and it just sort of came out:
Todos min anhelos
Mis mares, mis cielos
Mis noches y mis dias
Mis pobres poesias
Casi no vale nada
Sin mi enamorada
We didn’t even wait for the check. Katie threw sixty bucks on the table and said “Let’s go home. Now!”
Later that spring, when we were in the obstetrician’s office for an ultrasound, I asked the doctor if there were some operation that could prevent me from reciting Spanish poetry. She suggested a different type of procedure I could undergo. She described it in great detail. When I came to, she showed me the ultrasound image – our fifth child would be a girl.
Our lives became much more prose than poetry. Go to work. Come home. Dress the kids, feed the kids, play with the kids, put the kids to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes, we’d have a glass of wine and watch an old movie after we put the kids to bed. Not very exciting, but, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was sublimely ordinary. And I still managed to churn out an occasional poem, though their topics were less than lofty.
I’ve grown accustomed to the smell,
The crying, and the fuss.
Seems we don’t change the diaper, dear,
The diaper changes us.
As the children grew and our marriage matured, the poems didn’t come as frequently. I would still write Katie a poem on her birthday and on our anniversary, but spontaneous, “just-because”, poems were few and far-between.
In 2009, our youngest child went off to college and our nest was empty. I know that many couples eagerly await that stage, but Katie and I were depressed. To kill time and fill the void we found hobbies. Katie took up quilting, and I found a writing website where I could get feedback on things I wrote. I wrote limericks about sports, and odes on nature; philosophical essays, and lame song parodies; noir style short stories, and enigmatic haikus. And I wrote poems for Katie – sometimes even in Spanish (I should mention here that, shortly after the birth of our fifth child, I had that ‘procedure’ the doctor suggested, so, in spite of my poemas de amor, the child count held fast at five.)
I won’t say it was all due to poetry – maybe we just needed time to adjust – but the romance was rekindled. Given that sending five children to college tends to use up all of one’s disposable income, there were no trips to Europe, and dining out was still a rare occasion, but, if you’ve got a bottle of wine and the Turner Classic Movie channel, what else do you need?
In 2011, we went to the 30th reunion for the Class of 1981. We retraced the steps of our walk on the quad on our first date. This time the quad was jam-packed with students, but it didn’t matter. In our imagination, we were all alone and it was December of 1980 again.
In 2013 our youngest graduated from college. We were now tuition-free. In 2015 we took a trip to Hawaii – the first real vacation of our marriage. It put a dent in our savings, but I’m glad we did it because in 2016, Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
At first it seemed like the treatment regimen was working. Then a spot would show up on an X-ray and the cycle would begin again: surgery – radiation – chemo – wait. I knew Katie was tough – after all I had seen her give birth to five children – but I never knew how strong until I witnessed her battle with cancer.
Earlier this year, it became clear what the outcome of that battle would be. It would be bad and no poetry could make it better.
This is the last poem I wrote her. It was not inspired by passion, and it did not have as its aim romance, humor, or the announcement of a birth. It was simply an acknowledgment of a new reality.
The world will turn without you when you’re gone.
The sun will set at dusk and rise at dawn.
The birds will sing, the winds will blow,
The daily tides will ebb and flow,
They won’t know that the curtain has been drawn.
The world will turn without you when you’re gone…
…but not for me
Katie died three days later.
It’s been a month since I wrote that, at least that what the calendar tells me. It’s hard to gauge the passage of time because there is no rhythm to the days anymore. There is no demarcation between one thing and the next. Everything exists in a fugue state.
In a sense it’s like that night on the quad – the night we first kissed. I am living now outside of time, and everyone else has disappeared. The difference of course is now I am not alone with Katie, I am just alone. And the difference between two and one is everything.
Story of the Month contest entry
Fiction with a smattering of autobiography ( the birth announcement poems are taken from the actual poems I wrote when our children were born. The main stretch of the truth is that Maggie is not dead - though the fictional version of her ends up dead in quite a few things I write - I wonder what Freud would say about that?
The "someone" who once said "We don't remember the past. What we remember becomes the past" was novelist John Green
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