18 June 2011

Six Summers Ago I Was 22

[I started last summer’s reading with “I Like You More Than Friends” by Cord Jefferson and had the idea to write something similar. It’s only taken me a year to do so! If you need to set a mood for this longread, put on Tegan & Sara’s The Con, which they were kind enough to record for this period in my life. The whole album and “Nineteen” in particular, which I can’t listen to at all unless I listen to it twenty times in a row.]

Six summers ago I was 22, looking out the window of the cafeteria at Bennington College and asking myself who is that Cuban woman who’s always outside smoking? 

The act of dragging on a cigarette accentuates cheekbones in a way that’s always appealed to me and I was not unmoved by this humid, noirish scene: a young lady, puffing away under a streetlamp adjacent a dumpster.

There was (perhaps) a Cuban in the writing program that I had (perhaps) not met at first-termer orientation, that monument to stilted conversation.  It was days later when some helpful soul, no doubt judging me for ogling this girl out the window, said her name was R and that she was the youngest person in the program, just 20.  This was upsetting because I’d thought I was the youngest (and, therefore, the most precocious) writer. Though I can assure you I still looked like the youngest writer.

When I was finally introduced to R it turned out I’d made that most common of errors: mistaking a Jew for a Cuban.  Her profile was Roman and it turned out she was just kind of tan. If we’re being honest her haircut was, if not a purebred example of the species, at least in the mullet family. But nicely highlighted with a quarterhorsey sheen, resting on her wide shoulders.

My reading in this era was mostly confined to high Modernism so my mental catalogue of R must have also included Hemingway’s description of Brett Ashley, her “curves like the hull of a racing yacht.”

Longtime readers of WTT know I have just the slightest tendency towards cynicism and this was in full force as I listened to the program director’s oft-repeated spiel about how the Bennington Writing Seminars were a vortex. The first week of the residency was more like a tepid whirlpool of mercilessly unseasoned vegetarian meals eaten with disapproving middle-aged women. I was all eye rolls and afternoon naps until the final weekend in Vermont, when it got really fucking hot.

On a sweltering night (perhaps the evening after my constant shit-talking induced a four error debacle from Tom Bissell in the poetry vs. prose softball game) I stepped into an even swelteringer barn to hear Frank Bidart deliver a 75-minute long reading. “The Third Hour of the Night” is a life changing artwork that, amongst various murders and buggeries, is about Benvenuto Cellini boiling every piece of metal he can find to forge his Perseus. When the windows to his workroom burst into flame in the poem I looked up at the windows in the barn, wondering if they’d do the same.

Wandering back dormward that night I thought long and hard about the profound sacrifices one must make for one's art and whether or not I could still sneak into the cafeteria and get some more Moose Tracks ice cream.

A day or two later, before my lunchtime Moose Tracks ration, I was alone at the end of a long laminate table, eyes downcast to avoid another round of beginning writer conversation filled with phrase, “my work,” when R appeared and asked if I might eat with her. I don’t remember how I replied but there wasn’t any decision-making involved. I’m highly suggestible.

R’d been so perturbed by her classmates’ critique of her workshop essay that she’d stayed up all night and rewritten the piece to the satisfaction of Phillip Lopate (in 2005 parlance: P-Lo). I’ve always been impressed by people who do things—in my five Bennington residencies I wrote precisely nothing. Of course I’d like to read the piece I said. Yes right now.

My memory elides any events between reading her essay (I’m sure I found it quite good) and the last evening of residency, as the party for graduating MFAers wound down. I discovered R was upset again, this time because a student had claimed to hate her, “for being so fucking talented and so young.” At the time this seemed like a silly reason to hate someone, and I told her so. I added that the hateful woman had fled my workshop crying when her (not even terrible) poem about a barn fire was being analyzed.

To be fair, most of us were basketcases by the end of a residency: depressed, horny, tearful, belligerent. I think Bennington authorities limit sessions to ten days because any longer and there’d be too many homicides. It’s a wonderful place.

My conversation with R moved to a nook outside my corner room in Swan (Swann’s) dorm. The picture window at our backs, the folded quilt underneath us, the wall sconce amber lighting all around—these objects straddle a before and after in my life.

R startled with her perception and intelligence and I tried to follow in a feverish, dehydrated way, saying anything to keep pace. Then as now, I’m often short on amusing biographical material. R was not.

She piled personal details that I wouldn’t then have dreamed fact checking. She described undergrad years at Sarah Lawrence—addictive, I still think of the letters in the name of the college formed from lines of cocaine. She described her broken engagement—charming, crazy kid stuff. She described her health—grim, despite all appearances. She described her family—Tenenbaumian, with at least one autistic-genius brother and a figure skating mother.

The best thing about writing poems and having long one-on-one conversation is that you really get to stare at something. At a reading earlier in the week, our director Liam Rector ended his poem “Song Years” with the words, “the cruelty of it overwhelmed me.” I could take the conspiratorial shape of her eyebrows, the directness of her tiger’s-eye colored eyes (perhaps—I’m notoriously bad at remembering eye color) and the vicious white of her teeth. But the pink definition of the bow of her upper lip is just cruel.

In the second hour of the conversation I noticed R starting to throw out some subtle signals: “I knew the next person I’d fall in love with would have long hair.” I looked over my shoulder.

I remember the negotiation was tense as to whether we could kiss. I’ll eat lunch with whomever but I’m no pushover when it comes to making out with beautiful women—you can’t just force me into it. I demurred, as one sometimes does when one’s intuition and one’s pants are pointing in opposite directions.  Only after more compelling arguments were made did I solemnly agree we would make out. But certainly not until after I’d brushed my teeth. The hard water out of the tap.

I smelled of whitening toothpaste and deodorant (I had reapplied and made a joke of transferring some from my underarms to hers). R smelled like the whole day. We walked from my building to hers (the smokers dorm!), which overlooked something called (and I’m not making this up) the End of the World. We had to go there because her room had “a real bed”—that is, one with a grownup, non-plastic mattress. We slapped at late night mosquitoes and sometimes our hands trailed behind resolute shoulders long enough to bank into each other.

Here’s the part you won’t believe. Her room was lousy with fireflies. She’d left the window open and the screen was mostly holes and there were green streaks all around. I’m not even sure the room had a light. We took laughing hold of as many bugs as we could, insect bodies bumping gently into our closed fingers as we threw them into the hallway, where they mostly wandered back while we went for more. There were always more. Fireflies are very stupid creatures.

R hadn’t lied—her bed was a real bed. The first residency you don’t know to bring your own sheets so your skin suffers the low thread counts you’d expect from a down at heels mental institution. The sheets were one of several excuses I used to explain the fact that I couldn’t stop shivering. I feared I was revealing a lack of worldly experience because, even in the dead of night, it couldn’t have been less than 80 degrees out.

R’s blue-striped halter-top, paired with rather surprising leopard print knickers, and the onslaught of oxygen-stealing kisses didn’t help me regulate my breathing. I was embarrassed in an undershirt and disintegrating gym shorts. These were my younger and more vulnerable years—picture Linus and his blankie.

The lucky thing is that people who are great at something can help others to raise their game. “Mmm, you’re fun to kiss.” There were further requests and not a few close calls but I preserved in maintaining my honor. I even, unconscionably, slept for an hour or two.

R was up early for a workshop (we were here to become writers?) and I walked the dewy path back home. Waiting for the shower water to warm I contemplated myself in a pained, baked-contact gaze: raccoon eyes, suffering skin, and disastrously puffy hair (my god the humidity!)—I had forgotten I looked like that.

I’d brought Tender Is the Night for comfort reading and picked it up to forget for a while longer. The best is young Dick and Nicole, so in love, staring off the sanitarium verandah at those Swiss cities below, braceleted in white light. Never to be seen again.

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