The Poet: pt 2
“I first saw you late on that school-sponsored tour, the one in the middle of the country. Where was it again? I think you’d know. It’s got the big castle overlooking the valley and the river. Toledo. Toledo is the name. I knew I’d get there eventually. Anyway, I think it was when you held up the bus — not by like gunpoint, but you know, like stopped us from moving, that morning, because you were rushing to make it. We were about to leave you and your compatriots, and the four (?) of you ran out in front of the bus, with your arms waving madly, saying ‘Wait,’ or ‘Espere,’ which would make more sense, as we were in Spain. And I started clapping. What can I say? It was early, and I felt entitled, and you all were late. Well, I remember your very presence hushing me. I remember falling into a silent awe when I saw you. And thinking, ‘This is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but with a whimper.’
“You didn’t acknowledge me, of course, not until I wandered up to you and said ‘hello.’ I was so nervous. You had these long, long legs and perfectly caramel skin, and your eyes, they were, what’s the right color — honey? Is that a color? It’s the only way I can describe them — a honey brown. I was overcome by this rush of hormones or emotions or… I don’t know. It hit me, though, like a ton of bricks.
“We talked for the rest of the trip. We even sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. You shared your headphones with me as you played music, and we chatted about Modest Mouse, and I played you a few Radiohead songs. Each of us promised the other that it wouldn’t get any better than this — the song, I mean. Whatever song we played wouldn’t get any better than this. You slumped down onto me, tired, such an affectless way about you, that when you fell asleep on my shoulder after the first day, after only knowing each other for three of four hours, I smiled.
“We stayed out late that night, when we got back from Toledo. And we wandered the cobblestone streets of the plaza, as the businesses all shuttered for the evening, slowly, one by one. I felt like I had entered a dream state. When there wasn’t another bar to go to, or a Carrefour to buy 2 euro bottles of vino from, we wandered back to your place.
“I think I was 19. I felt so enlivened, every moment, every touch, every thing happening all at once. We stayed up all night and talked. In the morning, around 6, I walked back to my apartment, took a shower, changed clothes, and headed to classes.
“We had this routine for three days straight. On the third day, I began to fall asleep in class, nearly slipping off its little blue plastic chair onto the school’s linoleum flooring. But I found a quote around then, one that I thought about having tattooed onto my body somewhere, only to back out because of a general fear of commitment and the idea of never being able to get a job, from Dr. Seuss, who said, ‘You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep, because reality is finally better than your dreams.’ I knew then I was hooked. I had to be. No other explanation for it but love at first sight.”
Owen sat on the cold, stone bench beside his temporary university and rubbed his hands. The note had gone too long, and he didn’t even get to the section that he really wanted to talk about, the part where he would tell Carmen how sorry he was for what happened next. He shook his head. Regardless of how many times he wrote it, he knew that the conversation would go poorly. He’d find his way into the cafe, where she would be waiting for him, his few items in a box or a pathetic plastic bag, memories that she didn’t want to keep, which she refused to consider and would be tossing away if he didn’t take. He sighed, showing his breath in a white plume. Beside him, the cold stone building looked on impersonally. Only a month remained in his time in Spain. He folded up the note, its scratch marks and mistakes in full view, then slid it into his front pocket. He shoved his hands into his coat and stood. Then, with wary movements, he advanced on the cobblestone steps, out into the Plaza Mayor, where only a few couples sat sipping espressos with their families, their children bundled up in multiple layers, which transformed them into star shapes, unable to move their limbs and impervious to the hard brick surface beneath them. Owen pressed on, walking past the out-of-place neon signs that promised sugary treats and lit up during business hours, but today had no spark, through an archway, and onto a side street, to a cafe near another part of the campus, where he had only been once before. To his right, a mustached man on a horse, both made of copper, waved his hat. Owen didn’t recognize him.
Then he turned to his left, where, standing, her head down, her hair covered by some large purple cable-knit hat, the woman he had dreamt about, who he was certain was a dream, a fugue state, a rift in the cosmos, a momentary lapse in all ration and reason, leaned against the cold stone side of the cafe. She was the one — the one he would spend so much time pining over, the one who confused and delighted him, the one who had a strong, forceful dignity. She glanced up. He took her in, in her left hand, she held a lit cigarette casually between two gloved fingers. Her eyes had a reddened quality that accompanied exhaustion and tears. Her nose angled softly, on a slightly askew tract to her mouth, which smiled, and Owen knew in that moment, as she hurried to lift the cigarette to her lips and breathe in its smoke, that she had already forgiven him.
He waved and approached. He had exactly five euro in his pocket, enough for two cafes con leche, which would allow them an hour to talk about everything that went poorly, and wish each other well before leaving. “Hi,” he said.
“I’ve got your stuff,” she said.
“OK,” he said. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Well, I was hoping to sit down and talk — “
“About, what Owen?” she glared in a way that made him go quiet. “About how you cheated on me? How I caught you with the girl on your lap?”
“I, I just, I wanted to apologize.”
“It’s not good enough,” she bit her lip. And shook her head. “I’m not going to cry in front of you.”
“Com’on, Carmen. Please, just let me… can we please talk?”
She exhaled and let the cold air settle into calm around them. “Want a cigarette?” she asked.
He cocked his head, “I’d gladly lose seven minutes of my life for you.” She smiled, which quickly faded into concern, as she patted her pocket for her pack.
“I’m sorry,” Owen said. “I wrote you a letter.” He reached down into his pocket and pulled out the piece of lined paper, crumpled and incomplete. “Or I started a letter.”
She handed him a cigarette and had a lighter to it before he could say anything else. “Save it, Owen.”
“What?” he blurted with a burst of smoke.
“Just… There’s no need. I don’t want to read it.”
“But, it just — I mean,” he had the cigarette in his left hand, swinging empathetically, until he paused and said in a whimper: “Carmen, I’m sorry.”
A silence passed over them, and they each drew in a bit more smoke. “Is that it?” she asked.
“No, no,” Owen said. “This isn’t how this is supposed to happen.”
“I don’t live in one of your stories, Owen. I don’t know what to tell you. I”m not some person who will follow some kind of perfect arc, and you can convince with your bullshit words, which probably don’t mean anything to you anyway. I was your girlfriend, who you cheated on, and… Do you remember what you said that night to me? When I confronted you? When you took her to our bar. The jazz club that we went to on our first date…” finding no reaction, she shook her head and pressed on, “You said that I probably wouldn’t have known about it anyway.” Owen’s compulsion to inhale more of the smoke overrode his anxiety at his own stupidity. “Seriously Owen, how many times did you …” and then her voice cracked, tears overfilled her eyes, and her sobs wouldn’t allow her to speak.
“No, no, Carmen, this only happened once,” he stood a little distance from her, unsure how to comfort her, if his touch would be incendiary, or if he could just do what every muscle, every bone and every fiber ached to do: give her a hug, tell her that it’s OK and move on.
“And why?” she spat. “Why did this happen at all?”
He grew quiet and closed his eyes. “You didn’t return my calls for four days. You didn’t answer the phone on Thanksgiving, even. I must have called a few dozen times. I sent text messages. I was really worried about you being OK, and then by the end of that time I thought, ‘Well, this must be her way of breaking up with me.’”
“I just… I just didn’t feel like talking to you.”
“Well, that didn’t feel good, Carmen. And, I don’t know, I saw this girl that I knew before we met,” he sighed. Were those the wrong words? Everything felt so wrong. Why couldn’t they return to the time in his note? The pure and beautiful times, when it was a world of two, and everything felt idyllic and supernatural. His throat tightened, his words strained, “And we just, well, you know the rest,” his eyes pointed down, he began to consider if that time had ever been real.
She blinked, catching herself, “You want your stuff?” She raised the plastic bag, dangling it with one finger.
He nodded and lifted it.
“OK. Then I guess that’s it.”
“Take care of yourself, Owen.” She said, and he listened to the rhythmic clacking of her shoes on the paved steps as she walked away.
Late that night, after his host parents had gone to bed, and friends in the program had told him not to worry about it, “We’ll make the last month the best ever!” they said. Owen lay awake, his gaze pointed at the ceiling, replaying the day’s events. His mind waited for the moment when he thought he could slip off into sleep, when his eyes closed, so they had a blank, black screen to start replaying the worst moments of their relationship: when he told her he loved her, but she let silence pass between them with no reply; when she pulled him out of the bar at Halloween, calling his closest friend on the trip a “puppet master,” who seemed to direct around people however he wanted, including Owen; when she called him, late one night, as he read the Sun Also Rises in bed, feeling European and literary, and she said she had gone off to get some drinks with a couple of German guys and wanted to see if he wanted to join, and he replied no, and her reply, “You don’t want to come be with your girlfriend while she’s drinking with two single guys?” and how he knew that he didn’t — that he wanted to finish the book and be alone with Ernest for the night; and on. The bad memories now seemed to accompany each good one too; the trip they took together to Mallorca, when they climbed the mountain, locked legs on the edge and told each other “if I go, you’ll go with me,” now came with the argument they had, the tears and the anger when they ended up at a restaurant that only served fish, an animal she found disgusting, later that night. And on. Yet through it all, he thought of Carmen’s sad face, the one that he truly loved. His guilt mixed with nostalgia to form the most exquisite kind of pain — one deep and permanent. So he couldn’t help but feel the pull to his phone, to lift it and click it on. Its screen the only light in the room, six inches away from his face, he typed, “I’m sorry. I can’t stop thinking about it” and hesitated, but eventually hit “send.”
He closed his phone. He threw himself onto his side in the small double bed. He stared at the room’s white, blank wall, which had some kind of textured swirl to it. He considered going to his tiny desk in the corner, littered with paper and notes, and writing, but he didn’t know how he would start. All he could think of were the many things he wanted to tell Carmen. He flipped to his other side, trying to reassure himself, refusing to open his eyes, “It’s all OK. You’re not a bad person…” round and round, in a quiet, determined voice, “It’s all OK. You’re not a bad person…” until his phone buzzed.
His heart skipped a beat. He hadn’t felt this excitement since he received his acceptance letters to college. And now, he opened up the phone. At the top it read Carmen and the text: “Hey. Wanna come over?”
He rushed off a reply. “Sure, be there as soon as I can.” He had a test and classes in the morning; 1 a.m. now, no way he was getting a full night’s sleep, but that same throb he felt when they first met, that same impossible energy, filled him now. He threw on his pants, then a sweater, then tossed on his shoes, each movement done to maximize speed and quiet. He grabbed his coat, which jangled softly with his keys. His host mother would have breakfast ready at 7:15 a.m., and he felt like he could be back for it. He imagined her face, her reaction, when he entered the dining room through the front door, not the hallway. He laughed softly, and padded toward to the exit, opening it slowly, he made his escape.
Outside, the moon shined full, and the city’s ancient architecture slept. He knew the route perfectly: 15 minutes past the train station, turn right at the park; 15 minutes round the city’s center, on the large, heavily trafficked street, where cabbies weaved in-between the cars and traffic moved like a rushing river; then 10 minutes after the right at the hospital, which had two nurses sitting outside, smoking in their coats and scrubs, either ending a shift or starting one; then one final right turn, which took him up her town house’s concrete steps, to her tall, arched door. He texted “I’m here,” panting. He heard the door buzz, then click. And he pushed it open.
He entered her apartment, and followed her back to her little room off to the side of the main hallway, its the only light still on. She closed the door. “I’m sorry,” he started.
“Yeah, Owen. I’m sorry too.”
“Can’t we make up?”
“I don’t know.”
“But I’m here. That’s a good sign.”
“I just, I couldn’t sleep.” She sat down at her computer. It had her email up. A few crumpled Kleenex sat to its right.
“Me neither.” He rested his back against the wall, and he slid down into a seating position. He still had on his coat and shoes.
“It’s just, how do I know you’re sorry?” she asked, turning.
Owen furrowed his brow. “I don’t know? Like what would you want me to do? Shave my eyebrows or something?”
A smirk came over her face then, “Not both of them. Just one.”
Owen’s eyes widened. The small, room with a lonely single-bed now felt much smaller. “Why?”
“It’d be your mark, your repentance.” She had a full smile now, appreciating the simplicity of it.
“But I like my eyebrows.”
She stood. She had on sapphire, full-bottomed underwear, a tank top and no bra. His pulse quickened, and he felt his temperature rise. He moved to take off his coat, but she slid over and sat down on his lap, his jacket’s position effectively cuffing him. “Just one eyebrow, then everything will be fine.”
Owen’s brain scrambled. His eyes darted from object to object: computer-bed-dresser-window-teeth-wall-door-lips-light-panties-nightstand-hair-eyes-breasts. He breathed shallowly. And she bent herself down, taking his head in her hands, and she kissed him, long and hot and sweet. “O…OK,” he mustered.