A Punch in the Mouth for the Poetry Man

I had a girlfriend named Amy in 1993. Delicate features, pale skin, green eyes. Met her in Chicago, in a bar. I was starting graduate school in the fall soon. I asked her to come with me, to take a chance. Amy was an adventurous spirit. She agreed.

As soon as I got to the university, I realized that I’d made a terrible mistake bringing Amy here. I wanted to be single, wanted to be free. Still, I went through the motions for a few months. Amy and I found an apartment on Genesee Street. She took a job in a coffee shop. She fixed dinners for us. I wrote, attending classes, taught my own classes. Some nights, as the snow fell outside our apartment window, Amy and I would talk about the names we’d give our future children: Akhmatova, Elvis, and Mandelstam. Two Russian poets, and one absurdly popular American singer. Pretentious? Most definitely.

Within three months at the university, I had fallen in love unexpectedly with a beautiful Communist. I broke up with Amy. Told her that this wasn’t working for me. Did it in our apartment. I had no idea what I was doing. I looked out the window at the street lights, at the falling snow. Snow fell constantly that winter. I watched it fall. The oversized flakes, some as big as feathers. I listened to Amy cry in the shower, wailing like the brakes of a train.

Within a few weeks I had the apartment to myself. Amy was gone. The beautiful Communist? She retreated back into her old relationship. I didn’t see that coming. I was alone, alone, alone. I was angry at the beautiful Communist. Angry at myself for what I’d done to Amy. I felt guilty, horribly guilty. The apartment on Genesee Street was too big and too cold for me. I couldn’t afford to heat the place. I wore my parka in the house like a bathrobe. Around this time, there was a leak in the apartment upstairs. The leak made the panels on my kitchen ceiling turn a sinister brown color and swell. Each morning, I’d wake up, hungover, and stand in the kitchen to access the ever-swelling panels. How long would they hold? Tough to say. Within a week the swelling hung down like an infected udder or an oversized pod, like a thing from a science fiction movie. All the anger and guilt that I felt about Amy and the Communist was inside the udder/pod. One morning, as I did the dishes below the swelling, the udder/pod unexpectedly gave way. Pieces of rotten, water-swollen ceiling pelted my shoulders and head areas. I stood there with my winter jacket on, my hands submerged up to the wrist in lukewarm dish water, and I thought, This is what I deserve, oh this is most definitely what I deserve.

I memorized poems back then. Long poems. My brain was young, sharp. Memorizing was easy. Not so much now, 20 years later. One of the poems I remember from that time is Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes. That’s Rilke’s poem about Orpheus’s trip to the Underworld to rescue his love, Eurydice. The only rule Orpheus must follow: Do not look back. He has to trust that Eurydice is behind him. But on the journey to the surface, Orpheus can’t help himself: he looks back. He breaks the rule. Now, Eurydice has to stay behind, in the Underworld. Orpheus must return to the surface alone.

Amy had moved to New York City. One of the writers at the university was heading down to NYC for the weekend. Did I want to come? I did. He dropped me in Chinatown, at the address where Amy said she was living. I hadn’t called Amy or let her know that I was coming. The downstairs buzzer didn’t work. I pressed it again and again. Nothing. I hadn’t expected this, hadn’t planned for this.

I didn’t know NYC then the way I know it now. The idea of spending the night on the street in NYC terrified me. Scared and desperate, I began to yell. At the top of my lungs, I shouted her name: AMY, AMY, AMY! I waited for a response. Nothing. I yelled again, waited, nothing. Then I heard a window lift on one of the floors above me. A voice yelled: SHE’S ON HER WAY DOWN.

Originally published at Scott C. Jones.