Memoir of an Escape
“But the men we found / in the bar’s humiliating darkness still invited us in.”
–“New Jersey Poem” by Terrance Hayes
I waitressed for quarters at the Hammonton VFW but
my mom, on her day off from waitressing, did it for nothing. The
customers rolled in after 8 am mass and being seen with Father Cal, men
careening into dementia, women inhabiting, at last, their thrones. We
subsidized their cream chipped beef with our toil until I found
an acceptance letter in our paint-chipped mailbox. In
good English, I said hell yes, and drove northwest to where the
doors on the Cressida wouldn’t close in the cold. I learned a bar’s
special filter on human ugliness, how it can fail to be humiliating
to be in love if the world’s ending. It wasn’t only the darkness
that bronzed us, but the swill beer, the line to the bathroom, still
being there when the other made it back. Every man who invited
me home was a god, young and slender, whatever he was later. See us
on a swing set, kicking cans like Cher, not sucking our stomachs in.
“Willie, that’s bullshit, you stink like a heartbroken man.”
– “New Jersey Poem” by Terrance Hayes
At the Elwood Deli, where Jim bought iffy subs, a man named Willie
bought a winning lottery ticket. Dottie would say that’s
just the way, somebody with no pot to piss in, and all Tuesday bullshit
about her neighbors the Casabones. Her husband, Saint Fred, told you
with a wink, you can’t win unless you buy a ticket, as if that didn’t stink
of the false wisdom of a couple of retired Republicans. You didn’t like
Egg Harbor City, where, for a decade, you survived pretending to give a
damn about penny candy and Pink Floyd, embarrassed to be heartbroken
over Bobby Guerrieri and Eddie Ford. Nowhere anywhere a man.
Your new husband bookends, with you, a Boston terrier in the soft photo
that is all I know of him. I forgive him for taking one of my lives, which I
left on a clothesline that only moves in one direction. He was passing
through the opposite apartment and found you. I lose more things that way.
Grief, even in the open wind, is private, like the sketches not good enough
to take with you, the library book you trusted me to return, like the sky
belongs to the person who beholds it, even the sky over the Sahara, the
world’s largest sky.
It was good to wake up to your insomnia. Until 4 we would yell about
injustice, then arrive at work late and catch hell. We copied Seamus
Heaney poems on menus and hid them in Charlotte’s apron. Days off we
went to Monticello and pestered the tour guides about Sally Hemmings.
For a wedding you pretend your life’s sheerer than it is, that viognier
means only viognier. And the poem, if there is one, is a concession
between two hearts, only one of which, inevitably, likes Robert Frost. I
have a husband now. We live on a street that sprouts Styrofoam like Easter
lilies. He never mentions when he remembers some woman he kissed on
the battlement of a Norman castle. I am grateful for that. When I think
about it, it catches my breath.
Photograph of Jasmine V. Bailey by Stephen Grant.