On Thursday nights I attend a poetry class. It isn’t so much a class as it is a workshop group, but it’s where most of my ideas come from. Take the teacher (he insists that we call him Bob), for example. He inspired me to write a poem about an escaped mental patient that teaches poetry. He has these huge eyes, and he’s always just staring. Sometimes he stares at people, and sometimes just into space. Either way, it’s kind of creepy. In my poem, he ended up gutting the whole class with a spork. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does, someday.
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Then there’s Billy. Well, he was Billy back when we were in the same kindergarten class. These days, he insists that everyone just call him “The Poet.” I don’t know how a human being could ever get that pretentious. He always sits in the back of the room, wearing all black and scowling at nothing. He’s always the only one in the room besides Bob when I arrive, my usual 5 minutes early. Sometimes I wonder if those two actually live there.
So one particular Thursday I meandered in, with just one quick glance at each of the room’s other occupants (as far as I’m concerned, they’re both potential murderers), and made my way to my usual seat two rows back, against the right-hand wall. By the time I had finished settling myself in, taking out the poem I chose to read for evening and cracking open a Cherry Coke (the nectar of creativity); the room had pretty much filled up, around twenty-five people total. There were three middle-aged women, their poems usually involved disruptive children and deadbeat husbands; one 60 year old man who spent most of his time hitting on the younger girls and writing poems about their sexual organs; and the rest were college students, like me, who wrote their poetry on the subject of failed romance. Not surprisingly for a poetry class, it’s always mostly girls.
Thirty seconds before we were scheduled to begin, the last member of our class arrived. I’ve watched her so many times that I have her whole entrance routine memorized. She walks in, purse over her right shoulder, espresso in her left hand, and pauses in the doorway. She scans the room, and notices that there are only three empty seats left. One on either side of “The Poet”, and one next to me. So, just like every week, she sauntered rigidly over to the chair beside mine, her hair moving back and forth across the sides of her head in a hypnotic rhythm. After pausing for exactly 5 seconds, she carefully sat her espresso down on the surface of the desk, spilling 3 drops which trickled down off the uneven side of the desk. Frowning at the small mess she made, she plunged down into her chair (rather lacking in grace), and finally flashed me a quick smile with a muffled “Hi.”
Her voice surprised me, it always does. I never quite expect her to talk to me, but still I always rehearse some sort of suave greeting before every class, and then every class I let myself get so shocked that she actually spoke to me that my mind draws a blank. Desperately, I fumbled for the right words to reply, something that wouldn’t show the fear and anxiety that I’d been doing my best to keep hidden. Finally, after what I deemed too long a silence, I returned a rushed “Hi,” back to her, so quiet that she probably didn’t even hear it. Cursing myself, I sank further into my chair to sulk.
Now, you have to understand that I never really learned how to talk to girls. It’s an acquired skill, and one that I never quite managed to acquire. I have female friends, but that just isn’t the same. I try to ask them for advice, and all they do is go on about how cute their boyfriends are. It’s a good thing they’re pretty, they’ll get nowhere on brains alone. I went on a total of one date in high school, and after that experience, that girl never talked to me, again. I don’t blame her. I was so silent and distant through dinner that she spent most of the movie scowling, and wouldn’t even share her popcorn with me. Most guys have fathers to teach them guy stuff like that, all I ever had was TV. But you see the problem with TV is that all the men on it are always handsome and articulate, two things that I’m reasonably certain I will never be.
While I was lost in misery and reflection of my love life, or lack thereof, I noticed that Bob had been talking. I wasn’t really paying attention, but it was some sort of lecture about how poetry is all around us, accompanied by an amusing anecdote about a hive of bees. After the first class, I learned to just ignore him. He’ll go on and on about nothing, and I doubt even he really knows what he’s talking about. That man is so full of it, I’m surprised he doesn’t weigh more.
After a good 10 minutes of wasting valuable oxygen, Bob shut his mouth and sat down. It was time for us to start reading our poems. First to go up was one of the middle aged women; I think her name was Gladys, or some other old chick name like that. As per the usual, I wasn’t paying her much attention. Most of her poems were exactly the same, they went something like this.
[i]“My husband is lazy
All love he forbids
He ran off with his secretary
Leaving me with nine kids.”[/i]
Still, I jotted down a note or two to give her after class, everyone was required to do that, but I was really too busy worrying about my own performance to give her any mind. It’s like that every week. My palms are always sweaty, and my stomach is always churning harder than an Amish man on speed who suffers from ADHD. You’d think that eventually I’d get used to reading before a group, but it had been 4 months and I was still nervous as hell every week. To this day I still feel like wetting my pants every time I speak in front of a crowd. Of course, it really didn’t help that the poem I had written for that particular night was about someone in that very room.
To be perfectly honest, all of my poems from the last 6 weeks had been about her. Her name is Gwen, by the way. Since her attention was focused forward on Gladys, I took the opportunity to study her some more. She wasn’t the kind of girl that most guys actively drool over, the popular khaki-wearing brainless-and-yet-gorgeous girls who always seem to end up dating sports stars. Don’t get me wrong, though, I think she’s absolutely beautiful. Just not in that stereotypical way. Her skin might be a little bit pale, her lips might be just a little too thin, her breasts might not be enormous (or really even medium sized), and her butt might be just a little too big… but that’s just what I like about her. She doesn’t look like everyone else, but she’s completely stunning in her own way. Gladys finished talking, and Gwen turned her head to jot down some notes. Fearful of being caught staring, I did the same.
With my mind back to the present time and place, the pounding in my stomach and the prolific sweating returned. Slowly but resolvedly, I forced myself to get up out of my seat and head for the podium at the front of class. I was nervous, but I wanted to get it out of the way so I didn’t spend the entire rest of the evening dripping sweat. Still, I walked as gradually as possible, secretly hoping someone else would jump up and go before me. But just like every week, no one did. I set my typed copy of the poem down on the podium and glanced around the room. Half were still writing comments for Gladys, but the other half was staring right at me. I could feel the sweat from my hands making marks on the paper beneath them. With all those faces looking my way, for a second I felt like I could read what each of them were thinking. All of it was about me, none of it was good. Billy, I mean “The Poet,” was giving me his best condescending smile. Pompous bastard. Gulping down a deep breath, I began to read my poem.
[/i]“I wrote a sonnet
And tossed it out
‘Cause it wasn’t good enough
So here I give you this short verse
Unedited, unpolished, and unrehearsed”[i]
As I started to get into it, I relaxed a bit and my stomach calmed down. I convinced myself that since I had already started, there was no longer any reason to feel self-conscious. My hands stopped shaking, and I was able to start speaking in a slower, calmer voice.
[i]“The same clichés
Of love and hate
You’ve heard them all before
I thought I knew
Them all, too
Until I saw you in the door
I’d like to say you rocked my world
Or took my breath away
But all I saw was just another girl
Like I see every day
I didn’t see the face of God
I didn’t feel the temperature rise
But I knew that I was bound for trouble
When I looked into your eyes” [/i]
My plan was to avoid looking at Gwen at all costs, but my subconscious took over control of my eyes and my gaze involuntarily wandered off in her direction. It was just in time to see her head turn away.
[i]“Love is a sickness
For which there is no cure
Love is insanity
My malady du jour
If I thought that you would understand
I’d say it to your face
But since I know
Which way your winds blow
I accept the fear’s embrace
The craziest man
I ever did see
Was trapped inside a mirror
And looked a lot like me
Although he’ll never tell you who it’s from
It was he that wrote you
This silly poem”[/i]
I know. It’s cheesy, corny, cliché… but that’s the way I felt so that’s how I wrote it out. I don’t know how to do it any differently.
I’m still not quite sure how I felt about Gwen turning away, like that. Did she somehow figure out that it was written about her, and she turned away in shame? More likely, she was just disinterested, and turned away for no real reason at all; just complete apathy towards me and my poem. I don’t know which I would have preferred. I didn’t want her to know that it was about her… but I guess that on some level, I wished that she did. As the class gave me their light applause, I made my way back to my seat, too distracted by my own thoughts to even feel relief at it being over.
In my head, I thought back to everything I had wanted to say to her, everything I had practiced to say to her tonight. How hard would it be to just ask her to get some coffee with me after class? That would be a nice informal sort of meeting; it wouldn’t have to be a date at all. Just a chance to get to know her better. I gave it the perfect wording, and imagined the strong, confident tone of voice I would use when I did it. At that moment, I was resolved. I had dedicated myself to the task and I would do it, no matter what.
Adding extra speed to my step, and standing up tall, I charged back to my desk and sat down in a smooth, cool motion. Determined to get the deed done before my brain I could stop me, I swung around in my chair and opened my mouth to speak, only to be stopped cold when I saw Gwen looking right at me. For a brief moment, our eyes met, and time froze. My brain wasn’t panicked, but it wasn’t calm, either. It just stopped. All thoughts stopped, all movement stopped. For that one second, the entire universe was just perfect. But time had to start again sometime, and so it did.
The corners or Gwen’s mouth twitched up into a smile, I’d never really seen her smile before, she always looked kind of distressed. She said “I like your poem.” Then she just turned away.
I sat there, stuck in the same position, for a few seconds. My cheeks were bright red, I could feel it, and my mouth was completely dry. No saliva, and no words. Abruptly, my mind woke itself up, and instantly started screaming at me. She talked to you! It isn’t too late, ask her! Talk to her! Thank her! SAY ANYTHING! But there was nothing in me. I slowly turned myself back to the forward-facing position, and looked down at the lonely sheet of paper sitting there on the surface of my otherwise empty desk. Empathizing, I sat there and studied its dark black letters for the rest of the class.