by: John P Loonam ((Header art is by the talented Ragnhildur Jóhanns, who constructed flowery paper art sculptures in her series entitled Sculptural Poems.))
A case of mistaken identity and a ruse crafted with words…
I freely admit that I would have slept with that smile. Just the one time, I think, and therein lies the problem. The hurt and the anger and the self-loathing came in with the second time. The third, the notion of a romantic relationship, and all that goddamn poetry. But even Ellie has had to admit Charles has a lovely smile; sudden, genuine, but with a gentle sideways shift that comes a second later, so the final product borders on smirk. You don’t know if he is laughing with you or at you.
Charles Ashford was in my adolescent psych class. We were both doing a master’s at night at Brooklyn College, gathering education credits as fast as we could so that the city would not take away our teaching certificates or our jobs. Everyone in the room, including Professor Miller, was trying to game this system. Some of my classmates sat in the front of the room with their pens perpetually poised and their hands regularly raised while I chose the middle, so that the papers spread across my desk could look like notes, not the essays on river-based civilizations I was forever grading. Charles was always in the back, his head leaning against the wall. He knitted through every class, Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:15 to 8 pm, late August through December. No notebook ever appeared, no pen, no textbook. What appeared, as if out of nowhere, were hats and mittens and scarves knitted in wools of red and brown and blue..
He got away with this because Professor Miller liked to flirt with him. Because – despite the knitting – he always knew the answers. Because that smile invited just before it mocked. The Professor would ask something about delayed gratification or goal identification and the front of the room would raise their hands, hoping to look both eager and involved, and the middle of the room would scribble in their notebooks, hoping to look conscientious and involved, but the back of the room simply leaned against the wall and smiled. Professor Miller called on Charles one evening in October, after a month of clicking needles. Charles did not even look up from the pattern he had spread out upon his desk, and his lips barely stopped their silent counting of stitches as Charles managed – as if it was an afterthought – to answer. “The situation is very different with girls than with boys. The social pressures are different, the biological pressures are different, but the primacy of identification formation clearly crosses gender lines.”
His was a voice so full of confident bullshit, so flowing in a rhythm that kept up with the knit-one-purl-two nodding of his head, that several of us gasped. It was a voice that matched his smile, and when I saw that smile playing on the edges of his lips, I got a touch of vertigo.
“Go see a doctor,” Ellie, my older, wiser, married sister had told me. “Midterms are coming up.”
Ellie scoffed. She was completing her doctorate in something called “Erotic Postmodernism” and considered my Educational Psychology Masters a pale imitation of graduate school. “You don’t have to take the midterms, you just have to give them.”
“And then grade them. I have no time for the doctor,” I complained.
I’d had the vertigo for a little over a week. Something was putting pressure on my ear drums so that I felt like I was constantly taxiing towards the gate in a plane that had descended too quickly, as if someone had draped a bit of gauze between me and the world.
“I can get Annie to look at it,” Ellie said.
“Annie is a podiatrist.”
“This is probably very simple.”
“You just want to remind me that you married a doctor.”
“Maybe she knows someone,” Ellie had said. She had been trying to fix my romantic life ever since I took the spare bedroom in their apartment. Do you have any idea how unnerving it is to have your lesbian sister marry before you? Marriage equality has put a lot more pressure on straight girls.
“The definition of the self in opposition to the other, especially the parental other or the authority figure as a stand in for the parental other, is a universal trait of adolescence. Perhaps a defining trait.”
Charles didn’t look up from the yarn and needles until he had finished speaking, and then, only to smile. Right at Professor Miller. A smile that was small and modest and also genuine at its birth, but grew into something bordering on arrogance, with that shadow of a smirk hiding behind it. A shoulder shrug of a grin. And as Professor Miller turned back towards the front of the room, having been drawn again down the center aisle towards that Charles Ashford smile, she asked a raised hand to comment on what Charles had said. As I stared in awe at Charles, he turned his head, almost imperceptibly to the right, and offered that smile to me. I knew better than to stare. My inner child wanted to stick a tongue out at him. To write a note to the girl across the row insulting his curly red hair or his baggy jeans. My inner adult wanted to shake her head and return to the river-based civilization homework I was correcting at my desk. But my inner adolescent, forever defining herself in relation to the other, smiled back.
Ellie, as it turned out, was right again. Annie did know someone. Dr. Ploughman was a friend of Annie’s from medical school. He also accepted my insurance and kept evening hours. And, though Annie had been kind enough to refuse to examine me, she couldn’t refuse forever, which was how long Ellie had planned on bringing it up. So I made an appointment.
Dr. Ploughman’s office was on King’s Highway in southern Brooklyn and was perhaps the single most disorganized place in the universe. The receptionist/nurse was in a too-tight t-shirt that read “Slippery When Wet,” and the waiting room was crowded with entire families of Orthodox Jews staking out seats on the stained couches and broken kitchen chairs. There was a small boy jumping up and down on the coffee table throwing pieces of a plastic farm at his mother and destroying some of my cherished beliefs about the truly religious.
I tried to bury myself in a batch of quizzes that needed to be graded before the weekend, but the dulled sound of farm animals landing on linoleum made it impossible to concentrate. I rummaged through the magazine pile and could only find an old New Yorker covered with scribbled crayon drawings of stick figures. The New Yorker is a stupid magazine to have in a doctor’s office, I thought. I needed to page through the glossy advertising in Vogue or the pictures in People, not consider the new season at the Met or take a fresh look at Monica Lewinsky. I was in it strictly for the cartoons until a poem by a man named Charles Ashford jumped out at me.
Some may think I insane, but I instantaneously memorized every word of that poem. It was about this broken chair the author kept by his bed and how his girlfriend would sit in it and watch him while he read Russian literature. The chair sounded very uncomfortable, and I know now that my Charles Ashford never read anything by a Russian unless it was some international pornography blog. But this poem made me imagine myself looking down at Charles in bed, that smile making my vertigo a little worse. I already told you I would fuck the smile at least once, so maybe the poem had nothing to do with it, but I was reading it for the third time when “Slippery When Wet” called my name. I never had a chance to wonder if there were perhaps two Charles Ashfords. I swear.
Dr. Ploughman was a pudgy hairball of a man with a mustache that covered his mouth. That coverage was good thing because I suspected he was a spit-talker owing to the wet-gray foam laced into the hairs of his mustache.
“Who are you having trouble hearing?” he asked.
“What? Everyone. I mean, I’m not exactly hard of hearing. It’s like I am listening from behind a curtain.”
“That I can fix. I tell people that if they are having trouble hearing their boyfriend or their boss or their mother, that’s probably because they are saying something you don’t want to hear. If you can’t hear your girlfriend’s gossiping, that’s trouble hearing.”
“My girlfriends never gossip.”
“Well then, we may never know how good your hearing is,” he said.
While Dr. Ploughman was talking, he was peering into each ear with a light stick. Then he began fitting a thick rubberized cape over my shoulders, turning up the collar and tying the strings so that I looked like a superhero preparing for a rainstorm.
“Something, maybe your diet, maybe late-blossoming hormones, we don’t really know yet, has hardened the composition of your earwax and formed a little plug. I see this all the time. This,” he tucked the big rubber cape under my chin like I was a child he was putting to bed, “will help me get it out.”
He turned quickly and picked up what looked like a dental drill from a rack behind the chair. He pushed my head down against the chair rest, pushed the drill into my right ear and for a split second I was certain he was going to burrow into my skull. Then I felt warm water running down my neck and shoulder and my blouse began to dampen under the cape and I realized that the drill was a needle of water. It sounded first like Niagara Falls, then jumped in pitch and intensity to something like a machine gun. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended. Dr. Ploughman pivoted and turned my head onto the other cheek, stuck the needle into my other ear repeating the same procedure. When he was done the room was silent except for the sound of water dripping loudly from the rubber cape to the linoleum floor.
“HOW DO YOU FEEL?”
“WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME?” I asked, surprised by the volume of my own voice.
“YOU’VE HEARD THE PHRASE ‘GET THE WAX OUT OF YOUR EARS’?” he asked. “THIS IS WHAT THAT SOUNDS LIKE.”
Charles and I had agreed to meet later that night to review notes for the Adolescent midterm. We were in a bar near his apartment in Park Slope. I could hear every clink of glass, every slurp of beer. I could hear Charles turn the pages and I could hear his lips slip over his teeth when he smiled. The gauze was gone, the vertigo had been cured, but that smile of his seemed present and clear.
Certainly Charles Ashford, science teacher, had no trouble working out whatever ethical conflict came along with a new girlfriend who thought he was a famous poet. In the argument that we sometimes have in my head, he tells me it was a joke, a simple way to playfully turn a late evening studying session into a one-night-stand. I told him I saw his poem in a magazine and he simply allowed me to believe that he was that Charles Ashford. I think I score the first real points in this imaginary argument when I remind him that two days later we met at the Starbucks in Kings Plaza and he recited a poem he’d memorized to keep the ruse going. The poem was, I know now, by Robert Frost and he’d first memorized it for an assignment in high school, but how was I supposed to know that while I was tasting caramel macchiato and remembering his lips? I had fallen under the spell of all those ridiculous answers he had given in class about the adolescent imperative; how was I to know that that was not how poets talked? The Frost was followed by E.E. Cummings, who was hard to follow, and then William Butler Yeats, my favorite. One night Charles turned over in bed and whispered to me a poem I really loved by a woman named after a defunct hospital.
Ellie was well versed in poets. She could be quite helpful that way.
“Your new boyfriend is a poet?” She asked, clearly losing her fight with disbelief.
“Yeah, he’s in the New Yorker all the time.” I turned the pages rapidly, looking for those holes in the gray text that are made by the poems nestled among the longer articles, and suddenly I found one, a little hole made by Charles Ashford, and I was happy even as I wondered why Charles hadn’t told me about the new poem. I certainly had quizzed him enough about them. But I pushed that doubt to the side and rode the wonderful feeling that for once I was going to trump my big sister. I poked the folded magazine back at her face to show her the poem, something about a black cat.
“I thought you met him at graduate school. Is he teaching there?”
“No he’s not teaching there. Why would he be teaching there? He teaches high school.”
“Are you crazy?”
What now? I thought. Was she going to try to tell me something about high school? Me?
“Charles Ashford is not your boyfriend.”
“Well, we don’t really use that term,” I said.
“Charles Ashford is like seventy years old.”
“He’s twenty-seven. I asked him the other night because I want to figure out if he’s a Gemini….“
Ellie left the room, turning and practically throwing herself towards the bookshelf in her and Annie’s bedroom, a black Ikea construction not nearly big enough for her collection, their books always spilling out making me wonder why Dr. Annie couldn’t afford a bigger shelf. Ellie ran back at me with a skinny little book called A Wedding in Hell, and almost before I could finish reading the title she was opening the back flap like a fifteen-year-old with a book report to write and slapping a picture onto her outstretched palm for my perusal. The blurb told me that the man in the picture was Charles Ashford and he looked about fifty, but it wasn’t my Charles Ashford at fifty, I was not looking into the future. This man had crooked European teeth and a straight smile. My Charles had straight suburban teeth and a crooked smile.
The worst part was that Dr. Annie had just gotten home from the podiatry mill and was leaning in the doorway looking sympathetic while the shock registered on my face. And then that shock melted into shame. I tried to force it towards anger, anger at either Charles or Ellie, but Annie softened it up with sympathy.
“Your boyfriend’s a kid,” Ellie said. “He couldn’t write poems like this. Did you even read….“ but Annie pulled Ellie into the other room and I just stood there with the wrong Charles Ashford in my hands.
Over the next few days, Ellie would help me move through shame and get to anger. She would help me understand that first poem about the bed and the chair and help me identify the other poets that were all in the standard anthology she used in the night class she taught at Kingsborough. And I vaguely remembered, now that it was too late, that the Edna St.Vincent Millay poem Charles recited the night he took me for a ride on the Staten Island Ferry was the one I was supposed to memorize for Mr. Negron’s eleventh grade ELA class. I had faked laryngitis instead.
Charles did his part to get me past embarrassment towards anger: he laughed, he said that the original lie was a joke and that he thought I knew it was a joke, he kept stealing poems because I seemed to like them, but he would just as soon stop because he hardly ever understood what he was memorizing. He tried to kiss me and I punched him in the shoulder, hard enough for my knuckle to bruise. I had to break up with him twice before he realized that I was serious: that afternoon in the same bar where I first heard him smile, and the following week after class. We got our midterms back and everyone in class had gotten a B+ except Charles. He received an A with a note that said “See me!” in red ink across the top. He stopped me after class to ask if we could talk, but I just smiled my own crooked smile and kept walking.
I thought I was going to have to break up with him a third time. I was grading my student’s final exams with Ellie and Annie in the living room. Ellie was working on her dissertation on “Post-Modern Erotics” and Annie was knitting. I was distracted from my students’ essays on world religions, watching the black line of yarn work its way up from the skein on Annie’s lap and wrap itself around her purple knitting needles before emerging as cloth piled at her feet. Suddenly his voice was coming through the answering machine pushing poetry into the house: “When you are old and gray and full of sleep, and nodding by the fire.” I almost didn’t recognize him. The sound of that confident smile was gone, his voice was quiet and solitary, quivering in a way that was, I admit, attractive. “Take down this book, and slowly read.” Annie gathered her knitting against her chest and, leaning forward, picked the phone up off the receiver and the voice almost disappeared, became just a soft, staticky shadow of itself, “of the soft look your eyes had once…“ And then Annie dropped the receiver back into its place and his voice was gone.
I sat in the silence listening to the click of needles and the rustling of papers.