Nobody Had Ever Written a Poem for Her Before

The last time I was unemployed in Washington, DC, I had a girlfriend as well – Ariel. But things were so different for me back then. I was 30 years old. Ariel was getting ready to head back to grad school in International Development at Columbia University. I decided I wanted to go back to school, too.

I’d been having dreams back then I’d relapsed and gotten drunk during my senior year of college. In my dreams, I’d never finished school, which hadn’t actually happened. But dreams were very influential on me in those bygone days. I took it as a sign from the universe. My education was incomplete. I’d been looking into grad programs in DC even before I’d gotten laid off from my job. My GRE scores were still good from when I’d taken them after my first breakdown. Back then, I simply wanted out of Richmond again. When I didn’t get into any of the creative writing programs I’d applied to, I became extremely discouraged. This time, I was thinking about creative writing again, but I was open to other possibilities as well.

The theory of evolution didn’t make much sense to me anymore. I’d bought a book by the paleontologist Richard Leakey about it, but that didn’t help. His mother was part of the team that had discovered Lucy, the oldest primate humanity yet knew about, and his theories of our ancestry were intriguing. Coupling his research with other things I was thinking about in those days, I wondered a lot about what he had to say concerning primate size discrepancies and their effects on societal gender roles.

According to Mr. Leakey, when a male primate is approximately twice the size of the female, such as in a baboon tribe, the society organizes around a strong alpha male who banishes the other males from his harem. The smaller males who leave their tribes attempt to form cohesive family units of their own. These smaller baboons try their utmost to pull attractive females away from neighboring tribes, and the successful seductions of other alpha males’ mates keeps the gene pool differentiated. During psychosis, that’s how I’d always assumed human society had organized itself.

However, when the female primate is approximately two thirds the size of the male, such as in chimpanzees, the society organizes around a band of brothers. These genetically related males trade their sisters between tribes in order to keep their families’ gene pools fresh. Humans have a size differential more akin to chimpanzees. So I wondered… If you were to institutionalize this “band of brothers,” if the males of a primate species were self-aware enough to realize that by trading their sisters they could increase the size and strength of their brotherhood, thus increasing their familial power’s scope, then you might wind up with something approximating the contemporary patriarchy. Despite what I was then reading in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, another book I’d chosen to tackle at that moment, that made me wonder how deep into primordial, human psychology contemporary gender roles actually dwelt. Maybe there were as many relationships to sexuality as there were people on this planet, but maybe there was also something biological about what we were all railing against. Truth be told, there’s nothing unnatural about this world.

I was walking dogs back then to pull in some extra cash, and after finishing my canine strolls through Mount Pleasant every single day, I went down to The National Museum of Natural History. I’d started at the first exhibit on the first floor and was slowly working my way up reading every single placard on every single item. I studied the theoretical formation of our solar system, the foundations of our geology, the intricacies of vegetable and animal biology and the subtleties of our sociological structures. It took me nearly a week to complete the entire museum, but nothing helped me make any more sense out of our contemporary explanations for biological life than anything else. I was so confused.

Darwin had missed something in his theory. Evolution itself necessitated an intelligence governing it. Everybody else disagreed with me. They reminded me Darwin’s theory went along the lines that life simply strove for survival, and therefore, the most positively adaptable organism would triumph. That being would then adapt to conditions allowing its lineage to be passed on to its offspring. Nothing other than environmental conditions caused the offspring to evolve. There was no reason governing these variations. There were only the many vicissitudes of survival. But why survive? The mere notion of survival itself constituted a type of drive, and a drive implied an intention, a sort of intelligence. There was no reason for survival as opposed to annihilation. Why would this dead universe even bother choosing to survive? It’s not that I thought Darwin was wrong. I simply thought he’d overlooked something, and we were trapped in a simplified view of the subject.

Maybe I was looking at life from the wrong angle.

One night, I woke up early in the morning from one of those dreams you know means something, but you can’t figure out what that could possibly be. Outside, the sun was just starting to rise. Purple light glowed throughout the District. I walked from my then basement apartment on Lamont Street in Mount Pleasant down to The Diner in Adams-Morgan. I bought a fresh pack of cigarettes along the way, and I chain-smoked until the moment I entered that restaurant. I was trying to quit smoking even all the way back then.

Over a cup of coffee with bacon and eggs, I contemplated all the jobs I’d been applying to – marketing, advertising, journalism – all across the country, and I realized I didn’t want any of them. I didn’t want to work. Instead, I pictured myself a student discussing with contemporaries and peers philosophy like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Not too many people read philosophy for fun. That was when I decided I’d only apply for jobs I wasn’t qualified for simply to satisfy the requirements to continue collecting unemployment. If I was careful, I could string out what I was pulling in until right around when the school year started again. I’d missed most of the application deadlines, but I knew about this Asian Classics program out in Santa Fe that had rolling admissions. And the program itself was only a year long. I could do that, take a year, live somewhere I’d never been before, read a ton of books I’d never been exposed to before and then go study whatever I wanted – philosophy, creative writing, anything. I pictured myself strolling around some academic enclave, writing poetry and stories in my spare time and living a pleasantly crazy life.

Maybe that’s exactly what happened. I’m not really sure.

Ariel and I eventually said our goodbyes after visiting her parents’ home in Connecticut. It was the first time I’d ever met them. She was getting ready to head down to an apartment she’d already rented for herself on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I was to fly out to Southern California, to pick up that car that eventually took me all the way back across the country. Her father rented a black limousine to drive me out to the airport. Ariel came with me. She was going to catch the subway up from LaGuardia to her new home.

The whole ride down, we didn’t say a word. Ariel held onto my hand and leaned into my shoulder. I stared out my window at the green countryside rolling past. The driver kept trying to start up some conversation, but it was obvious neither of his passengers had anything worthwhile to say. We were lost in our own reflective musings. As we pulled into the outskirts of the city and continued on our way through Queens, the world began moving too fast to keep up with any longer.

In the airport’s offloading zone, amid the robotic announcements resonating overhead, Ariel held onto me. Setting my bags to the side, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. As the tears streamed down her cheeks, though, I wiped them away. I said, “Don’t be scared. We’ll see each other again,” which we did. But things were so amazingly different by then…

I’d composed a poem for her I gave her on a handwritten piece of lined paper. I’d written it in my head one evening as I’d strolled down Connecticut Avenue, recalling a misunderstanding she and I had had once upon a time. It was an apology. Nobody had ever written a poem for her before she told me. Maybe she still has it. Maybe she doesn’t. She’s getting married soon I just discovered on Facebook. I’m happy for her. It wasn’t until I finally sat down on my seat in the plane, when I looked out the window at the dismal runway, I remembered all those times I’d said goodbye to my father, all those years ago, all the way across the country… I started to cry. For the first time in years about how love never remains.

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I’m So In Love With You

Cora and I are sitting here at the IHOP in Columbia Heights on Irving Street NW, Washington, DC. It’s Saturday, 3:00 AM, two and a half weeks after I lost my job. We’ve had a great night – dinner at this chic ramen place down on H Street NE that’s owned by one of the members of Animal Collective. Cora’s been trying to get me to this place for over three months now, but it’s always full. They don’t take reservations, and the last time we tried to get in, it was a three hour wait. We wouldn’t have eaten that night until after ten o’clock. Instead, we went to another one of the burgeoning restaurants on the H Street scene. It was good, but we really wanted to check out this ramen place. The first time I ever had quality ramen was when I was still living in Brooklyn. It blew my mind. Tonight, we went down to H Street as soon as I got out of work, which was even a little bit early. Dinner was fantastic, everything we expected it to be. Afterwards, we watched an episode of Project Runway back at her place. Then, we eventually wound up here at IHOP…

“So I finally started working on my memoir project again,” I tell her between bites off my Spicy Ranch Chicken Sandwich®.

“That’s great,” she says, “What about all the problems you were having with it?”

“Well, it’s kind of funny. You know, I woke up super early the other day, and suddenly it struck me – I can end the chapter I’m working on with me losing my job. Just because the forward going story changes doesn’t mean I can’t keep telling it.”

“So where are you now?”

“Well, I’m only about six years back, when I got back to New York the first time for grad school.” I pause, “But I was thinking about starting the next chapter with that discussion you and I had on Monday. I feel like it’s appropriate because it shines a lot of light on our characters and our relationship. It should deepen the reader’s understanding of us…”

Cora stops eating. She gazes across the restaurant at the nothing that exists there. I’d said too much. We’d been having a great night together, and I’d just reminded her of our present moment’s greatest fear. But it’s not right for me to write about our relationship without her permission. I need her approval to continue this project.

Without picking up her fork, she says, “You know, Gabriel, I used to really look forward to reading the parts with me in them, but I don’t think I want to read any more of that book.”

I understand exactly where she’s coming from. I don’t want to write any more of this book. I’m scared about what’s going to happen next. I’ve already revealed more about my past than I ever intended, and as far as the future goes… right now, it’s too unknown.

This past Monday, I admitted to Cora I’d applied to some jobs outside DC, in Boston and New York to be precise. We’d already discussed that possibility. My rent on this basement studio apartment with no oven or stove is $1,000 a month, and that’s a good deal for where I live, an amazing deal for a block from the Metro. My loans, which are in deferment right now, will total $1,000 a month once I start working again. So I shouldn’t really work for less than $60,000 a year if I even want to stay here. I don’t own a car. My COBRA insurance policy is running me $500 a month. I need to look into what I can get on the DC healthcare exchanges. I should be able to shave a bit off my expenses with that. But I only have two months of severance, and my unemployment pays out a measly $378 per week. That’s the maximum Virginia can give, and if you do the math, it barely covers my rent and health insurance. Groceries, travel and entertainment expenses would have to go by the wayside. I have no savings. It evaporated when I started contributing to my retirement account while I was still working. My $1,000 credit limit is maxed out. My investments total $10,000, and $5,000 of that is in a 401(k) right now. I’m waiting to transfer it to an IRA, but it still can’t be touched until I retire. I’m 37 years old. So that money needs to keep building for another 30 years. I don’t have any kids. At the moment, it looks like I could be on my own as an old man. I’m no longer counting on ever making a living as a novelist. If I don’t find work in the next month or so, I’ll have to move back in with my mom in Richmond just to cut expenses and save what little bit of cash I do have left.

Cora said she understood all that, and she supported the decisions I had to make as a result. She said I’d taught her how to be so flexible by supporting whatever would happen with us once law school finally started for her, which it did the other week. But when the real possibility of me leaving DC arose, she panicked. I don’t blame her. We’ve got a good thing going here.

She offered to let me move in with her if I have to. “But I think that might be really hard on your ego,” she’d added, which it would be. Cora lives in a studio as well. Neither one of us would have any privacy. But pride and privacy aren’t my biggest fears. I had a girlfriend move in with me once upon a time under similar circumstances at about the same point in our relationship. We couldn’t make it work. Financial hardship is the absolute worst reason for two lovers to become roommates. It’s not a choice. It’s a trap. Once you live together, there’s no turning back. Moving out causes one person to wonder what the hell went so wrong. Then, the resentments start to build.

Cora and I finish our IHOP meals in relative quiet, casting furtive smiles at one another. She only eats half her omelet. On the walk back to my place, beneath the dark trees dotting Irving Street, I put my arm around her shoulder. It’s just now starting to get cold. She’s wearing her leather jacket again. Fall is finally in the air. Cora leans in closer to me. We turn to each other and embrace. “I’m so scared,” she whispers. “I’m so in love with you.”

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