As Dreams of Poets
This isn’t a dream but I could be dreaming.
An adult woman had a pet boa constrictor. She liked it so much, and they became such friends across the species divide. She let the snake share her bed. It liked to cuddle. After a few months, she started to notice how the boa constrictor had changed its sleeping position. It now stretched out beside her, head to toe. She took the snake to the vet and asked what was wrong. The vet looked at her. He told her the snake sized her up. Pet would consume master. She had epiphanies. The other night, sitting by the pool, I felt Jonah, Kristen’s cat, land on my lap. He stayed there a long time. The only way to fix this story is to say it’s not a story.
This isn’t a dream. I am only just thinking of nightmares. First quarter of graduate school ended. I rented a car. I slept in the bed I masturbated in when I first started masturbating. I don’t remember dreaming anything. I just remember lying there in my old bed under a quilt. In graduate school they say a story has to belong to someone. A story has to have a reason to be told. Something has to be at stake. Action precipitates action; surprise grows out of the inevitable. Stories pursue.
I am dreaming I am in graduate school dreaming. In dreams we jump around. We move from the front yard to the land with the little people and back to the kitchen with the blender and the concentrated orange juice. My illogical jumps have internal logic. You have heard the stories about people dying alone in locked apartments with their pets. You have heard that sometimes, when the neighbors finally notice the stench, the police come. Housedogs will consume human flesh. Does your cat love you if your cat eats you? I think this is why I have parrots. This story belongs to me. I tell it now because I dream it now. What’s at stake is waking. The action of the story is its own pursuit.
I left my birds in Hawaii when I moved to Tucson. I don’t dream that I am killed by my companions, but sometimes I dream of ways I have abandoned loved ones. Sometimes I dream of ways I have been abandoned. In my nightmares the demon is shame. I don’t want to make my parents out to be bad people.
I was talking about parrots and now I am talking about parents. I was talking about shame. A classmate read an early draft of this and said she didn’t understand why the character felt shame. She said, “The narrator seems comfortable with himself and comfortable with his sexuality. I don’t understand where the shame comes in.” I am assuming she was talking about me. The character is not me.
I have returned to graduate school now when I am older, odder. I take a class that attempts in ways elegant and inept to connect issues of sexual identity and gender to fiction writing. I came of age in the 1970s when my English teacher at boarding school followed me into showers to hand back papers. He wouldn’t tell me that Tennessee Williams or Oscar Wilde or Walt Whitman had been gay. Maybe he’d gossip about Shakespeare. I develop theories of literature: gay people get permission to tell stories different. Differently. Every kid who has ever come out to disapproving parents has developed an essential and evolving relationship to concepts of truth and fiction. It’s survival. Every gay kid learns to inhabit several stories at once. I have a tail. I grew up to tell tales. There’s always the story and the story about why I tell the story. There’s always the dream and the interpretation of the dream. When I tell a story, I equivocate and continue to equivocate and continue.
I like pink stories. The only way to fix this story is to say it’s not a story. No good story is not about love. First semester of creative writing school ended, and I rented a car. I drove from Tucson to California; my first stop was Indio to see Mother. I like to go back and forth, past and present. My scenes recur. I understand my nightmares. I like how dreams jump. It is Christmas Eve, between semesters.
I am at the house I grew up in. My mom lives there part time now. I drink bourbon mixed with store-bought eggnog. My mom and I drive through Joshua Tree National Park. We admire the strong and desperate foliage. I ask her over Mexican dinner in Banning about her secret girlfriend, her desert version of a Boston marriage. I once met this story in a night vision. My teacher says I have too many names of places in my story. I don’t tell him that in real life I’ve lived in Baltimore, Germany, Denver, New York, Birmingham, Grand Rapids, Omaha, Redlands, New England boarding school and New England college all before I was twenty. There are too many names of places in my story. I jump to the memory of a teacher. I am not the character whose voice I inhabit.
There is a seventeen-year-old boy. He was my student, and then he was twenty-three, not my student, and now I think of him like I am dreaming. But don’t dream of him. I am only just writing. In my nightmares the small adult woman is consumed by the boa constrictor. In my nightmares I am consumed by shame. If Aaron Alexander hadn’t been so comfortable in sleeveless flannel, he may have put more effort into academics. I taught at the time in a small school in Honolulu. In the quad outside of the Humanities Building, I’d see Aaron sitting at a picnic table, listening to his iPod, chewing on a sandwich, playing poker with skinny Asian girls. Sometimes I would make eye contact. More often than not, I’d walk by. Approximately once a week, Aaron would cry out, “Hey Mr. Balzac.”
I have decided to call my narrator “Harry Balzac.” I wrote that he was named after Harold Caswell, his mother’s father. If I had been more straightforward, I would have just used my own name. I am Timothy Dyke, the patron saint of awkward last names. Every time I introduce myself to strangers, every time I make a reservation for a table at a restaurant or order a pizza over the phone, I will be laughed at. Factor in how this story circles around the life of my mother, that her name is Mrs. Dyke and she lives surreptitiously with a female handywoman named Stacy. You see why I need to give my narrator a specific appellation. I have settled on Harry Balzac. That’s my dream name. Harry Balzac is my nightmare name, my constricted name.
“Hi, Mr. Balzac,” Aaron said.
“Hey Aaron. How you doing?”
Now and again he would ask something about television. “Do you think reality television is, in general, a positive force in society?”
“I don’t watch reality TV,” I’d lie.
“You should,” he’d say. “Those shows help gays. Hey Mr. Balzac. You wanna go to the snack bar?”
The snack bar in that school was pretty much an all-teen zone, so I hesitated. I really don’t think he meant anything perverse when he told me he was going to grind. That’s just how kids talk in Hawaii. “Grind” means “snack” or “dine.”
“Hey Mr. Balzac. Wanna cruise?”
“Cruise” means “hang out” or “dally.”
It was just after noon. He wore camouflage pants and a “No Fear” T-shirt. “What’d you say?” I asked.
“Did you eat?” An earbud fell on his wiry leg. “I’m going to the snack bar to cruise. Wanna grind?”
When I was in college a girlfriend of a roommate read my numbers. She was into numerology, and she said to me, “You are going to be a wild old man.”
I like to write in coffee shops. I like to write in this one dirty coffee shop in downtown Tucson where they have a sign over the public computers that says, “Don’t Watch Porn: We Will Ridicule You And Throw You Out.” I don’t like to watch porn so much. It interferes with my dreams. I don’t like to write poems so much, though when I was thirteen I made good money selling sex poems to cut boys.
I have been a teacher for a long time. I never saw myself as one of those childless men who used his students to work out the need to be some kind of father figure. I would never be the English teacher who followed his students into showers. Aaron was my student, and then he was someone who I wanted to help out, and then he was someone I was attracted to. In my nightmares the demon is shame.
For almost a year I saw the 23-year-old Aaron in unplanned but semi-regular moments of coffee shop patronage. I remember one time when he entered the Sure Shot and hovered over my table. As usual he ignored my offer of a seat. He leaned down. “I’m glad I ran into you,” he said. He still called me Mr. Balzac even though I told him he could call me Harry. “I have been thinking about you. I had an epiphany the other day.”
“What was the epiphany?”
“You want me to tell you?”
“I have to let it settle in my brain a bit,” Aaron said. “I want to make sure I still think it’s an epiphany next week.”
“Okay. Do you have my phone number?”
He pulled out his Blackberry, confirmed my number and assured me he would call in a few days. He fetched his order. I stood up and met him as he walked toward the agave nectar.
“I was just thinking,” I said. “You might try writing the epiphany down.”
Aaron smiled. “You probably remember I’m not much of a writer.”
“Just keep the pencil moving,” I suggested. “It might help to think of what you write as a poem. Just put the title ‘My Epiphany’ at the top of the page and start writing.”
“I’m a horrible poet,” he said.
“So am I.”
I didn’t see him for over a year. I wondered about his epiphany. Eventually I took my own advice and started to write poetry. When I was five years old my parents promised me a dollar if I would stop playing with my penis. I spoke of the deal in front of my mom’s friend at a bank, and on the ride home Mom rescinded the deal. I hadn’t visited my mother in a year and a half. I’m not talking about Christmas now. In December I saw her with the eggnog and the bourbon and the masturbation memories, but before that I hadn’t seen her in a long time.
She lives in Indio and also in Echo Lake, a small community on a woodsy plateau. There’s an art colony there where a guy who used to serve on the Council for Foreign Relations sponsors a poetry festival in July. My mother has lived in Echo Lake off and on for the last eight years. At first she just used her place as a weekend getaway, but eventually she moved up there semi-permanently with Stacy, the woman she once hired to install her shingling. Stacy and I had met, and I think we liked each other, but I have only recently become aware of my tendency, whenever I am around the woman, to drop names of famous lesbians in some frustrated attempt to start impossible conversations. A couple of years ago I asked Stacy if she liked Dusty Springfield. Stacy and I would have driven each other crazy if I hung around 24/7, but Mom had suggested the summer poetry workshop, and this was the perfect way to keep me out of the house.
I’d arrive in poetry class and listen to my prize-winning teacher declaim on the difference between irony and hopelessness. I’d delete files. Roberta, my Pulitzer winning teacher, talked about refrain a lot. “Good poets tease their readers into expecting a line to return,” she said. Everything I wrote that week came out as maudlin. A couple of sestinas were regrettably perverse. The seminar only lasted a week, and right when I had resigned myself to poetic failure, Roberta said something that changed the way I looked at everything. It was late afternoon, we were asked to write for ten minutes about ways we would “grapple with our own snakemen.” She must have noticed how I struggled, unable to compose a word. Before I was aware of her presence at my cubicle, her hand was on my shoulder. She whispered into my ear. “When you don’t know what to write, write its inverse. Write about the negative space.” I think I understood.
It just so happened that the night before I had watched a show about Henri Matisse with my mother and Stacy on PBS. When the host talked about negative space, my mother said she was unfamiliar with the term. Stacy placed her hand in front of Mom’s glasses and made a peace sign. “Don’t look at my fingers,” Stacy said. “Look between and around. What you see is the negative space.” My mother nodded, and Stacy continued. “Instead of painting what’s there, he painted what was not there.”
To write about my parents is by definition a kind of betrayal. My father is conservative but he hates religion. He has trouble. I am going to create this father character for my story, but this isn’t how my father really is. I say the same thing about my mother. Have you ever dreamed that you are in a fight with a family member, when you weren’t in a fight in real life? This isn’t a dream, so you shouldn’t look for dream logic. It might be okay to look for logic. The story does not have to be a story.
My mother announced at breakfast that she and Stacy would join me for the faculty poetry reading on the last day. I had no strong objection, but I was surprised. They had indicated no previous inclination to leave their cabin for public poetry. The past Tuesday, for example, I had presented one of my new poems at an open mic, and when Stacy told me she’d rather clean out the garage than attend, I knew she was not being sarcastic.
The final reading took place in this outdoor amphitheater under open parachutes strung like translucent fungi from the tops of pine trees. Stacy and Mom and I spread out an old tablecloth and sat on folding chairs next to our cooler. When the reading started, I heard Stacy whisper to my mother that Roberta didn’t look black. One of the Afghani poets read a long piece about soldiers and poppies, and then a guy who knew Jack Kerouac read a cycle of pantoums about hunting weasels with a pellet gun. Roberta delivered a piece about dying polar bears and ancient Greeks, and then a jazz band played a lackluster version of “Take 5.” We finished the bottle of wine, and my mother actually asked me who Sappho was. After the break a UCLA professor approached the podium. I heard from the woman at the next picnic blanket that this poet was dying of AIDS. Apparently he was really famous. The frail man performed a long poem about a guy who had stuck his hands into fire as a boy. The character in his narrative wore protective gloves made of gold leaf and had grown afraid to touch anyone unless he was wearing them. As the professor read, he stood under a parachute and waved his own right arm like a wand. Words flowed from ungloved fingertips. A small crowd of people over by the book table gasped when he finished. Stacy whistled.
I returned to Honolulu from poetry camp and resolved to move on from my Aaron infatuation. It wasn’t right to obsess about a guy half my age, a former student who probably never thought about me. I tried to branch out to other coffee shops, but for whatever reason, I was drawn to the Sure Shot. I told myself I liked their music. One day when I was screwing around on my laptop, drinking a red-eye, I heard the bell chime over the door. As I looked up, I saw him walk in with a tall woman in a sundress. I smiled before he smiled, and then Aaron walked over.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”
I said something about the weather. He introduced his friend.
“This is Geralyn,” he said. We shook hands, and I felt bones. She said she was going to order a muffin.
Aaron lingered. He pointed to my laptop and asked what I was working on.
I could have shut my computer, but instead I said, “It’s a poem I wrote at this thing I was at. It’s about you, actually.”
I turned the open laptop to face Aaron, and for the first time since we had been meeting in the Sure Shot, he sat at the chair opposite me. I watched his lips. He read from the screen.
To write about the inverse of Aaron is to write about a ringing phone.
To write about the inverse of Aaron is to write about pants that laugh.
To write about the inverse of Aaron is to be 21 again and not afraid.
To write about the inverse of Aaron is to never tap on my lap or my laptop.
The poem went on for twenty-seven lines. I looked at Aaron and watched him read. He pulled back. A rope of brown hair fell across his face.
“What is this shit?” he said.
I shrugged. “It’s just a poem I wrote.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “You are a horrible poet.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
He was standing now. “Why did you write that? Why are you writing about me?”
“It’s from last summer. I went to a poetry festival. I was just trying to write what I was thinking at the time.”
He looked over his shoulder. His girlfriend remained at the counter. “What have you been thinking?”
I looked down at my poem as it glared from the computer. “Do you remember the time you told me you had an epiphany?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I remember.”
“I actually thought you were going to tell me what it was.”
He was whispering. “You shouldn’t have read too much into that.”
“I can’t help it,” I said. “For a year I have been wondering what you were going to say.”
He looked at me. “I was going to tell you what I think you thought I was going to tell you.” He turned away again. “But now I’m not going to tell you that.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not.”
I respond to a kind of televised beauty. I am easily drawn to the stylishly projected.
The other day I wrote this line of poetry: “My dad is as bad a man as a good man can be.”
I left Indio and drove south. It had been ten years since I’d driven this stretch of I-5. My dad lives with a nice woman named Janine, but I noticed she is away a lot. I think she is addicted to expensive teddy bears. She seems to like painkillers too. I am going to say this is a story now, and I am going to say that Harry Balzac is 44 years old, but he has never told his father he is gay. I am going to say this is what he really wanted most for Christmas, to sit down on his 77-year-old father’s 15-year-old couch and say to him, “I am gay.” Harry tells his sister this. She laughs and says, “Harry, Dad knows you’re gay.”
My mother refused to talk to me about the fact that she is a lesbian. Aaron refused to tell me his epiphany. Telling is important. I parked the rental car and knocked on my dad’s door.
I dream a cascade of fragmented events: Dad handed me a ceramic duck and told me that if I played my cards right I could inherit this; he said he was proud of me for working on my writing; he said the Chinese were taking over our banking system. Dad was offering me my third beer. I had to excuse myself, so I told him I was going to walk to the Starbucks down the street to do some writing for an hour.
“Do you write every day?” he asked.
“I try to.”
“That’s good, Harry.”
Every now and again I find myself thinking about the numerologist from college. She said an entire late-life pattern of wildness would just begin to manifest when I turned 44. That’s how old Harry is now. I am a bit older, but it is not impossible for me to assign wild significance to my 44th year. I make myself stick to the Harry Balzac story. There are projections of the dreamer, and then there are characters in the dream. I became Harry again. I left my Dad’s and walked to the coffee shop to ingest espresso and plug in my laptop. I opened up a blank page.
I ask my dad why he has stopped watching movies.
He has nothing left to watch.
He has no one left to watch with.
He says he’s exhausted all the Masterpiece Theater.
I don’t remember loving Poldark so much,
but I guess I’ll agree: the joy was in the gathering.
Root beer float in fondue pajamas. 1975.
My dad is no character from MGM musicals.
I watched a surfer bend down. He caught me staring. I looked back at my screen. I saved the poem, checked the internet again, got nothing, and walked home. Janine asked me what I wanted for dinner, and after a quick conversation about nutrition, my dad said he was going to take us to the Sand and Tide for steaks. “I’m buying,” he said. “Harry, you can leave the tip.” The waiters at the Sand and Tide were distractingly attractive. Ours had a sword tattoo that poked out from under the short sleeve of his uniform. My dad engaged strangers at the neighboring table in a conversation about autism. “We’re so glad you came to visit,” Janine said. “It breaks up the monotony.”
By the time I went to bed in their little guest room, I still hadn’t had the conversation I came there to have, so I resolved to say something the next morning at breakfast. My plan was to drive back to Tucson and arrive before dark. I willed myself to get a good night’s sleep, and I think I was doing that when I heard my father outside my room. He was shouting my name. I opened my eyes and looked at the clock on my iPhone. It was 3:37 AM. Was I dreaming?
“What?” I said. “Dad?”
“Harry?” He was outside my door. “We’ve got a problem.”
“What’s the problem, Dad?” I was out of bed, naked. The door started to open. Putting my hand out, I yelled, “Just a minute.” I turned the light on and squinted. I couldn’t see to find my clothes, and in that second the door opened. My dad was nude.
My nightmares are always about shame.
“We’ve got problems,” my father said. I was naked and my dad was naked, and we were talking to each other at 3:37 in the morning. I wasn’t going to disagree.
“It’s Tuesday,” he said. “The street sweepers come on Tuesday from five to nine.”
“I looked at the signs when I parked,” I said. “I didn’t park on the Tuesday side of the street.”
“Which side of the street did you park on?”
“The Wednesday side.” My pupils were adjusting. I tried to keep my eyes on my dad’s face. He looked old to me. In spite of everything, I liked looking at that face.
This face I refer to is not my father’s face. My real father’s face is as complicated, as nuanced in its cragginess, as gentle, as my real father. I don’t write about my actual father.
“Did you park on the side nearest the ocean?” Dad asked.
I told him I did.
“Oh,” he said. “Then we’re going to be okay.”
“Dad?” He didn’t say anything, but we were looking at each other. “You know I am gay, right?”
He put his hand against the doorframe. “Yes, Harry. Of course.”
We said nothing for a moment, and then he said he had to get back to bed. “As long as you’re on the Wednesday side, we’ll be all right.”
The next morning he tried to make me oatmeal, but I said I didn’t want any food. “I am not a big breakfast eater.”
“I remember that,” my Dad said. He asked me three more times about oatmeal, and then he made me instant coffee and sat down with the Orange County Register. He said something rude about Mexicans. I made clear I was going to have to leave. We said goodbye and took some iPhone pictures. I was back in Tucson before dark.
I don’t really understand epiphany. How bad is that to say?
The worst thing to say in a story is that everything has all been a dream.
Not everything at all has been a dream.
When the numerologist made her proclamation, when she named 44 as an important number, I was identified as a heterosexual English major, cautious and shy. If I end up as a wild old man, will this be because of prophecy or suggestion? Was I born to? Did I become?
An adult woman had a pet boa constrictor. She liked it so much, and they became such friends across the species divide. I think about refrain a lot. This isn’t a dream but I could be dreaming, I jump. The only way to fix this story is to say it’s not a story. I don’t understand epiphany. Not everything at all has been a dream. I like pink stories. How bad is that to say?