When she went to poetry readings, she had the uncanny sense that she was attending a PTA meeting. Lauren Sommers, childless and single at 29, had advanced as far as she could as a loan representative. She took night classes for her MFA and was “a precarious balance of sensual and sensibility.” At least that is how she described herself in online dating profiles, as frequently thinking of Jane Austen as not when she tried to explain her curious quirks.
A poet, her father had said. It wasn’t a question, though the incredulity and sarcasm dripped from his tone as though he had – a statement more than a question as if to convey all the disappointment and shame he had harbored for the last decade in that one word. Poet. Civil, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting to continue the conversation.
At least he had not snorted in his mocking way. That, at least, had been politeness on his part, proof that though the daughter he wanted was dead to him now, he still cared for her all the same.
Lauren Sommers, yes, that champion of the office break room with her quiet demeanor and mousy “dirty-blonde-or-is-it-almost-ginger-I-can’t-tell-what-do-you-call-it-Lauren?” hair who it was rumored had cats even though Bethany from accounting had won a pool to prove otherwise, was a poet. A published one, if you count the literary journal circuit, readings, and survivor of enough submission processes to merit street cred among the junior literati. Her work had been turned down twice by The New Yorker, but the fact that she had tried a second time still counted. “Well, poetry is hard,” her friends would say when what they really meant was poetry is hard to understand. That same Lauren Sommers now sat, idling picking at her cuticles as she heard another elementary metric scheme rattled off in nervous breathlessness from the microphone which would offensively pop with every pronouncement of the letters P and often as it would hiss with the letter S, waiting anxiously and not patiently at all, for her name to come up. Her lips tightened every time this happened, securing her from emphatically whispering, “Sibilance. Sibilance. Step back from the mic.”
By now, she had attuned herself to tune out the obligatory and half-hearted hand claps of the audience. They sounded like rain, in a way; California rain, the kind not entirely committed to its purpose and still searching even as it muddled the distance between city and mountain. Her name arriving, she put on her smile like a pageant tiara, recited two works – one to the stagelamps, one the houselights – and swiftly took her seat again.
It was if she had announced a bake sale.
That was the feeling she had, her mind already on other things as faces swiveled back to meet hers, acknowledging her, a smile here, a thumbs up, a pointed finger and whispered remark to a fellow poetic patriot. That was all, each face either staring at her with the kindness of her mother (“Poor thing. Her mother died and she found her when she came home from school one day”) or competitiveness (“Bitch tore that shit from Proust or Salisbury, something like that. It’s French, I know it. Bitch. Plagiarizing and calling it her own.”)
For Lauren, life was like a Dickens novel. Long, tedious, yet somehow all the more captivating in the retelling, more personal as it was revisited, the depth of longing all the more pronounced and profound, layered as it were with disappointment punctuated by the diminutive. Over the last decade, or at least when she thought of it in the sleepless night, she felt herself slowly crawling inside, coiling tighter and tighter until she wondered perhaps if it were possible to have something like an existential collapse, memories compressing upon one another until the seashell within no longer whistled. Such conclusions, poetic as they were, were worse than nightmares for they felt all the more real.
Sitting there for the remainder of the reading, she was lost concentrating on the cup of the plastic seat underneath her. She needed to feel some tether to the present until this was over. And when it was, she smiled, she clapped, made small talk, and she had a polite clear plastic cup of lemonade, asking questions first so that none would be asked of her. On the bus ride home, she watched the blear of blinking neon and static fluorescent, silently writing poetry the way teenage girls play with their hair. Curling them around the finger absently, letting them go, beginning again. Curling, release, repeat, as though meaning could be found in the absence of meaning. How postmodern, she smiled dimly, capping the pen and putting it away.
Her studio apartment welcomed her with faint jazz music that, at such a low volume, became tinny and added to her frustration. She relieved herself then turned the music off, selecting a piano collection guaranteed to make her pensive. This was what it meant to be thirty. Or almost thirty. And single. You stand in the middle of your apartment, absently wondering if this is all there is until you are brought either to tears or almost-tears depending on your resolve to allow yourself these moments or refuse them. As the mind expands and contracts, though one can hardly say your mind is breathing at such nervous moments as these, you make lists and quickly dismiss them for you are past the age of deniability to convince yourself that dancing until 2am is a good idea. You are by now adept at dismissing frivolity or are impossibly too far away from it. You come to terms, as they say. You come to terms with the fact that there may be some dreams you never accomplish and some nightmares which are all too real. Lauren was not the kind to allow herself to cry – not completely anyway. She possessed such a resolve, refusing to allow herself to feel anything in full measure.
Instead, she ran.
Running was something she had done with her mother. She and her father had followed Joan at night in a ’91 Pontiac Sunbird and, fascinated with how beautiful her mother looked when she was running, curiously excited by her father’s appreciation of Joan’s ass, she began running with her mother. It was bonding. Sexual. She was becoming her mother without the language to know what she was doing.
When Lauren was little, it had become popular to kill joggers, in part because jogging had only then become popular. Television movies were made warning of the dangers of young women running alone at night, but culture – that wily thing- resisted such warnings and Lauren’s father felt it his husbandly duty to become a stalker of his wife, the love of his youth, his first love, whatever soporific declaration of love he could muster at the end of the day. And so it was that when Lauren was twelve, angry at her father over something she could hardly remember though it wore on her foreverafter, insisted that she be allowed to run with her mother. Only as she got older would she understand why Joan ran every night. It was to as much as away from. There was something gratifying, so richly gratifying about running and losing yourself in the smack of rubber on pavement, cold breath, the feeling of perspiration dripping down your back and the temptation to cry but working away whatever those emotions were step by step, the rhythm of your body jostling with each thrust of the calves. Manageable. Precise. A lot like sex after the first decade of marriage but not as routine. Pleasurable. Endorphine induced mental emotional orgasms, breath control – it was all there. But unlike her mother, she ran now without someone making sure she was would be alright and safe. She ran until whatever had troubled her was forgotten and distant, affirmed with a dim recognition Yes, I felt bad earlier. But not anymore. It is different now. I am okay. I will be alright, even though she knew these were lies.
The possibility to finally address it was always there, of course. Nibbling at the mind.
But, like her mother, instead she ran. Ran well past that hunger until she could convince herself it wasn’t real.
Lauren was a woman who, again very much like her mother, was unhappy without knowing why. People died, that was a fact of life. Parents did not approve, that was a fact of life. Breakups happened statistically at a higher rate than lasting relationships. Again, a fact of life. But the unsettling constant was the feeling that she was unloved and unlovable. After her mother had died, she needed her father and felt he needed her back but instead she found that he grew more distant until he was spiteful, resenting that with each year Lauren looked more like Joan but still loving her enough to never express, never articulate, not even to himself, why he hated her. Ah, yes! There it was. Hate. He hated his daughter. He hated her because she reminded him of his loss. He hated her because she looked like her mother. He hated her because she wrote poetry and listened to classical music and was so distant and familiar to him. He hated her because he loved her too much and, unsure what to do with the excess, hated her all the more. She was all he had left now and, rather than lose her suddenly and unexpectedly, he would slowly, incrimentally hate her until she chose to never call him. Only then, perhaps, would he respect her.
She had visited a counselor once. When she had started college, she was a psychology major, admittedly trying to grapple still with her mother’s sudden death. Like other psych majors, she agreed to subject herself to counseling for extra credit. That had been a mistake. By the fifth session, she felt like she would burst if she didn’t say what was so present and palpable within. She admitted she had wanted to console her father sexually. No, it was more than that, she wanted her father to finally acknowledge her, love her, enjoy her, and allow her to prove her worth to him. She wanted to fuck and be fucked. By him. The loss of her mother gave her a reason to excuse these desires, something to point to, to blame, but they had been there already simmering underneath sitting beside him in the Sunbird. After one more session, she discontinued counseling and changed her major, horrified with herself. Unable to deny it. Ashamed that she had said it. Out loud. To someone else. Saying it aloud had made it so much more real, articulating it in some way had made it into a real thing made manifest. She immediately pursued a classmate, allowed herself to be taken by him and soon took to calling him “daddy” in bed without his ever having known about the fetish that alternatively excited and sickened her.
And now, standing in front of her stereo, she decided to go running. She did, and returning to rinse herself off in the shower, she masturbated down from the endorphin high. And then she slept.
In the morning, the previous night entirely forgotten, she walked the eight blocks to work. She would walk to work in the mornings, calm and unrushed, allowing her mind to luxuriate in the warm coffee at hand even as she questioned whether she should switch to tea. Between the apartment and the office, she would disappear until nine. That was how she thought of it, disappearing then reappearing. Like a magic trick. Like a broken butterfly. If only she were a butterfly. If only she could fly. Fly away, far-far away, like a little butterfly. There was still some remnant of childhood inside of her, some playful, truly sensitive girl there who wanted nothing more than to be a butterfly. Beautiful after the long cocoon.
How had she even become a loan representative? It certainly wasn’t something she sought out, cubicles, cake with white plastic knives smeared with colors like a butchered clown face, the sickly and unnatural pastels smeared across the knife, a crumb or four smashed into the handle from someone holding it too tight in their desperation for something, god-help-them, anything to break up the monotonous quotidian. She was a writer, after all. How did she get here? Weren’t writers supposed to be bad at things like this? Things like math? Navigating the office politics of polite political beliefs and strained behavior, choosing words carefully just to avoid a boss who wanted to “push back on that suggestion a little” and empty conversations with the blonde across the way who had an uninformed opinion about everything? The writers she knew endured these things through to greatness by tucking away stray thoughts onto hasty scraps of paper tucked into desk drawers until the muse of the moon undressed and inspired with whatever pleasured her. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, so slow, so bland, so empty and… average. Unexciting. Her professor, a poet laureate, had spoken highly of her. Why hadn’t that translated into something more fruitful?
A poet. That’s all she could ever be.
The day went on until it was over and, again, Lauren walked home to an empty apartment. Bumping into the bar just to feel contact with something, she emptied her right pocket and laid out the scraps of a stanza she had worked on, quickly reading over them and smoothing them out. Maybe there’s something here, she thought. She rolled her head to relax a muscle in her neck. Her eyes hurt too. Staring at a computer screen would do that to you.
This short story came out of an attempt to write a much darker one. If you were shocked by one of the details here about Lauren, that’s normal and proof that you are not yet desensitized to the world around you.