When Single Rooms Can Spring to Life So Easily
Have you noticed how when you see two people talking anywhere in the world, one is almost always smiling? Half of us are alive now; it's hard to say what we have least of. Children come into the world by themselves. My family began with me. Under my own good auspices, I took a room in the city, gave a dollar for a smile in the street, ten for the pressure of a hand. I liked your stare, your air of an emporium owner. Drinking whiskey with you in the kitchen, I never felt a shiver of wishing to be elsewhere. The vast melancholy of the city, that world where single rooms could spring to life so easily, seemed to have disappeared. You claimed as property all you'd thought about, the fictions you had yet to overcome. In your dreams, coats and dresses floated west in search of tickets, of landscapes with bandstands and verandahs. When you danced you called yourself Fernando; your hands were as astonishing as a sublime idea. The way I felt would never let me be myself. Even when I didn't know you, I suspected even more. I knew you thought I looked like a xylophone, even when you bombarded my windows with Indian corn, juggled the flowerpots and rabbits of my past. How could I stay alive with such negative emotions? Living in the past since the day I was born, I always remembered the wrong things-- the day my cat walked out on me, all that milk I had in the refrigerator. Listening to you recall your incarnations, it's clear you could have been anyone, and you were. Now are you going to tell me about your career as a comb-and-tissue player? That happened, too. It isn't in the Guinness book of records, but it happened. Your hands and feet explain themselves, your wrists sloping back into your sleeves. I hated pink until I saw you in it. Now I think about it all the time, your faded tights, your improbable somersaults. It's funny how you really seem to feel them in your heart, the exquisite things.
Are we so different from what we could be? When I wish I could start over, I remember a friend I had over there and in this room, a life that happens only here and now. When things seem bleak, I dream of Andalusia, a dream I can share equally with anyone. Are we born to be what we are?
I suspect you now of the opening act of the heart. I won't need to be told where to stand when it happens to me.
Your Old Self
Last winter there wasn't any winter; last night you dreamed about today. Sitting here you wish for there.
When you were twenty years old, you were forty years old. You rented an apartment, but it didn't come with sleep, rented a piano that you played by sympathy. At your sewing machine you whirred out a little tune, put in some yellow thread and made a flag to wave. When you fell in love with your world historian, you found out where you'd be in two hundred years and exactly what the nation thought of you. Continually surprised by the lateness of the hour, you couldn't see all this enthusiasm for the future: you'd have been the same in any century.
The days never ended; they just moved ahead. You sang "Rock of Ages" to hear a world redeemer play his clavichord again. In matters of the heart you were an atheist, but you returned the spoons you'd stolen from restaurants ten years back, wore out your clothes to donate them to charity. In your Florida bungalow, the amethyst needle of your Gramophone scratched out the clarinet quartet. How proud you were of your lost causes! Your prospects for heaven had never been better.
Time and climate soon tell on you. You are seen roaming your kingdom in rags waving charts of perilous currents carefully marked. Have all your Walter Raleighs died? Drawbridges do not open by themselves. You're sure that nights like these occured only before the World Wars. Your banyan trees shimmer with ghosts of birds and phantoms of dogs chase themselves around canvas chairs and colored umbrellas, orchids smelling of honey and roses of pears. Your atlas moth is drying her wings when half of Krakatoa disappears again. You can't get over it. Maybe you've never been close enough to a world explorer. Your memories dissolve into their chemical components, but you'll never be cured of your adorations or know what they thought of you.
When people say of a catastrophe, "I never think of it," they mean that it has colored everything. Either those days or these are not real. Tokyo Rose is an old woman now and Miss Liberty's copper skin is as dry as dead leaves. You shake your cages of sleeping fever birds; you're the same in every century.
The Age of Great Vocations
You've seen the skirts go up and down in bread lines, soup lines, cheese lines, shanty towns. No one can say you aren't seeing work. The answers come by mail at noon: No interview. The best companies never respond; you respect them. Some days, you don't bother to open the letters, just tear them to bits and go out for a walk. It's a small fraud by the world's standard: you can't do things like ask for directions, so you call yourself an adventure-collector. Failure's a field with real opportunities for a girl with a pile of business magazines which she will probably have to burn for heat. Your luck will get either worse or better. The world is really none of your business; it doesn't give you a living.
Someone calls your bluff, asks for references. You read up on yourself in the library. With lies, you can double your existence. In an endless dream of introductory letters, the applicants sit in all their best clothes, their ages against them, their loneliness repeated many times. The managers walk around, choosing. You say you've done singing telegrams and balloon bouquets (you've done strip-o-grams, sold flowers at traffic lights). You're a cake decorator, you've been to zoo school (you're a weeper-at-weddings, you eat cat food). Welcome to the world of captivity. You were calm yesterday, and today you're thinking, "In the days when I was calm." You'd like to talk about your sex life. Singing your salesman's song, you wave your thirteen letters "To Whom It May Concern," every one a masterpiece. Fooling a man is a full-time job.
You've had a good day? You've found something? The world needs you right away. The loneliness repeats itself. You chart the progress of your fellow novices who stand around as astonished as slaves delivered in a day. They aren't moving up, but they're saying "You bet." They call the boss The Enemy.
Whatever makes every beginning a sad one suggests that somewhere there is something else for you. Your boss is a terrorist; you like him. Reading the impressions on his note pad, you can't help certain hopes. Sitting in the switchboard glow, connected by the movements of your hands and arms, you're a shaky presence among solid things. You don't get a glimpse of his heart of gold, but you hear things he'd never tell anyone: he spent his youth dreaming of being a thief; he is where others ought to be; people should be ashamed of their luck and proud of their trouble.
At noon you sneak out and eat a stale moon pie from a filling-station jar. You take gloves to the tramps who stand around trash-can fires thanking God they aren't tramps. You shake their hands. The job is impossible, but the enemy, meaning your heart, is calm. That typewriter has not got his eyes or arms: if you accept its offer, it won't embrace you, yet it offers itself more than he does. It won't mind if you fall asleep in a rush at your desk repeating to yourself, "I am asleep," or that you can't tell in this atmosphere the difference between sweat and tears.
You know what all the world knows: time was invented so workdays could come to a close. The women on the electric train shift their weight in the direction of the men. The men stare off, every one for himself, every departure a sad one. You're not the same person they regarded impatiently over the pencil sharpener: you've escaped. You have to lean against the window frame and laugh. Cherishing bits of evidence of how strange you are, you pass through glowing rectangles of town and country. You think of knights, town criers, jesters. You can see the world in the last light laid out like a checkerboard, and you can live. So you're an agent, adjuster, accommodator with a wish to take the movements of your arms elsewhere.
Have faith in your doubts. Your vocation is to feel less despair about despair.
You'll be there until you leave.
Alane Rollings was born in Savannah, Georgia, and attended Bryn Mawr College and the University of Chicago, where she has taught for years. The above poems are reproduced from her collection, In Your Own Sweet Time (1989). Her most recent collection of poems is To Be in This Number. She lives in Chicago with her husband, novelist Richard Stern.
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