A Story of the Midwest
“I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I were all Westerners…”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I made the same mistake about my ex-husband
that Jordan Baker made about Nick Carraway—
you know, the part where she says she met
another bad driver. I think that the worst
kind of unreliable narrator is one who believes
the story they’re telling, mixing in bits of what
almost anyone can recognize as true.
Nick tells us near the end that something
made all of them unable to adapt to life
on either side of the Valley of Ashes, and I
remember that although my ex-husband
grew up in Las Vegas, I met him at the IHOP
in Madison, Wisconsin where I waited tables
third shift. Writing poetry is like playing golf:
I move a few words around on the green, edge
them closer to the hole, making my own good shot.
I Confide in Ellen Olenska about my Divorce
“We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?”
–Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
We sit in an empty playground at twilight.
She rocks herself back and forth on a wooden
swing. I am perched on one of those animals
on springs, a frog with a wide red mouth. I pat
its head as I tell Ellen all of the particulars.
She listens and nods, taking her hands in
and out of the small white muff that she carries,
perfect dark curls escaping from her hood.
And even though my ex-husband isn’t
a dissolute Polish nobleman, she clearly
understands. I can tell she thinks that I’m lucky
I came away with most of the books and
a few pieces of furniture, that I didn’t have
to flee in the night with his admiring secretary.
I point up to the third-floor apartment that
we can see from where we sit. “That room was
where I wrote,” I tell her. “The walls were blue.”
And I can see her face change when she realizes
the similarities between how we sit here
in the curtaining darkness and how Newland
Archer sat and waited for his son at the end
of Wharton’s novel. We talk more carefully now
about art and opera and the latest fashions.
I rock back and forth on my cold frog, admire
the velvet cloak that she wears, how it is a blue
that is almost black. Soon, all that’s visible
is the muted glow of a room behind a window
and the scrap of white fur hiding Ellen’s hands.
When he was in high school, my ex-husband
had a Miniature Schnauzer, and if that
hadn’t been the case, if he hadn’t also been an only
child and a Sagittarius born in the first week
of December, I might not have been convinced
by these similarities to walk the eight or so blocks
to his apartment two weeks after we had met,
carrying my typewriter and everything else
that was necessary to my life in 1992.
The dog’s name had been Natasha, and when
we were first talking about our lives over
a case of cheap Point beer, we did that thing
where the name of your first pet and the name
of the street you grew up on make up
your stripper name. He was, improbably,
Natasha Paradise (because in Las Vegas
streets are named things like that). I was
Scamp Cleveland for the black and white
mongrel that predated the family schnauzer,
and a dead president. He told me many times
that he felt guilty about his dog and wished
he had given her more attention and taken care
of her like he had promised. And I told
him every time that it was all right
and that she had loved him anyway.
I texted my ex-husband to let him know
that I was writing a series of poems
about him. “It isn’t vindictive at all,” I said,
and it wasn’t. The first one was about
the snakes and lizards that he caught
in the desert when he was a boy
growing up. “Awesome!” he texted back.
“You’re gonna make me famous!”
I sent him the one about his dog, too,
and after about ten minutes had passed,
he texted, “I’m totally crying.
It’s so good.” I confess that I felt
better, even after seeing him on the bus
the other day with his girlfriend.
There’s another one of his stories
that I’d like to write about. He’s a boy
climbing a cliff, pulling himself
to the top. He hears the rattle before
he sees the snake. But he knows
it’s there. It will always be there.
Jennifer Finstrom teaches in the First-Year Writing Program, tutors for the University Center for Writing-based Learning, and facilitates a writing group, Writers Guild, at DePaul University. She has been the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine since October of 2005, and recent publications include After Hours, NEAT, Midwestern Gothic, and One Sentence Poems, among others. She also has work forthcoming in YEW Journal and Silver Birch Press’s The Great Gatsby Anthology and Alice in Wonderland Anthology.