Thursday, April 12, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's, Part 9.2 (Leslie Scalapino)

Defoe
Scalapino, Leslie
Defoe


Purchased online for $4.98. At least that is what the sticker says. This is one I keep meaning to read and don't. I will, I will.

I was enjoying reading the poems in Considering how exaggerated music is so much yesterday morning that I decided to put the book on my bedside table, next to the novel I am currently reading, 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. Miraculously, I am actually one hundred or so pages into the Murakami, the furthest I have ever gotten into one of his books. Figures it would happen with the one that gets the most tepid reviews.

Anyhow, I read a few of the poems from a sequence called "The Woman Who Could Read The Minds of Dogs." They all tend to deal with sex and power and language and...animals. Animals of one sort or another appear in most of the individual poems. One features a seal, or rather it compares the movements and sounds and shapes of men having sex to the those of seals barking and shuffling around on their oddly shaped oblong bodies.

It's a pretty funny poem.

I bring it up, though, because it brought back an obscure memory from college. Before I tell you about it, I want also to note that when this memory appeared, my first thought was to write it down. I thought maybe it was a story (I don't know why. I never write fiction.) Then I thought it would make a good blog entry. I said to myself that I should write it down so I don't forget it in the morning. I did not write it down.

When I sat down at my desk this morning, I remembered that I had had an idea for today's blog entry. Predictably, I could not remember what it was, only that it had to do with Leslie Scalapino. I scolded myself for having been too lazy to write it down before going to sleep, then retrieved the book from the bedroom to see if scanning its pages might bring my idea back to the fore. Thankfully, the last word of the poem is "Seal." I found it almost immediately and remembered the following story.

I went to college at Fordham University in the Bronx from 1989 to 1992. During that time I stopped drinking, et al, but I still chain-smoked and I ate like a truck driver. One of my favorite places to sit and eat and smoke and drink coffee (milk and three-four sugars, I might add), was a diner on Fordham Road called Pete's Cafe.

Pete was a swarthy, burly Greek man who often wore a thick black mustache. They gave out free books of matches at the cash register with a sketch of Pete's face on the cover. Once, Pete shaved his mustache off. Within a couple of days, the image on the matchbooks had changed to reflect this new reality: Pete with a big smile & no mustache.

I used to sit in Pete's by myself, smoking, eating, reading, writing, drinking coffee, etc. I would sit in the same booth, next to the window and facing the door, every day. This was my last semester in college. I had finished my course work and was taking graduate classes to see if I had a taste for graduate school. Most of the grad students were smug, arrogant, distant. None of them talked to me.

One of these was a tall, pale woman with thin, straight, brown hair that hung down just below the shoulders. Like many of the graduate students, she refused to make eye contact with me unless it occurred by accident. I presumed this had to do with the fact that I was an undergraduate invading their sacred realm.

Anyhow, this tall, pale, thin woman would come to the diner nearly every day to meet her boyfriend. She would walk through the front door, glance around the restaurant, sometimes looking right at me, yet making me feel as if I weren't even there, then take a seat two booths closer to the door with her back to me. She was always early. He was alway late. I began to observe her. She was interesting to me only because I wondered what it was that made her so distant.

She would sit calmly for a few minutes, reading a book, ordering a cup of coffee, staring out the window. At a certain point the boyfriend would become noticeably late. Even from two botths away I could feel her anxiety. She would shuffle her body from side to side, fix condiments and silverware on the table, crane her neck to see out the various windows beside her and before her, trying to catch a glimpse of him.

This is where Leslie Scalapino's seal comes in. There was something about the shape of her head and the way it bobbed above the back of the booth that reminded me of a seal. Her head was thin and rose to point the reminded me of the way a seal's head rises to a point when it cranes. In my head this woman, to whom I never spoke a word, became know as The Seal.

For a time, this made me feel very superior. I would imagine her barking as she opened up her mouth to catch a fish thrown by her always-late boyfriend, also an arrogant grad student. But then I began to feel sorry for her. The boyfriend arrived later and later and each time she grew more and moretense. Often it felt like she was on the verge of tears.

And then one day he didn't show up at all. She waited for over an hour. I had nothing better to do, so I watched to see if he eventually did come. After a time, her head stopped bobbing above the booth and she let it rest in her hands, which were propped up by her elbows on the edge of the table. I could tell she was crying.

Eventually, she paid her check and got up to leave. I remember she turned toward the back of the restaurant and scanned the restroom area to make sure she hadn't missed him. She had not. For the briefest of moments she looked me in the eye, almost as if she knew not only that I knew what was going on but that I was secretly enjoying her suffering.

It lasted only a second, not really even long enough to call it "contact," but it made me feel a kind of sympathy for her. And then out he went. I think I had been there alone for two hours at that point, nibbling at the ends of my grilled bacon and cheese and nursing a fourth cup of coffee. I was probably smoking and pretending to read a book or to write something in my notebook.

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