By Denise Duhamel
Featured Art: Puddles by Sophie Rodionov
My sister, my brother-in-law, and I order Chinese takeout
on New Year’s Eve and my fortune reads
“You have to accept loss to win.” This makes me almost hopeful—
and maybe, for a moment, even gives me a way
to make sense out of 2008. I am going to keep that fortune, I think,
but then promptly, accidentally, I throw it in the trash.
Later my sister says that she thought my fortune might have read,
“Only through learning to lose can you really win.”
Or “Maybe accepting loss makes you a winner.” I can’t search
through the trash because I threw the bag of leftover Chinese
into the condo’s chute which crushes whatever thuds to the bottom.
Yesterday I held my childhood drawings in my hand
except they had been drenched in sewer water, so it’s more accurate to say
that I scooped Crayola pulp in my work gloves. The apartment
my sister and brother-in-law and I bought is gone, except
for the cement floor. Even the moldy walls must come down.
I dragged away the kitchen sink in a green garbage bag.
My brother-in-law wore a mask and a white Tyvex suit, prying up
the wet tiles with a screwdriver. The cabinets, the mattress,
the couch, the loveseat all gone. The books too wavy and stinky to keep.
My teenage diaries and early poems, inky mush. Everything
down the chute. I had stored my old papers in the new apartment
so my husband could have more room. My father died
the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my apartment flooded
on Christmas—and did I mention my husband left me
September 10? I bought the extra apartment in July of 2008
thinking it would save my marriage—if my beloved and I only had more
physical space, a place where he could make his art. When he left
it wasn’t a civil “I’ve had enough . . .” departure. No.
There were suicide notes. There were threats.
He was even a missing person for a while, a danger to himself
and others, as the police wrote down on their forms. Oh, Elizabeth
Bishop, loss is hard to master, if you ask me. Goodbye, goodbye,
my dear papa. I bought the apartment because I thought my parents
could come down to Florida for a month in the winter to escape the cold.
The psychic said my father would do just fine in the operation
and he’d be calling me Skipper and walking with me on the beach
by March. The psychic said, Don’t worry, your husband will never bring you harm.
She told me to sage my apartment to keep me safe. She said,
You are attached to your husband by a cord running from your stomach to his.
Every night I want you to work on loosening that cord before you fall asleep, OK?
After a few weeks of working on letting him go, I gave a slight tug
and he floated away. I whispered, Goodbye, my love. Take care.
Then that very night I dreamt he was back lying on the yellow couch
and I was yelling at him to get up and get a job. Everyone tried to help me
this year—from the pregnant clerk in Walmart who said,
If you give in to your anger, you give away your power . . .
to my students who drove me to the supermarket and the chiropractor
when my crumpled car was in the shop. Even the woman
whose car I wrecked on the way to the divorce lawyer
said, It’s OK, it’s OK, no one’s hurt.
But no one could truly protect me from this year.
Did I tell you that the poetry class I was supposed to teach was cancelled?
Did I tell you I smashed my toenail with the wet-vac and it really hurts?
Did I tell you I lost $200 in the span it took me to get from the ATM
back into the Honda? Did I tell you that I dropped the $320
I clutched in a roll either in CVS or the post office?
That I retraced my steps, but the clerks just laughed at my panic?
Did I tell you that this year I have gotten on my knees
and prayed for grace and peace of mind to get through the next hour?
I know that there are many far worse off than I am
and, on the chain of misery, I am but a flimsy inconsequential link.
There are people with missing children, not missing husbands.
I had my father 47 long years. There are people without a place
to sleep tonight. I know that. When my mother asks me
to please turn off the TV as she doesn’t want to watch the CNN story
about the terrorist attacks in India on the day of my father’s wake,
I assume it is because she just can’t take any more suffering.
But then she says I don’t care about those people, which I know isn’t really true,
but it is true in that one dark moment she has—I only care about your father—
and I don’t judge her. After the surgeons worked 14 hours on my dad,
he was so full of fluids they couldn’t close him back up.
I wasn’t at the hospital because I thought everything was going
to be all right (not only because of the psychic, but because of a feeling I had
that nothing else could go wrong this year). I was into being positive
and strong—lighting white candles, holding the thought of my dad
on his favorite recliner, buying him special vitamins to help him
heal faster after his heart valve replacement. My father was oozing fluids
at the end and cried pink tears, which were probably saline tinged with blood.
My brother-in-law pulled the sheet over his face. I want to pull the sheet
over this poem, over this entire year. I wasn’t in the hospital
because I was teaching a class—not the one that had been cancelled,
but a fiction class the university asked me to do instead. I had wanted
to sit in on a fellow professor’s graduate plot class because I want to write
fiction, too. But the undergrad fiction class I was asked to teach
was on the same night. I had already missed two weeks of classes
because of my husband’s disappearance, so my work ethic (passed on
from my dad) made me stay in Florida instead of going to Rhode Island
to be with him the day of his operation. The doctor said to me,
Your heartbeat is double what it should be, but the good news is
you’ve lost 20 pounds. If you keep this up, Meryl Streep can play you
in the TV movie. He was making fun of my life—my list of complaints
that I rattled off so quickly they probably sounded made up.
Even my therapist has started to look at me with suspicion.
She knows she dare not ask, What do you think you’re getting out of all this crisis?
I skip the New Year’s Eve party because my sister and her husband
tried to fly home this morning but their plane couldn’t land
in the Providence snow and they were rerouted back.
Ten hours later they landed in the very same place
I drove them to this morning. I re-made the futon
and hung up the towels I’d just washed and put away.
There can be no movie of my life at the moment unless someone else
writes it—I never did sit in that class and get the hang of plot,
though I am learning on my own about reversals.
What does the main character (me) want? Does she ever get it?
What are the obstacles in her way? My sister and her husband
are all falling asleep before the ball drops, before the fireworks,
the sounds of which have always made me afraid. It is already 2009
in Bangkok, where 61 party-goers were killed in nightclub fire.
The party was billed on the poster as a “blowout.” Yes,
there are people far worse off than I. My husband used to caress my hairline
to help me sleep, but tonight I’ll take another Xanax. My sister says,
Please go out with your friends. We’ll be fine. But I skip the party
because it’s hard on this last day of this year to yuck it up and laugh.
And the only other alternative is to go and be a drag. I am trying
to be more like Elizabeth. I am trying to remember the exact wording
of my fortune, though my friend told me last week that stress
erodes one’s memory and stress-eroded memory never comes back.
Oh no, I said. She looked confused, explaining she didn’t tell me to upset me,
only so that I would try harder to de-stress. I keep hearing the hum
of the industrial fans and the wet-vac. Another friend said, Look!
There’s this article in The New Yorker about someone else
who just wrote a book of poetry about money. He cut it out for me
and everything. The poet is Katy Lederer. The article is called
“The Ballad of the Bubble.” Shit, I said, just my luck. And my friend said,
I didn’t tell you to depress you—I told you to show you how you were in the zeitgeist.
Miss Z. Geist, that’s me. My new book coming out in February
is called Ka-Ching!, a word that can mean either a windfall or a big loss.
My friend called my beloved the Bear Sterns of Husbands because he melted down
at the same time as the investment firm. My sister and her husband
are going to try to get on that same plane again in the morning.
I set my alarm for 5 a.m. (like yesterday) so I can drive them to the airport.
I wonder if Meryl Streep can do my Rhode Island accent.
I wonder if they’ll give her a frizzy wig. It is already 2009
in London where takeout is called takeaway—and I say, take away 2008.
Out, out, out, long wretched year! Year with an excruciating “leap second”
added to keep the world’s clocks on time with globe’s slowing rotation.
When I taught fiction this fall, I kept talking about the sympathetic narrator,
since some of my students kept picking jerks to tell their stories.
And sometimes I suspected the jerky narrator was a lot like the student
writing the piece. I am a lot like the narrator of this poem—
I am, in fact, completely her. I always tried to be tactful when I said in class
that the average reader might not care about this particular narrator’s plight.
So I don’t blame you, dear reader, for not caring about me either.
I will try to be more likeable in my next poem.
For now, I’m broke and alone. A Dolly Parton song.
Still, I am trying harder, faster. Still, I am trying to learn the art.
Denise Duhamel’s most recent book of poetry is Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021). Her other titles include Scald; Blowout; Ka-Ching!; Two and Two; Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems; The Star-Spangled Banner; and Kinky. She is a Distinguished University Professor in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami.
Originally published in NOR 6