Owen and Paul

by Angie Mazakis

Feature image: Sir John Everett Millais. Study for the Head of the Rescuing Lover in Escape of the Heretic, 1857. The Art Institute of Chicago.

It’s any two strangers’ conversation.
The proportions of the tall one’s face
make him look like an Owen.
The other one, easily a Paul.
Owen makes a face, a gesture—
his forced half-smile squints one eye,
as he barely shrugs in a way that falsely
means tentative, in a way that pejoratively
leans and says, I’ll give you that much,
a gesture which says entirely,
You know, it’s like this. Maybe I’m wrong,
but it’s something to think about.
The maybe I’m wrong suggested by some
softening of his eyes that kept him from
a face that said, nice try or dubious—
something he had to lose.

I catch my eye just beginning to imitate
the gesture, try it out, here in this coffee shop.
Maybe I’ll start wearing this look after saying things like,
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the city rock ‘n’ roll was built on.
Or after anything ending in most people don’t know that.

The face that Owen makes when he feels loss
is the same face Paul makes when he feels empathy,
I conclude without reason.
And that unintentionally, these expressions
are false annotations
of what they’ve said or meant to say.

Owen and I are in a serious relationship
from across the coffee shop.
He thinks I mean something
I didn’t mean. Something definitive.
It was the sun in my eyes or it was
the blinding rays of other wrongs
that preceded you, Owen.

He is constantly displaying a grin that I deconstruct
into microexpressions. I tell him to hold that face
in our kitchen or in line at the movie theater so that
I can locate specific facial muscles—orbicularis oculi,
masseter, temporalis. I can’t help it.
He gives me the same expression that Paul just got,
but without the maybe I’m wrong.

I wish I’d loved Paul first.
I try to look at him right now with
all the love I have.

His expressions are consolidated
into a neat package of closely associated
representations of emotion. Which I used
to mistake for apathy. Now I’ve learned
to live with my misunderstanding.

Owen’s face gives him away.
And because of the proportion of and spatial
relationship between his features, I’ve read
love when he was one frontalis muscle
away. Turns out, often, he’d meant pity.

Oh, Owen. I’ve watched your face all these years.
Because a specific, complicated sentiment
or combination of sentiments
is absent from your heart,
there are certain things
that your face cannot,
will never say.

Angie Mazakis is the author of I Was Waiting to See What You Would Do First, a finalist for the 2020 Miller Williams Prize and published by University of Arkansas Press. Her poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Best New Poets, Washington Square Review, Columbia Journal, Indiana Review, Lana Turner Journal, Nat. Brut and other journals. She is a PhD student in creative writing at Ohio University.


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