The Fictive Self
by Laurie Blauner
Megan thought about what Grant could do with nouns and verbs. The various positions. The compromising situations. And it sounded better and better to her. Did it matter what followed what? It all ended up the same: everyone looking for love or the meaning of life. Subject, verb, object.
Not Megan. She scribbled in her notebook, Help me I'm being held in a Chinese Lit class, just above the doodle of Grant smiling, holding an enormous spear over his head, his loincloth dipping below his hip. Near the quote by Ben Jonson, I will eat exceedingly and prophesy. Grant Carter was lecturing on and on in a room that smelled of wetfeet. It was filled with drowsy graduate students. He was talking through his beard about the Fictive Self, how it liked to go to parties, get drunk, wake up God-knows-where, and forget to do its final paper. Just like us. Sometimes more than us, doing what we only thought about doing. It could write, when it wanted to, epic poems about tattooed lovers and nose rings caught in awkward places. Grant called this extension of oneself a persona. Megan gazed out the lone window at the gray sky filled with clouds like an animal with patchy white fur. She stared straight at a brick building identical to the one she occupied. She could see art students in a room moving their paintbrushes across canvases under a bright light.
You have to catch language from all around you. Let it pierce you through the heart. He was pacing, his hand ruffling his beard as if searching for stray morsels of lunch. This was usually how he ended class, her new Advanced Poetry teacher. Because Megan had been through beginners and intermediate she guessed she was an advanced writer by virtue of time and effort. She was in graduate school now.
A line of three men and two women from class formed at Grant's heels as he left class. Irving Crackinowski, that was his real name. Megan had discovered it in her research. He had written three wonderful books. One line had haunted her, seemed to speak to her, Imagine becoming a memory. Megan knew all these graduate students felt the same way, on the admirer's train to his office. She watched the last woman in line, short with cropped blue hair, a childish face, black tee shirt and jeans. She had been one of them last week. She had brought him whiskey and 7UP in a flask in her purse. She had condemned the arts councils that had rejected him. She had unbuttoned the top of her blouse, pressed her freckled breasts together to form one continuous pillow. She thought that if he didn't notice her soon her heart would explode.
Then he mentioned his girlfriend in the seminars at his house, a filmmaker, one of the few women ones. He said, Think of a close-up of the leaf of a tree or a sparrow's feather. You could live your whole life under the microscope of a lens. Everything enlarged. He winked.
The girlfriend sat in on a class once and seemed ordinary, quiet, her graying hair escaped from her face in little curlicues around her head. She didn't say anything. Her name was Sandy. Megan argued with Grant over a fruit image in someone's poem that day, saying, It should be a shiny, red apple with its history of symbolism since early times.
No, Grant said, leave it alone. What's the matter with oranges anyway?
Then Megan understood that he was drunk already. He stopped coming to the seminars in his own modest but comfortable house right after that.
Megan thought about what Grant couldn't do with his body. He was a large man who tipped a little sideways to fit through a door. He pounded his fist on his wooden kitchen table to exclaim a point when he was tipsy. She could feel it reverberate in her stomach reminding her of violence or sex or the phone ringing too much. Megan's roommate, Rachel, a medical student, once accompanied her to the beach where Megan drew a large valentine in the sand with a stick. It said Irving and Megan scratched into its center.
Who's Irving? Rachel asked, a forest of soft dark hair blowing across her eyes. I haven't heard you talk about an Irving before.
My poetry teacher. Grant Carter. It's his real name.
Just jump his bones sometime. Get it over with.
A week later there was a creative writing party at Grant's house. He had moved his overstuffed furniture toward the walls and set out bowls of nuts and potato chips on every empty surface. It was BYOBADSI, bring your own bottle and don't spill it. By the time Megan got there, half filled cans and glasses lined the tables resembling a booth at a fair where you could shoot bottles down with a fake gun. It was crowded and she noticed people from her classes staggering and trying to maintain conversations at the same time. She wondered if Grant attended his own parties more regularly than he did his classes. And sure enough, he emerged from the kitchen with his arm flung around Sandy's shoulders, her hair backlit with kitchen light, a full, gray nest. Megan saw a large, red stain down the front of Sandy's beige shirt, a Rorschach blot where her nipple poked through. Just as Megan was turning to talk to Ben from her class, Grant said to Sandy, Money, fame, beauty. But they are everything my dear. And he started giggling uncontrollably.
Sandy slapped him on the cheek and walked out the door.
She's probably getting into a car with Carl or Frank. She's probably fucking them right now out there. In the backseat. In the middle of my street. He roared in Megan's direction. He was glassy-eyed, smirking. He bent down and Megan felt his warmth, smelled his sour, beery breath. Mozart played in the background.
Grant went to his bedroom and sat on the bed piled with coats. He was tilted to the right as Megan walked in and saw him perched on her synthetic leopard coat. His hands fumbled with one another, tossing, as if he didn't know what to do with them.
He noticed the girl from one of his classes enter, her badly dyed blonde hair with dark roots, the jangling bracelet with small stones, her sparkling blue shirt that shimmered like a wet sea. She tucked her drink down at the foot of the bed and crawled onto his lap.
Don't you remember me? Megan, she said, resting her hands on his shoulders. He exuded an odor of hamburgers and liquor, of someone's perfume and cigarettes. It was probably his beard. She wished she was even more drunk.
Everyone else leave the room and shut the door. The other two people talking in the bedroom hurried out.
She kissed his tart mouth finding his tongue in a ball at the back of his throat. His beard tickled her neck. She could hear Beethoven faintly, drowned out by the voices outside the door. It was mostly dark in the room.
Grant heard tinkling around his ears, little stones hitting one another, and saw the serene pool of her blue shirt resting on the floor. He fell backwards, his body knotted by the coats as she climbed on top of him.
After a few minutes of trying she realized he couldn't do anything. He was too drunk.
That fucking Sandy, he mumbled as she dressed and walked out into the tubercular sound of Schubert and discussions about pathetic fallacy, sonnets, and the future of art.
Megan imagined him writing, that most personal act. She sat in her own spare bedroom, in her bed, as sunlight nuzzled her thrift store dresser, edged its way across the oak floor, making it appear to have brown and gold brushstrokes like a painting without a subject. Light from her curtained window crossed the stack of books near her bed and gently crept onto the unmade bed, the crumpled sheets and huddling bedspread. Megan's elbows indented her pillow as she lay on top in her underwear. She could hear Rachel making breakfast, the pots and pans clanking. Rachel was singing with the radio, rock and roll.
Megan closed her eyes and could picture Grant in his tweed jacket and boxer shorts at the surprisingly orderly desk in his writing room. His hand moved across the page and he dramatically crossed out large blocks of what he had composed. He intently rewrote it. He touched his pen to his lips and then tapped his forehead. He squinted and sighed and paced behind his desk. She wondered what he thought about. Would he work her into a poem? Perhaps surreptitiously so Sandy wouldn't find out. Megan sighed as Rachel was loudly echoing the lyrics to a Stones song and frying some eggs. Megan's fingers sneaked under the band of her black underpants which were inside out just as the sunlight fumbled across her face.
Who do you become when you are in love? A better person? A prepositional phrase? Megan remembered her family, all twelve of them. Four brothers, six sisters, most of them older. Her parents seemed frail, elderly, lost in the crowd. She didn't get to know them well enough to discover whether they had loved each other or not. Their days were filled with the mechanics of eating, dressing, cleaning, and sleeping. Some nights a few of the kids slept in the same bed, head to toe like fish at a market so they'd all fit. Catholics. She'd become another lapsed Catholic. She didn't want children, that dreary life. But she did want to write the perfect poem.
Megan drove aimlessly around town. She parked by the ocean and watched the slow boiling of waves, the way they grew crispy and white at their peaks. Gulls flew above them, long, pale lines, then landed and drifted along the shoreline reminding her of Grant in class. He once hoisted his large frame onto a desk at school and lectured them, gesturing wildly, on writing from a different perspective. Then Megan discovered he did this once a year and people called it his Instant Desktop Talk.
Have you had Grant's Instant Desktop Talk yet? someone asked her on a regular basis.
She pulled into a parking lot. She was looking for his bright red Ford outside his favorite bar, the Dew Drop Inn, the one with velvet nude paintings and a picture of Elvis. She found it parked perpendicularly to the other cars. She wasn't sure what to do. Her Fictive Self could enter, say hello casually, or ignore him, or kiss him passionately. What if he was with Sandy?
She waited in her car, deciding. She felt as if she had just stepped out from a novel, a trashy romantic one. She hated falling in love. It was so messy. She thought about dating the trucker next door or Ben from her Advanced Poetry class. Then Grant emerged with a Go-Cup in his hand. Behind him was a fiction writing teacher who looked as if he was drooling onto his sweater and then came the woman with blue hair. The fiction teacher got into his car and left. Grant and the woman stumbled into his car. He attempted to kiss her but caught her eye with his lips and she put her hands up into the air. Megan watched them through the windshield. It was dark but Megan could see silver glitter on the woman's fingernails reflecting light from the bar, dumb stars shining near the roof of Grant's car. The car took off toward the road in jerky stop and go movements.
Ben went fishing with Grant. He told Megan all about it after class at her kitchen table. Rachel made them all coffee and then went into the living room to read from Gray's Anatomy. Megan could see the human body beginning with a skeleton then the organs were added, then muscles and finally skin as Rachel turned the pages. It was that interior and how everything worked that interested Rachel.
Ben's balding head glowed under the kitchen light and he had one gold tooth that flashed as he talked. Megan found his poems simple and filled with clichÈd sentiments. He imitated Grant as many people did. He just did it poorly.
Sunday he came by my house in his Ford and we left for Twin Lakes. I got a chance to ask him about the woman in his famous poem The Cripple. You know how he says she seemed like a bird yet wrecked the scenery? He said, `Yeah, she did that all right.' He told me that she married some guy ages ago and lives three towns away now. It was interesting. Then I asked him if a poet needs to marry another writer and he said that it didn't matter as long as the person understands writing and the urge to jot something down on a Post-It in the middle of the night or at the movies. He sipped his coffee, the steam rising toward his eyebrows, his gold tooth blinking.
Did he seem to be in a good mood to you? Megan noticed Rachel's athletic legs cross and uncross while she was reading. Megan thought that Rachel's certainty came from the way science limited experience and poetry was confusing in the way it tried to expand it.
Yeah, he seemed okay. When we went to a cafe to eat before fishing at the lakes neither one of us could open the bag of potato chips that came with our sandwiches. We each kept pulling at them. Finally Grant took out his penknife and stabbed them both and slit them open. Then at the lake he took out a chair and rod and reel and a bobber. I figured he could fly-fish but no, he stuck that red and white bobber out in the middle of the water, sucked on a beer, and waited for the fish. He seemed kind of mad when I caught the first fish.
Did he talk about anything else?
No, not really. Did you want to come over and have some fish sometime? The both of you?
Megan sat next to the blue haired woman at the seminar at Grant's house that he didn't come to anymore.
Did you hear that Grant's dog committed suicide along with his second wife by jumping into the ocean after her and refusing to come out again? They tried food and treats and everything. But the dog kept paddling out there until it got tired and just went under. Megan whispered, the blue hair bristled as she breathed into it.
What kind of dog was it? the woman asked.
It was just a rumor, Dan interrupted them. Megan was annoyed. But then he added, Did you hear that Grant showed up in comp class last week in a kilt? Apparently he was trying to find his Scottish roots since his mother died.
Did you know that he had an obsessive compulsive disorder for a year? Fiona piped in.
Megan looked at the dirty dishes in the sink, the papers scattered in the living room, the pillow without a case on the sofa, the chipped bowl left upside down on the floor and decided that even she couldn't believe that one.
Which tells her more about him, an adverb or a pronoun? I, he, she. She and he. Did what blithely? Or infuriatingly?
There was a poetry reading on the second floor of a bar in town and Grant introduced the poet, a thin man in a wool jacket who concentrated on sestinas with a Chinese influence. Lines like He fled in his long boat, an oarsman among bamboo. Megan brought Rachel for moral support and they sat at a table right in front, partially eclipsed by the bright lights on the stage. Glasses gleamed on the table, one sweating in Megan's hand. She searched the darkness at the edges, seeing the slick top of Ben's head nodding in agreement, but nothing blue leaped out at her. She vaguely wondered what had happened to Sandy. She knew there would be rumors soon. She stared at Grant's beard, wanting to get lost in it, while he was talking under the spotlight. She noticed a nick along his cheekbone and thought I could take care of that, make it feel better. He went and sat on an ample stool at the bar.
Megan realized that she'd been doing things she didn't normally do. Less make-up, lingering at the coffee house, hoping for a glimpse of him between classes. Her sentences came out jumbled. In class she'd said, no place to learn instead of teaching has its place. She wanted to apologize too much but didn't. After the reading she walked over to Grant as if she was sleepwalking. She left Rachel at the table talking to Ben about the structure of poetry. It's ribs, circulatory system, life's blood. Is it constructed on an image or an idea?
Megan reached out her hand to caress the nick on the side of his face but Grant was surrounded by people and he turned away quickly toward the bartender.
Yes, he's marvelous, he said to someone. And he took her arm and said, Meg, we should discuss your poem about the woman and the donkey in Mexico. Let's go downstairs.
Pressed into the corner of the empty room, cocooned into one another, she kissed his shoulder, smelling sauerkraut and cigars in his beard. He leaned down and slipped his fat tongue into her mouth. When he pulled back his eyes were glazed. He appeared to look past her, not seeing her.
It's that damn Fictional Person acting out again. You know I think you're wonderful, Meg, but nothing lasts with me. He pushed her away and began climbing the stairs slowly. He shook his gray streaked head. Nothing works with me but the writing. Forget about me, find someone better. As he was halfway up the stairs, I'll straighten out sometime, as if to himself.
Megan, who hated the nickname Meg, left abruptly, tore out the door and ran home. At her apartment, out of breath, she sat at the kitchen table, played Mahler loudly, and tried to write a poem about Grant. She was up creating most of the night. Rachel never did come back.
In class the next day Megan wrote in her notebook Since Grant, adjectives are taking over my life. Messy, confusing, free, sad, forlorn. She liked her new poem. Grant was lecturing on ambiguity in couplets. It was when he recited his own work that everyone liked to listen. Scrawled sideways in her book, Poetry is the wine of error furnished by drunken teachers, by St. Augustine.
She lay her head down on her elbow and when she lifted her head there were clumps of hair on her paper. He's making me lose my hair she thought. Irving Crackinowski. She stretched out her legs, touched her gold shoes together at the toes. Two clicks and I'm home. She closed her eyes and imagined Grant dressed in a suit, thinner, dancing the cha-cha with her in front of an orchestra. Megan wore a long, flowing peach colored dress that swept the floor. She couldn't help her dreams.
Grant's pacing shoes creaked near her desk. She could detect coffee and eggs on his breath when he came close. The door opened and Rachel came in and sat down at a desk. Megan wondered if she was interested in poetry now or perhaps just Ben. Megan noticed a naked female model in the art class in the building next door. The students surrounded her, drawing her. She watched their hands move up and down on their paper.
Grant said, Here's Rachel, my new girlfriend. She's a med student, interpreting the body, not literature and all that. If you have an ache or a pain talk to her after class.
Rachel smiled, whisked her dark hair onto her shoulders.
At break Megan grabbed Rachel and coerced her into a distant hallway. What the hell happened?
He told me it was over between you two. I didn't interfere in anything did I?
No. But where were you last night?
And he could perform?
Yes. She looked at Megan strangely. He said he's not drinking anymore and he was just fine.
When Megan returned to class she discovered she wasn't angry. She too decided to seek order. No more wondering what her arms and legs might do without her permission. She wanted symmetry, not necessarily a tidiness to things. A pencil on the right and one on the left. A perfect circle around the art model through the window. A big word in one part of her poem required one on the other side. She smelled wet, wool socks in the room. She wanted to balance the students in the room so they were in parallel rows. She wanted to arrange what she could.
She looked at Grant and finally saw the darkness under his eyes, his sallow fleshy skin, his thin gray hair, bad teeth, his unkempt beard, the huge, honest confusion of him. The scab on his cheek was red and blue from bruising. She had been dazzled by his fictive self, his poetry. But not anymore. She was learning. She wanted to straighten his jacket so it wasn't sliding off one shoulder.
You have to catch language from all around you. Let it pierce you through the heart, Grant said looking at Rachel.
Megan realized they were just words.
My first novel, Somebody,
was published by Black Heron Press and won a King County
Arts Commission award. I also have four books of poetry,
three from Owl Creek Press, one from Orchises Press. My
fiction and poetry have appeared in American Poetry
Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Georgia
Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and
many other magazines. My second novel, Infinite
Kindness, won a 4Culture grant, and will be
published by Black Heron Press in 2007. Cherry Grove
Collections just published my fifth book of poetry, All
This Could Be Yours.