Eye To Eye
by Joy McDowell
Is this seat taken?
The woman motions me into the chair at the end of the aisle, but continues organizing a weekend getaway with two women in the row ahead.
I gawk at the swelling crowd. People are pressed against the walls of the Alumni Lounge in Gerlinger Hall.
Do they always turn out like this for a poet?
Oh, yes, especially for a big name like Sharon Olds.
Images of near-empty library galleries and rows of unoccupied folding chairs bob up in my mindamateur poetry readings in logging towns. Except for my campus years and this last move, I've spent my entire life living near logs and lumber. But this is Eugene, Oregon, a university town. It's a new ballgame for cultural events.
The large room is cozy and familiar in a long-forgotten way. The rich carpet colors and oversize room dimensions haven't changed.
I recognize a few of my students.
We teach at Lane Community and she teaches at NCC. The woman beside me gestures at the two women ahead. We all earned our Ph.D.'s here. The way she shares the information invites a recitation of my own credentials.
My isolation in the noisy room increases. I wonder if the ghosts of my former instructors haunt the hallthe same room where I received outstanding senior honors from my own department. The plaque commemorating the event is tucked somewhere between clay-splattered hippie boots and a set of tarnished, pot metal peace earrings.
I graduated in '68, and recently moved back. My writing doesn't approach big league. God forbid she ask the publication question. No one likes to admit they're lucky to get two magazine copies in exchange for two thousand words.
I don't add that my degree came in Park and Recreation, or that I trained to become a Girl Scout staffer or maybe a Julie McCoy typethe cruise ship director smiling her way through a leisurely run of The Love Boat. The irony of an educated, female jock gone to seed married to a logger isn't a joke I plan to share with Ph.D. holders. Too many words are needed to describe how a degree, or maybe a woman, gets lost and wasted in those isolated coastal harbors. Only salt-rusted freighters loaded with wood chips and export logs sail across their ocean bars, bound for faraway places.
Gerlinger Hall's high ceiling catches my eye. Tiny aqua splotches adorn the ornate, rococo border. They wink like a thousand blue eyes standing watch over the crowd below. Dark wood cloaks the walls and hints at European elegance. A woman with a guide dog parks her wheelchair beside me. At the front of the room, a clutch of important people buzz around pumping hands and smiling. I scan the hall, but don't see the famous face pictured in Bill Moyer's book about poets and poetry. Maybe Sharon Olds has cut her long grey hair or switched to contacts.
A throbbing bass from an amplified band tumbles in the open windows. The Take Back the Night rally at the student union opposite Gerlinger Hall has hit high gear. Hundreds of women have gathered for the demonstration and parade. They chant in unison, but I can't distinguish their exact message.
A young woman standing behind the poetry dais reaches up and partially closes a window. Any resentment about the intrusive noise seems almost sacrilegious. After all, the renowned poet about to kiss the microphone has penned verse after verse on women and their sometimes perilous journeys through day and night. But the rally's crescendo again erupts on the gentle evening air. The assertive female voices shove past the stately room's heavy draperies.
A member of the university staff adjusts the microphone and opens the program. Kind words flow for both a tutorial program and the undergraduate writing contest. The monetary awards are mentioned and cheered. A small group of contest winners come forward. I applaud with vigor, attempting to drown out the interior voice chastising me for wasting more than thirty years. If only I had started younger.
But my perspective switches and I wonder if any of the budding young writers assembled at the front of the hall will ever look back on this moment and regret relinquishing an architecture major to attempt a career in writing. It could happen.
In 1968, I sat in Gerlinger Hall facing the south wall, now I face east. I too heard applause when I accepted my department award. But nothing came next, at least nothing academic or professional. The climb through the structured learning matrix just stopped. I lived as wife and mother, a good-cause volunteer. The domestic role was never enough, so I hiked to the sea and watched elephant seals doze on a rocky island. Near the jetty, I saw waves tilt the bell buoy until it gonged. My journals sang their private odes across flooded estuaries and into the arcs of rising waterfowl flocks. I chased down rosy sunsets and let mudflat clams squirt jets across my bare toes. And then I wrote it all down.
But after thirty-three years a strange current returns me to Gerlinger Hall. And as an aging outsider, I simply sit and listen. The introduction of Sharon Olds, a veteran peddler of the naked soul, takes time and yet the heartfelt praise seems inadequate.
She steps to the dais and wiggles the uncooperative microphone. Her much-anticipated reading voice proves friendly and experienced. Most lines she delivers from memory, but some she reads. She holds up a white sheet and shows the audience her penciled correctionsher fallibility serving as a common denominator for all who listen. The poems she shares tell little and big storiesher images inflating and tugging at the audience. With my eyes closed, I pick apart layers of meaning like a fork tine explores leaves of phyllo pastry. She fumbles a phrase or two, and her hand shakes when she lifts her glass of water. I wonder about fame.
She mentions her plane, the one coming to the West Coast, the next day's going away, and the audience laughs like we all understand what it must be like to stand in front, beloved, honored, and heard. But our standing ovation is not enough to entice another spoken poem.
The college bookstore table at the rear of the hall gets busy. Book in hand, I join the queue making its way to the front of the hall where Sharon Olds has agreed to sign her books.
Standing two abreast in the warm room, we inch forward. I accidentally nudge the backpack ahead and in that apologetic moment lose my focus.
An eighth-grade memory of Kookie, the greasy-haired heart-throb of the 1950s television series 77 Sunset Strip, invades my head. I spent a dollar of allowance money to send away for his autographed picture. I found the offer in the back of a teen magazine. Six months later I pressed the precious Hollywood memento into my comatose kid sister's hand after her appendix burst. No one knew if she would live. Kookie's famous smirk was the best gift I had to offer, but possessing the photo seemed both sexy and silly. I thought maybe God would understand about television idols and let my sister get better.
The person ahead of me apparently tires and drops out of line. I fill the void. What will a poetry book signed by Sharon Olds add to my life? I study other faces milling about. Who are we? Where are these young minds going? Is it too late for my tardy voice to speak?
I check my watch. I want to arrive home before the season finale of ER airs at ten. The mere thought of the cheesy, television screenplay shrinks my already wounded self-esteem. My refinement incomplete, I thumb through The Dead and the Living, the Olds book I selected from the bookstore table. Then I start flashing. My menopausal sun radiates a thermal power surge across the eternally youthful campus. I fan myself with The Dead and the Living. The slender young man shuffling along beside me pretends not to notice.
The line turns a corner.
Across the street, the band stops playing. I hope the rally took back at least this night for women. I'm wearing awkward sandals, and I parked my car beyond the darkened basketball arena.
Seven people must get books signed before it will be my turn. They each pause and exchange a few words with Sharon Olds. Are they saying a breathy thank you, or are they spelling out their names for the title page inscription? And what is the famous woman thinking? I feel odd participating in the ritual of celebrity and glance toward the stairs.
Nearing the front of the line, my focus again flees. A black and white image washes over me and I recall Keiko, the killer whale rehabilitated in Oregon. Long lines of curious visitors snarled coastal traffic during his extended stay at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Tourists stood for hours in the rain to have a brief chance to see Keiko in his specially constructed tank with its reinforced glass windows. Like many others, I visited the famous orca and wished him well.
Down in the aquarium's cave-like corridors, I watched mesmerized as Keiko swam the length of his new tank. Round and round he went, cruising on his back and sometimes reversing direction. I read interpretive signs and pointed. When he sculled leisurely past my window, I fixed my strong right eye on his tiny whale eye and wondered if he could see me, not us, the big raucous crowd, but me, the person desperately attempting to reach out and offer him my personal goodwill.
A friend told me she too wondered if Keiko noticed her face. What was it about the famous whale that made us want to connect? Was it pity? A sense of universal connection? Or was the desire to bond brought on by our human egos growing bigger?
A writing department volunteer stops me before I reach the signing table.
You know about the title page, don't you?
What about the title page? I say, thinking perhaps there is some vital tidbit of insider information revealed on this particular title page.
The young woman, decades my junior, lowers her voice and says, Please open your book to the title page for her signature. It saves time.
Properly instructed in the autograph drill, I check to see if the killer whale is ready for me. Keiko wields a ball point stilettono messy fountain pen to slow down the line.
What name? Sharon Olds asks.
Keiko, I answer and laugh, forgetting to put my eye to her eye in a metaphysical connection.
She looks confused and I add, Joy, that's my name. Just Joy. I was only thinking about the whale.
Sharon Olds lays her pen to paper.
Back at home, I read the inscription.
For Joy. From Sharon Olds.
Joy McDowell graduated from the University of Oregon and studied writing with Sharon Dubiago, Lisa Dale Norton, and other western writers. She lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley and maintains a writing and art studio on the southern Oregon coast, overlooking the Coos Bay estuary. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have appeared in publications in the Pacific Northwest, New York, and Texas. Her story, Cutting Losses was selected for the The First Line Anthology, The Best of the First Three Years (2003).