after & for Roger Bonair-Agard
I’m laying on the sweetest stomach this side of Newark on a Saturday night trying to listen to her insides when I notice The History of Church Music sitting cool on the other side of the bed. The pages are worn crooked begging for eyes or hands or some touch that I’ve been sparing this night, and I grab the delicate confession and shuffle to Atonement. My palms are sweaty even before I’ve realized that the first few words have spilled from my lips like vomit; I’m propped up on my elbows, Roger, and it’s hard for a man my size to project or pretend this smooth in such positions but your poem helps and my accent begins to corrode fifteen years of repression as the black corporate woman asks for another reading on your crowded subway car. I’m just beginning to savor the surprise on my lady’s face between punctuation. She’s sipping on Chianti in a whiskey glass because I’m a brute, Roger, and the only liquor I prepare my home for is whiskey. Your voice moves in to the back of my throat and the words begin moving like my own. My elbows squeeze in to her hips and she sinks in to the soft beneath her almost as if to say, I guess, this is happening. The cue is not lost in her quiet and a rush of pride flushes the fibers in my neck upright when I realize that I am capable, Roger; I am capable of this reading and I don’t want to muck this moment up with her.
And the hush floods the room with the characters on your morning train: tattooed Gus, the dirty shoed Filipinos, and the Catholic school girl whom I imagine very much to look like my first time in the altar boys’ vestibule. I keep the pace steady, careful with each description of the kinetic they are soaking in and glance up to see if the poem is coming alive and it is, Roger. She’s mouthing the words now. Her eyes are rolling up on to the drop-ceiling that I did not paint though she thought me capable. She always believes the best of me even at my most acrimonious.
My best friend Omar takes every chance he has to joke with me about my mistakes, Roger; that I am so intent on chasing perfections that my missteps are the size of chasms when they come, that I cannot hold a flawed thing in my arms without falling in love, “and your poem is one I wish I could have written,” so I’m letting the wine take over and she’s still humming along with me; breaking posture to collapse in to the most familiar of lines, you write, “I’ve got some kinda blues Sean, because I hurt my girl and she’s never coming back.” And I wonder what kind of hurt lies beneath me, Roger; what side of pristine am I chasing after in her.
My friend Bisi once told me that I’m good at every single thing I do and I cannot help but question that especially in this moment, when my girl is hurting and all I have to offer her is your poem, Roger. I’m searching the subtext for answers, in the same way I grilled you in the cold night, when we wore out our liquor coats over talks of poetry and progeny. Roger, my voice becomes a low regret when I remember our exchange; how you answered like you’d been asked these questions a thousand times before and I knew I came off as arrogant, I come off as arrogant all the time, but you let it slide and we folded arms like unorthodox prayer. We unwilling monuments of our own gardens agreed to submit to those things we cannot mend in ourselves.
Roger, she’s closing her eyes and I’m rushing to get to the punch line to make her smile again, so I approach with an extra dose of caustic when it comes, terrified that this night, too, could be imaginary. I read the turn like the first time I drove a red Mustang on an empty back road in New Hampshire, “None of this really happened, but it could Sean,” you repeat exactly the words I’m hinged on, “it could.” And she opens up like the second glass of wine; shows off the most darling of a grin that I am more than happy to have negotiated.
The lights, I think, are flickering and there’s strange noises coming from the heating vents. This is the first time I’ve turned on the heat this fall, Roger, because my girl’s here and I don’t mind paying the bill if it keeps her warm. We reach the end of your poem together, where the schoolgirls are staring and my girl looks expectant for the last word; you write it flawlessly: “For a moment Sean, it feels like I’m davening.” And my spine succumbs at the notion; I’m sitting with you writing your epistle to Sean because I need to escape. I’m unsettled because I don’t have any more poem to fill this silence. I don’t have any answers of my own to ease the hurt in her-none-to answer her eyes still fixed on me, expectant, and I notice my hands are trembling, Roger, I feel the weight of my own body on top of hers, the noise of the heating vents and your train blending in to one imperfect unease. It is amidst this gravity, before she opens her eyes to speak, that I feel unholy.