It so happened that we took a class together on the poetics of desire. The professor gave us our first reading assignment, the poem Kubla Khan. He asked us each to develop a perspective on the matter of desire in the poem. He suggested we read the poem somewhere unexpected. Do you mean like in the tub? I asked. Desire, he answered, is a matter of context.
I read the poem three times while sitting behind the counter at the liquor store. It was a context of strong desire, is what I thought. Upon the third reading I was still coming up short, however. That’s when you came in the door.
“What is that thing on your head?” you asked me.
“I don’t have anything on my head,” I said, but still felt the top of it to be certain.
“Oh, I guess not. How about dinner?”
So I got up off the floor and grabbed my jacket. I told Veronica, who was working the day shift, that I would be back in time for the night shift to begin, at six o’clock. Veronica didn’t respond. She was busy handing change to the customers.
We went to an Italian place and I ordered spaghetti. “Do you have a perspective on desire yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” you said, “but I’ve been trying.”
“I don’t think I have the right attitude for desire.”
“Well, maybe it’s not for everyone.”
I slurped my spaghetti. I couldn’t help it. The marinara sauce collected in the corners of my mouth.
“Thanks for dinner. I have to go to work now,” I said, and left.
The drunks came in and out all night, and I checked their IDs. I asked them about their desires. They all said they desired to be drunk. This made sense, much more than the poem.
In the next class meeting we talked about our perspectives. People had all kinds of different things to say. One person said “Desire is about forcing a wedge in between the gears of the machine. It’s the result of that. . .” After this comment there were several nods of heads and more remarks about late capitalism. You looked at me as if you thought I might know something about this. But, as I had already confirmed, it wasn’t my area of expertise.
Later we met on a bridge and threw pennies into the river below.
“What if we tip the ecological balance and give all of the fish and townspeople copper poisoning?” I asked you. You said it couldn’t happen, because pennies are known for their luck. Also, they are made mostly of zinc nowadays.
When I was working at the liquor store later that evening one of the regular customers came in with a green carnation in his lapel.
“Is it a holiday?” I asked him, pointing to his flower.
“My lucky day,” he responded, and set his Michelob on the counter for me to ring up.
The next time we had dinner we went to a Japanese restaurant. I ordered a dish that roughly translated to mean puddle of floating purple. We were working on a new poem in our desire class.
“What does concupiscent mean?” I asked you. It was mid-spring and the air was citrusy, even inside the restaurant. Several people in the street were calling out to each other by name. I’ve noticed when the weather gets warmer, people get louder.
“I have no idea,” you said.
The class soon divided itself into two camps: those who thought desire was cultural, and those who thought it was natural. The culturalists declared that desire arose from the unequal distribution of material wealth. The naturalists’ theories had something to do with breast milk. I was of neither opinion. The professor just nodded in one direction and then nodded in the other, so nothing was very conclusive. I confronted him about my uncertainty and he nodded at me, and told me to read about Keats’s concept of negative capability.
“Do you feel like you’re missing something?” I asked you later. We were at the Circle K buying hot dogs. I had covered mine with pickle relish and was popping it into the dirty microwave when you asked,
“What do you mean by missing? Like did I lose something?”
We were waiting on the results of our final exams. I didn’t think I had done very well, never having developed a firm perspective on desire for myself. After we got our grades, you came into the liquor store.
“What can I get for $4.72?” you asked. I pointed to the sale beer.
You came over to the register and put your money down on the counter for me to count. “What were you reading just then?”
“The side of the cigarette carton. Not really reading, just looking at the picture. It’s the Jolly Roger. See?”
“It also means poison.”
“I don’t think people are buying these to kill rats with.” I handed you back thirteen cents.
“Did they have cigarettes in pirate days?”
“I’m pretty sure people have always smoked something.”
Then I thought out loud, “Maybe that’s what it is.”
“Desire. Something that you want even though it tells you up front it’s going to kill you.”
“So, you think people willfully misinterpret the message?”
“Maybe. I guess so. Yes.”
We were taking a walk through the park. It was full-on summer and the trees sparkled with sunlight. Children were everywhere. As were sprinklers, bugs, and dogs. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you handed me a balloon. Where had it come from? I hadn’t noticed you with a balloon. But there it was, round and yellow. As you were handing it to me, though, I missed the string and so we watched as up it fell, into the bright, blue sky.
In the end, her paperback conflicted with his pastiche. It was her choleric hair color: bullet train, gun muzzle; And his thick-ribbed sweater: petit-fours? Non, madame, merci. They were reassembling their derivatives, busy, when the wind kicked in at the unseamed window. “I’m out of this sno-globe,” she said. He paused at the start of his sentence, “Ultimately. . .” It was that they wanted different things: he, a telescope. She, accessories.
Until then, she’d sneaked generic sleep-aids and fashion magazines, not above escapism, narcissism, or eschewing his parsimony. “I want my. . .,” she said. He didn’t even glance up from his autobiography. All night she’d practice the vocabulary of sycophancy, “Would you like?’ and consider the planet’s orbital fidelity. Tell me, what’s the equivalent of mass times gravity? Above the bedroom something was the matter with the sky alright. It glittered with signifiers and she knew he felt above their meanings.
In the sitcom of their life they have one problem per episode at the resolution of which they return to a base neutrality. In the commercial jet of their immediate problem, each of their other problems is a passenger, and the landing gear is malfunctioning. Seat 3A: “Why don’t you just. . .” Seat 29D. They do a lot of traveling. Pilot: “We’ll keep circling the city. . .” Cue laugh track. Cue Awwwww.
The perfect coordinates were of a different family, but they’d preserved in gesture all the drollery of politesse: “How was your day today?” Anyway, there was little complaining. Until: “I’m bored,” she said, at which he noted with his pen, A marked intolerance for rendered subtleties. He began to speak in footnotes to expostulate his leitmotif. “One more tedious deconstruction of a repeated theme. . .,” she threatened. And then, “What’s the point?”
She considered standing in the rain all night: a death induced dramatically but with the additional benefit to linger with the attendant disease. Maybe she’d recover spontaneously, only to get worse again. She hoped. What could it be? Double-lung pneumonia? TB? Does one cause elicit many possible effects? Once a domino is struck it will fall without respect to her need for personal meaning. He wrote with his pen: given the given, you are fixed to your station. . .
Why, she wonders, does moon sound so much like womb? Swoon like broom? Tomb like come? Without an obvious center, anything is anything. It’s a problem of modernity, the heartless city. Metropolis is a metaphor for emptiness. Emptiness for disappointment. Disappointment for God.
She created euphemisms for her diminishing morality: turning a cheek, a leaf. She made euphemisms for her euphemisms until she couldn’t locate their original meanings. By love I meant forget, by forget I meant fail, by fail I meant death, by death I meant nothing, by nothing I meant. . . She stacked it all together and shuffled: vasectomies, kitchen knives, constitutionals by the sea. In a moment she could give up all that she desired. Neither life nor death. Neither A nor B.
What was left? The infinite weekend. He wrote, In the absence of a static authority. . . Either their words could not contain their meanings, or there were no meanings. She thought about the functions of her body. She was blank, yearn-heavy. He wrote, a system of causality. She thought like the sea.