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tearing the rag off the bush again
FROM THE MFA FRONT PDF E-mail

He was not my type: forty-five, short, and barrel-chested with a receding hairline, and a convulsive laugh that attracted unwanted attention wherever we went. But Dave Sheer was a well-known poet, and I was his twenty-three-year old student looking for a mentor or at the very least a few lines in one of his poems, and that was how we got together in June. But it all came apart in August when he took me to his East Hampton timeshare for the weekend.

We arrived after midnight, and went to his room off the kitchen. He had a twin bed, but he insisted we sleep in it together even though we were both too tired for sex, or for what passed for sex between us. I got no sleep. He snored half the night. In the morning, we carried our coffee out to the pool behind the house. A woman in a red bathing cap was swimming laps, her diamond earring glittering in the sunlight when she turned her head for air. Another woman came out of the house with coffee and a cigarette and joined us at the table. Dave introduced us. Sheila was in her late thirties and looked as though her face had frozen in the middle of tasting a lime. She lit the cigarette then left it to burn in the ashtray.

"You're looking well," he told her. "Having a good summer?"

"Not as good as yours, apparently." She picked up the cigarette, flicked the ash then placed it back in the ashtray. "Still teaching, I take it?"

They looked at me then, and blood rushed to my face.

"You both look like you could use some sleep," she said, in a gravelly voice pebbled with sarcasm. "How in the world can two people sleep in such a small bed?"

I started to answer, but he cut me off. "It was great fun," he said. "You ought to try it some time."

"Oh, please. Don't forget who you're talking to." She snatched up the cigarette then put it down again.

He grinned and then he began to laugh. His body jerked, his face contorted, and a horrible sound filled the yard. I glanced at Sheila. She was looking at Dave like he was a bus that had just swerved and missed her by inches.



I had signed up for Dave's workshop at The New School without knowing anything about him. After the first class, I checked out his two books from the school library and was charmed by the fumbling, searching narrator of his poems. Over the course of the remaining sessions, I deliberately confused the writer with his persona and talked myself into an attraction. At that time of my life, I was in thrall to the deceptive excitement of wishful thinking. So, when the ten sessions ended, and Dave invited me to join his private workshop held in his Sullivan Street apartment, I accepted, even though it would cost more than I could afford. I was an editorial assistant at Random House, living in New Jersey with my boyfriend George who had to lend me money on a regular basis.

For my first session, I read one of my newer confessional mode poems. Afterward, I was told to remain silent while the others critiqued my work. It was standard workshop procedure, but these writers - there were seven - were harsher than I was used to. One nasally-voiced woman dismissed my work as a confessional peepshow. Dave winced but said nothing. A young woman with a buzz cut talked about something called pathetic fallacy. "A penis," she said, "could not, and probably should not, greet one's hand." That got a good laugh. Next, an avuncular-looking bearded man told me that my poem was really about a deep-seated hostility for my mother. Dave raised his eyebrows and nodded then continued to mark up my poem.

After the last critique had been delivered, Dave said, "Okay, my turn." The room fell silent. The nasally voiced woman rearranged herself on her chair, tucking one leg beneath her; the bearded man took a pen from his inside jacket pocket and clicked it open.

"You're going to hate me for this," Dave said. "Get rid of everything except these last two lines about your mother." He tucked his pencil behind his ear and thrust the poem at me. "Richard is right. That's the heart of your poem. Start from there."

I looked down at my twenty-eight line poem, trying to stay cool. Nothing like this had ever happened at The New School where I had considered myself to be one of Dave's more talented students. I felt a brief flutter of self-doubt, but I brushed it aside like a moth's wing.



One purpose of our Hamptons trip was to find Dave a house. He was fed up with timeshares and their contingent of bitter women; Sheila was only the tip of the frigid iceberg. He told me all this after breakfast as we drove south on Montauk Highway. We were on our way to Daniel Herzog's house. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet was like a father to Dave. He had a number of surrogate fathers, and they were all, coincidentally, famous writers.

"Dr. Levine says I need to get into the real estate market," he said.

I looked at him, prepared to laugh, but he was, apparently, dead serious.

"As long as I keep on renting, Levine says I'm putting off making a real home for myself." He glanced at me then back at the road. "I need to give myself a wife and family."

I had no response, since the wife could not be me. He'd made that clear a couple of weeks ago at Caffe Dante, saying: "Eventually, I'd like to meet a woman closer to my own age or at least in the same ballpark," He'd delivered this news in the same tone he might use to say, "Pass the ketchup, please."

Now he said, "These timeshares attract women like Sheila."

"Oh, yeah? What kind of woman is Sheila?" I said, watching the telephone poles speed past.

"Bitter," he said. "The kind of woman who blames men for everything that's wrong in her life. She only pretends to be independent, but she just wants a daddy to take care of her."

I turned to look at him, the man who would be nobody's daddy. "I think you might be wrong about Sheila."

He didn't answer. We made a sharp left, and bumped along a dirt driveway bordered on both sides by mugo pines. He stopped in front of a rambling one-story house, and shifted in his seat to face me. He narrowed his eyes and thrust out his bottom lip, something he did when he was deep in thought. I felt for the door handle. At last he said, "You're a bit naïve, aren't you?"

"If you say so."

"It's not you're fault," he said. "You're still young."

"And Sheila is old," I said, pushing open the door. "Right in your ballpark, actually."

"Touché," he said. We got out of the car and walked up a path that was covered with crushed white clam shells. The door opened before we could press the bell. Daniel Herzog, dressed in a white undershirt and dark trousers hiked up under his drooping pectorals, looked older and more diminished than he did in the black-and-white photo on my Ecco Press edition of Telling the Truth.

"I'm waiting for Fern," he said, looking past us.

"Dan, I'd like you to meet Jeanne Corcoran," Dave said. "A talented poet."

Daniel's handshake was firm for a man in his eighties. "Nice to meet--" he began then shouted, "Christ a' mighty. Here she comes. Finally."

I turned to see an old wood-paneled station wagon, barreling down the driveway, crushing daylilies on the way. Glare on the windshield made it impossible to see the driver. We followed Daniel to the car. He opened the front door and Dave opened the back. At the wheel, a white haired woman twisted in her seat to watch us get in. She was plump with shoulder-length flyaway white hair, probably in her mid-sixties.

"Fernie," Dave said, leaning forward to kiss her cheek. "This is Jeanne."

"Hiya Jeanne," she said, flashing a big friendly grin. "I'll be your tour guide this afternoon."

"Great," I said, smiling back at her.

"Lovely day, isn't it?" She made a jerky K-turn, braking abruptly, jostling us in our seats. "I was down by the pond all morning," she said, "photographing swans."

"How nice," I said. "They mate for life, you know."

"God help them." She stepped on the gas, and we tore down the driveway. She made a sharp right, missing the mailbox by inches. "I hope you all believe in an afterlife," she said. Dave buckled his seatbelt, while in front, Daniel slumped down until all that was visible of him was the speckled dome of his head. No one had explained his and Fern's relationship. She was at least twenty years younger than Daniel, an age difference close to the one between me and Dave.



Six months into the workshop, I stayed behind after the last student had left, telling Dave I had a tuition issue. I needed a few weeks to pay the fee, because I'd recently broken up with my boyfriend and was subletting in Soho on Prince Street. "In fact," I'd said, "I'm looking for someone to show me around the neighborhood." It was code, the way some poetry is code, one thing standing in for another, and he parsed it perfectly, pressing me up against the refrigerator and kissing me. I thought about all the nights I'd stood in this kitchen during the breaks, just another student, and now I was kissing the teacher. He pulled back, said he'd never had an affair with a student before, and then unbuttoning my dress, he brought up the difference in our ages and some other concerns that neither of us paid attention to.

For me, at least, the sneaking around was more fun than the sex. After class, I'd leave with the other students, walk around the block, and then return to Dave. We'd go straight to bed and have sex, or at least we'd try to have sex. According to Dr. Levine, Dave's occasional impotence was due to a reluctance to let a loving woman into his life. Presumably, that loving woman was me, because during those two months I mended his jeans, cooked him dinner, and acted like it was no big deal whenever he failed to get an erection. "It's okay," I'd say. "I wasn't really in the mood." Or, "It's way too hot for sex, anyway. Let's get dressed and go to a movie." We went to a lot of bad movies during June and July, movies chosen by Dave who claimed he needed time off from thinking about his problems. But after the movies, walking home in the noisy carnival-like streets, he'd launch right back into one of his monologues. In the beginning, I was thrilled to listen. Poets and writers I'd been reading since high school, he knew well enough to resent and to suspect of all sorts of duplicities. My own problems seemed juvenile in comparison, so I rarely mentioned them. For one thing, George had been calling every day, pleading with me to reconsider our breakup. For another, I owed Dave for tuition.



Now as we inched along Main Street, Fern made small talk, asking me where I was from, where I worked, what I thought of East Hampton. She turned frequently to look at me, and at one point the car veered toward the sidewalk. Daniel grabbed the wheel and steered us back on course.

"Keep your eyes on the road, you crazy old bitch," he said.

"Who are you calling old, you ancient buzzard?" Fern smiled at me again, rolling her eyes. "How do you like him? Too feeble to drive, but that doesn't stop him from telling other people how to do it."

I looked at Dave. He winced. We drove in silence for a while then Dave gave me a sideways look. "Hey, Daniel," he said. "Congratulations on the Academy-Institute award. That's really something."

Daniel grunted thanks. Fern said, "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the Poet's Corner."

"But isn't that for dead--" I trailed off, getting her point too late. Oops, I mouthed to Dave as Fern chuckled. He took my hand and held on to it until we pulled up in front of a run-down shack with an overgrown patch of grass and a whisky barrel planter filled with dandelions.

"What do you think?" Daniel said. "It's the old Smith place."

Dave lowered the window. "It's in my price range," he said. "But it's too close to town and too far from the beach."

Fern threw the car in reverse. "I told you, Danny. You should never have wasted Dave's and this young lady's time." She backed up and hit a garbage can. It rolled after us as we peeled away.

"If I'd wanted your damned opinion, I would have asked for it," Daniel said, wearily.

Dave leaned forward, propping his arms on the front seat. "Well, at least I got to spend some time with my two favorite people in the world."

"You're a good boy, Davey," Fern said, patting his hand.

He sat back, beaming idiotically at the front seat. What the hell was wrong with him?



We had a standing date on Tuesday evenings after the workshop. On a few of those nights, I had taken my time returning. The anxious look on his face when he opened the door confirmed his affection for me.

"I was about to call the police," he'd said, the first time I'd delayed my return. Even though he'd tried to make a joke of it, it was clear he'd been worried.

On the weekends, he needed time to write, but he was also lonely, so I'd sunbathe on his rooftop or watch the basketball players at the Sixth Avenue courts or sit through a movie at the Angelika until he was ready for me. For reasons I could not explain, I did not want to be alone, and the sublet, decorated with someone else's furniture and infused with someone else's smells, amplified my sense of loneliness. Most nights, coming home from work, I took the wrong turn out of the subway and wandered in circles searching for the building.

One Tuesday night, after a failed attempt at sex, Dave flipped onto his back and blamed his impotence on his professional problem. I'd heard it all before. At Columbia, where he taught a few classes, another poet, Banning Dooley, was persecuting him. His former mentor, yet another man who was once like a father to him, was stealing Dave's students and spreading rumors about him in retaliation for something that happened with a woman twenty-five years ago, before I was even born. Perhaps, that was why I had trouble taking it seriously.

I stifled a yawn. "Maybe if you ignore Dooley, he'll get tired of this game and stop."

He leaped out of bed and stood over me. Lit from behind by the insomniac's window across the alleyway, he said, "Are you giving me the brush off? Or are you really so naïve?"

I understood then why he was such a masterful poet: his mind was like a tumbling barrel ceaselessly polishing his thoughts to a smooth reflective perfection, but it didn't make it any easier to be with him. "Don't snap at me," I said. "I'm just trying to help." I sat up, pulling the sheet over my breasts.

"Look, sugar, it doesn't help when you oversimplify my problems."

"I've told you before I don't like it when you call me sugar. You sound like one of those old Rat Pack guys." He flinched, but I went on. "When are you going to realize I'm not your problem? Don't make me into one of your problems."

He looked at me, jutting out his bottom lip. After a moment, he said, "I'm sorry. I'm just a little wound up. Would it be okay with if we, you know, tried to make love again?"

I shook my head. "I'm tired. I want to sleep." I burrowed under the sheets, turning my back to him. I heard his heavy footsteps cross the room. I thought about George, how it used to bother me that he did not like or understand poetry. As an engineer, he could design a suspension bridge that carried millions of people across a river to their jobs and families, but he did not know the first thing about constructing a haiku. Why in the world had I ever considered that to be a problem? I cried myself to sleep. Hours later, I was awakened by a repetitive snapping sound. I knew from nights past that he was playing solitaire in the kitchen, and I went back to sleep. Close to dawn, I woke again to see him kneeling beside the bed, watching me.



Fern drove us back to the Herzog's house without further incident. We said our good-byes in the driveway. She pulled me to her big bosom, and held me there a moment or two longer than seemed normal for two people who'd just met. Then Dave and I set out for the timeshare. We drove in silence for a while then he said, "What the hell was wrong with you back there?"

"Me?"

"You didn't say one word to Daniel about his poems." He sounded aggrieved, as though I had turned my nose up at an expensive gift. "Even famous writers like to have their work praised. They're human, too." Maybe that was the problem. For me, Daniel had turned out to be a little too human.

He stopped for the light. "Why didn't you ask him to look at your poems? It was the perfect opportunity."

"When should I have asked him?" I said. "Before or after he called that woman a stupid witch?"

"That woman is his wife," he said, laughing. The light changed, and we moved forward again. He said, "They've been separated for years. Daniel built a second wing for her in that house."

"I don't get it," I said. "Why doesn't she leave? It's so clear they hate each other."

"Because--" He rocked forward with laughter, unable to continue. He gasped for breath a few times then managed to say, "They love each other."

I laughed, too, but I didn't get the joke.



That night Dave took me to a book party in Sagaponack for Lea Hicks, a former Yale Younger Poets prize winner. The party was in full swing when we arrived. Jazz and laughter spilled from the doorway as we entered the rambling Shingle-style home. He introduced me to the hostess, a thin, nervous Borzoi dog of a woman, and then left me to fend for myself. "Mingle, make contacts," he said. I looked around at the tight clusters of people, the famous faces, and I felt lightheaded, giddy. These were people I had only seen on book jackets and in magazines. There was Jessica Cox, whose second novel, Difficult Sleep, was featured in last week's Times Book Review. She was sprawled on the couch with her feet propped in the lap of a scruffy man who looked vaguely familiar, one of those hot young Brooklyn writers, Josh or Jonathan somebody. I ventured farther into the room. Someone who looked like Steven Spielberg was playing chopsticks on the baby grand. I looked around, wanting to share my discovery with someone. A few feet away, Bruce Wieder, the writer who'd started his own literary magazine and publishing company was talking with Randy Wasserman, the playwright. I didn't dare interrupt them. It was impossible to mingle at this party. It seemed too presumptuous to jump into a group's conversation and too daunting to launch one of my own. I made my way to the self-service bar, where I took my time mixing a gin and tonic. As I turned with my drink, I came face to face with a short, middle-aged man who was clearly looking me over.

"Excuse me," I said, trying to get past him.

He held out his hand, blocked my progress. "Jack Grant," he said.

Reluctantly, I shook the hand of the only non-famous person at the party. "Jeanne," I said, sensing that my last name would not interest him.

He cocked his head as though deciding something. A blue vein vertically bisected his smallish forehead. "You're here with Dave, aren't you?"

I nodded, wondering whether he'd seen us come in together, or he'd just assumed any woman under twenty-four had to be with Dave.

He snorted. "That lucky bastard. You got any sisters?"

My face grew hot; I smiled tensely. "Excuse me, please?" I turned abruptly and collided with Daniel Herzog. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Herzog," I said. "I didn't spill my drink on you, did I?"

"You're Dave's friend," he said. "Jane."

"Jeanne."

"Where is he?" Daniel said.

"Dave? I don't know. Mingling, I guess."

His smile was indecipherable. "So, he tells me you've got talent."

"Really?" I said.

"You seem surprised."

"I'm not, I guess." My being a talented writer would justify Dave's relationship with a woman nearly half his age, and presumably not his intellectual equal. I would have been surprised however if he'd told Daniel I was a good girl friend, someone he could imagine settling down with. I wasn't stupid. I knew our May December story was an old one, but I'd hoped our version was different.

I saw Dave coming toward us now, and I realized that I still had not talked to Daniel about his poetry. "Mr. Herzog, your poetry," I began, but then saw his eyes glaze over with something - boredom? - and I trailed off. I glanced at Dave; his progress had been delayed by a stoop-shouldered man. There was no hope of rescue. I blurted, "Your poetry, Mr. Herzog, gives me courage."

He looked at me for an uncomfortable moment then said, "Keep writing." He walked off and left me standing there alone on the verge of tears. Dave spotted me and broke away to meet me. "Did you and Daniel have a nice chat?" He seemed nervous about something.

"Not really," I said. "I'm kind of tired. Can we leave now?"

"But we just got here." He sounded annoyed. "Look, I need to talk to Linda, the Henry Holt editor, about the novel synopsis I sent her."

"You're writing a novel?"

"I told you."

"No you didn't."

"Why are you looking at me that way?" he said. "I'm sure I told you. Levine says I've been denying myself things because I don't think I deserve them."

"What things?"

"The novel, marriage, a family. Don't give me that look, Jeanne. I'm sure I mentioned it. Okay, there's Linda. Give me another half hour, forty-five minutes tops."

"You're going to leave me alone again?" I whined.

"Don't do this to me," he said. "Mingle. Meet people. You can't be afraid to put yourself out there."

"I'm not afraid," I said, but of course I was afraid. Who wasn't afraid? Fear made Dave stay up all night playing solitaire. Fear made him write poems when he wanted a novel. Fear kept the Herzogs together. I was in good company.

"When I was your age," Dave said, "I wouldn't leave a party until every last person knew my name."

I'm not like you, I thought, but then realized that wasn't entirely true. Why else would I be sleeping with the teacher instead of sleeping with George who, come to think of it, would be as uncomfortable as I was at this party?

He was still talking. "But you, you hide in a corner, waiting for people to notice you," he said. "It doesn't work that way."

I stared at him, fighting back tears. Would it have been too much to ask for him to introduce me to his accomplished friends? After all, I had kept up my end of the bargain, providing him with sex and home-cooked meals. But the bargain, I realized now, was all in my head. "No one at this party takes me seriously," I said. "Not even you."

He looked at me with dead eyes. His voice sounded robotic. "Don't do this to me now." He glanced around then grabbed my arm. "Come outside."

The air was soft and fragrant with honeysuckle. We descended the front steps and stood in the grass. A bat swooped from the trees over our heads. He said, "That wasn't fair." He sounded hurt.

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry."

"The only person who doesn't take you seriously is yourself."

"If that's true, then where is this relationship going?" The moment I said, it, I wanted to take it back.

"Where did that come from?" He sounded genuinely surprised. "I've told you repeatedly from the first night that this relationship could not develop into anything permanent because of our age difference."

"Okay, so, what is it then, a fling?" I could ask that only because I knew that it was more than a fling. I knew that he cared for me. I had done everything necessary to make that happen.

"Why do you say things like that?" He was shouting. "Does it feel like a fling? Do I treat you like it's a fling?"

Maybe fling was the wrong word. He was the poet after all. "No. No. I'm sorry," I said, because I wanted him to stop yelling. People were leaving the party, walking past us to reach the line of cars parked on the street. "It's not a fling then," I said.

"Okay. Thank you." He looked at me a moment, his bottom lip jutting out, then he put his arms around me. I smelled his peppery cologne, felt his chest rumble when he said, "Why think about the future? Aren't we having fun now?"

"Yeah, sure," I said. There was no point in arguing. It was over, but now was not the time to tell him. Why ruin his night? The door opened and the party spilled out onto the lawn. The hostess opened a box of sparklers. The smell of burning sulfur filled the air. Famous writers were walking about with fiery stars in their hands.

"Isn't this great?" Dave said. "Everyone's here."

I took a sparkler from Jessica Cox and held it aloft. It was the sort of crazy, magical night I'd dreamed about as a student. But I'd seen enough. I wanted to go home.

***
 
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