Sex and poetry don’t often go together, to my mind at least–you know, not automatically anyway, although maybe, sometimes. (Well, what do I know. Poets are so quiet. You never know what they’re thinking.) My friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a Toronto novelist and story writer, smacks them together violently along with a hybrid motor car and a tale of old love in this new story “The Longest Destroyed Poem.” Kathryn’s two novels and her first collection of stories can be found at Amazon. Look her up.
The Longest Destroyed Poem
By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
When Rosa saw him after all those years her first thought was how fleshily ugly Victor had become, and yet, if she was honest to herself, he hadn’t ever been much of a looker. He was a poet. And the second thing she thought was how easy it would have been all those years back to get him in one of his gin sleeps, and suture his mouth tightly shut. She imagined the semi-circular needle and the thick surgical thread, black and angry, and the coarse knots, like waxed midges, at regular intervals, but of course she was, in those days, not equipped with expertise in any field much less doctoring.
Victor noticed her in that split second, too, and he knew what Rosa was up to, for his face changed, channel surfing from neutral smug — well, this was his everyday face — to impending doom. The eyes dilated and he reeled ever so slightly backward. Rosa was driving. Coming up through the Annex on her way home from the hospital. It was primal instinct that led her to accelerate, and a surge in adrenaline after that, that — she could practically feel the dopamine firing her into focus — had her steering the Prius up between two parked cars over the curb and, then, right into Victor’s stomach. Whoop!
Their relationship had been a competition. Who could drink the most (him), who could over-extend orgasm (her) — like that. They were practically athletes when it came to domestic games. And now it was like the car ate him right up. Rosa paused, pulling her foot off the gas pedal, and then hitting it again, which bucked the car forward. She was excited to see him lift up, a test dummy, and fly along with the chassis of her ecovehicle through the plate glass window of the East-West Futon store.
Twenty-five years. He would be sixty-something, and she damn well wasn’t revealing her age. She looked fabulous. Better than back then, when she’d thought she wanted to be an artist, and Victor had made a point — she realized this as she realized many many things, that is she realized it in retrospect — of dropping into the conversation — the one she hadn’t actually been having with him, because she was instead focused almost solely on the fact his much younger roommate had a hand under the blanket her crotch also happened to be under — that he was off to bed early so he could work on a poem he’d been having trouble with.
A poem, she had thought, one he’s been having trouble with, like most men would say of their carburetor, or a girlfriend, things you really could fix by hitting them with the right sort of wrench or else a witty comment. But a poem. It hadn’t occurred to her that one worked on these. To her they arose genius born on the onion pages of a Norton’s Anthology.
Yet through the moist fug of foreplay, she had heard this little gem of information, and even though what the much younger roommate had been doing was more or less exactly what she wished for to happen, she discreetly pulled away and said she needed to go to the washroom, and where was it? And then Rosa followed her pheromonal imperative up the stairs to rake the door gently with her new manicure.
Victor opened the door and then immediately went back to sit in the old oaken swivel chair at his desk. He looked both saddened and impressed by her, but not, as she had expected, at all surprised. Victor, she would learn, did not surprise easily. “Come in?”
“Yes, may I come in?”
“Don’t you think my much younger roommate might be upset?”
“No,” Rosa said. And then because he seemed to wait for a reason why the roommate might be okay with this turn of events, she added, “Well, he’s downstairs.”
“By all means, then. Come on in. I was just working on a —”
“—a poem.” Rosa nodded at the journal that lay open on his desk and he turned around toward it too, so that she was now able to look over his shoulder and quickly scan the draft. It was beautiful. It was the most beautiful poem she’d ever read, and she said so. She said, “Don’t you dare change one word of that.”
He gave her really the saddest smile then, and picked up a black indelible marker and had at it. It was the strangest thing she’d ever seen anyone do, stranger even than the time at a party an elderly woman had pulled a wad of bills out of her wallet and one by one lit them on fire and stared at them yearningly as they burned down. This was worse than burning money, Rosa could see that right away. The level of not caring was simply inconceivable. The poem was now obliterated by thick parallel lines.
“Was it to someone? Or for someone?” She felt stupid right away for asking this. She was waving her questions around in the air like frustrated finger gestures. Poems were. They weren’t to or for anyone, at least they weren’t if they were any good. So, she said, “Forget that.”
“You smell like her.” Victor was staring down at the ugly black lines when he said this. “You smell just like the woman I wrote that for.”
Rosa sometimes spoke before she thought. “I smell like cum,” she said.
“Well, that’s how she smelled then.”
It was here that the relationship started. For it was here that Rosa challenged him with, “What’s the longest poem you’ve ever destroyed?” and an almost imperceptible narrowing of the eyes, a narrowing he very clearly perceived. Then, there was a knock on the door, which was open anyhow, and there stood the much younger roommate. “Hey,” he said. “Whatcha doing?”
“I got lost,” Rosa said, and then perkily, “Did you know Victor wrote poetry?”
Later, she found out that the much younger roommate had a pretty viable working knowledge of Victor’s poetry habits, as he’d lost three previous girls to them, and was past being merely unhappy about the situation. He snorted. “He doesn’t write poetry. He fucking destroys poetry. He’s the fuckingest hottest destroyer of poetry the Canlit scene has ever imagined.” He grabbed himself between the legs with one hand and waggled his junk. “Victor the Deconstructer!”
Rosa lifted her eyebrows at Victor and he tilted his head. She said to the much younger roommate, “You’re pissed.”
“Yeah whatever. I’m going out. You can come with me now or whatever whatever.” And then he released his scrotum and slumped off and she and Victor pretty much immediately whatever whatevered right there and then, closing the gap on the much younger roommate forever.
Victor was being hurled through the air. He’d put on a few, she saw, and hadn’t improved much in the couture department. He wore thick wool workman socks and closed-toed Birks. The was a gash in his charcoal cardigan sweater and some blood, which at least added a bit of colour, that was something. He had the same look of resignation around the mouth that she remembered sometimes appearing post-coitus, like he knew he failed at sex, which he did, but most men weren’t that self-aware, and anyway she had misread it as artistic irony for the longest stretch. Artistic irony in bed, as in, was that sex I just had with this crazy-beautiful younger woman, or what?
She could see now this was youthful delusion.
“I started writing when my marriage ended,” he said. They were in a bagel restaurant and he was splitting the bill exactly in two, counting even the half penny. “I’ll pay the extra cent,” he added, and smiled. To be fair, it had been her idea that they keep finances separate, but still, it was he who took it to extremes. She already knew after two weeks that he would remember this penny, and in the end there would be balance. Right then, she saw it as a game, but as time wore on, less so.
“You were married.”
“Yes, of course. To a French Canadian.”
On the far wall there was a clear Plexiglas sheet behind which hundreds of plastic bagels were stacked — a kind of bagel wall. They were speckled with tiny white plastic sesame seeds. Someone made these somewhere in China, made them for a living — someone made the donut-shaped parts, and someone else made the hundreds of maggoty sesame seeds — and still someone else had lain awake one night and imagined this bagel wall, and yet another person had constructed it. It had taken strategy, time, and a certain type of artfulness to enact this, and it was hideous.
Rosa glanced down at the detritus of her meal — she could see her dental bite on one raw edge of leftover bagel, the cream cheese pushing its way out above the lettuce. She thought, Married! To a French Canadian!! She pictured someone smaller than her, and prettier, and bilingual.
“What happened?” she ventured, and thought she saw his nostrils flare and then calm.
“She was barren.” Victor pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s really as simple as that.”
Rosa blinked, twice, three times. “You left her because she couldn’t have children?”
“No. She left me.” Even though he had brought it up there was a don’t-dare look coming from his eyes. He simpered, “The relationship couldn’t sustain the lack of progeny.”
“French and English, then?”
“She also spoke an obscure Mongolian dialect.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Well, you’ll never know.”
If you Google ‘obscure Mongolian dialect’ you get about a billion hits and none of them mention a French Canadian. It was years later that Rosa actually Googled, and it wasn’t for proof or anything. It was a sort of longing. She knew if she found the barren ex-wife of Victor she wouldn’t be any closer, but knowing and knowing are two very separate things.
The much younger, and now Rosa realized, much better looking roommate made a point of not avoiding her if she happened to be visiting Victor, which happened to be mostly every evening. She couldn’t get to sleep anymore, she had discovered, without contriving to first feel Victor’s face sliding along her genitals or his older, uglier cock beckoning her orgasm.
The younger roommate had taken to wearing a tear-shaped streak of mascara under his right eye, and then eventually she saw he’d had it tattooed right there on his face. Metaphorically, it said, I loved you. It said, I trusted you. It said, Fuck, I am so mad at you and everyone else. He would sit on the dishwasher and wait for her to come into the kitchen. And he would smile at her, and he would say, “Good Morning!” or “Good evening!” whichever was appropriate.
One night after Victor had fallen asleep, Rosa heard moans and shrieks emanating from the roommate’s bedroom. She smiled and quietly praised the gods. She figured he had finally found the woman of his dreams. The sounds stopped and she willed them to start again until they really did start again. She wondered why love had these particular sounds attached to it. She wondered if Victor and his trilingual ex-wife had moaned and shrieked out their initial love until they fatefully realized there would come no child to bolster them. She could not ask him because Victor was asleep, snoring in a way that made him unpleasantly human. She got up from bed and wandered fascinated into the hall.
She pressed her ear to the door of the much younger, better-looking roommate and it was glorious to hear them — Ah! Ah! Yes!! — as if she were right there in the room, and then the door swung in and she was. She didn’t know what to say, so she flung her hands about and bellowed, “I’m so happy for you!” The girl had a cheek piercing and glanced up from what she was doing to him on the futon without disengaging. The roommate smiled and waved a little wave.
“Hey,” he said. “Whatcha doing?”
“I got lost.”
“Do you wanna join us? I mean — ”
“No,” she said. But she did sort of join them. She pulled an IKEA chair right up to the edge of the mattress so that she was towering over them, and watched the girl fellating the good-looking roommate while he ate her out. Rosa could tell that things were heightened by her presence. It was obvious that the shrieks were shriller, more authentic, more satisfying than before. Once the girl reached over to her and fondled her a bit between the legs, but Rosa brushed her away. This wasn’t about her. It was about their happiness.
The next day she woke Victor up and he blinked when she told him what had happened. This was, coincidentally, almost the exact moment that Victor showed her the longest poem he had ever destroyed. It was a ten-meter-long scroll rolled up and hidden in his closet behind the gin. Rosa thumbtacked one end of it to the wall and unscrolled it, thumbtacking it at the crease where the floor met the wall and along the floor and all the way over the ceiling and back to the beginning. It was like a ribbon wrapping the bedroom and all it contained.
“My ex-wife complained I was undersexed.” This seemed to be some sort of apology for having been asleep and drunk.
“Okay,” Rosa said. She ignored his comment because she never could keep straight over and under sexed — which was which. “I have an idea. I know something. Let’s put on Leonard Cohen and fuck inside the longest destroyed poem in the universe.” She knew that Leonard Cohen activated something giving in Victor, and she needed some generosity.
Victor started humming So Long, Marianne even before he had the cassette in the player. Rosa had the palms of her hands on either side of the scroll and was on all fours on the floor because in the certain light that now fell from the morning sun she thought she could decipher a word or two of the destroyed poem. She wanted Victor to enter her while she decoded the lost barren love of his life. She wanted to solve this puzzle once and for all.
“It’s time that we began — ”
“ — to laugh — ”
But then nothing much happened of interest because the drink from the night before was impeding Victor’s erection. He sat on the bed and commanded his penis.
“Sit. Stay. Heel. Up boy.”
But it was useless. The song ended and then the tape and the sun shifted in the sky. For a long time Rosa stayed on all fours waggling her ass, hoping, making suggestions — “Maybe if you offer it a biscuit,” or “Try ‘Rollover!’” — but in the end her knees tired and she decided to make light of it all.
She whispered, “ — And cry about it all again,” then softly flicked his penis with her finger. “Bastard. Poem destroyer.” Victor was coddling his balls with his hands — it looked like he was trying to choke some sense into the whole apparatus.
The words she had read under the black indelible ink were: manage, milk, ringtone.
Victor picked up his flaccid member and pressed the glans so that the little mouth spoke, “Sorry, little Rosa. Sorry, my love.”
She came right in close to it. “It’s okay monkey-nuts,” she said. “Better luck next time, huh?”
Victor said, “Who are you calling monkey-nuts?”
“Shush,” Rosa said. “You’re interrupting.” She brought her lips as close as she could without touching. “Manage,” she cock-whispered. “Milk! Ringtone!!” There was a tiny stiffening leap that did not last. She scrunched her face a bit and said, “That’s okay. No biggie,” and looked at Victor, opened her eyes wide, lifted her eyebrows, and repeated louder, more pointedly, “No biggie.”
“No kidding.” He wasn’t surprised by anything, Victor wasn’t, even his own hungover impotence. His own failure never did surprise him. Rosa thought how like a poem he was in this way. How arrogantly like a poem.
Rosa went to the art school and came and went from her own apartment and stopped by Victor’s and lay in his bed during the day when he was off writing, and listened, sometimes, to the good-looking roommate and his new girlfriend experience joy, and other times to a tape of Paolo Conté singing hotly in Italian. Thus was she avoiding Victor. Avoiding him in his own bed with his personal soundtrack inside the room that was still wrapped in the ribbon of his longest destroyed poem.
It was exactly three weeks before she let him see her again.
Now, Victor wasn’t moving. There was a really truly expansive moment during which he wasn’t moving, and no one around him moved either. Sound ceased, and so did smell. Rosa had been thrown, by the force of the car stopping, into the steering wheel, and felt pain across her chest, pain that was general at first but would later be specific, a steering-wheel-shaped bruise — a black and green halo encompassing her breasts. She could just make out Victor along the horizon of the windshield. He was splayed on a rose-patterned futon couch, one leg strangely twisted, his pants too tight over his genitals, so she could see the outline of his penis, the catgrin of his balls. His hair was trimmed, she saw. His beard was trimmed, too, she saw. She saw how peaceful a man he could be.
“I’ve made something for you. Stairs cut into the sea. A portal. I’ve made this for you,” she said. Three days she hadn’t seen him and she was so quick to please him. He sat down on the floor, pulled a bottle out of nowhere and took a swig from it.
“Go ahead. Show.”
She unveiled it.
Even he admitted he had never seen anything as shiny, as majestic or as compelling as this.
“Fuck me,” he said.
“You better get in.”
He shook his head. “I’m scared of small dark places.”
“It’s not as dark as it looks. Get in. Go on. Please.”
He stepped in, first one leg and then the next, and once he was inside, and the door was latched, the thing began to glow and she to smile. It was working. She sat smiling on his bed for two hours until the door opened and he stepped out as he had stepped in, one leg and then the next.
“Did you — ?”
“I slept. Jesus, I slept so deeply.”
He slowly took off her clothes and held her breasts as if weighing them for market, like she’d once seen a farmer do to gauge the virility of a sheep by the heft of his sack, and then he opened her legs and moved the skin of her vulva and clitoris around and pressed his finger into her and then his cock. He pulled her arms up above her head and overcame her. Her skin was not hers, her lips were not hers, her orgasm was an offering she wished she could better direct, if only she believed in something. And when he came, there was such a warmth and a uniting of one wet to another wet, she knew right away she was pregnant.
“You’ll have it,” he murmured, sliding down her body, to talk to her belly. And back up to take her nipple between his teeth, and splay her legs again with his hand, playing her so that she wondered how much magic, how much science, had been done inside the art project, and whether he would not be able to ever stop. “My baby,” he whispered, and he was not talking about her. He was so happy. He was growling and pummeling her with love and joy, rocking her on his newly obedient member. “My proof.”
There is an almost immediate attachment between mother and blastocyst. Two days after the insemination, as Rosa affectionately called it, she lay on Victor’s crazy quilt — he out writing in a café — and glided her palm over her belly. She was playing the name game.
“I will call you Bamboozle.”
“I will call you Wool-Over-Eyes.”
“I will call you Hoodwink.”
And then it happened. A tsunami of love such that she had never before experienced overwhelmed her to the point of gasping. She felt as if the whole known universe had enveloped her in its clichéd cosmic embrace. Her fingers tingled, the soles of her feet tingled, she could feel the threshold of her brain, and its blood and her cranium, all of it separate and loved. It was the most profoundly erotic thing that had ever happened to her.
It was at this moment she noticed the younger much better-looking roommate standing above her, off to the left holding up the doorjamb. “Hey,” Rosa said. “Whatcha — ”
“Not much. Watching you.” He said this too quickly, and there was a look he had to put away that took too long, and that she wondered about. Nostalgia, maybe?
“Watching me? Really?” Rosa propped herself up on her elbow. She saw he was looking at her breasts, now, which had bobbled out of her tank top with the position shift. “For how long? That’s just weird.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry.”
“I guess.” She tugged at the tank top.
“I heard you were pregnant.”
“Victor told you?
“He mentioned it.”
Rosa concentrated on not crying. She flopped back down on her back and looked up at the ceiling where it met the longest destroyed poem, and counted the thumbtacks, making little loops in her mind from one to the next as she counted.
“Are you keeping it?”
And then she did cry. But she did not sob. She simply let the tears run away from her and into the crazy quilt. And she lay very very still so as not to elicit any compassion or sympathy. She could not bear that.
He made it sound like a stray animal — a turtle, maybe — that she’d found and was deciding about whether to put it in an expensive, properly oxygenated fishtank or else release it back to the sludge and wet of its natural habitat. If you encounter something beautiful and helpless, it is natural to want to own it. She wondered if other animals had this same inclination, even as she knew they did not. Possession was a strongly human aspect, unless it was ownership of a bone or roadkill or somesuch.
“You could give it to her,” he said.
“Her?” Rosa knew as soon as she said this that ‘her’ was Victor’s trilingual barren ex-wife, and in this reflexive realization she also knew that the roommate knew the woman, and that she was more ex than dead, which was what Rosa had led herself to erroneously believe. She was, as they say, still part of the picture.
“Marie-Hélène. Victor’s obscure-Mongolian-dialect-speaking barren ex-wife. She is beautiful. There is no one who meets her who does not fall in love with her. She has scads of money and a warm heart. You could give her the child and fulfill her only remaining dream.”
“Give her the child.”
“Yes. An act of sacrifice and bravery. Fucking fairytale ending, you know?” The tear on his face looked like a sperm from her supine vantage point. He was terribly lovely. His jaw was refined, with just enough stubble and no more. He had thick, plush lips, and teeth that were imperfect in the right way. He looked angelic through the airbrush of her tears. She recalled his fingers under the blanket, and breathed in fast through her nostrils. Behind him, a shadow, and, then, there was Victor, shorter, darker, older, a hunted look around the eyes that gave one the impression something fundamental had been taken from him — his soul, Rosa thought, or his raison d’etre.
“I’m back,” he said, all caffeinated, “and I’ve written you a poem.”
“I’ll be — ” said the roommate, and then turning to leave, he finished with, “whatever.”
While Victor recited the poem, Rosa got up from the quilt and took a small Olfa knife from the desk drawer to the art project. From the top, she cut strips down the side, until the thing — all that shiny cloth, all that fine embroidery — just tattered apart, with no structural integrity to speak of. Victor’s new poem rambled on about surges and aurora borealis and coyote rampages. It did not mention flaccidity or Mongol-Chinese relationships but it did rhyme, though with an awkwardness that even Victor noted out loud. He would destroy it later, he said, destroy it once — but then he decided not to say exactly when.
“I’d like to take you roughly against the wall,” he said, slurring this into the space beside her head, as if he were addressing, in fact, the wall and not her. “I’d like that very much, Rosa.”
It was the way he said her name, soft, like the way his glans had said it weeks ago, that made her smile. She left her tank top on and only pulled her panties to the side to let him enter, and they did it pressing tightly up against the longest destroyed poem, ink mixing with sweat, so that light black bars marked her, and blurred on her skin as his thrust lifted her and set her down and lifted her again, now faster faster. “Rosa,” he said. “Oh, Rosa!”
And she? On the up thrust, biting his shoulder, she said, “I’m.”
And on the down, “leaving.”
And on the up, their orgasms crescendoing together, “you.”
Victor began to move one leg and then the other. The futon store had palled as the owners/workers/clients aligned the information they witnessed. Victor moaned and felt down his body for whatever damage there might be. When he came to the gash in his belly, his hand stopped, alarmed, she supposed, by the viscosity and what that might mean. Then he pulled his hand up to see. Bloody, black and red, and — to be honest — so healthy looking, and he screeched like an old woman so that Rosa was inclined to act, pulling at the door release of the Prius, and stepping lightly out, her medical bag to hand. Though no one had yet moved, several clients now grabbed for cellular devices, eager and grateful to participate less onerously in the unfolding drama.
The baby was born prematurely by four weeks and she loved it in that time, going back and forth to the hospital to nurse and care for it through its initial jaundice and latching issues. When it was stable she was allowed to bundle it and walk away. It wasn’t difficult to find Marie-Hélène, and it wasn’t difficult to transfer the baby to her. She merely abandoned the girl one electrical night, in midsummer, on the woman’s porch, a perfect leaveling, and then went on with her life.
No words, no note, nothing.
“I am a doctor,” Rosa called, and swung the bag to validate. She gave Victor a shot of morphine to calm him and set to work. She cut the cloth of his cardigan and then his T-shirt. She cut his trousers open to give herself space and to see him again. The gape was wide but not deep, and she saw there was no damage internally. She compressed him and with the suture thread and needle, she sewed nice and even until the wound smiled back at her, with its ideal black knottings.
“Thank you, Rosa,” Victor said.
© 2010 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer