Chapter 4: The World According to Poe

Chapter Four: The World According to Poe

Among the first things I noticed about Poe were his tattoos. Massive cobwebs enshrouded one elbow; a narrow black stripe wrapped around one arm several times before it snaked down to the knuckle of his middle finger, ending in an arrow (get it?); and the word “punk” was spelled out on the fingers of one hand. Clearly, this fellow’s calling card was understatement.

I wondered if Poe was a college student at Wisconsin as he chattered and helped us unload the car, barely pausing to breathe.

We lugged our bags into the house and met Poe’s mother and stepfather, who actually owned the place. His mother had dark, gradually graying hair, parted down the middle; no-nonsense eyeglasses; and wore a sweatshirt with jeans. Poe’s stepfather – a good-natured if not all that talkative man – had a thin, pale fringe of hair, a flesh-colored mole high on his forehead, and glasses. Two brown and white boxers bounded toward us, too, slobbering and excited by new arrivals.

We all settled into the living room’s couches and easy chairs to catch our breath. I petted the dogs and noticed both Poe’s and a young girl’s high school senior portraits on the wall. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation, I asked, “So how many kids do you have?”

“We had two, but Poe’s sister Jackie, who was older than him by two years, died a few years ago in a car accident,” Poe’s mother said, matter-of-factly.

I struggled to control my expression, but this tragedy, and the fact that I unearthed it within ten minutes of meeting these nice people, rattled me. “Oh, my God. That’s – I’m so sorry,” I stumbled.

“That’s OK,” she said in a steady voice. “I just like to keep her picture up.”

My mouth went dry, and a short, awkward silence followed until Poe’s parents announced that they needed to go to the store to buy things for our dinner.

Poe turned to Amanda and asked, “You want to smoke? We have to go downstairs.”

“Then let’s go downstairs,” Amanda said, smiling coyly and looking around to the rest of us.

Fantastic, I thought. I’m sure there’s great ventilation in the basement. Here I’d been pleasantly surprised by the fact that my companions hadn’t smoked in the car – but concentrating it all in a basement sounded even worse.

I was committed to projecting a new-Jenn cool, though. To convince these people, particularly Amanda, that I was someone who would be fun to have along. A person who wasn’t a stick-in-the-mud, but a “live and let live” kind of girl. So with trepidation, I followed Cedric, Jimmy, Amanda, and Poe down the steps into a cramped room, where we squished ourselves onto a futon couch and stared at a blank television screen.

Everyone lit up, and Poe announced that he was 27, which made me do a double-take. I’d figured him to be considerably younger, based on his appearance and demeanor.

Poe then launched into a hardcore campaign to impress us. He bragged that he regularly reads four or five books a week; he dropped the names of authors he’s pressed for correspondence; and he showed us copies of his poetry collection, published by a vanity press. The cover art featured a happy cartoon bunny and a flower inside a hypodermic needle, and the text in the book was deliberately gigantic, like a children’s book.

“I’m sick of pretty poetry books,” he said. “This was a year and a half ago that I published this, so I think most of it’s shit now.”

Yes, I thought. That’s why you retrieved copies for all of us the minute we got down here.

Ultimately, of course, Poe’s poems were simply those of a young, untrained poet; I’d written things just as bad, if not worse, when I was getting started, and after teaching for four years, I’d developed a mental checklist of cliché, fledgling poet topics. Smug, self-righteous poems about people getting plastic surgery. Check. Vague existential poem wherein the speaker claims to exist in a kind of fortress. Check. Poem about the perspective-subverting experience of being high/drunk. Double-check.

I turned the book over to see an unbelievably staged, stylized photo of Poe. He squatted on a sidewalk, not looking at the camera, with a fedora on his head and a burning cigarette in his mouth, holding a bottle of wine. He described his posture as “hunkering,” because his grandfather had once said “real men don’t sit.” (This seemed to explain Poe’s reported knee problems at age 27, I thought.)

“The photo took hours,” Poe said, standing in the cramped room’s doorway, hanging his arms from the frame. “I was so drunk by the end of those four hours.”

I was careful to roll my eyes while still looking down at the photo.

Poe next showed us a press release announcing the “publication” of his collection, telling us that it had been sent to hundreds of newspapers.

I didn’t have the nerve or the heart to tell him that every book reporter who received it immediately threw it into the recycling bin.

To keep tabs on the bratwursts cooking on the stove upstairs, Poe left us for minutes at a time while his cigarette burned in the basement’s ashtray. Amanda and Jimmy exchanged familiar, coded looks, but because I’d just met them, I didn’t know whether they were silently commenting on Poe or something else entirely.

When Poe’s parents returned, we filled our plates with food in the kitchen, and the seven of us packed ourselves around a small, round table. (Cedric had put the camera away, since Poe’s mother asked not to be photographed.)

“I wish you guys were coming back through here at the end of the tour, too,” Poe’s mother said as we ate. “I’d love to see how you’re all getting along then.”

“You might not want to see that,” Amanda said dryly.

We helped clean up, and then Poe led us back downstairs for more smoking. I managed to stay only a few minutes before I made up an excuse to go upstairs.

There, Poe’s stepfather perched on an armchair in the living room, watching college football, and the sound of play-by-play analysis and whistles called me like a Siren song. I leaned over the back of the couch and asked whether he’d seen a score for the Michigan game. Within minutes, it appeared on the ticker (Michigan had won by a touchdown), but I settled onto the sofa, anyway, and started talking college football in greater detail.

This, in a small way, felt like home. And though I hadn’t been away yet for even a day, I yearned for the familiar. Surrounded by people who didn’t know me – and this would be the case for many days to come – I clung hard to fragments of my former life. (Tabula rasa? Re-making yourself? Good one.)

As we watched the game, I learned that Poe’s stepfather worked night shifts, performing maintenance at a company that produced steel piping for cars. On my end, the subject of my recent wedding came up.

“You just got married, and you wanted to do this?” He didn’t try to hide his astonishment.

I nodded, unsure of which explanation to offer. “It just seemed like a once in a lifetime chance. Besides, for Joe and me, a few weeks isn’t long. When I was in grad school, we were apart for years at a time.”

“He didn’t mind you going?”

I shrugged. “It wasn’t his choice to make. It was mine. I don’t think he loved the idea, but he knows me well enough to know that when I’ve got my mind set on doing something, I just need to do it.”

“Wow,” he said, still considering my words as he looked back to the game.

“He’s a pretty wonderful guy,” I said, quietly.

Eventually, I girded myself to return to the subterranean smoker’s lounge, where all the cool people were – the ones I supposedly wanted to emulate and learn so much from.

“I must admit, I don’t get many opportunities to talk about football with a woman,” Poe’s stepfather said as I began down the steps.

I smiled. “That’s one of my husband’s favorite things about me,” I said.

What I didn’t say was that my parents had, at one time, wanted to have a son, yet nonetheless embraced their three-daughter fate good-naturedly. (Just before the third and last of us arrived, my father had reportedly chuckled at the notion of picking a male name. “Why bother?” he’d joked.) Nonetheless, for years, I fixated my child-mind on being as close to a boy as a girl could get. I spurned skirts, dresses, jewelry, makeup, and the color pink; forced myself to stay awake to watch baseball games with my grandfather (though the sport bored me senseless); and planned to never marry, since I’d come to believe that marriage was a trap that kept women from doing important, Earth-shattering things.

I also closely observed my father, the sole resident male, for clues. He’d never really played sports, even as a kid; but on weekends, whenever he got the chance, he’d lie on our worn red couch with his arms crossed, dipping in and out of sleep, and watch hours of football.

We were Cowboys fans, because we had lived (and I was born) near Dallas during the heyday of coach Tom Landry and quarterback Roger Staubach. I learned to hate the Redskins and the Steelers (especially Terry Bradshaw) and love Tony Dorsett and Danny White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. I absorbed the sport’s lingo, rules, and the way you cheer or rant at the television as though, God-like, you might affect the action on-screen.

All these efforts didn’t earn more love from my parents than I would have received otherwise – rightfully so – but the tomboy habits remained, and the mindset problematically crossed wires with the era’s newly-minted feminist movement. Somehow, I’d gotten the idea that to be a strong woman, you had to be like a man. So I harshly judged feminine women – particularly those who weren’t out conquering the world, now that they had the opportunity. And when I reached high school, I focused on befriending young men (many of them fellow band geeks) who were charmed by the fact that I could throw around references to Erik Dickerson and Earl Campbell in casual conversation.

This would be my way back to the world of the living, I’d decided. Who needed girls like Sara McDonald – girls who pretended they liked you, then told everyone that you stink?

Back in Poe’s basement, Cedric and Jimmy squatted on a loveseat, while Poe stood, fidgeting and talking about his visual art. Amanda soon emerged from a shower, her hair dangling in wet ringlets.

As if waiting for her, Poe suddenly showed us his mug shot, taken when his jaw had been broken, and said various things like, “I only sleep two hours a night, because there’s too much to do. I don’t want to sleep my life away.”

I shook my head. No one bad-mouthed sleep in my presence. “I adore sleep,” I said. “The more the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Not me, man,” he said.

I shrugged and opened my journal to write record information about the tour’s first day.

“Journals just don’t work for me — my thoughts are too wild,” said Poe, and I feared that my eyes might just get stuck from so much concealed rolling. “I keep scattered notes everywhere, on everything. Sometimes my friends will find them in their cars. Sometimes, I’ll just write the same word twelve times. But I never sit for long. There’s just too much to do.”

Up to this point, I’d done my damnedest to give Poe the benefit of the doubt. His family had been kind and generous to us. But he was now firmly perched on my last nerve.

Seeming to sense this, Jimmy stood and grabbed a yearbook off of a shelf, thumbing through it while a cigarette burned to ash between his fingers. We gathered round, studying the students’ mullets and big bangs. Poe’s photo looked basic enough – tall, moussed hair, nothing particularly shocking – but he quickly steered our attention to a girl with teased blond hair and raccoon eye makeup.

“She’s the mother of my oldest son,” Poe said.

We went quiet.

“You have a son?” Amanda asked, her voice even-toned.

“Yep. His name is Perry, and he’s 11. She had him when she was 15, and starved herself so she wouldn’t show until really late in the pregnancy.” He reported this matter-of-factly. “Perry has a brain tumor, so he probably won’t live past 15 himself. He’s wheelchair-bound, can’t feed himself, and doesn’t recognize anyone.”

Holy cow. What do you say to this? I wanted to throttle him. Tell him that while he and this girl may have both been scared and young, they’d profoundly screwed up a human being’s life because neither would take responsibility for their choices and actions. And what really stunned me was Poe’s flippancy on the topic. He seemed to view his life as one big, self-created drama, where he would always be the star, no matter who got destroyed along the way.

“So, do you spend time with him? Visit him?” Amanda asked.

Poe shook his head. “He’s not in my life, because I couldn’t do anything for him, anyway.”

How convenient for you, I thought.

“I never told my mom, but she saw me with him a few years ago and saw the resemblance.”

“What’d she say?” Amanda asked.

“She just said, ‘You fucker.’ So now she knows.” He paused and shrugged, taking a drag from his cigarette. “I saw the mother in the mall once, and I threw up right after, because I was so disgusted about what she had done to make my son so deformed. I had to leave.”

He felt no culpability whatsoever. Nice for him.

Poe also explained that he’d been engaged 27 times, and told stories of his three year old son by yet another woman. This kid had liked to beat and pound on older boys, reportedly – Poe had pronounced this with something resembling masculine pride – but then the boy got into some prescription drugs that his mother left out, so he was now in a coma, and thus also no part of Poe’s life.

And the hits just kept on coming.

“Well, this has been really uplifting, but I think we need some sleep,” Amanda finally announced. “We’ve got lots of driving tomorrow.”

Cedric slept on the living room floor, while Amanda settled on the couch, and Jimmy draped his body over an armchair. I, meanwhile, jumped at the chance to sleep alone in the den, where there was little more than a desk with a computer; a framed, autographed Tom Petty album on the wall; a tall, black safe; and a fold-out couch.

I’d decided early on to grab every moment of privacy I could get, and being in a room with a door meant that I wouldn’t be awoken by the Boxers in the wee hours of the night.

Like Poe, the dogs were friendly, but way, way more than I wanted to deal with.

 

The next morning, Poe’s mom woke me at 7:45 a.m., per my request, so I could go running.

The sky remained woolly gray and spat rain. I considered bagging the run, but I reminded myself that my opportunities would be sketchy for the next few weeks. (Long ago, running had become not just a physical necessity for me, but a meditative means of hearing myself think.) So I pulled on my waterproof Gore-Tex running suit, fastened the hood around my face, and headed out on a route designed by Poe’s mother during the previous night’s dinner.

The route had long stretches of hilly pavement, sparsely flanked by houses, and the leaden dreariness was relentless. Driveways had all acquired a black sheen from the rain. But I started to feel better even so. When surrounded by people I don’t know, I tend to become a profoundly bland, far more serious version of myself, so as not to offend or inspire dislike. Yet I grow miserable being that person after a while, so breaks away from this facade are always necessary and welcome.

I first began running when I was in elementary school. I’d been molasses-slow and took lots of breaks, but I was also competitive, and my gym teacher placed a dot-sticker by our name each time we ran a mile on our own – a program she called “Run for Fun and Fitness.” I got it in my determined little head that I wanted to have more dots than anyone.

So I asked my father to measure the street that ran through the neighborhood behind our house. (Fittingly, our house stood on the periphery of, but apart from, two neighborhoods, which officially belonged to two different towns.) On many mornings, I jogged this length and back (which, come to think of it, likely contributed to my fifth grade body odor issues, since I often didn’t shower afterward). I liked that appointed students didn’t choose teams for this activity; and unlike softball, peers didn’t get angry with you for being bad at running. You couldn’t let anyone down but yourself, and if you knew you were slow, you just stayed quietly, steadily focused on the finish line.

When I got back to Poe’s, the others were getting packed up, so I rushed into the shower – which had Green Bay Packer moisturizing shower gel (God bless the Midwest) – and the den to gather my things together. As I dressed, Poe pounded on the door. He wanted to print the stickers he’d made with Amanda’s book cover on them, and burn a Jack Kerouac tribute CD for me.

I glared at the door, wearing nothing but a bra and a pair of pants. “Just a second,” I said, pawing frantically through my suitcase for a top.

Once I pulled a shirt on, Poe entered the room with his usual, cyclone-like subtlety. I sat down on bedding that I’d slept in on the couch, but Poe soon put me to work, copying out the track titles and artists that were on the CD he was burning for me. Bewildered, but not wanting to be rude, I complied.

Jimmy stuck his head through the doorway. “Can I pack your suitcase in the car?”

We both stared at the floor, where my suitcase appeared to have exploded. “I’m sorry,” I said, standing. “I’ll get it together and bring it out in a few minutes.” I threw Poe’s CD label and pen aside, as I should have to begin with.

I chugged down some breakfast while Jimmy stuffed my bags into the car. (I wasn’t sure why we were in such a hurry, but when everyone around you is rushing, you tend to follow suit.) Poe’s parents had planned to come to Amanda’s noon reading in Madison, but Poe needed to conduct his interview with her, so he was coming with us. Yay.

Before we got into the car, Poe presented us with parting gifts: Amanda got Poe’s black baseball cap that read, “DID YOU POOP TODAY?” in white letters. (She’d effusively admired it the night before, explaining once again how she hadn’t had a bowel movement since leaving New York.) So we stood in a clump behind the Volvo wagon on this drizzly morning, and Amanda held the hat meaningfully toward each one of us, inquiring about the status of our own bowel movement schedule.

This was just something I would never get used to.

Poe ran back into the house for something, and Amanda showed us a Ziploc bag with a small chunk of pot that Poe had retrieved for us — reportedly at four in the morning — as well as a couple of screens, valium, and zigzag papers. Amanda smirked at the collection, but I didn’t know if she was laughing because Poe believed her to be a person that she was not, or because such items were almost “cute” in their innocence. There was no telling.

Poe returned, having selected books for each of us to “borrow” from him. My books focused on inaccurate accounts of American history that often got taught in schools, and a collection of subversive writings – inspired again, I’m sure, by my Kerouac project. The gesture was passive-aggressively thoughtful, but I nonetheless wanted to yank Poe by the piercings and say in a low tone, “Look at me. I wear khakhis, I don’t smoke, and I went running this morning. I’m hardly raging against the machine. For the love of God, pay attention.”

On the drive to Madison, Poe waxed poetic on shoplifting.

“I make a point of shoplifting in chain bookstores. They make me sick,” he said, indignant.

My pulse throbbed in my ears, but I just shook my head and said nothing. The idea of people like Poe, who chose to steal on the basis of some trumped up, faux philosophy about the evils of capitalism, just fueled my hostility. Jackass, I thought, and this word became my mantra as we hurtled toward Madison. Jackass, jackass, jackass.

Two years out of college, I’d worked at a Barnes & Noble in Ann Arbor, and I’d struggled, really struggled, to live on minimum wage. But I never once stole.

I rented the basement of a volatile couple’s house; wore old, faded, ragged clothes; ate a sparse diet of peanut butter sandwiches and macaroni and cheese; and tested this naïve idea I’d had that all I needed to be happy was to be around books. Joe and I had started dating during this time – right when I had started understanding how often the things that we convince ourselves we want are actually completely wrong.

Yes, at Barnes and Noble, I’d easily mastered the cash register, shelving, and the info desk, and I was indeed always around books. But the dull sameness of my days fell like a weight on me; and as much as I worked to convince myself of the nobility of my suffering, unexpected crises like car troubles and dental procedures sent me into an economic freefall.

I tried to be plucky. I talked my way into auditing a creative writing night class at the University of Michigan, but my classmates and my professor had harsh words for my short stories, and I knew deep down they were right. I had a long way to go if I really wanted to be a writer, and I had absolutely no idea how to get there. I’d been rejected from all five top-tier MFA programs to which I’d applied. So perhaps this was all there would be to my life, I thought.

But hadn’t I graduated seventh in my high school class of 450 people? Everyone had thought I’d been headed for great things. And as part of my college graduation gift, my parents bought me a royal blue business suit for interviews. My mother even told me that my father had helped pick out the color, because he thought I looked pretty in blue. Yet I rebelled, thinking I didn’t want to be in an office that sucked the life out of me, as it had appeared to do to my father while I was growing up.

Yet sometimes, in that basement apartment in Ann Arbor, I’d stare at that suit on its hanger, wrapped in clear plastic, and just start crying. All my parents’ high ambitions and hopes for me seemed woven into that blue suit, and I’d never once worn it. I knew I’d disappointed them. I’d disappointed myself. And this tangible indictment of my failure – one I still cart around with me every time I move – reminded me everyday that I hadn’t lived up to my potential.

At a strip mall in Madison, the five of us walked into a K-mart to look for camera supplies for Cedric. We didn’t find what he needed, but a thick-bodied woman in a smock kindly suggested the names of other stores while “Kangaroo Jack” played on television screens behind her.

In the parking lot, Poe showed us that he’d brought a little bit of K-mart with him: a shoplifted pack of micro-cassette tapes.

“I’m not going to pay $3.50 for them,” he said with a self-righteous huff.

Good God. He was a child showing off for us, and I began to think there was little distinction between a principled anarchist and a selfish drama queen. This guy who supposedly hated capitalism still wanted the stuff; he just didn’t want to pay for it.

We reached Canterbury Books – the quirky, independent store slated to host Amanda’s first tour reading – in plenty of time. Amanda and Poe huddled in the store’s café to do their interview, so I bought postcards — Gertrude Stein, and Colette wearing a man’s suit — and scribbled messages to my MFA girlfriends.

“Excuse me,” I soon overheard Amanda say to people who were shopping in the store. “I’m going to do a reading in just a few minutes. I have a new novel called ‘The Long Haul,’ and it’s really good.” I heard the polite laughter of women. “If you have a few minutes, you should stay and hear me read.”

As it turned out, Amanda had been totally right to seek out spectators. Four small rows of chairs were set up for the reading, but only Poe, Jimmy, Cedric, me, and these two women occupied them (because of parking difficulties, Poe’s parents couldn’t get to the store until the reading was almost over). My heart sank. In my bookseller days, I’d felt as embarrassed as the writer when no one showed up for a reading; and when I’d imagined this tour, I hadn’t considered that Amanda might sometimes be playing to empty rooms.

Amanda, though, seemed wholly unfazed by this fizzling tour start and gave a terrific reading of “Florida” – a funny, heartbreaking story about a young woman’s neurotic fixation with her therapist.

The two customers that Amanda lured to the reading bought copies, which she happily signed. Meanwhile, I browsed the store to kill time, then spotted the anthology “Best New American Voices 2004.” My first published story, “Under the Influence,” appeared in the previous year’s edition, and though I got the same story published in a good literary journal, I’d gotten zero acceptances on other stories I’d sent out. I was deathly afraid that I had but one good story in me, and that I’d already squandered it.

Poe sauntered into my aisle, so I extended an olive branch by way of revealing my thoughts.

“A story I wrote was in last year’s edition of this,” I said, pointing at the book. “Seeing a new one makes me think about last year’s going out of print. My only published story might just vanish.”

“Yeah,” Poe said flatly, not listening. He was staring at Amanda signing books. I walked away.

Minutes later, in another part of the store, Poe argued volubly, petulantly with his parents. He said he needed to spend more time talking with Amanda, and he didn’t want to be rushed, while they – after spending thirty-five minutes trying to find a parking space – simply wanted to know when he might be ready to go home. He huffily agreed to a timetable, and then he and Amanda returned to the café area to conclude their interview.

I considered exploring Madison on foot, but it was still a slaty, rainy-gray outside, so I felt marooned and bored. I flipped through Bitch Magazine, and looked at Amanda and Poe regularly to see if the interview was coming to a close. We had five and a half hours of driving ahead of us, and it was getting late in the day.

Jimmy appeared next to me, wearing a worn knit hat with ear-flaps and a pom-pom on top. “So, do you think she might be looking for a chance to escape?” he asked me, gesturing his head toward Amanda. “From him?”

“It’s possible. God knows I would be,” I said. “You might want to give her a chance to extricate herself.”

“I think so, too.”

He walked into the café, stood at Amanda and Poe’s table for a few minutes, then returned. “She’s fine. I gave her an out, but she seems to be handling him.”

I stared at them through the window. Much as he irritated me, I had to admit that Poe and I had two things in common. We both wanted Amanda’s approval; and we both wanted desperately to believe that we were something other than what we were.

After what seemed like decades, Poe and Amanda finally rose from their table and walked outside, standing beneath the store’s awning. I joined them in the middle of a conversation, wherein Poe begged Amanda to let him join the tour.

“Dear God, no!” I screamed in my head. She wouldn’t let him come along, would she? Who knew? Shit! It was her call to make, so I studied her face for an answer and held my breath.

“Dude, it’s been challenging enough to find hosts to put up three people along the way, let alone four,” she said, accepting a light from Poe. “It just wouldn’t be fair to the people who’ve already agreed to help us.”

I exhaled. Thank you, Amanda. Her response was diplomatic, rational, and totally true, and I was liking her more and more. Poe, of course, didn’t take her answer well, even offering to sleep in the car. Finally, though, he realized that Amanda, despite her small size, would not be moved. “I had to ask,” he said with a shrug, puffing on his cigarette. For Poe, I thought, the last fifteen hours had been different from anything else he’d experienced in his life, and he dreaded the thought of everything going back to Midwest-normal again so quickly.

Jimmy, meanwhile, gathered his bags at the car’s back-end. He’d planned to catch a bus to Chicago to see friends, then get a flight to New York. He warmly hugged us all, telling me, “Take care of her,” and made his way toward the bus station on foot, through the rain. Though I’d only spent a day with him, I was sorry to see him go. Of the three New Yorkers, he’d seemed the most accessible thus far. Unlike Cedric, I could understand him; and unlike Amanda, he’d asked for my opinion on things. And once a shy person like me sniffs out a potential ally, we secretly hope that he will be our translator. But now he was leaving, bringing me back to square one.

I comforted myself with the notion that Jimmy wouldn’t be replaced in the car by Poe, who I could barely stomach further. Thankfully, his parents soon joined us under the awning, and the time for us to leave had finally come. We each hugged Poe and his parents goodbye and thanked them for their hospitality.

“Thanks for letting me catch up on some football,” I told Poe’s stepfather.

“It was a pleasure to have someone to talk football with,” he replied in a kind voice.

I soaked up this hit of warmth on an otherwise cold, rainy, lonely day.

 

Poe had consumed the spotlight from the moment we pulled up in his family’s driveway, so once it was just the three of us in a car, the weight of unfamiliarity fell upon us again.

We stopped for lunch at a Burger King, and I decided it was time for me to venture into uncharted conversational territory.

“I have to admit, I was really relieved that you told Poe that he couldn’t join us,” I said, tentatively.

“He would have driven me nuts,” Amanda said, and I felt like raising my arms in triumph. Houston, we have contact.

The two of us launched into a discussion about Poe’s neediness, and how he required constant validation.

“I think he’s a profoundly unhappy person,” I said.

“That is ridiculous. You do not know him well enough to say that,” said Cedric.

After years of dating Joe – who will argue, even when he doesn’t believe in the position he’s taking, just for the sport of it – I’d finally grown accustomed to the idea that arguments were often not personal at all. Even so, Cedric’s cursory dismissal of my opinion felt harsh.

“If he was actually happy, he wouldn’t be knocking himself out to show us how edgy and interesting and exciting he is,” I said.

Amanda nodded. “I totally agree. And that interview he did with me was pretty unsatisfying. He asked a lot of questions in this format: ‘Did you not use names for the two characters in ‘The Long Haul’ because of a, b, c, or d?’ I kept saying to ‘e, none of the above,’ and that annoyed him. So even though it was an interview with me, it was ultimately all about him.”

Cedric remained unconvinced, so Amanda added, “At the end of the interview, he insulted me by way of a compliment. He said, ‘Are you going to publish a book of your graphic poetry? You should, because your poetry’s about four million times better than your book.’”

“Yikes,” I said. “He probably didn’t mean it quite that way, but still.”

I thrilled at feeling, for the first time, that Amanda and I were connecting on the same wavelength. Because sad though it may be, the axiom is nonetheless true: nothing brings people together quite like trashing someone else.

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