Clouds in the River

Marc Frazier

 

I met Michael during the orientation sessions for becoming a teaching assistant. During a break I approached him in the hall, “Pretty exciting stuff, huh?”

The short, languid man smiled, letting out a muffled laugh. The orientation session was a joke. We were convinced being a professor did unhealthy things to a person. Michael leaned against the wall, his massive chest draped with faded overalls, left foot raised behind him against the wall. His short, blonde crop of hair curled slightly around his neck and ears. His lips were full, moist; teeth nicotine stained. He sucked his cigarette down to the filter and flipped the butt into the ashcan. He was a hot man and I like them short. As smoke cleared, suffering burned in his eyes. At least that’s what I saw.

“Dr. Friend seems to have a thing for you,” I joked, referring to the several endearing, if not flirtatious, remarks she’d thrown his way this morning.

“Too bad I have no interest in linguistics.”

We had the obligatory, student-to-student conversation: Where are you from? Where did you do undergrad? What was your major?

 

Although we’d just met, I had the sense I’d known him in a former life. We began to hang out together. I tried to be careful where I stepped in this new land: mined, uncharted emotional territory. He was extremely laid back and usually stoned; our conversations were not the urgent, erratic ones in which I tended to engage.

We sat together in class, listened attentively, sedate with seriousness, the knowledge of ourselves, a capacity for astuteness. Inside we harbored the untouched. Michael’s mind worked in strange ways. He was tentative in his surroundings, his face that of a man much older than his years. He leant me books, and inside the faded, worn covers were extensive notes on people he’d known:

Shawn: mild OCD; drawn to the bizarre; basically, honest with me.

Tara: concerned with the cosmetic; often superficial; obsessed with celebrity.

Tony: overly and overtly macho; insecure; substance abuse issues

This intrigued me to the point of obsession, an entrée into the recesses of his mind. What would he write about me?

He locked himself in his room to read Gary Snyder’s poetry, dream of nature and the freedom to be oneself—open spaces on the outside and inside, this room a shelter, an extension of self.

 

One autumn day, we went into the woods carrying books of poetry. We walked, talked, and sat by the river that swirled and eddied with our subconscious selves, cluttered by leaves and twigs, broken things.

After hearing me read Sexton, he tried to convince me I was not crazy, spoke of Snyder’s positivity, wholeness— in contrast to Sexton’s jaggedness, her off-kilter perceptions. In Snyder, a boulder or a stream may stand for something, but they were solid, real, clear in intent as opposed to Sexton’s neurotic haze, a wallowing, a spiraling toward annihilation.

“The confessional poets only look inward. Life is much more than that. There is a larger context,” Michael said.

“I just love their use of language and shocking imagery. I know about confession from childhood and adolescence. It’s ingrained in me.”

“Are you drawn to suffering?” he asked.

“I can relate. Discovering Sexton and Plath was like discovering someone who spoke my language.”

“Is the beauty and cleverness of language enough when it takes place in such a solipsistic universe?”

“I’m drawn to the beauty of language. Virginia Woolf is my favorite writer largely because much of her work sounds like poetry to me.”

“I still like the Beats and Snyder best.”

We watched the river, I was aware of the ambiguity of our relationship. I was beginning a pattern of desiring men who were not emotionally or sexually available, often both. I didn’t know what was safe to share. I’d known dark people, a psychotically depressed mother in the shadows, malevolent; mad lullabies continued to affect how I related with people. I assumed others would reject me like my mother had.

Michael had been a wrestler in school and I imagined us wrestling naked in front of a fireplace like Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Women in Love. He knew my sexual preference; I was quite certain he was straight, but I wished he was uncertain about his sexuality. I wanted this and I feared it too. He seemed to be on hiatus from any involvement. I didn’t know the beasts hiding in his room cluttered by books, notes, and empty packs of cigarettes. Whatever they were, he faced them through a drugged haze, and, like me, his hands shook.

The leaves in the river flew swiftly by as the sun made its way down through the trees on the other side. Shades of brown and orange blended together to form autumn. In the distance church bells tolled. We were silent, calm, as we watched the river flow, glanced at one another, at the trees, the damp ground, the clouds in the river. Michael passed his open fingers like a comb through his hair. We sat close to one another sharing a joint, not speaking.

 

It was a bitterly cold day. Michael wore tattered clothes, a worn tweed sport coat; a short beard hugged his face. His looks were striking, though it was a derelict beauty. He had read too much Kerouac. We were headed on a six-hour trip to northern Illinois to visit our families. There were long periods of silence as Michael was a quiet sort even when I tried to lure him into gossiping about our fellow TA’s and graduate school colleagues. I could never bring myself to tell him how I really felt. I feared making myself vulnerable; every time I felt like allowing this to happen, I recalled how I hardened myself and became emotionless after a trip to the basement to be struck repeatedly with my father’s belt. I’d lived my life in a world largely closed off to others and I sensed the same in Michael.

We were back to where we started: the countryside of Southern Illinois. Michael piled out of the car with his shabby duffle bag and stash of dope. There was no mistaking it. I knew this feeling of abandoning myself. The trees looked monstrous, the cold pierced; only a few people wandered the streets, and the wind began to blow wildly. My intent had been to attempt to save him even if I sank.

We entered Michael’s house. None of his roommates were home. The kitchen, as usual, was cluttered and dirty, the cat lurking in the shadows. The silence was palpable. Michael got stoned and spoke of Guadalajara, one of his favorite topics. He could be left alone there, to dream, to waste away. He became disoriented. The screaming wind slammed the kitchen door. We’d become comfortable sharing our aloneness.

I had to get away. Back to my own self, unshared with a soul mate. Silence. Then Fleetwood Mac: “Dreams unwind. Love’s a state of mind.” Michael crashed next to me on the sofa, his feet touching the side of my thighs, muttering. The record ended and silence reasserted itself; by staying, I’d become even more entangled if we slept together. More of me would be taken over, though this was what part of me wanted. Had wanted all along.

I fled into the storm, the night, heard the kitchen door banging in the wind.

 

I avoided Michael out of self-preservation, for he had been dangerous all along: I had only slept with one man, and that had led to a breakdown which caused me to drop out of school. Would something as severe as that occur again if I slept with another man?

I had come to think of him obsessively, feeling sad and depressed nearly all the time. I have little understanding of how I get to this point of emotional disturbance, or what he really represents to me. We speak when we see one another on campus. Safe talk. I need to choose sanity, self over other.

 

One afternoon after classes I find a note attached to my trailer door:

Mark,

I went canoeing (sp?). I’m leaving at 10 tonight. Why don’t you come by?

This evening if you’re not doing anything. If the note to Laura Nelson and her books and papers are still here, could you take them and see that she gets them in case I don’t get back—But I would like to see you before I leave.

Michael

 

Mark,

Get some Gary Snyder poems—compare him with Sexton; it is that environment thing we were talking about. Compare their environments. Note how clear and serious Snyder is about living—

 

I was moved by his shaky handwriting, his attempt at getting together with me, but I also felt like a failure, like someone who could never love. I had to emotionally separate myself from him to have any stability. I chose not to respond to the note. I knew I wouldn’t see him again and felt myself sinking with rocks in my pockets.

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Marc Frazier has widely published poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He has had memoir published in Gravel, The Good Men Project, decomP, Autre, Cobalt Magazine, et al. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry, His poetry collections are available online. His website is www.marcfrazier.org