I try this before sleep to keep dread at bay, string up by its four corners a relaxing tableau, stretch it across the front picture window as it were of my mind, but you know the rest, anyone with a cortex does, how the wind of worry blows in, straining its strings, swelling it like a sail. I watch it get battered, I watch it get rent, but it’s still in the center of my eye, and there’s no precise moment when I can say I stop thinking about it; rather, the fears sweep up from behind like blindfolding hands and I’m lying there, a guy in bed fighting to curb his mind, until I slide sleeping into another room with another window that does not come with its own storm.
You hear about those who withhold it to constructive effect, aloof fathers and schoolmasters breeding little strivers turned high achievers, how a child saturated with it when young will turn out complacent, nothing to work toward. I have had it both ways and done it both ways to the point where if you convey that I have disappointed, I mobilize, but I also mobilize if you convey that I have surpassed, which makes it more a light onto my self-loathing and desperation for grandeur than a gauge. Even now, possessed of the credentials and language to apply it to myself, I contract it out: my fantasy in your words that I beg you to broadcast back.
With their stalk-away arguments, muteness, and moods, they were the part of being young and indentured I longed to escape, and did, for a while, to eat over stoves or spilling on sports pages until spoon scraped saucepan, only to find myself here like a Great War veteran asked by his beloved to dine together for togetherness’s sake in a trench on the River Somme. He’d want to do it for her as much as he’d want his bayonet beside him and disbelieve the sensation of dry clothes. I am that soldier, the trench is our dining room, and you, dear, are you, analogies I’m smart enough to swallow along with this meal.
The older I get the more I identify experiences as peaks or lows, sea-spray moments or crude companies when I say to myself so urgently I’m amazed it’s not audible, notice this, as if recognizing equaled realizing and realizing equaled reckoning, but of course it’s never that plain, never our truly triumphant or ruinous times that beg to be seen as such, but the ones surrounding the ones we would choose. As we look back, that’s where our biographies lie: on the street before the impulsive pause, clutch, kiss, and vow, in the years since the worst words of the worst fight of the worst stretch of the whole divorce leapt from our lips within earshot of the child.
1. Cheerios and milk in his mother’s kitchen, a backpack I’ve never seen before and alien textbooks spilled onto a chair. 2. We pick up his carpool friend and the friend’s sister, both surprised to see me, re-introduced, and we’re under way. 3. At school, they explain the rules of the drop-off circle, crammed with cars and darting kids. Suddenly all three leap out with quick goodbyes. Queued to exit, a few parents give me curious looks. By nine I’m back on the road to Connecticut. 4. It was the only time I ever took him to school, a mundane ritual I’ve since made momentous in my mind— the textbooks, the carpool kid’s sister keeping her backpack on in the backseat of my car— until thinking about it is as much a part of my days as the actual taking would have been, something I occasionally get sick of and long not to perform.
Speaking in school he struck me as guileless and fair-minded even after being caught in a cyber-bullying scandal which I forgave on the grounds of youth and stupidity until one day discussing a novel in English 9 he mimicked a poor girl’s speech in a voice so vicious with condescension he might have been my father amusing his cronies in the country club bar and that image of a boy with a man’s anger, prejudice, and smugness replaced the fair-minded one which was still there on the outside even after I saw behind it as one does through daily exposure as teacher or son, but will others be so for lack of a better word lucky?
It wasn’t what she said but the way she said it, referring to time her son was spending with his father, speaking as if self-trained in the art of not tearing down a bastard. I’m guessing that she returns often to a decision her younger self made and stands outside the stage of its making, like a veteran enacting her own flag-draped ceremony commemorating the death of goodwill. Not to belabor the war metaphor, but comparable to the solidarity of lost limbs and scorched skin is that of speaking around children in a way that spares them distress and others knowledge, which in the right company makes for its own betrayal of honesty—a giveaway, a clue born of hating someone you remain tied to by love.
Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, CT. His third book of poems, Carpe Something, came out from Word Press in 2012. Several of his poems appeared as a Mudlark Poster in 2014. And his essays on poetry and teaching have recently been in Poet Lore, South Carolina Review, Montreal Review, and Cheat River Review.