Advanced Poetry

by

07/03/2022

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village, Midtown

Photo by Ajay Suresh (Wikipedia)

Joel had told me his mother was in town for the week visiting, as parents often will when their children are going to expensive colleges in the heart of New York City. But I didn’t think his mother’s visit was going to be relevant to me, until he invited me to go to the MoMa with them.

There were two problems with his proposition. The first was I had a lot of school assignments. Being an anxious, overachiever of a student, getting my work done promptly and properly was important to me.

The second problem was I felt odd about being invited to meet his mother, having only known Joel in person for a little less than a month. His best friends lived in the city. Why not invite them? After all, we were not a romantic couple, nor did I want us to be, although I had sensed, in the brief time we had known one another, that he was trying to change this.

Nonetheless, my desire for friendship prevailed over these concerns. I said to myself, “it’d be nice to take a break” and, more emphatically, “it’d be nice to cultivate a friendship.” So I accepted the invitation. Due to the pandemic, and my living in Georgia throughout its early stages, I hadn’t been able to make friends in the city. This was an opportunity to get to know someone. Plus, I’d never been to the MoMa before.

***

After my noon English course, Joel texted me the address to his mother’s Airbnb. This would be our meeting point before walking to the subway station together. I ate a PB & J sandwich as I walked from Washington Square Park to Tompkins Square. It was September and still hot. People were out and they weren’t rushing anywhere. I stared at lots of them on the way, zoning out to the songs in my AirPods. When I got there, I rang the buzzer and heard Joel’s voice on the other end: “Come on up, we’re on the second floor.”

I walked up a flight of stairs to the apartment where they were waiting for me. Joel greeted me with a hug at the doorway. He was dressed in his usual paint-splattered oxfords, black culottes, and a white tank top. His blonde chest hair, a thick and curly bush, peeked over the top hemline. A little behind him and to the right, I could see his mother seated at a desk and typing something up. Upon my entrance, she hoisted herself out of what appeared to be a heavyweight leather chair, turned halfway around to face Joel and me, and walked toward us, smiling. She had short dirty blonde hair, cut in that stereotypically older woman way, with the ends curling towards her chin and resting gently on the tops of her shoulders. She was dressed simply: sneakers, navy work pants, and a fitted white t-shirt. 

“Tayler, I’ve heard lots about you. It’s nice to meet you.” She extended her hand out toward me, which I took into my own. I hadn’t heard much about her, besides that she was in town, so I smiled and delivered the expected response, “It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs. Klein.” Though she seemed friendly enough, it would be remiss not to mention that there was something hard and rough about her. 

***

Joel and his mother chatted the entire way to the station, casually discussing their night’s dinner plans, “Who’s going to get the wine? Where are we going to get the wine? Do your friends drink wine?” and things of that nature. I liked how they spoke to each other. It seemed involved. It was only after we boarded the train, and Mrs. Klein began inquiring about our studies, that something fundamental changed between them. Joel became excited, yet oddly bashful, which, in turn, only emphasized Mrs. Klein’s intensity.

“Ya know, Tayler is a triple major,” Joel began, announcing it as if it were a bragging point. His lips pressed and lifted into a small grin, while his eyes focused on his mother’s face, anticipating, yet apparently confident, in her reaction. It was then I realized, by accepting Joel’s invitation to the MoMa, I had also agreed to be put on display for Mrs. Klein to judge and pick through: I was art, not yet curated, and here I was being appraised.

Mrs. Klein’s eyes widened and her mouth opened slowly, “Wow! She must be so smart! I like you hanging around people like that. You have to keep her around!” She nodded eagerly as she spoke, her eyes shifting between us both. Joel blushed and his shoulders curled inward, eyes remaining fixed on his mother’s face all the while, “It’s why I hang out with her Mom.” I smiled meekly.

Mrs. Klein began drilling me with questions, “What are your majors?” Who are your favorite writers? What are you planning to do with your majors post-grad?” I answered them all, and each answer, was met with an enthusiastic response from her. Watching us, Joel’s ego seemed to fatten. Only moments prior, he had been timid, and now his head was bobbing up and down, a huge toothy grin stuck on his face, lips spread so thin I saw fault lines.

It was odd. I typically enjoy speaking about myself, but this was disquieting. There was something in his manic smile and his mother’s flickering eyes, and perhaps even more in the feeling that sat in my belly, unnerving me, that indicated something to me. This was not my audition at all. It was Joel’s.

***

Once tickets were purchased, vaccine cards verified, and we were inside the MoMa, we went up to the second floor. We entered one room that flowed into another room that flowed into yet another room in a seemingly endless passage.

I found I liked most of the art that wasn’t some variation of circle-dot-line. In front of these kinds of paintings, I found myself bored, trying to extract some meaning from what appeared to be utterly meaningless. Circle. Dot. Circle-dot-line. Blue line. Red dot. Yellow circle. I couldn’t break myself from the feeling that this wasn’t art at all.  Still, despite my intuitions, the MoMa declared otherwise. Circle. Appreciate the circle.

Thought it was hard for me to focus on the art anyway. Maybe circles and primary colors were all my brain could handle. I was suffocating by way of my three majors. My brain had little to no space for recreational contemplation. I was tired and hungry, and my hands were shaking, anxiously anticipating the end of this museum expedition, so I could return to my apartment where alone and overwhelmed, I could force my eyes on school work that would reward me with a moment’s relief only once I completed it.

But I was now standing in front of a painting with a bunch of squares on it, a checkerboard with many colors. Most of them were white, though some of them were yellow, pink, blue, black. It was subconscious and brief, but I felt something. A feeling was evoked. It was at one moment childlike joy and then suddenly the practicality of adulthood. I was back in my childhood dentist’s office, playing with colorful stacking blocks, unaware that they were tactfully placed there by adults to distract me. 

Mrs. Klein had disappeared from the room we were in. She must be moving faster than us. Joel had his legs crossed and was planted in front of a large red canvas, painted in several bloody hues. He too seemed to be struggling to find meaning in nothingness. But perhaps I was wrong. Maybe he was seeing something that I was not.

***

I don’t speak to Joel anymore.

We had just finished our Shakespeare course and he was accompanying me on my walk to the Strand where I was going to pick up a philosophy book for a class.

“What’s your favorite philosophy book?” he asked me. I wasn’t sure. My brain had become a cesspool of titles, dates, and vague but compelling ideas, most of which I could grasp but struggled to articulate. Had it been another day, I would have said anything by Emerson. Instead I told him that I just finished reading “Nicomachean Ethics” for the first time.

“What’s it about?” he asked, but his tone had changed. The question wasn’t curious, it was hostile.

Was this about what had happened at lunch the previous day? I shrugged the thought off. “Essentially, Aristotle tries to explain “the highest good.”  He leads the reader on to believe that it’s morality, until the end of the book, when he explains that it’s actually contemplation.”

Joel’s face twisted. It was clear that no response would have been sufficient. He was on a mission. “Well he’s wrong,” he spat.

This wasn’t about what books I liked or what ideas I found compelling. This was about something more primitive. This was about him. “How can you say he’s wrong? You haven’t read the book,” I said reservedly. “Anyways, he writes it much nicer than I can explain it.”

“There’s nothing nice about saying “the highest good” is contemplation. What about people in Africa that can’t afford it? You’re telling me you believe they don’t deserve the highest good? Because they’re poor? Aristotle’s just another privileged son of a…” He went on in this way, his words picking up pace, attacking me, attacking the air, attacking anything that would take the hit.

“Joel…I don’t think that’s what he is saying. Contemplation isn’t necessarily–”

“Go ahead then” he interrupted, as if I wasn’t already trying to, “explain to me what he means, since I’m so wrong.”

Lunch the day prior flashed before my eyes. I had convinced myself at the time that I was only been imagining his frustration. When he got up and left abruptly, I believed him when he said he was tired.

“Is this about yesterday?” I asked.

 His eyes widened. We had just gotten to the Strand. We stopped there, on a busy corner, tourists and residents alike eagerly trying to gain entrance to the most iconic bookstore in New York.

“You can’t bullshit your way to an A in “Advanced Poetry!” he blurted.

It was about yesterday. “I think I could,” I said.

“Not in “Advanced Poetry!” He was speaking faster, and louder. “You haven’t even seen the syllabus!” With one hand he held onto his bicycle. With the other he emphasized his frustration, fingers splayed, palm up.

“I think I could,” I maintained. He wanted me to acquiesce. If I did it would mean that he was a good writer and was succeeding in a hard class. 

However, my acquiescence wouldn’t really have indicated any of this. I had never read his poetry. Anyway, the day prior I hadn’t mentioned anything about poetry at all. I saw myself playfully chatting, “It’d be nice to take a creative writing class right now, just in case I wanted to bullshit some work. Not that I would, but it’d be nice to at least have the fucking option.” I thought I was being funny. We were both creative writing students after all.

“Sometimes it takes me five hours to write a poem. You can’t bullshit that!”

I could have conceded. But instead, I said nothing and stared at the people moving around him and his bike, I looked at how his helmet sat awkwardly on his head, unbuckled beneath the chin. He was dressed again in his usual paint-splattered oxfords, black culottes, and a white tank top. His blonde chest hair still bunching up thickly over the top hem-line, a fur ball.

“Say sorry!” he moaned. “I’m your friend and you hurt my feelings and you need to say sorry!” Whatever we had shared was now mutilated. Disgust obscured my vision. There was no human boy in front of me. Instead, he was a blob of hair, skin and teeth, thrashing miserably on the pavement.

But despite this, something human still remained. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it. There was his anger and his insecurity, but more palpable than both of these, there was a painful yearning…a child’s hand reaching out and grabbing air. I thought of Mrs. Klein on the subway. I saw Joel’s animated face, bragging about me, winning his mom over.

I turned into the Strand. He remained on the corner. 

***

Tayler Bakotic is a senior studying English, Philosophy, Religion, and Creative Writing at NYU. Besides reading and writing, Tayler enjoys watching horror movies, playing the bass guitar, and cuddling with her hound-mix Danny.

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§ 2 Responses to “Advanced Poetry”

  • Tyler says:

    Advanced Poetry is such a satisfying read. So descriptive and engaging.

  • TSB says:

    This reads like a horror movie, of the psychological torment variety. It’s not entirely clear who the monster is. At first glance, I’m shocked by my own antipathy to the mother. The fact that the narrator doesn’t feel entirely reliable just adds to the drama.

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