Here’s a poem I wrote in 1991 and 1992, back when I was 24 and 25. Enjoy.
by David A. Kirschenbaum
I just saw Gary on thirtysomething die
and right now you’re
all probably shaking your collective heads at me
wondering how I can care about some character
in some television show
when there’s a war going on
but I saw Gary on thirtysomething die last night
and part of me died with him.
Gary was me, what I’d like to be anyway,
a college professor, politically correct,
loved by all, with a waif of a wife,
and part of me wanted to be Gary,
riding a bicycle to work,
stocking cap tucked over his long strawberry blonde hair,
without a care in the world
and then he died
just like that,
this fictional myth I wanted to grow into died
and it was over,
he did however leave and oh-so beautiful corpse,
and friends keeping a place in their minds for his memories.
Could be worse, though.
Gary has been appearing in flashbacks,
in Michael’s life, the character who knew him,
and mine, a real person who thought he did,
when I go to the CD rack I think,
“What would Gary have liked to listen to?”
and then choose the discs accordingly,
there’s a Coltrane, an Elvis Costello collection,
and a Van Morrison that
sits patiently upon my right speaker,
waiting for the Carole King to finish,
so it can be placed in one of the empty slots.
As I sit down to postpone a bit longer the 25-page paper on South Africa
which has yet to be written or edited or printed out,
which is just another rough thought, another rough draft resting on a floppy, unprinted,
I think “What would Gary have done?
not how would my parents have handled this situation,
or what my best friends would tell me or do on their own,
I try to imagine this mythical icon,
this mythical icon I half-jokingly long to be,
and wonder what he would tell me,
what he would do if placed in the same situation I was in at this very second,
would he sit and scribble some thoughts across the screen,
leaving his paper aside, till he felt so inclined to resume,
probably not, he’d be doing the same thing,
only he’d be doing it with a white legal pad
— the yellow ones aren’t recyclable —
or would he set aside the four-week-old-funk he’d been working himself into instead of out of,
and churn out something, anything,
as long as it was handed in typed, double-spaced, and properly margined,
yes, it all sounds a bit innocuous
when there are Kurds gathered up on too-small-not-their-own tracts-of-land,
and it seems a bit too naive or simple
to wonder what some amalgamation
of some other writers friends,
or perhaps completely conjured up in that same writers’ mind,
to wonder what that character is thinking
and use that character as some sort of guidepost
to some of the decisions that you make,
either the writers have done a good job
helping me rediscover a person I feared I had lost,
or I’m just plain nuts,
I saw Gary on thirtysomething appear last night,
in a vision to Michael
as his life’s problems became too many,
and today, to me,
as my simple struggle to finish another day,
grew a bit easier.
I haven’t tossed Gary away, as perhaps I should have,
maybe he’s like my paternal grandmother
(although she was real)
to be thought of every so often,
not in some sort of calculated way,
but when your hands are dirty,
and you remember that Grandma Minnie taught you how to clean them,
one finger at a time,
soaping one hand completely,
and then pulling up each finger
with the opposite hand closed in a circle,
or when you’re sitting in class
and your professor asks
who was president after Van Buren,
and you say “Harrison”
and he asks you which one,
and you say “Benjamin or William Henry”
but aren’t sure which one it is
because when Grandma Minnie taught you the presidents
she taught you to remember their last names,
not their first, or how long they served for,
shit, you were five or six,
she died when you were almost seven,
right after the Mets lost to the A’s in the World Series,
and you answered the phone,
but they wouldn’t tell you what happened,
you just knew that you saw Grandma the night before,
she was supposed to sleep over your apartment,
and at the last minute she changed her mind,
she insisted, fought your mom and dad
until they took her home,
and then the next day you answered the phone,
and they asked if there was anyone else home,
and you passed the phone to your 10-years-older sister
who they thought was old enough to hear the news first hand
and ever since then you couldn’t sleep well when you went into a funk,
and you blamed the Mets for losing the World Series,
as your six-year-old mind somehow convinced you that
if the Mets had only won the World Series then
Grandma Minnie would still be alive,
to tell you how to wash your hands,
and which Johnson came before Lincoln.
So Gary’s not real,
so you never actually sat down and talked to Gary about his problems with getting tenure,
and how you expect to have the same problems one day,
and you never really sat down to tell him that you couldn’t commit to much either,
but that you wanted to commit to everything,
and how until Judy you never thought you’d find
any sort of love,
and how you want to put a ring on her finger
before you fuck it up,
or how everytime you have to sit down and write a term paper
you could never do what you thought, or knew,
all the good students were doing,
work on the paper from the day it was assigned,
and arrange those little three-by-fives according to each section of your outline,
so you could just assemble the paper
like one giant jigsaw puzzle,
and hand it in a week ahead of time,
instead of your way,
picking a neat topic,
getting approval after you’ve grabbed two armfuls of books
and an oh-so simple understanding of the subject,
only to postpone the work until you only had a week left,
I’m a good enough writer,
I can just churn something out in a week and still get a B,
and after all, that’s all you need,
you were never able to get an A,
never wanted to work that hard,
and neither did Gary,
content to get a C in a class he knew better than most,
content to read books and write papers when he felt like,
content not to fit into the system
until he realized that if he ever wanted to graduate he’d have to
because you can’t make up your own rules
when the requirements stare you in the face,
you can only postpone completion so long,
until, finally, you realize you’re just postponing yourself,
until you look at all your friends with jobs, and marriages,
and general lifeplans
when all you have is this really neat, idealistic view
that you want to be a teacher,
but didn’t know ’til last week what a doctorate required,
you just knew that to be a teacher you needed one,
and that was that, you’d get one,
and you’d find out later on how you did that,
just keep plugging ahead until you came to that step,
and then you’d stop and ask somebody,
and they’d tell you and you’d do it,
hopefully not waiting ’til the last week
to try and sum up your past 20-some-odd years of schooling
hopefully writing the dissertation you knew you should,
but know you won’t,
knowing you’re gonna become a prof somehow,
and forgetting about the office politics,
knowing that some day you’ll be up for tenure
and you’ll offend some member of that committee
and that’s that, all those years down the drain,
and now it’s time to pick up the pieces,
time to figure out which way the next step takes you,
and thinking all the while,
“What would Gary do?”
and looking into the mirror and seeing your own Gary.
So Gary is dead,
so Judy has left you
and you never did put that ring around her finger
but it wasn’t your fault
so a year later you care for two small children
although you can’t care for yourself,
although your life is still muddled
and you’re throwing money to people who need it less than you,
so you’re alone,
and hating it,
and that thesis you did all the research for is coming due
and you still haven’t opened your marble composition notebook to type your notes up,
and know you’ll wait ’til the last week
how you’ll get away with it,
have been since junior high,
and haven’t been caught yet,
won’t be either you say,
and so you’re alone
and loving it,
and you’ve interviewed 23 people for your thesis
and have 45 pages of notes that all you need to do is type up,
they’re sitting there right in that marble composition notebook,
you just want to wait until the last week so you can do it all at once,
so you’re all alone,
sitting in the house during the day watching thirtysomething on tapes, gleeful that Lifetime is airing reruns,
learning more from Gary,
brought back to life
as beautiful as ever,
and listening to some Art Blakey
getting ready for snow’s end and basketball in Washington Park,
lacing up your hightops just for fun,
spinning red/black basketball
and dribbling on the oak floors while
you’re all alone.
So you’re doing no work in your classes this term
thinking all the doctorate applications are in
no need to work
no need to maintain last year-and-a-half’s good grades
easier to toss it away and play a bit
poetry and hoops
lots of tv and junk food
and every so often open a textbook
then you call CUNY-Grad and they tell you
but no thanks
and you realize Columbia is going to do the same
and you’re back again
at step one
lots of knifes in the kitchen
but you were always too squeamish
so you do it your own way
or sleeping much
then you don’t stop figuring out options
while laying on floral print couch,
’neath itchy blanket
watching gary on afternoon reruns
while nursing cold,
and for moments visions of profdom dance away
and back and forth
as you debate many options,
working in bookstore down block
from new NYC apartment
or slaving at copy shop,
maybe even find another job in publishing
though you’ve grown tired of them both,
then you call your advisor
clueless and helpless as you
and he’s okay ’cause it isn’t his life
so maybe you’ll apply to other NYC grad schools,
or trash history prof vision totally,
though, if just to show CUNY guy up, you won’t give in,
and as watching gary in all his beauty,
you comfortably resting
pondering too many options
and planning on move away from all,
downing some drowsy cold pills
and falling off.
I think I could sit for ten years in the same chair with Sergey,” Olga whispered to Anna as they went to finish off their evening in Olga and Sergey’s apartment.
“I should leave you two alone,” Anna said as they emerged from the dark basement of the Stray Dog.
There was an intimacy about going home with a couple in love. Anna unraveled herself more from Nikolay each time he traveled, and she convinced herself she no longer knew what love felt like.
A deep quiet overcame Anna. She worried that the quiet might be making her invisible, but Olga grabbed her hand. Olga’s other arm was wrapped around Sergey, her hand on his waist, hip bone cupped in palm. That night she seemed to feel she had something to prove by mentioning her love for him every couple of minutes.
Her reverence for Olga, or rather jealousy, burned. She had smoked her cigarette down to its end and she could hardly feel the hot tip in her hand.
Then there was the quiet of the young poet and solider Vsevolod. Anna could not help but worry that he was too young to understand that Olga was playing when she proclaimed her love for him. Why hadn’t he been at the Stray Dog that night when he knew Olga would be performing?
Olga was tall and stunning beside Anna. She placed her emerald colored boots clumsily against the street. They were all tired, drunk. Sergey wasn’t wearing a hat and his ears were shiny and red.
“I don’t understand the poems. I’ve never been to Nikolay’s Africa before. Much less Africa.”
“You separate the two?”
“Anything seen through Nikolay’s eyes cannot be itself,” Anna explained.
“Have you ever been tempted to go?” Olga asked.
Sometimes Anna found her own lack of desire incomprehensible. The treasures of a whole continent were spread out before her and she had no wish to inspect them. She had a tendency to ignore his souvenirs. She was content in Russia and needed to believe that true happiness was impossible.
“Never,” Anna answered. “As a matter of fact, I don’t know what Nikolay sees in travel. He only talks about the fevers, the sunburns, and the long rides on the backs of mules.”
“Imagine us riding around on mules,” Olga giggled.
“It would be a fairytale.”
There was an intimacy about going home with a couple in love.
After walking only a few blocks on Nevsky Prospect, they reached the building where Sergey and Olga lived. They walked through the tight space between buildings where they were almost in complete darkness, so that Anna had to grab onto Olga’s shoulder, letting Olga lead her.
On any other night if they walked up the back stairs, the dinner scents would have already settled into the pores of kitchens. Tonight, there was the smell of fish. Anna breathed it in, imagining a family still seated at their table for a holiday celebration. No doubt they would have been eating caviar, transparent red beads breaking between teeth, releasing their saltiness. There would have also been mandarin oranges stacked in bowls taken down from the highest shelves for the occasion.
Anna imagined the plates of cold cuts, thin pieces laid limply over each other, the cloudiness of the fat on the bacon. Of course, there were the salads, vegetables minced into tiny squares that sometimes made them unrecognizable. The squares of potatoes, ham, peas, and eggs were all the same size and smothered in mayonnaise. The cabbage rolls had probably all been eaten. Only a vaguely transparent tomato sauce, a lonely mushroom, and a dangly piece of cabbage would have been left on the plate. Dinner at the Stray Dog hadn’t included any of those delicacies. There, Anna ate a sour pickle and discreetly let a piece of meat slither into her mouth.
There was the chirping of the canary.
Then there was a shrill cry. Anna realized the sound of loose terror came from her own body. “He was here the whole time!”
“Shh,” Sergey said. “We don’t want the neighbors to know.”
Anna bent down, her tight dress resisting. She lifted Vsevolod’s head. Blood had already dried around his mouth and made her dizzy in her drunken state. Vsevolod had succeeded in doing what Anna had failed to do.
Olga was pressed against the wall. Her swan feathers were crushed against the cold stone.
“He committed suicide for you,” Anna wanted to say. The words echoed so loudly in her body it is as if she was actually saying them. She could feel their contours pushing up against her skin. “He is yours,” were words that never emerged from Anna’s mouth.
“Let’s go inside while I go get someone,” Sergey said and took Vsevolod underneath the arms, dirtying his New Year’s garb. Sergey left him in the front entrance, next to the umbrellas, the slippers, and a pair of Olga’s boots. Vsevolod faced his own reflection in the hall mirror. Olga lowered his eyelids so that he could no longer see himself.
The canary continued singing. Olga opened its tiny caged door and it flew out in a bright yellow splash. It landed on Vsevolod’s shoulder.
The canary continued singing. Olga opened its tiny caged door and it flew out in a bright yellow splash. It landed on Vsevolod’s shoulder.
“I’ll be right back, ladies,” Sergey said.
“You’ll catch cold,” Olga said, throwing herself into his embrace.
“What else is there to do?” he asked.
“The pistol is still in the hallway,” Olga said, the desperation in her voice making every word staccato.
“We’ll leave it there. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Sergey said. “Obviously, the neighbors didn’t hear the gunshot,” he added.
“They probably thought it was the cork from a champagne bottle,” Olga giggled. Her shock was causing her to act opposite of what would be appropriate.
Sergey left, shutting the door quietly behind him. It was Olga’s fault. Anna felt more anger for Olga than she felt sorrow over Vsevolod.
“I’m tired, Anna,” Olga complained. “You know the moment when you would give anything for sleep.”
“Then sleep,” Anna whispered, her anger nearly extinguishing her voice.
Olga lay on the couch. She hadn’t bothered to take off her coat. They should have been prepared for another tragedy, ready to go in case Sergey came to whisk them away.
Anna reached to turn off the lamp. Her fingers brushed against the heavy crystal tassels. Wouldn’t it be best not to see Vsevolod or Olga? But she had to leave her eyes open to it all. Poets forced themselves to look without cringing.
She watched Olga’s breaths grow deeper. Her mouth was slightly open, but still retained the shape of a kiss. Then there was Vsevolod, his hair cut close to his head, parted in the middle, pressed to his scalp. She looked at his thick eyebrows and thin lips. He wore his officer’s uniform, perfectly pressed.
OLENA JENNINGS is the author of the poetry collection Songs from an Apartment and chapbook Memory Project. Her translation from Ukrainian of Iryna Shuvalova’s poetry collection, Pray to the Empty Wells, in collaboration with the author, was released in 2019 by Lost Horse Press. Her translation with Oksana Lutsyshyna of Artem Chekh’s Absolute Zero was released in 2020 by Glagoslav. Her novel Temporary Shelter is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press. She is the founder and curator of the Poets of Queens reading series. Her website is olenajennings.com.