You're No Baudelaire
by JoAnn Welsh
"I never really liked poetry," Adam confessed. In his circles, it was like admitting you watched reality TV, or you couldn't find Argentina on a map, or that you voted for Bush. On the rare occasions he divulged this cultural deficiency of his, he encountered expressions of pity tinged with scorn. Or scorn tinged with pity.
"You don't understand it," was the inevitable reply.
"You don't understand it," Katerina said. This particular occasion was unfolding at Bob's, an Indian restaurant on Ninth Avenue, following a poetry reading at the independent bookstore next door. Bob's had remained Bob's for twelve years now, probably a record in the neighborhood, after having morphed from a podiatrist's office to a fortune-teller's, to a second-hand clothing store and now the Indian place. Given its quixotic past, the restaurant didn't look any more Indian than the owner looked like a Bob. A swarthy, nervous little Bangladeshi in pastel suits two sizes two big for him, he was always poking his head out the kitchen's swinging doors and surveying the premises, ready to catch patrons in the act of sneaking plastic cutlery into a purse or concealing rusty napkin dispensers in a rolled-up overcoat.
Apparently Bob didn't feel the need to update the decor, or maybe authentic Indian restaurants really were this depressing. The traffic patterns in the pea-green carpet had worn down to the point that it looked like someone had driven through on a riding mower. The peeling brown wallpaper patterned with intertwined roses gapped along the seams, and the cracked window next to Adam, with its handsome view of a grafitti-covered brick wall, let in a trickle of rain that ended in a little puddle at Adam's feet. Even the rain seemed uncooperative here, the normally soothing patter of raindrops replaced by an irritating rapping on what sounded like an empty metal can just outside the window. Indian water torture, perhaps. Just the kind of place Katerina would love, thinking it had atmosphere.
"Of course I don't understand it," Adam replied, pressing a tissue against his face. Curry powder always made his nose run. "Most of it seems written expressly for misunderstanding."
"Well, yeah," Katerina said, pausing to wolf down a samosa. "If it was plain enough for every dimwit to understand, then what's the point?"
"That's exactly my question. What's the point?" Adam said, stubbornly pursuing his dimwittedness. "If I can't understand it, then what's it communicating?"
Katerina sighed, a martyr to the cause of educating the plodding middle class bourgeoisie. Never mind that she herself came from a family of orthopedists in Orange County. Katerina had invited him to the reading last week and Adam accepted, mainly because he hadn't seen much of her since she'd transformed from his sister's friend Catherine to Katerina the Poet. Adam thought fondly of the old Catherine who had gone to school with his baby sister, ten years his junior. That girl had been quiet and plainly attired, usually in jeans and oversized wool sweaters with the sleeves pulled down over her hands. She tended to be shy but opened up once she got to know people. Katerina, on the other hand, had to be reminded to eat, as she'd forgotten her mouth had uses other than talking. Either that or she'd decided the pleasing curves that used to fill out the sweaters weren't befitting a starving artist. He'd seen store mannequins that looked better fed than Katerina. Maybe his presence was luring back the old Catherine - she was putting away paneer like she was afraid the Bangladeshi would come out and snatch it back off the table.
"The problem is, Americans don't learn poetry," she said, mouth full of naan. "I've got this Russian friend? He can recite whole stanzas by heart. They learn them in school. My favorite is this one by Anna Akhmatova. Want to hear it?"
"Not right now please. My mother always told me, no Russian recitations at the dinner table."
Adam got up and refilled his plate at the buffet, but Katerina must have bookmarked the conversation in her head. She swallowed her mouthful of water and savagely speared another piece of naan.
"What's the most beautiful thing you've ever read, something that changed your life?"
Her look was intense; it made him feel old. It wasn't just that Katerina believed in the power of words to alter worlds - though she'd be surprised to hear it, Adam agreed with her. It was the widening of the over-mascaraed eyes, the anticipation of the fork stalled in mid-air - it all reminded him of a time when people's opinions were exciting, including his own. When he and his friends hadn't felt that everything had already been said and done, said and done better by someone else.
"The First Amendment, without a doubt," Adam replied.
Katerina scowled, annoyed by this deviation from the rules of her game. "That doesn't count. I meant from literature."
"Who says it doesn't count?" Adam's eyebrows arched in exaggerated surprise. "'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'"
"You know it by heart?" Surprised out of her Katerina blasé, the familiar Catherine looked impressed. It made Adam feel yet a hundred years older.
"Of course I know it. I'm a gay, Jewish-born atheist who writes soft-core porn. I'm considering having it tattooed on my arm. I sing it in the shower, like a hymn. It's more beautiful than any poem I've ever read."
"You're confusing freedom with beauty," said Katerina, regaining control. "True beauty is purposeless."
"Freedom is beautiful. Try going without sometime." Adam refrained from pointing out that Catherine's true beauty had been shaped and pruned for the purpose of perpetuating the Katerina identity. "I guess I'm phobic when it comes to restrictions. I don't like meters or rhymes or cadence. Even the spell-checker makes me nervous. Maybe I could write poetry in prose, like Baudelaire."
"Dream on. You're no Baudelaire."
"How would you know? Have you been reading my stuff?"
Adam suppressed a laugh at the sight of her superior smirk so quickly washed away by the red tide sweeping across her face. The new Katerina may be wordly, but the old Catherine could still be embarrassed by thought of reading gay porn.
"No, but I don't need to, not to know that."
"Well, you're no Akhmatova either. You're not even Katerina. You're just Catherine."
Adam wanted to take the words back the instant they escaped, a lazy jibe in response to her own that meant nothing, especially considering he'd never even read Akhmatova. He stared blindly at the raindrops rolling down the wall, watering the wilting wallpaper roses. He missed something, something more than the old Catherine or even his sister Missy, who'd been dead now for almost three years. The feeling came more often these days, a longing for something he couldn't identify, a nostalgia for something that had never occurred. It was as if there was a life constantly on the tip of his tongue that he knew he would never be quite able to recall. Looking at Catherine made him even sadder, her confidence not up to pulling off this Katerina role. Like a girl playing dress up, the fragile figure was visible and the make-up gaudy and poor. Yet playing dress up was just what she was doing - a twenty-four-year-old woman at play. By that age, Adam's mother had already borne three children. Was it an indulgence, this extended searching for oneself? Maybe. Catherine wanted to do something special, was that so bad? She didn't want to be part of the mass-market, empty-headed, self-absorbed consumer mentality. So she was a miniscule-market, confused-headed, self-absorbed poet. She didn't think being herself would suffice.
"You're Catherine," he repeated, wondering how she could take it as anything but a compliment.
About the author:
JoAnn Welsh, a newly minted resident of Rochester, NY, is a graduate of Penn State and the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in Ghoti.