The Poetry Project

Jackie Ess


over fierce decades, harmless. Up in pairs

go we not, but we have a good bed.

—John Berryman, Dream Song 11

November 2017

Lisa had thought it would be easiest to begin with the dream. But it wasn’t.

“It sounds like you met one of the shades of the underworld.”

It did sound like that, but that wasn’t the point.

“I’m not really interested in symbols that way.”

In the dream, Lisa was back in Seattle, attending, with artful deniability of her true purpose, an event where she was all but guaranteed to run into Kevin, and of course she did. The scene was hazy, but it was clear that whatever the party was, something opening or launching or coming to town, she’d cultivated a true, unfeigned interest in it and really done her homework. She sometimes felt her personality was the sedimentation of these maneuvers.

Kevin broke from his group. They hugged one another, flashed wit and warmth, and drank pinot grigio, sour and clear but otherwise extremely cold to the point of indistinctness, from clear plastic cups which stayed full. Still animated, they left together, as half-intentionally as they’d met. Side-by-side, walking North.

“Must be nice to be able to just get on an Amtrak because you’ve had a bad dream.” Andi smiled. “Are you here to act it out?”

It was rare for Andi to directly allude to money, unless it was to say she was hard up, and then Lisa would quietly help. Very quietly, even ashamedly. That was the texture in those days, rich and poor coming together in the communism of midnight, only you couldn’t say so. The poor girls lived in beautiful messy rooms and the rich ones in interchangeable clean spaces with blank walls. They needed each other, and for all of the using and being used, it felt good to be needed. It probably felt good for everybody.

When Lisa passed through, which happened every couple months since they’d met, she’d never quite ask if she could stay with Andi, but Andi always offered. In most cases they fell in together, without excessive passion, they made love in the same way that a non-moviegoer might have that one friend who they tend to go to the movies with, and somehow have seen a small number of films that were very serious or slow or French or politically committed or gonzo or just not screened very often. And the rest is Will Ferrell.

In the dream, Lisa and Kevin were walking North on Roosevelt, the way it was before the condos had come in, before the rail station, and about an hour before dawn. It was starting to snow, and she was trying to apologize for how she’d been. Somehow they were Arctic explorers. But Kevin was silent and angry, with a face frozen in disappointment and which, by some Escher-like impossible angles, turned away regardless of the angle of approach. It was hard to interpret, and Lisa was already interpreting, even before waking. If you’re not interpreting you’re not really living, is what she’d probably say. When she woke up, she immediately sent a few flirty messages to Andi and bought a ticket to Seattle.

After having sort of sex, sort of, the mood improved. Lisa and Andi moved on to some loving mockery of the subculture. Something like, “can you believe how seriously some people take it and how badly they carry it off, but at the same time isn’t it actually plucky and brave and something beautiful about it and weren’t we all like that ourselves once and aren’t we all stuck like this together and isn’t that some of how we got here and don’t you really love her? I think I do.” They were smoking pot.

As Lisa went to sleep she reflected that dream-Kevin had been in an impossible situation. Suppose he wanted to lightly discharge the debt. “No hard feelings.” But there were hard feelings, ten years of them, that was the whole reason she’d come. Why else would she have bothered to have the dream? It would be better if she could say something like “I love you from before I knew what love was.”

Lisa was very proud of herself for not saying that, even in a dream, and for having a critique, informed by her political reading, of that kind of talk.

“And now you’re wondering why he won’t give you a medal for restraint?” Andi laughed, and Lisa joined her in laughing, only a little too deliberately, as though holding back tears.

“Are you ok?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

Northeast Seattle has no architectural character at all, but it’s cut by invisible lines. Down to the block, it determines who you are. It definitely has something to do with how things are zoned. Lisa was very attuned to that and always described her childhood homes—she’d moved several times, with great care either to communicate or to obscure her position. In the dream it was obscure, as it might be with strangers of intimidating social conscience, but without intention. They were walking on what was definitely the slummy bit of Roosevelt Way, where one stubborn landlord was holding on until death, subdividing single family homes into ten rooms and renting to junkies. Sometimes they burned down. Lisa reflected that Andi might need a place like that eventually, but that when she did, it would already be gone. Maybe that was now.

In the morning, Lisa took Andi out for an eggs benedict and a mason-jar bloody mary, and then started walking, reconstructing memories, while Andi got back to whatever her game was. The city had turned over almost completely, and the places that did hold on felt strange. A cafe that had once been dingy and played good music now had a skylight and played what was probably even better music. It seemed to cater to the Dick Florida set, or maybe not even the creative class, something that had succeeded it. There were a lot of macbooks and a beautiful copper espresso machine, she could see the other patrons reflected in it. In case they might be looking back, she let her eyes wander up, through the skylight whose installation had been the beginning of the end.

Now Kevin was there. He ordered a small coffee and after chatting with the barista for a moment, walked out, radiating health. Based on his humble order and easy rapport, she had to assume that he was still a regular here, and there was no bike, which was a good sign that he might still be living in the neighborhood. From his well trimmed beard and equally well-fitting white long-sleeved tee it was easy to surmise some facts about his lifestyle: he didn’t smoke anymore, he either had a little more money or had gotten very into taking care of his clothes, something he was always very good at anyway. There are many plausible explanations for elegance but it’s never an accident. He probably had a girlfriend. And she was probably white—or so.

Lisa began to feel the color gradient very intensely, from the ultra-light-skinned barista with nonetheless strongly African features, to her own middling tone and indistinct features, to Kevin’s deep blackness. It was him alright. A God. Outside of this silent trio, it seemed very possible that the whole town was white, or that the world was. Sense that this can’t be right. Sense that blackness matters more than we thought, but who’s we? No one knew what to say.

Staring idly at her reflection in the copper, she considered the problem. She hadn’t meant to run into Kevin here, but she absolutely did mean to run into him on this trip, maybe today. She hadn’t come here by accident. But she wasn’t ready. Would he see her? Would he recognize her? But now Kevin was gone, and she was saved from further rumination by a white salon-punk trans girl making eyes at her over a pink tinted laptop that matched her slightly–too–perfect balayage. She snapped it shut and joined Lisa very deliberately, yet wordlessly, seemingly without a care that the computer might be stolen. No “would you mind watching—”

“I’m Lisa.” That is, Lisa–who–cannot–suppress–a–smile.


“I’m on a cloud.”

Like that the pair were walking across campus, where one of the cherry trees was in bloom, completely out of season. People were taking pictures of the tree, and as they stopped to look at it Lisa felt a kind of crushing submission to Aether, like it had been with Lily. Now why does it have to be like this? She wondered if she was even attracted to this girl, or just seeking some distraction, some easy displacement of the earlier stirrings of racialized self-respect, of her love for Kevin, or whether what she’d retroactively understood as love for him might have after all been something else: a dim intuition of some kind of shared color-destiny. Maybe sex was a way of unfitting herself for that obscure burden in same way one might play mad or queer to dodge the draft. And now that everybody was queer, it didn’t work.

The immediate trouble with Kevin was that she didn’t want to reach out to him by straight channels, or sideways. She didn’t want to feel like she was stalking him. And she wasn’t really. But it was all a little much, what he was in her mind, and the fact that she’d come to Seattle at all. There was no excuse for that. But it was worse, because they’d really known each other in a way that neither had quite found out the meaning of. There was something that didn’t happen, so it could mean anything to him or nothing. He could say that he loved her, or that she never knew him, that he was glad to be rid of her, that she’d always been a drag, acting like his girlfriend when he wasn’t even gay, acting superior, and smelling of money that she seemed to want a medal for refusing rather than say, sharing. Like, if you hate your parents so much, how about taking out a loan and not paying it back? He’d probably say something like, “I didn’t need you to be like me, you needed to think I did. What you took for love was using me to concretize your self-hatred. You know what would have meant more to me than seeing you play out your mulatto drama? 500 dollars. And don’t worry I went and got it but you never understood how and you judged me for it. You were a liability.”

Aether walked them to a “secret grove” with a bust of Edvard Grieg. Quiet it was, but secret? Lisa had smoked there more than once, a long time ago. “Aether, how old are you?”


“I’m 31.”


Lisa laughed. “I like how you say that. As a matter of fact, I feel a little guilty for how much I like it. You know I’m trouble, right?”

Aether, swaggering: “and I’m not?” She had a point. Mushrooms as well.

Very heavy. Opaque. Next day.

In the morning, Aether talked politics while Lisa cooked her what she thought might be a better breakfast than she was used to having. As the onions sizzled, she kept thinking about Kevin’s shade, and the real Kevin, how she was ever going to talk to him. Is he still an artist or is it all politics now? Did he know that she’d transitioned? If he didn't, that would complicate everything. She kept in touch with hardly anyone, and had left town long before. Everything felt impossible.

Aether snapped. “You there?”


“You were kinda checked out last night, are you ok?”

“Better than ok. I really needed that.” Well, it’s easier to exaggerate. It was good whether she needed it or not. It was good whether it was good or not.

“How long are you in Seattle? Maybe we can meet up again.” Aether seemed careful not to make assumptions, very different from the day before.

“Depends. Look here’s the thing, right before I met you I ran into an ex of mine, like from way back, who didn’t recognize me. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t talk to him. But I’m feeling kind of intense about him and I don’t know what to do.”

“Is he transphobic or something?”

“No, no, definitely not. That’s got nothing to do with it. I guess it’s possible he wouldn’t be 100% cool but I feel like he’d be ashamed to think of himself as a bigoted guy. I’ve seen him use pronouns online. It’s whatever, it’s just like, I was obsessed with him.”

“Sounds like you still are a little.” Aether was poking at her computer while they talked, probably responding to twitter notifications.

“I think I’m just overexplaining it. I’m nervous about meeting him.”

“Are you curious about him?”

“What do you mean?”

“I had an ex from right after high school look me up last year. It was like she wanted to talk or apologize or something, but she didn’t seem to actually want to talk about anything. It was like she was closing the book on something. No big deal, but it was totally all about her. What it meant that she hadn’t known I was a woman, and now she’s bisexual, and she feels like that was the meaning all along. Like, she didn’t ask me a single question, she just assumed I was the same person I was at 19.”

“Did you say all that to her?”

“No, I didn’t care. I played along. We follow each other online now, and I mostly ignore her stuff. She’s become kind of an interesting person, actually, but I can’t really fuck with that. I’m more about people who live in the moment.”

Aether had a seminar, she was a grad student, Lisa hadn’t thought to ask. Why is it always philosophy? It’s like the fucking middle ages again. So Lisa wandered off again, quietly trailing a hawk along the footbridges of Ravenna park. When she lost the bird, she pulled out her phone and after workshopping it for an hour, removed all emotional flourishes from what she meant to say and wrote a very cool email to Kevin. “Not sure if you remember me, I mean you probably do but I’ve been through some changes. I’m in town for a few weeks and I think I saw you walking by the other day. Made me think it’d be nice to catch up. Coffee sometime?” Perfect. Totally safe. She nearly wrote “a couple weeks” but wanted to leave some chance to deniably change her return ticket.


Andi met her at Than Brothers for pho and cream puffs. “Are you sure that’s still his email address? You said you hadn’t talked to him in a decade.” This was a problem. “But tell me about Aether.”

“She’s a philosophy grad student. I’m just realizing now that she probably knows my roommates.”

“I’m not asking what her major is. But she’s young.”

“Very—” Lisa paused. “24.”

“How old did you say you were?”

“Say I was? 31.”

“Aren’t you 32?”

“No. Almost. Anyway it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Well, I’m modern,” Andi paused, “and I’m also old-fashioned. I don’t judge. Glad you’re getting it somewhere.”

Andi gave a wide ironic smile, and turned to her noodles, piled with lime and basil and hot sauce, leaving Lisa to her plain broth. They slurped. Through the steam, on the mirrored wall, Kevin was there again. Andi looked disappointed, even angry.

“You know what, Lisa, fuck it. Just run after him. You’re not really here.”

She did. She put a twenty dollar bill on the table and she ran.

Kevin spoke first. “I almost can’t believe my eyes. But I did hear about you. It’s been so long! What did you end up going by?”

And then they were talking, about what happened to all of our old friends and how this place has changed and no one knows it and it’s like we’re invisible here and how alone we always were in this place and what did we get up to in the years between and you always seemed uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t pin down and I hope you’ve found a way to be happy and I actually felt too strongly about you and maybe I scared you sometimes I had to grow up so much and I guess I was in love with you in a way—I mean don’t take it as this big thing if I say that, that’s just what it is to be young. I know now that it doesn't matter, I can feel all of it without doing anything about it. I can stay completely still. I’m ok now, I wish I could convince you of it.

They were walking North and the words kept tumbling. Lisa was increasingly animated and Kevin increasingly stony as they trudged on, toward the snowy pole, his silent cartoon face turned away.

Issue 20