(Back in the Day: Julia)

I could’ve fallen in love with Calvin Goodman if he’d let me.

    He was hot—he could’ve had any freshman he wanted. I was a senior and at first we were just friends. We met at a bad party and in the crowded hallway he told me he wanted to see me naked. He had indigo eyes with long black lashes, and shaggy mink hair that curled past his ears. His voice had a lilt and twang that led me to believe he was from Texas, though he said Los Angeles. He said lots of things.

    We looked at poems together. Not our own, not at first; we read to each other from books, long hours holed-up at my place in front of the wood-burning stove, unheard of in a college student’s crumbling rental. Looking back, I’m sure it was part of what attracted him. It was cozy.

    Eventually, he asked me to critique his work. He said he didn’t find his intro workshop satisfying. I want to go inside poems, he said. I know you can help me get there.

    He made excessive references to whiskey and shadows and smells of water, but there were some fine moments. There were also mixed metaphors and an underlying hostility about women’s bodies I chose to overlook.

    After three weeks of toying with each other, we hooked up in my kitchen one evening after drinking red wine and, of course, reading poetry. I kissed him on the back of the neck while he rinsed a glass at the sink; he whirled around and threw me up against the refrigerator. We spent most of the following week on a thin futon and old blankets laid out in the living room, because Calvin sure did love that woodstove.

    I’ve been waiting for this, he murmured. There’s no place I’d rather be.

People said we made a good couple. An attractive couple. I thought that meant we looked made-up, invented whole-cloth by someone else—someone who failed in her execution of the premise and plot, because based upon my reading we weren’t a believable couple. If I’d read us in a story I would feel sorry for Julia, so needy and clingy and old. I felt removed from him, but it didn’t matter.

    We fell into our roles. I let him put his head on my lap, cry and tell me about his mother, a manic-depressive with an OCD streak. Her glitch was washing: the floors, her hands, her children—whatever appeared to be dirty.

    She made me suspicious of all women. I hate her.

    I stroked his hair and told him he was a good person.

We’d be at a party or a bar and Calvin would disappear, only to catch my eye from across the room fifteen or twenty minutes later, invariably draped in some chick, acting like she was the most fascinating thing he’d ever met. All he had to do was flash those navy blues and girls flocked to him. He’d whisper in their ears, nuzzle their necks and look at me—he’d look right at me and whisper things to them I couldn’t begin to guess. After a while, I began recalling former, better boyfriends.

I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew ahead of time that showing him my poems would ruin them, forever and absolutely, even if other people thought they were brilliant, even if other people wanted to publish me immediately upon graduation and make me a literary sensation.

    But he’d been asking. I had a senior reading to prepare for and was desperate for feedback, and Professor Keeley already had a stack of my stuff on his desk and he’d recently taken to skipping his office hours because he was going through a divorce—so I gave Calvin a test.

    Could he critique my work in a civilized way? Would it tell me something about him I hadn’t yet understood? Perhaps it would serve as reassurance. I needed something to sustain me. My mad fling with a younger man had turned out to be far more trouble than I’d bargained for—in fact, Calvin was starting to creep me out. I needed to graduate and get the hell out of town before he chopped me up into little fucking pieces or hung me out the window by my ankles or whatever his sociopathic mind was concocting, because he couldn’t control himself. And: he wrote all over the two pieces I sacrificed to him. Front and back, he filled all the available white space with red-ink instructions; he typed an entirely new stanza and stapled it to the mess he’d made. He picked at each syllable and sound, judged every image.

    Sentimental. False. Breezy. Unnecessary.

    We had lots of fights after that. I began applying to graduate schools and he began glancing dismissively at the paperwork and chuckling.

    You’ll never get into any of these places.

    One morning in April I rolled over and broke up with Calvin Goodman.

    It’s not working anymore, I said, I’m in love with someone else, I’m dropping out of school, anything to get him out of my bed.

    He sat up, his eyes turning black. He pulled the blankets off of me.

Here’s a scene:

    It’s two o’clock on a Tuesday morning. Lucinda is asleep when the phone rings.

    He says, “I need to talk to you.”

    She says, “I’m sleeping.”

    “I’m stuck at an awful party. I’m surrounded by fakes and drunks. I love you. Please rescue me.”

    “No. I’m asleep. And I’m mad at you.”

    “I love you,” he pleads, “don’t be mad. I need you.”

(Advanced Poetry Workshop: Adeline)

Willa pinched me on the thigh, so I pinched her back and she kicked me in the shin. We had bruises all over our bodies. The violence occurred covertly, under the table. We battered each other out of sheer frustration and, at least for me, the need to feel pain. That was workshop.

    The Nasty Crotch Boys chuckled and mumbled, shuffled their papers and got ready to tear me apart. I tugged on my bangs—the result of too much experimenting, they were bleached-out with crunchy pink tips; they’d been cut unevenly recently by my roommate, Franny, who hadn’t meant to further mangle me. I foresaw multiple years of embarrassing outgrowth before I would again be considered presentable.

    “Go ahead, Addie,” Professor Keeley said.

    “The beginning or the end?” My voice came out as a whisper. I cringed at myself. I didn’t feel at all mentally prepared for critique.

    “Your choice.”

    I cleared my throat and read my four lines aloud: “Blue white sage smell/carts me close to/how I can’t tell/of the blue-white you.”

    Silence for a full minute. Then clearing of throats. I rubbed my eyebrows.

    Calvin Goodman opened his mouth first. “I can’t stand this bogus feminine thing. You disguise it in some pretty limited description, first of all, and second, it’s not original or interesting. It’s just, you know, he fluttered his hands, “sentimentality. Why don’t you write about anything important?”

    Sentimentality was rooted out of our poems like plague. Willa and I were the only girls in the class; there were only three in the whole writing program. We didn’t have any female professors. We noticed these details.

    Lawrence Tipton jumped in after Calvin; he dug in his ear the entire time he spoke. “There’s some decent imagery, but Cal’s right. I guess I don’t buy all this family history crap.”

    They made me want to cut myself. And they reeked. They smelled like last night, like bourbon and sex, in the middle of workshop. I wanted Professor Keeley to take his turn. At least he always said something nice, even if he didn’t consider me one of the good writers.

    Willa scooted her chair closer to the table and made a terrible screeching sound across the floor. The Nasty Crotch Boys quieted, always more willing to listen to Willa than me. She cleared her throat and tucked her limp, light brown, trouble-free hair behind her ear. When she spoke her voice was calm, almost measured.

    “Growth. Forward, not back. Not history. Get it, fellas?”

    Calvin snorted. “Your precious insights into your friend’s childhood in some Midwestern mall town don’t warrant our attention, do they? This is a fluff piece about the fucking garden in Addie’s backyard when she was wee. Why are we wasting so much time on it?”

    My head was full of cement.

    “The language bothers me,” he continued. “All those rhymes.” He stroked his goatee while he critiqued. He reminded me of a truck driver, or Satan.

    “It’s in form, freak!” Willa shouted. She was never able to remain calm in workshop. “That’s not what I meant,” Willa said, but Calvin didn’t let her finish.

    “It’s a pretty little tear-jerker for the ladies,” he said sweetly.

    “I think we’re straying a bit,” said Professor Keeley. “Since Addie has given us something in form, for which I applaud her effort, why don’t we address the rhyme scheme? Addie has a good sense for internal rhymes and half rhymes—”

    My cheeks went hot with his praise, but I blushed too soon.

    “It does seem, however, that the word choices could be more…inspired.”

    “It sounds like Mother Goose,” Calvin snorted.

    “All right, now,” said Professor Keeley.

    And then Lawrence was up, with his poem about getting laid in a bar bathroom. He read four lines aloud: “Bourbon blisters, burns through/her skirt sliding over, no panties / so sliding, stopping. I see through / her bourbon mind, blur her edges.”

    “Dude,” Calvin said, “I could feel the burning. Very strong voice.”

    I flinched, anticipating a pinch from Willa, but she wasn’t paying attention anymore. She’d zoned out—she was writing in her notebook, humming softly. I wanted to be able to tune them out, but I never could.

    It wasn’t as if I wanted to go to their house, drink with them, listen to them talk and talk, kiss them if they wanted to kiss me. It was just something I did.

Here’s a scene:

    Lucinda goes out in the middle of the night to pick up Calvin from a party. He said he was stuck. He begged her to come.

    She follows his directions, drives all the way across town, and pulls up at a loud house. He is standing on the front lawn with two girls she’s never seen before. She honks the horn; the three of them look at her and laugh.

    She rolls down the window and honks again. “Calvin,” she calls, “get in the car.”

    “Why do you keep following me?” he shouts. “I can’t get rid of this crazy bitch,” he says for all the world to hear. “I’ve never even talked to her, but she writes me all these crazy letters and shows up wherever I go. She’s a total stalker.”

    “Get in the car, Calvin,” Lucinda says.

    He yells joyously, not sounding the least bit like someone who loves her. “If you don’t leave me alone, I’m going to get a restraining order!”

(After Class: Willa)

Addie and I met for coffee on the Quad once a week after workshop to discuss our educational futures and watch the sunset, which was a far-too-easy metaphor.

    Addie was vibrating. She attempted to light a cigarette and hold onto her coffee at the same time; she didn’t manage it and scalded her hands. “Ow! God—fuck!” She sank onto the grass, cursing and muttering, trying to get herself organized. She managed to dump the contents of her backpack onto the ground, which sent her scurrying around shoving notebooks, textbooks, and an amazing variety of badly chewed pens back in.

    I sat on the grass, smoking and looking at the horizon, pretending not to notice her clumsy, frenetic actions. She’d had a bad afternoon. I couldn’t blame her for acting like a spaz.

    “So what the fuck was that?” she asked, ready to begin our conversation. “They trash my poem for eight minutes and worship Lawrence for thirty? What can I cling to? That fucking Lawrence thought I had some nice imagery? Which he didn’t bother to write down, of course, or like give me my poem back or anything, so…”

    “You got screwed,” I said. It was early spring and as the day faded to twilight, I felt burdened with a sadness I didn’t know how to fix. “All I know is that I cannot listen to another poetic list of bourbon brands. I will shoot Calvin in the fucking eye. And why do they all talk the same? Do they intend to sound like assholes every time they open their mouths? Fuck—drinking, fast women, jazz and the blues. The destructive forces of nature, the loss of a father.”

    Addie giggled. “Crashing fast cars, escaping in fast cars, the loss of fast cars.”

    “I seriously think we have a legitimate conflict of interest to present to the dean or the president or whoever it is that listens to these kinds of complaints,” I said. “How can they be allowed to all live in the same gross house together and then all be in the same workshop?”

    Addie wrinkled her nose. “And have sex with all the same girls.”

    “Nasty. It’s a cult and Calvin’s their leader.” I laughed maniacally, warming up to the game. “What the hell is it about him, anyway? Why does everyone except us think he’s, like, God?”

    “He’s hot?” Addie suggested.

    “Whatever. I hate the way they all fawn over him and think he’s so damn talented. I wish Keeley would do something.”

    Addie cracked her knuckles and sipped her coffee. “I don’t think he notices. Or he might actually like them better than us.”

    It took a tremendous effort not to roll my eyes at her. “Why do they think they need to be drunk to write? It smelled like Milwaukee in there.”

    “They got wasted last night.”

    I put down my coffee. “Why do you know so much? I know Franny Mack has to go there, but you don’t. I mean, can’t we just agree that if you’re dating Calvin Goodman, you’re probably a little simple?”

    “Franny’s not simple,” Addie said, “she’s deluded. Hey, see that girl over there?” She pointed at Lucinda, sitting under a tree. “Do you think she’s pretty?”

    “Freshman Hottie?” I snickered, but I wasn’t dismissing it. Lucinda was the only other girl in the writing program, and guys went after her in a way I’d never personally experienced. I didn’t resemble Lucinda in any way, shape, or form—“pretty” didn’t come close to doing her justice. Ethereal was better. She didn’t just look like a poet; she looked as though she were made of poetry, shrouded in translucent silk and mesh, like her insides were sewn from verse.

    “She’s a sophomore now,” Addie clarified, “and Calvin sleeps with her. I mean, he fucks campus, but she’s the main one.”

    “Then why doesn’t Franny break up with him?” I didn’t have time for girls like that. Addie and I were only friends because of workshop.

    “He can be nice, sometimes. And sometimes it’s fun there. At their house.”

    I didn’t care who Addie thought was hot, and I didn’t know Franny Mack well enough to care how Calvin treated her, but the whole idea that Addie could hang out with them one night and berate them with me the next, over and over and over again, was unfathomable. “You shouldn’t traipse so willingly into enemy territory.”

    “Franny’s my roommate! She likes me to go with her because I know all his friends better than she does.”

    “But even I know he’s cheated on her a thousand times. Not only do I not understand—I refuse to.”

    “It’s not like he does anything in front of her.”

    “Of course not. That would subvert his mission of total mind control.”

    Addie shot me a wry look I hadn’t known her capable of. “Trust me,” she said, “no one keeps Calvin Goodman’s sex life a secret. We tell her everything we hear until she gets pissed. When Cal’s with Franny, he treats her like a princess. But, yeah…there are always tons of random girls there.”

    “What’s it like?” I hated that I wanted to know the details, as if knowing meant something to me, when all I wanted to care about was the sanctity of workshop.

    “The guys drink Jim Beam out of coffee mugs and quote Ginsberg. Freshmen girls sit around smoking joints and giggling, thinking they’re hanging around with the coolest boys in school. Franny and I sit in the corner and glare. Or we cook dinner.”

    “How very Columbia University in the fifties. We should iron our hair and wear black turtlenecks.” I dumped my coffee in the grass, exhausted and confused because I actually was wearing a black turtleneck. Addie wore me out. We had the same conversations every week—she just didn’t get it. Like her poem. It was okay; all her stuff was okay, but it never went any further. She left herself open to them because she didn’t do the work.

    “It’s only two months until he graduates,” Addie said. “We’ll have a whole last year without him and everything will be different.”

    “Not good enough,” I said, deciding to enjoy myself. “I want him gone today. Let’s kill him.”

    “We could poison his cigarettes,’” Addie suggested. “Or behead him on the Quad!”

    “Yes!” I agreed. “Public shaming. He’ll be humiliated into leaving and we won’t go to jail. No—I know! We should call all the female poets we can think of and invite them to come here so we can gather around him in a big feminine circle and point and laugh and read his own stupid poems back to him until he begs us to kill him!”

    “Or,” Addie said, “we could give in and suck all their dicks because then they’d respect us.”   

    I kicked her in the thigh. “What the fuck are you saying? No blowjobs! That’s not respect, it’s—”

    “Don’t look now,” Addie said.

    “For fuck’s sake.” Calvin and Franny Mack approached from across the Quad. They joined us on the grass without waiting for an invitation.

    “What’s up?” Franny asked after hugging Addie. Girls who hugged all the time pissed me off.

    “Just talking,” said Addie.

    I pulled up a handful of grass. “We’re stockpiling weapons for the all-girl militia. You better watch out, Calvin.”

    “Are you still upset?” He reached out and stroked Addie’s cheek and I almost bit him. Addie only shrugged. “Well,” he said, as if asked to sympathize, “it is hard for you, in the department.”

    “It’s pretty fucking male-dominated,” I said.

    “I don’t think that’s the problem.” He stroked his goatee. “There just aren’t that many strong woman poets out there, so you have nothing to go on. I can feel your struggle in every poem.”

    “Denise Levertov!” I shouted, “Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham, Brenda Hillman, Julia Alvarez, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück.”

    “Jorie’s okay,” he said, “but you just named the whole list. And half of them are dead or wrote about nothing to begin with.” He sucked in a breath, readying himself for some final point. “Female poetry just isn’t very deep. It’s…lacking.”

    “Lacking?” Addie and Franny said together.

    “Female poetry?” I cried. “Why do you talk like that?”

    “Cal, sweetie,” muttered Franny, “you’re being a pig.”

    He patted her on the knee and smiled. “First of all, male poets outnumber female poets ten to one. You can’t debate this. And two—Willa and Addie know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s never been a strong woman poet in the department. Well, except for my ex-girlfriend, Julia Garrity. She had one almost-great poem her senior year. I mean, it won an award, but small weaknesses were obvious.” He patted Franny’s knee again and sighed, took on a dreamy expression I knew preceded a revelation from the King of All Poets. “I wish there were more girls like Julia. I really loved her.”

    He was such an ass. If Addie thought this was Calvin treating Franny like a princess, there was no reason to try talking to her about anything real ever again. I stood up, unable to take another second.

    “Are you leaving us, Willa?” Calvin asked, feigning innocence.

    I stepped back, stumbling and not caring, desperate for distance. “Drop out,” I pleaded. “Please? Just get the fuck out of our lives as soon as possible?”


He unloads his stories,

graphs his guilt upon my skin.

I listen and he listens

to himself talk. I ask

him nothing and

tell him nothing.

    She would never beg him to choose.    

    She is pushing the edge of something sacred.

    She is writing it down.

    She could say she is in love

    and it would be the truth.

There are a number of truths.

(A Night Like All Other Nights: Franny)

Did you ever have to read The Good Earth in high school? I read it in tenth grade, or most of it. Actually, I had to pretend I was sick so I could stay home and finish it the day before the test, and I still had to skip the last few chapters. There are so many things in my life I wish I hadn’t skipped. Do you ever feel that way?

    So I didn’t finish the book! You didn’t even read it, so fuck off.
    It’s about this Chinese family, and in the part I remember, the son is grown and married and he and his wife live with his very traditional father. This is a problem because the son wants a glamorous life—he wants to be rich, make money and fit in with Chinese society, but this flies in the face of everything his father believes in.

    One day, the father gets sick and falls into some kind of stupor, like a waking coma, like he’s not so much asleep as in a daze. He stays like this for a really long time, so the son does all these things his father wouldn’t approve of. He gets rich, refurnishes the house, and since it’s fashionable, he gets a concubine.

    His wife isn’t too happy about that, but there isn’t anything she can do.

    Anyway, the father finally wakes up. All of a sudden he’s aware again, and he wanders around the house rediscovering things. He happens upon the concubine and completely freaks out. “There’s a whore in the house!” he screams. “There’s a harlot in our house! Get her out!”

    I totally laughed at that for days. I thought it was hilarious, the image of this little old sleepy Chinese man screaming about harlots. I didn’t understand then. Maybe I was too young. Because I’ve been thinking about that book a lot lately, and I don’t think it’s funny at all now.

    No, see, I have a point. See, at first I thought the roles were easy to assign. Obviously, Lucinda’s the concubine. The whore. That’s what she is, so don’t look at me. I can’t stand it when you look at me that way. But I can see why you’re squirming, because I certainly had trouble with the concept. A mistress? Seriously? You’re twenty-three years old. And you try to pass it off like you’re Jack fucking Kerouac, like the things you do will lead you to fame and greatness.

    Maybe they will. How do I know?

    I wanted that for you once. I think that’s what made it a little okay, and a lot sexy. But I am a fool. All you have to do is breathe near me and I’m covered in goose-bumps.

    My friends told me about Lucinda a long time ago.

    So what does that make me? The betrayed wife? Or the father suddenly coming to his senses?

    I actually thought I hated you enough to forget you last Christmas. I gave you that painting as a gift, you dick—how could you critique it like that? I’m not in your fucking poetry workshop. But it’s not like you respect anyone’s art, anyway.

    And on New Year’s Day, when I fixed the painting how you wanted, I knew it was useless. I lay awake nights in my parents’ house, wishing you were there with me.

    My friends have given up on me, by the way.

    Do you know how awful that feels? They tell me all the stories about you and your gross roommates, that lair. When the clock strikes midnight, do you just pick one? Club her on the head and toss her over your shoulder, caveman her down the hall? I’ve tried to imagine it, but all I can picture is bad seventies porn. Sideburns and a boom-chick-a-boom soundtrack.

    That part is barely real to me. And if you were discreet, I wouldn’t know anything at all. But I do. So the worst part, Calvin, is that I have to see them. You’ve cheated on me like a psychopath. Every girl I see on campus, on my way to class, at the library, wherever—every single girl might have slept with you. Everyone I look at is suspect. I have to question everything and my friends won’t shut up and it’s depressing and tiring and I hate it. I hate everyone at this point.

    You’ve been quiet for a while.

    I would like to believe that for once, you’re actually listening. But I am so easy to fool. I should have listened.

    I’m the whore. I’m the wife and I’m the father. I’m the son, trying to please everybody and still get what I want.

    You? You’re no one.

    No one could ever write about you.

Here’s a scene:

    Calvin and Lucinda twist on the bed, blankets on the floor, lights off. He jerks down her stockings and ties them around her wrists, ties her wrists behind her head. Not too tight. She knows he knows that she’s just getting over being mad at him, and if he ties her too tight she might get upset all over again. He removes her panties but leaves her bra in place. He kisses her stomach.

    “Be right back,” he whispers.

    She’s alone, tied in the dark, waiting while he searches the house for a condom. She wishes he’d waited until he returned to tie her up; the door isn’t locked which means at any second a houseful of stoned and drunk idiots could stumble in and see her this way. She wonders what this will be later, when she writes about it or thinks about it or thinks about writing about it. She would leave him if she could.

    The skin on her stomach prickles in a breeze from the open window. The stockings at her wrists prevent her from following her body’s instinct to wrap her arms around herself. It’s winter. Calvin is in constant need of fresh air. His room is always freezing.

    She doesn’t like his room. In the day, the walls are lined by books bought with stolen funds from the Poetry Society, of which he is president. He was supposed to buy books for the student lounge, but he said he deserved them for himself. The books are lined up evenly with the edges of the shelves, arranged in some order he never allows her to disturb. He says she’ll get fingerprints on the pages.

Jennifer Levin is originally from Illinois. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review and THE Magazine. She holds a BA in creative writing from the College of Santa Fe, where she works as the editorial director in the marketing department. She lives in Santa Fe with a man and a small dog.

Back to Freight Stories No. 3


Jennifer Levin