Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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— Braunschweig, West Germany
Between dances Angelika & I sat at the bar.
The women’s hair glinted like newly minted
copper coins. The men were just as beautiful.
I caught the scene twice in her lenses,
almost as if I were standing in a snow-drenched street
in front of an appliance store
that was going out of business.
It was a matter of pride to me then
to feel more deeply
desperate than everybody else.
So while I watched this reasonably
attractive woman sip her wine,
I sipped a Helles and tried to hide
from myself what I was thinking.
For a while it was always
like this, walking from one bar to the next
in the sempiternal rain & gloom
like a character in some third-rate Euro-drama.
If I’d had any sense I would’ve stayed
in my little rented room and masturbated.
You’re probably thinking I’m leaving out
the good parts, and I am.
Even when something good happened,
it never seemed to be happening
to me. And it was over so quickly.
Like riding the streetcar home
after too many beers and passing
a brightly lit window with lace curtains
and a desert plant on the sill.
The walls would be covered with flowered paper
and the room empty except for the attractive furniture.
I was sure the people who lived there
were hiding from me,
standing in the kitchen until I’d ridden by.
Like I said, I was miserable
in an enjoyably self-contained
sort of way. That’s why dancing
was so dangerous, all that smoke & sweat.
I tried to copy the other dancers’ moves.
My hips were the problem. They wouldn’t
flex or twist or pivot or tilt or yaw
or any of those absently erotic motions
that seemed to come so easily to others.
And making it worse was the mirror
covering one wall of the dance floor.
I couldn’t tear my eyes from the horror —
an Erector Set derrick veering wildly
just before it topples.
That night sitting at the bar
watching my face advance & retreat
in Angelika’s Coke-bottle specs,
I realized something unpleasant
about myself. I used to think I had,
you know, aspirations, but at that moment
in that crowd of numbingly perfect strangers,
all I wanted from life was for this legally blind
grade-school teacher to touch me.
But after we touched, I wanted more.
Which is why I followed her home
and asked to be invited in
and then declared myself too drunk
to walk out the door and back through
the rain-slick streets to my room.
And why I demanded to sleep with her.
Well, actually, I asked.
Now, I know this sounds bad,
but she was a friend of a friend
and I’d known her a couple of weeks already
and we’d even hung out once or twice
(nobody called it dating),
so it was more embarrassing than bad.
But embarrassment is often as good
for the soul as unmitigated wickedness.
At least, I’d like to think so.
So anyway I stayed; she didn’t kick me out.
Which she could’ve — she was almost
a married woman, her boyfriend
was off working in a plant in the Ruhr —
so I slept in their living room on their
bright orange naugahyde couch.
Or tried to. After half an hour
squirming on that airport-ready convenience,
I walked into her room and asked
if I might lie beside her,
so great was my longing and sadness,
and she said yes, a gift of daring.
So we lay, backs to one another
in her narrow German bed, touching hips
until my breathing eased and we both slept
innocent as the long-married.