In another month, the semester will be winding down and my students at Lenoir-Rhyne University will give a public reading of their work. It has to be during the day, so as to not exclude those with jobs; I think we're going to hijack our last class of the semester. That allows those within driving distance to invite their parents to attend, and I want that for them. Some of my students come from conservative families--more than one has a preacher for a father--for whom poetry is not part of the daily dialogue. Most are on their way to more practical jobs in sociology, teaching, or law.
The first time my father heard me read poetry at the University of Virginia, there was snow on the ground. I crouched in the passenger seat of his 1987 Chrysler LeBaron, blowing on my bare hands, waiting for the heat to start working. I hated that car. The door lacked a secondary brace to hold it open, invariably slamming shut on my calf before I'd fully sat down. The dashboard display was digital and tended to short out. He'd bought it for $1000 off the street. He'd bought it so he could lend me the safer, plusher Grand Marquis to make my grocery runs and highway drives.
Did my father feel nostalgic, returning to Grounds? He'd attended UVA for a year, part of the winding path through several colleges and Army service. He'd been part of a drama production that staged T.S. Eliots "Murder in the Cathedral" in the chapel.
Did we eat dinner beforehand on The Corner? I can't remember, though I can tell you what I ate if we did. We went to Michael's Bistro and I ordered the Thai chicken curry with apricot chutney and basmati rice. This was in the earliest days of my expeditions to restaurants. I found the one dish that was Sandra-friendly, and I stuck to it.
The reading took place in a student lounge I had never been to, over in the heart of New Dorms. The space was modest--a corner of bare floor and a standing mic were all that delineated the stage from the audience, which was a cluster of stackable chairs. The faces in the crowd were mostly unfamiliar, walk-ins who'd found the ping-pong tables were taken. None of my friends had trekked over from Brown College on such a cold night. I saw one person I vaguely recognized as an editor for one of the literary magazines on grounds. My name was called, and I took a deep breath.
I read two poems I had written in my workshop with Debra Nystrom. One was about a crash that had taken place at an intersection near our home in Vienna, where a station wagon had been totaled, killing a mother and all four children she drove for her carpool. The other was this:
After he rapes her, he goes by the 7-11.
His tennis shoes squeak on the linoleum tile;
he ducks a little, embarrassed, cursing the rain,
picking up a Diet Coke, rubbing at a stain that
lingers on his jean jacket, diving deep into his right pocket,
bringing out a mass of moist matted lint and little things: his wedding ring,
which he puts back on, a ticket stub, a wad from which he unfurls
a ten dollar bill. Smiling, he takes his change and walks out,
driving home in a mud-spattered Honda, moving on but,
shivering, she has yet to move.
Was my voice shaky? Probably. I know my hands were. I instantly regretted my choices, wishing I'd chosen something funny or at least happy. But I'd chosen what I thought were my best poems. I wanted to impress him.
My dad drove two hours to Charlottesville to hear me read five minutes' worth of poetry. Maybe he knew, even then, that he would not be able to convince me to go into law or psychology or politics or any of the thousand important fields he believed I could succeed in. He listened to his eldest daughter as she followed a rapist to a convenience store. He clapped the loudest of anyone. Then he drove back to DC.