Sometimes, when it's quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs. With an hour and a half commute to Kalamazoo three times a week, I have more than enough time to think about those things—plenty of time to enjoy my coffee—well, as much as you can really enjoy coffee while you’re driving— more than enough time to smoke four cigarettes that I’d swear on a stack of Shakespeare to my wife I’ve given up; it’s enough time to listen to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and at least part of A Saucerful of Secrets or The Madcap Laughs, depending on the mood of my morning. Even though it’s counterintuitive, on dark and dreary days, I like to hear “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. On sunnier days, I want to hear “Dark Globe”. It makes no sense, but then again, when you expect a crazy bastard like Syd Barrett to make sense, you’ve got bigger problems to contend with than what song matches the weather or your mood.
In the wintertime, when class is out for a few weeks and I have time to drive around aimlessly, on self-prompted errands I don’t have a pressing need to run, I like to drive through the bumpy roads of the wooded areas, places I probably shouldn’t be driving, even though my truck has snow tires and I don’t drive places where I think I might get stuck—I like to drive around, smoking the cigarettes that I’m sure Gwynn knows I’m still smoking, I like to park underneath trees and watch icicles hanging off the corner of the roofs of the houses of strangers, melting as the sun comes up and gets hotter. I love to listen to “Goldenhair” on repeat, marveling at how a nutter like Syd Barrett managed to rip off James Joyce and one-up the man with his own words. That’s how good the song is. There’s just this soft, slow beauty to it; tragic almost, like watching icicles melt and then crack off, dropping from the eaves of some stranger’s roof. Just a tinkle of yielding ice, a little high pitched, but so soft and delicate at the end of the song, as its last notes evaporate against the sun. Sometimes, I write the beginnings to stories that I’ll never write down in my head, just compose them line by line and let them melt into the sun, evaporated letters and words that only held a form for a moment as I smoked and listened to the music of the time before I lived in Cedar Springs. So it’s no surprise that it’s during the wintertime that I find somewhere quiet to park, take the time to really enjoy my coffee and cigarette, listen to “Goldenhair”, and think about those lost years before I came to Cedar Springs. They’re not years of a life I even want to talk about to Gwynn; those aren’t years she needs to obsess about, and she would, because she loves me, and because no woman is crazier than a lady poet, and of course, that’s the only kind I wanted to marry.
Before Gwynn, before the job at Western Michigan, before Cedar Springs, even—there’s the lost years, and before those, there’s the black days, and somewhere in between those two is Karen and her inky black hair, tangled in knots from God knows how long we spent holed up in a motel room with our clothes in a sweaty pile on the floor and as much dilaudid as we could manage to score, four bottles of cheap red wine, a few joints, a bag full of bennies and a typewriter. We were students; she was a lady poet, naturally, because that’s the only kind I like—and she was brilliant and terrible, like a perfect storm of all the parts of a woman that I was still putting way up high on a pedestal back then. We had the brilliant idea one night that we were going to spend a glorious weekend fucking and reveling in Bacchanalian excess, writing stories and poetry in a golden spurt of psychic orgasm. We got a good start, then something went wrong, she dose dumped because of the wine and the bennies, and when she fell asleep after we finished the first of what were supposed to be dozens of ecstatic couplings, I couldn’t get her to wake back up. Or breathe.
I wrapped her in a bedsheet and raced her to the emergency room. I was so scared and fucked up still that I didn’t even realize I’d pissed myself until I was handcuffed and in a holding cell. She died somewhere along the stretch of asphalt between the Thunderbird Inn Motel and the Sinai Grace ER. I didn’t know her last name when I checked her in; she was still Karen from my comp class, who I could barely believe I’d managed to get into bed. They went easy on me—easier than probably they should have—because I was young, and stupid, and so was she, and I’d tried to do the right thing by getting her to the hospital, instead of just leaving her at the motel. I had five years to think about it, while everyone else graduated and started careers and gave up their dreams or had kids, or whatever everybody else did after they didn’t make a mistake that took their life on a sharp turn in the direction that it was never supposed to head. I went back to school. I kept going to school, and I met Gwynn when I took her Intermediate Poetics: Theory and Practice seminar in the last semester before I graduated and started teaching myself, in the department that she helped me to get a job in.
In the winter, I think about those inky knots of Karen’s hair against the pillowcase, and how her cheeks, which were always pale, matched the washed-out fabric as I tried to slap her awake. It’s one of the things that comes back, time after time, that I’ll write all around but never spit out—because that image, no matter how terrible, is also beautiful in the way of broken things, and its mine. It’s what I think about, when I try to teach the technique of describing and imagery to my classes. There are some pictures that should be painted with Impressionism instead of Realism, because sometimes, the painter needs to respect the privacy of their muse. On those mornings, the ones where I’m thinking, and driving, and smoking and parking, I’m also thinking about the things they’ll be writing, and what I’ll be reading and learning from them, too. Before I drive back home, I wipe down the dashboard with Armorall, and Febreze the seats just a little bit, to hide the lie that I know Gywnn is aware of, but isn’t going to call me out on. I don’t want to rub her face in it, so the cleaning up is more an act of respect than of contrition. After all, she’s the one who wrote on my stories in wild red ink, telling me that there were some images that should look more like Manet than Chuck Close.
I drive back to her, with swirls of James Joyce and Nora curling into my ears by way of a man whose music should have lost its tonal value to me on a night I hate to remember but can never stop thinking about. I drive back to my Gwynn, who never tells me that I taste like cigarettes when I pull her into my arms to kiss her, folding her narrow waist into the space between us, filling my one hand with the solid curve of her ass while the other unwinds the Nordic coil of her bun, sending the waist-length mass of her golden hair spilling over her shoulders and down her back, out the windows and into the merry air she breathes into my lungs.