Her job was taking other people’s prose and coaxing
it to coherency. Mine was coaching
young people to translate life experience
to prose. But our own story made no sense
to me and twisted up whenever I tried
writing it. On the bus ride
to her building, I listened to Liz Phair,
Irma Thomas, and an outfit from Montclair
that she and I both loved, of a genre
halfway between emo and Americana,
like the lovechild of Bright Eyes and Loretta Lynn.
So much from that time is still so redolent
of nervousness and sex—her sandalwood cologne
and reading H.D. on her phone,
and crying in the mezzanine
at BAM and on a bench in Fort Greene
Park, and the sticky Ottolenghi cake we made (“no butter”),
and juices from an app. Rebecca West. The comforter
we patched to stop it drowning us
in goose-down every night. Soylent. Cunnilingus.
Saraghina, before all the Sturm und Drang.
The quaver in her voice when she first sang
the song that afterward became
the anthem of our romance, named
after a book of letters named after a fervid,
almost painful shade of red.
That fall, I’d rush out of her bed to catch
the seven o’clock train to the college
I taught composition at—
supporting claims, active voice, citation format.
The difference between summary and analysis
was a large part of the syllabus,
so much so you could say the line between
them was the joist on which the whole semester leaned.
I think I really liked the teaching,
with its emphasis on logic and “slow reading:”
another cornerstone of the curriculum
but also a constraint I’d always suffered from,
having no other choice. Before that, I had only
ever taught poetry
(which had no claim to usefulness, alas—
though it allowed me to give out more As),
and in my current role felt duty-bound
to teach my students everything I wished I’d found
out about at their age: Evidence
must precede argument. Verbs are the heaviest
lifters. Change is constant and inexorable.
The Oxford comma isn’t really optional.
You will fall in love. The relationship
will end, though not at the same instant
as the love. Some version of this will continue,
maybe forever, happening to you.
Restate your thesis in the final paragraph.
You can fuck up and still be fine—remember that.
Always include a bibliography.
Don’t promise your life to anybody.
Now and then, I’d get the strange impression
that she was me. A stab of chthonic recognition
would set off a little spasm in my eye.
Sometimes from far away I’d spy
her slanted walk or messy hair and every muscle
in my body would contract. At school,
while my students bent over their exams,
I’d scroll through photos on her Instagram,
the fabric growing damp between my legs
where her finger liked to press
itself inside me like a key. An undiscovered
ancestor. An eidolon. An isomer.
And an uncanny sense of unity,
to love in her what had always seemed deformity
in me. To yield. To feel the snugness of the fit.
To turn the lock. To hear the little click.
Cold, ecstatic—walking through the breezeway
to the perfume shop where I was a habitué
that year, which sold fragrances with biomes as their names,
insisting that the body was a place
where events occurred, rather than a thing
to which they happened (to say nothing
of the cause of such events)—and buying one
that advertised itself as woodland—“bosky,” “sylvan,”
some tree-ish word—and name-dropped Judith Butler on the label,
misting my nape with it and feeling sexual
and unashamed, like a beautiful deciduous slut
of language . . . Oh, I know how ridiculous what
it was I thought in that moment—I am my own husband—
but I couldn’t stop, I felt that way: bonded
to myself by my authority alone.
No one beside me. No one on the phone.
And going home, writing what I’d seen and heard,
adding detail—deepening the hue—switching a word
to change or nix a sound, feeling my tongue exult
in flights by which experience might vault
beyond the mind, become an externality . . .
Like cells, it’s still miraculous to me.
Love found me twice, at once. If it never
happens again I’ll still be luckier
than the moon. Breathing, typing these lines,
texting a friend, checking the time,
thinking it wouldn’t always be like this,
but still, sometimes, it was. It is.
Then I was the only person in my bed,
though other people’s words ran through my head
and kept me company. One was Vivian Gornick,
who demanded: Put romantic
love at the center of a novel today,
and who could be persuaded
that in its pursuit the characters are
going to get to something large?
She argued that in modern life
we buy neither the plotline of the happy wife
nor the one where women “self-discover,”
so to speak, by dint of some new lover—
we’re too atomized, our institutions too
clearly corrupt. Everything we do
we think we have to do ourselves. But she
was speaking about prose, and the theory
that characters should actualize,
rather than transform as many times
as time allows, as is the case in verse,
where there are barely any characters
at all. In poetry then, let me say that love
has been, above all things, the engine of
self-knowledge in my life—and even after everything
is still what makes the rest worth suffering.
Excerpted from COUPLETS: A Love Story. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2023 by Maggie Millner. All rights reserved.