Torment

By Daisy Fried Daisy Fried
“I fucked up bad”: Justin cracks his neck,
talking to nobody. Fifteen responsible children,
final semester college seniors, bloodshot,
collars undone, gorgeously exhausted,
return from Wall Street interviews
in attitudes of surrender on the Dinky—
the one-car commuter train connecting
Princeton to the New York line. Panic-sweat
sheens their faces. Justin hasn’t seen me yet.
“Something’s fucked with my tie.” He’s right.
I see his future, the weight he’ll gain
first in his face, then gut and ass, the look
of bad luck he’ll haunt his bad jobs with.
He tears off the tie. Elephants on it.

Fatigue, swollen ankles, the midwife said.
The worst discomforts of pregnancy.
I wrote those down. But she’s wrong:
self-pity. Strange dreams, she said.
No dreams. Discarded newspapers—
business section, money, real estate, auto—
sift apart to quartos and folios underfoot.
“Shut up, Justin,” says the girl across from him.
I hardly recognize Brianna in her interview hair.
She scratches her face, fingers trembling
from the day’s aftershocks. “I wanted,”
she counts on her fingers, performing
the sitcom of her tragedy, “Tribeca loft,
expense account, designer clothes so haute
they don’t look it, my very own Tesla, summer
home in the Hamptons I’m too busy to use.”
“You wanted money,” says Justin.
Brianna: “It went down with the towers.”

I spent my lopsided day lifting my belly
back towards center, interviewing for adjunct jobs.
There’s a half-moon in half-clouds
up over the tracks. Justin spreads
over three seats, texts with his thumbs,
talks: “The Lehman Brothers guy asks me,
Did you ever sell anything? Sell me a bottle of water.
I’m like fu-uck. To say something I say
‘Why do you like water?’ He says...”
Justin fixes a diamond stud back in his ear.
“They’ll let me know.” Fifteen responsible children
sigh in disappointed relief. Somebody they know
didn’t get the job they didn’t get. I sleep. Wake.
Beautiful clothes spread bodiless before me!
Tailored black suits and skirts, silk ties,
ephemera of sheer and filmy stockings
deflated over seat backs. Brianna looks around,
no conductor coming, squats to peel off,
in one motion, skirt, hose, underpants, step
butt-naked into soft chino shorts I’ll never
be able to afford. “Nervous crotch sweat,” she says.

I keep trying to look not-quite-40
in a different way than I’m not-quite-40.
The woman interviewer looked at my belly.
“As a new mother would you have time to be
literary mama to your students?” So I could sue
when they don’t hire me for the job I don’t want.
Justin looks up from his iPhone: “Soon-Ji
got three offers. Fuck.” He flips the curl
his mother’s fingers crimped, first day of pre-K
into his four-year-old forelock. “He’s guessing
he’ll go with Goldman Sachs.” Brianna grabs her neck
in living garrote. She high-fives anybody
she can reach in gloomy delight. She gobbles
snack-pack popcorn, licks her fingers; bits drop
yellow from her lips. “My mom will go crazy
Deutsche Bank didn’t offer.” She sees me.
“I didn’t realize that was you with your hair up.
Look, Just.” She high-fives me. “It’s Professor.”

Is Brianna crying? “Don’t call me Professor,”
I say, dozens of times a semester. “I’m a writer,
not a teacher.” Justin grabs a Norton Anthology
out of his five-hundred-dollar briefcase. “Fuck.
What are we supposed to read for tomorrow?”
“Prufrock, dummy,” Brianna says. “You’re
a good professor.” She condescends through tears.
“Poor baby,” mocks Justin, slumping so low
in the seat I only see his shoe soles on the arm rest.
The train swooshes through suburban tracts.
The moon gets smaller. Brianna arrives
mornings to workshop in a fake hurry
and the sweats she slept in, probably rolls back
in bed after. She hands out slight, surprising poems,
apologizes, sips cardboard-container coffee
in a recyclable sleeve, turns her BlackBerry to vibrate.
It moans like indigestion through class.

I hand her one of my self-pity tissues. My ankles
are slim. Brianna hates her name. “So tacky.
I’d be a Kelly if I were twenty years older.”
I’d like to be able to hate her. I’m turning
into my Favorite Teachers—so kind,
so industrious, so interested and interesting.
“Sorry I’m late with my portfolio,” she says
through sniffles. She dabs her lip. “I had to prepare for,”
a breath, “interviews.” A few times a semester
I say “It’s only poetry.” Gumbleeds! nosebleeds!
the midwife predicted, and it’s true, my Kleenexes
are measled with blood, weird hairs, stretch marks,
frequent catnaps, hip joints so loose you must
take care walking. The fetus dabs its fingers
in the sponge of me, flails. At the second class,
Brianna said, “My mom would go crazy.
I can’t read all these sex poems. We’re Christian.”
I said, “Poems should be about life,
part of life is sex.” Two kids wrote that down
in notebooks. One was Justin. “But skip
any reading that makes you uncomfortable.”
Next week, Brianna wrote about hanging
onto stall walls in her residence hall bathroom,
fucking Princeton boys one by one.
Justin’s poem was “Torment,” seven pages long.

Favorite Teachers write poems about students!
Reading them is like listening to whores
talk about clients; however contemptuous they sound,
everybody knows who’s selling, who’s buying.
I’d like to be able to like them. I sleep. Wake.
“Justin’s your boyfriend?” I whisper to Brianna.
My cell phone rings, screen says it’s my husband.
If I answer, I’ll cry. Voice mail takes it.
“God no,” says Brianna. “We hate each other,
right, Just? Never date the competition,
you destroy your luck. Besides.” She starts
morosely high-fiving again. “I’m a virgin.”
Justin laughs. She wraps her hair around her face
to smell it. “I pay attention in class.
Professor Krugman, he’s a real professor.”
She points at a headline I just kicked. Housing
Upturn Predicted. “He says housing increases
don’t matter in the long run. It’s a blip,
if it’s even a blip. If I don’t get a job,
it’s Wharton mba. Or teach English in Japan.
But this girl on my floor told me Asian girls
depilate their whole bodies, even their arms.
I can’t be the hairiest person in my life.”

What will I do next year without the job
I don’t want? I sleep. “Hey!” says Brianna.
“I could go back to Spain, smoke Ducados
in okupa cafes. Be a poet!
Sorry.” Laughs herself out of last tears
at the idea. “I didn’t mean to get all
Sylvia Plathy on you. Anyway, my trust fund
is safe. Knock plastic.” She reaches to rap the tie
Justin hung over the seat. I say, “In Madrid
workers smoke Ducados. Reds are for anarchista
Eurotrash wannabes.” Brianna lips the cigarette
she’ll light on the platform. “I’ll have my portfolio
next week, promise.” All semester she’s revised
following precisely, appallingly, my suggestions.
She says “Think of me as raw talent wasted.”
I’m pissed I think of her at all. Justin again,
talking at no one: “Merrill Lynch says
what interests you in our company? I’m amped.
I’m whipped. I’m like ‘Um, I heard you were hiring?’
Nah, I’m giving him eight good reasons.
He cuts me off...” The train slows, surceases
with a hiss. Fifteen responsible children
stand in the aisle. Jizz, jess, fuck, markered
on seats by younger, irresponsible children.

Off the train, Justin jumps into a low Mazda coupe,
yellow as Dick Tracy’s hat, parked unticketed
at an expired meter, open to the rain. I autodial:
“I’m at the station. Don’t come, I need the walk.”
Brianna: “Where’s Soon-Ji anyway? Flying his plane back?
God, what’ll we do if nobody wants us?”
Justin: “Soon-Ji will fucking keep us I guess.
All we have is Dad’s money.”
Brianna: “Mine’s Mom’s. Half of it gone in the crash.
But Soon-Ji is great-grandfathered in. He’ll be richer
than we’ll ever be if he never gets a job at all.”
Justin: “Professor, you hand back comments tomorrow,
right? They’re important to me.”
“Fuck you, suck-up,” Brianna says.

Sometimes I forget I’m pregnant till I walk.
Brianna vaults into the car, leans out:
“Want a ride, Professor? Cigarette?”
She puts one in my mouth, lights it
with a naked boy lighter that squirts fire
out his tiny penis. “Beer?” Tears a can
off a six-pack choke-ring, sticks it in a baggie
she pulls from Justin’s glove compartment,
pops the top, shoves it in my hand. “Now
you can’t walk home—pregnant, smoking,
carrying a beer? You’d be arrested. Anyway,
Soon-Ji is having a party. Cristal! Rappers!
He produces them and brings his stable
down from Queens. You have to come!
He was going to take your workshop,
he admires you, but took playwriting instead.”
For final relaxation in prenatal yoga, we do
our Kegels squatting in a circle, shut-eyed—
“for perineal strengthening,” the teacher said.
Then we lie on our sides, breathe in, breathe out,
bellies like dropped anchors on the floor.
Our muscles tick, smoothing, loosening.
The teacher reads an affirming poem. I tense up.

Brianna: “We always say Krugman’s one of the few
Professors we’d friend on Facebook.
But, Daisy, we’d friend you too.” Memory:
Favorite Teachers at our college house parties,
slow-dancing with us, doing lines
in our bathrooms. When are they going to grow up,
we said. I wave, walk, drop the cigarette
in the beer, the can in the trash can, relieved
to be embarrassed, triumphant, sorry. Justin
drives along beside me, Brianna rides shotgun
standing like a surfer on a breaking wave.
Justin—“Fuck”—floors it, roars past me, away.
I don’t know how to end this poem. On “Torment”
I wrote: “You may want to find a way to suggest
ironic distance between the poet and speaker.”
I couldn’t figure out what else,
to responsible children, there was to say.

Source: Poetry (March 2011).

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2011
 Daisy  Fried

Biography

Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded Poetry’s Editors Prize for Feature Article in 2009.   

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