By: Jesse Wolfe
We drove north, up the 101, toward Napa.
That day was incredibly beautiful,
like this one—maybe I confuse the two.
She looked healthier than ever: hair blown back,
cheeks flushed in the wind, eyes half visible
behind her sunglasses, talking about gratitude.
“I always resented anyone’s success,”
she said: “when my sister had her show
at the gallery (her sketch of you
was always my favorite, at Yosemite,
El Capitan behind you, your eyes
serenely blue, one tree branch in the corner
of the frame), I couldn’t look at it,
framed on the wall, with a price tag.”
I still remember that show, how she leaned
in the corner, by the tall window,
studying the curve of her fingernails.
I called her on that once: how she used it
to escape from what she couldn’t control.
We were having dinner at the Cuban place.
She stormed from the table, without paying,
an entire garlic chicken on her plate.
But on the Napa day, she thanked me for it:
she said I’d been right about her in most ways.
That “most” came from her old self: she couldn’t help
defending something, though she couldn’t say what.
“Even when my dad remarried,” she said,
“I couldn’t enjoy it, since I only cared
about what it meant for me.” Here she smiled.
Her point—she didn’t have to say it—
she was dispersed: at one with the universe,
something to do with her new medication,
which she said she took religiously.
I’m not trying to be mean, and I don’t know why
I’m telling you this now, why Wisconsin
should remind me of California
or a modest lake recall the Pacific.
I’ve loved this park since I was a kid,
when my folks drove here during the summers.
For some reason I have to talk this through.
It’s like when I have an idea
for a story—yes, I still write short stories;
I’m working on one now, in fact; no,
it’s not about her—if I forget it
before jotting notes down, it obsesses me;
I can’t help thinking it’s my lost masterpiece.
On that Napa day, we lunched at Pismo,
dipped our toes in the water; our jeans bottoms
were soaked, we couldn’t stop laughing.
She had that capacity for pure joy
since she was young; I never understood it.
I used to sit on this same bench
when I started writing, with a blue pen
and yellow legal pad. Those first stories
rushed crudely toward happy endings,
but touched the same themes that haunt me now.
I have them all in a box under my bed.
I’d bring a loaf of bread for the ducks;
I could swear that fat brown one by the tree
was here twenty years ago. The way the sun
unrolls like a carpet across the water
(as if inviting us away somewhere),
is just like she and I saw on the ocean,
which I guess must have been totally still,
with a sailboat in the distance, like that one.
Our feet froze all along the highway:
she kept her roof open the whole time.
I believed about half of her ramble:
how doing a generous thing every day
made her happy, how walking a mile alone
every evening brought her mind to stillness.
Something about telling this all to you
makes me happy. Perhaps relief that my mind
has never been quite as morbid as hers,
or that we never slept together.
But I think it’s something kinder.
It’s not that I can always remember her
at the vineyards, slightly drunken, relaxed.
She was a dozen different women,
and I remember every one of them.
We got adjacent rooms at the hotel;
I lay awake wondering what she was thinking.
I think it’s the feeling she projected,
even if part of it was a façade,
that wherever you are, there’s always a way
to get better: maybe just telling yourself
the story helps to make it partly true.
Jesse Wolfe’s poetry has appeared in publications including Tower Journal, Good Works Review, Mad Swirl, and Eunoia Review. An English professor at California State University, Stanislaus, Wolfe previously served as Faculty Advisor to Penumbra, the campus’s student-run literary and art journal. His scholarly work includes the monograph Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and a forthcoming book on intimacy in
contemporary British and American fiction.
"Getting Better" appears in Wolfe's book En Route, available in our shop!