Off Storrow Drive
You take a gondola alone on the Charles River.
You’ve waited almost an hour for the tourists to leave,
rejected countless advances, declined to help a lost stripper.
By the time you board, your hair is covered with leaves:
they’ve been falling on you for an hour, but you didn’t bother
to shake them off. You’ve been watching the hotels downstream,
the unsteady way they cast reflections on water,
reminding you of a shaggy dog you’ve seen.
Tonight you have time to kill, lazy moments to ponder a question—
or three—before you head to the South End:
your cousin, the one with lung cancer, is starring in Shakespeare.
You’re going alone. You never told any of your friends.
The gondolier pushes the boat with the bottom end of a lantern—
an exotic stunt you could easily do without.
Passing under a bridge, he remarks with surprising candor
how unusual it is you’re not here with a lover or spouse.
You answer something monosyllabic, giggle.
Wherever you turn, he looms in your line of sight.
It hasn’t taken you long to wish you could leave here,
this was a bad idea. Once again you focus on lights:
in that blue Hyatt, the one that looks like a staircase,
in a room you haven’t yet seen and probably won’t,
your cousin is staying—or so you’ve read in his press kit.
You can almost see the sign on his door:
DO NOT DISTURB. You’ve only spent one summer together—
you were fourteen at the time; he was almost five.
You built toy cars out of wood, while he scribbled letters
in the sand: PIRATE, GANGSTER, KNIFE.
Today you still talk to each other. But mostly it’s just the facts:
he still shows up to high school most of the time,
still talks to people most of the time, still acts
in starring roles—an early career, his prime.
You know he will grab the audience, know there will be applause,
flowers—some of them yours,—an overblown banquet
where people in suits make speeches from boxes. Of course,
your cousin can’t drink, so he’ll find some excuse he can’t make it.
In the hallway, you will high five him. You won’t talk
of anything that really goes through your mind.
You will hug him, full of bravado, walk with him through the cold
streets of Boston, hug him, bid him good night.
Later, at around midnight, you will walk to the river again.
The gondolas will be parked away, and the water clear.
You will stand on the bridge and hum, remembering friends.
You will want to go back in time, invite them to theater.
You will wish for your cousin to visit you by your bedside
to talk to you about girls, an annoying clerk,
his fear of death—not his own, just that abstract light
we see on the walls of buildings when we know there’s a morgue
somewhere inside. But all you can do is ignore
the fact that his calendar does not go
into the year after next. You know what’s in store,
and there is little else you can hope to know.
So you’ll hope someone approaches you with a fake smile—
lost, confused, out of town, buttoned-up, smelly, lecherous—
anyone. You will look for a payphone, randomly dial.
You will run after late-night strippers, give them directions.
See them follow you to the letter, go off to strange places,
wander into strange houses, say strange words,
shake people out of their sleep. They will be aggressive,
make things happen—make changes, for better or worse…
Keeping your eyes on the road, you will walk back home,
telling yourself to breathe slower, think of a song.
“Bad news bears,” you’ll sing under your breath, in twelve-tone.
“Who needs theater, anyway?” And: “I love you, John.”
Editor’s Note: Grief, regret, desperation, confusion… this poem weaves emotional chaos into narrative through slant rhyme and repeated imagery until the reader is as distraught and lost as the speaker.