I didn’t notice the man until he pulled out a chair at my library table. It was meant to seat four but I’d spread out my laptop and bag, stacked some books and opened a notebook to show I was Working. It was a quiet weekday morning, and there were lots of empty carrels. No one had any reason to sit with me.
This man did. I looked up, surprised. I didn’t recognize him but he said hello. He was holding a book, which he set in front of him as he sat. He didn’t open the book. I looked at it and was surprised again. The man’s hands were shaking.
“Ramona?” he said. “You’re Ramona, aren’t you?”
Oh. He knew me. That was a relief. He wasn’t a weirdo. He was tall and dark-haired, early 30s maybe, but he wasn’t smiling as you do when you greet someone you know, and his hands now clutched the book as if he was nervous.
I smiled and said, “Yes, I’m Ramona,” in an appropriately quiet voice while my thoughts shifted to the possible places I’d have encountered him.
“You don’t know me,” he said, before I could fumble out an awkward “Who are you again?”
“I was at the Deer Park last weekend, for the Edgar Allan Poe event,” he said. “You read a poem.”
Another oh. It wasn’t a poem, actually, it was micro-fiction piece. 144 words, with pacing that could be mistaken for a poem when read aloud. Which I had done. Me and a dozen plus other writers, at an annual local event honoring a famous American author. The place was full of Edgar Allan Poe fans. Before reading, I’d had a couple of glasses of wine. I couldn’t remember every person there.
“It was a fun event,” I said, diplomatically, still wondering why he’d approached me. And why was he nervous?
“I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your piece,” he said.
Wow. What a lovely thing to say. “Thank you! That’s so nice of you,” I said, genuinely touched, though still a bit mystified. Maybe he was a poet himself, and too shy to get up and read at the open mic. Was he looking for encouragement? I could do that. I’d be happy to do that. “Are you a poet?”
He said yes, but that was all, his face both open and inscrutable. I found myself clutching the edge of my laptop the same way he was clutching his book. Something else was happening here, a something else I seemed to be part of, but didn’t understand. I waited.
“I have a two-year old,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “My wife stays home with him. For months she’s been saying how lonely she is when I’m at work. I never really understood what she meant until I heard you read ‘Countdown’.”
“Countdown” was my poem that wasn’t a poem.
“I went home and thought about it all night. I told my wife about it. I said I’d try to get home earlier and be more understanding.”
He loosened his death grip on the book and put his hands on top of it. They’d stopped shaking, I noticed. I also noticed that he smiled. Just a little one, and maybe it was a little sad, but it was a smile. He cocked his head toward the chairs under the window. “I sat over there for five minutes, staring at you, trying to work up the courage to tell you. I hope you don’t think it’s weird.”
“No,” I said. Weird? It was the biggest compliment I’d ever received, the biggest I could imagine. “I don’t think it’s weird. I can’t tell you how touched I am.”
He stood up. “I just wanted you to know,” he said, and now he seemed a little embarrassed. He said goodbye and left before I could ask his name or more about his work, or if I’d see him again at the next open mic.
That was sometime in 2008. I never saw this man again. When I think of him, I call him Joshua. No particular reason. He just looked like a Joshua.
“Countdown” was about one day in a young mother’s life, when her isolation feels overwhelming. I wrote it in a single morning, sitting at my dining room table, and I was mostly excited about the word count. I tend to babble on. Writing a full story in 144 words was exciting! I read it at the Poe event, never suspecting that in the audience was a young father who’d hear it and recognize something about himself.
I wonder if he has any idea how much our two minute conversation moved me, and continues to, six years later.
People write for different reasons. Too often I heard writers say their book is not great art, or it’s just a story to entertain, or they don’t write literature. I don’t know that anything I’ve written is great art, or wildly entertaining, or literature, but something you write may touch another person. That’s a gift. If that person tells you, that’s a greater gift.
Joshua, wherever and whoever you are, I have never forgotten you. When I write, you are the imaginary person I write for, no matter the subject. I hope your child is healthy, and you and your wife are happy. Because of what you did for me, whenever a piece of writing moves me, I try to tell the author.
Has someone ever given you a compliment that felt more like a gift than a piece of praise? Has a piece of writing moved you? Did you tell the author?
PS – “Countdown” was published by the Wilmington News Journal in 2013, to promote the Newark Arts Alliance’s Open Mic. You can read it here.
18 thoughts on “I Just Wanted You to Know”
You’re making me cry, Ramona. Thank you for sharing that story, and for “Countdown.” Oh, my.
I have no idea where it came from, Edith, but I sat down one morning and there it was. A little writing miracle.
Wonderful poem-not-a-poem! The message is strong! In a writing class at UMSL, Howard Schwartz talked about times when something we thought would be a poem turns into a story and vice versa.
I have had students tell me of times I have helped them, sometimes without realizing that I was making a difference at all. One of my favorites was when a student, recovering from an injury, told me I had helped her see, “I can express myself in my writing the way I do in dance.” YES!
Thanks for sharing this.
Mary, I have a few teacher friends, and I wonder if any of them realize how much they affect the lives of their students. You have taken the opportunity to be a positive force in a young person’s life. That’s a tremendous undertaking, not to be diminished or ignored. There’s a great moment in The West Wing TV series when the Rob Lowe character says something like “Schools should be palaces and teachers should be millionaires.” So true–and sadly, so untrue.
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I don’t think we ever completely know, but there are hints . . . Every teacher I know keeps a file of student notes to get through the hard spots. In other countries teachers are respected, and I do hope we get back to that.
That is an absolutely amazing story. And I think the thing we all (secretly) hope for – that something we write touches a nerve. Fantastic!
Thanks, Mary! I hesitated before sharing it, but now I am glad I did.
Nice post Countdown, good stuff. Count me in as a fan.
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Thank you, Arthur.
Thank you, Kathy.
Lovely story, well both of them. I hope ‘Joshua’ kept your not-a-poem close to his heart.
I have been thanked by people I have helped through my job, they always seem so happy with what I have done for them. To me it is my job, I get paid to help, thanks is a bonus.
Gaylin, that is the same thing. This was such a surprise, but we should thank people too, even for little things. You never know what a person needs to hear and when they need to hear it.
What a simple and direct way to describe a problem that is almost too difficult to put into words. Thanks for posting it. That’s an amazing story and a well-earned affirmation.
Thank you, Jan.
Sweet moment, Ramona.
Beautiful! No wonder he was moved.