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.