Jacob Lawrence, "Defeat," 1954
Jacob Lawrence, Defeat (1954)
Can a Game Be Literature?

Mark's Pages

January 18, 2003:

Her eyes held that unmistakable soul-pain, that combination of loss and humiliation and anger that goes deep as bone and blood.

Someone had hurt her. We never talked about it, she didn't want to share. I guessed that a lover had dumped her, and she moved to San Francisco to build a new identity free of that humiliation.

Rainy night. L. has her first poetry reading in San Francisco, in the "Above Paradise" room at the Paradise Lounge.

You're very nervous about accompanying her. Not sure it's a good idea. She wants you there for your moral support, but, that's an evil place, the Paradise. That's the bar which your ex-best-friend and one-true-love haunts, where her new lover is a disk jockey. Rumor says they go there every night to be alcoholics together.

You haven't seen her in months. She brought her new man to meet you, stuffed him up your nose, and left. Her sister told you, forever. You have that same haunted, haggard, devastated look in your eyes that L. has in hers. But, her own experience is too recent for her to see it in you, the way you see it in her.

You walk in together from the rainy street. Heads turn. She's strikingly beautiful, henna-red hair and Southern charm, tall and confident. You're tall and black-haired and earringed and angry. Sparks fly off you both.

Two steps in and... there they are. A mountain of empty pitchers stands piled before four dim figures at the first table. Hard to say how many pitchers, six anyway, large ones, with margarita glasses and beers and shots enough for the whole room, shared by these four bleary people.

Slow motion: time extends. L. is smiling, looking for friends. Three of the blowsy figures at the first table are men. Two you don't know, one you do. The fourth is a woman. Young, mid-twenties, long blonde hair, dark jacket with a long blue and white checked scarf around her neck. Gray eyes burning into yours from over the top of an empty glass. You're taking a step, and another, there are the voices of many people in this crowded place. You look into the eyes, and there's hatred there, vicious, hostile, violent, evil. She hates you. She hates you. She hates you. She hates you.

The voices merge into a background drone you can no longer hear. You're alone in some parallel universe. Steps, more steps, you and L. are holding hands and you follow her without thinking, without realizing. There's nothing for you but those eyes of hate, and the knowledge that there are going to be tears in your own eyes within moments.

Upstairs, and the real universe snaps back into being. L. introduces you to a table of her friends. You have trouble focusing on them. Can't catch the names, but there are lots of knee-high leather boots, and cigarettes in holders, and one or two berets. There's a pretty younger woman with an older, bearded gentleman. You don't catch the rest. L. leaves, probably for a waiting room somewhere before her performance. Your eyes are welling, you don't want to cry near these strangers who you now are bonded to. You excuse yourself and head for the back door, near open windows spilling cold air into the crowded room. Back into the parallel universe, and the sounds drop away, and you're moving in slow motion one footfall at a time.

Someone is reading a poem about earthquake survivors in the Balkans. She keeps her baby alive by slitting her finger, feeding it her blood.

Reeling. You feel you could fall down. You're going to break down. People close the windows to keep out the cold. Now there's no escape from the cigarette smoke. You stagger down the back steps, breaking the slow-motion spell, and run all the way home, half the city away.

You lost a friend that night. She thought you walked out on her debut, or on her friends, or something. She never forgave you. She wouldn't return your calls, and her friend, perhaps the one from the club, said, with venom, "She knows you called. She doesn't want to speak to you."

She lived on my borrowed little too-short couch three or four nights, before moving to friends who could be more hospitable.