By Sara Veal
He strutted back and forth across the stage, ranting rhythmically about a woman who had wronged him, one hand raking through his tangled curls, the other clutching a crumpled sheet stained with blood-red words.
“Bitch barked up the right tree, then took a shit on my heart, tearing us apart…”
It was pretty grim, overwrought stuff, but Mel couldn’t take her eyes off him. Even enraged, maybe especially enraged, he was stunning, like Byron and Lorca’s love child. His large brown eyes shone with passion, his soft cheeks were beaded with perspiration and flushed as red as ripe apples. She reddened just as much when his intense gaze flickered in her direction.
He probably hadn’t been looking at her, but even so, as the audience filtered out of the cozy basement, she pretended to be searching for something on the floor, as she wondered about saying something to him. It wasn’t such a big deal to say “That was good, well done” as others were doing right now, was it? Even if she hadn’t really thought so.
“What have you lost this time?” asked Yasmin, crouching down.
Yasmin was why she was here, they did this every Tuesday, the mad rush from last lecture to home to the Poetry Cafe so Yasmin could share the latest chronicle of Mammary Man. Just in the nick of time tonight. The gender-bending superhero’s exploits had actually gone down pretty well with the snobby, but not discerning (judging by the warm response to Poetry Boy’s rants) crowd.
“Erm… an earring… it doesn’t matter.” Mel straightened up. No, she couldn’t talk to him.
“You’re not wearing earrings?” Yasmin raised an eyebrow. She often looked at Mel like that.
“Oh right, I guess I haven’t lost anything then!” Mel laughed nervously, as her best friend smiled at her indulgently.
“Let’s go then?” Yasmin asked many questions, but they always sounded like statements. She didn’t usually take no for an answer. Mel obediently followed her to the stairwell, when suddenly; she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey,” said a rich voice, the American accent more subtle in speech than on the stage. Mel whirled around to find herself locked in Poetry Boy’s unrelentingly intense gaze. He didn’t seem quite so angry now.
“Thatwasgoodwelldone!” Mel bit her tongue. That was the problem with rehearsing things to say, they always came out a little… well, rehearsed.
“Thanks.” He smiled. “Wanna get out of here?”
Mel looked over at Yasmin, who winked approvingly. “Sure.”
He took her by the hand and led her into the bitterly cold London night. Worrying about her exposed fingers, he offered to keep them in his coat pocket.
As long as you promise to reattach them, she thought wittily, but failed to say it out loud.
He’d seen her before, he told her, he liked her style. He wondered if she was hungry and she was a little, so they walked, huddled together, her hand in his pocket, to Chinatown, where he bought a dim sum feast, which he fed to her by a Christmas tree in Covent Garden.
As she bit into a potsticker, she pondered why they hadn’t dined in the warm restaurant, but she supposed this was more romantic, and really, it was hard to feel cold around him. He burned like a fire and had so many stories to tell her.
He started at his childhood in Israel, whispering in her ear about his famous footballer father who had abandoned his pregnant mother, who had worked as a flight attendant all over Europe, and had sent him to live with his great-aunt in Tennessee… so much had happened to him, he kept saying, which is why he needed poetry. Drinking it, making it, spewing it, it helped him to make sense of everything in this crazy world that was often so unfair.
“You’re a poem,” he said then, unexpectedly including her in his narrative.
“How?” She’d hardly said a word; she was still confused as to why he seemed to like her so much.
“She walks in beauty, like the night, of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes, thus mellowed to that tender light, which heaven to gaudy day denies,” he recited, his voice even and melodic, the words escaping his mouth as clouds, as his hot breath collided with the biting air.
She stared for a moment, uncomprehending but flattered. It was so unlike his Poetry Cafe vitriol. Found herself inviting him home, which he nonchalantly accepted as if he’d expected it, and continued listening to him for hours, before falling asleep in his arms.
When she woke up, she thought the dream would end, that he would see her properly and know he’d made a mistake. As she shifted on the pillow, his eyes flew open and he smiled, reaching over to gather up strands of her hair.
“One shade the more, one ray the less, had half impaired the nameless grace, which waves in every raven tress, or softly lightens o’er her face,” he said, holding the lock up so it turned red in the sunlight that streamed through the cracked curtain.
Still in their rumpled clothes, they walked to her favorite Indian restaurant in Brick Lane, where they learned more about each other over naan and tikka. He was pleased that she was two years younger than him, that she was at university. What he seemed to like most of all about her, as she began to understand over a shisha pipe further down the road, was that she wasn’t like “the others”.
They were poems too, but bad ones, ones to be spat out in front of a captive audience. With narrowed eyes, he sliced the others up into harsh words. Bitches. Whores. Sluts. Selfish. Users. Unfaithful. Dull. Stupid. Liars. Heartbreakers. He strung the words together like beads on an endless necklace, lashing it out as if to keep all other such creatures at bay.
But, he reassured her, gazing intensely into her eyes, “you’re not like them”. She smiled, relieved.
At home, Yasmin was waiting in her bedroom, maniacal. “So, so? What happened? Tell me all?!”
Mel did and the two girls jumped up and down on her unmade bed like six-year-olds.
When Mel had jumped all the excitement away, she allowed herself to fall on her face, and mumbled into the duvet, “But he’s not going to call…” just as her mobile rang insistently, cueing much shrieking from Yasmin.
“Are you going to answer that? He’s called, like, seven times? Or at least turn it off so I can hear what Phil’s saying to Susan?” Yasmin growled through a mouthful of ramen, her eyes glued to the television.
Mel sighed, and turned the sound off. She would answer, in a bit, he would be even angrier if she ignored him completely. He told her the other day that he wasn’t so sure she wasn’t like “the others” after all, when she’d expressed shock to learn he’d been in prison. Then, without letting her answer, he’d cupped her face in his hands and kissed her fiercely.
“Thus much and more, and yet thou lov’st me not, and never wilt, love dwells not in our will, nor can I blame thee, though it by my lost, to strongly, wrongly, vainly, love thee still,” he had said plaintively, more sorry for himself than her.
She liked him better when he used another poet’s words, but these were too much to take. She didn’t love him, how could she? They’d only been dating a week, although it was beginning to feel like a lifetime. He had kissed her again, again releasing her from a need to respond.
Three days later, over chickpea tacos, she finally gave up. She knew for sure as she swallowed the last spoonful of flan, as she listened to his latest poem, inspired by their midnight picnic. It was probably his best yet, though that wasn’t saying much. She cringed to think of him sharing it at Poetry Cafe.
As they cleaned the dishes – she washed, he dried – he informed her they would be iceskating at Somerset House the next day, and then they would eat fish pie and drink mulled wine in this great little pub in Holborn…
Unable to bear it any longer, she cut in, “I can’t… I’m busy… I have a lot of work to do at uni…”
He gaped at her. She’d never refused him. “How ’bout Sunday?”
“I think I’m going to be busy for awhile…” It was lame, she knew it, but from what she’d learned about men so far… it was better to let them keep a little pride, right? She shouldn’t spell it out. They didn’t want to know everything she’d learned to despise about them. After all, another girl might love it.
Silence. His eyes flashed, but it didn’t seem like he was going to fight for her.
She was glad because she had nothing left to say. Couldn’t even say “it’s not you, it’s me”, because it was definitely him. She simply nodded, wondering whether she should hug him goodbye, or if that would just add insult to injury. Probably best not to. She shrugged apologetically and made to leave.
“Wait,” he said.
Mel turned, expecting a verse, and before she even realized what was happening, he sank a knife into her heart. As she crumpled to the ground, coughing up blood, he stood over her, pushing the knife further in.
“You’re a poem,” he said, his eyes bright with tears.
He strutted back and forth across the stage, ranting rhythmically about a woman who had wronged him, one hand raking through his tangled curls, the other clutching a crumpled sheet stained with blood-red words, words so wet they dripped onto the floorboards.