Sub-I, re-worked again: did I weaken or enhance it?

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 3/20/2017

I jumped up and slammed my feet into my sneakers. "Wait." I ran out the back door and called his name. Called it to the gloom. "Wait, I want to go with you!"

But the street was empty. I stood on the cracked cement, the ember-blue air swaying around me. The street lights were turned on and a siren wailed in the distance. I could smell frying grease somewhere.

So I returned to the kitchen and sat down on the bench. Nibbled on my thumb.

I got up. I looked inside his cabinet. In neat but not perfect rows, there was cinnamon, spaghetti, olive oil, chocolate. Walnuts, turmeric pills, oatmeal. An unopened six ounces of Shiraz, from months ago. Cream of Wheat because I told him I had not eaten it since childhood.

I sat down again and chewed.

In fifteen minutes I heard the jangle of the door knob, and everything made sense again. He walked in, holding two Styrofoam boxes. "I got myself tortellini, too," he said.

I opened my box on the table. "Oh, yes!" It was a mound of fries, mealy and glistening.

My boyfriend, a med student, sat on the bench next to me, and I slid over to make room. His hip touched mine, and he hooked a finger in my belt loop. He pressed his mouth into the curve of my neck. His lips were hot.

"I love fries," I munched.

He drew his mouth away. "Do you want some of my tortellini?" he asked. "They're pumpkin."

"I don't like tortellini," I said. "But thank you."

"What in the world is happening," he whispered.

"I don't know." I suddenly leaned into him. "This all feels surreal."

"That is exactly what it feels like."

I tucked my head under his chin. "Like we've been staggering around in a dream all day." I stared at a knot in the pinewood table. "Am I pushing for something that doesn't need to happen?"

"But what exactly?" His hand on my back was soft.

"I don't know."

"Hazard a guess."

"Some kind of conclusion." The knot turned into a hornet.

"Breaking up?" he asked.

"No!" I dug out a fry and ate it. "I can't believe that phrase was just said. Actually, can I have one of your tortellini?"

"Take as many as you want, love. They're pumpkin," he repeated. He dropped his hands between his legs. "I am going to pass out soon."

It was my boyfriend's first day off in thirty days. Called a "sub-I" at the hospital, the clinical rotation required that he work frequent overnight shifts, usually for thirteen hours, with only one break to eat for twenty minutes. He carried nuts and chocolate in his pocket so he wouldn't faint from hunger. I mailed him a thick love letter, telling him his future family would be grateful for his hard work. But because of the sub-I, we passed over my birthday with a "happy birthday" text. Because of the sub-I, we squeezed out only five minutes on the phone per week. And somehow – on the day we had been looking forward to for a month – we had quarreled. Ferociously. He called me comfort-seeking and weak-willed, and then curled up into a ball and silently cried. He said he was finished with everything, beaten-down by school. I held him and felt finished, too. But my only response was to kiss a constellation across his back.

When we finally untangled ourselves, he asked me what I wanted.

French fries, I had said.

"Let me get you a fork.”

"Oh, no. No, thanks. But I think I'm going to eat all your tortellini." I pinched another pasta-cushion with my fingers. "Look, I already am."

"You're like William Carlos Williams," he murmured.


"William Carlos Williams." His voice became fulgent. "Wait. Have I never mentioned him to you before?"

"I don't think so. I mean, I know who he is –"

"But have I ever told you how personally important he is to me?"

"Actually, no, I don't know who he is. Didn't he write Alice in Wonderland? No, that was Lewis Carroll."

I was thinking rapidly now, because I knew something was happening. We had stepped into literary territory: a world I revolved in privately. I needed to prove myself on this ground, because I had always felt dwarfed by his scientific brilliance, his photographic memory.

"He was a poet," my boyfriend said. "He wrote 'The Red Wheelbarrow'."

"Oh, yes. Right." I dove for the words in my mind.

But he began before I was ready. "So much depends / upon --"

" – a red wheel / barrow," I scooped, almost stumbled.

"Glazed with rain / water / beside the –"

"White chickens!" I exploded. I lost all sense of competition in a landslide of unity. "Yes! How do you know that? That's one of those elitist poems, which is ridiculous. But I still think it's beautiful."

"I took a literature class once in undergrad." He crossed the kitchen and took a fork out of a drawer.

"Oh, no, I'm done, thanks." Euphoria was ringing in my ears. "Because he just paints a verbal picture. And I do feel like so much depends on being able to see that image clearly. The red color, the chickens, the glaze."

He returned the fork. Leaned quietly against the counter.

"How have we never talked literature before?" I banged the table with my hands. "That poem is exactly what I want to accomplish with my stories. To give that picture for the readers –"

"– but still let them think and feel about the images whatever they want."

"You understand." I looked at the sleety angle of his body. His stretched-out legs. "It's almost like giving the readers room to live with the images.”

Slate-bone ankles.

"But I'm going to keep prattling,” I said. “And look at you: you're all lit-up. So tell me why he's important to you."

"Well, I share this with anyone who is important to me."

I drew my legs up to my heart and hugged my knees. "Do you?"

"It's a conversation with a capital C. And I don't think it could have come at a better time. But it's kind of late." He looked at the microwave clock. "It's ten past nine already."

"We have time," I said, "for this."

"Okay." Then he pushed himself up from the counter. "William Carlos Williams was a poet. But he was also a medical doctor.”

And Williams needed medicine for his poetry, my boyfriend said. Medicine was his raw material. He would take out his typewriter and bang off a sentence after the patient left the room. And when the office closed, he composed late into the night, using the “half-spoken words” of his patients.

"He was a witness to the most intimate aspects of their lives. That's why he loved his job." My boyfriend was pacing. "Growing up, I knew if there was a job that would pay me to go into people's houses and listen to their stories, I would do it."

"And that's how you decided to become a doctor?" I looked up. "After reading a poet?"

"I just decided that medicine came the closest to my dream."

His eyes were green as dragonflies.

"How did I not know this about you?" I was gleaming. "And how did we get onto the topic of poetry?"

"Because I was remembering a note Williams left his wife on their fridge. Or rather their icebox. When you said you ate all my tortellini."

"I think I know that one, too! Can you recite it?"

His smiled deepened. He touched his chin. "Of course I can."

He began.

"I have eaten
the plums"


"that were in
the icebox"

I tipped my head backward -- almost touching the refrigerator -- and closed my eyes. Still hugging my knees. Listening to his voice.

"and which
you were probably
for breakfast"

My boyfriend was cumbering the words on purpose, the sounds sepia. He thumped down the lines – dwelt in strange places – fingering the edges as if the poem was his own: known, and penned.

And before he quoted any further, I remembered the last stanza.

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

"Forgive me," he continued, his voice getting beneath the collar of my shirt, "they were delicious" – bumping down my spine – "so sweet," turning a pirouette on my coccyx, "and so cold"; finally passing the plum from his mouth to mine.

I lowered my head and opened my eyes. "I tasted it," I said. "I'm swooning."

I was losing my breath. I was in a 1930's kitchen by an icebox. I was in love with a poet and a doctor. I was the woman saving her plums, blue-black. And he had eaten them, fogged.

I wanted to kiss him. To get up and cross the kitchen. And put those icy plums back in his mouth.

My boyfriend suddenly leaned against the counter. He never sagged. But his hands gripped the counter ledge, and I couldn't read his expression.

I stayed on the bench.


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