We’ve been friends for two decades, Tess and I, and we meet for brunch on the covered patio at Chateau Cecile every Mother’s Day morning. Tea, brunch and poetry: it’s our yearly tradition since meeting in English 4110, Advanced Poetry Workshop.
Today I’m wearing a charcoal wool-blend sheath with a wide-brimmed hat and large dark glasses. Tess is in something long-sleeved and floral that goes past her knees.
“How’s Howard?” I ask dutifully before we dig into Frost and frittata. Howard was another Advanced Poetry classmate; Tess ended up marrying him and now he lectures at the university.
“Wonderful,” Tess says. “And you? Anyone?”
“No one specific,” I say. She can’t be surprised. The only relationship she’s known me to have was with Howard, before they got together. “What did you bring?”
“Sonnets,” she says, digging into her bag. “Love sonnets. Shakespeare and Browning.”
I sigh to myself. She brought those last year.
The waiter comes and we order. The tradition goes like this: She recites while I eat, and then I recite while she eats. We nibble and sip and read the afternoon away.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” begins Tess earnestly, peering through her reading glasses, and I try to pay attention. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove….”
She looks older this year, unless it’s the light. How quickly she’d answered my question about Howard. Was he really wonderful, as she’d claimed? Were they? Was their perfect family, Howard and Tess and one boy and one girl, just as perfect as she said they would be?
I haven’t seen Howard in years, at least not in person. On Christmas cards he appears in the back row, red sweater blending with the others into a big festive head-topped blotch. I peer at him and try to believe he keeps getting older, fatter, duller. But really, he just looks like Howard to me. Howard, the Howard I remember from freshman fall. Howard, my first love. Howard, with whom I spent six years and believed I’d spend sixty-six more, until the spring we signed up for English 4110, Advanced Poetry Workshop.
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come,” Tess continues, and I keep eating my quiche, not bothering to keep my knife and fork from clanking the plate. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Twenty years ago, Tess was well known on campus, with a reputation for being loose. She didn’t seem to mind flitting from man to man, leaving bedpost notches and high-fives in her wake. I, on the other hand, was blah. Blah Barbara. Blah bar blah. I was jealous of Tess’s way with men, her carefree attitude. The way she acted as though she didn’t care what people said, the names they called her behind her back.
But she did mind, and once we became friends, she told me. She didn’t want to be the campus whore, not anymore. She didn’t mean it to happen. She wanted to escape it. And so we took her in, tried to protect her.
I’m not sure when things began to change, and I try not to think about it much. But I never imagined she’d fall for Howard; never imagined he’d want her instead of me.
“If this be error and upon me proved,” Tess reads, “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
I swallow the last bit of quiche, then let out a belch without covering my mouth. Tess sets the book down hard and says, “I guess you’re ready to take your turn then?”
After wiping my mouth and tossing the napkin onto my plate, I pull a small black book from my bag and began casually flipping through it. The leather is weathered and familiar; the pages stained and wrinkled in spots. Tess pauses, fork in the air, as I begin reading aloud.
“V is for Victor who took you to bed; he says you’re a tease but you loved to give head,” I say. “T is for Thomas who screwed you outside; I had him last year, but now he’s since died.”
“What — what is this?” she asks. “That book — is that my…”
“It’s my poetry,” I inform her. “I’ve had plenty of time over the years, no husband or children to fill up my days. Just a useless degree and the little black book you threw in the trash. And now I’ve had what you’ve had — and in most cases, I’ve had it better.”
Tess stares while I continue.
“J is for Johnny who says you were tight; his penis got rug-burn and sore that one night. C is for Charles, his teeth had a gap; he fucked you on Easter and gave you the clap.”
Screw Tess and her sonnets. This poem would be epic.
“D is for David, who wore cut-off jeans; he says that your cunt tasted bad like sardines. L is for Leonard who says that you lied, and that you liked shoving a bottle inside.”
I stand up and walk slowly around the table.
“H is for Howard,” I begin, casting my shadow upon her.
Vanessa Weibler Paris lives, works and writes in Erie, Pa. Her work has appeared in Pindeldyboz, Eclectica, Hobo Pancakes and other publications.