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Self Walking Backward

By
February 1, 2011

When the situation is the story.

Jovanovic-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Philipp Daun

I don’t want to meet Peter Self. After the reading, I’ll just go home.

I walk up the stairs looking around for Peter Self—afraid I will run into him. I do not see him in the lobby. The security guard doesn’t look inside when I lift my big bag. He flashes the light around without care. There’s so much stuff in the bag. There could be anything in there. I cough on line and people look at me. Someone says loudly, “Everyone raved about it. Anna Netrebko was great, but otherwise boring.” Someone else coughs. With one hand, I pull my collar tight around my neck.

Upstairs, in the smaller room, which is still big, but small, I think for the former poet laureate. Clem lifts his hand high in the air. I walk over and sit down. I cough and Clem and Jill tilt away. A few rows ahead I see Gita, a family friend I’ve never not known. “I’ll be right back,” I say.

When my mother had her second cancer operation, I was in Africa. Gita was angry, because I hadn’t come back from my trip.

Gita wears a pink sweater set. She is sitting alone. “I’m saving this seat for Olivia,” she says. All the seats around her are empty.

“I’ve been reading your articles.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“I didn’t even know it existed.”

“What?” I say.

“The website,” she says. “Three-ring.”

“Yes. How could you? The online writing community is very small. But there are some good ones.”

“I would never know,” she says. “Your parents probably told you I had surgery on my face.”

“No. They didn’t.”

“Yes. The tumor came back.”

“I haven’t spoken to them in weeks. They’re angry. You would never know.”

“Yes, they knew. They were there. At the hospital. Sweb was there too. He flew in from Stockholm for a week. Took off from work and everything.” Gita was angry when her son Sweb got married and that her son’s wife was Swedish and wanted to move back to Stockholm. But now Gita talks about her trips to Sweden. Brings back salmon in sealed plastic. She is excited that Stockholm is part of her life. It’s an expensive city.

“You would never know looking at you that you just had surgery.” Gita and my mother have known each other since they were children in Croatia.

“They opened it up again,” she points to below her glasses. “Cleaned it all out.”

“It’s all gone now? For good?”

“No. It will come back again,” she says and looks at me without expression and at the podium on the stage, which has on it a “92Y” sign in purple neon. It lights her face. I feel challenged by this look. “That’s the nature of it.”

When my mother had her second cancer operation, I was in Africa. Gita was angry, because I hadn’t come back from my trip, my mother told me later. “She said that you should have come back,” my mother said. I had been with her for her first operation. Everything had gone well. They cleaned out the cancer. She was tired. She yelled at me every time I went to see her. The doctor was surprised though by how quickly she was recovering. The second operation was just a formality, I was told. The trip would change my life was how I was planning it.

With raised eyebrows, Gita looks down at me. Seated or standing, Gita is taller than me. She looks at the stage. I look at the stage very seriously. The stage is still empty. I look at her.

“I came with friends,” I say.

“Oh,” she says. She turns her head slightly as if she was surprised but then expecting and understanding of the moment I would leave her.

To Clem I say, “That was a family friend. She knows Peter Self.”

“Oh that one,” he says and nods.

Jill says her father is living with her at the moment. Getting a graduate degree in business in the city and needs a place to crash in New York.

“In your studio?” I say. She nods. “And he doesn’t tell you what to do?”

“No,” she says. “At night, I do my art work and he does his business homework. He pulls out the couch. He fixes things. Like the door handle was loose and he made it tight.”

Peter Self walks in and sits in the front row right in front of where Gita had been sitting. Gita’s gone. Peter Self is in a black velvet jacket. He is very tall. His head from the back is shaped similarly to my father’s. Round but angular, like a bad diamond or a grapefruit that’s been pushed on one side. Full of white hair. An Eastern European head, I think.

Lewis Carnage reads first. He says he had listened to 92nd Street Y on the radio as a child living in Cornwall. He dreamed about it. Others boys were listening to the Beastie Boys then. He is younger than Peter Self, but he doesn’t seem young enough to have been listening to the Beastie Boys as a child. His hair is dyed black. He has on a purple patterned shirt and black pants.

He reads a poem about a sperm whale.

He tells a story about a time he was kicked out by a science teacher and told to measure the distance of sound. So he and a friend went outside, “without tools,” and one would call at the other and the other would lift his hand if he heard him. The town was too small for their test, and before the boy was out of earshot, he “fell over the edge.”

He reads the poem based on that story.

He reads from his translation of _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_. Disney, he says, had wanted to buy the rights. He says, “I don’t think they were aware that I wasn’t the original author… They said, ‘This will be a family film.’” The audience laughs.

Margaret O’Toole comes to the podium and Lewis walks away. Peter Self walks through the beige door that says EXIT over it. His body is hidden, but I can see his hand when he makes gestures. Margaret O’Toole says Peter Self would look to the “quiet corners of the slush pile” for “the poem about the fork.” Peter Self stands under a light by the short staircase waiting. He puts his hand up to his chin and looks down. Margaret is finished. A hand from behind hits Peter Self, who throws his hands up and walks up the stairs. The time he went to visit some friends up in New Hampshire is the subject of his opening. “You know when you visit people without telling them that you’re coming over? And they’re not home. You just wait around. You walk around the property.” Stepping away from the podium he cups his hands over his eyes like he’s looking in a window.

He says as poet laureate, he did not write poems for one year. Writing emails and traveling around—how could he write poems like that?

He reads some poems. I cough once. On my lower back I put my hands, to warm my kidneys. I see Gita sitting closer to the center aisle. I cough again. When the audience claps, I cough as much as I can. I think, “I will leave as soon as this is over.” I am not going to meet Peter Self. My mother made me meet him once when I was twenty. It was uncomfortable. She thought I was beneath him, I guess. She pushed me. She said, “Rozi is a writer.” He smiled and nodded. I said nothing. “Keep writing,” he said. He walked away. “Why did you make that face?” my mother said. “How are you going to get anywhere making faces like that?”

“You should really collect these recipes while you still can,” says Gita. “I would say over and over that I would collect my mother’s recipes. I never did. I was so sorry.”

“I loved the one about the sperm whale,” Clem says and makes a rainbow-like motion with his hand as we walk toward the door. “Drink?” I say to Gita who walks up. I want to walk out and go home. Gita doesn’t hear me. She is tall and looking over the crowd. “This is Olivia,” Gita says. We’re blocking people trying to get through the door. Olivia says, “Hi,” and smiles. People are crammed around the door. “I hear you used to design clothes,” I say.

“Oh,” Olivia says and laughs. “A long time ago.” Peter Self walks past us and stops at the door. “Peter this is Rozalia Jovanovic,” says Olivia, as if Peter Self should know me. This seems like a strange introduction. I shake Peter Self’s hand. I don’t know what to say. He looks at me. I don’t say anything, afraid I will say something that makes me sound like I think I am beneath him. He says, “Oh,” and nods his head. People crowd around him and generate a natural flow that pushes him backward through the door shaking hands. An older woman looks avant-garde and moves slowly in a long Japanese-style ensemble.

Peter Self and Lewis Carnage are each sitting at a small desk, like a school desk I had in fifth grade. Peter Self’s legs are resting on the balls of his feet with his heels raised. Two lines formed in front of the desk and down the hall.

“Tanya Kashner,” says Gita to Tanya, who is the head of a major publishing house. Gita introduces me as an editor of a magazine. I say it is a magazine of short prose and poetry. Do you know John Paley? I say of the experimental poet. Tanya Kashner looks at me. She opens her eyes wider and seems more awake. Are my eyes open wide? I think. “I only know my authors,” she says. She laughs. What will I be able to get away with one day, I think.

Olivia comes over. Olivia, Gita, and I talk. “It’s hard to get to you,” says Olivia to Gita, “because you live on the Upper East Side. And I can’t take the subway,” she says to me. “I have to take the bus. It’s a whole different demographic.”

“I know what you mean,” I say. “I thought that on the bus coming over here. There was a woman drinking diet soda and the smell of soda was so strong and she had a big bag on her lap. I thought she was going to spill the soda on me. Then the bus got crowded and a fat woman stood over me and her stomach was so large and stuck out that I had to move my head so it wouldn’t push against me.” I realized after I said this that my description didn’t speak to demographics and so didn’t follow naturally from Olivia’s remark.

“I took your mother on the subway for the first time last week,” Gita says to me.

“Why won’t she take the subway?” says Olivia. “Does she drive?”

“She’s scared she’ll look poor,” I say. “She thinks it’s dirty.”

“Who’s that man?” says Olivia. We look to the table where Peter Self is signing books. There is an old man in a hat and from the mirror behind Peter Self I can see the man’s face. “I think I’ve seen his face before,” says Olivia.

“I don’t know who that is,” I say. The line is thinning out. The right time to leave has passed, I think. But, I can leave right now.

Olivia says, “We should have a drink.” There are rows of cups of red and white wine on a white-clothed table.

“I can’t,” I say. “I need to wake up early.”

“I can’t,” says Gita. “I’m sick.”

“You’re no fun,” says Olivia.

“My mother doesn’t like it when you don’t drink with her,” I say. “She raises her glass throughout dinner and says ‘zhivali’ very loud so that if you’re talking you have to stop and drink.”

“She just likes to have fun,” Gita says. “Why don’t we have wine?” She looks at the wine table and steps in that direction.

“I should go,” I say.

“You’re going?” says Gita. This is her night out. She makes small movements with her head toward Peter Self and looks at me. The lines are gone and Gita says, “Let’s say hi to Petey.” Peter Self is sitting alone at the table looking around. Lewis Carnage is still signing books.

I walk up to Clem who is standing casually with friends. “Do you want to meet Peter Self?” I say.

“No,” Clem says. His eyes open wide. “I’m terrified. I have nothing to say.” I walk back to Gita and Olivia who are now at the school desk where Peter Self is seated. He stands. He says, “When I have insomnia I don’t get up. I lay in the dark. My best thoughts come to me like that.” He laughs. “She gets up,” he says looking at Olivia. “I also have insomnia,” I say. What will I say next, I think and look at the desk.

“It’s the only time I can make cauliflower,” says Olivia. I look at Olivia. “Because he hates cauliflower. I bought four heads the other day. I had to freeze two because I couldn’t make it all before we left New Hampshire.” I look at Gita, then at Olivia. There is nothing more to say about insomnia. Peter Self puts his hand on Gita’s shoulder, nods his head, smiling, and takes two steps back. He flips and turns to talk to other people. Clem leaves with Jill and a group of friends. I want to join their group that serves its will so easily.

“My mother makes cauliflower with breadcrumbs,” I say.

“Yes. That’s traditional,” Olivia says.

“You should really collect these recipes while you still can,” says Gita. “I would say over and over that I would collect my mother’s recipes. I never did. I was so sorry.”

“I always love her stuffed mushrooms,” I say. “From when I was little. But the last time I went over I asked her to make them and she said, ‘Stuffed mushrooms?’ She didn’t remember that she ever made them. The next time she made stuffed mushrooms, but it was from a new recipe. She served them, ‘Stuffed mushrooms,’ she said. They tasted nothing like her stuffed mushrooms. They didn’t have her touch.” It was odd that realization—that I will never have those stuffed mushrooms again. I had thought I would have them forever.

“I don’t have any ideas about this. About what’s right or wrong. So what the doctor says I think is probably a good choice.”

I wait with Gita because the hall was empty except for Peter Self and Lewis Carnage and two people. I want to leave now. Peter Self comes up. He says to Olivia, “Let’s go for a drink.” He nods to Gita and says, “Nice seeing you,” and steps backwards.

I nod. We walk out to the elevator. In front of the building Gita says, “When your parents came to see me at the hospital, your father brought champagne. I said I had an operation two days ago. He said, ‘You’re not dead yet.’”

I cough. I walk five blocks without looking back. It takes a while for the bus to come.

     * * * *      

On the bus, which is partly empty, my father says some tests will be taken in the morning, but there is nothing new to report. The bus fills up a little for a few stops. After, it completely empties out.

     * * * *      

I pull a seat up next to my mother. The doctor has to stand at the foot of the hospital cot where he talks in a raised voice to my mother. She has a look of protest on her face. “Would you mind moving your chair,” he says to me. I look up from the chair I’m sitting in reading a fashion magazine. “We only know how to talk to patients from one side of the bed,” he says and smiles. I move it from the side to the foot of the bed. The doctor moves next to my mother and talks in a normal tone of voice.

“After you first felt the abdominal pain, when was the next time you saw a doctor?” he says.“I had been eating a lot of fatty foods,” my mother says. “I think this has mostly to do with all the fatty foods I’ve been eating. It might have to do with my pancreas.” A couple of weeks earlier my cousin was over for dinner and said he had a problem once with his pancreas and told us it had to do with his high fat diet.

“Mom,” I say looking up from my magazine. “He just wants to know when you next saw the other doctor.”

“Thanks,” says the doctor.

She looks afraid. She listens to the doctor explain the tests they will do on her liver: a biopsy, an endoscopy, a PET scan.

The doctor leaves.

I read the magazine. It is a magazine I would only read in an airport. The kind of magazine filled mostly with pictures.

My mother says, “I’m going to sell a painting. You’ll get the money. It will be for the arts. For your art.”

“Which one?” I say. “Don’t sell the Marilyn Monroe one. You like that one too much.”

My father walks in. He’s wearing the beige trench coat he has had since I was a child. He looks over my mother. “You’ll need to get better so you can hold down your champagne,” he says. He sits down.

My mother grimaces and curls over. She says she’s in pain and points to the IV. I look at my father who is looking at her casually. He turns to me and smiles in a way that is meant to be conspiratorial. He puts his hand up to his face as if to shield my mother from his expression of mirthful disbelief. I get up and call a nurse who comes over and adjusts something on the IV. After a few minutes, my mother pulls herself up higher on the cot by shifting her weight from one hand to the other and tilting her body from one side to the next. She sits up straight.

“I saw Peter Self last night,” I say.

“You did?” she says.

“Yes. Gita was there too. I bumped into her,” I say.

“She goes to those things. She’s very involved,” says my mother. “Did he remember you? Peter Self?”

“I don’t think so,” I say. “We talked though.”

“He’s teaching in New York now, you know,” my mother says. “I’m going to have Gita talk to him. You should send him an email or something. What did you talk about?”

“Insomnia,” I say.

My mother looks content. “Maybe he can do something for your magazine,” she says. “I’ll talk to Gita.”

“Please don’t talk to Gita. Please don’t get involved.”

My father stares out into space. He crosses his legs and looks at the blue linoleum floor tiles. Finally, he gets up. He kisses my cheek on both sides, looks at my mother from the foot of the bed, and says, “Well, I’ve got things to do.” Neither of us, my mother or I, looks at him. “I’ll leave you guys now.” He takes a few steps back, turns, and leaves.

“Do you think the biopsy’s a good idea?” my mother says.

“I don’t have any ideas about this. About what’s right or wrong. So what the doctor says I think is probably a good choice.”

She accepts this as sound reasoning.

I read my magazine by the foot of the bed. I move the chair next to her and read the magazine. The nurse comes back and I move the chair to the foot of the bed. I read there for a while. When I leave I fold her coat and put it over the chair back. My mother tells me to put her bag on the chair too.

“Not like that,” she says. My mother looks annoyed as she does when something isn’t done her way. I look at her annoyed as I always am when she asserts control over a minor situation. I pick her coat up lightly. I move it around on the chair until she is satisfied.

Note: Some names have been changed.

G

**Rozalia Jovanovic** is the Deputy Editor for Flavorpill NYC. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. Her fiction and essays have appeared in BlackBook, The New York Observer, The Believer, Esquire.com, and Unsaid among others. She lives in New York and is the co-founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art.

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