THERMOS 2: Jennifer Denrow

Here’s another of the poems I’ve spent a lot of time with over the years, from our second issue in late 2008. Jen Denrow subsequently published this poem as the first section of her book, California, available here from Four Ways Books. She also talked to us about the book, here. — AS

 

California

Forget your life.

Okay I have.

Lay something down that is unlike you:

Sold boat, Italian song.

I’m losing my head over this:

this is what the doll said when you pulled its head
from its body;

all the girls laughed.

I’ll move to California. I should
go alone. I’ll go

with the knowledge of fake
snow. I’ll ask my father to bring me.

 

*

 

I liked it better
when my fingers
were people.

I should drive away from my life.

If a man comes through town on his way to California, I will go with him. I don’t care who
he is:

if his wife is pretty, fine;
if he is returning to her, fine.

A man should be going there today,

at least one man; this city
is so big.

When I’m in California I’ll go to the beach
and cry. All of the seagulls will crowd

around me and force my mouth open
with their wings. One

will bring me a fish. I won’t be able to leave them.

My fingers
aren’t people
anymore.

I forgot to train them. They were over watered. They drowned.

There isn’t a steeple, no alderman discussing the loss.

That was a hand-church;

that was my folly.

 

*

 

My life in California will be inspiring. I’ll send postcards to people who didn’t know I was
going. I’ll even send postcards to people I haven’t talked to in years.

I’ll buy a guitar once I arrive.

I’ll audition at a local club to become the nightly entertainment.

I’ll say, I can do anything you need.

I’ll show them card tricks and how my dog can talk.

I won’t have a dog.

Everyone will laugh at me.

When it’s winter and the woman next door needs to borrow some change for laundry, I’ll
call someone and say how unhappy I am.

I shouldn’t go to California then.

No one can be alive there.

The store windows are just so the owners think people are alive.

I’ve never even wanted to go to California before.

I should leave now.

 

*

 

I went to wake up my husband to tell him I was leaving. He said, Why do you want to go there?

Because I have to.

You should fly then.

He won’t let me borrow his car.

My car doesn’t have AC.

I know a guy who should be driving to California this week. I check my email to see if he
has written to invite me.

He hasn’t.

The computer says the right person is out there waiting for me. It asks for my name and
age. I tell my husband to make a profile on a love match website and I’ll do the same
and we can see if we are compatible. He doesn’t want to, so instead I ask if I can
talk in his mouth andhe lets me but says it tickles.

Later when he wakes up he’ll say, What was all of that about California?

And I’ll say, Oh nothing.

And he’ll say, You’re pushing me away.

And I’ll say, Probably, but I don’t mean to.

He’ll leave for work and I’ll spend the day listening to my favorite musician sing very sad
songs that will make me want to go far away from myself.

I’ll go to California then.

 

*

 

When I went to the backyard,

I said to myself,

this doesn’t look like California

and nothing in my life does

and my husband says he’ll have to deal with this forever.

I want to go so bad I clench my fist
hard in the air, I push my finger into
his chin and cry: it feels like this, I say.
I need it this bad.

 

*

 

I realize now that I’m a woman.

I go to the store.

I buy California style pizza and beer. I drop my ID when the woman asks to see it.

No one in the store looks like they could be from California.

A baby eats some keys.

I buy a magazine with people from California in it; they are all very beautiful.

I come out of the store and the sky

is filled with many white clouds

that could be stand-ins for California clouds.

I don’t even have a tan.

I know this is the only time I’ll leave the house today.

 

*

 

When I get home my husband sees me balling my fist and he scowls at me. On the radio is
a story about a woman who walked from California to New York. She was 80. She says we
don’t have a democracy.

I need to arrive at something.

Now there is a story about a thirteen year old boy who is dying. He tells the reporter not to
sit around being miserable. He gasps for breath.

He won’t ever be able to dive into a pool.

He is a beautiful child.

He is dead.

He told the reporter to always let someone in line in front of him.

The next story is about the Unabomber’s brother. His mother kissed his cheek when he
told her about her son.

She said, I can’t imagine what you’ve been going through.

If I was in California, I wouldn’t be listening to the radio.

I write California in the air.

Another story comes on about a man who built a cork boat.

I bring up images of California on the computer; there are three million to choose from. I
set one as the screen saver. It’s a yellow map of the southern part.

 

*

 

Instead of going to California I make my husband a ham and cheese sandwich to take to
work. He doesn’t like the way I place the cheese on the bread.
When he leaves for work I sit in a quiet house.

I told him I couldn’t have this life.

This wasn’t me living here.

I was living in California.

He said cruel things that he knew would scare me.

He brought the ring from the cabinet and tried to put it on my finger.

I said no.

I said I can’t be married right now.

He said this happens every year.

He may be right.

 

*

 

My mother took me to California once when I was very small. We visited Disneyland. I
wore Mickey Mouse ears and had my hair in braids.

I wasn’t afraid. No one talked to me.

On the plane ride back the stewardess offered us soft drinks.

 

*

 

Once on a plane a foreign woman offered me fruit.

I declined.

This was when I was older, after I’d already been to California.

When I was there, I wrote my name in the sand. I wrote my name and drew a heart and
then I wrote my mother’s name. This was when she loved my father so I wrote his
name too.

We were visiting my uncle.

I see a picture of him holding me and laughing.

He’s dead now, so I can’t visit him there anymore.

He had diabetes and drank a lot and died alone in a motel room.

My aunt said she received a phone call from him after he was dead. He groaned a little and
said unintelligible things.

He lived in California because he was in the Navy and had to live there.

If I lived in California, I would buy an iguana. I would meet a lot of nice people; they
would make kind remarks about my decision to follow my intuition.

 

*

 

Leonard Cohen went to California.

He went there to become holy.

I could become holy in California. I could live in a small room with only a little light.

My husband says I can rent a car if I really need to go. I tell him it’s not the same. Why
doesn’t he ever feel something like this? He just doesn’t.

He lives in this house completely.

This house could be the problem.

I suspect that I’m the problem.

He says I want to abandon our animals; he says I’m crazy.

I don’t feel like I’m crazy,

I just feel like someone who wants to go to California.

 

*

 

I just remembered that I do know someone who lives in California. He’s a man I worked
with several years ago. He moved there to make movies.

We made a movie once. It was a horror film that took place in a movie theatre. We worked
in a movie theatre.

Our dialogue was poor.

I finally gave up.

I fell in love with the manager. We had sex. We laughed the whole time.

This was the first time I had sex. I was twenty two. He didn’t love me.

Later, I realized that I never really loved him either, I just pretended to so I could be sad
about something. He was very charming and said funny things. He never took his hat off
because he was going bald and didn’t want anyone to know. His girlfriend was very sweet.
He made all of the girls love him. Even the prettiest Mormon girl loved him. I started
taking a lot of drugs so it didn’t matter that she loved him. I saw them kiss and felt
nothing.

He is the kind of man who could live in California.

He had a very fast car and a lot of friends.

If he lived in California, he could be a politician.

 

*

 

On the television I saw the President in a fast food restaurant in California. He was buying
a cup of coffee for a reporter. Someone went to get the coffee, a recently new citizen, and
when he came back and tried to hand it to the reporter, the President pushed his arm away
and said, I’ll handle that. He took the coffee from the new citizen and handed it to the
reporter himself, and then he took some folded ones from his pocket and handed them
back to the citizen.

He was trying to be real.

He was trying to look like the kind of person who wanted to be in California.

 

*

 

If California didn’t exist, I’d still want to go there.

As I look around the house I think of things I’ll take with me.

I pack my bags.

Before my husband left he asked if I would be here when he got home.

Yes.

But you’ll be gone someday.

Yes.

Will you at least leave a note?

Yes.

The last man I left got a note. I didn’t leave him for California but for my husband.

He was an angry man. The note I left was filled with a lot of statements about aggression
and happiness.

After I left, he went to California for an art show. He married his ex girlfriend. I knew he loved her the whole time he loved me. I didn’t talk about her. I let him have her in silence.

 

*

 

My cousin calls. She tells me there are only 363 days until the new Harry Potter movie
comes out. My aunt gets on the phone. I tell her about California. She tells me about a
man who lost his leg but can still feel two toes fall asleep.

The reality is that…

My aunt talks like this.

She says his leg is not really gone. That’s not reality. She tells me how Christ replaced
someone’s ear.

I hear her daughter in the background asking to borrow some pot. Here, but make it last, I
don’t want to go back over there in two days
, my aunt says. Back over there is to the house of the
man with one leg and phantom toes.

When I was a teenager my mom would put extra pot on a cheese plate that had a mouse
cover. She would say, it’s there in case you need to relax. I didn’t need to relax but I still took
the pot. When my friends came over I said we had to smoke in the garage. This was a lie.
I don’t know why I said this.

My aunt says California is a little far, but she could pick me up in a few days and we could
go to Chicago.

I am suddenly terrified to leave the house, but I tell her that will be fine.

She probably won’t come. She usually forgets to do things like that, so I don’t worry too much.

We talk for two hours. She tells me how frustrating it is to get laid off three times in four years.

She applies for nine jobs a week.

No one calls her back.

She says perhaps if she was in California it would be easier to get a job.

 

*

 

By this time it’s apparent that I’m not leaving for California today.

The street light comes through the window like a forgotten angel.

I should go to sleep.

I’ll leave tomorrow.

If I’m lucky, I’ll meet someone who’s going there.

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