I was unfaithful to you last week.
Though I tried to be true
to the beautiful vagaries
of our unauthorized love,
I told a stranger our story,
arranging and rearranging us
until we were orderly, reduced.
I didn’t want to sleep with this stranger.
I wanted, I think, to see her yield,
to sense her body’s musculature,
her history of sane resistance
become pliable, as yours had
twenty-two years ago.
I told her we met in parks
and rest stops along highways.
Once, deep in the woods,
a blanket over stones and dirt.
I said that you were, finally,
my failure of nerve,
made to the contours of my body,
so wrongly good for me
I had to give you up.
Listening to myself, it seemed
as if I were still inconsolable,
and I knew the seductiveness in that,
knew when she’d try to console me
I’d allow her the tiniest of victories.
I told her about Laguna, the ruins
we made of each other.
To be undone — I said I learned
that’s what I’d always wanted.
We were on a train from Boston
to New York, this stranger and I,
the compartment to ourselves.
I don’t have to point out to you
the erotics of such a space.
We’d been speaking of our marriages,
the odd triumphs of their durations.
“Once….,” I said, and my betrayal began,
and did not end.
She had a story, too.
Mine seemed to coax hers out.
There was this man she’d meet
every workday Thursday at noon.
For three years, every Thursday
except Thanksgiving. She couldn’t
bear it anymore, she said,
the lies, the coming home.
Ended, she said.
Happiest years of my life, she said.
At that moment (you understand)
we had to hug, but that’s all we did.
It hardly matters. We were in each other’s
sanctums, among the keepsakes,
we’d gone where most sex cannot go.
I could say that telling her our story
was a way of bringing you back to life,
and for a while it was, a memorial
made of memory and its words.
But here’s what I knew:
Watching her react, I was sure I’d tell
our story again, to others. I understood
how it could be taken to the bank,
and I feared I might not ever again
feel enough to know when to stop.
Hatsheput writes, ‘The first line is such a brilliant hook. I like this poem because of the interesting questions it raises about how we tend to define infidelity. Is it infidelity to be riding rough-shod over sacrosanct memories? Is there such a thing as sacrosanct memories? Is the act of constructing that memorial of words, an homage to the beauty that was, or a trivialization of the indescribable in that which was? A slight to the effing ineffable It-thing. To quote Donne, is it “profanation of our joy to tell the laity of our love”?’
BM adds, there is a sense of déjà vu when you read this poem. Many of us have been spectators to (or been part of) intimate conversations between complete strangers, as they unravel their lives, reveal their deepest secrets. The shield of unfamiliarity and transient nature of the space (a train ride, for instance), makes these moments perfectly ripe for sharing – complete openess, no scores, no history, no checks on accuracy and no offence or judgement – its a stranger’s story told to a stranger – it almosts smells like … fiction. It might be the story of lost love, an illiness hidden from dear ones, or plain frustration, failure, … infidelity. Every life has some of these and The Stories reflects them, so well.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
More on Stephen Dunn here.