I want to preface the story I’m about to tell you with these two small but important provisos: 1. Now that I own my own car, I’ll happily give a lift to any number of fake poets, drunk, high or sober. 2. Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely accidental.
Let me explain.
I was used to being poor and in a constant state of terror, so after I earned my M.F.A. at OSU, I figured, what’s five more years of graduate school? I was coming home to Cincinnati to get my Ph.D. and I would be studying poetry at the University of Cincinnati, home to the renowned Elliston Poet-in-residence program, a program that brought Robert Lowell and John Ashbery to the Queen City where Lowell, as legend has it, went nuts in Burnet Woods, and where I would eventually go nuts in Cheviot (only not as epically).
Google became, like, a thing. It was my first year in the program and my fellow students Sophia (now my colleague at the Columbus College of Art and Design) and Kevin and I had been given the honor of retrieving C.D. Wright, our Elliston Poet-in-Residence, from the airport, but I had only one picture of C.D. Wright and it was a precarious likeness at best.
I had some basic information about Wright’s flight from some professor or other, but because this was before Google was, like, a thing, and because I’d somehow managed to leave the house without any contact number for any professor who might know anything about anything, Sophia, Kevin and I found ourselves blinking up at Arrivals to find that Wright’s flight had been Delayed for many, many hours. We weren’t sure what to do except wait and hope we’d be paged over the intercom or that miraculously my professor had my cell phone number, which would’ve been supremely helpful, but weird.
So we waited. We sat for a while at the coffee place. One or more of us might’ve had coffee. We thumbed through magazines at the magazine stand and I remember Kevin looking at Travel and Leisure and there was a woman in an American flag bikini on a yacht on the cover and I remember him looking at it like it was something from another planet.
Meanwhile the flight’s arrival time was getting later and later. Do we leave? What if C.D. Wright landed and no one was there to greet her? Oh but we had so many papers to write and whole chapters of Jameson to read and if airports are purgatorial on a good day, we’d arrived at some supreme limbo in which neither Godot nor C.D. Wright would ever, ever come to plug up our muzak-addled ears with Good News.
We moved from a kind of organized, controlled anger (how could they not have given us a contact number?) to the sort hysteria poets are prone to when abandoned to awkward social situations for far too long. How much small talk could we manage? Things got metaphorical. We rode the escalator morosely up and down. Up and down. Do you like sestinas? I like sestinas. Sometimes. I kept reminding myself that I could write about this whole thing someday and achieve some modicum of revenge, but it was cold comfort.
Then, it happened: after something like four hours the plane landed because the screen said it did. Finally. But now came the hard part: how would we recognize her? Should we have made a sign? Why didn’t we make a sign? Would she know us? We’d be the bleary-eyed, uncombed ones and therefore graduate students.
I had an idea she had shortish, blondish hair and that she was somewhere around middle-aged, thin and probably wearing jeans and boots, so we watched for this fantasy version of C.D. Wright as folks started coming down the hallway toward baggage claim. We saw a couple of women that could’ve been her and we all smiled in that crazy, expectant way that says, You don’t know who I am yet, but I’m here! Still, no one seemed to be looking for us. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope again.
By this time we were all really digging deep to find our inner gregarious hostesses. No one wants to see a long face, my mom would always say, but my friend Kevin was doing a tremendous job of cultivating his long face and even our inner gregarious hostesses were thinking: This woman better be freaking amazing and help us get jobs and postdocs and publications or…
and there she was. She fit the crazed description I’d slapped together in my head and by my colleagues’ expressions, I knew they agreed with me: shortish, blondish hair, thin, etc.: C.D. Wright. But this woman was weaving up and down the hallway and her body had the kind of loopiness that comes from drinking. A lot of drinking. She was obviously alone and maybe even looking for someone, but we couldn’t be sure because we’d been trained in instability and doubt; we were graduate students.
We eyed each other. Should we approach her? No. No. Not yet. We followed a few feet behind, watching her. She veered back and forth across the hallway then stood swaying, looking up at the monitors that tell you which baggage carousel will spit out your luggage, then she staggered over to it and I mumbled something about pills; this woman wasn’t just drunk, I said; she was overmedicated. She was on pills and she was wasted. She was our Distinguished Visiting Poet and she was wasted. I mean, she looked like she’d rubbed her head on a balloon. And what about my car, I said. I mean, what if we get her in my car and she throws up all over it? What am I gonna tell my dad? One of my friends said, at least it would be a famous poet’s throw up.
We watched her lean over the carousel, looking for her bag with a drunk’s peculiar brand of concentration and then we watched her fall into the carousel. She fell into the carousel. Our Distinguished Visiting Poet fell into the baggage carousel and proceeded to take one, inelegant turn around it, legs up in the air.
So what do we do now? Is this what we signed up for? Seriously? Is this what our prospective profession has doomed us to? We might’ve wept in each others’ arms if we weren’t so terrified of our Poet’s embarrassment and our professors’ embarrassment and our own, overwhelming embarrassment.
We stood, unmoving, still watching, until someone suggested we just leave. Let’s just leave. But how could we leave?
An airport employee or two helped our Poet up out of the carousel, dusted her off, and said something stern to her. At least that part was over, right? And maybe it wasn’t really her; maybe the real C.D. Wright had whizzed past us, grabbed a cab and found her own way to her hotel with the kind of ingenuity and self-reliance we’d expected from her all along. And maybe we’d show up at workshop in two days and she’d be there, totally sober, totally cool and happy to have managed on her own, no fuss.
So when we finally made our move, it was with the kind of amplified adrenalin crooks must feel leaving a crime scene; maybe we wouldn’t get caught, but then again, maybe we would. We drove home in a silence punctuated here and there by bursts of insane laughter and when we parted, we parted reluctantly. We’d been to the wars.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I learned C.D. Wright had called in to say she wasn’t taking her original flight but had booked herself on a flight the following day. These are graduate school humiliations. You swallow them and move on.
And when we finally did meet the real C.D. Wright she was obviously not the kind of woman who’d fall into a baggage carousel, but she was the kind of woman who’d come to your shitty apartment in East Walnut Hills and record her groundbreaking book One Big Self on your husband’s home recording equipment while a plague of seventeen-year cicadas whirred and buzzed against the windows. But that’s another story…