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Les Enfants Terribles

by David Lehman


When girlfriend and boyfriend begin to find out
What each other is really like:
A poke in the pants leaves the problem unsolved
Like a mystery with too many conflicting clues
And no detective to follow the leads but an off-Broadway
Off-duty cop, well-intentioned but despised
By his unfulfilled wife, ten years his junior,
Who is tired of being a homemaker, and can’t have kids,
Which is what he wants, wouldn’t you know it,
Whether because he can’t get it or not, who can say
Without fear of misrepresentation? Still, living together
As they have, month after month, the years in and out,
They have come to know each other quite as well
As kids growing up in the same room, listening
To the same stupid songs on the radio, inventing new problems
So that, solving them, they could feel like a couple
Of adults at last; and the year cranberries were poisonous
They kept a jar of cranberry sauce in the ice-box
And the first person to eat some was ridiculed
In the ambulance by smarter brother and older sister
Looking as gleeful as a bow-tie on a chubby cigar-smoker’s collar.

No doubt it’s a miracle they have survived at all
But survive they have, waking up relieved from bad dreams,
“Hey, I don’t have poison ivy after all!”
She has learned how to handle his gun, while he has mastered
The cockpit of her plane, and together they ride
Remote-control, handcuffed together for better and for worse.
On a more pedestrian level, things have been working out too:
A time-saving division of labor has been devised
Whereby she buys the groceries and he does the dishes
And soon they shall become parents themselves
In order to get back at their own, but first
There is a hell of bills to pay, application forms to fill out,
And alarm clocks to obey, cursing. After a year
Of paid unemployment, it’s hard to go back to being
A secretary on Wall Street, where the days off are few
And the boss a cheap lecher, but is there any choice?
And the receptionist hates the typist, and the account
Executives hate each other, and the secretaries hate
Themselves, and the file clerk hates the works.

So off they go, on exhausted day off, confined
To the pleasures of local sightseeing, resigned
To study what they used to mock with a child’s cruel honesty:
States of sleep, changes of weather, the differing light
Of a New York street in winter. And always with anger
Difficult to deny, though they try, though to what purpose
They do not know. The search for a common enemy
Took them to the city a long time ago, and now
They’re stuck. Trying to piece together the plot,
Having come in the middle of the movie, they feel like hollering
At the loud-mouth midget in the seat behind them
For it’s no fun punching someone your own size
And there’s nothing as delightful as an interrupted argument
To team up with your opponent and let the peacemaker
Take it on the chin, which is what he was leading with,
Let’s face it. So many Saturday night movies
They begin to miss the background music
When there isn’t any in their lives. What, they wonder,
Are they to do with all that wasted virility,
Those cheap cinematic effects like an unheeded cry
For help, a twisted piano string around the neck, a mother’s tears?
And after the picture is over they go to a bar and talk
About the actress they have just seen, feeling like Paris.

“She was a cunt,” the man says. “Yes, but she was
A beautiful cunt,” the woman replies. The Sun Also Rises
Made him want to be a writer in high school, but she
Went to college with Scott Fitzgerald, and memorized
The meaning of romance. Now, half a century later,
She knows the voice rising from deep within his body
Bursting in his throat like a threat
Or the fear of a pair of praying hands
Menacing because detached
From the body they once belonged to—
An executioner on his day off during the Reign of Terror in France.
An infinity of colliding particles is the aftermath of the pill
In the glass of water he swallows, and smiles, and says goodbye
Moments before leaving for his new job at the White House
And he is carrying a briefcase, as is considered good form,
But instead of the papers and the prophylactics
Customarily contained within, he has learned
How to pack his voice like a bomb
And he knows his death is only a few minutes away.

 

David Lehman teaches at Hamilton College, is poetry editor of The New York Arts Journal, and has had work in Poetry, The Paris Review, and various other journals. (1977)


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