Leaving the Search Bar

Jonathan Gourlay searches, online and in memory, for an old friend.

You can sense the dead girl’s presence but you can’t see her. You can almost picture her standing at a microphone saying her little poems. It must have been in graduate school. She was at the bar where the poets read their new poems and the audience (all the other poets) decided how jealous they should be. If you stare directly at your memory of her, she is obscured. Is this a symptom of age, you wonder? Or perhaps your brain has no more capacity for memory?

Google may help clear things up. Type in her name and click the images. OK. There are four pictures here. In all but one she has put on a different face from the one you knew. She has a professional smile and a professional look. In these pictures she seems like nobody you knew or ever could know. She is her own stock photo. You stare. You excavate the image and feel a tug of memory there. One image looks like her. She is standing at a microphone saying her poems. Her stringy, unkempt hair. That’s the key. You have known that hair. Perhaps you have been close to it? Smelled its funk? Imbibed her living essence back when you were a young man fiddling with your verse?

Perhaps she was one of those confusing poets who said things like, “And then we came to the ellipses and slid, little children on sleds, down the white of the page.” Perhaps she added a drug habit or a dead brother and wrote from what we called the “victim’s pose.” You only remember her if you don’t try to remember her and what you remember is she was standing at a microphone and looking down at a folded page just spat out by a dot matrix printer and she was insisting that you take her seriously. I hope you did.

The search bar is certain. The search bar knows she smiled once when her company needed to update its employee page. The search bar can recite her poetry verbatim, though it makes no judgments. Your memory is haphazard. Your memory is stitched sensation. A borrowed sound here, a cast-off emotion there, perhaps a bit of fabricated plot to hold it together.

Your poetry professor, jangling her many bracelets for effect, said that overuse of “you” generally suggests the poet has an uncomfortable relationship with “I.” Be wary of those who use “you” to speak of themselves.

Perhaps you ought to read no further.

Let’s place you in a cafe. You are in the cafe on the corner of Main and Front streets in a dirty former mill town in Connecticut. It is a town of crumbling memory. The busted windows of the old paper mill. The Sunday flea market where people pick over the bones of farms and farm houses. The old train station where, a hundred years ago, well-heeled New Yorkers used to pass through on their way to their summer mansions. Now the station is a former restaurant and a future real estate office.

You are eating a mini-cake and drinking a difficult espresso with a special squirt of the season: pumpkin for fall. Soon the season’s flavor will turn to peppermint. Then the great wheel of the calendar will slowly turn atop the universe and you will face lemon-lime season again. How many more rotations of seasonal flavors will you taste? With this thought, you sink into a vinyl chair, your laptop battery warming your knees.

There is the dead girl’s smiling face in the images. Was she a little crazy, like so many of your schoolmates? Many of those graduate school poets were crazy or pretending to be crazy which amounts to the same thing. You attempt to animate the image of her face into a real memory, but fail. Perhaps you should try other associations with the time in question. Think of the bar you used to frequent. The bar where the geniuses swallowed their greatness in great big quaffs of Old Style served in clear plastic cups. You sat mesmerized by the eternally cascading waterfall of light in the plastic beer ad that graced the wall. The undulating blue light represented the pristine waters from which the cheap beer was supposedly fashioned. You would gaze at the faux-artesian spring until harsh bare bulbs switched on at closing time. The bar patrons suddenly appeared very clearly to each other as nothing more than human rubble. In the naked fluorescence of bar closing, all pretense of specialness was cast away. You were just a bunch of swaying, feral poets whose lives were somewhat limited by your chosen path. Limited beautifully, you thought, in the way that a sonnet is limited. Meanwhile, somewhere far from Iowa, a person who actually knew what to do with a “tech bubble” was getting filthy rich.

As the bar closed, the poets lined up at the payphone. They called any number they could remember and begged to be allowed to please stay over tonight. “Hey, can I please crawl in your window?” they asked.

Was the dead girl one of these poets?

You are at a cafe trying to remember a woman. You are sipping a confusing drink that has no discernible identity but “warm” and “frothed” and whatever word the cafe has put in your brain to tell you that this concoction you are drinking is an autumn wind on a cool autumn day. It’s the word, the corporate suggestion, that you are really drinking.

Maybe that’s why you remember that it was autumn when you walked home with her after the bar closed. You couldn’t see her face behind her long, stringy hair. You left her at her apartment. She walked up the wooden stairs of a Victorian house that was turned into seven shag-rug enshrouded apartments. She waved goodbye to you. Did you follow her inside? Probably not.

It was understood that poets shouldn’t sleep with other poets. You would become fodder for metaphor as soon as you left her apartment. Perhaps you would show up in the next poetry packet as a talking cockroach or a slumping weeping willow or a stubborn, squawking duck in the Iowa River. And then you would have to fire back at her the next week with a carnivorous flower or something. Much of poetry is just metaphorical warfare that is the result of bad sex.

You stumble away from the dead girl’s apartment, alone.

I know where you are going. I bet she will open the door for you, too. In fact, I know it. Well, go ahead: remember. It is a memory that will forever escape the search bar. Let the cloud collect fake smiles and polished bios. This memory will go to the ground, where memories should go, along with their bearers.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.