by John Carter
Note: All poem excerpts are from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Greek and Latin are from the introduction to “The WasteLand” and translate as follows:
“For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle,
and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want’?
She replied, ‘I want to die’.”
APRIL is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Her name was Whitney. A timid girl, homely, I suppose. But a lot of that came from being poor. She dressed in near rags, tattered hand-me-downs that screamed “uncool.” A cheap pair of big, thick glasses sat astride her face. And even they were damaged, with gray duct tape on the right side. She hid her crooked teeth by never smiling.
Her lunch, when she had one, was brought in an old paper bag that was as rumpled as her clothes, faded from days of being carried to school and home again. These inadvertent faux pas made her a magnet for the teasing of the popular kids, who made fun of her poverty and plainness by calling her “homemade” and “sack lunch.”
I didn’t participate. I was the adolescent version of Sweden in 1939, safe in my neutrality, never guilty of anything more than lacking the courage to take a stand and help her. Afraid to put my own popularity at risk by the simple act of trying to be her friend, even though I now believe that she might have been a good friend if I had given her that chance.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Whitney sat in front of me in Ms. Williams’ class, both of us right by the windows. The day I remember most clearly was one of those beautiful Spring days in central Georgia, the middle of April. We had been allowed to open up the windows while we were given some quiet time to finish reading two T.S. Eliot poems and write a brief essay on each. I finished early and sat watching a ladybug inside the window screen, navigating her escape. At first, she crawled back and forth with so much energy and determination, I felt myself cheering her on. But as she failed to find her way out, I could see the weight of futility start to wear her down. The little legs slowed, and she took more frequent rest breaks. I noticed a small rip in the screen that offered escape, but the ladybug couldn’t seem to find it.
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
I remember the moment when I realized Whitney was watching me … and the ladybug. Time slowed, and I could see every detail of the ladybug’s bright wings. The slight breeze through the open window was thick and slow as molasses, and the warm sun glinted off the left lens of Whitney’s glasses, illuminating a small crack that I had not noticed before. I sat still as a stone, a spectator in this dance of life and death, a moment pregnant with potential. I could feel our futures stretching out before us, pulling us toward some resolution that we could not yet divine. And I could see Whitney’s destiny. College was not even a dream for her, nor happiness. She would be trapped, too, in some trailer park, caring for her parents, and later, an abusive husband.
In that instant, my young mind seized upon the certainty that we do not seek happiness in this life, but consistency. We turn again and again towards that which we know. All Whitney had ever known was poverty, torment and sadness. And no one would save her from their comfortable, if weathered, embrace.
Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere,
et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.
Just as the ladybug seemed about to give up, to lie down and die. Whitney touched the edge of the screen’s tear with the end of her pencil, pulling it open just enough. The ladybug saw her chance, and she crawled to the outside of the screen. She seemed to flex her wings a few times in a tiny victory dance. Then … zip, she was gone.
Whitney looked at me with sad eyes behind those big thick glasses. She pulled her pencil out, let the tear close, and turned back around.
At that moment, I saw Whitney for the first time. A pretty young girl, really, with a kind, wistful smile. She could only dream of cheerleading and sports, dates to the prom and valentines that never came. Trapped in a sad life of desperate poverty and the most cruel teasing, she was still kind enough to take a minute to conspire in the escape of the bright and the beautiful.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
That moment was over 50 years ago. I am an old man now, and most of those who loved me and were loved by me are gone. But I think of Whitney often and wish I had shown her the same kindness that I saw from her in that moment a lifetime ago. I hope she found her way to fly to a life away from all the sadness that I never had the courage to help her face.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.