Even though I taught English Lit and did a little writing on the side, I couldn't make head or tails of Rosalie's poetry.
We had met through our jobs as part-time teaching slaves at the local community college. Rosalie had been hired for her Master's degree, her prize-winning book of poetry, and because she was willing to teach for $1500 per course per semester. I had been hired for my Doctorate, my friendship with the provost's wife, and a similar financial desperation. We were non-itinerant gypsy scholars. the intellectual cannon fodder of the times, victims and perpetuators of the American myth that education would provide success in life and security in old age.
Rosalie was over sixty while I was more than a decade younger, but our lives stretched over a wider time frame because she had produced her three girls early on while my two boys, late in coming, were the age of her grandchildren. Rosalie told me that she had come to town the previous semester to be the salvation of her alcoholic middle daughter, Monica, who, nevertheless, had turned her out of the house within a week. "She was drinking more than ever, just to spite me," Rosalie confided.
I bought one of her books, of course--it seemed the right thing to do--and, after a while, I began to understand Rosalie's poetry, partially because I was sympathetic to her and partially because by then, I had learned enough about her life that I understood most of the obscure references. I knew that Rosalie's cold, judgmental parents had brought her up to be rich and privileged and that her late husband, a stock broker who invested heavily in Jack Daniels. had deprived her of both possibilities. I also knew that Rosalie had two other daughters and that Susan, the eldest, "the perfect one" who had taken over the role of her mother's confident /companion long before her father's death, now kept herself and her family distant from her mother, while Valerie, the youngest, was constantly hitting her up for money.
In prose, Rosalie's complaints were not at all obscure. "Monica had been drinking when she picked me to go to the doctor yesterday morning," she reported when we met up at the college cafeteria. "And when she took me back to my apartment, she just zoomed off. That's the way she is when she takes me to the grocery store too--just zooms off, not waiting to see that I get in the door safely!"
Her voice softened. "Valerie called me again last night. She's the artist, you know--the sensitive one who had an abortion when she was nineteen."
Remembering the poem, I nodded.
"She said she needs to rest and get her head on straight, and she wants me to send her air fare so she can come live with me for a while."
I looked across the table and wondered what, if anything, I should say. I was sympathetic because of all the tragedies in Rosalie's life and because we were both in the same employment boat, but I felt uncomfortable counseling someone old enough to be my mother.
"You're not going to send her the money, are you?" I asked cautiously. The "baby," I figured was now at least thirty-five and should be standing on her own feet by now.
Rosalie looked away, smiled pleadingly, then glanced down at her salad. "I don't know. She needs me."
"Sometimes what people really need is to handle things for themselves. Think of all the times you've loaned her money. Has she ever paid any of it back?"
Rosalie couldn't meet my eyes. "She's never been able to hold a job long enough to build up savings."
Over dessert, my heart pounding in my throat, I handed Rosalie a collection of my own tightly-woven sonnets for her to look at "when she had a chance." I hoped she would rave about them, tell me how to get a publisher, maybe even volunteer to send my darlings off to her own publisher with a recommendation, but she just stuffed the pages in her overflowing satchel and asked me to hand out circulars advertising her upcoming poetry reading.
As usual, I dropped Rosalie off at her apartment before heading home, and, mindful of her complaints about Monica, waited at the curb as she unlocked her door.
Rosalie's reading was held mid-morning of the following week in a setting that was a poem in itself--a small, octagonal room at the very top of the oldest building on campus, its unscreened windows open to the the cloudless blue sky. I counted the house, of course--twenty three attendees in all, mostly fellow part-time instructors there to back up one of their own. Not bad for poetry, I thought, hoping my plastering of the campus with her circulars had helped.
Rosalie stood on the dias at the bottom of the room, dressed for the part in a white peasant blouse joined to an ankle-length multi-print skirt by a bright green woven sash. Her wispy gray hair was almost neat, and, for once, there were no discernible traces lipstick on the edges of her upper teeth.
She opened her book to a marked page and began reading in an odd sort of stage rhythm with an unexpected upbeat on the end of each line. Afterwards, she explained each poem in relation to her own life or her parents' lives, or Susan's or Valerie's.
Suddenly I realized that Rosalie had never shown me a poem about Monica.
Afterwards, the audience mingled and partook of wine and cheese. I introduced myself as a friend of Rosalie's to the angry-looking woman commandeering the refreshments.
"I'm Monica, her middle daughter," she responded through gritted teeth. "I have a wonderful husband, two great kids, and a very successful catering business. I'm also the one who arranged for the reading and set up the refreshments." Even across the table, she reeked of alcohol.
Rosalie blew town a month later, never having said a word about my sonnets. Nothing I could do but drive over to the liquor store and pick up a bottle of Black Cap vodka.