Friday, October 12, 2007

Acquaintances Are Not Friends

A long time ago, I had a residency at a so-called "arts colony" named Ragdale, north of Chicago, in Lake Forest. The owner of the property, which featured a large house and a couple of smaller houses, as well as original prairie-pasture, had turned it into a non-profit "colony" that artists could apply to visit from one week to a month or more in order to write, paint, sculpt, and so on. Of course, it's heavenly to go to such a place, devote oneself to one's writing (in my case), and to talk with other artists. There was a kitchen where you took care of your own breakfast and lunch needs, and then in the evening, there was a casual, communal dinner cooked by an employee. Lake Forest itself is an extremely wealthy suburb of Chicago, so when you walked into town, you were immediately identified as Not From Around Here. I kept in touch for a while with some of the people I met there, but I became friends with none of them, nor did I expect to do so. It was pleasant to be around them, but it was just business (that is to say, art): the idea was to get some work done while you were there. Such places are, naturally, also renowned for their assignations, their artistic soap operas, especially the more famous writers' colonies in the East. Ragdale, at least at that time, tried to identify itself and its ethos a bit differently. It tended to encourage the work, not the extra-curricular activities. In any event, I hunkered down in my room--and I had a great one: one of the large spaces on the second floor of the larger house. I'm sure a few of the residents got to know each other very well, but I minded my own business.

Later I visited Chicago for a conference, and by chance I ran into a woman whom I'd met at Ragdale. We'd been mere acquaintances. We'd spoken a few times at the communal dinners. I think she was a painter, and I think she actually lived in Chicago. When we ran into each other at the Art Institute in Chicago, I had the sense she was a bit down on her luck. I'd seen the exhibit I'd wanted to see and was heading for the museum-cafe, so I asked her if she wanted to join me for a bite to eat. She actually looked hungry, as if maybe she hadn't eaten breakfast that day, as if maybe she were out of work. She accepted the invitation, but very warily, and I didn't and don't begrudge her wariness.

That sort of interaction between acquaintances is actually quite complicated, for myriad reasons, and the usual reasons were complicated by the fact that I was allegedly doing her a good turn by offering to buy her a meal. Of course, she was rightly wary of the possibility that I might be doing more than a good turn, and I was hoping not to appear to want to do anything more than a good turn. (Good grief, this is the sort of over-thinking you find in a Henry James novel.) On the surface, it was a coincidental meeting of acquaintances; but of course there were all sorts of calculations and concerns operating under the surface. This poem came from that experience.

Wanting Nothing Is Impossible

At the Art Institute, an acquaintance
encountered me. We talked easily
enough. I offered to buy us something
to eat, museum café. She accepted.

Younger than I, she had lived a lot
already. I sensed she was broke—
nothing obvious; intuition.
With coffee and food, we talked

more. I said I was
glad we had run into each other.
It was true. Happenstance
had pleased me. Her

face changed. Maybe apparitions
of men she’d known had suddenly appeared
around the table. Maybe she couldn’t
recall a single social interaction

in which someone but especially
men had not seemed
to want too much from her.
I sensed she was broke. I saw she

thought she saw me wanting something.
It’s true. I wanted her to finish her
coffee and say, “Nice to see you,”
and then leave. I wanted to say,

“Nice to see you,” and leave.
Soon we said phrases like that. Her
face kept its wariness. Her
experience had put her on alert.

We left the café and parted.
Can the pronoun “he” ever
want nothing from the pronoun “her”?
Certainly, in theory. My acquaintance

did not live in theory. Her life
was composed of constant practice.
Insistent apparitions had sat at table.
I sensed she was broke. Now I hope

she’s not broke, that she’s
better and well, that her art has come along.
Well, when I think of her that day,
I sense I’m briefly sad for

simple meetings troubled
in Chicago, not to mention
everywhere. I am a ghost at
a café table in the Art Institute

looking at her guarded face. I want
to say, “I don’t want anything. Just
enjoy the hot coffee, the warm food, the rest.”
Her face says, “If you say that,

then you do want something. You
want me to believe you, and believe the rest.
That isn't possible for me. I have had
to take care of myself. Thank you and goodbye."

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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