On discovering a man I was secretly in love with wrote a poem portraying me in an unflattering light

2013 Fiction Prize Winner


illustrations by Gabriella Barouch



At least poetry is nearly dead in the United States, thus limiting the number of people who have access to my humiliation. It appeared on page 17 of the Fall issue of Ploughshares, a triumph for him, to have cracked into the literary elite. It would have been bearable for me alone to know that he didn’t love me back, if only beneath the title of his poem, in neat italics, he had not written, for Kimiko.

“I didn’t think I was so harsh on you,” he said.

“Well, I did,” I said, and hung up on him.

Thankfully, they have only 3,600 paid subscribers, the rest being newsstand copies that may or may not be sold. And it’s not as if he wrote, for Kimiko Savitsky, who is obsessed with me and thinks I don’t know.

My best friend Kit said I should look at it this way: at least I was mentioned in the pages of a national literary magazine. If Andrew ever becomes truly successful, I could be considered a muse. If I ever publish anything, people might feel like they’ve seen my name before. There is an upside. It’s unbearable sometimes, being the friend of an optimist. Kit sent me a haiku to cheer me up:

Lovely Kimiko,
the stuff my dreams are made of.
Or else I’m just drunk.

“There’s nothing from nature,” I told him. “You’ve got to have an element from nature.”

“But there’s the turn,” he argued. “I thought I needed to have juxtaposition or nature in a haiku. I didn’t think I needed both.”

There was always the turn. I kept waiting in my life for the turn to stop turning.

“Miss Savitsky, what rhymes with depth?”

My students were always asking me to help them rhyme words; it was inconceivable to them that a poem not rhyme, and who was I to tell them otherwise when it was on every standardized test they’d ever encountered? I taught them about meter and allusion and watched their brows furrow in frustration as they counted 5-7-5 on their fingers.

I taught English to ninth and twelfth graders; Kit taught tenth and eleventh. I told him they were ruined by the time they got back to me and he would always say, “ruined for what?” The ninth graders were doing their poetry unit and for the fifth year in a row I had to admonish some pencil-necked geek who said poetry was “gay.”

“I didn’t mean anything against homosexuals,” he said in detention, as I made him copy The Complete Poems of Wilfred Owen.

“I’m sure you didn’t,” I said, “but you disrupted class. I’m sure next time you will be more respectful.”

“At least Wilfred Owen died young,” he said. “Fewer poems to copy.”

I sat at my desk and corrected my seniors’ essays as I watched the student, Josh, busy with his copying. Somewhere in this Jewish day school where I taught there was maybe a little Lauren or Allie (or maybe Ben) who watched this Josh’s every move, seeking the glimmer of hope that he liked her (or him) and reading nuance into everything he said, every glance. On my desk, the magazine with its cursed “What You Thought” on page 17 mocked me. I wrote snatches of lines in my notebook, all of which were wholly unacceptable. Finally, I wrote:

On Reading the Poem You Wrote About Me
You’ve broken my heart;
I wish you would fucking die
I’ll kill you myself.

Which was the worst haiku ever, but pretty much evoked how I was feeling.

“No nature,” Kit said, reading it over my shoulder when he came to pick me up for the ride home. Unfortunately, he was right as usual, something else I hated about him.

My father nearly killed his parents with shock when he returned from a year studying in Japan and brought home my mother, Makiko. His parents were both Brooklyn born-and-bred, the children of Holocaust survivors, and they knew with the unshakeable certainty of the truly mistaken that their sons would only bring home nice Jewish girls. My mother placated them, and kept my father from being disowned, by converting prior to their wedding. Her Hebrew was always terrible and singsong, and she couldn’t pronounce its guttural <ch> or <r>. My brother Taro and I had the same almond eyes and black hair, although ours had a surprising amount of waviness to it, and we had confused synagogues in six different states. Approximately ten percent of my students asked, Miss Savitsky, why do you teach in a Jewish school?

Andrew was perfect for me, but he couldn’t see it. He was the nice Jewish boy my grandmother kept wishing someone in the family would bring home. We met in the poetry section of Politics & Prose and started meeting for coffee in Dupont Circle about once a week. We exchanged poems and his were better than mine; I accepted this with the grace my mother always told me I should have in deference to my future husband. He had a girlfriend, some of the time, but they were in an “open relationship” that got progressively more open the more time I spent with him. After three months we started meeting for coffee in his apartment, and he would read me Whitman while we were lying in bed, me grading essays on “The Iliad” while he smoked fervently. I had always sworn that I would never date a man who smoked, but of course I never stuck to my guns about my own resolutions.

“Do you ever think about getting married?” I asked, after things had been like this for around seven months.

“Actually, Lisa and I are getting married,” he said. “In December.”

I started picking up my clothes and putting them on even as I was asking him to explain. I left, crying, and he didn’t know what I was so upset about. At the time, he said that nothing would change; things would be as open as they had ever been.

On Finding Out the Man I Have Been Sleeping with 
Is Marrying Someone Else
biting words, you sting
sweetly and deep, like an asp
clutched by a lover

That was six months ago. I had done an admirable job of pretending that I was over it, even when winter came and I knew the wedding must be coming up. Kit carried me home drunk and cursing on the day I saw the wedding announcement in the newspaper, but he never said I told you so even though he had, in fact, told me so. I considered the whole thing just about forgotten when the poem was published, like an injury where the doctor has to re-break the bone for it to heal properly.

Christopher Maldonado, called “Kit” after watching too much Knight Rider as a child, six-foot-six and Northern Italian and thus as blond-haired and blue-eyed as they come, an eternal disappointment to his old-world Catholic parents for being flamboyantly gay as well as teaching in a Jewish day school: this was my best friend. We met in Teach for America in Southern Missouri, where we taught children who lived in houses that actually had dirt floors. This astonished both of us, who had been raised in northeastern cities, Kit in Boston and I in New York. We earned our MA degrees at Southwest Missouri State University and tried to make sure our pupils had socks or underwear and didn’t have head lice. Lice eggs showed up a lot better against my black hair than they did in Kit’s blond strands. We shampooed each other with Rid and picked at each other’s scalps with the special little combs while drinking red wine and watching Godzilla movies. Kit loved Godzilla movies, or any creature feature that was badly dubbed or starred a fake-as-hell monster. We kept the tradition alive after I got him to move to D.C. by recommending him for the open position at my school.

Friday night I had him over for stir-fry and a newly restored edition of “Tarantula.” We drank Italian table wine with our chicken and snow peas and got maudlin. Kit’s impossibly young boyfriend had just broken up with him, for someone closer to his own age. I was six months shy of my thirty-third birthday and had recently become filled with the fear that I would never get married and have children. Some of which was prompted by my mother asking, Aren’t you afraid you will never have children? In this sense, her conversion to Judaism had been successful.

“I feel like I’d be missing something,” I told Kit.

“I feel the same way,” he said. “I always wanted kids.”

“You hate kids,” I said.

“I hate married people,” he said. “There’s a difference.”