Junior year of high school, the penultimate year of secondary education in North America is the time when you really start to catch the scent of leaving home. For me, the longing to leave was cemented by a school trip to Germany for three weeks in 1987. I went with my best friend and made some new ones in the process. A first flight, an international one at that, can be enough to transform an acquaintance into a beloved confidant when you are sixteen. Before our European adventure, my best friend and I wrote auf Deutsch in notes passed in class and used our second language to pretend we were foreign at the mall. We would speak in an accent to the shop attendants and prattle on about the formal event we were dreading attending at daddy's tennis club. This ruse we used to feign upper-crustiness gave us the confidence to try on dresses with price tags in the hundreds of dollars, with no intention or means to purchase.
As our exchange trip to Saarbrücken approached we honed our look. We bought men's trench coats at the Salvation Army store and went to the hippie store for the large cotton scarves with indigo paisley patterns and the thinnest of silver threads woven in. We mastered how to fold them into a big triangle and tie them like a bandana around our necks, with the loose ends brought around to the front so the fringed borders hung like lapels. We wrote in fountain pens, the kind that needed replacement ink cartridges, that left cobalt blue traces that faded over time and made anything we wrote seem more important. Once in Germany, we were sure to buy the cylindrical leather pencil cases and the large, buckled leather satchels for our school books; not available in the USA back then.
We kept the glory of feeling different alive in our creative writing class senior year. It must have been the existentialist poetry unit that kept us afloat as we waited for the real leaving to happen.
My friends and I loved the language of odes and sonnets and felt lofty just for using the word lofty. When you don't fit neatly into any box, and all efforts of conformity have failed, the best option is to look up and declare, 'What box?' One activity we took up was what is called Cadavre Exquis, or Exquisite Corpse. This describes drawings or literary compositions created as a collective, where each participant adds to the piece in sequence, without seeing but a hint of the previous person's contribution. In the written form, you could see only the last word of the sentence before, and the folded drawings would allow you a glimpse of two lines - demarcating either the neck width or the breadth of the hips. We passed these around like secretive love-notes in class and the practice continued for many years as I mingled with different creatives in other zip codes. I sometimes used the illustrated variant on my travels as a way to break the ice with strangers. Ever a lover of ephemera, I saved these collaborative illustrations, sonnets, and soliloquies with titles such as 'The Flippant Yet Bountiful Journey of Three', 'Whence Winter Springeth Amply', and 'Ravaging Crisis Amongst Livestock'.
My friend Steve, with whom my bond was founded on that Lufthansa flight, was a soulful master of this process, and the best orator as well. Although each attempt was spontaneous and never-before-uttered, he would deliver the product as though it was an epitaph long mottled by lichen or a wistful note, scrawled on the inner leaf of a forgotten leather-bound volume. He would lilt the lines in his soft raspy voice then raise the cadence and sputter out a few words for emphasis, and finally lock his eyes with ours and lower his head to gasp the final word and let it hover before reducing to a breathless inverse giggle with a sinister edge.
6 Minute Poem
Whereupon some less civilized pain
Springeth forth from past generations,
The one, single victor, Death, almighty
Engulfs the entire mass of those sinners of now and beyond.
Oh Spontaneity! Oh wylden muse! Come
Save the true hearts of joy from the evils of eternal shame!
Oh leaf of oak is my skin, vines of
Grape bind my toes like the shackles of an earthly prisoner.
Then now, let me bow in silence, Ghost!
(Wendy + Steve, 1987)
Reading through my yellowing stack of exquisite corpses, I realize it may be the handwriting I marvel at most. The variety and how it differs. Or doesn't. There is one sonnet that my best friend and I volleyed back and forth with the same fountain pen resulting in a block of alternating sentences only discernible to the two of us. Was I copying her or was it the other way around? I am the guilty party. As I thumb through a folio of these collaborations spanning over ten years, I see evidence of hero worship in my script. I am humbled to notice that my grip on the pen, the angle, the pressure, would mimic whomever I admired most in the moment. I imitated the literary shorthand of our English Literature teacher who let us call him Dave or my brother's girlfriend who wrote real poetry, or our clever friend who had an incredible economy with the words she wrote with the thinnest of rapidograph pens stolen from the art room. Like faking an accent, did it serve as an escape, to feel other than myself? It is no wonder I enjoyed this parlor game and still do. It is a time traveler's antidote to imposter syndrome.
PS: I write this post to you from Europe. Aren't I fancy now?