My Other Self

A weekly poem, read by the author.
Oct. 23 1996 3:30 AM

My Other Self

for Greg and Trish Orr

 

He could have smacked you
for running out of gas, at midnight,
in December, at a middle-of-nowhere place,
coasting a few sorry yards toward home on the shoulder
as a passing eighteen-wheeler's Hawaiian-sized wave of air
whomped the side of the car like a two-story pillow.
As we sat there immobile--the four of us (including him),
as if waiting for the show to begin at a surreal drive-in--
he wanted to reach into the front seat
and bonk your heads together
the way the leader of the Three Stooges did
when the other two did something stupid.
What had been road was now a cold place
without a house light in sight in the rural South.
What had been a passionate highway talk
about the culture's indifference to the artist's work
would have been silence except for him
giggling at us, at how danger dissolves discontent
and flashes before us a life lost to pettiness,
which we soon start to lose again.
"Who said there are no neurotics in wartime?"
he planned to mock us with my voice, but when I got out
to see where we were, he didn't. He brooded in the car.
He didn't feel the pleasure of a skyful of stars
so cold and clear when you look up
its light illuminates your breath.
Nor was he worried about anyone but himself,
being the only one with nothing to worry about,
not made of flesh. He was crying
I wanna go home inside the car
like a child trapped in a junked refrigerator.

This was one time I felt exactly like him,
as we three stood pondering our dilemma calmly, maturely.
And I did again when he yelled I'm scared
as the clunker with wide headlights and bad muffler
("Hell Wagon" or "Devil's Dream" no doubt inscribed on the fender--
voted Car Of The Year by escaped convicts and serial killers)
glided like a crocodile toward our throbbing, imported taillights
and idled there. But when I approached the monster
alone--my other self was having none of this action--
what I found when the window inched down
was reality: a couple with a baby
asleep between them: country people
who still stop for anyone in trouble,
although they were wary. So was I,
squinting into the warm darkness in which they stirred
as if to the bottom of a moonlit pool,
as if what should surface nonetheless was a gun in my face.
They got back with a can of gas so fast
the whole event took about the time of a Howard Johnson hamburger,
and probably less time than a Howard Johnson hamburger off a life
in which it's almost impossible
not to feel blessed. How lucky we are,
we said on the smooth way home again,
trying to etch it into our brains.
At least I was, since we had ditched him back there

thumb out and grinning into the high beams of every approaching car
because this one's got to be the starlet in the Jaguar
wrapped in a mink with nothing underneath.

Michael Ryan has published three books of poems and an autobiography, Secret Life.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 23 2014 12:16 PM Another Intervention?    Anti-ISIS airstrikes aren’t about keeping Americans safe.  
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon That Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.