Dear Lily June,
Once upon a time, I fell in lust with my first. When we broke up, I fell into the closest pair of arms. Then, I fell in real love for the first time. With your father, I found my one, true love. The story, though, of how we first got together–how we fell deeper and deeper–how we got engaged, then married–how we ended up becoming your parents, is the story, in some ways, of my entire life, which perhaps explains why I’ve taken this long to begin it.
Gird your loins, though, Lily June. I’m going to attempt it.
The simple story is this: Your father and I met at the University of Alabama where we were studying poetry writing in a graduate program together.
A slightly less simple story is this: Before I even knew who your dad was, I was sitting in a bar called The Downtown Pub in the Fall of 2007 (under a sign on the wall reading “Where old friends gather and new ones meet”), and I bought a round for the table of writers, who were, in Tuscaloosa, celebrating the finer things, like having survived another Tuesday.
Of the crew of strangers I was trying to ingratiate myself with through my charity (a stupid act, since I’d just relocated 1,000+ miles to graduate school and now was without a red penny), your dad was the only one that thanked me.
I looked him up on Facebook that night, found a picture of a shy guy hiding his face behind the entire world, and I wrote him a message asking if he was “the infamous RyMo” I’d heard so much about (your father’s reputation, Lily, was for having kissed more writers in the program than any before or since–true).
That he friended me, in some ways, was a tacit acceptance from the writing community. Suddenly, though, what they thought no longer mattered. I was in another relationship, but I couldn’t help thinking of the words my then long-distance partner, Brett, had told me before I moved down South: “Don’t fall in love with a poet.”
I would run into your dad a number of other times that semester. Once, I told him how broke I was–that I was going to have to spend the following summer, instead of running my electricity and A/C, with candles and kiddie pools, and he bought my drinks for me.
On another night at The Pub (Pub ub ub? your father would text to invite the other writers), I would fall off a bar stool (completely sober and 100% klutzy), and your father would catch me, snarking, “Gee, throw yourself at me.”
Anyone who has ever met Ryan wouldn’t believe this quiet, unassuming poet could be such a bantering Lothario, and yet, your father had this kind of magic energy around me. He would tell me later that he kissed so many people in the program because he was desperately lonely. They would laugh at his advances. He would go home to his cat.
He would also tell me that he still recalls one day when I came home from an academic conference in Savannah, Georgia and was just standing in front of the metal mailboxes of our apartment complex in a white button down shirt and a red cardigan. I smiled over at him, he remembers, the wind blowing my hair into my face.
That was the day, he says, he fell in love with me. Before we’d ever really met yet.
It was the Spring of 2008 when your dad and I first took a class together. It was a workshop on poetry, where writers share works in progress with one another in the hopes of gaining feedback to revise their pieces. In actuality, the group dynamic of this particular class was sickeningly sweet, and your dad and I used to joke that our peers’ feedback was about as useful as a bunch of writers getting together and blowing their own breath into one another’s faces.
Unbridled, critical honesty, we knew, lead to better poems, which is why, in that class, your father once wrote next to one of my lines, “This made me want to puke a little,” and I saw that he was right, and I changed it.
Of course, that neither your dad nor I were unkind people–that, in fact, we were wickedly shy and stain-glass sensitive souls falling in love with each other–meant that our revisions of one another’s work did make us better writers, but not without a bit (okay, I admit it, a lot) of stinging. It’s still like this when we sit down with each other’s work.
Your dad was taught by the same poetry teacher running the workshop, the one who would become his faculty mentor, that you’re not writing a piece for everyone, but for the one person you know always gets you and what your work is trying to do. “You have to internalize,” she told him, “your Reader.”
Because he was older, and far more talented than me, I would eventually come to call your father my Mentor, my truest teacher. But he would do me a similar honor, dubbing me his Reader.
I’m getting ahead of myself, Lily. Before even that, at the start of the first class we had together, we had an assignment: Read one of your peer’s poems, then bring in a work from a published author the piece reminded you of. Your father, at the time, was writing a lot about the abusive childhood he suffered at the hands of his father. (That’s as far as I dare tread for now into that story; it’s his to tell you if he chooses, Lily.)
I brought in a Sharon Olds’ poem for him, and he was moved enough to track down my number from another poet and call me that night to talk about it. Though this wasn’t it, this is the poem your dad and I always misremember me providing him with, a poem, ironically, about the poet’s abusive and dysfunctional parents first meeting. In some ways, it reminds us of a mixture of who both of our parents had been for us.
I Go Back to May 1937
I don’t remember much of that phone call to discuss the real poem, other than a feeling like floating when I was on the phone with him. I remember joking with him that we were going to end up having a heap of children, then naming them really stupidly, all variations on William–Billy, Bill, Will-yum, Willy. I have no idea what possessed me to think I would ever have children with this man that was still essentially a stranger, Lily. But here you are, and we two made you, and here I am, telling about it.
This is the story we really tell when we tell people how we met: During that class we took together, after the night of the phone call, I put out an email to the department listserv asking for a ride to the doctor. My eyes were strained and a cornea was scratched, and I had to have special contacts made that would allow more air to get to my eyes, squinting as they were over small print and poetry. (Your dad, simplifying this, says I was “going blind.”)
Your dad couldn’t take me, but he did send me a lengthy apology (as if he already owed me). I hitched a ride with someone else (I didn’t own a car at the time, hence the request), and I don’t remember, even now, how it went–the ride there or back, the doctor. What I remember is what happened later that day.
There was a knock at my apartment door, on the other side of which stood your father. He had made an entire lunch, complete with ham and cream cheese sandwiches and pomegranate juice, and had brought it over to share with me. “It’s the least I can do,” your father told me, “since you’re going blind.”
I was well enough to see all the books of poetry we pulled from my apartment’s shelves, reading our favorites to each other. At one point, I pulled a book of the World’s Most Offensive Poetry off of my shelf, a book called “Nunt” (short for Nun and…let’s not talk about it, Lily), and we read the hilariously bad work of a poet called Mingus Tourette, and we howled late into the night like monkeys.
What I remember most from that fateful encounter was this: the sense that I was instantly at ease with your father. I am terribly introverted and overanalyze whether or not to say “Bless you” when a stranger sneezes. But with your dad, it all felt right. When your father made a joke, for instance, about “nuzzling,” I snuggled into him saying, “Men can’t nuzzle.” I remember saying it; I don’t remember at all to this day what I meant.
I know, though, that I was just using it as an excuse to get close to your father, something I’d never done unless I was already in a relationship with someone. And in fact, I was still in that long-distance thing that was playing out its swan song by early February. After five years together, Brett still didn’t want to marry me, so I pretty much knew, before either of us was willing to admit it to ourselves, that it was over.
I was honest with your father, Lily, telling him that if things didn’t work out with Brett, I was going to be “a wreck.” (Messy.) Your dad tells me he was very selective in his hearing at that point, focusing only on the word “over.” (He’d gone through a similar thing, leaving a partner behind when he came to the program because the two of them had been torturing each other, and it was past time for it to have ended. Messy.)
When he left that night, he told me later, he “felt correct” and the next week or so, he would ask me out on a typical date–to dinner and a movie. We would kiss that night, and any past we’d had with others was over. There was only going to be Alyssa and Ryan in the future, and eventually, with a Lily.
A year to the day of our first date, we were engaged. We were married about another year later. But the stories of our dates, our engagement, and our wedding, are letters for another time. The point is, my baby girl, that we met. It was in the exact wrong place (Tuscaloosa, Alabama?!) at the exact wrong time (right before the longest relationship of my life would implode on itself.)
Your dad was the kind of guy I’d never given a second thought to, a charmer who’d kissed more lips than I could count on both hands. But he ended up being The One. In the intervening eight years, I’ve given him the best–and the very worst–of me, but he’s stood by me, thick and thin. Our lives have become like a poem, the lines of which are constantly being revised, but with music underneath that carries us from section to section.
Love truly can shape the trajectory of your entire life, if so you choose to let it. Your parents’ love, after all, Lily June, made you, and that holds true no matter where the rest of the story takes all of us.