Avenue E

Robert Kaplan
Avenue E
is not an avenue on the island of Manhattan,
and the insistent lick of the East River or the East River Drive
can't ever make it one.
On the far side of that river a real Avenue E exists--
but that meant Brooklyn,
and we never went there, Steven,
because for us Manhattan was the point of all those years;
not the Empire State Building or Chrysler Building
but out on the edges,
where those crumbling restaurants served borscht bialies and a window seat
and were always the first stop of the night:
the beets dunked in red liquid,
the waiter smiling,
the background hiss of cigarettes and voices
and everyone dressed with a particular purpose;
walking down the street with a warm stomach
past bookstores and clothing shops,
cars trucks and taxis honking and bouncing
and the smiles and the looks and the stopping to chat;
walking through those moldy doors
into the kiss of a drag queen and
Lou Reed singing about fishnets, lipstick:
long earrings on the boys,
black pumps on the girls,
wandering from one tiny room back into the other
nodding at familiar faces, drinking scotch and eyeing the bartender
when Daniel, who I had cruised for six months,
slipped up behind me and cooed over the music
that he was putting you in my safe-keeping
then slipped away.
Four months later we were at your apartment,
drunk, killing roaches with our cigarettes;
you went out for a carton
and Daniel sat on my lap and began kissing me:
I don't know if it was the alcohol
or the fact that we were finally, actually, doing it
but we kept bursting out laughing and then we just couldn't stop:
Daniel leaned his head on my shoulder,
I leaned mine on his,
and we shook and laughed and kissed each other's necks
until we heard footsteps that could only be yours on the landing below;
when you opened the door he was in the kitchen washing dishes
and I was in the living room changing the record:
it was Marianne Faithfull, she was singing "Broken English,"
and we screamed the words out at each other
while Daniel swayed back and forth between us;
then he kissed you full on the lips, you put your arms around him and me,
I put mine around the two of you
and I don't remember how long we stayed like that
or who it was that moved first
but I do remember that when I closed the street door
and stood on the sidewalk
the sky was grey and turning over me
and the streets were flicking slowly open:
empty and a little more promising.
One night you and I were at my apartment talking about the band we had just seen:
you told me you had had an affair with the drummer
then leaned over the coffee table and said you wondered
if people now thought we were having one
because we always left in each other's company.
This was long after you had shown me the first issue of Avenue E,
told me how you and three friends had stayed up for a week
to get it just right.
E was energy; E was ecstasy; E was excitement; E was for everyone.
E was poems and stories and cut-out figures and
individually colored drawings all enclosed in a large plastic bag.
Each E had different sayings from tea bags and fortune cookies;
each E had its own special tarot card, its own unique E surprise.
Now you said you wanted to do another issue and you wanted me to do it with you.
Of course I said yes;
E would put me in print; E would make me famous;
E would get me, like you, into all the clubs for free.
This was 1982. I was going to be a writer or a rock star.
You and Daniel had just moved in together.
Lots of people were jealous. The Pyramid was still ours.
I would leave work at midnight and we would meet at the bar:
you would turn away from whoever you were talking to,
put your hand on my leg and we would plot
how E was going to change the world.
E would defeat Reagan.
E would expose the military industrial complex.
E would bring visual art and writing together;
it was the vision of E: true egalitarianism.
Eventually the man you had been talking to
would tap you on the shoulder
and the three of us would raise our vodkas and toast the new E era.
Sometimes I'd go home with him and sometimes I wouldn't.
Everyone knew about Avenue E and everyone said they wanted to help.
We got pictures of abortions and babies
and poems about families that went nowhere.
You found a fake proclamation from Mayor Koch saying
that no man could be out on the street after dark
unless accompanied by a woman.
We collected ads from galleries; we went to poetry readings;
your neighbor said he would draw the cover:
that night we were so happy we drank more than usual and
hugged in your hallway for a long long time.
Sometimes I would watch you in your leather jacket,
gesturing and smoking a cigarette. Daniel would be off in a corner
talking to someone. People would stop and say hi and sneak you a feel.
You would introduce me and they would ask if we were cousins
because we both had curly hair and talked with our hands.
We talked to each other every day; we solicited more artwork;
one night we laid everything out and realized we had 42 pages
and money for 30.
We called every temp agency we knew and took every job offered.
Every Sunday I'd figure out how much we had
and how much we still needed.
You'd order take-out Chinese and say
you didn't know how you'd manage without me.
I'd say you'd do just fine, it would just take a bit longer.
Daniel would call or come by and you would coo at each other.
I'd turn on my calculator and pretend not to notice.
People began coming up to me in bars
instead of pretending we hadn't met 4 times already.
Sometimes they'd pull me into the bathroom
when they went to do drugs.
When it was finally finished we had a big party and
everyone danced and drank and wrote on a wall
every word they could think of that began with E:
it was the eighties; E's were everywhere.
We made up E poems, gave away E prizes,
Daniel created E cocktails and we drank them extremely efficiently.
I remember walking around handing out crayons for people to write with,
putting my arms around you
then making out with someone who is now dead.
Even now I can see him walking up to me
saying something extravagant
about how I looked holding a cocktail and crayons,
taking the red one I extended
and when I smiled,
touching my wrist with his thumb and laughing
pulling me into a chair:
his green earrings shining; his hands stroking my cheeks;
his lips around mine,
soft and wet.
This is the only way I know, Steven,
that will bring him, you, Daniel, everyone back.

Robert Kaplan

Robert Kaplan teaches expository writing at Stony Brook University. He has an MFA from the University of Arizona and a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. In a former life, he published a number of poems in small journals that no longer exist, and after a long hiatus, is working on a book-length poem about eldercare.

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