A Friday night in the Mechanics’ Institute, and the library is rumbling with gutsy people. There is an ancient woman perching her birdlike elbows on the arms of the chair in front of me. Her skin is dripping from her bones. Not gracefully like folds of silk. More like the wrinkled rice-dough skin of a steamed shrimp dumpling—gelatinous, delicate, flaccid. I imagine the bravery it must take to wear capped sleeves at her age. I will never be so brave.
Everyone here is either edging the grave or digging them for everyone else in the room. Of the latter, there are numerous attractive, hip lesbian couples. At the door, one particularly olive-skinned brunette in a dreadlock tam and a smoke-washed vest kisses her girlfriend on the cheek; their joy is a poison I envy.
They settle on the floor, in the circle of young people that has grown like a branch from the semicircle of chairs where the elderly wait. One of the librarians wears her bald spot like a badge of honor; again, pride comes to my mind without any resonance.
The young ones look the way I’d expect them to. Cocky in brown pleather jackets from Goodwill, men so ordered in their scruffiness that it must be planned. Boys playing dress-up in white Oxford shirts, girls with too much Amazon green eyeshadow, busting because they can from polyester dresses that no one would have the gall to sell. A pale girl with big red hair and painted-on eyebrows looks like an anime character, and indeed, she will read a poem about it.
The host of the panel is a young man who doesn’t realize he should be trying to hide his California accent. It betrays him, causes people like me realize his life would probably make much more sense if he was a surfer or a computer tech like the rest of them. Instead he has straight, shoulder-length hair; the long part in front is bobby-pinned back. He wears a plaid bowtie and high-waisted khakis from 1974. It is clear that he has been fooled into believing that the getup makes him cooler. It is clear that he knows he is not cool at all. I feel bad for him, even though I admire him for having the guts not to shave his head and expose the not-half-bad guy underneath. It would be so easy, and that’s what gets me, every time.