Prose Poetry Drawer: Pandemic Friendship: First Party: Watching Golf with My Dad: Pandemic Happy by Karol Nielsen

Pandemic Friendship

I didn’t see a single friend for a year and a half during the pandemic. My midtown Manhattan office closed and I began working remotely from my parents’ house in Connecticut. I went into the city to check on my coop and pick up my mail but the most I did was eat outside at neighbourhood restaurants—all alone. I kept up with friends through texts, calls, and social media but I didn’t make any plans. I usually wait for my friends to initiate things and nobody asked to meet up. Everyone was hunkered down. I finally moved back to my Upper East Side coop and an old friend wanted to get together after his trip through Portugal, Spain, and France. We had dated for several years when he moved to New Orleans and it didn’t last. We hadn’t seen each other for several years, but it was like old times when we met for drinks and then dinner at a Korean place. We talked about poetry and writing, teaching, and mutual friends from our urban writers’ colony that had been a second home for years. He wanted to come over for ice cream afterwards but I needed to go home. It was intense to see my first friend after so long and I needed to decompress alone.

First Party

I went to my first Covid-era party with friends after I moved back to the city. It was a book party in Brooklyn to celebrate the release of my Columbia Journalism School classmate’s memoir about becoming a celebrity party crasher in Hollywood and other locations. He met party crashers while he was working as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times. When he got laid off, he became a party crasher, too. He gave Clint Eastwood a neck massage mistaking him for an old boss. He ran into Jennifer Anniston who told his party crashing friend, “I know you!” He crashed the Oscars, the Golden Globes, with tricks he learned from other party crashers. He told stories and we laughed. He read excerpts and we laughed some more. Someone passed a joint around the room and I passed it along without joining in. A group of guys went for drinks after the party but I said goodnight and took the subway home.

Watching Golf with My Dad

I started running in the seventh grade with my father. We did a two-mile loop around our neighbourhood with gentle hills. It came easy to me. When we moved to a bigger house in the wooded part of town, we ran a longer route with hills that made me cry. I would sit down on the curb and my father always waited patiently for me to finish the run. I kept running after I left home and finished marathons and Ironman triathlons. My father kept running, too. He was also a golfer who played courses all over the world while he was on business trips. He wanted me to play golf like the rest of my family. I took lessons but it didn’t come naturally like running. I tried to be a good sport until I was hit in the head with a golf ball. It felt like a bullet and I fell to the ground. My new white golf gloves were coated with blood. A young boy came up and apologized for hitting the stray ball. I still have a bald spot just beyond my hairline. I hit balls with my father and nephew a few times, but I never played another game of golf. When my father retired, he began to play golf three times a week. He also watched golf tournaments on TV. After my office went remote at the beginning of the pandemic, I left Manhattan to work from my parents’ house in Connecticut. I stayed for a year and a half, and weekends I watched golf with my father. I got invested in the players like my father. Even though I moved back to the city, I watch golf with my father when I visit. We no longer run but we have golf.

Pandemic Happy

I was so happy before the pandemic. I had a good job writing evaluations for specialty occupation visa applications. I talked about poetry with my colleagues who are poets and writers. I read at the open mic at my monthly poetry reading in the East Village. I went for long walks in Central Park. I visited my parents in Connecticut on weekends. I met friends for meals and movies in the city. Family and friends read my published memoirs and poetry chapbooks. I had never felt so happy. Then the pandemic shut down my office. My father suggested working remotely from my parents’ house in Connecticut and I left the city without any summer clothes. As warm weather came, I found old triathlon and biathlon t-shirts in my parents’ attic. I went to the city every few months to check on my apartment. And soon a year and a half had passed. My office was supposed to reopen after Labor Day and I moved back to the city. The reopening was pushed back by a month and then again and again. I have fleeting moments of happiness—after walking in Central Park, going to neighborhood restaurants, meeting with friends, and even going to a live book party. I hope I will feel the same overflowing happiness I felt before the pandemic sometime soon.

Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was longlisted for the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award in 2021 and was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. One of her poems was a finalist for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize in 2021. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere.

Prose Poetry Drawer: The Last Dance: Show and Tell: Treading the Boards: The Upside of Apocalypse: Pause by Oz Hardwick

The Last Dance

A whiff of smoke and we’re dancing, elbowed out of our daytime disguises by a beat that’s stripped to the waist and lifting the doors off their hinges. I can’t sing, but I do anyway, my ecstatic voice smothered in love and noise. We are waves, we are flames, we are prayer flags on a mountain, blown pure above clouds that hide a world wrapped in barbed wire and endless static. There are no signals but our hands and eyes; no connections but bodies; no distractions but thin gravity and the dizzying spin of stars. The music is a haze of petals, mismatched memories pitched up like tents at the end of the world, a wisp of smoke from a temple or a student bedsit. We’re dancing like magnets, like falling objects, like a mirror cracking side to side. We’re dancing in the ruins and in the new growth. We’re dancing like surprise, like awe. we are rhythm. We are smoke.

Show and Tell

The beat between phrases is bruised with red flowers. We learn by doing, but all we have is speech, curling and dropping like wood shavings as we plane away the edges of our daily routine. Phrases lose their familiar forms, losing definition until we wouldn’t recognise them with the lights out. We learn by repetition, but each iteration is subtly distinct in ways neither of us is able to describe: you talk about microscopes spectrometers, and I suggest charades and tai chi. Phrases are mongrels running wild in the alley: many a true word is lost between cup and lip; stay where the heart is; now watch your hands. We learn to expect the expected, but received wisdom is out of date and cues are lost to social distance. Phrases beat like a slow drum in a masked parade, and all the buses are right on time, though empty.

Treading the Boards

With the theatres closed, I’ve moved into adverts and documentaries, slipping between roles with the turn of a typed page. Yesterday, I was Confused But Delighted Father, twelve years married to a perfect wife, with three beautiful children and a kitchen that would have made Mother Teresa turn her back on the Missionaries of Charity and devote her life instead to the perfect lemon drizzle cake. Today, I am a diver on a sunken wreck, a silent time capsule from March 2020. I point at flyers for political rallies and gigs that never happened, and at unread books now inhabited by hermit crabs. I lean in to peer at an octopus that sits on a barnacled office chair, a souvenir biro from the Willis Tower in one pink tentacle. Lastly, I enter the ballroom with my bankable confused-but-delighted face and sweep my torch across an orchestra still playing “In the Mood” in various stages of bloat and decay. Someone else – David Tennant or David Attenborough, or maybe the ghost of David Bowie – will add voice-over later, but for now the director calls Cut!, and we all relax as Mother Teresa doggie-paddles in, a snorkel clamped in her toothless smile, with a lemon drizzle cake she made from a branded packet.

The Upside of Apocalypse

When skeletons rise from lakes, rivers and sea, they are glad to be home. They are glad to be without flesh or water, able at last to reconceptualise horizons of expectation. Suddenly, everything’s an opportunity again, everything’s an economic opportunity, a golden ticket, a windfall on Premium Bonds or shares in airbag technology. Weather matters again, so they stock up on boots and brollies. Having no flesh, families and old friends – even husbands, wives and children – are impossible to recognise, so there is a boom in small ads and speed dating, reinvigorating print media and community spaces. Waiting times for physiotherapy have increased, but MRI and X-ray units have closed. Obesity is no longer an issue. There’s an upside to apocalypse in terms of equality and diversity, but now there are skeletons rising in churchyards and forest clearings, shaking mud from jaws and joints, stunned in the sun. Tomorrow or the day after, they’ll remember why they’re dead and who was to blame, but for now everything’s peachy, no one doesn’t belong, and everyone’s size zero.

Pause

Amber lights hold everything in temporary abeyance, from the truck at the interchange to the writer poised with his old-fashioned pen at the intersection between fact and fiction. Imagine this: the driver climbs from the cab that has been hid home for forty days and forty nights, his head still spinning with unwinding roads and sad songs from the country music station. He has a checked shirt and a road-burned thirst, a sheaf of old envelopes and a pen his father gave him when he started at the big school. It hasn’t rained for weeks, but his truck is stowed with storms, their zig-zag lightning crackling under stretched tarps. Across the asphalt, the diner lights are amber, and the waitress in her gingham smock – stuck like a damselfly for millions of years – feels resin tears prick the corners of her waiting eyes. The truck rusts and unwrites itself, leaving nothing but its shadow, and the driver cradles his pen like a hedgehog snatched from traffic. Now picture this: an empty parking lot in amber light. From the diner window, a waitress stares at a truck-shaped space, remembering lightning. You may or may not be the writer, the pen pricking your awkward fingers, the road settling into stillness after the long, long drive.

Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been published and performed internationally in and on diverse media. His prose poetry chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication is the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including The Valley Press Anthology of Yorkshire Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2017) with Miles Salter, which was a UK National Poetry Day recommendation, and The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2019) with Anne Caldwell. Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes.