Michael Cooper was a better carpenter than he was a poet. I knew that when I first met him, across a bar table in Fairfax, VA, in the 1980’s. He was blond, good-looking, a compactly built man who moved with a grace that implied he could really dance. He liked to put on a good-ole-boy mask to flirt with the ladies, and his stories always started out like this: “I knew a guy who….”
We became friends for a year while we both pretended to be serious about writing, but actually were more serious about drinking, talking, and hanging around real writers. Michael’s writing was muscular, almost mute at times, but his persona was spot-on for what a struggling artist should be. He worked at construction sites to pay the bills. He had an exotic, live-in girlfriend we never saw: Yasmin. No one had a better slouch over a drink, his hand cradling a Marlboro, the smoke drifting up to his eyes, and that blond hair glowing golden in the hazy lights. Like Brad Pitt in his beautiful years, Michael knew how to work the scene to his advantage.
That was not my beautiful year. My first marriage was unravelling. I taught, badly, sections of Freshman English to students who could not test out of Freshman English. For a few months I moved out of our Alexandria apartment, still working and taking classes, and then moved back with my husband. I needed to be writing daily; instead I wrote in desperate deadline induced spurts. Instinctively, I understood that the world of my marriage and the world at the University were at opposition. I stopped trying to pull them together. My husband became, like Yasmin, part of my background story to my writer friends at the bar.
When I think about Michael, I remember three things clearly. I remember his story about alcohol saving a life: “I knew a guy, an alcoholic, who worked on a construction site with me. And this guy always told us that alcohol had saved his life. You see, he worked on a the Skyline Tower in Bailey’s Crossroads, and one night he went out drinking and drank so much that he couldn’t go to work the next morning. Had to sleep it off. And that day there was a huge accident, structural problem, and the floors crashed down one upon the other, like pancakes. He would have been working right in the middle of it all. So, as he said, alcohol had saved his life.” I have a visual memory, viewed across the room at some lame department party, of Michael leaning into the thin body of someone else’s girlfriend, and the curve of his arm around her as he showed her how to dance the two-step. And then, after all the nights of talk and smoke, I can only recall one moment when he talked about writing, and in specific, my writing: He leaned across the table and said, “Now that would be something worth reading: your love poems.”
I took a year off, went to Micronesia, and returned with no love poems, no writing at all. Michael had disappeared from the MFA program. That surprised no one. At the time, I assigned him to my pantheon of lovely men who had not found me lovely. (There are many blonds in that hallowed hall!) But now he remains a frequent ghost, especially when I walk into a bar and see a young man posed to his best advantage, body draped enough, and yet full of energy, the light falling just right on his face. All he would need is the wreath of smoke, and a slight southern drawl to bring the ghost to life. Then he would be worthy of a love poem, or two.