Jessie Bushman

Relationship Calculus

I met her at a party,
chatting casually over cocktails,
trudging through the strain
of strangers sharing the same space
by cycling through canned questions:
Where are you from?
What do you do?
I see her face flinch
when I tell her I teach poetry.
I see the sympathy seeping
from her eyes
as the remnants of the tenuous connection
that was forming dies.

I always preferred math
She explains, curtly.
The way the numbers lined up
in neat rows to march to
rigidly right answers.

Oh God, I want to scream,
believe me, I know!
Calculations are incredibly comforting,
like a blanket of confidence
blocking out cold confusion.
And if it weren’t such an intrusion,
I would ask her to tell me:
if I add up all of my mistakes–
every neglectful night you spent alone
with me by your side,
every compliment I never gave,
every ignored plea for attention,
every game we never played–
and I subtract every misstep you made,
could she calculate who was to blame
for this mangled marriage?

If I had known her for a fraction
longer than this five-minute farce,
I would have asked her to figure for me:
exactly how many three-hour arguments
raised to the power of cunt
= leave
and how many hot meals,
small favors,
and belly laughs
from inside jokes
only you understand
= stay

If I didn’t notice her eyes
seeing everything but me,
her mind searching for
the just-right reason to leave,
I would have asked her:
How many months of
you-not-leaving-the-couch
should I add
to those degrading diatribes
you dutifully deliver
enumerating my every
deficiency, before I
have to factor in
keeping-the-family-together?

As she slipped away from
the conversation
we weren’t even having,
I begged the back of her head
to just tell me:
If, as you say,
I took someone precious
and broke them–
not out of malice,
but because my young heart
was careless–
how long should I spend
cleaning up my mess?

Believe me, I want to tell
every engineer who side-eyes
the e.e. cummings I idolize,
I would trade every poem on Earth
for the ability to solve for why.

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