Elizabeth Bishop waits in a dentist waiting room in Worcester, Massachusetts while her aunt is in the dentist’s chair behind a closed door. Elizabeth is seven years old, the war was on, February 1918. She is reading a National Geographic magazine. She hears her aunt’s voice cry “oh.” She already knows her aunt is a foolish and timid woman, but is taken by surprise that her aunt’s voice is suddenly hers. She was her foolish aunt for that moment, and they were falling, their eyes glued to the National Geographic. I am seven years old, she tells herself, I am an Elizabeth—but wonders how did she get to be one of the people in that room, on the Earth, in that moment. She is falling off the edge of the earth.
I read “In the Waiting Room” for the twelfth time, the twentieth time, who knows how many times, and each time I fine a new line I didn’t remember being there. I am in the waiting room only it’s 2016 and the woman behind the desk is asking me to rate their office on-line. I can’t, I tell her. Why, she asks. Because you’re playing Fox news at a high volume, and you don’t have any National Geographic magazines on hand, and I am left handed. But still, I am falling off the edge of the earth. The oral surgeon is a strong affable guy who cross trains. He played football for Texas Tech. He yanks my tooth out almost as if he were removing the hook from a caught fish.
I am seventy-one, not seven, I tell myself this morning while watching the sun rise on a Friday in Central Texas. But the war is still on. It was never really over. Something about this need we have to kill each other. I am not an Elizabeth sitting in the dentist waiting room, nor did I move to Brasil—I prefer the Portuguese spelling after spending six months studying the language in Monterey. Still, I find myself equally confused as to how I am here, one of them.
I am twenty-one sitting in a dentist chair at Presidio. The dentist is pulling my wisdom teeth, one each week. Don’t drink alcohol for forty eight hours he tells me after pulling the last tooth. I am twenty-one that day. Of course I drank. I split a bottle of chianti with a buddy while dining on the wharf next to downtown Monterey, down the hill, down Franklin street from my barracks.
For years Monterey was a fulcrum for me. In the early mornings, I would sit on the third floor fire escape of my barracks and memorize the curve of the bay as it met the shore line. I would center myself here, at this spot. It was summer, 1967. The war was still on.
This is the most beautiful place in the whole world, I thought. The Pacific Ocean begins and ends here, Brautigan wrote in one of his books. Drake anchored here. Maybe I would come back to live here, I thought, but I knew better. Though I did take a photograph of Barbara posing in from of the Boat Works ten years later. Did walk the beach at Carmel with Julie and Charley thirty-five years later. Am sitting on the fire escape balcony now in my mind, breathing in every atom.
I had never been more lonely, the poet says.