Sunday Stories: “The Chapbook Lady”


The Chapbook Lady
by Francis Levy

She’d identified herself as a poet when I first met her. It turned out we’d both liked that Dorothea Lasky poem “Porn” in The Paris Review. “I just watched a woman fuck a hired hand,” is one of the memorable lines. 

Louise was a friend of a friend of a friend, actually no, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, once removed with whom I was no longer speaking. I’d met the friend of a friend of a friend once removed at the party for Helen’s chapbook. After readings of pre-Perestroika Samizdat, we would retire to Ukrainian East, the dank basement place next to Veselka on Second Avenue. 

This business about shared interests is nonsense. Trafficking in sensibility can be a dealbreaker. You may suddenly find yourself disagreeing about a piece of verse and wondering what you ever saw in the person you fucked. You never want to think yourself into sex. It’s pure animal instinct which is why poetry actually gets in the way. It’s always important to remember,  in the end, humans are animals. She and I were a little like those bumper cars along the boardwalk on the Jersey shore, where the whole purpose is to butt the other person as hard as you can.

We didn’t discuss Larkin at the party, but if we were going to get into verse or techniques like enjambment, it might have made sense to refer to that Kama Sutra of poetry which starts with the lines, “they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.” Sometimes likenesses repel. Have you ever, for instance, had too much in common with someone and got the feeling you’d blown your wad before you even started? I should have realized our relationship wouldn’t amount to much since I usually don’t get along with anyone unless they have opinions, likes and dislikes that are so diametrically opposed to mine that there is no danger they will steal my ideas. Maybe that explains both our attraction to each other and the disaffection that came over us, the moment we fell out of each other’s arms. We shared too many thoughts. Incompatible as we may have been sexually, we had too much in common intellectually.

I inhabited one of those nameless apartments in Baruch Houses, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. At night, from my 20th floor eerie, I often watched headlights mounting the ramp below the majestic cables of the expansion architecture. The telescopic view gave me an illusion of space and triumph. And one of the things I realized when she walked in the bedroom with her old-fashioned 60s style knit bag slung over her shoulder was that she was too tall for those NYHA bedrooms with their low ceilings. I’m only a few inches shorter, but there’s something about being on an equal footing with a lover and having to stare them right in the eyes that makes it hard to conceal your strategy. She was that elephant in the closet, sucking the air out of the room. I hadn’t realized how tight a fit it was going to be until we begun to undress. I might have been more attentive to her needs, if she hadn’t made me feel so claustrophobic.

There was something wrong about the whole thing. In addition to her height, she had large rough hands and enormous feet. She must have worn a size 13. Her cross trainers were like boats. She also had thick eyebrows that knitted into each other. She was the female version of the famous labor leader, John L. Lewis. And she sported a cape coat which gave her the appearance of the angel of death in the l938 production of a Christmas Carol, where Reginald Owen played Scrooge.

I thought I wasn’t going to cross the finish line and I breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally over and breathless, alienated and disgusted, I turned over to ask her “how was it for you?”

She responded by blankly stating, “You have a really nice pussy.” 

Then she turned her back on me and farted on my leg. 

One-by-one she methodically picked her underpants, bra, tights, skirt and tank top up from the pile on the floor. She reminded me of those chefs competing on Chopped who crack eggs, throw in the flour, nutmeg and ginger as if they were pulling ingredients out of thin air like magicians in a feat of legerdemain. 

After that first night, I called to make a date, mostly due to my OCD. She’d given me a copy of her chapbook, Imodium.  Her answering machine came on, “This is Louise. I’m not home….” I was all set to leave a message about how I was taken by the opening line I’m fucked up which obviously was alluding to the Larkin when she picked up. After a long silence, she said, “look it was a night.” After another silence, she continued, “it’s not what you think.” Was she referring to the fact that I’d had trouble getting it up?

Before I had a chance to utter even a trochee, she hung up. Naturally I was thinking about her more than I would have had she cheerily agreed to meet for the drink. I was furious. She could simply have let me swim free like a fish whose mouth you unhook before throwing it back in the water. It’s lucky I’m a poet myself since everything even miserable experiences have the potentiality of being turned into something. I would render our false positive in ottava rima.

I knew from experience that poets are whores who will do anything to get published. Despite the pain of her rejection, I was coming away in the black. I’d gotten laid and I didn’t have to fork out for one of those dinners that went on too long. 

I’d been still smarting from the suppurating wound left when the first love of my life told me she “wanted to end the relationship.” Everything I did was infected with it since I’m a social riser who’d been more in love with the world, she represented than I actually was with her. All of a sudden there was no East Hampton beach house or gin and tonics on the deck. All I had left was a shell in which I heard the sound of the sea.

Once I stopped crying after that first love told me she wanted to end it, I never felt anything for anyone again. I went downstairs and ordered a hamburger deluxe at The Aphrodite, an act of defiance that set the standard for all my future couplings. I was anesthetized from the pain of rejection forever. Like a lot of antidepressants, the drug of willful abnegation also caused me to lose feeling in general. In my benumbed state, I was able to swallow a lot with seeming impunity. Not caring about anything was the great accomplishment of my adult life. It’s like those notices people leave on their e mail when they are going on vacation and will not be seeing their messages.


Many years after my abortive night with the Chapbook Lady, I told my analyst I’d found somebody who liked me, but wasn’t ready for it. It turned out I would never be ready for it, even though she and I have managed to stick together all these years. We’d caught each other on the rebound. She’d been rejected by the first love of her life and so had I. I told her about the night I spent with the Chapbook Lady, even though there were other things, I could have gotten off my chest which were real sources of shame. I have this feeling that I’m always thinking about everyone I’ve ever known, something I know is erroneous and preposterous. But for many years I was sure the Chapbook Lady resided in the preconscious state of memories that can easily be brought to the surface—unlike say traumatic incidents you might have repressed or those annoying dreams that you promise yourself you’ll remember when you’re half asleep and totally can’t access once you’ve fully gotten up for the day. I looked at the Chapbook Lady like one of those harmless infractions, a white-collar crime for which I didn’t deserve to be punished since it hadn’t hurt anyone.

They say you have to want what you have, though even now that everything is settled and it’s just a matter of living out my days, I still, every once and a while, try to play hooky from fate. I went through a long barren period after the Chapbook Lady had rejected me. I was less heartbroken than somehow winded and lacking in desire. You know how you feel as a kid when some other kid catches you off guard with a punch in the stomach. It’s sadism masking as fun. I was surprised by the way I pulled a shell around myself. Days, weeks and months passed. I started to think the poet had stuck a pin in a voodoo doll, hexing me. I would never find anybody. And then I met my future wife at a New Year’s Day party, despite the words of the Chapbook Lady, “it was just a night,” still haunting me. 

Louise had seen the real truth about me. Maybe she’d immortalized it in some nasty poem in one of her other chapbooks. It was as if she’d seen some damning truth about my character. When I confessed to the woman who would become my wife, she refused to buy the idea that the rejection said anything about me. If anything, it revealed something about the poetess, who probably aimed her arrows at lots of other guys. Her silence was the poison. Still, it was too bad. In analysis, I continue to talk about being an evil person who’s out to do harm. When almost anyone takes a dislike to me, I take it as a confirmation of a truth, just as I find it hard to accept the fact that a fundamentally nice person like my wife could like me.

The next time I saw the Chapbook Lady many years had passed. She was the speaker at a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls which we’d attended with another couple. I heard she’d given up poetry to become a biblical archeologist, from the friend of the friend of the friend once removed who’d originally invited me to the party. I could have gone over to her, but it didn’t make sense. The only thing that came out of these little excursions into the past was pain. What more would she do then remind me of the fact that I’d been a bad lover?

I pretended I didn’t recognize her when our eyes mistakenly met. It was my way of getting back.  At a certain point people crumple up and become gargoyles before they disappear from the face of the earth. If I ever attended another lecture where she was speaking, neither of us would recognize each other or even care. 

Much has changed at least within the context of my own life. In my marriage the question of how good or bad I am in bed is actually an ongoing joke. There are so many other things to worry about, sex is not very high on the list.

I tend to hate the spring which puts pressure on you to be hopeful almost as much as I do summer when women take off their clothes and flash their inaccessible pulchritude but I had been looking forward to this summer thinking it might be one of my last. Unfortunately, it’s been unseasonably cold and constantly gray. There’s almost nowhere to go to find comfort since everything seems to be perpetually mired in a dampness that threatens mold. 

Maybe we’re entering a new Ice Age. Everything is out of kilter. I’ve had this theory for many years that the world is all just a dream I’m having, a nightmare that’s the result of yet another curse leveled by the Chapbook Lady. 

I’ve saved her Imodium which sits prominently on my dusty pile of poetry books. I’d never committed more than that first line to memory, but now the rest of the first stanza came back to me.

                                            I’m fucked up.

                                            I don’t blame Mom or Dad

                                            Though it’s plainly their fault

                                             I talk about being fucked in therapy

                                             Along with my hatred of men


Francis Levy is the author of the satiric novels Erotomania: A Romance, Seven Days in Rio and Tombstone: Not a Western. He blogs at Erotomania was recently animated. The trailer for the animation can be found on YouTube here.

Photo: Andrew Seaman/Unsplash

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