This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Ariel Lewiton.


April sauna

All of that April it snowed and when it wasn’t snowing it rained and when it wasn’t raining the wind knocked the still-barren branches of trees to the sidewalk and pale green tulip shoots surfaced in planters only to freeze and blacken overnight. We walked around with our chins tucked into our collars and our hands clenched to fists in our pockets and the only thing we ever talked about anymore was the weather. We were tired of talking about the weather, we were bored with our fatigue, but it was hard to feel anything else. That April I felt so heavy and I went to the sauna to feel less heavy but it didn’t work. I went because I wanted to remember that the heart was a muscle more than it was a metaphor: when it hurt the hurt was most often a metaphor, but when the hot-cold-hot of my rotation from sauna to ice bath and back made it thump crazily against my ribs, that pounding was the muscle laboring to keep me alive. That April it wouldn’t stop snowing and an old friend died without warning and I exchanged texts with a man I was just getting to know. In the texts we told each other about our families and childhoods and how we’d patched our lives back together after losing people we’d loved, though I did not tell him about my dead friend; we spoke about music and religion and sex and the worst things we’d ever done for money and the best things we’d ever done for free; we spoke about the intemperate climate; I sent the man a photo of my sidewalk blanketed in snow; he sent me the weather forecast for the coming week; we spoke about the danger of inappropriate intimacies, meaning the danger of coming to feel close to people you don’t really know, how easy and intoxicating it can be, and as we exchanged these messages I remembered a little prayer from a George Saunders essay—Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen—which I didn’t send him, but I did send him a page from a Toni Morrison novel after he sent me a poem. One evening we interrupted the near-constant flow of our messages to go to the movies together, and though we’d seen each other ten days earlier it felt awkward to be in the same physical space again after all those disclosures we’d made over text; we sat quietly in the dark movie theater and in my peripheral vision I could see his beautiful hands folded in his lap, far away from me, and I squeezed my own hands together; the movie screen showed a profusion of yellow petals drifting in slow motion through the air and I thought of my friend who had just died; she and I had once camped out in a valley full of succulents with little yellow blooms called frailejones; at night the valley got so cold that we pressed our bodies together for heat and shivered ourselves into exhausted sleep; when we woke the next morning the frailejones were wreathed in frost and glittered like outrageous jewels; the man beside me put on his coat and hat while the movie credits were still rolling. The next day I didn’t hear from him, and the day after that he wrote to tell me he didn’t want to take things any further but wished me the best of luck—that’s really what he said, wish you the best of luck—I should’ve seen it coming because weeks earlier he’d written me, it’s so easy to conflate the ability to disclose and share with a stranger for something more real and I wish I’d asked, when does a stranger get to become real, but I didn’t and we didn’t speak again. By then the weather had warmed up enough for a cold rain to replace the snow, and I sent my dead friend’s mother a letter asking if there was anything I could do; she replied saying I could tell her about myself and my life and I sat for hours in front of my computer trying to think up anything to say. When I attempted to locate the exact source of my heartache I found it was not quite the heart but closer to the clavicle, a tight soreness throbbing there below the bone. After eighteen minutes in the sauna I could hear a thrumming in my ears which was my blood moving through me. Because I couldn’t stop thinking I focused my thoughts upon the circulatory system, the endocrine system, the exocrine system and the nervous system, which were mysterious to me but which at least I could name, the beauty of the body being that we don’t need to understand it for it to run, the frailty of the body being that it is an imperfect machine; eleven years before she died of complications from a brain tumor at age thirty-three my friend and I traveled all the way across an unfamiliar continent together, making and changing plans by whim and intuition, cultivating inappropriate intimacies by putting our lives in the hands of strangers again and again because our only options were to stay open, forever or give up and go home, and sometimes we felt frightened but mostly we felt wild and free; in those days what we wished for we received, the best of luck, I’m trying to say we felt so fucking lucky, and we were.


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