Return to Home Page Return to Home Page Memoir by Sam Felder Afternoon at the Eighth Street Bookstore
On a Saturday afternoon in the poetry section of the Eighth Street Bookstore, I was seventeen and Anne Sexton was thirty-nine. I held her book in my hand; was it All My Pretty Ones? Was that the one with the photograph with a cigarette in her hand? I can’t remember which book I held, or which picture was on the jacket. I read a few intense poems, the writing confessional and sexy; sex was even a part of her last name. She wrote about intercourse, lesbians and masturbation. I imagined her body with parchment white skin and thick black hair, deep crimson lipstick and black pubic hair. I was filled with the hormonal stew of a male at seventeen. None of the desperate pain of her mental illness occurred to me that day. Her writing excited me: alive and dark. I was so lonely on that Saturday afternoon in high school that I was sure that Anne Sexton would walk along the poetry aisle, but she never showed up to meet me. Her book was ready in my hand. I saw another woman, also older: dark and Bohemian attractive in a denim skirt and Alan Block sandals. Her legs unshaven, we were in Greenwich Village in 1967, and I hoped her armpits were unshaven too. Her breasts moved freely toward me under her blue work shirt. I thought she must have an apartment nearby on Jane Street or Bethune Street, those streets sounding female and sexual. Her apartment would be a walkup with a bathtub in the kitchen covered by a red painted door, a dish drainer when she was not bathing. How could I get her to notice me and the book of poems in my hand? How could I get her to take me home with her, and walk upstairs behind her, to clarify all my sexual longing on Saturday afternoon in her sunny bed. She walked past me smelling of jungle orchids, and down the aisle and out onto eighth street. I watched her go, and my longing was sharp, but she did not smell my pheromones, and did not take me with her. Mental illness would lead Anne Sexton to take off all of her rings five years later and leave them on the coffee table. She took off her clothes and wore only her mother’s fur coat and high-heeled shoes. She poured herself a tall vodka or two and locked herself in the garage. The car engine ran until someone found her later, her lips and tongue cherry red from carbon monoxide, much too late. Looking at a picture on the book jacket, and reading the words of poems, I had understood the darkness and sexuality, but still a boy in high school I didn’t understand suicide in her writing, the blood she described dripping on the white page after the knife, when truth was written. What did I know then? Her writing felt unafraid of death, but I didn’t know that she was ready to die. I didn’t know that red drops on white paper were her writer’s ink. She dressed in her mother’s coat, and sat back, beneath that naked in the driver’s seat breathing carbon monoxide until her lips turned maraschino red, beyond more suffering. Anne Sexton, my favorite poet in high school.