The night I learned the origin of the Mystery Poem, my first impulse was to tell my wife, but I knew I couldn't.
The Mystery Poem was six cryptic lines of text scribbled on a piece of graph paper by "the other woman in our relationship," as my wife called her.
"The other woman" had been dead for 25 years. Her name was Laura, and the Mystery Poem was an impromptu gift she gave me shortly before she left for college - which was not long before she dropped out of college and moved back home; which was not long before she was riding her bike through traffic, hit by a car, and killed instantly. But sometimes she seemed as present as if she were sitting on the couch in between my wife and I.
Like many kids, I was a misfit: a perfect storm of teen angst, loneliness, and depression. I was always stuck on the outside looking in. A tsunami of dork. Like a lot kids in my situation, I dealt with it by diluting myself with pot, cheap beer, and even cheaper pharmaceuticals--anything to shore up some distance between my skin and my soul--between myself and the world around me that I didn't understand or feel any connection to.
As my young life fell apart, Laura, my best friend at the time, stepped in to help me figure out how to put it back together. While my life bottomed out, with no clear idea if it would ever rise back up, she stuck with me, believed in me, and loved me. We spent our nights endlessly driving nowhere, exploring abandoned buildings while dreaming about living in them someday, exchanging mix tapes with secret coded messages in the songs we selected, and mostly, just talking about whatever happened to float in and out of our heads.
One morning she showed up unannounced at my house and asked if we could go for a walk. We ended up lazily dangling from swings in a park up the street, just talking, when she reached in her pocket and handed me the Mystery Poem. She refused to tell me what it was, who wrote it, or why she wanted to give it to me. "It's a gift from me to you," was all she would say. "Eventually you'll figure it out." She almost seemed gleeful as I struggled to understand. Then she left for college. Then she was hit by a car. Then she was dead.
Like any young death, there was a lot of confusion and unanswered questions that have lingered through the years since. One of the biggest mysteries was that damn poem. More than two decades later, I was still just as clueless as the day she handed it to me. I'd tried searching, asking experts, reference librarians, and eventually searching online. No one had a clue.
"She probably wrote it herself and just wanted you to have it," someone would say. Or: "It's probably about you,"
I began writing about my friendship with Laura, reconstructing events, hoping that the journey would help me decipher the Mystery Poem. From time to time, I would take a break from writing to go on Google and try to find the poem itself. There was always nothing...until one evening, suddenly, something popped up.
A website, all in German, quoting a few lines of the Mystery Poem, and attributing it to Allen Ginsberg. I learned it was part of a longer poem, which was part of a chapbook called Sad Dust Glories. The poem's real title: "To The Dead."
I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell everyone I knew. I wanted to turn to my wife, who was sitting next to me watching television, and tell her that one of my life's mysteries had just been solved.
But I couldn't.
At the same time as we were starting to have a family of our own, my wife had spent the past year watching me walk down the basement steps every evening to sit in front of a glowing screen and try to remember my years-ago life with another woman. She needed me and she was tired of sharing me.
It wasn't just my wife. No one in my life was particularly thrilled that I was so driven to tell this story.
But I was doing this not because I wanted to hold on to it, but because I wanted to let it go, because I wanted to be a good husband, and a good father to my unborn son. To me, letting go of my ghosts was essential. And in order to be rid of them, I had to let them, just for a short while, fully back into my life.
I sat there, paralyzed, unsure of how to tell her what I'd found. She grabbed my wrist before I had a chance to "Your son is doing somersaults on my kidneys," she added.
I sat there with my hand stretched across her warm stomach, feeling my son move deep inside her--a feeling I found just as equally mind-blowing and thrilling every time it happened. With every tiny twist, I felt the future. Our future.
The mysterious origins of a scrap of paper could wait until later, I thought as I kissed my wife's cheek.
Eric Nuzum's new memoir is GIVING UP THE GHOST: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted.
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