An assignment I had in school to describe a vivid experience using sensory details. I chose to describe my first poetry slam at the newark arts alliance.
By the time we arrived at the poetry slam I felt like I was on fire. I crept after Jacob, the sickness already gnawing at my stomach. I regretted the small snack of crackers I’d had when I got home from school. Now I only breathed deeply and prayed I could hold them inside me, at least for long enough so that Jacob wouldn’t have to watch if I threw up. He opened the heavy glass door and I reached out mechanically when he held it for me. The room was brightly lit, as usual. My body knew this place. The weekly torture chamber. Why did I come here every week then? Why did I willingly get on stage and read, why had I agreed to do this poetry slam, knowing how horribly, achingly scared of the stage I was? Knowing how the words froze inside of me before they reached my mouth, so that I stumbled or lost the words completely?
I’ll tell you why. Because Jacob was there. And I was such a sucker for whatever he wanted to do. If he decided that cliff diving was the way to go, I would go out and buy a wetsuit.
“You’re shaking,” Jacob said, grinning at me. As if I didn’t know. I stared at him, miserable, envious. He was so calm, even though this would be the first slam we were competing in. If he realized how sick I felt, he wouldn’t be smiling at me that way. Or…maybe he would be. I made a mental note to myself not to help him the next time he needed me to kill and ant or a beetle for him.
“I’m scared,” I told him plaintively. I didn’t waste time with this boy. I just told him things as directly as I could. He shook his head once, smiling at me.
“No,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
“You will be fine,” I told him. “You’re always okay on stage. I’m not.”
“Relax, Sydney. It’s going to be fine.”
“No, it really isn’t, Jacob,” I stopped myself as I heard a slightly hysterical edge enter my voice. I swallowed, went back to focusing on not being sick. He had already turned away though, was drifting towards the poetry slam sign up sheet. I crept after him. If I had been a dog, my tail would have been so far between my legs, it would be stuck to my belly. I felt myself shaking all over, my vision trembling, a strange icy feeling shooting through my chest now and then and making my heart pound. Adrenaline. It’s only pleasant when you are in the middle of doing something exciting. It sucks when you’re trying to calm down.
I came to the sign up sheet and deliberated for a second, then wrote my name quickly. Sydney Rubin. The letters sloppy but readable. Jacob’s name was signed right above mine, his scrawling handwriting more legible than mine but not attractive or graceful. I would know his handwriting anywhere. I knew the look of his handwriting almost as well as my own, which is saying something considering, as a writer, I read and write all the time.
Jacob and I took our seats in the very back, as usual. Innocence and her sister, Margie, bustled around, giving instructions to us, calling out for people to sign up. There were quite a few people. A good amount of competitors too…eight people. All of them young adults except for Jacob and me. But we were used to that.
I concentrated on my breathing when I began to feel like I was suffocating. I breathed normally, fighting the urge to take fast gasps—I knew that would only make the dizzy feeling worse. The ice was building in my chest now, freezing, constricting my lungs, taking in the air I breathed and freezing it and exhaling it refrigerated. I could be like an air conditioner. But…that’s a weird thought. I liked the idea of being a refrigerator that is left open better.
Jacob was fidgeting slightly beside me. As the competition began and we were randomly put in order for who would read, I watched him from the corner of his eye. As usual, he was an incredible distraction from everything else. He seemed to have paid special attention to his clothes that night…everything matched perfectly. His scarf was wrapped tightly about his neck and everything about him was meticulous, even his eyeliner. As I became more invested in my observing and forgot my stomach and heart, I began noticing little details. The way he was looking around. The way he wasn’t smiling, not even a little bit. The way he squinted as though trying to make something out on the wall, and then bent over his sheets and muttered lines from his poems quickly. He cleared his throat a lot too…just a tiny sound. A…nervous sound. Jacob was nervous.
This realization had a strange effect on me. I felt my own sickness, my own trembling, recede slightly. I was now fully invested on Jacob. At first I was slightly amused, because he always acted so cocky all the time, and then I felt sorry for him, because I knew how bad it felt to be really nervous, and then I felt amused again. I tapped him on the shoulder and when he looked up, I grinned at him, mimicking the way he had smiled at me earlier.
“You’re nervous, Jacob.” I said, grinning, as though I had cracked a difficult case at last.
“I’m terrified,” he replied solemnly. I felt a moment of disbelief. Then I did feel bad for him, I didn’t want him to have to feel anything but…happy. It was a stupid thing to want…I mean, it wasn’t something I could control, not even something he could control. But I wanted it. This was his time. For him to be so scared…it didn’t seem fair to me.
And then something tightened in me, and I stopped shaking, I became rigid. I felt the sheets of paper in my hands, I crumpled them slightly. I could do this. Jacob was scared too…we could both do this. I no longer felt sick. My entire body felt like it was vibrating as an electrical current ran through it. I felt…so ready. The adrenaline struck my heart again, but this time I almost welcomed the pounding. I knew that I could do this. The poem I had chosen to read was…a gift. A gift to Jacob. It was the greatest gift I knew how to give. But I wasn’t scared, because I knew this was right. I knew this empty buzzing in me was the right feeling. That it was good, and that I would be ready when the time came.
Jacob coughed slightly on my left and I fought the urge to glance at him. I had to focus. I ran through the poems in my head, knowing I had the sheet to read them but I wanted to be able to look at the audience as long as possible. In other words, I wanted to be able to look at Jacob as I read the poem I would be giving to him.
“Okay, the Newark Arts Alliance Poetry Slam has begun! Everyone please take your seats and we will begin shortly,” Margie, the slam organizer, told us. I braced myself, held to faint buzzing feeling in my chest, my stomach, my throat. The poem was in there.
The first few poets were good. I saw the competition and knew that I had no chance of winning. But I thought that Jacob did. Jacob went first, and he got scored low, even though I thought his performance, and poem, was one of the best there.
When they called my name, I felt the ice in my chest crystallize. I stood up, moving stiffly, trying to feel my body over the numbness. I couldn’t feel anything but the poem, couldn’t see anything but Jacob in the back, looking directly into my eyes and waiting as I stood quietly on the stage. He knew that this poem was for him. I had told him. But even if I hadn’t, he would have known anyway.
I breathed in and exhaled cold air. Refrigerated air. I smiled slightly, and looked down at my sheet and began to read. But I knew the poem so well I could look up often, I could look up and see Jacob’s eyes widening, hear the silence around me growing quieter, stilling as my words washed over everyone. But I could see from the expression on Jacob’s face, first the surprise, then the wide eyed awe or understanding or wonder, and then that tender soft look, like he was letting something go, like he was inviting me closer to him. I grinned and I read on, until the last word came galloping up my throat, and I plucked it from my tongue and laid it on the ground for everyone to see. In other words, the last words were perfect. Exactly how I had wanted them. I grinned, looked up from my paper and met Jacob’s eyes now averted, now down and thinking and shy as he smiled at the ground. No longer thinking of his low scores. No longer thinking of being scared. No longer fidgeting with his scarf. When I sat down beside him, he whispered to me.
“Thank you.” I shook with the adrenaline racing through my body, I grinned again, this time to myself, I threw my soul up in the air like a kite. I looked over at the boy I loved more than anyone else in the world, the boy who had finally received something worthy from me.
“It’s the truth,” I whispered, looking at him, looking at how he was hunched slightly, smiling, eyes down as though shy to meet mine. But I knew that he thought it was beautiful. I knew he was glad I wrote that poem, glad I had read it. I knew I had given him something wonderful at last. I felt like I was on fire. I blessed the flames and burned.