He’s the shabby guy at the back of the room, two jackets on and not taking them off, even though he’s sweating through them. His hands move, restless, always pulling at fraying threads, tugging at his sleeves, keeping his shoulders hunched. He looks shifty, bruised face, the way he clicks his jaw and his blue eyes dart wildly, and a few of the women have already asked the guys on the door to keep an eye on him, because he looks like the kind of guy who never stops spoiling for a fight. They don’t say drunk, they don’t say junkie, but he hears all of it anyway, used to reading between the lines. This isn’t his place, not the space for a high school dropout who was never good at reading but who has to write to keep all the feelings he has from spilling out.
Dean writes slam poetry which echoes off the walls, which sets the world aflame and all anyone can think is how they underestimated him, how they thought he’d be the guy bothering women, the guy sneering through the rape poems about how there are good guys out there, but he brought his own tissues and his voice breaks when he says the word ‘mom’. He doesn’t drink beer like some of the other guys, sticking to tap water, fingernails picking at the underside of the bar and he flinches whenever people get too close, to congratulate him. He doesn’t say it’s warm, it’s safe, he doesn’t have to go home to where her hands are still all over him and where the new bruises start to form. Here, he’s not alone, for the first time in his life.
The guy in the slouchy beanie looks like the usual hipster douchebag, there to pick up chicks or make a statement, the kind who carries his overly-fancy coffee order in a reusable cup, who drinks water when there’s applause and adjusts his glasses like he thinks it makes him pretty. He looks like the typical try hard looking like he didn’t try hard, and there are some of the girls who go to him, and giggle when they sit close to him, but he doesn’t speak to anyone, doesn’t say a word until he’s up on stage and his voice sounds wrong, somehow, more brash than they’d expected as he tugs nervously at the bleached section of dark, curly hair.
Seth’s brought three notebooks with him, full to the brim with cursive script he squints at from behind his glasses, barely able to read his own smudged ink where too many nights were spent in tears - but he doesn’t read those poems, doesn’t stand in a room of strangers and call out to roots which never touched ground, left to wither, thirsty, in the air. Instead, he thinks of all the girls in English class who laughed at him when his stumbling words asked them out, and the way the only boy he ever loved punched him in the face when he tried the same. The poems he reads, instead, are lascivious tongue curls of rapture about his ex-boyfriend’s dick, because it’s easier than remembering how the hands which loved to open him up so gently were the ones that also held him down.
The guy who works the door is an enigma to a lot of them, he looks barely out of his twenties but everyone knows he’s got a little girl, she comes to the kids’ classes sometimes, and draws pictures of her and her daddy, never anyone else. He’s big and broad and people shy away from him, expecting him to be aggressive, but he’s mostly silent, nodding to regulars and frowning at people he thinks are suspicious. When the buffet tables are cleared, he’ll put items wrapped in napkins into his pockets, and everyone pretends they don’t see him leaving with his pockets bulging. He’s good on the door, his size and tattooed arm a good deterrent for anyone, and though they’ve never seen him have to throw a punch, everyone knows, with certainty, that he would if it was needed. When the poets speak, his eyes go glassy, and sometimes a smile will force its way onto his face, or he’ll bite his lip at words of pain, and everyone knows this isn’t just a job for him.
Roman doesn’t write poetry, learned years ago that his words always did more harm than good, but he likes to listen, likes to hear the words of his cousins, talking about gang violence, of an old classmate talking about buying second-hand clothes for her baby, how these people go through all this pain and keep getting stronger, their voices speaking out against a world that says they’re not good enough. When he goes home, he cradles his child and whispers to her sleeping form that he won’t let anything hurt her, that she’ll grow up strong and sturdy, and he’ll fight off anyone who tries to get near her, and he wishes he could find these words at the meetings, to take them to the stage and tell everyone in the room how much it hurts to hold a seven year old and tell her that you love her, but there’s no food tonight. Instead, he accepts the low wage they pay him, carries home as many cakes and pastries as he can, and tries not to let it bother him that he can’t feed the one person he loves most in world.