at Length

After the Election

—Jason Koo



The day after the election I’m going to meet Ana
at the Brooklyn Public Library to see Javier Marías

speak when I get a call from Danny Lee,
who never calls me, but instead of picking up

I make a face, wondering if he just butt-dialed me,
as they say, or maybe he wants to talk sports,

we’d just watched Game 7 of the World Series
and were still living in the reverberations

of Rajai Davis’s homerun, though Cleveland lost,
and for a second I’m worried, thinking we did

something stupid, like trade Andrew Miller,
but I don’t pick up, I’m driving through the rain

running late, annoyed at the traffic, the news,
the whole country did something stupid, it’s as if

the country fucking traded Andrew Miller
and now I have to listen to the media explain it,

how Trump was the “voice of change” not
the voice of racism, misogyny and epic idiocy,

I have to listen to them make what happened
seem reasonable, when in fact it was world-alteringly

unmotherfuckingreasonable, we may never
recover from this, especially if Trump has his way

with the planet, that “may” shows how I’m
ugh going along with the litany of rationalizations,

I’m driving to this talk by a visiting Spanish writer
as if the world hadn’t capsized, floating inside

my bourgeois bubble, telling myself it’ll be good
to hear Marías speak, to be in a room with intellect

and awareness, he’ll probably make us feel better
by saying some stern things about the election,

and he does address it, briefly, halfway through
the meandering Q&A while he’s ruminating on

unknowability, how it’s almost impossible to know
anything for certain about anything or anyone,

even ourselves, how when he woke up this morning
he read, to his dismay, that a certain man had been elected

President of the United States, but he found this
hard to believe, and in fact he didn’t see it happen,

didn’t see the actual votes tallied up, didn’t see
the man give his acceptance speech, didn’t speak

to anyone directly involved with the election, just
assumed it to be true without questioning it, what

he read in the news, as always, just as he assumed
to be true what he was told about his life by his parents,

how he was born in Madrid in 1951 and his father
was a philosopher and a Republican during the Spanish

Civil War and was put in prison after it was over
and lucky not to have been shot, he assumed his father

was telling the truth when he said he’d been wrongly
accused of what Franco’s people accused him of, such as

writing for Pravda, which he’d never done, but Marías
had no way of knowing for sure, just as we have no way

of knowing for sure whether any of these biographical
“facts” are true, they get repeated and reprinted

in interviews and articles and I doubt anyone fact-
checks them, even if you tried at some point

you’d have to believe what you were reading
or what some “trusted” source was telling you, what

are you going to do, demand to see a birth certificate?
I have seen my own birth certificate with my own

two eyes, as they say, though I can’t remember now
when I did that or where it is, whether my mom

has it still in her safekeeping or whether she gave it
to me at some point, I can’t remember whether

the birth certificate verifies the place of my birth
or if that’s something I just have to accept as true

based on the testimony of my parents, Marías says
soon enough as we begin telling the story of our lives

we realize how little we know for sure,
especially, he points out, about our parents,

how much do we know about their lives before
we were born? Before they met? How much

do we even know after we were born? I don’t know,
for instance, whether either of my parents dated

anyone else before they met, whether
they’d fallen in love and had their hearts

broken, I know nothing of how they met:
when was the first moment they saw each other?

Did their families introduce them? Did they meet
in school? In a bar or café? How did my dad

approach her? Or did my mom approach him?
What were the first words they spoke to each other?

I can’t remember the first words I spoke to Ana,
or, if I think about it, to any of the women

I’ve loved, probably “hi” or some variation but I
can’t be sure, I remember seeing Ana sitting down

at a dance, to the side of a crowded dance floor,
that she was pretty but looked a little mean

or mad, I didn’t know her and hadn’t seen her
(I think) at any swing dances before so I wasn’t sure

if I should ask her to dance, I thought, based
on her expression, that she might turn me down

or because I hadn’t seen her before she might
be a beginner, and then I might regret taking her out

onto a crowded floor, in any case I didn’t ask
but later found myself walking alongside her

in a group going to dinner after the dance,
she seemed to be either the girlfriend or date

of a guy I knew, she walked silently, as if
she weren’t having a good time, though the guy

was super chatty and energetic, at some point
I introduced myself because it’s awkward to walk

alongside someone you don’t know and someone
you do who isn’t introducing you, she smiled

and came to life then, I remember feeling a kind
of relief she wasn’t mean after all, she seemed

genuine and friendly. But I don’t remember
what I said, or what she said, we must have made

some conversation after that, the walk to the restaurant
was long enough for me to ask the people leading us

if they knew where we were going, I only remember
talking to her about Old Fashioneds at the restaurant

where, incredibly, the guy sat her between us, as if
he wanted me to talk to her so he could be free

to talk to other women, she ordered a Heineken
and I made fun of her for that, then she said

she usually drank whiskey, she liked Old Fashioneds,
but my description of this is already getting thin

because I don’t remember that much, in fact
I forgot about the Old Fashioned talk too

until, a few weeks later at another dance, I saw her
and we danced and she asked if I’d had any

good Old Fashioneds lately and I said, Hunh?
How do you know I like Old Fashioneds?

and she reminded me of our first talk, at that point
I knew she was interested and all I had to do

was ask if she wanted to get Old Fashioneds
some time, the night I met her I didn’t ask

or get her number because I figured at the least
she was on a date if not with the guy I knew,

so I asked and she said, Yeah let’s do that
(which of course I’m paraphrasing, i.e. guessing at,

because I don’t remember exactly what she said),
and then I knew a little more, but still not

the whole story, she could’ve been with him
but stepping out, or maybe they’d broken up,

or maybe that was just one date, she didn’t know
anything about me either, how the night we met

I was hoping to see another girl at the dance
whom I’d met and slept with for the first time

the night before, it was all very unexpected,
I’d had a party and a friend had brought along

a friend and we ended up talking in my office
about books away from everyone else, and then

one of my friends saw us and got a clue and
instigated the rapid departure of everyone

so we could be alone, including the guy
Ana was with when we met, who wanted

to stick around, possibly to hit on this girl,
I said she should stay and finish her whiskey

and incredibly we ended up in bed together,
the girl was an actress and worked odd jobs

between acting gigs and auditions, which was why
she couldn’t come to the next night’s dance,

I invited her because I didn’t want that
to be a one-night stand and she said she’d try

but had to work and then, in the middle
of the dance, I got a text saying she wouldn’t

be able to make it, and because she didn’t
I met Ana, had she come we would’ve gone

off to dinner by ourselves after the dance.
So much has to happen and not happen

for two people even to meet, let alone fall
in love, so what was all that happened

or didn’t happen for my parents to meet?
Fall in love? I would love to know those stories

but probably never will, they never talk
about their lives before they met, and even

if they did now, I’m sure so many details
would be forgotten or changed, it’s been over

forty years since they met, I met Ana
less than a year ago and can’t remember

our first words or what she was wearing,
how she did her hair that night, what earrings

she had on, I wonder if, the night before
they met, either one of my parents had met

and slept with someone else? Unlikely,
but any of you reading this or who know me

would think it pretty unlikely that I
would’ve met and slept with someone else

the night before I met the woman I love
and now live with—this is not the story

we will tell our grandchildren. Or that Ana
would’ve gone home with the guy ignoring her

so badly when we met that she added me
on Facebook on her phone right next to him

at the dinner table. How “unlikely”
as Elizabeth Bishop says of our existence

in “In the Waiting Room,” and what’s
unlikely about a person is what makes them

human, what brings them into being,
what you never would have guessed,

our parents, for most of us, are not fully human
in this way, they’re characters from some

mediocre morality tale, and we prefer it that way,
don’t we, it helps us believe in the meaning,

the likeliness of our own lives, which are,
in fact, as they say, pretty goddam unlikely.

What got me here? Not only what happened
but perhaps more importantly what didn’t

happen, as Marías points out, making me
think of the call from Danny I didn’t pick up,

no one tells the biography of what we didn’t
do, what we failed to do, but these things

define who we are too, I start imagining
a biography of my failures and it’s amusing

and sad: failed to catch up to the blue
ice cream truck on my bike that summer day

in Maumee, Ohio, when I was seven and no one
else was around, the neighborhood streets

strangely deserted, at least in my memory,
just me and the cruel ice cream truck

steadily pulling away, failed to get Lily Huang
to go out with me at Orange Middle School

after I switched there at the start of 6th grade
(Danny’s twin brother ended up dating her),

thinking I’d be as popular as I was in 5th grade
at my old school, failed to become popular

in middle school, which destroyed my confidence
for the next fifteen years, especially in high school,

when I switched schools again, this time
to a tough all-boys school, where I again failed

to become popular, failed to stand out in sports,
which was all I wanted to do as a teenager,

failed to answer terrifying Mr. Aliazzi’s questions
in Western Civ. and bring my grade above an 80,

failed to keep that knowledge from my mom,
in the end, when she got my report card

and yelled at me in the minivan on the way home
from school, I remember waiting with Ernest Chung

for our moms to pick us up, Ernest had failed math
and hadn’t told his mom the grades he was getting

on his tests, we were both dreading our rides
home that day, as we figured the report cards

were in the mail, and when his mom arrived
Ernest looked at me like he was going off

to the executioner, all I could do to console
myself was think, At least I didn’t fail, which is

ironic as I now include this grade in the list
of my failures, failed ever to prove to Aliazzi

I was smart, though I did raise my grade
to an 85 the next term, but when I went back

to school to read from my first book I saw him
afterwards and he didn’t say a thing,

as if he still saw me as pseudo-smart, i.e.
Asian, one who did well in school because

his parents made him work and he didn’t
have a life, which is how I felt back then,

failed to understand anything he was teaching,
though he was regarded as a “great” teacher

and I spent 3–4 hours every night highlighting
the textbook, making outlines of the reading,

thus failed to get interested in history,
thoroughly intimidated by it until college,

when I took a course in European history
my sophomore year and got over my sense

of fake smartness, reading everything I could
in multiple disciplines and not just for class,

failed to lose my virginity in high school,
the only achievement that seemed to matter

to guys, failed even to meet a girl I could
lose my virginity to, failed to be shamed

by guys asking if I’d lost my virginity
because it was unnecessary, unfair to pick on

such a loser, failed to answer Nicky Hakim
correctly when he asked me if I knew

what it meant to come, “I want to come to you,
Nicky,” I joked, and he calmly asked again

if I knew what it meant, fascinated that I
didn’t know, Google didn’t exist back then

to look this shit up, somehow succeeded
in asking a girl for her number at the end

of a long speech-and-debate tournament
but failed to be an interesting date, taking her

to T.G.I. Friday’s and not talking for long,
excruciating stretches, so that she started asking

default date questions like What’s your favorite
color?
and Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

failed to take her to see the movie we’d planned
on seeing, The Paper, because it was sold out

and I’d failed to plan ahead and get tickets,
forcing us to see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

instead, which was surprisingly hilarious
and became one of my favorites though it failed

to be romantic in any way, failed to understand
that this didn’t matter, failed trying to kiss her

on our second date (when we did see The Paper)
in my red Hyundai when I was dropping her off

in her driveway, leaning over as she went
to hug me and bumping my head into hers,

making her laugh, failed to talk to her again.
How might my life be different had I succeeded

instead of failing at any of these things?
I remember on my first night out with the other

new students in my PhD program at Missouri
we started talking about high school, going

around one by one, everyone declaring what
a dork they’d been, when one of the girls stopped

and said, What about you, Jason? I bet you
were popular in high school, and I looked at her

as if she were crazy, as if there were any way
I could be a writer among them if I had

been popular, wasn’t my whole writing life
an emergence out of all my social failures?

Or my failures at baseball? If I could’ve
played ball, I’ve always said, I would’ve been

a baseball player instead of a writer, it wasn’t
even a choice. Penumbra. Conundrum.

The history of America will now be defined
by our failure not to elect Donald Trump

President, all the things I didn’t do assuming
there was no way that extra-large dickhead

could win, in 2008 I canvassed hard for Obama,
living in the swing state of North Carolina

and having just lived through two terms
of George W. Bush, I knew by then how much

it mattered to do every little thing you could
to prevent catastrophic failures from taking

office, but eight years of Obama later I stopped
knowing again, too used to the reasonable life

to pay attention to how the country was changing,
how incremental forward motion was pushing it

backwards, cyclically, I was too enthralled
(enwalled) by all that I was doing to see

the impact of all that I was not doing, here I
thought 2016 was turning out to be the greatest

year of my life and it ended with Trump
elected President, I found out in the middle

of the night when I woke up to the sound
of Ana crying in the kitchen, we’d both fallen

asleep waiting for the election results, which
did not look good, she got up to get some water

and looked at her phone and started sobbing,
she’s an immigrant and her visa expires in six months

so she saw this election as effectively kicking her
out of the country, the sound of what I was not doing

was the sound of her crying in the kitchen,
she came back to bed and went to sleep without

saying anything, in the morning we didn’t speak
of it but all that was not done was palpably done

there between us, it will determine us, here
is where what you are doing determines what you are

not doing determines what you are doing, one
can easily see that we are moving in a circle,

the problem is that there is no way out of this,
you never know anything, the scope of your circle

is so small, the I is the first circle, to paraphrase
what Emerson said, which is to say a 0, these days

I don’t see any ramifying out from that, there is no
rest of the essay. After Marías finishes speaking

we line up to get our books signed and I check
my voicemail. Danny says, “Hey, call me back,”

which annoys me, why is he being so coy, why
do we have to talk? I never talk on the phone.

So I text him asking him what’s up, saying
I’m at an event, can’t talk, and he says, politely,

Cool, just call me later when you’re done,
still nothing, I can’t imagine what he wants

to talk to me about, maybe he wants my help
with something poetry related? A half hour

of waiting in line later I get my books signed,
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and the new

one, aptly titled Thus Bad Begins, somehow
I didn’t detect this title came from a line

in Hamlet, as Marías revealed during the Q&A,
a play I’ve read probably over a hundred times

and taught in at least ten courses, again I
didn’t know anything, even what I thought I knew,

we get home and after ordering food I finally
call Danny back and he says, after a pause,

“Um, I have some bad news,” and again I
can’t imagine what this could possibly be, I

can’t even fear the worst because I can’t see
what worst he could have for me, and he says,

“Kevin… died this morning.” Kevin our friend
from high school, my best friend, probably,

more by default than anything else because
I didn’t have many friends back then, Kevin

who shared my obsession with Cleveland sports
and lovingly mocked it, sometimes drawing up

sports quizzes for me in class with ridiculously
obscure questions, just to see how I would do

and to show other guys proof of my insanity,
once getting me in trouble with Jim Garrett,

our English teacher (brother of Jason Garrett,
head coach of the Cowboys), who ripped the quiz

out of my hands and screamed, This is bullshit!
crumpling it up in a fist, the only time

I ever saw that guy angry, and there was Kevin
laughing in his seat, which somehow became

my favorite memory of him over the years
as we drifted apart after college and grad school,

only reconnecting for major Cleveland sports
events, which were few and far between,

and our fifteenth high school reunion, when
I met his lovely wife and learned he’d had

two kids, which surprised me, thinking
this was Kevin, Kevin who seemed serious

about nothing, I couldn’t imagine him getting
a woman to take him seriously but there he was,

with a wife and two kids, a manifestation
of seriousness, while there I was, single

and still struggling to publish my first book,
maybe it was simply me he never took

seriously, when I saw him four days before
at his birthday karaoke party in K-town

he introduced me to his friends as a “poet,”
and grinned, confusing them, they weren’t sure

if he was joking or serious, when we watched
the baseball playoffs together last month

with Danny and other guys from high school,
Kevin would ask during a tense moment,

“Koo, are you going to write a poem about this?”
and grin, getting me to smirk, he would always ask

annoying questions just to get a rise out of you
and grin, that was Kevin, we all knew, or thought

we knew, it seemed inevitable when I found out
that he and his wife were splitting up, when

we reconnected for Game 1 of the ALDS
he showed me a picture of his new girlfriend

and asked, “Koo, is she hot?” and grinned,
I just shook my head, that was Kevin, it was

impossible to have a real conversation with him
even when we were both 40, everything

he said was silly or crass or referenced something
from high school, except when he talked about

his kids, then you heard a real person surface
momentarily. I probably never liked Kevin

more than when he brought his son Jonathan
to Brother Jimmy’s for the ALCS-clinching win

against the Blue Jays, this was maybe the cutest,
sweetest kid I’d ever met, I couldn’t believe

he’d been spawned by Kevin, Kevin would ask,
“Jonathan, who do you think knows more

about sports, you or Koo?” and grin, and his son
would smile and shake his head just like me,

when we got the final out I picked him up
and swung him around the room, then took

a picture of him and his dad, even in a photo
Kevin could never keep still so all the shots

I took were blurred, but he didn’t care, happy
to share this blurring with his son, he took him

to Game 7 of the World Series and, incredibly,
left the park with him when he started crying,

taking a blurred picture with him outside
wearing T-shirts they’d just bought that said,

There’s no crying in baseball, possibly the saddest
text I’ve ever received came from Kevin after

Rajai Davis hit his stunning two-run homer
to tie the game: “Jonathan made me leave.

Swear to god. Was crying.” That was Kevin
as a father, I don’t know if I could’ve done that,

I never would’ve forgiven myself for missing
that homerun, but then, I’m not a father,

I don’t know. “That guy is not doing well,”
Ana said to me after meeting Kevin during

the playoffs, “he’s having a really hard time,
I guess with his divorce?” and I shrugged it off,

thinking she was referring to how manic he was,
that was just Kevin, I thought, but wondering

if he revealed more in his brief chats with her
while I focused on the game than he had

during our entire friendship, which extended back
over 25 years. “Hunh?” I say to Danny. “What

happened?” He tells me he hasn’t gotten
all the details yet but that Kevin threw himself

in front of a train. I can’t understand. “Kevin?
I just saw him four days ago. At his birthday

karaoke party.” “How’d he seem?” “Fine.”
But he didn’t sing at all, I barely talked to him,

I thought some of his friends were jerks,
sitting there dressed up, not singing, judgmental,

the group he’d gathered (or that his girlfriend
had gathered) seemed awkward, almost entirely

guys, he barely talked to anybody, including
his girlfriend, whom he seemed not to know,

for a while he disappeared from the party
and I didn’t notice until Ana pointed it out,

I was wondering why I was even there, why
I’d been invited, this was the first birthday party

Kevin had invited me to since high school,
maybe it was because his new girlfriend

didn’t know who his real friends were
and assumed she should invite me because

we watched the baseball playoffs together,
which was sad. But a train? Anna Karenina?

So he existed too! as Fernando Pessoa says
of the tobacconist’s assistant in The Book

of Disquiet, which I can’t help but think
of, who surprises everyone by killing himself.

We had all forgotten that, all of us,
we who knew him only about as well

as those who didn’t know him at all.
Ana can tell from my silence and disbelief

that something terrible has happened,
she stops everything and utters a little moan,

when I get off the phone and tell her
she says, “I’m so sorry, Kookie, I knew

something was wrong.” Already she feels
the loss more than me, me of the fake

friendship, she knew he wasn’t doing well
and only talked to him for five minutes.

At a loud bar. During a playoff baseball game.
Did I know anything? Anybody? Even her?

Or me? I suppose no one truly admits
the existence of another person,
says Pessoa

in another part of the same piece, which
I read aloud to Ana during the first weekend

we spent together, a weird romantic
gesture, to be sure, but I’d always loved this line

and believed it to be true, though I suspect
it to be truer of a person (or nonperson) like me

or Pessoa, whose name ironically means
“person” in Portuguese, he who was no one

person but many persons, taking non-
personhood to a sui generis extreme,

than of a person like Ana, so rooted in
the lives of her family and friends, actually

talking to them or texting them every day,
who cries to herself when she sees a bad man

elected President, who feels the pain of the loss
of my friend for me, but how do I know?

Crooked I, how do I know? How do I—
no. I find out during Kevin’s memorial service

from one of the eulogists that he was suffering
from Huntington’s Disease, a rare genetic disorder,

I read online afterwards, that causes the breakdown
of nerve cells in the brain, deteriorating a person’s

physical and mental abilities during their prime
working years, and for which there is no cure.

I had no idea. He inherited it from his mother,
whom he saw suffer, and he did not want to repeat

her fate. Or so this I can never really know.
What a person has to be going through, what

kind of unbearable personhood, to throw
himself in front of a train. And all the persons stuck

on the train, the morning after the election,
not knowing what happened, what a life had been

extinguished into their suffering, thinking this
is unbearable, great, can this day get any worse,

squeezed together with other persons whose existence
they aren’t admitting, not looking at each other

except to look away, furious and helpless, furious
about their own helplessness, just wishing they knew

something about what was going on, could someone
please say something, can we at least get online,

anything to pass the time, past the time, why
aren’t we moving, we were right there, the stop

is right there, what the hell, when is this going
to end, why can’t we just pull in to the next stop.











Jason Koo is the author of the poetry collections More Than Mere Light, America’s Favorite Poem and Man on Extremely Small Island and coeditor of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. He has published his poetry and prose in the American Scholar, Missouri Review, Village Voice and Yale Review, among other places, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. An associate teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Koo is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of The Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.