The Poets Next Door – Josh Vigil
November 19, 2020
Mr. Hardwick did it, I tell the detectives. It was him. It was, yes. I tell them about the aperture next. The little hole in the wall that changed my life, made it interesting, gave me something to look forward to every night. It was fall and I was a sixth former when I first noticed the opening. I moved in a week early, for student leader training. In bed that first evening, a beam of light had made its way across my room. I tell the detectives how I ran my fingers along my wall until the beam disappeared. When I lifted my index, the beam again. Through the light, Mr. Hardwick, my dorm parent, paced across his kitchen with a swinging stick of Slim Jim in one hand and his dog Mikey behind him. Every so often he would stop and scribble something on a notebook. I could hear him mumble, reading and re-reading his markings.
Mr. Hardwick was part of the English department, I say to the detectives, though I am sure they already know this. He taught upperclassmen, and was known for his yearly poetry elective available to only sixth formers. It was one of those electives that many of us spent years wishing for, then begging our advisors to do their best to snag us a spot in the fall of our last year in school. I would not be taking it, I learned my first week back, I say. I would be taking a class on The Canterbury Tales, which had been my last choice. But the Student, I would learn, would be in Mr. Hardwick’s class. I cannot remember when the Student first appeared through the beam, I tell them. I spent many nights that fall avoiding college applications and watching Mr. Hardwick instead. He was a creature of habit: his pacing, his scribbles, his Slim Jim. All were a nightly occurrence. He would take Mikey out several times during the day, too, but would take him out twice in the evening—twice in the evening he indulged in a smoke as well.
I did not know Mr. Hardwick smoked until I began viewing him. He was so diligent in his hiding of this vice, how he would gargle with mouthwash throughout the day, scrub at his fingers until I imagined they were but angry red nubs. I was sure he hiked into one of the many woods surrounding the campus for his smoke breaks, becoming totally invisible to the hundreds of unwanted spectators that took form in the students, all of us hungry for gossip, with little sympathy or respect for privacy.
One night, the Student was there, simply within my line of sight. It was the first time Mr. Hardwick had ever broken his routine, too. No Slim Jim, no pacing, no scribbles. Mikey, like me, also seemed confused.
They spoke of the Student’s poetry, Mr. Hardwick becoming more animated than I had ever seen him before. The Student grinned, basking in Mr. Hardwick’s attentions. He grabbed a book from his library, and gave it to the Student, who examined it in turn. I brought my face closer, adjusting my eyelids like an analog camera: a book of poems by Jack Gilbert, I saw. Then, a blur of tan velocity and the Student was gone. Mr. Hardwick stared at Mikey, who stared back. Mr. Hardwick propped open his window, lit a cigarette, and smoked. He made some of his scribbles, then lit another one. More scribbles. Then another cigarette. He did not take Mikey out a second time that night.
The Student would visit again, of course. It was always the same. They would speak of poetry. Mr. Hardwick would praise one of the Student’s poems, then give him soft suggestions of where he could push a specific element, where to adjust a line break, and would then lend him a book. Ashbery. Notley. Glück. Baraka. O’Hara.
It didn’t seem unusual when they began fucking. It seemed like a simple extension of what they had already been doing: Mr. Hardwick giving, and the Student receiving. They would then lay entwined, passing a cigarette. Then another. The Student would leave, and Mr. Hardwick would work on his scribbles, with Mikey curled beside him, so obviously missing the days when Mr. Hardwick would shower him with the attention that was now reserved for the Student. I tell the detectives how Mr. Hardwick had become more careless as well, often forgetting to even open a window to release the cigarette smoke. Though no one really cared, so many of us were doing the same. We had already suffered through the severity of our underclassmen years, where we’d resort to Skoal dipping tobacco instead, and mouthwash containers filled with vodka tinted blue. Our dorm parents knew we now needed some leniency as sixth formers. They did not want us going dangerously overboard our first weeks in college, I explain to the detectives, who stare at me, their fingers having given up on jotting down notes many moments ago.
Nevertheless, I continue: towards the end of the semester, before Thanksgiving break, the Student and I were seated next to each other during ‘seated meal.’ These were mandatory meals that occurred twice a week, and in which seating was pre-arranged. The Student and I knew each other, but were not friends. It was as I passed him the mashed potatoes that he said, You know, he watches you, too. I tell the detectives about how I let go of the bowl. And how the Student’s hands were so close to its bottom that he still received it smoothly. Cooly. This remained a private moment between the two of us; the two teachers at our table continued talking amongst themselves as I felt my body float, my face grow hot, my heart shake. The image of my plate blurred.
It’s okay, the Student said. He studied me, my reaction, how it was so obvious my whole world had been upended for the briefest moment. We did not speak the rest of the meal. Instead, the Student spoke to a fourth form girls’ lacrosse champ who had already been recruited to Cornell, while I stared at the stained glass windows and the animal heads mounted across the walls, which alternated with portraits of past heads of school.
The next weeks were spent hyper-vigilant of the small aperture within our shared wall. I did my best to avoid looking through, but my curiosity often got the best of me. After my morning showers, I did not know what to do but dress per my normal routine. I soon grew accustomed, however, to the idea of being watched. I felt myself growing aware of my posture, of what stances to take in the nude, as I ruffled through my clothes, sometimes taking longer to decide if I felt I had found an angle that I thought worked for me. I examined my body more, its adolescent contours, where I could workout in order to make an area more visually enticing.
The remainder of the year was one of a cycle of watching and being watched. I realized it was only fair. Though I soon wished for something more, to somehow break this fourth wall. I wanted to come barreling through our shared drywall. I don’t know if Mr. Hardwick knew that I now knew he watched me, too. I never spoke to the Student about it. We never spoke again, really. We passed each other in the halls, something fiery and electric communicated by our mutual ignoring of one another. We knew too much about each other that it was almost as if we had nothing else to say. But I had so many questions.
I watched them one night, then went to bed after they did nothing more than remain silently locked within each other’s embrace, like two fine statues. Even their portraits, their closed eyes that still communicated the strongest of gazes, seemed frozen in cement.
Their hushed shouting woke me within the hour. Then, the door’s slam had me jolt upright. I brought myself to the hole, but it was now blocked. I could not see what was going on. I heard ruffling, then the door opened and closed. I waited for another sound, then waited for proof of Mr. Hardwick’s return. I stayed up for hours until again I drifted off.
Which brings me to today, when the Student’s body was found by a jogger running along the reservoir. The detectives tell me that the Student had apparently told several people of their illicit liaisons. They found a notebook of poems, too, in Mr. Hardwick’s apartment. His poems speak of heartbreak and violence and carelessly include the Student’s name throughout. It was likely a lover’s quarrel, they say. An accident. Involuntary manslaughter.
I wonder if I could have done things differently, I say. What if I had patched up the hole that first week of class, I ask them, not wanting their response. I would certainly have remained clueless of their romance, but I wonder if they even would have continued for so long. I like imagining that what sustained it was simply our cycle of looking and being looked at.
What I do not tell the detectives: Mr. Hardwick helped me by patching the hole. He kept me out of their epilogue, somehow. He established our first boundary, and kept me from being witness to whatever it is that happened that evening after I fell asleep.
By the end of the week, we’ll hold a memorial for the Student in the school chapel, dark and crammed, with the mid-winter chill that will creep through the doors and windows. Sitting in the chapel is rarely pleasant, with its nary comforts and too-big wooden seats. His parents will have one of his poems blown up and placed next to his portrait, which I will recognize. It had been taken early on in the fall along the cloisters by a professional photographer who took portraits for all the sixth formers that day. We all looked the same, with the soft lighting and smooth skin and brilliant teeth and white or navy blue polos. But his dashing smile will stand out that morning in the chapel, his grin that will seem to be a gesture of mockery, and which will communicate clearly how little any of us knew him.
The poem the parents choose will speak of a torturous love. They will not understand that it is a love poem, one clearly of Mr. Hardwick. Instead, they’ll think it speaks perhaps of a more general love, for family, for friends, for campus life, one that declares the need to remain resilient against life’s hardships because of this camaraderie.
I will recognize the poem, too. It was one that the Student had recited to Mr. Hardwick, as they sat across from each other, unclothed. Mr. Hardwick recited one of his in turn, a poem of desire and doom. They then met across the hole, their golden flesh taking over the expanse of the little opening.