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June 19, 2017 | Poetry

THE POEM WHERE DR. PHIL AND I HAVE LUNCH

Katie Darby Mullins

THE POEM WHERE DR. PHIL AND I HAVE LUNCH photo

We both order steak. Medium rare. We glance
knowingly, exaggerating our Dallas accents
just slightly, our private joke about the meat.
I want him to know that we’re the same:
that I’d rather be happy than right, that
sometimes, when I was scared at night, alone 
in my drafty, uninsulated house, I turned
reruns of his show on as loud as I could,
letting that Texan swagger burst through tall ceilings
and hopefully out the windows. He helped
me pretend I was safe. That was a long time ago:
before I was married, before the fire. But now— 

does anyone ever come to him without a problem?
I am asking him how to let go the slights I carry:
the nasty looks from my husband’s ex-wife,
the jabs, the things I shouldn’t know: I can’t stop
looking and finding hurt. I could tell you stories,
I say, but the details are all mixed up now,
now that someone is listening. Something about
how I’m not a bad person, but: something about
me being the lowest common denominator.
I blink, and then I own these shards of venom:
after the fire, I stopped holding on to physical
things, but pain, pain echoes and radiates, pain
lives in these bones. “I don’t want to be like this,”
I start, but then he says, “First, lunch. We’re friends.”
(I’ve always thought we’d be friends.) 

He’s tall. No, taller than that. And he’s well-dressed—
but I’ve come in my sweatpants. We don’t have
an audience. And when he starts asking questions,
I’m magnanimous: I know she must hurt,
I represent the things she’s lost
            He nods, and unlike his TV self,
he is quiet. I hand him pictures I found
when cleaning out the garage: he looks at her
terrified teenage stare, so mismatched from her
wedding dress, and I can tell that he is full,
deep sorrow pouring into him like a faucet.
“So much was destroyed,” I said, “but these
pictures made it.” The photo paper smells like ash
but here it is. When he puts his arm around me,
it is like the blanket the neighbors brought
while I watched my house burn. When he sighs,
it is like the sound of the ceiling giving way.
And when he says, “Sometimes, you have to drop
the rope,” I know it is true, because dammit,
I say it to myself over and over again. 

But then he turns into my father. And then
my husband. Then a mirror. And it is me
telling me the things I’ve learned from seasons
of watching Dr. Phil. And there’s smoke
in the background, and the steak has caught fire,
and I feel heavy and sad. But this is real life:
I change the channel, turn it up real loud.
Other people’s problems ricochet off the walls,
and I always know how to help them. I guess
what Dr. Phil will say before the words cross
the threshold: don’t play semantics with me.
And thank God for that sweet predictability,
the conversations I’ve pretended to have,
for the fake absolution the good TV doctor
always offers me, whether it’s good TV or not. 

 

image: Aaron Burch


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