It was a foggy and hot summer morning in May when my mother came to me
with a difficult proposal: to leave my father or stay together for us,
my sister and me.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, staring down at the
K’NEX rollercoaster I started building the night before and
being unable to look my mother in the eyes, even though I knew she was
crying. This all in my final week of eighth grade, a time before I moved
into the unknown and overwhelming territory of high school. I thought
about her proposal and I thought about crying, about feeling anything
other than the dull thrum in my chest.
Without looking at my mother, I told her to do what would make her
My mother kissed me on the crown of my head. Just before closing my
bedroom door, she leaned in one last time. You can stay home from school
today, she said.
This was my dowry for accepting her proposal.
Most often, when I think of the word proposal, the idea of marriage
comes to mind.
Why this idea of making a specific suggestion, an offer to be taken into
consideration, is most directly associated with marriage has more to do
with conditioning and less to do with intent. I’ve mostly
heard the word when friends or family mention that so-and-so proposed,
or that so-and-so was proposed to. And the outcome is always a yes, even
if the evidence that suggests otherwise is there, buried in a shallow
grave beneath the relationship. It’s as if there is no
other answer to the suggestion.
If a man offers to marry the woman, the woman must say yes. This is the
social order of such events.
The first recorded use of the word proposal dates back to 1629.
Latin in origin, proposal branches from the root word proponere, which
is also the root word for proponent. Later, it became proposer in Old
French, as well as poser, which means “to place.”
When the word made its way into Middle English, that’s
where we get the base word of propose.
Michelle Orange visited the Theory of Creativity class I took my first
semester of graduate school.
At some point, while discussing her book Pure Flame, she talked about
the publication process and how sometimes to publish a book, the writer
must write a book proposal and went on to say that the book often is
vastly different from the proposal originally pitched. The narrative
morphs over time in ways that the writer could not previously expect.
When the book is finally submitted to the publisher, they sometimes send
it back because it doesn’t quite meet the expectations of
the original proposal.
It’s the morning of Thanksgiving, and my mother is washing the dishes.
I hand her my dirty glass as I explain to her that we, my partner and I,
have no idea where we want to live, only that we don’t think we want to
stay in Baltimore—we love it, but we want to experience life
My mother looks at me, her eyes wide, and dries her hands. Well, she
starts, do you plan on proposing to her anytime soon?
Why does everything have to be about marriage?
Is there anything else?
Absence is a father who laughs at your dreams.
How good does a proposal have to be for it to be accepted? How bad does
it have to become for it to fall apart?
Here’s a story: Once, there was a woman who met a man and
they fell in love. Then she met another man and fell in love. One man
had the promise of brains, the other brawn, and both drank more than the
body could handle.
The woman knew she couldn’t have both, so she was faced
with a decision and no way to know the outcome.
In the end, the woman made her choice. She wouldn’t know
until years later, after she had accepted the one man’s proposal, but
their relationship would turn to rotted wood and rusted nails, a faulty
motor and burned out battery—the remnants of some old boat abandoned
in the creek, waiting to be revealed by the receding tides.
By the end, there would be little left of her world. Only fragmented
memories and a broken home, discolored by the years spent saturated by
How did she even arrive at such a proposal? How am I supposed to breach
the subject to a woman who talks so little of her personal life?
There is more to her life than marriage, but how do I know what is truth
and what is merely an answer?
It’s the writer’s job to make it interesting,
to have fun with the writing, to explain the writing within the writing.
But what does it say of a writer who holds no answers, only more
Another term first documented in 1629: fool’s errand.
It was late, and she sat on the marble floor of her bathroom, smoking a
cigarette as the hours passed. Moonlight leaked through the Venetian
blinds, the red cherry of the cigarette’s tip burned
brightly in the dimness.
She didn’t typically smoke—not anymore, at least.
But there was something about the act of watching the wisps dissipate
into the air that soothed her. And when there was no knowing how late
her husband would be this time, or if he’d make it home at
all, she needed all the soothing she could get.
Besides, smoking helped her stay awake.
Watch as the smoke spreads thin until there is nothing left.
Some other words first documented in 1629:
Here’s another story: It was a fool’s errand
to believe that their marriage would change him for the better. After
all, the proposal can be denied and the vows are not for the improvement
of another, but rather that they will love one another through the good
and the bad.
Of course, there was a deep reluctance to believe that he
wasn’t capable of change, that deep down he
didn’t want to change. No matter how many times she tried
to broach the subject, there seemed to be some other occupancy taking up
space in his mind, perhaps even his heart.
When enough was enough, she made the decision. She approached her
children with a proposal of her own, where she gained the necessary
support to act.
One evening, after her husband returned far later than he said
he’d be, she stood in the kitchen and proposed to him that
they get a divorce.
Instead of remaining calm, her chickenhearted husband erupted in
confusion. Told her that this was a ludicrous proposal, which disserved
his heart by its abruptness, its coming out of nowhere, where was it
coming from? And what would the kids think of all this?
She stood firm in her belief that this marriage had far deviated from
the initial proposal. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other,
recrossed her arms, stared at her husband as he hunched over the dining
room table, crocodile tears sputtered down his cheeks, the collected
She had had enough of this charade of self-torturing.
Poser shares a similar origin as the word proposal.
Derived from the Latin word proponere, poser is an Old French word
meaning “to place.” Nowadays, poser means two different
things in American English:
a baffling puzzle or question.
a person who poses.
Which is to say that a proposal, by association, can also be a baffling
puzzle or question—which is to say that a person who poses during a
time of seriousness might not take the proposal all that seriously.
As a society, we’re so caught up in the idea of posing in
just the right way, in just the right setting, in just the right light,
all to ensure that there is no refute to the proposal, that often we
don’t stop to consider if the proposal is truly right in
the first place. This need for showmanship blurs the lines between those
genuine and the posers who are posing for the sake of an ideal proposal.
My mother stopped over after her shift at the dental office one evening.
She wanted help on her resume because she wanted to land a remote gig so
she could spend more time with her grandchildren, my nephews.
Instead, we walked our dog around the neighborhood and made small talk.
Eventually, my mother suggested we grab drinks. I’m not
sure why she always turns to drinking, or why all things, in general,
turn to drinking as a means to an end. Whether it is out of boredom or
stress or celebration, my family and friends always go back to it.
I’m not even sure I know why I still drink knowing the harm
it’s caused already, how it’s wounded my
family in inexplicable ways.
But that’s not why I’m here.
Before all that happened my mother mentioned that she was home alone the
rest of the week. Her long-time partner had gone to his house in
Delaware to wrap up some work on the garage, and so she was all by
herself, in a neighborhood she’d never felt comfortable in,
in a house that wasn’t her own. This was the real reason
why she stopped by, an event that doesn’t happen often.
“The older I get, the more I hate the dark—I have to turn all the
lights on,” she said. “If I don’t, I just get this feeling
— like this deep loneliness, that in the dark I’m all
alone,” she said. “I hate it,” she said.
It was early June when I got word that my first book, The Singing
Heart, had been accepted for publication.
At the time, it felt revelatory—one of those rare moments when it
seems the universe is at work in your favor, like I’d
landed on the right pathway in life for the first time in my twenty-two
years of living. And the book itself, I thought, as so many young
writers might foolishly think, would propel me that much closer to
becoming a successful, full-time writer.
But as the postcard with a quote by Søren Kierkegaard I’ve taped to the
first page of my notebook reads, “Life can only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.”
This first book of mine was an assembly of poems I’d
written either early in the morning or late at night, with no larger
concentration or idea or theme in mind. The poems were spontaneous
thoughts or feelings, banged out on a typewriter in a time when
typewriters were trendy, thanks to the rise of “Instapoets”
on Instagram, written for mass consumption under the guise of some
profound depth that was nothing more than vanity.
Reader, these were the poems of a desperate young man who was trying to
make a place for himself in a world that he felt he had no place in.
Back then, I had no sense of self-worth—and no sense of self.
Instead of looking deeper, of doing the hard work that comes with
understanding the self, I looked everywhere else and tried to capitalize
on a growing trend.
For better or for worse, it worked.
I couldn’t say what exactly my first book was even about.
Most of the writing I did during that time was in that pretentious,
writerly vein, which is to say that I was often too drunk or hungover by
the end of a “writing session” to remember what
I’d just written.
We talked often about marriage, about her grandmother’s ring, about how
I’d use it for our proposal.
One evening while lying in bed, we talked about the act of doing so and
how I’d have to ask for her father’s approval before proposing—as a
courtesy to him, she explained. It’s not that her family was
particularly religious, but her sister’s husband had done so and that
cemented any future expectations.
My partner asked if I’d thought about how I’d go about it, whether it’d
be a private affair or public display, before changing her mind.
Don’t tell me, she said. I shouldn’t ask you about that kind of stuff. I
don’t even know if you’ve thought about it.
I’ve thought about it, I told her.
And it was true. I had thought about it, and I had come up empty-handed
over the “right” way to propose. Too often I heard grand stories of
public displays that I didn’t know how to make it private and
I wasn’t even certain of how my own father proposed to my mother.
Nowadays, poser tends to take on more severe meaning.
What Merriam-Webster tries to gently state with “a person
who poses,” Urban Dictionary goes right for the throat: “To
pretend, to be somebody you’re not, to be a part of a
culture or genre just to fit in.”
This is the variation of the word I’m most familiar with.
This is the variation of the word we slung at each other like sharp
rocks in high school. This is the variation of the word that haunted me
for years after someone declared aloud for the first time that I was, in
fact, a writer.
It was a Thursday night, and I’d met up with some friends
at a bar in Canton after my shift as server.
After using the bathroom, I stopped for another drink and fiddled with
my last twenty for the night. I remember the void that opened up inside
me and how it slowly consumed any residual hope that things would one
day be better than this.
I remember wanting to cry, but not being able to cry.
The bartender made his way over to me, asked what I wanted to drink. I
ordered a Loose Cannon and prepared to part with my last twenty.
The bartender paused. Aren’t you Coty Poynter, he asked.
The one who writes poetry on Instagram?
Excuse me? I had no idea who he was—I still don’t today.
You’re the guy who writes poetry on Instagram. You just had
a book published, right?
No shit. Congratulations on the book! It’s awesome that
you’re trying to make something of yourself. I feel like so
many others from our high school haven’t done shit.
Thanks, I told him and tried to hand him the money. Part of me reveled
in the acknowledgment; the other part of me, the part that the void left
untouched, wanted to run. Poser. It echoed within my emptiness.
The bartender placed the beer in front of me. Don’t worry
about it, he said. This one’s on me—you’re
a writer who just published a book. You should be celebrating!
When I think back to that moment, those words, it sounds like metal
pipes clanging together. It’s all noise without clarity.
There are no good feelings that come with it. Somehow it felt like a
slight—some kind of acknowledgment to suggest he knew, just as I
knew, that I was nothing more than a poser.
The whole publication process for The Singing Heart was a stop-and-go
conversation across time zones with no definite end in sight.
The editor I worked with was based out of Australia, so our schedules
rarely aligned. Often, our phone calls happened at what was late at
night for me, if they happened at all. Emails went unanswered. Access to
the project managing tool was given to me, but there was rarely any
visible work put into it all.
Where I once felt I’d found the right path, I now felt
Whatever joy felt when I first received a publication offer had long
faded into a distant, distorted dream.
Now when I think back on that time, there is only shame and
embarrassment. That book has become the preservation of my depressive,
erratic state. It’s an artifact of another lifetime. I was
a fool to think that lifestyle, all the drinking and misanthropic
thinking, would elevate me to literary greatness, or at the least make
me an underground success.
The writerly life; the life of a writer—it’s a twisted
joke, one that’s been too often romanticized for far too
Looking back, I’m amazed I made it out alive.
I’ve managed to exorcize the sense of being a poser since
then. No longer do I question what makes a writer a writer, whether or
not I’m able to consider myself a writer. No longer do I try to live a
Where there was once a sharp foreignness that cut through my belly, now
resides a calm that cannot be ruptured.
At its best, I bring myself to tears.
At its worst, I laugh and keep writing.
Back then, when the label of writer was passed to me in a pint glass, I
drank it down quick and the idea of poser—of imposter syndrome —
burrowed itself deep within me. No matter how I tried to kill it off,
the thing persisted.
But I think that has less to do with the disbelief that someone like me,
someone who grew up in Dundalk, a town people mocked for being full of
dumb, thoughtless people, where people were praised for having all their
teeth, a place people rarely left, could make a living as a writer and
more to do with the time my father laughed at me.
I don’t remember how old I was, only that I was at the age
when the slightest nudge could put me off course. Because
I’ve relived this moment so often in my dreams, I often
wonder if it happened at all.
But for all my uncertainty, I know it wasn’t merely a
What I do remember is this: coloring in the marine life I drew—the
blacktip shark, the tiger shark, the thrasher shark, a blue whale, an
attempted blue crab—as best I could with restaurant crayons; a large
window to my left that held the cold weather at bay; the Chesapeake in
the distance; the sun drifting beneath the horizon; my father across the
table from me.
Once I finished coloring with my artwork, I showed my father. He studied
it intently, his gray-blue eyes darting all over the page. He nodded his
head, told me how good it was.
His compliments gave me the courage to make my proposal: I want to be an
artist when I grow up.
Without missing a beat, my father looked at me and laughed. He laughed
and looked at me. He said to me, “You can’t make a living
as an artist.”
Silence is the mother who asks nothing of your life.
A little over two years passed before my second book, Delirium, was
published. In that time I spent most of my free hours meticulously
revising each poem, trying to bring out some greater depth of the
shallow writing my past self had done.
When I sent in my book proposal to Bowen Press, it was informal, short,
vague. Robert Hand, the publisher, emailed me back within a month to
accept my book for publication. That was in April of 2018.
Almost eight months later, and my second book was published.
I didn’t know then what I know now.
That is, I didn’t know that book proposals were prone to
change. I didn’t know that, in fact, change was good when
it came to the process of writing a book from the idea pitched to
publication. The idea that it could change didn’t cross my
mind because the book, by and large, was complete, and what I
conceptualized for the collection felt solid enough. If my publisher
didn’t buck, why should I?
I wish I would’ve questioned the process more. I wish I
would’ve used my voice to speak up, to ask questions. I
wish I would’ve looked back and seen that a proposal is not
a definite thing; that it is a thing that is malleable; that there is
always time to alter the course and move in a new direction.
What is there to say about my parent’s divorce? It felt
like the kind of thing that was in motion before the movement began —
the sound of glass splintering along the kitchen floor before the glass
is thrown. The buildup long and full of quiet discontent.
I remember so vividly the day that glass was thrown.
It was early June and it was suffocatingly hot and our fifth-grade
yearbooks had come in just in time for graduation.
The weeks leading up to this day were filled with tight-lipped
discussions between my mother and father. Only on occasion did he
mention that he’d be leaving soon. I’m going
to get us a cool, new boat, he might’ve said.
What he didn’t say is that he had to travel to Florida to
get the cool, new boat, which was actually a boat that barely ran and
needed more work than the boat was worth.
This meant that my mother, once again, had to take care of me and my
sister, had to drop us off and pick us up, had to cook for us and clean
up after us, had to do our laundry, had to tend to the garden and lawn,
had to keep Wise Liquors and Wise Tannery running while he was away.
My mother pulled out front of our house, put her white 4-Runner in park.
I flipped open my yearbook, eager to show her my portrait and the note I
wrote to go with it. She looked at the page, over and over, searching
for something, though I didn’t know what.
“What about your father?” she asked.
I struggled to explain my father’s absence from my little
note of gratitude to my family—there was frantic guilt and then the
numbness that followed. I shrugged. My sweat-slick shirt clung to me.
“I guess I forgot about him.”
My mother broke into tears.
With those five words, the glass had been thrown and it was only a
matter of time until it hit the wall.
One evening, my partner and I lay on the couch listening to records. We
split a bottle of red wine between the two of us and talked about
whatever came to our minds.
At some point, we moved onto the topic of marriage proposals and how
it’s bizarre that more women don’t propose to men, how we’re still stuck
in the old-school mentality in so many ways.
What if I proposed to you, she said. What would you do?
I’d say yes, I told her.
But how would you feel about it?
Relieved, I told her. I’d feel relieved.
It was difficult after my parents split.
Difficult because all at once I felt I had to be the “man”
of the house, yet I was still just a thirteen-year-old kid. Difficult
because one day my mother would have a breakdown, the next she was out
country line dancing with a friend. Difficult because she’d wake up
early to get me and my sister ready for school and then
wouldn’t get home until ten at night, if not later, the
sourness of alcohol her evening perfume. Difficult because those
evenings she came home late, I’d awake like a parent in distress as she
called for me to help her; I’d help my mother up the stairs, put her in
the shower, cared for her as she cared for me. Difficult because she was
trying to recover the years she lost on my father, all while I was
trying to understand his want for distance.
I had a lot of anger towards my family back then, and some still exists
within me today. There are times when I feel it writhing beneath the
But I’m learning to let the anger go—I'm learning how a person
After the divorce, we cared for each other, my mother and me. There were
times when I was her caretaker; there were times when she was mine.
Even now though, despite my efforts, I struggle with anger.
It’s an ugly thing, an ugly fact, but each year it gets a
little easier to understand. By now, we’ve been through so
much that each house we shared feels like a different life altogether.
The last thing I want is to demonize my mother because she
couldn’t be farther from it. Neither one of us was easy to
deal with, and I recognize now more than ever the silent traumas she
endured day in and day out.
But after the divorce, we cared for each other—I gave her someone to
lean on so that she could take a well-deserved moment of rest. And I
love her all the more for never giving up, no matter how tough it got.
As for my father, what can be said about a man who faded into the
The night the glass shattered against the wall, my father had no idea
After numerous dropped or missed phone calls, countless tears shed,
weeks and months lost, he finally returned with the new, cool boat that
had to be towed then put into a shop more than once. After being so
removed from his life, unable to come back to his reality, he kept at a
distance for years. My father became merely a body that occasionally
passed through the threshold of our home to rest, rising before anyone
could see him.
And so, when the shards were scattered across the dining room floor, my
father didn’t know what to make of it. He might’ve called
my mother crazy. He might’ve told her to calm down. He might’ve told her
she’d be lost without him and to take him back. He might’ve
told her many things, but I’m not sure he ever told her the
truth of what happened during his two-month excursion down and back up
the east coast.
That’s one long series of stories he never told me.
Here’s one last story: It was Thanksgiving of 2006, the first since
their separation. The woman remained at the home built for their
children and the man moved into the dank, windowless basement of the
building he bought years before, one he turned into a carpet shop —
among other businesses. The carpet shop was a front, a pose that allowed
him to assume one character while acting as another beneath the surface.
The children, now grown, arrived at the man’s basement home, which was
only around the corner from the house the man—their father—built
and finished the year his son was born.
They walked down the concrete stairs, past the concrete walls stained
with oil and paint and whatever else was stored in the crawlspace that
began where the walls ended. The smell of must and earth mixed with the
scent of burnt meat as smoke floated up to the exposed pipework. Around
the corner, finished flooring and a small table set for three.
The girl, leading the way, reached back and grabbed the boy’s hand.
The man dished out canned sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon, cut
the dried, tough turkey, gave the children spoonfuls of green bean
casserole. All their life they knew the man to be a great cook, but in
this hour it felt as if they didn’t know the man at all.
The boy stayed mostly quiet while the girl shared how her first semester
of college was, how soccer was going, how life away from the mess that
had become their family was going for her.
Not long after finishing dinner, the children stood up from the table
and gathered their coats. Before the children could say their goodbyes,
the man made a proposal that they stay and watch a movie.
You’re just down the road, the man said. You could walk
home. Or I’ll drop you off. C’mon, he said.
It’ll be fun.
Neither the girl or the boy could stand to linger another moment in his
basement home. The boy’s guilt over wanting so badly to leave stung like
glass that finds its way into your skin. But the urge to leave trumped
So, the children rejected his proposal.
As they moved to leave, the man asked the children—begged them —
to stay with him, just a bit longer. His eyes, the same color eyes as
the boy’s, were wild; they were the eyes of a man who’d
been lost at sea for far too long, deprived of the very thing that keeps
us human. Tears trailed down his cheeks into his stubble, which was new
to the children.
I don’t want to be alone, the man said.
And in that moment, the boy felt that was the first truth
he’d ever heard from his father.
Before the word proposal in 1629, there was proposition.
First documented in the 14th century, proposition was often used when
offering something for consideration or acceptance, which links it
almost directly to the word proposal that came two centuries later.
A proposition is also a request for sexual intercourse.
So, in the 14th century, a time when virginity represented the value of
a woman, men would make a proposition of marriage to women before the
church, which is to say that they made a proposition for sex before God,
and once the couple completed or finished or perfected the marriage
through sex, the act of being faithful was intrinsically tied to the
woman’s honor and the woman’s acknowledgment
that her husband now controlled her sexuality.
But should the proposition for sex not result in a child, then the
husband could break off the marriage, leaving the woman without honor
but with control over her own sexuality.
I’m thinking about generosity. That’s how I
best explain how writing has changed for me over the years—even over
these first short few months of graduate school. Where before there was
anger and resentment in my writing, I’m now trying to be
more kind to myself, to my characters; more forgiving of the flaws
If I don’t write one morning because I’ve
chosen to remain in bed, peacefully pressed against my partner to feel
the warmth of her body for another moment longer, another hour, I no
longer silently berate myself doing so. It’s okay to take
that time, to cherish that moment.
It’s about generosity for me anymore. The playfulness that
comes with trying to develop a character, no matter how tragic they may
be, or obnoxious, or infuriating; it’s exciting to feel the
elation of the act. And when I try to think back to what was there
before, there’s not much. Just another bottle that I see
myself in the emptied bottom—a black hole.
No longer do I want to numb myself.
Instead, I want to look the thing I fear straight down the long narrow
and run towards it, hurl myself over the edge, and play it as I lay.
I remember when my partner and I first started spending time together
— one night in particular.
It was a cool, late-summer evening. We sat out in the courtyard of her
sister’s apartment, where she’d been living until she found a space of
her own, and enjoyed a glass of whiskey on the rocks. We talked about a
lot of things that evening, and we talked about being open and honest
with one another.
Not long after that agreement, I told her about my stance on marriage:
it wasn’t for me.
Looking back on it, that was the moment she should’ve second-guessed me
as a partner—a red flag that raised high as the Natty Boh tower
Instead of leaving, she asked me why I felt that way.
I don’t remember what I said, but it was likely something along the
lines of how messy my parent’s divorce was and how I don't see the
point in paying to be with someone you love.
She said okay, took a drink of whiskey, and I remember a quiet that
settled between us and how it unsettled me—but to be unsettled is to
be forced to move.
Eventually, it was her who broke the quiet. “That could change though,”
she said. “You never know.”
There’s something to be said about a writer and how a
writer tends to be a poser, be it in the work or in the charade that is
the writerly life. For so long I looked up to men who posed as writers
of great genius, who drank more than they wrote, who made indecent
proposals to the people they encountered.
Even my father was guilty of this.
Before the separation, after my father’s east coast voyage,
I was playing a video game on the Lego website in our computer room. My
father walked in and rummaged through some books and loose paper next to
the family desktop. Tucked in one of the drawers was a black leather
notebook. When he showed it to me, he told me something that only now,
in writing this, I vaguely remember.
He held the book up in his left hand, tapped it with his right pointer
finger. His shitty hairline, the same as mine, and his ballpoint nose.
“I’m going to write a bestselling book one
day,” he told me. “I’m going to write it right
But if my father ever wrote, I never saw any of it.
Coty Poynter is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He's the author of two poetry books, most recently the collection, Delirium: Poems, put out by Bowen Press. His work has been published in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Equinox, and Grub Street. Currently, he’s the creative nonfiction editor at Mud Season Review, a frequent contributor for Write or Die Tribe, and a graduate student in Towson University's professional writing program. You can learn more about his work at cotympoynter.com.