If ever my daughter

If ever my daughter should listen to this album, I'll tell her that was the summer I moved back from New York. The summer I shaved my head. The summer my parents divorced. I'll tell her that was when I left Adam. When I could not tell up from down. That was the summer, I smoked, I drank, I cried. That was the summer, I survived and survived and survived. 

I'll tell her if there is anything I have ever been proud of, it is this moment. It is this moment when I can look at her and say that even when you are scared. Even when you are poor. Even when the ground is moving and shaking beneath you, when you lose your family, lose your God, lose your hope, know, that everything is in you. Remember that your hair will grow back. That you can build families from scratch. Remember that you have the power to create. You have the power to hope. You have the power to choose. You. Are your mother. Your father. Your sunrise. Your smile. Your bountiful life. It's in you child. It's in you. It's in you. It's in you.

 

Twenty Something Year Old Boy

We feel embarrassed. 

Hold their missed calls like shrapnel along our spine.

We scold our misjudgment.

Feel silly for loving, 

wish their apathy away with laughter.

We should've laughed harder.

Been brighter. 

Uprooted their childhood.

Buried it farther

Yes master. 

We are embarrassed to reach for things.

Our hands so small,

disappearing up our sleeves.

He's just tired

He's just working.

He's just scared

We fashion excuses like the barrel of an old war rifle. 

Ready to aim and fire at anyone who calls our bluff.

Please don't call my bluff.

I am already teetering on self-confidence

Already teetering on this new found feminism.

When I am warm to the touch.

What will they say of me then?

When I am bent boned?

When am I teeth mashed?

When I am queen fallen?

How will I face my daughters?

When I've allowed such violation?

When I've allowed their boots on my fine Persian rug.

Their stomping?

My stomping.

Their words?

All mine.

Because I allowed it.

Because I allowed it.

Skin softer than lamb.

Womb bigger than an orchard.

Still want them inside me.

Still want touch so badly

I'm willing to forgive them for the way that they touch me.

Because they touch me like plastic.

Like fools gold.

Like a twenty something year old boy

who doesn't know an antique from a gun hole. 

Who will speak of me in decades to come?

Of the women, 

Loved and lost.

Of stars fallen.

Apologies Expired.

We are the wounds.

That will turn to scars.

And even those,

We’ve managed to make fashionable.

Sleeping With Ribs

Tonight I fall asleep next to the new boy. We are so brand new that we swallow our snores, apologies spilling from our throats.  It has only been three weeks. We are so polite we can’t even dream.

     I insist on laying on my side. He on his back, because he bruised his ribs earlier this week, bruised them so bad he can’t even ride a bike. I tell him I’m sorry it hurts. He says, thank you and I’m fine, I’m fine, pushing my sorrys back towards me until they drift out of his bedroom, slow and unwelcome.

     He is not fine.  I know that because I can spy the grimace underlining his smile each time he exhales or shifts. We are still pretty new at this, so he is embarrassed to hurt in front of me and I am embarrassed too because I don’t know how to hold it yet.

     Last Saturday at the party the woman on the fire escape asked us if we were a couple and we paused before her question, each of us pulling drags from our single cigarette before Alex finally answered, “Um… I don’t think so.”

 “Yeah… we’re friends.” I added.

     And that is the best combination of answers we could’ve come up with, like if we were pulling answers out of a hat we would’ve been magicians.

     In his bedroom we are boy and girl.  I am not sure how to care for him but I know that I am doing it slowly. He is slow too.  He doesn’t call me every day or invite me to dinner and I think he is in love with the woman before me because he cannot stop talking about her without the subtle shade of twilight behind his eyes so I am sort of off the hook in that way and that’s nice because I know that twilight too. I know that twilight so well that sometimes I can’t even walk along the water.

     We pass the time flipping through old photo albums and laughing at the pictures of his skinny legs, the crooked point of a rifle, handwriting from the second grade. We exchange stories like old friends. It is the easiest thing in the world.

     At night I don’t have much to give because it has all been spent on the man before him.  I won’t have much to give in the morning either but I’m hoping that at some point I will. The radio promised me seven more years of heartbreak and I am just dying to let the breaking begin. I am just dying to fall in love more than once so I can come out the other end, fearless and broken, so I can look just like my momma, so I can call myself a grown up, so I can look God in the eye.

     When it is time to go to bed he shifts his body careful and cautious. I move careful too, not because I have a rib injury but because I am trying to respect the gentleness, so I climb into bed as if my fragile is at the exact same level as his, as if we’ve been on the same page all along.

     Once we are settled I slip into his chest and he pulls me by the hipbone and it feels like we have done this a thousand times like it is instinct. It does not take much for the fumbling to begin. I am on top and he is beneath me. I am sure if the doctor knew what we were up to he would wag his finger and say, “That is poor recovery.” It is an hour, maybe two before we finally give it up and go to sleep. Our bodies have already told a thousand stories, they know each other better than we even know ourselves so we follow in their footsteps and wrap ourselves in each other’s warmth.

     Hours later he wakes me in the middle of the night. A dark cloud funneling our mattress, he is wincing in between breaths, all shifty and clenched fist. I know he mentioned earlier, something about a muscle spasm. How his ribs will contract, wiggling beneath his skin. The sort of pain buried far beneath the surface,

     I am half asleep but I hear him as if he is all tiny and whimper, like the little boy from the photo album all over again. “Your ribs?” I murmur, “Is it your ribs?”

     “Yeah” is all he can get out, “yeah, sorry.”

      I can hear his grimace. I can hear it in his whisper, his exhale, and all at once it feels like I am spasming too, my mouth curling herself into an open twisted shape.  

     And I don’t know why it hurts me to see him hurting but I can barely stand it. And everything feels so familiar. Everything feels like a home video, like I have laid in bed next to him wincing in the middle of the night a thousand times except I know I haven’t done this with him but I’ve done it with someone. I’m wracking my brain and I can’t remember, I can’t remember, then all the sudden, I do

 

     It was Cassidy.

 

     This was my sister Cassidy. Of course.

     Then I feel my mouth curl again, sharper this time.

     This was the mattress in the blue room upstairs. This was the whimper that I woke up to. This was her spine and the way that she arched it. This was the husband I could not bring back.

      I remember hearing her voice rise up out of the darkness, a cry that strung itself into pitiful sounds, “Jimmy” she was begging, “Jimmy wake me up, wake me up, wake me up.”

 

 

     Oh, I remember now. Alex’ whimpering knocks against my ear like a bell I cannot un-ring. When I hear him groan I feel like I am watching an explosion happen in slow motion. I pretend I am enclosed in a small case. I can see him through the plexiglass, I can see his curling mouth, his muted cries. I remember if vaguely, what it feels like to be human.

     All of the sorrys I offered before are gone now. For a moment I lie so still, I could blend into the furniture.

     I remember what the scientist said, how everything is made up of atoms, how atoms repeal each other so if you think about it we’re never really touching in the first place.

 

     Something inside me falls. I look up at the ceiling because it’s unsafe to look anywhere else. I'm walking a tight rope. If I’m not careful I will spill this way or that and he and I are still pretty new at this so I am embarrassed to spill in front of him and he will be embarrassed too because he won’t know how to watch it yet.

     This is the part where I reach my hand out in darkness. This is the part where I cradle his abdomen, run my fingertips along his spine, or scoot close enough for him to feel my heartbeat except my body won’t do it. I watch him groan. I know exactly what he needs, I know exactly how to give it. But I don’t.

     In the morning I will feel guilty about this. In the morning I will wonder if I am a monster, a ghost, but not now. Not while I am so busy walking this tight rope.

 

 

On Older Men

People want to know if he’s my father. They want to know if he’s my uncle, my strange friend. When Adam and I go out in public, I don’t have enough body to hold all the eyeballs that are tackling me. I feel nervous to touch him or kiss him or smile at him because there are people everywhere and what might they think? And I know Adam is thinking the exact same thing because like clockwork he says to me, “People are trying to figure us out.” 

 In the beginning I asked Adam if he had told anyone about me yet. He shook his head, “Just one friend. A woman my age.” I was curious, “And? What did she say when you told her I was twenty one?” Adam sighed, “She shook her head and said, ‘Oh Adam’.”

I wasn’t altogether surprised by this reaction but still I wanted to know who this woman was. 

 I wanted to know what style of clothes she wore, how she fixed her hair, her tone of voice. I wondered what it would be like to have a conversation with this woman. I imagined it would probably go very poorly, considering she would try to talk to me about thirty nine year old things, like the housing market in California and I would have no idea why that even mattered and I would try to talk to her about the Gatumba Genocide because perhaps if I described the tribal rivalry she would respect me more as an adult, except for then I would be talking about genocide just to score “grown up” points and this seemed an awful lot like bull shit to me. So I would probably say nothing at all and then she would think that I was scared and so very very young.

All the while I would be sitting there thinking about the thirty nine year old Australian man I met in the bar on Main street and that great conversation we had about Australian history and then wondering why it is so much easier for me to get along with thirty nine year old men than it is to get along with thirty nine year old women or twenty one year old women for that matter and then my mind would launch into all kinds of questions about power struggles between women and what they look like and what they mean and how it is all so sad. And meanwhile this woman would probably still be looking me up and down, talking about the housing market in California and I would be nodding my head absentmindedly thinking about gender inequalities while she sat there thinking, “This scared young girl.”

I thought about that for a minute until I remembered that I was sitting across from Adam. “Ah, so she judged you?” I asked. He nodded his head. A simple yes that dangled harmlessly in the air between us. I shrugged at him. He shrugged back. And that was that.

We get along well, Adam and I.

But people have so many questions and I have no answers. They want to know if this is a daddy thing and that’s fair except for that I have a perfectly kind father who tells me things like, “I love you” and “I am so proud of who you are” and all those other words that young women claw for once they reach that age when their bodies turn into kaleidoscopes and men trail along behind them like lost puppies. 

To me it does not matter whether Adam loves me or likes me or is ever proud of me at all. Those truths are buried in some untouchable place inside me, the kind of place that has been built by my mother and father’s bare hands and Martin Luther King biographies and sister’s bedtime stories and Denise Levertov poetry and Spanish dictionaries and that one time in middle school when I stood beside the vending machines every day until I’d collected enough change to buy a plane ticket to Sao Paulo Brazil. 

Still, you cannot get a tattoo, pierce your nipples, and date someone nearly twice your age without people asking questions.

I imagine it is his body that confuses people. All of this gray beard and balding hair and the rhythm of his aging skin. It’s confusing. Mostly because there are plenty of brown beards and young muscles and smooth skin surrounding all four corners of my college life so why should I concern myself with a man as old as him?

But there’s no use in trying to explain it.

Some people have no idea what it’s like to seek integrity, to follow it wherever it lands even if that means the body of a thirty nine year old man.

Of course there is that single glaring age gap that sits stubborn between us but what can you do? He once asked me if I remembered the Rodney King riots in LA and I responded with a simple, “No. I was one year old.” And for a moment neither of us spoke. A tiny disconnect that reminded us of how absurd this entire relationship is.

There is nothing a stranger could tell us about our relationship that we don’t know already.

Do not think that I have not begged my body to grow up and grow up and grow up some more, have not cursed his body for not waiting for me, and have not felt the guilt of cursing a body that has held me so holy in its oak tree arms.

When Adam asks me about Rodney King, I tell him that I was one but I also tell him that my biggest concern in the year of 1992 was mastering the journey from the couch to the coffee table. And then we laugh and laugh and give each other high fives and climb on our bikes and ride through the foot hills making jokes about each other’s bad haircuts and how he is just a lonely thirty nine year old man going through a mid life crisis and I am the dumb insecure twenty one year old he is taking advantage of. 

The distances are vast. But the company is something beautiful.

Every now and again we climb outside of time and look down on ourselves to see two humans caught perfectly in each other’s shapes. There is something so honest about the way that they love each other. An alignment that is sure to shift or cave at any given moment but is so unspeakably beautiful all the same.

And when we climb back down, the clock starts ticking again. And he is a single father, working towards the greatest love of his life (Emery) and I am a college senior just barely unhinging my boundless future.

The deck is stacked against us, we know. And the cards are flimsy and worn and some of them are missing, we know.

But still.

If you want to know the truth, then here it is:

I didn’t mean to find Adam. I didn’t mean to so unfortunately complicate my life by stumbling across this strange and impossible relationship. The problem is that I have spotted this man and like a beautiful work of art, no matter how hard I try, I cannot un-spot him. 

Absence

The night you went away

my sister climbed into your closet

and pushed your clothes against her face.

She doesn't want to talk about it.

 

A month later she asks me how long human scent

can be collected in fabric.

She found you at the bottom of a hat yesterday.

"There he is." She said.

"Hi baby."

 

The last time I tried to escape from my body

I tumbled back down into a hangover

and a cup of cold black coffee.

These days,

I'm surprised at how lazy I am.

 

We see you in the form of a humming bird

or a song or a good good joke and that's nice and everything

but it's not the same.

 

This grief has held me captive.

Bound, gagged, and tied

the worst part is I find no desire to escape

like a little girl

fallen in love with her kidnapper.

 

Our bodies are all we have left.

Every morning my mom and sister wake up and paint watercolor flowers.

We speak of death

like it is an irrational number.

We only know what it was by the hole that it left.

Sonnet For My Throat

My throat is just as soft as you would think,

sturdy loyal windpipe lines my insides,

unpaved wet and soft giggle bright pink.

Swallow that gentle breath and death subsides.

 

A skipping tunnel of unknown poems.

I can hiccup three quatrains blindfolded,

when my esophagus tastes just like home

and couplets begging to be molded.

 

There’s one clean, malleable poem untouched

huddled beneath my painted fingertips,

It is a barricaded trachea.

It is a story with no tongue, no lips.

 

My sacred breath travels that well paved road.

Emerge now from the vomit-corrupted throat.

Pink Sundays

     The church foyer creeps with eyes of shattered glass as I make my way into the sanctuary. All of their eyes are sharp and pointing because every Sunday I look more and more like my mother and my mother is beautiful and she makes no apologies for it, so neither will I. I enter the sanctuary and there are lined rows of chairs that stretch for miles and I’m sure that if you took all the chairs out of here I could flip cart wheels for days on end and run barefoot from one white wall to the next and God would still be here and he wouldn’t mind at all. But there are chairs here. And there are candles and ties and families that want nothing more than to be whole all over again so I keep quiet and take my seat.

            When the musicians stand up, I stand up. And then I read lyrics from a power point slide off the back drop of a waterfall, or a mountain, or a cross, and I remember that time at the old church when we didn’t have things like power points, just an overheard and a transparent sheet. We used to sing songs like, “As the Deer Panteth for the Water” and I had no idea what it meant but my prayers were always real. Back then nobody ever questioned my faith because children have childlike faith, even God said so, and that was enough for them.

 That was long before I had boobs. Long before I intentionally wore bright red bras beneath my sweaters, just to feel a small victory inside myself. And that’s weird isn’t it? When something like the color red can make you feel so goddamn powerful? I bet you anything, half the women in here are wearing flesh tones or maybe even white. I had a white bra once. But mine was strapless and soft and nobody ever saw me in it but me and I thought it looked beautiful so nothing else really mattered.

When the music ends we all sit down. And the pastor takes his place at the podium and he is tucking in pant pockets and adjusting his notes. I see that his hands are rough and strong and I wonder if his hands are bigger than my father’s because the size of men’s bodies has always been captivating to me. Growing up, my dad used to rescue me from drowning waters or block me from being struck by on moving vehicles and every time it always took me by surprise. The way his arm could swoop with such unwavering power, the amount of safety he held in one handful. It was comforting to me, to see so much strength paired with so much kindness. Sometimes when I thought of God, I would think of just that, a giant man with strong, kind hands.

The pastor begins his sermon and all at once I am reminded that he is nothing like my father. I am reminded that I am sitting in a sanctuary, that my red bra is unwelcome here and so is my mother’s red nail polish. I grip the sides of my padded, plush seat, and endure as long as I can. The walls are so white and they are all glaring at me and I feel nervous to adjust the hem of my skirt or to cough or to breathe because everything echoes in here and the less attention I draw to myself the better.

I would’ve given up on church a long time ago, except for that I can’t seem to shake the unwavering suspicion that God is here. Somewhere. I keep looking for him behind the smiles of my friends, or the pages of the bulletin, or the gentle drone of our worship songs. But I don’t know how much longer I can keep digging around like this. I want God to be the kind of father that I can point out in a room and know with certainty that he is there, that he is home, that I could go over and touch him if I wanted to. Except for God never shows up to church with a tie and a Styrofoam cup of coffee like all the other fathers do.

The pastor continues his sermon and he is saying something about sex and marriage, and I am only half listening until I hear him say, “Don’t put a stumbling block in front of someone who can’t see.” And he is referring to women’s clothing and then I think of my mother and how she must be one hell of a stumbling block. And maybe we’re all just a bunch of stumbling blocks. And maybe we were all just women once until someone came along and called it a stumbling block so now every time a little girl is born the doctor might as well hold her up and shout, “it’s a stumbling block!” and everyone will cheer and buy pink shit and say congratulations.

I can feel the blood in my veins thickening, and my heartbeat quickens until I remind myself that this is not who we are. I think of my mother again except this time I don’t think of her as a stumbling block, I think of all of who she is. I think of that time she wiped the vomit off the face of a homeless stranger, and then handed him a cookie and said, “You got any kids? I got five kids.” She brought that man to church with her the next Sunday and all Jeff Henderson could think of to say was, “that dress is too form fitting.”

Sometimes the church walls leave me so broken that there’s an aching in my bones. A deep sorrow that buries itself further and further until I have forgotten what I look like, have forgotten my name, or what color of bras I liked in the first place. Sometimes when I sit down in the sanctuary, I crawl inside myself and watch the rest of the congregation move about. The men try to lead the women but they get it all wrong and then the women try to pick up the pieces but they get it all wrong, and now everyone just looks so lost and watching them look lost makes me feel lost and then all at once I’m not really sure who God is anymore or why we are meeting in this ugly brick building, every Sunday, in the first place.

I’ve been to a few places but every church feels the same. There is always those same sharp pair of eyes, the ones that cut and claw. There is always the aroma of brewed coffee and the sound of children playing tag. There is always warmth and kindness. There is always the men who are in charge of things, and the women who believe them. There is the light and there is the dark. There is oppression and there is equality. There is God and there is Satan all wrapped up in one brick building.

I sift through these paradoxes, stumbling through the dark until I accidently grab hold of something truly beautiful, like the way the pastor’s wife held the crying girl after her dad died, or when the entire congregation sang a song without any music. These are the moments when I find God. Except for that I don’t always know what exactly I’m doing here but I have this creeping suspicion that nobody really does. So why should I take someone else’s word whole heartedly when they tell me things like, “Your shirt is too low cut.” How can I be expected to believe anything other than what God tells me?  Mainly, that I am loved exactly as I am. Is it really all that audacious to believe?

These are the things I tell myself when I am left cold and broken by the words of a pastor who will never understand me. He is still giving his sermon and I am desperately searching for God everywhere except for that I can’t find him. I scan the sanctuary up and down, but he is nowhere to be found and the pastor is saying, “Don’t be fooled by the temptress” and I am slipping through the cracks farther and farther. And I am looking and I am looking. And the pastor says, “Wives submit to your husbands,” and I’m drowning and I’m drowning, and then suddenly,

God is there.

I feel her.

 She is a moving graceful tide that sweeps down the aisle and takes a seat directly beside me. I have no idea what she looks like but I am absolutely certain that she has boobs. She is listening to the sermon, and she is humble in all her magnitude, like a silent lamb being led to the slaughter, and all at once I realize where her son gets it from.

I want to know why she has come to me this way and why she is a woman because my whole life God has never been anything but a man with strong kind hands and this whole woman thing is sort of throwing me for a loop except for it’s the kind of loop that I don’t really mind being thrown, because it feels sort of good to talk to your mother when all this time you’ve been talking to your father who is kind and means well, but doesn’t always understand where you’re coming from.

God is not saying anything to me but she is there and somehow that is saying a lot. And then all at once I feel like crying. I feel like sobbing hysterical. But I am in a church and there are people all around me and if they see me break down, they’re all going to think I’m weird. So I keep myself mildly composed but there are still tears that fall silent down my cheeks, the way oppression is silent.

And the pastor is still saying that I am a stumbling block and I am running out of tears to cry, and then all at once, I hear her voice. A gentle authority that sweeps me up and out of my brokenness, she tells me, “You have to forgive him.” And I ask her, “How can I forgive him?” and she says, “I did.” And that shuts me up.

And a moment passes where we sit there, together like that. And after the silence has spilled its last tension, God says to me, “You are a beautiful woman and you’re made in my image.” And I have heard this my whole life, except for it never occurred to me that I am woman and that perhaps God looks something like me, with boobs and brown hair, and soft flimsy wrists. And after I’ve pictured this new image of God she tells me, “You have to remember that I am a mother who loves these men, exactly as they are. Not who they’re supposed to be.”

And then I felt the sanctuary change. And it is not the same sanctuary where I wear red bras to feel victorious or where men are sharp and powerful oppressors. It is a sanctuary where God meets us exactly as we are, where men are our fathers, and our brothers, and our friends, and women forgive them for everything they’ve done to us.

 

coffee

I always do this.

drink coffee on an empty stomach

then grow dizzy from the cigarette.