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Beatitude No. 4
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Observe the writer, yes, the writer is in your midst, working in your café, diligently making it through page upon page. With his hand cocked against his shoulder, he rests his chin in concentration. He breathes through his nose. Facing the door, and with his back to the restrooms, he can see everyone as they come in, but he pays them little attention; they are not important to him beyond their capacity to offer the writer a backdrop to concentrate against. As he reads and sporadically types on his keyboard, he falls through his eyes into the pages before him; he plummets down and away from the back of his chair, discovering. If, by some thwarting of his practice he happens to look up, his is surprised, not at whatever is was that brought him back to the world, but by the fact that somehow, incomprehensibly, there is a world to come back to at all. His mouth will open slightly. His eyebrows might rise. He is shocked by the realness of the world before him; he blinks, fondly, with delayed recognition. Today, bright lights of creation are too much for him.
I leaned into crazy
as any Protestant
slowly, lips pressed
in a line. I count
the nights like this,
sweat-stuck to the
floor, silent and supine.
I’m so undone I sob
into latte I peel denim
from my skin I lay still
on linoleum I feel so cool.
Outside wind licks at the lake
and I imagine myself stomping
rocks into smoke. Understand,
once I was so light
In therapy, seven Kleenex
boxes offer their bodies—
eager as any man.
This body betray this body self
destruct this body reflex this body
sick this body this body bloodthirst
I say I am fine and the lie
falls to my lips and lay there.
I forget where I am. My doctor
has a silly name. I think myself
a feral thing licking its wounds
in the dark until it is no longer thirsty.
prepares its body
making mulled wine
in the upstairs shower
How goes dad
how go you
The wind ices your lips
and calls your maiden name
Mother: there are
so many things
to take and be
Sometimes I am eating
a salad and nearly die
over the quality of its
lettuce O Mother,
it throws me
truly, I am always
I’ve been pruning in a shallow
bath for days, slicking sardines
with flesh black pepper down
my throat, chasing them
with bathwater, soapsweet.
When I was young, I drew scribbles
on the wall and named them Woman
or Fruitfly or Sugargrain and things
were what they were because I named
them. Now, I call the sickle scar on my
thigh moon and it is still a scar.
How many names has this body
been given? Beastgirl, Firstborn,
Sunlight flits atop the sardine can
and settles in the fold of my stomach,
on the ledge of my clavicle. The drain
sucks at water between my feet. Even
nothing has a name.
We agreed to write letters. Original, I know. But the point was tangible. Tangibility. The point of letters was proof that we could quantify our love, like the point of the Atlantic was to separate us. We sent the crossword from the AM New York back and forth, each time with a new piece of the puzzle filled in. We stuck to Mondays and Tuesdays, because Wednesday was when it started to get difficult. We shared a stamp card for a corporate coffee chain. I saved and shipped every scone receipt I accumulated in the month of August. He sent back movie stubs. Grocery lists. A check-up report from a routine visit to the doctor’s saying that everything was A-OK. A palm tree leaf with the words “I’m quite frond of you” Sharpied on. A jumbo-size bag of Tootsie rolls, and then the wrappers in return. Little pieces of colored construction paper that people pass out on the subway, with things like JESUS LOVES YOU and the alphabet in sign language written out and you can pay what you want for them, anything helps. I inserted them into my books, to help me keep my place. When one of us got a speeding ticket (which one of us did far more frequently than the other), it got shipped off too. They felt like secrets, like look here I am being vulnerable and I am not ashamed of my faults, here they are. Then when the pay date came around, the receipt stubs were sent, acts of caring, acts of heroism, like look at how much I love you, I will take care of everything. I sent him a scratch-off lottery ticket that was good for $1, so he’d know he was some kind of winner. To spice things up, I Fed-exed a pair of my underwear, lacy and unwashed. He sent it back, dry-cleaned. For my birthday, a little set of nail polish and fresh flowers. Red roses. How original. I painted my nails, let them dry, and chipped the paint off into an envelope. I waited till the flowers died and sent the dried petals over, too. Colored kisses on envelopes sealed around the dead skin peeled from lips in the drying dead of winter. Strands of hair that smelled faintly of coconut shampoo, collected from the shower drain and dried and stamped, sealed, delivered. In response to a sweater he wore to bed every night for a week before shipping, that smelled strongly of his sleep sweat, a thin layer of my sunburnt skin, cracked and peeling. A molar with a growing cavity, because of all the parts of the body, including the bones, the teeth should last the longest.
Mike11 is in my bedroom. Mike11 is in my bedroom because I invited him here, because he came recommended by 4/5 friends. Mike11 is called Mike11 because his real name is Michael Evan, and in middle school, he used to sign his name like that because he thinks he’s clever.
Mike11 has a reputation in my school for being able to give girls their first orgasm. I think this is because he is a senior, and so has had a lot of practice. I’m 16 now, a sophomore, which is the age people generally think is appropriate to stop being a prude. Which is the age people kind of expect you to make mistakes, so your PE teacher has to bring out diagrams of diseased vaginas and your pediatrician who you have been seeing since you were 2 suddenly has to ask you if you drink or do drugs or are sexually active.
At the time of my last doctor’s visit, I was not sexually active, not even close, but sometimes Mary Eliot will bring travel shampoo bottles full of her parents’ rum for us to pour into our Cokes during lunch, and I think maybe I am making two mistakes here: drinking and not asking my friend Mary Eliot if she is okay.
Mary Eliot is involved in a lot of my mistakes, like when we were walking around St. Mark’s two days ago, on a Tuesday, and I got my nose pierced just for the helluvit. At this piercing place in St. Mark’s, everyone who works there was sitting in a lounged back chair watching a reality TV show called Dating Naked when we walked in. People get set up on blind dates and when they meet for the first time, they are absolutely naked. Those parts are blurred out because they are not suitable for America. I did remember hearing, though, that whoever’s job it is to blur out those bits was distracted once and so did a bad job at blurring. Apparently America saw a lot more than it should have, and the girl with the unblurred bits was suing the network.
Anyway, the TV in the piercing place is positioned like in a hospital room, way up, so everyone was lying down and tilting their heads way back and their chins way up to see the screen. They looked kind of funny, all slouched there, and at first we weren’t sure if they were closed. Then a girl with blonde hair and eyeliner that raccooned around her eyes noticed us and said, “How can I help you ladies?” I was glad it was her who talked to us first because I think if I were walking down the street late at night and felt lost or in trouble, she would be the one of all the ones there who I would talk to. She put me in the chair right in the glass display window. People walking by probably thought I was a mannequin for a split second. “Wait right here, okay, sweetie?” she said and disappeared into the back. I heard rock-paper-scissors, and then a man with more metal on his face than flesh came out. He did not introduce himself, but I theorized that someone could learn his whole life story by reading all the faded ink on his body, if he’d let them.
I felt okay getting my nose pierced like this because it was a mistake a lot of other people have made. I feel this way about a lot of things I am vaguely afraid of, like skipping class and standing around Mary Eliot with her cigarettes, like lying to people older than me who I respect, like lying to people who are younger than me in case they are impressionable, like pregnancy and childbirth and death. I figure it’s going to be okay because enough people before me have gone through it, or have gone through with it. There’s a difference, I think; the with implies with choice.
I feel that I have a lot of choice, I am very lucky that way, and that’s why Mike11 came to my front door when I knew my parents weren’t going to be home, in the middle of the day on a weekday. He did that thing that adults do where you go to hug someone and then kind-of-kiss that someone on the cheek. I’m never sure how to respond to a thing like that. Do you in turn go to kiss that person’s cheek? Unless it’s one of the ones where they just touch their cheek to your cheek and make a sound like a kiss, and in that case, do you make the kiss sound back? I thought it was an especially weird thing for Mike11 to do, because I don’t think we’re at that age yet. But Mike11 is a senior and so maybe knows better.
Mike11 is in my bedroom now, futzing with my geometry textbook, because a few days ago I told him I needed help with math. We sit on my bed and stare at the textbook, even though we both know what I meant then. The textbook’s flipped open to a random page, a chapter we haven’t even covered yet in class. There are cut-and-dry formulas and questions about measuring angles and cutting things in half and how much of a thing another thing can contain. There are complicated shapes that are shaded in different ways, with dotted lines for dimension. And I do that thing where I look at it like an optical illusion, and I see the cube either jutting out and up on the left or down and to the right. Out up left down right out up left down right out up, and then my brain has a hard time making it switch back, so I look at Mike11 instead. He has thick, curly brown hair and deep-set eyes that are brown also but still pretty. He’s looking at me in a waiting-way, but not in a way that makes me feel rushed like when you go into a boutique store and it’s very small and the employees are very friendly and just so very there.
Mike11 is so very here in a good way. He’s sitting on the bed, but on the very edge but not in a way that makes him look uncomfortable. Mike11 looks very natural sitting there at the edge of my bed. No part of him is touching any part of me. He doesn’t say anything, and that’s how I know he’ll be a real gentleman about it.
“Hi,” I say, and it sounds lame. The “hi” just kind of hangs there in air for a second, doesn’t know where to go, isn’t sure if it should ask for directions. It cut through the silence awkwardly, like a plastic knife trying to slice through steak. That’s what it sounds like.
Still, Mike11 takes this as his cue. He wriggles a little closer up the bed and puts his face this close to mine. His nose touches my nose. His nose touches my new nose piercing, which still hurts a little but I don’t tell him that. He’s touching my common mistake. It makes me feel more normal.
Mike11’s mouth is on my mouth and his tongue is in my mouth and oh god what do I even do with this? It doesn’t really matter what I do with this, though, because it doesn’t stay for long, and then Mike11 is kissing my neck, my collarbone, my breasts. The song head, shoulders, knees, and toes. The 4/5 friends that went through this, that went through with this, and would recommend it to a friend. All our lines are touching now, and the geometry textbook has slid into our indent of the bed and is gently stabbing my side. I try to ignore it because I think trying to slide it off the bed would be weird. It would make a thud that is like cutting steak with a chainsaw.
I'm Just Glad to Be Here
“I stopped the bleeding.”
Starting my physical assessment.
“Starting my physical assessment.”
Checking for DOTS.
“What are you looking for?”
“Deformities, Open wounds, Tenderness, and Swelling.
Checking for blood.
“So they’re bleeding from two places.”
“It’s not working.”
“Applying more pressure.”
“I’m going to pass.”
“Don’t say that out loud.”
“I’m going to fail.”
“Don’t say that out loud.”
“I stopped the bleeding.
Are you paying more this year?”
Do you still want the job?”
Quiet People Are Stupid and They Don’t Talk Because They Are Not Capable of the High Thought Processes That We Know* To Be Associated With Talking
No one quietly became President of the United States.
No quiet Vanderbilt ever built the railroads,
And no quiet son of Fred Chase Koch ever cracked oil into gasoline
Or pays your congresspeople their good, fine, American salaries.
The only reason I am in front of you now,
Is because I am a reformed quiet person.
Yes! I was once like you,
But then I became better.
And that’s what happens when you become a better person:
You talk more.
All of the greatest people in the world were great speakers,
And all great speakers are great people*.
Quiet people are rare, thank God, and unnecessary for a well-functioning society.
Their upbringing is a universal travesty.
Quiet people were breast-fed by quiet-breasted mothers,
Usually for far too long.
The sperm that produced them is generally among the slowest and most disappointing.
Everyone, especially the ovum, is shocked when the quiet sperm manages to develop
Into a quiet fetus.
Yes! I was a quiet child.
And I also used to kill cats for fun.
I never spoke up in school,
And I never, once, honored the holy Sabbath.
If you don’t think that’s important, you really don’t belong here.
The first thing that I noticed when I started to talk more,
Was that people started to listen to me more.
Sometimes people didn’t even know what to say back to me,
And that was how I knew that I was finally better than them.
Most people who listen to me are absolute idiots. (Not you, of course)
So if everyone could please take the hand of their neighbor and join me in a silent prayer,
In which we may all singly condemn the least productive members of our society,
The quiet people.
Close your eyes, too, please.
A Couple More
A couple more minutes means not really. I hate crying in bed or when I have a cold. The act of becoming foreign. Movies make it nice but sometimes feel like dissociation. Falling out of love is my least favorite part of loving. The mountains alight purple-brown every day at dusk. As if in a play. Sometimes rain dims. Occasionally the sensation prevails. How much of it is always a metaphor for death? Hums in the common living room mean it is past evening and it is not the weekend. The sky has a way of glowing velvet here. Nature doesn’t let you forget about your problems. Good friends often attend meals together. They say strength in the blood makes for a good neck. Sometimes I wonder if anything is worth saying but usually the saying is what helps me back onto my feet. Language makes me feel funny. If people still wrote letters. I see when you’re online and then I know some part of your life. Ownership floats around.
Meeting, An Opera
I can’t talk long.
I’m just on my lunch break.
I thought about calling you,
And asking if you would want to meet somewhere else.
I thought maybe you’d want to meet somewhere warm.
No. This is fine.
It’s right between us.
This is fine.
That doesn’t sound good.
Travis: don’t try and take care of me—
No, no! I just think that.
The cold sort of carves you out and leaves you empty, right?
And that coat looks real ratty.
Why not go somewhere else?
Somewhere warm? //
Whatever you want, Travis.
Whatever you want.
// Here is fine.
You are so full of shit.
I’ve only got an hour.
They expect me back.
Empty churches are weird.
They make all the noise in the world –
Holy screams and hollers –
But without any sound at all.
Empty churches on a Tuesday afternoon in March
Are very weird.
You are so full of shit. //
What do you want, Travis?
(T tries to kiss P. P pushes him away.)
Stubborn as an ox.
Let me care for you.
I know you need it.
(He tries to kiss him again.)
I thought you—
You came to meet me.
On your lunch break.
Not for that, Travis.
I told myself you wouldn’t come.
And then you did. And so I thought…
What the fuck do you want, Travis?
My mouth is stuffed full of words
(Jumbled like alphabet soup),
And I can’t find the strength to spit them up.
This is hard for me; harder than you can know.
I still love you, Phil.
Can you see that?
I miss tracing the lines on your body:
The run of your hip like the lip of a
Brimming wine glass.
I miss tracing the lines on your body
Before you wake up and ruin me
With shrugs and nudges and pushes away.And scurry off to work.
I still love you, Phil.
Can you see that?
You are so full of shit.
We’ve turned this over four times before.
My teeth are caved in:
They don’t have anything for you anymore.
Phil, I still love you. I still love you.
What do you want, Travis?
By this church on a
Tuesday afternoon in March.
Give me more than “I still love you,”
Or I’m gone. I’ve got to get back to work—
It sits low in my gut
And makes me feel like
I’m going to shit myself.
You don’t know. You don’t know!
I’m gone. //
I know you’re sick, Phil.
The coughing, bringing up cancer-blood.
Not good, Phil. Really not good.
Disease of the lungs;
Shallow, empty breath.
How’d you guess?
James called me and James told me.
Last week. Not good, Phil.
You need someone looking out for you
If you’re sick. You need someone around.
And I still love you, Phil.
Like I know how.
Don’t try and take care of me—
Do you know that most mornings
When we were together –
When you would leave for work early
And abandon scattered-me in your bed –
I would make myself oatmeal and honey?
Because that’s all you had in your kitchen.
And no matter how many times I would
Make myself breakfast, I would always
Find that box of oatmeal full, full, full.
More than I left it the day before. It was magic.
Is that where all your money went to?
You’d always be working and
You’d only ever have oatmeal.
But endless oatmeal. Endless oatmeal.
Don’t worry about it, Travis.
You’d only ever have oatmeal. //
That coat! Looks like you sighed
All the warmth right out of it.
Always working, but you haven’t
Bought yourself a new coat in years.
Look: I know your wallet is empty.
The well’s run dry. I get it.
And hospitals aren’t cheap.
And doctors aren’t cheap.
I get it. So take this.
My love to you.
Full and rich,
Like the chocolates
You’d never give me.
(He tries to give him a wad of cash.)
What the fuck are you doing?
This thing I’m giving you.
It’s what I owe you.
I feel it heavy in my gut.
You’ve got to eat more than oatmeal
If you have cancer, Phil.
Oatmeal’s not going to keep you healthy.
Oatmeal is magic.
It’s the only thing
You know why?
Doesn’t try and
Take care of me.
It just fills me up.
I know you!
I know your demons
And your darlings.
I know you!
I know you are sick.
And I know that your
Apartment gets cold
With all those windows.
And I know that the only
Spoon you own is rusting.
And I know that you won’t
Buy yourself a new coat
Even though that one is
And I know that, for whatever reason,
You won’t spend money on things
To keep you full and good and warm.
If you can promise me
That you have the money to…
I’ll leave you alone.
But hospitals aren’t cheap, Phil!
I have to get back to work.
Where does all that money go?
Where does all that money go, Phil?
An empty pantry, but ONE endless,
Magic box of oatmeal.
Don’t reject me, Phil.
I’m not an easy thing,
You can blow off.
There’s more in me –
More I feel I owe you.
Why do you still love me?
I declared war on you
And my bedframe
Every night you came to me.
I left my convictions there
When we ended things.
I wasn’t good to you, Travis.
I wasn’t good to you at all.
I know that in my gut,
I can feel it swell in my
Stomach every time
I think of you.
But I still love you anyways.
Why do you still love me when you only know my mattress?
Understand this, Travis: your love is based on a lie
That you’ve made for yourself – that I could
Give you something more
Than you already have.
That’s as unfulfilled, but vital as the air.
I have nothing to give you.
I pounded you sore, sour
I pounded you reeling
Even when you asked me not to.
I pounded you hatred—
And you took it,
Even when you asked me not to.
I pounded you
Trying to hollow you out.
I still love you.
Try to explain it if you can.
I still love you.
No, you don’t. //
When I left you, scattered in my bed,
Early every morning, making endless
Bowls of oatmeal, I would come here.
I would leave my bed to come to this church.
And I would sit here for hours.
Until I spotted you on your way home.
Then I would run back
To hide on my couch,
To cough my way
Through re-runs of “I Love Lucy.”
Day bleeding to day,
Week wheezing to week.
What are you talking about?
There is no work.
There is no work.
There is no lunch break.
There is no money.
There is no work.
All a lie.
An empty thing.
Nothing on me.
Nothing to give me.
I’ve kept it all together:
The doctors, the knives,
The gasping, the fluid.
There is nothing for you to give me
Because there is nothing that you owe me.
Because your love for me is a mistake.
It’s all a lie,
An empty thing!
Then why do I feel this thing
Press from my inside out?
Why do I feel this thing
Playing checkers with my bowels??
What the fuck are you talking about?
You’ll take this.
You’ll take this
Thing I’m giving you.
You’ll take this!!
(He forces the money on him. He wrestles him to the ground and shoves it into his mouth, or his coat, or his pants. Anything.)
I’m fucking gone.
I have something growing in me.
That you gave me.
I can feel it – it’s a bull, stubborn like its dad.
I can feel its horns scraping against the inside of my intestines.
At first, I thought it was a beautiful thing
That you would come back to me for.
A beautiful thing that would make you kiss me again.
But now I see that it’s a lie:
An empty creature that keeps me full. //
Take the fucking money.
Take the fucking money!
Was someone here this whole time?
It doesn’t matter.
Those mornings I wasted
Dreaming of you at a desk
With a laptop and a ham
Sandwich for lunch.
These things I thought full
I am now finding empty.
Every day, my stomach grows
In time with your betrayal.
Here! Here! Feel it kick!
The monster that you planted in me
This voided beast that drains my life.
(He presses his stomach against P.)
You’re fucking nuts!
I loved you. I loved you!
I gave you money because
I still loved you!
Now, I am lost. I am lost…
You’re fucking nuts!
I loved you! I loved you!
(Church bells. End.)
Cities and Memory
“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand.”
In Temporia, time runs dependent on objects. Upon entering the city’s limits, it seems quite ordinary. You are the same age you were at the town before, at the city’s outskirts. Your watch runs not a second fast or slow, the time zone remains the same. If you walk through quite quickly, without stopping for a coffee or to sit at a park bench, you will exit with nothing but a fleeting sense of the place, the knowledge that you walked through something, some blurry and indistinct shadow of a city.
However, (and I do not know what cosmic bend caused this, what wrinkle in time), upon touching a specific object, time folds, crinkling and bending, sometimes stretching or weaving, and you are transported to a moment in the object’s life. If you stop to sit upon a bench, expecting to rest and admire the flowers, you may instead zip through time, to another moment in the bench’s life, when a girl sat and wept, or an elderly man wrapped in blankets laid down to rest.
Not even a croissant bought from a corner bakery is safe, as the butter folded in it may bring you to a cow being milked on an unknown and distant farm, or the flour many years back to a field suffering from drought, its earth cracked and sore.
Those who are in a hurry to get someplace, or who simply have no desire to live another life, avoid Temporia or walk through quickly and stiffly, dodging even the slightest brush of a branch or a sip of water from a fountain. However, even the stones embedded in the street below their feet have a history, and many find themselves lost in strings of connections and time.
There are also those who make pilgrimages to the city, perhaps desiring to live in a different century, to escape their lives. There are also those who go to find someone lost, who are in search of a specific red-checkered sunhat that will bring them to their grandmother kneeling in her garden in late spring. Finally, there are those who go to touch every object in hope that one will eventually string them back to their past selves, to the day that their father kissed them on their heads and quietly shut their bedroom door.
“This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support…Suspended over the abyss, the live of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.”
Blood flows out of you when you prick your finger on a pin, skin your knee tripping over a rock, or donate it to the Red Cross. The blood that pearls up on your fingertip is brushed against jeans and disappears. The blood left on the sidewalk might evaporate on a hot day, reentering the atmosphere. The blood you donate exits your body through a tube, then is collected in a bag and pumped into someone else. Your body feels the loss for a bit, gets the spins, then regenerates, producing more. That surplus you had goes to someone with a lack, and balance is ultimately maintained. The same can be said for spit, as it travels down the drain after you brush your teeth, flows to a treatment plant, and reenters the environment as water. The same holds for sweat, urine, tears.
In Statera, however, the system is different. The city runs on these excretions, using its citizens’ blood and tears as power. On the outskirts of the city, there is a massive aquamarine lake, a collection point for all its residents’ tears. The tears are burned as fuel and power the cars, radiators, and washing machines.
The city runs most, efficiently, then, when everyone is crying. On the day of a national tragedy the transit system runs most smoothly, the trains are all on time. In the winter, when everyone is just a bit melancholic, the garbage is picked up promptly, and the Internet never slows down.
There is also a vast system of pneumatic tubes that crisscross the city streets, collecting the citizens’ blood and shuttling it to a power plant. Days when there is a five-car pileup on the highway, then, are marvelously efficient and well run. Hospitals are major suppliers, as are children who nick themselves in arts and crafts, who fall off their bike and get a bloody nose. On days without accidents or deaths, however, the lights are constantly flickering, the stoplights malfunction, the bathwater turns murky and grey.
Because of this system, the citizens of Statera find themselves torn, their bodies the fuel needed to power a city that they, in turn, need to live.
“In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.”
As a child, I always wished that I could touch someone and transmit my feelings. I felt that, if only I could touch my teacher after I skinned my knee and spread the feeling, she would know how badly it really hurt and I would no longer be alone in my pain, both of us suffering. This desire isn’t limited to pain. When I get an A on a paper, I wish I could touch my best friend and the feeling would be diffused between us, both of gleeful, sharing exactly the same emotion. If we could live like this, I believe that conflict would be greatly reduced. A couple would both be happy at the same time, I would know how much my grandfather’s arthritic knee hurt and wouldn’t begrudge him for not going on walks with me, we would never again be alone, suffering in solipsistic worlds.
The residents of Emelia are receptive to shared emotion in the sort of way that you and I both feel cold when the air conditioning is cranked up too high. When they are separate, they exist as we do, alone in individual worlds. However, with one touch, an emotion or feeling is transmitted. Because of this, at any given time there is often a larger sensation or emotion to the city. During large festivities with tightly packed crowds, all it takes is one sullen, tired child to bump into a stranger and set off a chain effect that turns the mood of the crowd sour and morose. At a funeral, if one person isn’t truly grieving and in fact is secretly quite gleeful, hugs a relative of the deceased, the whole sad event quickly turns cheerful.
The residents of the city are thus understandably terrified of a day when a chain reaction is set off that touches every single person in the city and imbues them all one emotion, glee, confusion or pain spreading across the city like a disease. Because of this, there are some that live their lives quite alone, fearful of touch and connection, waiting for the day when this massive wave of feeling strikes.
Cities and Names
“Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.”
Diluvia is a small city on an island. The region around the city is moist and tropical, with dark and heavy plants that grow from every crevice. The environment is unsteady and at times violent, with whipping winds and massive waves that rise up from the shore. Nothing about Diluvia is made to survive. The island itself is on a fault line, and the city directly abuts the shore. Every few years comes some new natural disaster, sometimes an earthquake, other times a tsunami or a monsoon. The towering waves inevitably wipe out the city, leaving behind nothing but foundations and rubble. The inhabitants of Diluvia, perhaps because they truly love their city, or perhaps because they simply don’t know where else to settle on such a tiny island, rebuild exactly as they remember it. New stones are placed on top of the shattered remnants of the old, streets paved over again.
Looking at the wall of a house, you can see the strata of Diluvia that have once existed, been wiped out, and rebuilt, like layers of sediment. However, nothing can be rebuilt exactly as it was, and over the centuries, the city has slowly begun to bend and morph. The walls are no longer straight, but veer off at a sharp angle. The streets lead into each other, a jumbled web. And through the passing of time, after each natural disaster the generation that rebuilds Diluvia no longer knows how it looked at the very beginning, and builds it in their own vision of the city. Because of this, Diluvia has become twisted and strange, rising at odd angles and curves, and the city, which everyone prides themselves as having remained exactly the same since its founding, is nothing like what it once was.
Cities and the Sky
“For some time the augurs had been sure that the carpet’s harmonious pattern was of divine origin…but you could, similarly, come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fire, screams in the darkness.
Caelia is utterly dull, an average city with a mid-rate educational system, prefabricated buildings, and overall, a vaguely beige quality. The residents of Caelia, who are equally slow and passionless, are painfully aware of their mediocrity, but don’t know what to do to change a city that has been so deeply uninteresting since its birth. In such a mundane place, with equally mundane people, there is nothing to grab onto, nothing with which to pull themselves up. They are jealous of other equally boring cities that have somehow spawned a famous author, or were struck by a meteor and instantaneously became valuable. One man, who for Christmas received the gift of a star named after him from the International Star Registry, decides that the way to bring give Caelia value is to buy it a star. They identify the greatest and brightest star in the sky above them, purchase it for a low, low, price, and name it Caelia.
Instantly, the city becomes electric, alive. They call themselves “The Starry City”, and tourists flock to see this city that has such a direct line to the heavens. The residents of the city, too, are pulled out of their mundane existence, and begin to blossom, discovering passions and interests, wearing bright colors. They look up at their star overhead and thank it for this gift of light.
Something Caelia may not have grasped is that stars die. In particular, the most massive stars burn up their fuel supply the fastest and explode in a supernova after only a few million years of life. Smaller stars die too, but much more slowly, over trillions of years. By some twist of fate, the immense and glowing star that the Caelians chose burned out only a few years later. After an enormous flash in the sky, they looked up and saw nothing. Their star had vanished.
Although Caelia had become a thriving city full of innovation and excitement, the loss of their star cast them back into oblivion. They believed that the star had catapulted them into fame and success, and without it they felt there was nothing keeping them from their previous beige existence. Its inhabitants halted their exciting lives and returned to their prefab homes, and Caelia returned to the way it was, no longer a starry city, scarcely a city at all.
“He feels envy toward those who now believe that they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”
There is a hidden city that is built and exists only for a specific few. Selenia is found only on maps belonging to a married couple. However, there may be many other similar Selenias that exist exclusively for other people, cities that we cannot know about. Within Selenia are two identical, but slightly offset cities. The wife lives in and moves through one of the Selenias, the husband, the other. Both have the same streets, the same restaurant they both love, the same red brick house they share. However, it is important to understand that these cities are separate, running slightly off from one another. In her Selenia, the wife may at any point be several minutes ahead, or sometimes a bit behind. Because of this, she can call the husband as often as she wants, but the phone in his Selenia will always ring at a slightly different time, and thus he will always pick up to hear a blank dial tone. She will always arrive home at night a few minutes after he has fallen asleep.
Lest you misunderstand, let me make this clear. Selenia may sound like a city of nightmares, and perhaps for others, if similar cities do exist, it may very well be. However, in this city, the wife and the husband are exceedingly happy. They live in the same house and are married. The wife makes dinner and leaves it in the fridge, and the husband finds it. The husband brings home a nice bottle of wine, and by morning, they have both enjoyed it separately. The wife gives vague but positive updates about him to her friends at brunch, and watches him sometimes as he peacefully sleeps. He is comforted by the sound of the shower running and the shadow behind the steamy curtain, the knowledge that she is just beyond. In Selenia, they never fight about the upcoming election. She never makes the ticking nose with her mouth that he hates so much, or at least he is not around to hear it. She is never angry because he doesn’t know how to turn on the TV.
In Selenia, the husband and the wife are happy together, separately. They have occasionally tried to go on holiday to France or visit parents, but every time it has erupted into a furious fight over the restaurant, and they have cut the trip short and hurried back to Selenia, where the wife wakes up peacefully to the sound of the husband’s car starting.
I remember how the smell of my mother’s lipstick would fill up the elevator.
I remember “Shamana”, a 25 year old alcoholic poet I was in love with when I was fifteen, chase after the taxi I got in that night.
I remember taking my friend to see Scratch the Floor, who were performing on Halloween’s Eve. But he got really drunk and cut his finger somehow. I remember looking at it and smiling. We rubbed the blood on our faces as the moon shined down and intoxicated people surrounded us, banging their heads, not questioning what we were doing.
I remember going to second base with the base player of that same band in this gallery’s shitty outside bathroom that had a colored light bulb. Red light spilled out the gaps of the old wooden door. There was a girl waiting outside, wanting to pee the whole time.
I remember a biker offering me straight tobacco, extending my hand, snorting it, feeling it tingle in my nostrils, and having to sneeze twenty consecutive times.
I remember my first cigarette; I was five and my grandfather let me have a drag.
I remember going on a drive on January the 1st with my drunken friend who was wearing a Santa hat.
I remember making out with this guy at a party in the ruins of an old restaurant after talking to him for the first time for two minutes. I remember he was wearing a sex-pistols t-shirt and was either actually a good kisser, or the vodka that was flowing through my veins developed a likeness towards him.
I remember waking up the next day with bite marks on my inner thighs that apparently weren’t his doing.
I remember the first time I got high. I remember feeling like my heart was going to break out of my ribcage.
I remember when I rode on my boyfriend’s new motorcycle for the first time. I remember the hand breaks didn’t work, nor did he know how to drive it.
I remember having to take twelve pills a day and mother discovering that the dose was too strong a year later.
I remember my friend Mikhail, who was so drunk he was tripping over his feet, pick me up unexpectedly to carry me over a huge muddy puddle while we were making our way home through the darkness. I remember clinging to his denim jacket, hoping he wouldn’t accidentally drop me into it.
I remember going to the woods to pee on so many occasions, they all blur together. I remember wiping the tops of my shoes with a leaf and feeling disgusted.
I remember being mistaken for a prostitute on the side of the road, twice. The first time, I was 14- crossing a bridge at night. A man and a woman in their thirties, they didn’t bother getting out of the car. The second time, I was 16- sitting behind a bus stop during the day. It was only a single man that time, also in his thirties. I remember he parked his jeep, waddled over, his stomach fat getting in the way of his thighs, and sat down next to me before going into his pick up speech.
I remember looking my reflection in the eyes and cutting my hair off when I was twelve.
I remember my friend’s father trying to kiss my breast in the elevator.
I remember feeling the needle go through my tongue.
I remember the look in my mother’s ivy eyes when she found a broken piece in my bag.
I remember making out with this girl on a rooftop, whose name on Facebook was “Slaughtered Vomit Pig”, right after we finished the bottle and threw it down- fourteen stories.
I remember having my heart broken for the first time.
I remember having so much dried blood on my legs that I couldn’t take my tights off the night I broke my nose. I was four. I don’t remember the pain. But I remember I was in a lot of it.
I remember losing five hours of my life after that last sip of strawberry skittles vodka at the Tbilisi Open-Air Festival 2012, apparently including a five minute walk to the entrance, security guards checking me and my bag, me showing them my ticket, getting stamped, getting photographed, and falling asleep in front of the stage on the grass.
I remember my mother yelling at me for wearing makeup when I was in middle school.
I remember thinking that I was going to die. I remember hearing the car hit the motorcycle. I don’t remember falling to the ground. I remember the motorcycle crushing into my leg and not being able to lift it off.
I remember watching my mother get ready to go out.
I remember the sirens and the crowd of people surrounding us, studying us silently.
I don’t remember them helping, or moving, or speaking.
I remember teaching myself how to paint my eyes.
I remember the first time I had sex.
I remember making out with a guy that was nicknamed “God” and how terrible it was.
I remember having to take so many tests that the natural anxiety we have towards needles completely disappeared.
I remember piercing my own frenulum.
I remember lighting a cigarette the wrong way.
I remember the way my mother smelled before she would go to sleep.
Looking out of the car window from the backseat, my eyes try to take everything in as my lungs subtly adjust- or readjust- to the city breeze. Even though it’s June and the air feels hot against my skin, it enters my lungs as a cool current. I close my eyes and face the window, letting the air hit my face, the speed my father is driving makes it impossible to breath in at times. My feet stick to the soles of the black flats I am wearing. I take them off and put my feet up on my seat, because I can do that here. It’s my father’s car, not a friend’s, or the school shuttle or a public bus. I could drift off to sleep and there would be no consequences, no stops would be missed or bags stolen. The safest place in the world- my father’s car- where I have taken many naps and created thousands of childhood window drawings.
My mother is sitting in front, twisted in her seat so she can talk to me. She says everything with a smile, laughs at everything I say and disregards things that normally would upset her. She always looks exactly the same; the one constant that remains unchanged. We pass through a graffiti-filled tunnel; I smile because I know most of the artists.
It’s hard for me to understand how quickly buildings seem to multiply in Tbilisi. They take over parks, forests; even children’s playgrounds. Half the town is made up of construction sites and the other half with, hollow houses that stick out awkwardly with their newly dried paint amongst the old Soviet structures. People don’t have money for expensive new apartments, and those who do already own more than one (the others locked up for future children or renters).
I missed the magical spring period, when everything turns bright celery green. Instead, I’ve arrived in mid June, just as the edges of leaves are curling into brownish yellow from the scorching heat. Everything about Tbilisi seems and looks different- is different- even if the difference isn’t visible at first glance, because time and distance leave nothing untouched. Nevertheless, I feel as if I never really left. My lungs are used to this air, and my skin to this sun. The feeling of belonging here is stronger than any other emotion I have ever experienced. Knowing what street leads where, exactly at what second one neighborhood ends and the other begins, which bus runs on schedule an how late, which stops are closer to your destination. Knowing that no matter what, there will always be a bed you are welcome in, a light left on, understanding how the city breathes, what it has for breakfast and lunch, what it drinks, what it smokes, what it wears, what it’s talking about. Knowing that any stranger in the street isn’t truly a stranger, because of how many things you know about their life: like where they bought the clothes they are wearing, or what kind of sheets they probably sleep in, what neighborhood they probably live in, and what kind of desk they sat on in elementary school (because you sat on the same kind), a wooden one with metal legs and curse words etched in ink, and because of the small size of the city, that you probably have been in the same bus or subway car at some point in your life.
We just passed another new Dunkin Donuts. It’s only been a year since the first one popped up, and now they are everywhere. It’s not surprising after the commotion they caused. Dunkin Donuts were the only form of sustenance anyone ate for those first seven days. People walked around with perpetually pasty fingers and sprinkles stuck to their lips, contaminating everything with sugary stickiness. People of all ages hoarded them and stuffed their mouths with the sweet circles, probably thinking, hoping they would magically ingest “Americanness” along with them. Mothers desperately fed them to their children, families had them for dinner and breakfast, they were carried around as presents, the whole city painted a mélange of white, pink and orange. So many donuts were purchased in the first week; they had to close for two days to restock. Tbilisi ran on Dunkin.
The closer we get to home, the more my emotions rise.
As the car turns onto our street I see the familiar shops and vendors. They have crates of vibrant vegetables, fresh fruits and spices in every shade of yellow. The space their shops are in used to be garages that people sold for three times the normal price, because they were on the street and could be turned into shops. The man in the shop is watching a Turkish soap opera in his tiny television, attached to the wall as he weighs carrots. I can see the bakery, its transparent walls offering a peak inside, where a man is bent into the giant, old-fashioned clay “stove” that’s used for making traditional long Georgian bread tonis puri or lavashi.
Coming back from Bennington, a small town in which a car is needed to get a pack of cigarettes and the sky is almost always filled with constellations, having everything at the tip of my fingers feels comforting. My street recognizes me as I recognize it. We have shared so many days and nights, experienced kisses and fights, seen and done and cried. We have painted on each other. I with spray-paint and it with mud. As I get out of the car and start walking toward my building I notice my footsteps, which are still engraved in the pavement outside the local grocery store.
Black Earth, Wisconsin
It’s a long drive from the airport. In the backseat of the car I take comfort in the low hum of my parents’ voices and look out the window as the highway blends with thoughts of wherever I’m coming back from this time.
And then we’re here: Black Earth. To strangers the name sounds straight out of Lord of the Rings or some other dark fantasy land, but really it’s just what the Native Americans who were here first noticed about the soil: rich and dark.
For a small rural town in America’s Dairyland, Black Earth lives up to all possible preconceived notions. The town itself is surrounded for miles by red-barn farms full with saggy-skinned heifers waiting to give up their labors for cheddar, parmesan, and provolone. Fields sprouting corn and hay and soybeans stretch on for miles; you’ve never seen skies so wide and blue or smelled anything more rancid than the fresh manure continually being spread from acre to acre.
Thanks to the arctic glaciers that carved their way down the state ten thousand years ago, Wisconsin is not as flat as its other Midwest friends. Hills roll on and on, some cut high as mountains, or so I used to think. They are sheltered by quiet miles of forest, visited yearly by groups of neon-clad hunters in the fall.
Lots of kids wake up at dawn or earlier to milk before the bus comes. Every spring my old high school, a one-story brick building shrouded between cornfields, hosts Drive Your Tractor to School Day, and several giant red and green monsters can be seen resting in the parking lot from eight thirty to three. Girls wear cowboy boots under their prom dresses and boys have crew cuts; normalcy works as currency and the social scene is straight out of every American high school movie—someone is always throwing up in the bathroom, we are always reading The Scarlet Letter, we are always losing the big game. America’s heartland is composed mostly of clichés.
We’re turning into town and here it is: THE MIDWEST’S LARGEST SHOE STORE. In a village of few more than a thousand people, the Shoe Box takes up two blocks and employs a significant percentage of the population—a set-up similar to an old mining town, but instead of coal the local currency is Nike’s and bedazzled UGG boots.
The gigantic building glows with neon lighting all hours of the day and night, complete with a ten-foot cowboy boot on the front lawn and other foot-centric décor that comes and goes with the seasons. In front, facing the highway is a patio designated for Brat Frys and Girl Scout cookie displays, where cheerleaders do summersaults for cerebral palsy and the 20-foot welcome sign reads “Shoes 4 U!”
Inside, the walls are plastered inch-to-inch with sports memorabilia: plaques and signed photos, helmets and framed jerseys, ticket stubs and laminated newspaper headlines from the biggest big games. The owner, Steve Schmitt, also owns the local minor league baseball team and can usually be found wandering the store yelling at the staff to hustle. Some believe it a right of passage to be shouted at by him while either working or shopping there, and others make the drive to Famous Footwear to avoid it.
Even so, the most bizarre thing about the Shoe Box are the birdcages that hang throughout the store, in them chirping parakeets, tri-colored finches, and at the back one beautiful crimson macaw. She watches over as customers try on sixes, six-and-a-halves, then sevens, every now and then repeating something she hears, and I can never remember her name.
Coasting down Main Street we pass the bank, the bar, post office, and the library. Two more businesses have closed since I’ve been home—the only little restaurant, the Luckin’ Booth, where my brother served slices of pie to every local over 65, and the Meat Market that smelled (understandably) like a fridge full of dead things, but was worth braving for the gumball machine. My Black Earth has been dying since the day it was founded, but with every new loss I worry more about losing all of her someday, of coming back to suddenly find nothing at all.
We take a right then a left and arrive in a cul-de-sac. At the end of the circle sits a white-paneled house with a drooping oak tree in front, and as it appears a sigh of relief leaves my body. Beyond the house the town ends and the cornfields begin, Black Earth creek coiling through the middle. Whether the stalks are green and high, brown and dying, or the field is flat and snowy, it’s certain that the view is gorgeous and the air smells like shit.
I put the Windex in the water I put the pepper in the cookies and it was not poisonous but I thought I’d killed my sister. My father said: When Sue told me, it was like hearing that you’d put a gun up to her head. I was eight years old. I said: I tied the bear up and set the dogs loose I hit my sister when she called me stupid I bit the boy next door when he wouldn’t play legos because he said I couldn’t make a good enough spaceship. I hit the pillow against the wall when the principal was a sexist asshole I got cold when you tried to hug me I walked away when you were eighteen I never spoke to you again I always let somebody else shoot the chickens when they had been torn up by foxes or raccoons from the night before (they usually came a bit before dawn). When the duck broke its leg, my father broke its neck, boiled and plucked it raw to give to the neighbors for cooking. You can’t make a cast for a duck, my mother told me. You have to end its misery. You have to be the responsible one.
I killed a spider once, I drove a herd of calves onto the trailer and rode them to the butcher. We had named them, and then we fed them and then we held them every day. Simon had just begun to trust me.
Who has the right to torture? Who has the right to conduct night raids, strip searches, waterboarding, who kills the duck to feed me dinner who shoots the man who might have shot me first? Is it violent for a lion to kill an antelope? Is it violent for a lion to kill a lion? Is it violent for a woman to kill a lion? Is it violent for a woman to kill a woman? Is it violent that I hit my sister and bit my friend, is it violent that I put Windex in the water, is it violent that I pay taxes?
I shot the duck I hit the girl I walked away I tied up the innocent I ate the meat I drank the milk I drove the calves I drove the truck I held the knife I cut their throats who will cut mine? I hit the spider with a book and wiped the book off with a paper and threw the paper in the trash. Who tortures the inmates in far-off prisons? I am not my money. Somebody else does it somebody else will go to hell for me, I’m clean I’m clean and my hands are in water and my soul is in water and my money is yours, my money is not me my money means nothing to me I can pay for something and then it isn’t mine.
I buy the torture of foreign men and women. I buy it and take it home to my father. Dad, I say, just look what I’ve done. I killed the duck this time. I held him underwater and he told me the truth. He was crying, that’s how I knew it was true. He would say anything to leave that room, so I shot him dead and brought him home for you. Preheat the stove. We can invite the neighbors to dinner tonight.
There's a Bull in My Kitchen
There is a bull who lives in my house. He is gentle and majestic, and coal-colored with an olivey sheen to his coat. His shoulders make it hard for him to fit through doors. Sometimes I worry he’ll kill me in his sleep, his horns are just so long. Sometimes he tries to turn around around and then breaks the china with his tail. Sometimes I bring him to bed with me, and sometimes he fits better in the kitchen.
I remember graduating, with a smile like a chasm across my face.
I remember bounding home in a big yellow dress. It was huge, sun-sized, light all around my body. A weightless feeling like everything was all behind me, and only good things ahead. I remember coming home in a state of bliss, smiling at the sky the whole way home like it'd done something for me, something special for me, little old me. And then, when I got closer to the house and saw it burning, and saw my mum and Yuki parked outside of it wailing. I remember that too. My mum running her hands down her face, tearing her hair down. Yuki white and motionless in his stupid black suit, numbly clutching that black briefcase with his Chopin, in it, with his etudes in it. And I'm like what the fuuck—a long drawn out bellow of disbelief. Oh how I hated them on that day.
I come running across the lawn, my big legs thumping right through Mrs Wu's begonias. There is smoke and this awful smell. Half the neighborhood's there, spectating. Mum and Yuki at the center of it all. I come at them like I'm coming for them. I'm losing it, I'm already flying off the handle because I just can't believe what they've done. I want to take my mother in my arms and slam her back through the burning door. All my stuff's in there. What happened, I demand to know, and with that question I pin the blame right on them, sharp. My mouth is forming a big howl, and I feel my body slam into the ground, face first, and there I am ripping out clods of earth and grass with my fists.
It transpires that what occurred on this, the day of my high school graduation, but also unfortunately of Yuki's incredibly important audition, is that my mother, so wound up, so derailed by the stress of her eldest son's upcoming performance, and also by the rift that this caused with me, her second child due to the fact that in order to transport Yuki to his recital she had to miss my graduation, decided to break the hard habit of ten years and smoke a large Benson out of the front room window, while Yuki changed into his concert-wear upstairs. When we left England, my father decided that his Benson & Hedges were the one thing he couldn't live without, and ordered them shipped to him in bulk. Never mind his mother and father, dwindling away in a London suburb, his siblings. Never mind his friends from work, our house on the hill. I found out later that my mother also left a lover behind, which explains her bitter quiet, and her tight-lipped exclamations of love for Yuki and I during the first few years of our immigration, words which seemed so lined with hate, which seemed as though they were dragged from her mouth with a fishhook. Once we arrived in the States my father went to work for a bank and we rarely saw him, as he was often sent abroad—which seemed to defeat the point of our moving in the first place. Yuki and I were convinced that he had started another family somewhere far away. “Don't be ridiculous” my Mother said, “he can barely handle this one.” And she moodily stared down at the empty table, while massaging Yuki's shoulder, so hard that it left a red mark. True, we were left very much to our own devices—the three of us, my mother very much alone in a strange Californian suburb, without friends and unable to work due to visa complications. It was as if we stopped existing for our father when he went away. My mother missed him, but said things about him to Yuki and I that she never repeated to him. She had always painted, in our house on the desolate hill in the UK but now she'd stopped. She said she didn't want to get paint on the floor. The entire house was carpeted, and the act of tearing it up or covering it seemed far beyond her in those days “I didn't sign up for this!” we heard her howl at our father on one of the rare nights of his return. Yuki and I heard the noise of his answer, muted through the bedroom wall. Whatever he said to our mother must have enraged her, because she knocked over the nightstand, Our father came thundering down to the kitchen with our mother in hot pursuit. My father's black hair standing on end, his eyes wild and closed off—the usual stare of complete denial. “Leave me alone!” our mother begged, although it was clear that she wanted the opposite. She moved towards him, and he backed away. “I haven't done anything!” he protested, and my mother hurled a butter knife at him. It clattered at his feet. He went away the next morning. That night, my mother stalking my father through the house and hurling knives, so desperate to be heard, really heard, dissolved into one of many, their anger coming through the walls, furious, helpless and inevitable. She punched him once, on the side of the mouth, and he said nothing—merely withdrew, told her to stop getting so upset. Told her that she wasn't making sense, that he couldn't understand her when she became so emotional. “Jesus,” I said to Yuki, “Whatever you do, don't let me end up with someone like Dad. I need someone who'll at least hit me back.” Yuki didn't reply, only gave me that long-faced look which suggested I'd said something truly idiotic. His name isn't really Yuki, it's Eugene. Yuki means snowflake, among other things and is a girl's name. It's not even Chinese, it's Japanese. I gave the name to him. I think I was punishing him for being a piano prodigy, and for being half Chinese like me, and for being very beautiful unlike me. It wasn't his fault. The name stuck, and even my mother started to call him Yuki. “We're half Chinese,” Yuki protested. “Chinese. You can't call me that, it's Japanese.” “Yeah, but we all look the same don't we,” I snapped, “so who cares?” “You don't mean that!” My mother cried, from the front seat of the car. “Quiet whitey,” I snarled.
My mother went into my father's office, and nicked the cellophane around his imported carton of Benson's with her fingernail, peeled it off slowly. She shook a cigarette out of the first packet. She took it into the front room, and cranked open the window. She lit it with the stove lighter. She smoked it, and felt like she might faint from the pleasure of it. She did all this while venting to my Aunt Helen on the phone, crying, the tears very quiet and very warm. The white muslin curtain went up in flames, which reached all the way to the ceiling before my mum even had time to stub out the offending cigarette and scream. The sleeve of her cardigan also caught on fire, and then the rest of it, so that as she ripped her clothes from her body the curtain flame travelled through the room. Ultimately all she could do was drop the phone and run into the next room, up the stairs and into Yuki's room. She then dragged her eldest son (one arm in, one arm out of his jacket) back down the stairs. They both simultaneously remembered the piano, or as our father refers to it, “the thing that cost more than our house,” and perhaps, bearing those words in mind spent the next few minutes trying to drag that heavy shining creature from the burning house. As they are both fairly small people and the piano weighed about 400 pounds they accomplished nothing, and it was only as they lay slumped in defeat over the unmoved piano that they realized that they had not yet rung for a fire engine. This had just been accomplished, my mother and Yuki having run out into the front yard to watch in terror as the house grew hotter and hotter, when I arrived. On the way out Yuki had grabbed his briefcase, and my mother, two of the sofa cushions. Having failed with the piano they were determined to have something, anything. I got nothing. My beautiful feeling was gone, and I was just an overweight eighteen year old in an oversize yellow dress, lying facedown on the ground, losing everything.
Yellow is the Grinning Color
Summer brings yellow to Judea
bursting in thorns and cedar needles that cover
the dry bones of Jerusalem stones
Summer brings yellow of dryness and growth
yellow that pricks the parks painted in goat blood
drip drip of yellow on Jerusalem rocks
white-pink like jam in a belly button
Summer brings other things too
missiles and kidnappings and such
though we in the yellow don’t dwell on such things, though
to genteel gentiles this sounds far from holy, and
A crown of thorns sounds like cruel and unusual; but
as kids we wore them for bracelets
grinning yellow against our bronze and beige skins
liking the pain cuz
Jerusalem breeds masochists
This is not surprising when you remember that
The Holy of Holies has always banked blood money
Summer in green mats on a yellowing dirt,
horizontal walls outside the Gaza vertical,
waiting on the Jerusalem mansion to voice its aesthetic decisions:
Should we leave the schools standing?
Or would that make too much of a contrast?
Flatter is better with
fewer limbs in sight
Either way they all bleed yellow between blocks of concrete rubble
Summers with pupils anchored to the redheaded anchor on the living room screen
Will there be a ground invasion?
Now the Bibis and El-Sisis sit on their mahogany, waving flaccid
at the cameras
Pretending to be hard like the lead they’ll drop
on children shields who at a word will bleed yellow in concrete rubble
Who at a word will bleed yellow on the embargoed beach
Children in asbestos dust
And the masses sit in the A.C., clapping
their thorn jewelry against the yellow-beige drip
Jews grinnin’ cuz
Jerusalem breeds masochists
Now the pundits,
now the internationals,
now the Pope and the reformists and the
John Kerrys of the world,
“The holy land will know peace; the Jerusalem of old will be renewed;
peace and all this when the Word is heard”
And we in the yellow try to decipher foreign words
and ward off depression
Then I Jew breathe
remembering both dick-waving and peace-mongering
are history sterilized,
Purell spreading like fire on yellow cedar
carpet-bombing minds with
Velcroed on easy as gonorrhea
There was never any peace;
we live in a city of tombs,
every corner named for murder
and this is the truth, inescapable like the prospects of any Gazan:
The pink of stones is red in reality,
blood is fertilizer
for Jerusalem bones
and yellow is the grinnin’ color
Jerusalem has always been a city for sword-makers and money-changers
Walled in keeping the yellow on the slopes of Gehenna
And The Holy of Holies’ has only ever housed slaughter
The New Pangaea
What the end times brought forth was
a family reunion unprecedented, the buffet
fit for megafauna. The last time we managed
this was, God, years ago. In simpler times,
before the meteorite crashlanded.
I did not feel so divided from you then.
But alas, here we are! Once more.
It is so good to see you. It is so good to
see at all. The star-nosed mole cannot,
but he is still in underground attendance.
Uncle Frog -- now Aunt Amphibiana --
is gestating infants inside of her mouth.
Cousin trees go wild for musical chairs!
They are running quickly on root feet
but the weather, as always, is winning.
Delightful Domain! A throbbing barrage!
Camel and wombat pose for a photo.
The mosquitos are thrilled! There is
so much to eat here. The foliage dances.
Everyone is drunken and biosphering.
Who, you protest, will be guest of honor?
But you know it is little human you.
They lean over the stroller to coo and coo.
This avian avalanche, Insecta influx, it all
comes down to the Homo sapien hurrah.
We felines and we fungi have never
felt more alike, and of course, we are
all falling apart together. Mother is
close to brain dead, but by all means,
keep going. It is simply too spectacular.
We are boarding an ark now, grasping
hands and entering our last-ditch torpor.
I do not know if we will make it.
I walked to the top of the mountain.
Bare feet on black pavement, pushing my bike
as the hill was too steep. Early summer.
Early evening. The sun had not set and my heart was still
racing, an unreasonable thing, but inevitable.
Sourceless momentum that carried me
past the parking lot and up the green path, past construction’s
orange signs, following it until there was nothing to follow.
I stood at the foot of the tall stone steps.
Carved out of time, some necessary blurring
of the true and the story of it. I carried my dead authors
in my hands, inhabited this landscape with their ghosts.
That day I’d cut my finger while slicing a bagel in two.
Plastic gloves, serrated knife, a customer whose face
I can’t remember—nor which came first: the intake of breath
or the blood—the way it turns red at the first touch of air.
On the steps I faced the lion—as if he, too, were my mirror.
It was by then nearly dark, the forest heavy green.
I told the mountain I’d come back.
I meant it. How easy it would be to find endearing
the things I used to want.
The standing in a field. The looking out.
Walking with You, Finding a Pair of Nikes
Looking down to my Nikes, Stefan Janoski’s, fresh
barely chewed by the days since they found me
at the corner of our high school with only one faint
fray in the leather. Fresh, a present from you.
Tonight, I sat in a dark auditorium, listening to echoes,
echoes of a man reading poems on paradise. I looked
down to feel what my auricles felt, touching, vibrating;
instead I saw my Nike’s. Black, a swoosh, meshing into
the light and shadows birthed in the stillness and quiet
of the open room.
We walked in rain, in December, in Marin through quiet
streets where we didn’t say much, smoking, coffee
and cigarettes held in our hands — our hands like vices.
Tall bay trees walked, stood and waved in rain and wind as
we peer to the creek — now river — twenty feet below
us, a muddy flow reminding us of growing up.
We look. Back in the auditorium, paradise is spoken for you.
The rain gets harder in Marin. And, standing like a sign or
foreshadowing, a pair of turquoise Janoskis, new,
seeped in the rain, heavy with silence. You take them
with you. The rains dry on the pavement and the Janoskis.
You wear them when you leave.
Back in the auditorium, the poet still speaks.
Still searches for the paradise, asking where it lingers
or not. Asks why. A good question.
The metro is faster anyways he says until sweating stuck on the south-bound 4 everyone’s melting into each-other’s lap. I drink, we drink to be funnier to reappear & I start telling him about the Villa of Mysteries Pompeii oranges red and purple walls corpse flowers everywhere orgies & sacrifices, rituals of initiation now a ruin under ash. I see eros holding a mirror to a young woman while a horse plays the lyre or so I imagine. I say I’d like to think there is a place where everything could exist simultaneously. He is not colored by these visions, & unlacing his shoes only says this will be bad for you.
A Postcard from the Robotic Boatsman to his Cyclical Lover
Sorry, but I can’t spare any hope.
And anyway my boat’s already been covered up.
There will be no more oceans today. Just rain
and full stomachs, just temporary companions
and this zipped-up sky. You want too much
but so do I. When you point a laser in the dirt
I pounce on it for hours. And when you feed me I love you
until you switch me off again. I bark and roar on command
but I am not programmed for reassurance. If I was, I would tell you
that you have options. Folding laundry and unfolding it again.
Eating food and later eating food again. There are drugs
and rollercoasters, postcards you could send. I can only speak
from experience, but some nights I was brought to gatherings
and made to read poems about the loneliness of the sea, and afterwards
the applause was somewhere between polite and fulfilling, afterwards I got laid
to rest and dust. But know that they got it wrong,
about how it is to be. I did ride my boat along a great many seas
but it’s not that I was alone, it’s just that there was nobody with me.
Listen. I love you like the hedge loves the gardener who whistles
while she cuts. And I know you like the shine of a circuit just starting to wake up.
And tonight, I hear the rain pounding at the window again
to be let in, to be held, to be warmed by the fire. And I try to explain to it
that an incomplete life is what you want, that a complete life is
finished completely. But the rain wants to know everything about hope,
so I tell it You know honey, I think everything will turn out just fine
and I hold it to me drenching. I drink what I can before it dries.
Varieties of Containers
I was in a room without a trashcan or rather it feels anachronistic
to call a trashcan a trashcan cuz it’s rarely like a “can” usually
it’s more plastic or maybe even like woven straw (weird)
which to me is simply not “can” material maybe a “bin”
anyway it’s just like lunch boxes I had a lunch box as a kid it was purple
just solid purple with no dinosaurs which was fortunate
but it wasn’t really a hard thing it was a lil floppy soft thing
and so it felt weird calling it “lunchbox” cuz boxes are solid and metal
or maybe cardboard who am I to judge it was more of a lunch “container”
but really the shift from metal to plastic has changed a lot of things
for language and children and the robots of the future will probably be plastic
Plastic Astro Boy we can call him Plastroboy or Plastic MegaMan
I don’t have a pun for that and also MegaMan is not a robot
although it is worth wondering if a robot is a bin, a box, or none
of the above but let me get back to what I was saying I was in a room
with a box of Kleenex but there was no trashcan
so I sat and I thought for a while about varieties of containers
then the pleasant man came in and told me how today
nobody new would be dying
Only a little bit wrinkled, and promising some kind of danger. Still red. These are almost water, without a perceptible smell, but soft when pickled. I choose one. I pluck. It breaks. It is like a blood vessel on my palm. It releases its jelly. Jelly delivers the delicate smell of: dog shit. Roast turkey, cranberries, juniper and torn grass. Then it slips like viscera in miniature between my thumb and pointer fingers, becoming cold. A bloody, gelatinous perfume with no heartbeat and no hair, the vague scent of citrus, the memory of the temptation to eat the yew berries outside my grandmother’s house. Skin: translucent, even transparent, even window to the soul, even encasement of blood stew, which is coming undone on me, still smelling like the day after a death. Still red.
Winter at the Lake
Lines of broken black water scrawl across the dusty surface of the ice, where it has broken and reformed over night. Geese were here only days before, desperately paddling to keep small pockets of the lake from freezing. They are now nowhere to be seen. A car drives by, whipping the wind up to an unbearable chill. The old-growth conifers at the northern corner of the lake would offer more protection than the dead land of the deforested western bank.
(“What is the importance of vision in the work of John Clare? If Romantic poetry is defined by the desire to notice and describe the natural world, then vision is the primary tool of the poet. He is given the ability to see this interaction, apart from the direct interaction with nature, and so the poetic voice here transcends the natural in order to do the simple work of taking note.”)
The walk to the conifers reveals an unusual sight: at the corner of the lake there is a mysterious shape in the branches of an oak that fell into the lake years before. The trunk and a hemisphere of the oak’s sprawling, hollow breadth of branches reach out across the water, sore against the wind. The skeleton tree rattles against the ice that cuts a cold perimeter around the length of its half-submerged form, cutting out the negative spaces where the water meets its dark, damp bark. The other half of the tree must spread out like fingers in the dark beneath the solid surface of the lake. There, in the space hewn out between two weighty branches, something small is tucked and fluttering.
(“The haunted aspect of Clare’s work appears most powerfully in its subtlety. In November, haunting is both natural phenomenon and disturbance of nature, personified in the movements of the owlet, a creature of the landscape, who is acting outside of the natural order. Clare notices the ripples of this disturbance passing through the web of animals that surround her, finally arriving at the human, who is the first to invoke the word ‘ghost.’”)
The object in the ice, between the branches of the drowned oak tree, is covered in what can only be called plumage, although the actual texture of its surface would be impossible to determine at this distance. The realization that it is feathered is followed by the interminable wait. The hope is that it will move. It must move. It must be either animate or inanimate. If it is animate, then it will move, or it will not move. If it does not move, it might be dead. If it is dead, it might be inanimate. If it is inanimate, then either it is dead or never was alive. If it never was alive, then what is fluttering in the wind? Rocks, for example, do not flutter. If it was once alive, and is now dead, then it would not move when disturbed. I will wait for it to move.
(“Humans, like animals, are part and parcel of the landscape to which they belong. Syntactically leveling the field between human and animal has two primary effects in Clare’s work: the ennobling of the animal world and the reunion of human and natural surroundings.”)
A rock I throw from the bank breaks the ice only feet from the fluttering form. No reaction. I follow it up with a hail of desperate rocks that land one after the other and break the ice in small, controlled explosions until the once-smooth swath of grey ice is pock-marked with dark bruises where water is bubbling through and lapping in small black pools, flat under the weight of the arctic air. No movement. No sound but the howl of wind. There, on the tundra of the western bank of the lake, close to the shadow of conifers, I think I see – in a vision that falls into the murky category of sensation that is neither quite lived experience nor quite hallucination – the shadow of the object’s neck.
(“It is the human […] that is an aspect and symbol of nature. Clare is not interested in the use of pathetic fallacy in the same way his predecessors were. Instead, by placing the human in the context of our natural surroundings, by describing the movements of the human only in relationship to the pressures and whims of nature, Clare is inviting us to see ourselves as part of the landscape, and something very small. Mostly, our peers are songbirds. Clare’s refusal to indulge in metaphor subverts the androcentricity and andro-supremacy of the earlier part of the Romantic era.”)
A rock. Another rock. A hundred rocks do not convince the silent thing to move its silky neck. It must be a neck. When I step onto the ice, the shock of my weight sends an electric, popping rumble hurtling across the length of the lake and back again. I freeze. The small valley echoes for an instant, passing the dissipating sound of the ice back and forth across the hills until it is gone. The surface of the ice shifts, almost imperceptibly, to accommodate me. I look closer: I see the curve of an inky black neck that follows to tuck its head beneath a brown-grey wing on the body of a bird that has been frozen into the ice. It is dead.
(Time dies. Fields are harvested and then they die. People die. And life, it appears, continues on without us. Death, through Clare’s remarkably objective lens, comes out looking as if it were part of the weather […] There is no final hallelujah; there is no wish for or promise of something more. It is his sheer simplicity that strips death bare of image, name and status as a noun. Instead, death is a verb. Death is something we all do, because it is a function of time. Time, which carries us forward, which ripens crops, which brings new storms, which chases weeks with more weeks and seasons with more seasons, time which dies and is reborn, is inescapable. In this way, Clare’s description of time is not linear but cyclical. A time that dies cannot be eternal; it must start and start again. Everything dies as a function of time, and so nothing can die eternally. In a nonlinear view, nothing falls off the surface of the infinite line of time to live in another reality, but instead comes around over and over again, as if each life were a thought that cannot escape the mind of God who is going crazy little by little and refuses to let us go. Time is reborn. The work, it appears, goes on.”)
I am breathing in air that stiffens my bronchial tubes just before it enters and opens my lungs, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to begin the process of freezing to death. I am watching a dead bird trapped in the surface of the ice. Its body must be very, very cold now. At home, there are piles of bio notes waiting to by memorized. I recall something vague about apoptosis, the self-destruction of cells. There are clothes that need folded. There is work, and time, that demand attention. So I, cyclical, and inescapable as I am, go home. And although I almost want it to, the ice does not give way.
The road from Washington is straight and hanging heavy over the Chesapeake. Stretched pregnant, ready for renovation but no trucks moan. Her route reaches the country’s edge in under 3 hours. It floats, even now, along the olive freshwater and funnels into the Atlantic. She does how they do here, afloat on a Hobie far past the break.
It’s only been three months but hot and branding are her growing feet: into each crab house stair and down a flight and up two more and down again and down one more for a joint on the back stoop with Ann and up another back to work and down one out the door and across the street and on the ocean floor and along the edges of a foam learning board. Beside the bed of a man who won’t move to Hawaii and then, finally, back home. Six hour glasses of wine. All this summer fun: He is thirty. Fishtail boards aren’t popular but he favors them anyway. The babes toss their braids at him and lap at all uniqueness. All this summer fun. Swell begins to shy.
She feels the burning palms of her arches on the spill of beer on backyard grass. Soak in. A bonfire at dusk: someone’s toddler fills up the bong water. She wraps her hand in the child’s own for a dance to the Allman Brothers because it turns out that there is nothing closer to everything than the palm of this ripe human. Unstained, she thinks, bleach on our blemishes. She can’t approach the thirty year old’s bed inside, but behind her tanned, closed lids he rubs her back tenderly and brings her to his surfing competitions. She’s still stumbling over the old song lyrics and dancing with someone else’s child curled close, a sponge on her dream.
Her dresses graze the grass and she tosses the skirts around the way all her friends do. Hanging from her scalp are static yellow locks cropped to the ribs’ ends but yes, she has a degree from Washington College. Ask about the specimens. Request a map of the xylem routes in red pen on loose-leaf. I have a degree, you will learn. She: once waif-like, a waistless line. Weeks have passed since then, and her friends stay wasted into fall, eyes wide for the waves’ revival. She knows better. It is the eighties now, their time has passed. She has hips now, has felt the moon crack inside her, crack like the coconuts that Delaware doesn’t have. A fine world, this year is; a fine entrance point for what lay waiting. Her marble eyes keep rolling. All this summer fun.
China blue cradles breast milk pool,
refill. Watch hound slinks off as I wake Wake.
Citrine reflections off morning prisms. Hour hands as stop-
light reminders as rifles as lozenges
and hopes fall far from tree to fingertip.
My first traces in ink incunabula in
a pigeon claws’ clutch.
Someday in this waking world watch
a crawl cross floorboards, fatten vases full with petunias.
There must be a million others. I must be a million others.
I am an action star
on my first rescue mission.
I jump from a plane & die
a total of three times
before the film falls.
I come back
to an interstellar
playground teeming with lovers.
They swarm the jungle
gym lit by the expanse
of stars. Celestial
bodies; never closer.
Venus looked more like Mars
than ever before.
You are there.
You are writing your memoir.
I offer you
a cigarette. You say
No, thank you.
Your eyes opaque.
I dip my hand,
& touch the marks
on your wrist.
They leap from you.
You mutter something.
I reply, I know.
You walk away to the one
you should have loved.
I hug myself
as moonlight crawls
& falls on the floor,
& solidifies into silver island-nations.
There is no end in sight. The waves like hot
hands pawing. The lip of the horizon brushes
your waist. You seem so small. The pale moon
invades you. Your knees shake at the beating
wind which wraps around you like a tongue.
Your clothes whip at you. It is not too
quiet when we go. Some call these noises
bliss, but you are awash in something dangerous,
Toward the ocean's maw you walk. What can hurt you
does. Your feet raise because they must. Your hair
is always falling. The strands look like static
in the sand. Your body: lithe, erratic,
an internal dial turned too low, too long
stuck on mute. How it happens then.
We dance on the shore. You step in glass
without my ever noticing.
Boring Old Jack
Five Sessions on Overcoming Difficulties
I was confidently mountain biking, which is weird because I’ve never done that before. I saw this “sick jump” and I knew I had to take it. Suddenly, I was up in the air and about to fall off a cliff but I wasn’t scared. I saw the edge of the cliff and I grabbed it at just the right time. I got up and then this guy came over and he asked if I was alright. I said, “Yeah, but I almost fell off that cliff.” We looked down and the bottom of the cliff was about nine feet below us. I asked him how far he thought that was. He said, “About nine feet.”
The Third Walrus
There were three Easter eggs, and I knew that each of them was poisonous. I didn’t know which one to pick. I looked up and nobody was waiting for me to pick but I knew I had to pick. So I picked the one on the left. Somebody, I think it was me, opened it and it was filled with gelt. Nobody asked me what I thought was in it, but I remember answering with, “This is bright gold gelt.”
Package for delivery. I couldn’t read the name, but that was okay. A big walrus gave me the package and I remember because it was big. And the flippers.
There was no way that walrus could have held the package, I’m no Suskamachoo. So the walrus disappeared and then I was in a cave with a really big boiling pot. And that was pretty scary, I’ll admit that.
Frank the Walrus
This was the last train to Clarksville and I was at the station. I didn’t know what time it was but it didn’t seem like things worked like that in Clarksville. But then I realized that I wasn’t in Clarksville yet.
Frank Walrus is a thing of which I cannot conceive.
Frank Walrus does not love me and Frank Walrus certainly does not love you. Frank Walrus is love in absentia; he is a void with no love and no waffles-Magorium. Who even is Frank Walrus? Frank Walrus is just some proper noun wordsmash with vague allusions to God and the Tao and the mystic Saint Josephine. Whatever. Fuck it. Fuck Frank Walrus.
Frank Walrus might eat your children, I don’t know. Frank Walrus donates to every cause you hate and avidly boycotts those that you love. Fuck it. Frank Walrus isn’t shit, spit on his image.
Do not let Frank Walrus into your life. All he wants is waffles-Magorium and I have no more to give. His diplomatic lectures were never more than cornflakes. Wake yourself from this dream of who you once thought Frank Walrus was, but know that the harder you try, the more impossible it will become. To struggle against Frank Walrus is to accept Frank Walrus as something where you and I both know that Frank Walrus is nothing. This dream species cake-in-hand hoodlum is codswallop. Frank Walrus is done, he’s gone. Right now.
You won, you beat him. There is no more Frank Walrus and, from now on, you get to keep all the waffles-Magorium. You are mystic Saint Josephine.
I walk to the Black poet. I stand before the Black poet. I say, Black Poet, I heard what you said, I hear you. Black Poet shakes my outstretched hand. I grip the hand as if its grip will squeeze all the caught blood out of my face and into the handshake. Black Poet says, Thank you for coming. Black Poet glances at my bushy hair and my flat nose, and then to my pale yellow face. Black Poet does not linger on my grey-blue eyes. For a moment, I expect recognition. Black Poet glances to the heads in line behind me. Goodbye Black poet, I say. Hello, Black Poet says to the heads behind me. I take one hundred and fifty large steps. I let each year pass. I am Black, I say to the miles between the Black Poet and me. Alright, Black Poet says to the space.