Painting by Seon-Jeong Kim
Imagine a blank wall, which is my favorite
city. Maybe with more experience
and the means to travel, I’d change
my mind, but beloved streets lie beneath
the drywall. So here’s the scenario: me
armed with stud sensor from Home
Depot. Let’s pretend that I’m holding
a hammer, threaded anchors, screws.
I’m wanting to mount a photo of you
and you and you and you and you:
collective memories from this city
nailed to the surface of the partition.
The issue is I haven’t kept the images,
not even negatives or empty frames
filled with stock photos of models.
Why bother when you have enemies
like earthquakes, sunshine, neighbors
who shake the ceiling and walls?
I wouldn’t want my memories to fall.
I press the stud finder against the white
paint because I know something’s behind
it. I slide it across my city’s topography
and wait for it to detect what I can’t
see. Beep. It’s me sobbing on the steps
of a sandwich shop because my wallet
has been snatched. Beep. A speakeasy
where I’m sipping cotton candy cocktails
with a man I’ll never see again. Beep.
I’m watching a soccer game to impress
someone scoring all the goals for me.
Drinking beer. Beep. My car’s disappeared
from its parking spot. Beep. In a Beemer
we’re chasing cellular phone thieves.
Beep. I’m moved to tears by a violinist
and sunset in concert. I’m either too tired
or too drunk. Beep. Too drunk to decide
if I prefer the shady or the sunny side.
Please can we cross the street? Beep.
All the vegetarian food I ate to please
my best friend before I stopped eating
meat. Beep. The dirty water hot dog
I could stomach, while he threw up.
Beep. Riding an elevator to the top:
the one-hundred-and second floor,
where I see a panoramic view of you
and you and you and you and you.
Here I’ll hit the nail, mark what carries
the load, maybe hang my heart.
Say it like this:
tongue brushing ceiling,
sighs on the wind, a country
called we will not break.
Say it like this:
quavery vowel (as in young,
as in clumsy), ending as gentle
as moonset. Ending
as coup de grâce.
Say it like this: foreign daughter
who can’t reach across the sea,
foreign daughter with hands
that are too small and a heart
that is always smaller.
Say it like this:
dictionary girl who knows Seoul,
who knows American dream,
but is missing the definition
Say it like this: sunrise
is the only constant. Chase it
halfway around a spinning
miracle of blue.
Now come back. The dark
is only dark if there is light
somewhere. Say it like this:
mouthful of snowmelt,
current like bloodstream,
hand skimming the bottom
2 beds, 1 bath, a few walls and a roof with irreparable cracks. An acre where dreams turn to ash beneath weeds and dead grass, behind a dive bar and between the screams of broken glass. $1100/month. No questions asked.
Only kind of a shithole. All falling objects need a place to crash and two school dropouts are no exception. When your best friend falls with you, you never look down.
We were 20. Barely made enough money for rent, food and bourbon. Bad credit and no rental history led us to the Four Corners. Monument and Oak Grove. El barrio, where the street sleeps cold. Where the East Bay’s crack is manufactured in loads. Where the souls that aren’t desperate have already been sold. Where working class hands grind themselves to the bone until their children are old enough to leave or do the same.
Going barefoot anywhere was suicide. Our parking lot looked like a cinder block had murdered a mirror, near a corner where a glass half empty died on the sidewalk. The 7-11 nearby was bordered on either side by rival gangs. Their bullets, always looking for a new place to sleep. Going there was a lot like going barefoot.
One morning, it was there. A hole torn in our fence. Three boards broken with no explanation. Their murderer is never found. The cops never came unless they were chasing a suspect through our backyard, racing through a hole we’d grown used to. When you get used to holes, you stop trying to fill them.
You stop wondering why they’re there.
Our alarm clock was the sound of death. Feral cats scratched 5 a.m. into the darkest part of the sunrise. Some nightmares never go back to sleep.
Our friend woke up on his floor, tied up in duct tape. His face – swollen. His stuff – stolen. His mistake – opening his front door. He said there were three of them. Shouted for an hour before anyone found him.
We found someone else’s syringes in the backyard: laughing, blowing bubbles through blood. Used oven mitts to get rid of them, then buried them in flames, no longer welcome in our home.
We noticed the smoke before the fireman. They both hovered above the ruin next door: an empty unit, a Chinese restaurant and what was once a liquor store. He said we were lucky, having not burned to death while we slept. How quickly it should have spread to our fence. We asked if it was arson. He responded,
It wasn’t until eight months later our neighbor told us what happened.
3 a.m. Some men found her going home from a friend’s. She never made it home. Her nightmares, realized on the other side of our fence. Three boards snapped half as easy as a young girl’s neck and left a hole that can never be filled.
I never learned the name her mother gave her.
Only that she’d never be seventeen.
Some nightmares don’t wait for you to fall asleep.
The holes we carry with us make us who we are.
What we can fix.
What we learn to live with.
A Dream About You, Again (and Again and Again)
You stand in the deep end
of an empty swimming pool.
It’s a box inside a box —
everything gray-green concrete
even the sky. It might be the color
of your eyes. You say nothing
while I talk from the edge.
If I fall in, surely I will break.
I am in a square room
at a gray party — I know everyone; I know
no one. I sip champagne
until you arrive, all that missing color
concentrated in you. Everyone evaporates
through the walls. For months
I waited for you to say “I want you
back,” but I can’t look at you
when you do. Every part of you
implores me, but the electricity in your hands
only hurts me now, and I resist.
Purged from the almost-yellow
of our tiled high school walls,
I board the Bayonne bus knowing
you will take one to Jersey City.
Across the aisle, your best friend
looks at me like I am a fish
unaware of its bowl. You board
my bus; the cracked brown leather
sticks to my thighs like tar. Trapped between
the window and your body, I squirm
when you tell me you love me.
I’m trying to leave, but there’s nowhere
Tell Me How You Never Saw Me Coming
tell me how you never saw me coming. how you never
thought I’d mean a thing. how a doormat becomes welcoming
if you step on it long enough. how I got stuck in the soles of
your shoes and eventually it felt strange without me. how love,
for you, came like skipping a step on a staircase and waiting for your
feet to find solid ground again. how, in the moment
in between, your heart was in your throat. how, in the years
afterwards, it settled in your stomach. tell me you remember the fire truck
screaming around your corner on the day you first held my hand.
how, since then, you’ve wondered which of us they would’ve saved.
tell me how you’ve known me for 2,197 days and that must count
for something. tell me everything and I’ll tell you that the story of us
is something that will be told in the dark by a campfire with chocolate
melting between my teeth. they’ll ask for a ghost story and I’ll tell them
ours. I’ll say, he did all that and still tried to say he loved me. I’ll say my
hands are still outstretched from all I gave him and they’ll say how did
you leave, how did you ever leave. and I’ll say history is just another word
for how long I let him walk through the streets with my heart between his teeth.
I was five when I performed
on my Raggedy Ann doll,
searching for her advertised candy heart–
but beneath the fragile cheesecloth
found only pure white,
hard-packed cotton stuffing.
I filled the empty space
with a gumball-machine gold heart prize
and sewed her up tight—
my amateur stitches zigzagging in a crooked line
across her now heart-full chest.
I was twenty when you left me
without a word, cruel or otherwise,
and I remembered a picture
in my Raggedy Ann storybook –
after the young workman
carelessly dropped her into the paint,
to make amends he dunked
her in soapy water, wrung
her through a clothes press,
hung her out to dry on a line,
in her damp yarn hair—
a water-crumpled face.
How I longed then
to be like Raggedy Ann—
legs dangling in the sunshine,
stuffed with fresh new cotton—
my brave, painted-on smile
still in place.
Like the Rat He Is
I remember my aunt telling the guy in the rat suit
at Chuck E. Cheese not to look at or touch us;
we were young girls, but on the verge of filling out.
That was nearly 20 years ago; these days,
I catch myself thinking:
Watch out for rats.
I learned early just how men can be, from men
whose names I won’t even say anymore. But, a girl
gets lonely sometimes, and I’ve been told
I should lower my standards.
To be fair: my age is getting away from me
and I’ve yet to settle down like a proper Southern woman;
my hips are wider than they’ve ever been, and I’m betting
it’s nature’s way of telling me it’s about time I have some hellions
that I can take for pizza play-dates. So let’s say I do it—
let’s say I get hitched to some man
who doesn’t read books,
who only votes to get out of work
for a little while, or worst of all,
thinks guacamole is gross.
How happy would I be?
Will he begin to lose interest when I choose a book I’ve read
three times already
over Wednesday night sex?
Then there we’ll be one fine day, at some pizza joint,
watching our little angels bop plastic monsters
on the head for prizes, and I’ll catch him eyeing
some younger woman – trying to see through her jeans,
like the rat he is.
Late Night Shift
Slouching over the sizzling grill
a towel tied around his lean hips
sweat gathers in the pouches
beneath his whiskey-shot blue eyes
toothpick clenched, Eastwood style,
cigarette tucked behind an ear—
he shifts his weight from foot to foot
in a slow one-linoleum square dance,
one hand snakes a spatula
under blobs of batter freckled with bubbles
while the other deals out
white ceramic plates one by one
in perfect orchestration.
His blank professional gaze
assesses the steam glazed kitchen clock—
when his next fifteen minute smoke break
comes up he’ll lean against the milk crates
and splintered flats, squint up at the few stars
through long silken curls of smoke
and strings of parking lot lights—
a master of pancakes
making his bows to dark applause.
Bambi at -18° C
Things wet and sucking; fawn
at gunshot mother’s teat.
What they never said was
the milk stops with the blood; the men
with calloused palms and veal
between their teeth.
That afterwards, the young
grow ricket-boned. Skitter-hoofed.
That at night, they roam the supermarket aisles.
Smell out the meat counters. Lick clean
the knives. Call it heritage.
That there is famine in the way
they move, anaemic, through
these frozen food mausoleums.
In their head-lit, roadkill blinking
at the glass.