He was an athletic man, say the pairs of running shoes
stacked up on the closet floor; not a tall one, though,
says the length of the T-shirts in the laundry basket;
and a God-fearing man, says the prayer journal
resting on the nightstand near an uncapped pen
and the Bible with its highlighted passages;
but not one for crowds, say the unopened
invitations and the disconnected telephone cord.
Still, a woman would visit, say the stacks of music
books on his piano with her name, and the purse
sitting on a wooden chair in the kitchen; and they
were friends, say the blankets on the couch where
she slept on the longer visits. Money was scarce,
say the holes in the blankets and the chipped plates
in the chewed-up cabinets. And it was lonely here,
says the narrow country road.
Something went wrong, says the vacant house
in the weed-choked yard. The journal said he was
a God-fearing man; the purse abandoned in the
kitchen says she left in haste. And the Bible?
Its pages are scattered on the wooden floor like
branches after a storm—the Psalms crumpled up
by the legs of the piano, Proverbs strewn across
the living room. Something went wrong, they say.
If only I’d known then what I was asking for,
that the kiss would haunt me like Peter’s denials,
though my kiss was nothing like the disciple’s
betrayal to save his own skin; my kiss was ordinary,
irredeemable lust, youthful blindness to the cost
of the consequences wrought by my naïve impulse.
The camp owner, eyes narrowed with veiled disgust,
glanced at my fingers laced around his daughter’s as if
my own had turned to claws; we’d waited until everyone
had left the dining hall, then stolen a moment to ourselves:
Why have you done this? his eyes asked before he turned
to clear the trays from the tables. And what could we explain,
my cheeks so swollen with embarrassment that I looked
like one of Mary Magdalene’s demons…
How changed I was from the day before when I’d sat,
in the circle of similar youth, before the licking flames
of a bonfire, incorruptibly bright as if I floated in that stinging
warm pure light. The setting sun shrank into blue-black space
shadowing ridge after ridge surging upward into peaks,
my eyes straining to collect the emergent stars in view—
and her father opened with an invocation, lowering his voice
so we all leaned in to catch the mysteries unraveled like thread…
But how distant that all seemed in the somber morning light,
his eyes recoiling from my clutching hand: My breath died
inside my chest, my palms ran cold with sweat, my shoulders
hunched up around my ears: Shame. I’d even felt it the night
before, like a fever coming on, when the other campers,
faces tight with scorn for the fact that I was new, gazed past me
as I tripped over talk of spiritual things: They tightened their jaws
and sipped their coffee, nodding halfheartedly at my questions
about the prayers, the books, the stories… And then, as if
my kiss whispered that their meanness had been right,
next day in the morning walk, no one spoke to me:
He must have told the whole group my humiliating moment…
Her face hovered before me as we walked,
the leaves’ monotonous crunching nagging
like the shame I couldn’t shake, dull as the ache
in my muscles. The lake drifted around us,
surrounding our trek up a slope so steep
that each breath came hard and ragged,
our shadows black weights dragging us back down.
I kept seeing my hand reach for hers.
If only I’d known then what I was reaching for,
that her father’s eyes would pursue me,
is it almost five years now? The worst is knowing
that I’d confirmed what he wanted me to be—
leather jacket, chopped-off hair and all, that he
couldn’t tolerate. It must have pained him,
the blatant disdain for expectations of a woman…
And could he really lose his daughter to such tomboys,
masculine with weathered hands? In a daydream I still have,
we skirt the rim of the lack, her father’s foot catches
and he plunges down, down…the other youth cower
while I rush forward, my muscles stretch tight, tighter
as I haul him back from the abyss… But of course nothing
happened, the walk was sheer routine; nothing I could do
would dispel my shame rubbing more and more raw
the closer that we came to the end…
During our final mile a mist rose from the lake,
the sun-flushed clouds twisting in long chains
leaden as they shut us in and we sank down
exhausted next to the red flag snapping and
shuddering. I looked down the path, trying to
trace the trail I’d made, my steps receding as if
flying from her eyes while the other campers
celebrated by drinking coffee, chests swelling
as they linked arms for photographs, their voices
strangely hollow as they rehashed the journey…
Our guide offered a cup of coffee (on the way back down,
when we stopped for lunch, he joked in earshot of everyone,
while I fingered my bread I was too ashamed to eat,
"she can bunk with the boys!"). Homesick among the click
of camera shutters, the tin cup burning against my hands,
I saw that in his eyes I was nothing but that kiss…
–To think that summed me up, my hold on myself loosened
by a stranger’s scorn at a moment of intimacy, the I
I thought I was could shift in a heartbeat…
Suddenly the lake seemed too active,
patterns crisscrossing and drifting faster every second.
Unsettled at the maze of tracks weaving on the surface,
I muttered to him thanks, but he only turned his back,
my burning lips freezing on my face.
I lowered my eyes, seized with such shame;
and when he passed the logbook,
for a moment I wished to write another name,
some anonymous Jane Doe so he would not speak of me
with the camp owner,
each reminding the other,
if they ever think of it at all,
The new girl, remember, who was the lesbian?
First, I’ve left my family, wandering lost in the labyrinthine streets
of Jackson by day. In the evenings when I stay at the new house,
I’m lost like the others and it’s Sunday or a day like Sunday,
the calm making it worse. It seems like a kind of purgatory
(or so my dreams say) that only we here deserve, having committed
the ultimate betrayals. Four other guys sleep here, and one moves
away in June to some bigger and better place; but in the meantime,
there are three, and me, clad in one another’s hand-me-downs.
As they talk and laugh I begin to feel at home; they seem like
ordinary friends, not especially dangerous as we drive into the city
to find beer and maybe a place to dance, showing up tipsy with
a languid air of Sunday leisure as if we were the lords of this place—
though spied on by the hazy eyes and shallow exhalations all around us,
an atmosphere like moisture in the very air we breathe. There, we see
others like ourselves, and one in particularly we would not forget
as we left that night; he’s dressed in shorts and a deep V-neck,
and is lying, emaciated, on the grass outside the bar in a pile of vomit,
thick slime that swells like quicksand as he jerks his arms in an
attempt to leave. Still, he seems pathetically frighteningly drunk—
eyes rolled up, moaning, near sleep in his exhaustion, while white
splotches gleam, sticky, on his skin. The man keeps moaning as I
step nearer, his body long and thin like mine; and I think how
neither of us look like the other, more charming guys, but are spindly,
pale-faced—so that I want to deny him as he lies there crying, but then
his arms signal weakly for me to come—and as I take him in my arms,
repelled by disgust even as I try to comfort him, I hear myself saying
over and over again in a kind of agony of disbelief, I didn’t make this place,
I’m sorry, so sorry—and then one of my friends whispers behind me,
Nobody said you did—and still the man is weeping, his torment
increasing as if my arms around him made his suffering that much
worse; while other voices keep repeating with scorn, doubting
my concern for this one’s suffering, Nobody says you did….
And then the guys are prying my arms off, and I let them drag me
into the car, back to the house, telling me that I am drunk,
explaining that the alcohol is crying, not me,
and how I will feel better when I’ve slept it off.
"What do we want the audience to hear?"
"I want them to hear the answer to their prayers."
Each day I go into the chapel
to practice my music and discover
what more I must learn. The result
is always the same: I leave
with more to practice and more to learn.
Stooping over the keys on a wooden bench
till my back aches and eyes cannot focus
on the pages—all my practice intensifies
the need to return the next day.
I have started a work that will not end.
But I don’t complain—except to passers-by
who ask me why I walk up the steps
to the great organ again. They would not
understand if I laughed, or reached
to lift the music books and held them
to my chest, or told them it that
is their pain I labor to relieve.
A musician knows how to pretend.
A musician knows how to be patient.
Each day I go into the chapel.