While the dog rolled between tufts of moss,
you glanced up at me with wide eyes and asked
if I wanted to go pet it. When I shook my head,
your eyes widened still. You hopped off the stone steps
and beckoned that I follow. Heart thumping
with every inch as we neared the source of my fear,
you bent down and stroked the scruff of its neck,
grinned as her tailed wagged in pleasure. Nervously
I bent down beside you, fingers barely brushing
her golden coat. Her pink tongue lolled, and I smiled.
Country music blared through your speakers
as we drove to the abandoned hospital one Friday night.
My heart pounded there. I walked close beside you,
who knew every twist and bend in the unlit hallways,
the padded rooms and the opening holes to the roof.
When we had climbed around enough, you drove me
back to our professors’ house. On vacation, he needed
someone to feed his dogs—when we walked in the door,
they jumped on their heels, tapping my legs with theirs,
panting and barking their most exuberant greetings.
Without hesitation I rubbed the top of their heads, their backs.
Searching for the blankets trimmed
with lace that my mother once made,
I open the chest of drawers in Gabriel’s
bedroom to find that pests have chewed
the pink and white linen towels
to nest their children,
bedding in embroidered scarves
and striped hand-warmers.
Clumps of fibers, droppings like
little black seeds, and smears of dirt
release the biting stench of mouse
that permeates an unkempt house
on Jackson summer days.
Strands of hair cling
to the fabric as I hold up
the handwork, while a hail
of crumbs falls on the blankets,
darkened from dust, but unhurt.
I’ll wash them in the sink
and hang them on the iron to dry.
None of my new family here
knows how to crochet lace.
I bring them with me to the kitchen,
where Gabriel washes the dishes.
"Where did you get that old thing?”
A smile, a shrug, a lie: “I don’t know.”
That night I wrap up in the blankets,
wondering if, after all this time,
that is the scent of her perfume
still lingering on the aging lace,
sweet cinnamon like the oatmeal
she might cook if I came home.
Before our fingers touch, we’ll glance over our shoulders,
check that no one walks close enough behind us to notice.
A six-foot man in a suit turns a corner and our hands slip
to our sides, we fix our eyes everywhere else around him
and carry on the conversation as if nothing had happened.
As if we did not wonder whether he had glimpsed it at all,
whether his eyes might narrow, whether his stare
might weigh like shame on our backs.
On the brick streets of Clinton, we don’t walk too close.
For those within earshot, we watch our language,
swallowing the affectionate nicknames. How long can we embrace?
Can our hands clasp together across the table when we pray
over a meal? At what point does love offend?
Once I saw a mother cover her little boy’s eyes at a nearby table,
but maybe they were playing a game? Surely she did not know—
we both have long hair, wear dresses with floral patterns to church.
At least we have a church. They have not forsaken us.
White-haired couples smile and wave goodbye as we walk
hand in hand across the parking lot. We count our blessings.
On the way home, we stop at the brick streets for lunch.
Opening the passenger door, I reach out to help her
out of the car and, standing to her feet, she presses a quick kiss
against my lips. My heart beats too fast; I glance over my shoulder.
Three times a day, I ask if she’s eaten. A minute ticks by
as my heartbeat quickens. Another minute, and nausea rises
in my throat. My phone lights up with a response.
As if someone has stopped squeezing my heart, it settles,
and I thank her for eating, for keeping it down. Now I wait again
to see whether she needs any more convincing that she should.
The fear of asking has stopped me before, but it’s worse when I don’t.
If she doesn’t tell me now, I’ll find out tomorrow when we’re holding
hands on the sidewalk and suddenly her legs buckle beneath her;
when we’re kissing on the swings and her head falls backwards,
body slackening in my grip. People wonder why I cling to her arm
when we cross campus but she could stumble at any moment.
My eyes are always scanning hers, searching for that telltale flutter,
those parted lips, that sudden exhalation when her body fails.
This week she ate, mostly. By the fifth day, I’d forgotten to ask,
and on the seventh day she collapsed. My muscles screamed
at the sudden weight as her body slammed into mine.
As slowly as I could bear, I lowered it on the pavement.
Counting to thirty, I held my breath and waited, swallowing
against my churning stomach. If she didn’t open her eyes
by thirty seconds, I’d call someone—I didn’t know who—
a doctor, her sister, anyone who might tell me what to do.
At fifteen seconds, she sat up and wept in my arms, apologizing.
My voice cracked as I asked her if she’d eaten.
Imagine if at any given time someone could choke or slap
or scream at your sister
and all you could do is try and convince them not to
from the other end of the phone.
And sometimes they listen,
but sometimes they don’t,
or they don’t ask at all.
You learn later when you see