His footsteps that you trail
now leave you far behind
as he climbs up
in that darkness
and calls to you to come,
his voice rising and piercing
all around you dying
into echo after echo….
But you, adrift in the spaces
his words tear open,
cut off in the stillness,
how can you follow?
For years, you feel the phantom ache
of the heart that is not there,
that holds nothing now yet whose
rhythm, the exact intervals
between beats, you cannot forget—
as if in not expecting any longer
your whole self might expire at last.
But then at last the cure is brought
in the form of a mere transplant,
the discovery of another that might
slip the image of its ghost within
that aching hole. Who cares if it is not
so full, or if its edges fail to fit.
Who cares if what we substitute is shadow,
if deception turns to faith like
an addict in prayer. Dreams will blind
all vision with new hopes
before a doubt can darken them.
Every day I must learn it again,
as I step from bed one more time
to shoulder the weight of missing things.
When my friend died, he opened up
his heart, like a bird who carried on
for miles without disbelief or fright.
What I feel of him I feel
inside a heart cluttered
with others sought to fill the hole,
but never quite.
My memories hold themselves aloof;
the doctor asks more questions
and although I’d rather shake my head,
the images too dense with pain,
we push on, the way an explorer
presses through strange interiors
whose revelations leave us far
from everything we knew and were.
That any friend could do such things
while others stood by, seems as strange
as foreign ruins, cracking stone the sun
brings into sharp relief so that the range
of my wandering mind can seek out
every aching grief I fear is mine,
though each remains a world away
from anything I feel. The force
of pressing back into the dark startles
tears to my eyes, and I must clutch
the arm of my chair, and speak,
ashamed, of what happened that night:
A woman, young then, brought
within that intimate circle
when she could barely hold her eyes open
in what she only now knows as violable
trust, a compulsion to please because,
after all, she needed love and was
barely conscious. On that, the mind’s
dark whispers, I grasp and hold out
to the doctor’s eye. He reassures
me that it is mine, it’s real,
not a trick or nightmare. My
eye sees it so close up that it feels
alive and not some memory:
Just then I pity not my
former friend, but the lies
he tells and must believe in.
My shoulders loosen, rise and fall,
as if this pain is what I breathe,
its atmosphere yet bearable
if only for right now. I leave
after that hour, for which I work
a second job to pay. The cars shoot
beams of light that cut the dark
surrounding us, a key that fits
into the darkness, myself
the keyhole and the peering eye:
now I see what made me cry,
what fortifies my fevered dreams.
Like steel traps clamping sanity,
gripping the load these insights bear,
I clutch the wheel with trembling hands,
balancing shame, confusion, fear.
Knees bruised, throat constricting, I must have done it
three or four times before I realized it was me crouched on
the grimy tiles. My new friends stepped forward, waiting
for their turns. The last one in line kept watch at the door.
It was as close as I’d ever felt to anyone, those moments
I stooped on the bathroom floor: the sweat and stains
burning our nostrils, and each craving would make
them smile into each other’s eyes and ask, Hey, dude,
are you ready? And then they’d throw
back their heads and laugh, oblivious to the cop cars
that passed outside or passers-by who glanced
then glanced away, swerving to search for another
another place to relieve themselves, blinking back
the sight of the girl on the floor surrounded by men….
Why didn’t I get raped or end in rags
or do time like the other girls I knew? By summer’s end,
wasted on that floor as smashed glass gleamed at my feet,
my loosened limbs, the way my head lolled back
and pitched forward to nod and nod, was irrelevant:
All I saw were their eyes pleading against the risk, drunk
with desire, and promises of euphoria
as that warmth in each one’s skin explodes
pulsing in the brain, lifting and dissolving them,
embraced by the aftermath’s slow downward drag,
our shoulders shrugging in a drowse. When did I start—
eighteen, nineteen? Like a ghost wrapped in mist
I’d drift home late, and wait for the lights to flicker out.
Then I’d stumble through my parents’ door,
furniture swirling around me in the dark,
and collapse in bed as silence piled stone on stone….
How high that wall had grown when I turned twenty:
the adult world (and wasn’t I part of it,
leading worship on Sunday mornings?)
returned my distant, stone-faced stare:
how different from the neon lights where
we grinned so wide and knelt for one another,
blood brothers, soldiers of sensation. I’d hear
dark whirling voices singing me to sleep,
that bedroom an oasis glowing through the dark…
and then the singing stopped
as voices raised and argued till the dawn….
I woke leaden-eyed: whose voices had I heard?
That wall so high had seemed impossible to climb—
my father muttering “good morning,” I “goodbye -“
but this time he had seen me stagger in past midnight.
I was so far gone I hadn’t noticed him rummaging
through my clothes, sniffing the edges, my mother’s grimace
urging him on. The shower I’d left running beat down
nearby as we wrestled for my fix, me groping at his hand
as he tossed the bottle out the window, his clenched jaw
imploring me to stop. We peered at each other
in the lamplight before our gazes numbly dropped,
Mother’s white knuckles gripping the doorway:
I’d made myself over, no part of me theirs,
but belonging to John, Jeremiah, Seth – the risks
we laughed off surged up inside like vomit:
trembling like my father, our eyes welling with shock,
I saw myself stripped of my rebel’s bravado,
my bottle a prop, yet so threateningly real
like the stains and the odor on my dress.
“This is disgusting,” yelled my father. “You shouldn’t
spy on me,” I retort and his hand jerked up. And then
a red-faced, fidgeting silence which he broke
by lowering the hand on my shoulder,
touching me, I realize now, as if I were still
his child, and his touch repaired what is irreparable….
That self I was which only vulnerable could savor joy
(and wasn’t it part joy, that hunger to see their release,
nerve after nerve roused to pleasure?) haunts my eye
when I see some girl wasted in a cheap mini like mine:
swallowing their lies – “kitten”, “beauty”…what happened
to John, Seth, Jeremiah? Or the glamor of my works
tarnished like my stained skirts? And that girl I was,
if I could see her now—she looks so young, as if she were
my daughter waiting in the bathroom, face floating
in the neon dark as she scratches lazily,
with a wobbly forefinger, a stubbled cheek
and temple. Now the blood-webbed
whites of her eyes roll up, encased in red
as her lips sag open, the syllables dragging across
her tongue lingering in my ears: “Are you ready?”
A week after I went home with a man at the club— I say “went home
with”; but mean “stumbled after” at the end of a long night—
my parents dropped me off at college. As I strained to heave my
belongings from my parked car to my room at the crest of a hill,
a student asked me to wait up, so I paused as he approached.
He stood at least a head above me and, in that familiar Southern drawl,
offered to carry my stuff. “Sure,” I said, panting for breath. As we walked,
I thanked him, and he asked if he could call me sometime.
Since he had been so kind to help, I pursed my lips against the “no”
that came to mind, and shrugged instead. When we had reached my room,
he set the bags down on my bed and asked for my number. He stood
closer than I would have liked; close enough for me to smell cheap cologne,
and to step back just enough, a space he moved to fill again at once.
My hand slid down to grab my phone in the pocket of my shorts,
not to recall my number, but a reflex for security I didn’t know I had.
“So can I come back here soon?” he asked, and glanced at my bed;
and I, shrinking every instant, muttered, “Sure,” and rattled off my number
but changed the last digit. My heart cringed at the lie, but I shook it off,
and finally, he said goodnight and left. Sometimes we cross paths
on campus but he never speaks to me, and I look down. The timing was
unfortunate; this happened, remember, just seven days after I lost
my virginity to a man who didn’t want to talk about it.
“This is my fate,” I thought, as if the man who just left my room
could have known my new regrets. In my mind, it radiated from me,
this raw whorish self, this identity born in sin. Surely everyone knew.
Surely they saw it in my walk, dragging each foot after the other;
or glimpsed it in my eyes, the images I could not burn away; or saw it
in my skin where I failed to tear it out of me. Surely my soul bore a target
and deserved the catcalls, the insults, the invitations. Many times,
my parents and pastors warned of the fate that followed “loose girls” and I,
among them now, knew well that I deserved no better,
so swallowed and nodded and wept.