When you are ten years old,
dig quarters out of your sister’s jeans in the laundry basket,
drop them in the emergency piggy bank
for the day your father kicks you out.
Swipe cans of food from the back of the pantry,
bury them beneath T-shirts folded
at the bottom of the backpack under bed
for the day your father kicks you out.
When you are thirteen,
shrug and stammer “not yet”
when he asks you if you’ve found a boy.
Fill your wardrobe with floral dresses and pink patterns,
spray perfume with names like Sweet Pea and Summer Blossom,
pile up lacy underwear in your drawer to skirt any suspicion of your femininity.
Sit in the back of the church,
cringe when the pastor beats clenched fist and condemns “homosexuals”,
shut your eyes against nods and “amens!”
yelled from surrounding pews,
reducing your love to a single act,
reducing your love to lust based on the wrong outward appearance,
reducing you to nothing but a sinner
whose Father will surely kick you out.
When you are sixteen,
choke on shots of cheap vodka to forget five verses,
sermons screaming in your skull and slithering under skin.
Forget fear of your father’s finger pointing towards door,
forget who you are.
Drink until head spins and reflex dulls
too much to lurch away when boy sticks tongue in mouth.
Forget that you don’t want it there, remember that you should.
When you are seventeen,
on the counselor’s couch, beg for her to fix you,
slam the door when you walk out, when she insists there’s nothing broken.
On your knees, pray hand in hand with your best friend,
throat aching from asking your other Father to fix you,
eyes shut, “amens” whispered from the bedroom floor.
When your eyes still linger on the curves of her lips
and the flutter in your heart reminds you of your failure,
swallow an extra shot that night to forget again.
When you are in college,
shrug and stammer “not yet”
when she asks if you’ve found a boy.
When your roommate pulls shirt over head,
fix your eyes on the wall behind her.
Point out guys on the way to class to reaffirm your femininity,
force a laugh when she jokes about the girl with a pixie cut in her Spanish class,
complain about fictional ex-boyfriends, confess fictional crushes,
collect fictions, falsehoods, reside in lies with the shot glass by your bed;
always forgetting the truth, always drinking it down.
When you fall in love,
laugh when a preacher’s boy pulls up a chair at the coffee shop
and asks if either of you recall a certain passage in Romans.
You remember it every fucking day.
When you visit home,
delete photos off your phone and check Facebook instead
to see pictures of the woman you don’t want to forget.
When you are twenty-three,
confess to your brother and eyes widen shocked
as he promises never to kick you out of his home.
But clasp hands till knuckles whiten as mother mutters “homosexual”,
shut your eyes against your sister’s “amens.”
Walk out the door
and drink till you can’t walk straight
to forget that they have forgotten
that you are more than a single act,
that your love is not based on outward appearance but inward spirit.
When your first best friend throws her arms around you
with excitement for your engagement,
feel her pull back,
watch her grin falter as you finish the sentence with a girl’s name,
watch her shake her head and walk away.
And when your father tears up the wedding invitation,
walk yourself down the aisle.
My dear, you are always going to be finding things.
You will find the library book that blended in with
the others on your shelf, or the TV remote that slipped
into that strange dimension between the couch cushions.
When you are six you will lose your first tooth but
another will take its place, and you will run your tongue
absentmindedly over the gap and startle, yet again,
and the new growth that you didn’t ask for, that aches
when you bite into the vegetables that your mother
insisted you eat before dessert, even when you told her that it hurt.
Later your mother will call the hotel and find that they’ve found
your favorite toy, the stuffed T-rex you thought you’d lost,
and cried over on the drive home. You’ll find tears in your eyes
over rumors about yourself that you overheard in the school
bathroom during lunch, and you’ll find pictures on your boyfriend’s
phone of a taller, blonder girl that he’d sworn was only a friend.
That night you’ll find yourself in your mother’s arms,
her hands running through your hair as she begs you to tell her
what’s wrong. You will find the scale in her bathroom and wonder
if your boyfriend would love you again if the numbers said
something different, something even less than the blond,
less than any other girl in your school.
You will find car keys after an hour of rummaging through
yesterday’s laundry, phone numbers scrawled on napkins
buried in the bottom of your purse, packages in the mail from
your aunt in your first semester of college. When you clean out
the trash, you will find the cookies she sent you, the ones
you threw out so you wouldn’t be tempted by them.
You will find sleepless nights, hair in your sink,
and when you flip through magazines, you’ll find
Photoshopped models that remind you of your goal.
While insisting that you ate earlier, you’ll find a friend who knows
you’re lying by the way your legs tremble when you walk, and
she’ll sit with you until you’ve finished your plate. She’ll do it
the next day, and the next, until you find yourself shopping
for a new wardrobe that fits your healthy curves, until
you no longer find yourself in numbers.
One day, you may find the scrapbook your mother kept of
your high school years. When that happens, you will remember
your old size; you may want to find it again. Some things can
be replaced, like bobby pins or ballpoint pens, but there are
are some things that are better off lost. This is the boy who
stopped holding on after all those times you reached out for help.
This is the girl who called you fat.
There are some things you will learn to let go of; there are
others that you should grasp tighter. These are the friendships
you must nurture, the beloved who wants to stroke your healthy
skin, the new family you will raise, the people whose love
for you will only grow with your health. You will always
find more. You are always going to be finding.
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.