Purple dahlias still bloom to the left of the library
every year. Their blossoms encircle the statue of Jesus
washing the feet of His disciples. Visiting families pause
with their cameras to snap a photo of the scene,
almost too perfect with its flowery frame.
The Son of God has raised His head to gaze at Peter
as He stoops by Judas’ feet. To think that Peter,
in his awe, cannot know yet of Judas’ betrayal;
and still he stares down with narrowed eyes,
arms folded across his chest, demanding explanation.
To think that Jesus knows—
He must almost taste the blood in His mouth,
smell the vinegar at His lips, feel the nails splitting
skin and bone. That night, he sweats blood
as He speaks of it with His father.
His hands surround Judas’ feet as though they are
the most precious creation He could hold.
Sometimes students here will sit on the bench
a few feet from these statues, brows furrowed
like Peter’s, sharing his skeptical gaze.
as teeth grasp
my lower lip
it alarms me
how loudly I swallow
you satisfy the silence
with hurried pulses of my heart
and the certainty of yours
Once you saw the preacher’s son holding hands
with your own. The two sat on the swings
talking in hushed voices.
you snatched the phone out of its cradle
and called the pastor.
He came with his wife to fetch his son.
The boys jerked away when they saw the couple
approaching over the hilltop, but it was too late.
It was then you noticed your son’s eyes.
He understood. He was trembling,
and you began to suffer regret.
Years later, you remember his tears
as the preacher shook his fist.
Even at this moment, your heart
is going too fast; your hands sweat.
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?
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.