What We Built

Pitched overboard together, what could we do

But claw and climb against each other for air

Dancing our drowning dance, greedy and gasping

To sink and breach and sink

Then our skin turned to sponge

Our fingernails flaked off, and losing our purchase

We fizzled into spittle and floated like flotsam

Across indifferent tides

The Coast Guard never came, and why would they?

From up high we only looked like waves

Crashing against each other again and again

While on the beach they called our screams soothing

And each hour a hundred years passed

And each year we slipped further into each other

Until we were one thing and that thing became rooted

Improbable pearl, into a great stone we grew

Now we rise from the surf, and the waves part in deference

Little girls on the shore shape sand into our likeness

And it’s starting to feel like it means something, like it matters

When they spot this sculpture carved and polished by pain

Point it out to their mommies and ask them our name

I never wore an ethnic dress

I never marched in a nationality parade
or drew a family tree, or said these are his
eyes, her mouth, it runs in the family.
I looked for myself in strangers, stood
in a grocery aisle surveying the slope
of a woman’s nose, the color of her hair.

I never felt hurt by a racist joke, never visited
a concentration camp or a burial mound
clutching my chest, the old oppressed
blood still beating on. I never got a letter
the way my sister got a letter, never analyzed
the handwriting, questioning the love
in the scribbled love.

I only ever whispered I hate to my parents
who weren’t there to hear me. I only ever
screamed I love to my family that is, cried
with my family that is, camped in the backyard,
built birthday cakes in the sand, watched
thunderstorms from the patio huddled
together with my family that is. And I learned
more each year, what that word means.
But I never wore an ethnic dress.

 

Published in Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University, 2017.

In the Dream Where My Mother Dies and I’m Sent to Live With Her Ghost

In the dream where my mother dies
and I’m sent to live with her ghost
my mother wears only one sweater
and it’s not even my favorite.

I want to buy a new sweater for my new ghost
mother but she says what’s the point. No one
is going to see her anyway. No one but me.

Besides, she’s lost her love of shopping. She floats
indifferent through the food court of our favorite
mall, slipping through the cracks in clearance
racks, she lets the coupons I’ve clipped arc
like feathers as they filter through
her foggy hands.

I try to show her photos of my father or
photos of vacations or photos of my son smiling
at the zoo. The ghost of my mother sighs and
says she’s forgotten all these things. She
only wants to sit at the window and watch
our old oak tree abandon its leaves.

In the dream where my mother dies
and I’m sent to live with her ghost
there’s a deep sadness always in my throat.
It clings there like a pad of rich cream I can’t
seem to swallow down. It’s the sadness
of an older sadness
awakening.

I stand behind my ghost mother at the window.
In its reflection I watch her cloudy ghost eyes
and realize it was the same way
with my grandfather. The reaching for a hand
I could never seem to clasp, the soul rising from
the body like steam from asphalt after a summer rain,
no way to trap it, no way
to convince it to stay.

But my ghost mother won’t hear it. It’s not the same,
completely different, she says. My grandfather
became a ghost first and died
so many, too many, years later.

Watching Episodes of ‘I Shouldn’t Be Alive’ in Reverse

We like tears sucked into ducts, the way
waterfalls look running upwards. Viewed in reverse
the sea ejaculates helicopters and lightning.
Bears appear with limbs in loose jaws, healing
hikers and tidying campsites. A ribcage coughs up
buckshot. The mountain inhales its shelf of snow.
We like the hour condensed, flares asleep
in their nests, lifejackets stowed safely overhead.
We like to watch the ice beards melt, the sallow
eyes give up their yellow. Everyone grows handsome
and hopeful. We think it better to end at the beginning,
husband kissing wife hello, child tangled into arms.
We think love can exist independent of shipwrecks
and shark attacks or just that it can be enough,
just that you shouldn’t have to earn it.

———–

Published in Night Train 2011.

Neha

What a shame it is that beautiful women
must do everything beautifully. Against
a wall at some house party, this one goes
down slow. The man who slides in to sit beside
her looks and sees how blue light nestles
a crescent moon into the cupid’s bow
of her lips. He looks and sees her negative
space, dreaming himself big enough to fill it.
He thinks himself very clever, doesn’t notice
the color draining from her the longer he talks.
Two hours later she’ll collapse alone.
Three hours later she’ll wake up, this writer separated
by three feet and a hospital curtain.
Close enough to hear her mumble to the nurses
as they undress her like a doll.
My name is Neha. I’m going to be a doctor. You will,
I think, because I still want to be things too, despite myself.
What a shame it is that beautiful women are always bleeding,
but inwards. Somewhere so deep that even love
can’t tie a tourniquet.