Thank you for your recent selfie—
how flushed and jaunty you look in the white-yellow light
of what must be early afternoon,
stark shadows on crumpled sheets.
I remember when we first met.
I was in first grade,
standing at the bus stop with my friend after school
when you were pulled, a glowing pale pencil,
out of a third grader’s rusty-colored corduroys,
making me run for the open bus door
before I could show you mine too.
Once in third grade
a man let me touch you while he peed.
I felt dry silky skin with a quivering plumpness underneath,
like the belly of one of those orange and black striped caterpillars,
the kind that tell you if it’s going to snow.
Nothing bad happened to me that time, Dick,
you were as shy with me as I was with you.
Until you weren’t.
Oh, Dick, when we were in college!
You were like a fresh splayed tulip before a single petal falls,
full thunderheads before they release the hail,
the violent neon-bright trees of spring,
rivers swollen onto flooding,
a filly running her heart out of the greenest grass.
How we danced and tumbled!
How seven beers or final exams
or screaming at each other about if Charles Bukowski sucked
didn’t make a single bit of difference.
We ate the night hours like tiramisu
and every morning you still took the time to say hi
before you tucked yourself away
for a day of sculpture in the iron forging studio,
then student teaching—though rumor has it, Dick,
you were the kind of teacher who visited many cubicles.
I never fell out with you, I just got busy.
I wanted mornings to myself.
I wanted to stretch out,
each foot in its own cool corner of the sheets.
I wanted to read drifts of books,
their white pages piled up on either side of my bed.
I suppose you were a little overbearing but I’m not blaming you.
It was time to move on. We did what we came into the world to do.
And there he is, sleeping in the other room,
old enough to lock his bedroom door all night after dinner
and I tried to tell you we should talk to him about consent
and you said don’t give the poor kid a complex.
Oh, Dick, complexity isn’t a bad thing.
You still try to keep it simple, nudging me when I’m drifting off,
sleep like a warm salty wave
of blue-brackish water getting ready to lift me off my toes. . .
and there you are, worming across the warm mattress,
there you are slipping your moist length across my clean thighs,
inviting me back into the gash of the living.
I’m not busy now.
I left you this picture here, so you’ll see it first thing.
who your daddy was
or if you had a daddy.
if you went to church on 3rd Street,
church on Main Street,
church on the highway
where they opened baskets of snakes.
what married men parked up the block from your mom’s,
if you ate government cheese,
if you rooted for the Chiefs,
if your sister was a cheerleader,
was a slut,
pulled a train at that kegger,
had an abortion,
gave blowjobs under the Bridge on 16th Street.
if your brother was quarterback,
was a wrestler.
Everyone knew if you made honor roll,
if you tried to sneak in the back door of Planned Parenthood
or sent your boyfriend to Hy-Vee to buy condoms
or made him pull out.
Everyone knew if you liked peach schnapps,
if you flirted old men in overalls into buying beer for you.
Everyone knew if your period started,
if you started sneaking into the Dollar Tree to buy tampons just before closing,
if you wore a purity ring for your daddy,
if you went to prom,
what you ate at Red Lobster with your date before prom.
Everyone knew if you went to the hot tub after-party,
strawberry daiquiri staining your white two-piece.
if you were found in a stranger’s car passed out with your underwear off
or bled through your overalls in 4-H club.
boys on you like flies on ketchup.
if the bus let you off at the foot of the long hill
so the driver could watch your ass
as you walked slower and slower
towards that pickup idling at the crest
where a 45 year old man—
do I need to say, not your dad—waited.
if your aunt made you put used tampons in her deep freeze
next to the Blue Bunny,
if the hounds dug up the pads you buried in the back yard
or if you burned them at the pit,
smudging the sky above the field’s pink blush of clover
with indigo and strangely purple smoke.
To the Trailer I Used to Live In
You were already dented when we first met. My mother pulled into the parking space in front of you. She went inside. I stayed in your yard, cutting the wild Queen Anne’s Lace and goldenrod with yellow-handled garden shears longer than my forearm. I was four. Our new neighbors squinting at us from their lawn chairs, unfriendly already—students and truckers and waitresses, retirees and guys with bikes, guys with fight dogs more expensive than their pickups. Everyone on the way to someplace else. New pavement and bare clawed-up dirt. On a street named after the Indians the land was stolen from. We didn’t learn that in school. I had to wait. Once I chased my lost dog into the woods behind the mailboxes, down a faint mud trail, following tufts of her bright fur on the gooseberries, but she was gone forever. You cupped me between your white aluminum walls like a man cups a lighter between his hands so the flame doesn’t blow out. We’d play in your shadows. Lisa, who became a cheerleader. Barbie, who had a baby in eighth grade. Rusty, who shot himself in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun senior year but survived, paralyzed. Me, who left. Who turned into someone else, unrecognizable. I’d lie in bed at night under the one small window in your back bedroom, listening to the wind whistling between the stars. A song I knew even though I had never heard it. The day we moved out you looked so small and worn compared to the house we were going to, a ranch with fresh new paint, smooth grass. Thank you for letting me go. When I come back I always remember to visit. I sit in my car, idling in that parking space, passing time with you until someone comes out and asks me if I need help. No, I say, I just lived here.
Girl on the Greyhound
I’ve wanted to write about you for years.
I was only nineteen and scared,
crossing the country by myself
on that bus filled with solid-bodied sleeping men,
the smell of stale oil in their jeans,
fields of black rubble and snowdrift out the window.
I saw you as soon as you got on—
clutching a glass bowl filled with water
and an actual swimming goldfish—
wraithlike, your skin gravel white,
the kind of girl a person prays
won’t sit down next to her.
You sat down next to me.
And you talked.
You talked through freezing rain,
you talked through the Blue Ridge Mountains
and petroleum refinery plants lit up like huge cruise ships.
You talked through bluffs and delta and plains,
through pylon and billboards and railroad depots.
To be honest, you told me your stepfather raped you
and I couldn’t stand it.
I couldn’t stand the men hearing it,
I couldn’t stand you with your fragile fish bowl
sloshing on your lap,
your frayed coat and hopeful lipstick.
I could feel his hands on my wrists,
his rough long hair, his beard on my neck.
So when we stopped just outside Boston
I went inside the little diner
with the dripping steamed-over window panes
and I sat in a glittery red plastic booth
watching the bus pant and idle
in the parking lot,
drinking a coffee I didn’t want
until I could see you get back on
and the blur of your face looking out the bus window
and I watched the bus pull out.
Somehow I still got to Boston.
I saw my friend—God, she’s a mother now.
But I still think of you, girl on the greyhound,
leaving home for the first time,
going to Utica College,
thinking you’d made a friend.
I just couldn’t say someone hurt me too.
I just couldn’t listen to the scream in my head anymore—
maybe it was your scream or maybe it was mine,
maybe it was the scream of all the hurt women
and all the men and all the boys.
Or maybe it was just a long train whistle
full of longing and loneliness.
When the bus pulled out
I took the postcard you gave me,
the one with your name and number on it,
and I left it on top of an ashtray.
I wish I had tucked it in my book instead.
I wish I had touched your arm,
thin inside your pilled white sweater.
Maybe I could have even held your fish bowl
while you rested, your head against the green window,
sleeping while the goldfish churned slow circles.
Sara Wallace is the author of The Rival (selected for the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize) and the chapbook Edge (selected for The Center for Book Arts Poetry Chapbook Competition). Her poetry has appeared in such publications as Agni, Hanging Loose, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry Daily, Yale Review and others. A recent participant in the Festival Internacional de Poesia, (Santiago, Chile) and a finalist for a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, she is a recipient of a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and fellowships from the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She currently teaches at New York University and lives in Queens.