Are you satisfied? Ma asks. Her palms are dusted with speckled snow, finely-grated grains that sit heavy on the hand. I am not. My stomach sits like the extracted egg yolks simmering in rose-flavored wine, acidic in its neurotic nature. Molding mooncakes should come easily to people like us, people who massage the dirt for gold, palms unfamiliar with paper’s grimy edges. I knead the dough. Await the eclipse. There are crescents lodged under the whites of my fingernails. Ma has a look of waning distaste, forehead wrinkled into the raised ridges of calligraphed characters. A permanent stamp. Her arms are sore from years of labor, grinding lotus seeds into a sticky paste, plowing until ragged lines grow dark with age. She tells me I’ll be like that, too. It must be trouble-free living on the moon, golden goddess with a pet hare, and I find myself dreaming about a home in a crater. Dream-me lives in a marbled manor with silk tapestries, drinking out of a stolen goblet of elixir. But our East Coast suburban neighborhood isn’t that. I live in a floating box, not like the moon with her pulsing vocation, but a car that steers through the I-86 without an ending. The popcorn ceiling reeks of mold, the four-seat sedan is too cramped, and I want to fly on a spaceship. Ma is right — I sit in a vehicle sinking in salt waves.
The girl on the bike was crossing the road, One painted stripe at a time; She’d pressed the button, the lights had adjusted, She crossed seven stopped cars in a line. Her helmeted head looked forward with glee, As she reached the other side; I watched her, parked at the barrier’s shoulder, Curious at her pride. She looked past the bushes, And what did she see? A swimming pool, grey and alone; It was then that I noticed the suit on her back, It was then that she turned to go home. Never as sad of a face did I see, That cloudy and blustery day; Never so droopy a juvenile posture, Which peddled, peddled away.
After centuries, after the time and tear, I’m worn away from this job I bear. Void of flesh, I’m stripped down to the bone. Ghosts for company; I’m perpetually alone. Overwhelming responsibility, I’m forlorn as my reward. Souls come and go, and yet, I’m stuck here abhorred. There’s no winning this game; I can’t spare everyone. Death’s a necessary evil And it’s my job to get it done. After this I wonder if you’ll remain ever so headstrong, choose not notice your denigration by condemning me as wrong. You want me to pick favorites. You all want this or that. But did you ever consider why fate threw your name into my hat? I follow my duty, and I set aside my heart. To be frank, I might not even have that costly part. Still, no one sees me! Nor my actions of love, how I send partners — if I can, to the skies up above. You’re blind to the bigger picture and distracted by your reflection. If you looked beyond yourself you’d see the sphere that needs protection. The world contains billions which increases by the day. Now consider what would happen if Death wasn’t around to play. Now go, be grateful, as you take your next breath. And pray I stay merciful. Sincerely, Death
Coward in a cloak, thief in the night, infamous chair, perpetual plight. You stole what was mine, Took them all away from me. Left me not even a ghost, just how heartless can you be? Ruthless, you robbed me of my future, my life; my family gone with a swipe of your scythe. Their blood now stains Your jagged edge. So blame yourself When I get revenge. How did you decide their value? — Just who are you to judge? I pray the tables turn, Then it’s you who’ll have a grudge. I’m at my wits’ end, I’ve nothing left to lose. I’ll hunt you down, Death. Till you pay your dues. Face me, coward, feel the fury behind my eyes. Come up off your throne of bones so I can taste your sweet demise. Speak for your crimes, your crippling destruction. Repent for your sins and mass soul abduction! I truly can’t wait to meet you and avenge those suffered souls. So swing away and save my seat to your Death upon their bones.
Two basketball courts, double rims. Stout water tower down the slope. Ball would bounce against the barbed wire on a miss, if it bounced enough. Yeah, here is good. I remember. And she’s been talking shit for weeks. That H.O.R.S.E. wouldn’t end my way, and she’s a shooter (she’s not). Two hand release, pushing off one leg, a half jump, land on one leg. Arched back. Line drives off the front rim, backboard, fence. It’s summer and sticky heat hangs from our shoulders, our fingertips, our lips. Humidity pulls my body and her body down into the concrete court, dragging into tree roots and acorns and scraggled grass, into the dirt of the earth. I want to eat your lips and swallow you whole and “you’re too far apart, standing all the way over there” “I’m right here.” “It’s too far.” She bricks another and laughs. Throws her arms up, pushes Spalding away, loose crop top rises up the sternum, to her collar bone. Flounces down quick, no breeze to hold it. Now I’m shirtless. Her replacement too long and worn. Heat smothering air, sunlight catching dust suspended on the court, lighting the Carolina pines, like a wall between us and everything else. We run and hide in the halflight. And if I knew then, what I knew later, I’d stay on that court forever. Puddle and melt into the cooked concrete, our arms around each other.
My mother tells me I have to eat breakfast or else the stomach acid will start to eat at me. Three generations of women avoiding breakfast— I remember my grandmother who wouldn’t eat from the time she woke each sunrise til late noon, up until the cancer spread through her stomach. She went to the hospital, but she’s dead now. My mother doesn’t talk about her much, only mentioning her vaguely as a threat of what happens to daughters who have to survive their mother at 18. A lesson learned of girls who don’t eat breakfast. But I can’t trust her. I never see her eat breakfast. She used to— a banh mi after school, cheesy pasta before skating lessons. Back when we ate together, almost happily, if not for the shared shame in our eyes after reaching for seconds. It is difficult not to think about my mother on her deathbed. Swept up in the white sheets with her sunshine yellow skin. I sit outside her hospital room and my head is in my hands. I wonder how I will react when she dies, as I press a hand into the emptiness of my rib cage, searching for a spine. There’s only gas there, from sucking in my stomach all the time.
My mother is up to her elbows in dishwater and she is not pleased. She checks the oven timer over her shoulder and sighs. Twenty minutes until she can relax, soak her feet in bathwater with only her ox red underwear on. She wonders if her daughter would call today. Perhaps the call will arrive when she is in the bath. Damp and bloodied Band-Aids pile up in one of her kitchen apron’s wrinkled pockets. The vegetables are sliced, but at what cost? Her fingernails are scratched, her hands cut-littered, the pain pinching her nerves under the burn of the dish soap. The scars on the back of her hands are deep and dark, like little ants dotting cracked but clear sidewalks. The knife is not her friend today, or any day. The grease of lamb from the oven coats her face in oil and the smell makes her sick. She swats the air. She hates cooking. She hates eating. She hopes that today, in twenty minutes, her daughter would call. I imagine my mother like this, cooking a dish that only my brother and father will eat, washing dishes, in pain, waiting— and call.
After Mary Ruefle, After Joe Brainard
I remember hearing that poetry was supposed to bust you open so you could take a good hard look at what’s inside you. I remember not knowing if I had ever felt that.
I remember sitting by a silent lake under a summer moon and hearing my cousin Willa read the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver and feeling busted open, but in a good way, like my heart was touching Willa’s and the lake’s and the sky’s, too.
I remember (later) reading “Wild Geese” to Willa while they got a goose tattooed on their hip in a basement in Copenhagen. I almost got one, too, but then I recalled that they had said that that poem saved them, so I didn’t get a tattoo at all.
I remember (much later) that Willa got a dog and named it Goose and I realized that poetry keeps on saving us.
I remember saving everything. Receipts, train tickets, lottery stubs, dried leaves and flowers, photo booth records, sticky note reminders from my freshman year roommate.
I remember never having the things I saved when I needed them. They were always in my drawer at home or in a storage closet twenty miles away.
I remember writing everything down. I remember writing everything down and thinking that it was silly and that barely any of it would matter when I dug out my old journals in ten years and reread them. I remember rereading them (later) and wishing I’d written more.
I remember reading the poem “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken because my friend gave it to me and then thinking about it for three days in a row. I remember writing lines from it in my notebook, on Post-Its to stick on my wall, in a letter I wrote to that friend on her birthday. I remember for my birthday she gave me a whole Siken collection, but I have still only ever read that one poem.
I remember feeling this great pressure to create. That whatever I made had to be really good — that it had to be genius, magic, inspired, every time. I remember this crippled me into a state of being afraid to create anything.
I remember getting over that. At least momentarily.
I remember paying attention. Lots and lots of attention. To the smell of snow, the curl of my sister’s hair in the late summer heat, and the way my mind moved faster than my eyes when I read something I loved.
I remember the first time I heard a bird’s wings flapping. I’d heard bird songs every morning from the patio of my parents’ house, but I’d never heard their wings flap. It’s peculiar. When it’s a really big bird, it almost sounds like it never learned how to fly.
I remember the moon. So much of the moon.
I remember that my sister asks me at least once a year what my earliest memory is. I do not know, I have never known, but because she continues to ask me, I have formulated a false earliest memory. In it, I am crawling toward the wood-burning fireplace in my parent’s first home across the shag carpet that never existed.
I remember swimming in the ocean with my grandfather during a rainstorm. It was our first time in the ocean together since he had had cancer. His throat was red raw from radiation but he told me to go underwater and listen to the rain fall onto the ocean’s surface. I did, and it was so eerily beautiful that it made me cry, and then there was so much saltwater everywhere.
I remember knowing home by the scent on the air, like how a river smells when the snow first melts.
I remember when our house was the only one on our street. Slowly, houses were built on the street, our kingdom shrinking every year. I remember I was sad because I couldn’t see the sunset from my bedroom window anymore. My dad was sad because they built one on our sledding hill.
I remember breaking my tailbone on that sledding hill. My dad carried me to the car and held my hand as we drove to the hospital, the whole time cursing that godforsaken sledding hill.
I remember being so young that I thought all writers were smart, sane, kind, and the most exceptional and upstanding human beings. And then I read On Writing by Stephen King, and realized that was not the case. I remember being mostly bummed, but also a little relieved.
I remember that before they built all the houses in my neighborhood, we used to have to herd cows back up into the hills. The cows would wake my dad in the middle of the night, heavy hooves padding into the soft grass of our backyard, and he’d wake my sister and me and tell us to put on our mud-boots. All of our neighbors and their dogs would gather on our back porch, headlamps illuminating sleepy eyes. We’d spread out and shake handbells at the cows, slowly pushing them up the streets, trying our best to avoid cow patties underfoot.
I remember that my dad would bring our golden retriever, Eli, and make sure each cow got back through the gate. Now Eli is blind and senile and barks at everything. When he barks at a parked car or a restless pile of leaves, my dad sometimes sighs, “That dog was a damn good cow herder.”
I remember that when I was very small, I was confused about the streetlights. I remember thinking that the moon did not need any help.
I remember wanting to write all of the memories of my family into one place to keep them safe.
I remember (later) realizing that my family remembers out loud, in noisy living rooms, on dance floors, in the morning mist across a still lake. It is not safe, but it is alive.
I remember that my old boyfriend taught me to fly fish and he was more patient with me than I had ever been with anyone in my life. I remember searching for the magic that Maclean wrote about. I remember finding it when the wind stopped, and the water cleared, and you could see the glint of the trout dancing.
I remember one time we were hiking to a fishing hole and we passed a sign that read No Hunting. The boyfriend asked if I thought fishing counted as hunting. I said that I didn’t think so, but I didn’t know why. I know why now. It’s the dancing.
I remember (later) being frustrated because I could see all the fish, but I couldn’t catch any of them. Try to cast more softly, he said. Try further upstream of the fish. Let’s try a different fly, a different hole. Maybe pretend that you’re not trying to catch them.
I remember that life is sometimes catching, but life is also a hell of a lot of casting.
I remember having an existential crisis that I wasn’t a writer because all I could write about was myself and isn’t that just glorified journaling?
I remember getting over that, too.
I remember reading a piece by the poet Mary Ruefle called “I Remember, I Remember.” In it she wrote: “‘remember’ means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.”
I remember playing pond hockey on our town rink in the winter with the boys under the moonlight and loving it, but mostly because I kept thinking, “this is the stuff stories are made of.”
I remember writing a story about the pond hockey during my freshman year of college. It was good. It was the stuff stories were made of.
I remember going to a reading with my best friend with two women who wrote about the West. I remember thinking that I was the West, at least a little bit. There were no seats open when we arrived, so we sat on the carpet in the front with our legs crossed, balancing our notebooks on our knees. After the reading was over, my friend leaned over and whispered, “What if when we grow up, we grow into writers?”
I remember learning that Joe Brainard wrote a book called I Remember. I remember wondering, incredulously, how someone could write an entire book about their memories.
I remember (later) wondering how we could stop ourselves from writing an entire library about them.
I remember going to my first funeral and watching the relatives of the deceased speak and thinking that I could probably do a better job.
I remember telling my family on the car ride home that when our grandfather dies, I call speaking at his funeral because I am both the favorite and the most literate. I am constantly writing and revising his eulogy in my head.
I remember learning about rebirth. In swimming pools, in oceans, while skinny dipping.
I remember reading once that love is the thing that pulls us forward into life and backwards into death at the same time.
I remember learning that paying attention is the same thing as love.
I remember catching my first ever fish on the fly rod — a stunning, glossy rainbow trout, and promptly crying and declaring it to be the most magical fish in the world. And then my boyfriend reminded me that I had actually caught a tiny ugly stupid bait fish last summer. And I remembered that we remember what we want to remember.
After Schuyler, After Hughes All my sunsets black: All my sunsets black as the trees and the birds and the flowers and all the other things my black eyes see. I paint a bird onto the canvas, and it is the blackest bird there is, black because I say it’s black, black because it’s free, black as blues & jazz & liquor stores & spirituals & sunsets. My sunsets black as the people who praise them. Sunsets that ushered the day-long cookouts into the laughter-saturated dark. Sunsets that told me to get inside before my mother snatched my black behind. Sunsets that warn me it is better that mother snatch me than some danger of the night. Sunsets that my grandmother assures will be greeted by a better day, the black of her hands turning all golden in its dying light. All my sunsets black: Black as taxes and redlining and incarceration and the knowledge that still, still, the light will return for us. My sunsets black as the people who praise them.