The only thing my grandmother knew about gold
was silence, but she kept her quiet like her favorite
shawl and made sure to give it to me
on cold nights. I grew up without role models
but I watched Ariel grow from a fish to a woman
and thought my larynx must have been connected
to my heart.
Maybe in the real world there is no Ursula
but there is still silence
and I spent my days with only internal monologues.
You know, I wanted to sing but my parents
wanted to see me without any sound effects.
I set fires in my wake, only to hear the fire alarm
go off like it was my favorite
song. God wanted me to be good
but the doctor was the first to hit me
for being alive. Even then, my mother
didn’t understand why children cry.
Earth is only weeping now, but her children
have been begging for retribution from the moment
we learned how to feel. Gaia, when your son saved you,
why were you not quick to save him? We have carried
mountains for you
and blended our pains into the dust of this country
until it was nothing more
but a computer screensaver.
My mother screams in her sleep but I am afraid
to whisper my love in her ear
because of what it would change. The weight of the world
would only increase with the weight of my voice
and maybe, Atlas couldn’t bear that.
I understand, I carry my own shit.
God wants you to pray, to sing,
but I do not know how to speak. They tell me to open
my mouth but after all these years
there are only the words I promised to eat away.
When we make love, I think about finally throwing it up
until you are covered in limericks, in rhyme,
in broken promises. I have half told stories
but I would tell them to you if you cared enough to listen.
Pillow talk is nothing but
we move our teeth around the words
we do not know how to say
and settle for simply mouthing against each other’s skin:
can you hear me now? can you hear me now? good.
In my other life, I was an artist
and I spent my weekends sketching my left eye.
I believed in texture and made sure
to rub my crayon on my paper
just to see the lines I could make.
People talk about Matisse and Picasso
but I had my own museum on the refrigerator
and my parents sold tickets
to every guest who wanted to know
whose handprint that was.
I don’t know anything about reincarnation
but the other day I ran into the version of myself
that knew how to dance. Little girls today are too pretty
to be contemporary but I used to shake my whole body
in the living room just to convince myself
that I was alive. My feet could not point
but I spent hours standing my tippy toes
just because I wanted to be a ballerina.
I eat my words but before I knew anything about a dictionary,
I carried numbers in my back pocket
and dropped them around this city
just so I could find my way home again. When other kids were
trying to divide fractions, I was counting the distance
I don’t hold my college degree like a badge
but I flash memories of my old Christmas presents
to all my friends. Girls played with dolls and make up kits
but my parents gifted me a stethoscope,
a guitar, a Lego set.
I have closets of old goals but sometimes they follow
me on my way to work. I am thirty nine but I still hear
their voices: Are you happy? Are you happy now?
Home is where your heart is
but scientists do not want to listen
to ballads. In a school in Chennai, they teach children
about this planet as though it is different from them.
Little boys and girls go home to tell their parents
that they know about their atmosphere,
their climate, their moon
but children knew the planet like the back
of their hand from before they knew how to speak.
The first time they ever fell into the dirt,
the Earth reached up and caressed their scrapes
with her grace. This is yours, she said to them
the first time they looked at the sky. I am yours.
Teachers assign pages from textbooks and tell their students
about the race for a new type of fuel
but children do not care about energy today.
They are young and beautiful and indifferent
to rising oil prices. They are excited to be alive
but not to be in school. In the margins of their notebooks,
parents see the art their children create.
They draw sketches of radical superheroes
and fantastic inventions. One day we will live underwater,
one day we will fly amongst the clouds,
one day we will have cars that run on love.
My friends called me Rapunzel from the moment
I let my hair out of its bun. It was long enough
to be a shawl, a cloak,
the oldest comfort I know.
My hair was not always beautiful
but it was always mine.
My clothes have changed, my voice has changed
but the hair on my head has been the same.
My mother taught me how to wash my hair,
how to brush my hair, how to straighten my hair
but it was my father who taught me how to give it away.
He never said it but I saw him look at my hair,
almost asking why I needed so much of it.
The hair dresser holds her scissors as though
she is an artist but I tell her that I am nervous
for her every snip. Locks fall onto the ground
and I keep my tears in the corner of my eyes.
I know that hair is nothing but dead cells,
nothing but matter,
nothing but a coating on my skull.
The hairdresser is surprised at the thickness
of this hair that will no longer be mine;
how else would the sick climb up?
My spirit dies in the winter
but December was when I first came to life.
In the roots of my family tree,
my parents disguised conception
and buried that memory under legalities.
Hidden in old journals
is the moment when my parents
were young enough to be children:
they used their bodies like instruments
and practiced love songs every Saturday night.
My mother loves me enough for the whole world
but that cannot warm me on cold nights.
I shiver in my bed
and try to hold her old photographs
like a second blanket.
These memories do not belong to me;
maybe they can protect me from the snow
but they cannot protect me from my own tears.
I am not ashamed of my home
but I have learned to hate it in the winter.
My heart wanted to be buried in a back yard
but our building is surrounded by cement.
We do not have a chimney
but I leave my window open on Christmas Eve
in case Santa wants to fly in,
in case I want to jump out.
I’ve been playing limbo for most of my life,
half aware of the world and half afraid to be in it,
because I can still see your face when I look at
the living room upside down.
That sofa was once yours but I have learned
to sleep on it, stretching my legs to touch
the space meant for you. I grew into my body
and forgot to be the little girl you wanted
because I wanted to be a woman for the boys in my
history class. The skin around my eyes is different
from what you remember because I tried to hide my tears
underneath coats of eyeliner.
After birth was when you had to share me with Mommy
and those pictures captured the me in your arms.
Maybe boys don’t grow up trying to be fathers
but I grew up trying to find part of your face
to take to class, just to say that you were more than the wheelchair
I learned to move around our apartment.
But I was never ashamed of your sickness;
I told my friends, my teachers, half the world
that I was proud of your every healed wound,
that you were more my hero than all the fire fighters in New York.
The day you lost your leg, I wanted to dedicate my steps
to you. I wanted to carry you to the hometown you could not visit.
I walk quickly because I am still walking for two.
The space between the earth and the sky is infinite
but I multiply it to find the distance of us. For every day
we have been apart, I become less of what you know.
Daddy, I used to write you letters of my dreams
just to keep me alive wherever you are
but I got tired of describing the feeling of your hands over mine.
These fingers may just be yours,
typing in the quiet of my home
because I am too afraid to go to sleep.
Each dream is the you I will only know
from memory, from a broken story,
from the journal I forced myself to read,
but it is never enough.
Seventeen is the year when I should stop being your little girl
but I have not been your little girl
since I was eight years old. Adulthood is not connected
to virginity or puberty or college;
it is knowing the hollow of the heart
every time someone asks about what you
do for a living. But you are not living.
I have lied my way through conversations,
brought your life into the present tense,
convinced God that you are waiting
for me to come home.
But I am the one who has always
been waiting for you. They tell me I am impatient
but only because I know you are not
going to teach me how to play soccer.
Every time they ask me what I want,
I try to swallow the aftertaste of my childhood
because they will not understand. They want us
to stop being children but I want them to let me
have this year to gather up the toys
we never got to play with. Let me keep this part
of myself because I am tired of giving up
what I want. I am tired of hiding empty fists
and crying into your old shirts. I am tired of donating
your closet to the Salvation Army.
Even in the city, they teach us not to leave
our men behind and I have tried to carry your voice
for nine years. I do not remember the accent of your words or the way you said my name but I play back tapes of
your interviews just to hear you say hello.
Everything between us is broken
but I built myself into the tower that you could not be.
The skyline of our family does not shine without
your frame but the silhouette of me
in a graduation gown glitters against
the darkness of our grief.
Our family has been shortened to three
and I am trying to tie myself
to the place I will always call home.
For all the times I have left New York,
you have never tried to find me
but I searched for your face in the clouds,
if only to prove that you are still mine.
I am tired of proving that you are still mine
because the world does not believe me.
They tell me I am a little girl
because I call you Daddy; but your name is heavy
on my tongue because of the tears I have kept behind
my teeth. I have outgrown my old wishes
because falling stars cannot save falling fathers;
they say I am a falling daughter
but they do not see me centering our family.
You will not know me at seventeen
or eighteen or nineteen but I will burn those bridges
just as I had to burn you.
“When I was younger, my dad would always carry me on his shoulders so I could see, or when my feet were sore, or just when I was tired.
He never said no when I asked… …Even though my dad only has one leg.
His Love for me GMH.”
Imagine all the little boys and girls who never grow old. They never grow up. They stay one or two or three or four or five or six. They aren’t going to Neverland. They aren’t playing with Peter Pan. They are sick; they are dying; they are kidnapped; they are hurt; they are killed. These are all those children and teenagers and adults who never know what wrinkles feel like because they don’t get to know their bodies well enough. They never know anything like the back of their hand because they never get to know what the back of their hand feels like. Some of us never get to talk about the good old days because our days are never old. Some of us only know days that are young and fresh and new. Our wrinkles are like our old calendars, stretched out across our skin.
You never know what you will hear when you are listening to your parents talk. You want to know their secrets, what adults do, what they say about you. But you always hear more. Sometimes you hear your father cry and then, even though you are half hidden in the shadows, you are crying too.