I Don’t Know What You’re Scared Of

but for me, it’s formal dining rooms and how to eat neatly in them
and family portraits with everyone clad in the same shade of beige
and how unlike your mom is from my mom and how unlike you
are from me, even though I hunger for you and would like to sit
with you in the car with your brothers while you talk about what
I don’t understand, like football and Catholic school and loving
your hometown even after leaving it. I want to tell you the reason
why these things scare me but I’m too invested in the pearliness
of your skin, yet another region of unlikeness, and the strange way
I touch you and feel ivory and snowfall and Jesus and America
and everything I wanted to be when I was younger and obsessed
with purity, whiteness, the privilege I could taste on my first love’s
lips, later stuck in my teeth, then in my throat. I’m not scared
of you, not at all, but the way I choke back my first language
when I shake hands with the world that will never welcome it.

IF I COULD

I would feed you joy on a silver spoon. 

I would make you paper kites and breakfast past midnight and origami fish to hang from your ceiling. 

I would heal the parts of you that shattered when you were too young to know how to reassemble the pieces. 

I would do anything to watch the corners of your mouth lift and stay. Color flooding skin, painting it.  

There’s too much tragedy in this world, you told me once. No need for further explanation. I could see it in your eyes. You captured your past in one sentence.   

I remember wanting to clothe you in light. To wrap your fingers around each of my individual heartbeats, to have you feel them pulsing between your palms. I wanted to fill you with goodness. Sweet tea and blanket forts and firefly summers in the suburbs. A father’s hand and an open road and enough fight in you to find where it ends. 

If I could, I would take you there. 

And I’d watch you run, all the while thinking There’s too much wonder in this world, lungs filling up with it. 

MAHOGANY

Insulated water bottles filled to the brim with illicit spirits, our bare backs pressed flat against the secret slopes of Appalachia. Tipsy fingers meddled with the buttons on my cardigan until we found it in the sweet grass hours later, soaked in starlight and the dewy scent of us. We were the architects of makeshift movie theaters on your bedroom floor, pirating campy 80s films yet always giving up halfway through with lips trapped between teeth. You’d knead the stubborn knots from the small of my back and I’d thank you afterward with cloudy stories of my past exhaled into your ear. You cried with me. You walked with me through every sunlit garden, stopping me by the conifers to capture the way the dying day would paint my skin mahogany. You were always ready with your camera, waiting for my face to melt for you, how I’d come at you with No, I don’t look good today, how you’d look at me in breathless disbelief and call me blind. Go on and give the world to someone else. Fill the bottles again. Find new hills for twinkling nights. Sit through the credits this time. Clutch her closer than skin when she shatters. And take pictures of her, too, under any sliver of golden light you can find. She might hate it then but she’ll love it later. I know I do. I still look back at those photos and ache that I couldn’t believe you.

J

That time, late January, when you met me under the elm tree at the corner of our block after midnight. How we walked for miles under cloud-covered stars, bodies mercilessly stiffened by winter, how I cried in the corn fields because the man I loved couldn’t love me back at the depth that I could for him. That night, you and I walked to the grocery store, frostbitten and numb, and I bought a shitty-looking pizza Lunchables to share with you at the empty playground. It was the first thing I had eaten in days. And we weren’t disappointed because it was so comically shitty— the supposed sauce was shaped into a solid cube— I remember cracking up with you through frozen tears over that. Those days, laughter was a rarity for me. J, I remember your hands being warm. I don’t remember how they ended up in mine. How your thumb danced over my knuckles, skipping across the ridges, unsettlingly hot and intoxicatingly familiar. You told me you were my best friend and kissed me on the forehead, even though I knew you wanted worlds more of me than what you got. I knew we both wished we were allowed to touch like that in broad daylight, that I didn’t have to keep you clandestine. I guess I assumed I was keeping you safe by keeping you secret. That we could always take the last bus to nowhere, that you could always trace shapes on my kneecaps, that we could always end up lying on my bed and accidentally touching, over and over again, undercover lovers under my covers. J, you’re a song I can’t play. You’re a loveless night. I want you to know that my hands are still cold and I still haven’t touched anyone half as warm as you.

DIARY ENTRY

I’m a very detached kind of lover. 

Not in terms of depth— I adore people profoundly, endlessly, completely—

but in a language foreign to others. I’ll write you snail mail love letters 

and send you five dollars to pick up coffee on your way to work 

and only speak highly of you to my mother. 

I’ll leave you flowers on your birthday and memorize the specifics

of you—your cell phone number and home address and food allergies

and whether or not you’re the hugging type. 

I’m a people person but not in the way you might think. 

I don’t need to sit next to you or drink with you or speak to you every day, 

and sometimes my deepest relationships are once-in-a-blue-moon correspondences, 

pick-me-ups, thinking-of-yous. I only talk to some of my favorite souls once a year. 

There are times I wish I could love in a more physical, less conceptual manner. 

That I could mindlessly enjoy company, that constancy didn’t terrify me. 

But I’m learning to love the way that I love. 

In playlists and poems and how I will always pay attention

to the way that you move, every flutter, every blink, every silly snort of laughter.

I’ll notice every subtlety.

FOREVER AFTER

Pathetically depleted, I wallow in my flesh and dream

of a particular kind of freedom. The painless, childish

sort, like when you’re seven and your whole life orbits

around the geometric dome at your elementary school

playground and trading juice boxes for scented erasers.

Holding twenty years in your hands is a great ordeal,

heavier than expected, unlike the gala apples you’d pack

for field trips and forget in the tall grass for picnic ants 

to call their own. At seven you don’t think much about

pain or the body or what is written in the stars for you.

You just know you like to run, and then you skin your

knee and train yourself to avoid that particular sidewalk 

crack forever after, and the only stars you care about 

are the ones that twinkle extra hard on your birthday, 

and the ones on movie screens, and the ones in your eyes 

when you think about how wild and limitless the world

is, the entire sphere inhaling and exhaling just for you.

I’LL TAKE THAT

Safe things— Mitski on my record player, my mother’s thin fingers
French braiding my hair, bananas that are just ripe enough— I hold
onto these safe things as I let my life unravel in my hands. Today
I feel a little bit better than yesterday. I’ll take that, I tell the sky,
as I remind my body to inhale without thinking too deeply about
how. I’m tired of thinking about illness and death and why my chest
hurts all the time. I’m sick of making myself sick. And so I clutch
these harmless, healthy things with every gram of strength I have.
Outside my house right now, someone is shooting a gun. Ever so
often, my mother and I jump. But it’s nothing, it’s nothing, and
she finishes the braid and we’re humming, we’re humming, and
I’m still alive in a room that loves me, and no part of me is dead.

ORIGAMI HEART

My first smile made its grand debut
at 7 p.m. this evening. It only took
my mother’s hand squeezing mine
and my father returning from the
grocery with a bouquet of yellow
sunflowers. I have sobbed my way
through this day for no real reason
other than my own fear of nothing.
I have convinced myself I am folding
inward, that my body has reached
its final hour, that I will buckle
until I am spent. This is no poem.
This is the heart of a sick girl,
nauseated and sinking in horror.

LITTLE, LOVELY THINGS

English bulldogs and breakfast and accents.

I am living in fear. I can’t stop clenching
my jaw. I want to go home, but I already am.

Sugar maples and gliders and cookies.

These are the little, lovely things I dream up
when my heart convinces me it is dying.

Blue eyes and velvet and mountains.

I can’t stop thinking. I see the end flickering
and I walk closer, closer, until I am gone.

I Really Only Miss You When It Rains

Cloudless skies sedate me, numbing me over until I am transparent, mechanical.
Under soft sunshine, wrapped in velvet warmth, these days I hardly think of you
when all of my body’s vacancies are filled with light. When it pours, though,
I can feel again, the sharp pangs and weights, this cavernous ache I can’t place.

I really only miss you when it rains. In my memories you are soaked from head
to toe and we are sick with love. Water has seeped through your coat and I am
tickled pink by your shivering, teasing you until we’re home and I can dry you
with my mouth. Always a failure. We had a love like that, the dripping kind,

flooding every secret part of us, no possible way to absorb enough of each other.
I’d wipe your back and kiss it long enough to defeat the point. I’d melt you under
the heat of me, saturating you like baptism, bathing you in much more than rain.
There was nothing profane in those sacred instances of give and take. Others may

have deemed it vulgar, or shameful, or unholy— but I would do it again, the rage
of being young and on fire, breath calling and responding, becoming the storm.

We were the flood. I can only listen now, and from this bed the sky weeps with me.