CLAIRE

Poems are born in the what could have been

if you had taken the A train to the last stop
to say the thing that got stuck in your teeth

when you needed to say it most, I need you,
instead of walking home in the pale gray slush

after kissing her for the last time. Some poems
are never finished. Instead, they lie wide awake

and wonder whether she still uses lavender
shampoo and hyperfixates on climate change

until she cries, hard, over the thought of bringing
babies into a world so catastrophically fucked.

What could have been, what could have been
if only you had taken that train to the richer side

of the city and found the ending to your poem:
I need you. I need the way you care so much you cry,

the way strands of your hair get stuck in my teeth.

Acts of Beautiful Violence

It was your thumb in my mouth, nail scraping roof,
then rivulets of blood collecting in the cracks of my lip.

I liked being bad for you more than I liked being good.
I mean, I liked holding your hand, too, but there was

something deliciously appealing in pinning them down,
anticipating your surrender. As I held you in captivity

certain words came flooding into my consciousness:
religion, August, limitless, distance. And now, years

later, I am still trying to find the poem that exists
within the gaps of those disconnected units, within

fading memories of drying blood on bedsheets, acts
of beautiful violence, the summer we learned to speak.

Main Street

There are over 10,000 Main Streets in the United States of America. They’re scattered everywhere. Focal points of Christmas card townships, city corners, college campuses. You can envision a Main Street in your mind without even needing to visit one: strings of kitschy gift shops, a historic post office, probably a dilapidated dry cleaning service or two with boarded up windows. I must confess, I am pathetically in love with the self-righteous importance of Main Streets. They’re not just streets, but capital M Main Streets. Every local knows which street you’re talking about. The only one that matters.

I can’t walk down the Main Street we knew anymore because that’s just something that happens when you love someone and they leave. You start taking the long way home, even when the sun sets and you’d theoretically be much safer as a woman walking under Main Street’s lampposts rather than traversing the unlit, soulless alleyways. You start driving past Main Street without letting your eyes flit left or right, because you know that you’ll see them— them— those young, red-faced couples standing at the corner, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn. If I look a little too long, the girl in the red coat becomes me. She’s wiping the fog from the boy’s clear-rimmed glasses with her scarf like I did for you. 

Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to stand at that light alone until it turns. Maybe I’ll walk to the coffee shop where we used to order spicy chai in late October and watch the hungover college kids meander through the farmers market, toting around loaves of sourdough bread and orange wildflowers. I’ll have no one to laugh at them with but the tea would be just as sweet. I’ll make it work.

There are over 10,000 Main Streets in the United States of America but only one that matters to me. It’s the one nestled in the heart of Southwest Virginia, where we’d peer into the high-end clothing stores and pretend we could afford the outfits on the window mannequins. It’s the one where we snuck into that record store and I went home with miscellaneous 60s, Bonnie Tyler, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. That was the day we ran to the bus stop in the rain, your socks drenched and hair glued to your forehead and I knew it. I could never love anyone like this again. 

On Main Street I watched your eyes fill with rain as you sang Happy Birthday to me over chocolate cheesecake. On Main Street we shared blood orange sorbet on the bench and watched the usual crowd of night revelers stumble into bars. On Main Street we joked about being married college professors like the ones we’d spot at the underrated sushi place. On Main Street we thought it would all work out.

Maybe one day I’ll stop taking the long way home.

If You Call Me on My Birthday

I’ll pick up.

I’ll say all of the things I’m supposed to say, like Thank you, or Wow, I can’t believe we’re 21 this year. Weren’t we 17 yesterday? Time really does fly. They weren’t kidding about that.

I’ll ask about your mom, whether she’s still teaching or whether her arthritis has gotten too bad to spend her days hunched over training five-year-olds the rules of phonics. I won’t make you spell it out. I still care.

I’ll give you an overview of what you’ve missed since you left.

My grandma’s kidneys started failing. My first-ever elementary school crush died this past September. I can’t stop listening to James Blake’s Assume Form album and thinking about how you used to hum every word of it for me.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, I’m writing a book.

But I won’t mention it,

the thing I almost say but don’t.

You’ve somehow found your way onto every page.

Every Time I See Someone Who Walks Like You

I hold my breath. From across the empty soccer field

by our apartment complex on Wednesday afternoon 

I could have sworn I saw the exact outlines of a body 

I used to memorize by heart— slender-legged, poor 

posture, meandering through the chemically treated

grass with no sense of direction. You used to pace 

the forest just thinking. About what? I’d ask you, 

after you’d disappear for hours without warning.

Nothing really, you’d say, and shrug your shoulders

far too casually for me to believe. But those nights,

playing with your pale blond baby hairs and forcing

you to guess the words I’d write sloppily on your back

with my fingertips (the answer was always I love you),

I didn’t feel the need to know what you were thinking. 

It’s funny how Nothing really suffices until it doesn’t.

Until I’m squinting my eyes from a hundred feet away,

wondering if the dimensions of the wandering man

match yours. But the mathematics are always a little

bit skewed. He’s either too tall or not tall enough,

sporting an outfit you’d never wear. Tell me, do you 

ever try to find me in the shadows of other people?

Do you hold your breath until you’re wrong, too?

HIBISCUS

The mind is most honest when the stars are out.

There are no pretenses. There are no hideaways.

After midnight, I lie awake and dream of things

too shy for daytime. Things that go unspoken,

like how the pink hibiscus flowers on the shirt

he wore when he took what was not his, what

I never asked for, what I never gave him, those

flowers still bloom on the backs of my eyelids

when I try to sleep. Bloody petals, split stems,

no matter the season they are always there, like

weeds that return even after pulling, even after

all evidence has been erased, the roots devoured

by solid earth, they still grow without mercy.

The mind is most honest when the stars are out.

And I see him now, in the act of taking, cotton

and sweat, my voice begging him no, and hibiscus.