The Things That Live In My Head

Eucalyptus, undiscovered alphabets, stygian blue,
the scent of my middle school crush’s laundry detergent,
metaphors real enough to keep in my palms, milk baths,
the day my grandma couldn’t remember my name,
dead acquaintances and Instagram posts in their honor,
the calluses on my heels from when I used to dance,
a certain girl I secretly loved, fish I buried in the backyard,
your smile on a street corner, a poster with my name on it,
and a strange, unshakable feeling of coming home.

When I Say I Love You More Than Anything

I mean I’ve traced freckle constellations on far too many bare backs to be proud of
but hadn’t found the right star to land on until I ran my pointer finger across yours.

I mean I’d give up my dreams and follow you to Sacramento. I’d pack poems in my suitcase and squeeze your hand on the red-eye and abandon my perfectly fine life to build a new one with you. I’d write from there. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d give up writing, too.

I mean Sometimes I dream of keeping you in my closet but not in the serial killer kind of way. I worry about too many things. Like the world caving in and swallowing you whole.

I mean I love you more than anything.

Which means Is it the same for you?

Would you keep me in your closet?

Would you buy that one-way ticket?

Have you found a star to land on yet?

I mean—

Is it one of mine?

I WAS NEVER PEACEFUL

She makes you tea. Chamomile.

Water first, then leaves. Let steep.

It’s the way you’ve always taken it, the way

I learned from you— water always cardinal.

And then, while heat emancipates itself, she sits

in your lap and blathers philosophy. The origin

of language and ethics and dreams. It’s carnal to you.

Enticing. Intellectual lust has always been a weakness.

You are charmed by girls with vagabond minds, at least 

you were for me. Or maybe she does it all backwards. 

Leaves first, then water. Opposite arrangements.

And maybe she talks about nothing, just rests

her head on your shoulder and waits in perfect peace.

I was never peaceful. I was bold and combustible

and aggravating, I bet. But you adored it. 

That I was violently obsessed with

thinking. Sensually aware—

the god of memorizing

your arrangements

and speaking them.

Where Do Poems Come From?

I can’t speak for yours,

but mine—

they fall from the apple trees of memory:

[lunchbox love letters my mother would pack 

under kindergarten grilled cheese sandwiches]

[certain smells, like fresh oregano and Old Spice

deodorant and the last day of summer in Virginia]

[the curvature of my first love’s cheek, too familiar]

[my heart glowing under tender peacoat buttons

all winter, as if I had swallowed a lamp for you]

[the worst pain I’ve ever felt]

Oh, 

how they thud against unforgiving earth,

while I bend down to juice what is left 

of each bruised

[and beautiful]

little world.

It is August 28, 2004

And I’m a monster with a milk mustache
stirring Fruit Loops to make the colors run.

Today is a good day.

Today I will arrange my plastic figurines
in a summoning circle. Ronald McDonald,
Snow White, Winnie-the Pooh, Spider-Man.
I like it when my best friends hold hands.

I also like summer.

Summer means haircuts by Mom in the kitchen,
streamers and training wheels and even a bell
that Dad installed for me to call the neighbor’s
cats. There is no need to dream if I live in one.

I have everything.

I am almost five and I am scared of fireworks
and the big dogs down the street and one day
I want to be an astronaut but won’t actually
go to space because space is big for someone
small like me. But enough about one day,
because today I will just dance in the sprinkler.

I know everything there is to know
about everything worth knowing.

Like how you shouldn’t open your eyes
at the public pool or they will sting bad.
And how crayons don’t taste the way
they look. And how sometimes people
fall asleep and we cry about it and when
you hold their hand they don’t hold back.

I don’t like it.

But I like that today is the last Saturday of summer
and I’m not in space. I’m four. I’m home.
And I am so proud to be loved like this.

As Kids

We were smart. Cul de sac geniuses
in hand-me-down bermuda shorts.
My cousins and I, we were raised by
Backstreet Boys on the boombox,
Kodak disposables, scraped knees.
I am nostalgic now, for that textbook
Americana, 25-cent lemonade stands,
and yard sales where we’d bid farewell to
outgrown tricycles and pink dollhouses.

We could braid, too. French and Dutch
and other styles we’d invent on the fine,
blonde hair of our American Girl dolls.
I remember wanting hair like that—
gold like the movie stars’ on the posters
Scotch-taped to my bubblegum walls.

Reduced to mythology now, practically
fiction, the only leftovers still remaining
are the lives we abandoned under plastic
sleeves in the albums we only flip through
when we come home for Christmas break.

We were unmanufactured. Scruffy, wild,
grass-stained and privileged. Sidewalk
rulers, gods and monsters of blanket forts
and summer sprinklers and shared family.

Sometimes I close my eyes and it’s 2004
and we’re in the hammock, just me and my
cousins, and we’re a sticky heap of August,
banana-scented sunscreen, and tenderness.

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.