It is Halloween, the day her father was born. She always wondered if that was why he was so fucked up, if the doctor was wearing devil’s horns when he ushered him out of his mother’s uterus. If the nurses crowding those musky dead fresh-scented still dead rooms all wore masks. If someone was born into a world where no one was who they said they were.
And now a woman is sedating her between her legs, wearing bunny ears. There was a bowl of butterfingers when she entered. Small ones, bite sized. The metal still feels cold. How she can still feel that tiny snip, something microscopic being torn from her, put under a microscope. Someone came in with her, thinking she might have needed comfort. She is trying to remember his name. But things are blurry. All the diagrams on the wall look like one beige mess blotched with red, like someone took a pen to the human flesh and began to cross out things. No more this, no more that. She can’t remember his name. She stops trying. She thinks that is okay, because people forget things easily and things forgotten are things worth forgetting. No matter, no matter.
The nurse across the room now.
What was that, she says.
What was what?
You said something.
No I didn’t.
She wonders if there is still a head between her legs. She can’t bring herself to look down. So she closes her eyes. Thinks of a dusty road in another country where people came to right themselves. Wind that had blown for days reaching her hair for the first and only time and sweeping it across her face. Boots once green turned brown. Wine for water. Another language.
Results in five days, a man with a half-painted face says. Could just be nothing.
There is that boy again with a brown paper bag. That boy without a name.
A sandwich for you. It was hot but now it’s probably gone cold. It’s cold outside.
What if there was a world where winter lasted forever? How many layers peeled off until you reached the real honest thing of someone? The thing you call the skin? And would it be thicker, bodies changed to accommodate? Would kindness still exist? Something more tender than that pink flesh between a woman’s legs where all of life stems from, where even in the cold it still comes out warm?
there is no love there is no love there is no love there is no love there is no love
There are men in beds everywhere. She is in a room with a hundred men in a hundred beds all with bags over their heads. One of these men is a man she loves. Or loved. She is not sure, exactly, what love is, whether she has been in it. But each bag ripped off a head is a commitment, to something, at least. To knowing a face. To laying her soft lips upon the upper lip of a stranger, feeling the faint tickle of facial hair. Sometimes harsh sometimes soft. Sometimes a thing she wants, and her hands reach up and under his shirt and there are the nodes of his back, the hard lumps of his spine and the want like a runaway train steaming through her into a long night where sometimes all light disappears and sometimes before and after the tunnels she is run through there is the moon big and wide giving shadows a chance to become defined. She calls this searching. She does not call this searching. She does not know what to call it. Sometimes she has to think before placing the bag back on each stranger’s head. Sometimes she feels something like a thank you stuck in her throat, never getting out. She returns often, to this room. Sometimes in the taking off of a bag she sees someone she has known before. Not once has she found the man she says she has loved she is said to have loved she says she loves she is said to love.
This is what she writes.
there is no love there is no love there is no love there is no love there is no love
She writes more.
Rose leaf tea, hibiscus flower.
something so sweet
Could soothe a dark heart
Runaway train I feel you
Running through me
all through the night.
You run all through the night
I hear your whistle steam.
I feel it burning me.
I met your father when I burned him with a cigarette.
This is what her mother says.
I was always a diva. Always had a little bit of queen in me.
She smiles. Mother and daughter. They both smile. Mother goes on.
Men are only here to hold our drinks while we go to the bathroom. Ashtrays and cup holders. Pack mules. One day you’ll find a man who’ll carry your baggage and not complain.
This was years before that trip to the long road through a dusty country in a hot summer where everyone spoke in some liquid tongue, something so clear like water the way it caught and glimmered in cursive out the mouth. Then, they sat in the shade of an acacia tree. Mother spoke.
I miss your father.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that.
Well I miss him.
Mother paused, used the back of her hands to rub her eyes. Everything was dust. It rose and fell. It swirled, circled, turned with the moving world. Their skin burnt, turned orange like rust.
Because he wasn’t afraid to say he was weak. I think that’s why I married him.
What do you mean?
I’m not sure anymore. I miss his silence. The way he picked you up as a child. A way I never could. Some men are born with that gift and might never know it, might never see. You find a man who can hold a child you keep him so close he can hear you breathe.
Daughter thinking mom’s gone crazy.
Mother gone crazy.
Daughter writing things down:
If you are out there
still without a name,
I am here under
a tree branch in Spain,
For your hand,
and if that hand is dust
kiss me like wind does
When you pick me up.
Hombre tierno, hombre tierno,
besame, besame, no me dejes.
Her mother’s Volkswagen stilted up on bricks in the driveway, covered in bumper stickers from another era. She tries to imagine that car, wheel-less, having not hummed in a long while, ever moving across the country. It takes a lot for someone to move, she thinks, knowing that the world still turns in the place in which you left behind. People still go out for coffee, smoke cigarettes, shuffle their feet on concrete. Mother’s stories made it seem like people had a thousand chances at love. She thought of skin dust, wondered if it floated down instead of up, how she would have had to rake the path up to the house as a child, push all that accumulation of age away.
The first boy who ever loved her always asked her if she was afraid. She never asked of what. No one who is unafraid asks others if they are afraid. The asking is the same as the wanting to know if what you feel is alright. She did not love him back.
Milk in your tea? Her mother from the kitchen behind her, a room away.
Tell me when.
Thinking of mother’s polaroids on her bedroom dresser. Her mother with a dress halfway down her shoulder, glass in hand. Noise screaming from the still shot. She could hear the surrounding buzz, the static of the record between songs, the waiting for what was next.
Tell me when, dear.
How every daughter’s worst dream is to become her mother. How it is unavoidable. She wonders if this is how it is for sons and their fathers. Sons and their mothers, no. Daughters and their fathers, no. There can be no imagining there, no touching your own breasts in the mirror and seeing your mother do the same, fit the same dress, the same shoes, hair ties littered on the bathroom floor.
Tell me when, love.
Holding the cooled tuna melt while waiting for the train home and everything feels cold inside her, like they left the shined steel still scraping her insides. She glances at his profile, some freckle-faced child pretending to be a man. She wants to push him on the tracks, watching him push one shoe against the other and then feel her glance and return it.
We can warm it up at your place if you want. I’m sorry.
I just want to sleep.
I can hold you if you want to sleep.
I just want to sleep.
I want skin so tan
even dirt would lighten it
hair two shades lighter
like the sun lives in it
father father come home
so the boys don’t speak
of daddy issues I want
to know what it is like
to have hands as big
as yours like the world
was your first word
held up by your tongue
and then picked off
between your fingers
and everyone inside it
living in your love
You can’t come inside me.
There is that still uneaten sandwich on her dresser, but the boy who bought it long gone, probably with his hands in pockets somewhere.
I just have some issues down there.
Sometimes she does not know what to think about. Sometimes it floods her so quick she forgets to breathe. His left hand touching ribs, some kind of callus rubbing rough against her skin. The way it is now. How some people think sex is an assertion of value, some kind of power play, when really it is just two bodies or more at play, moving into one another, moving out, leaving. How some people call it making love. But that cannot be true, otherwise the world would be full of love, all littered and stardusted across the paths we walk. Something unavoidable. You’d have to push through all of the love as it floated out of windows and rose from basement rooms and echoed the way echoes do off of buildings until the sound is not coming from somewhere but everywhere all at once. She wraps her legs around him, pulls him closer. The hairs on his chest tickle against her right nipple. If sex was making love, she thinks, why have I never felt it? And why do I not believe?
Memories intermix with dreams and sometimes she cannot tell the difference. Her father once held her on his shoulders as he skated on the Charles where it skittered into no-man towns and lowered its banks and became something knowable. Mother was off somewhere else and she did not know then what his hands were capable of. That they held other women, those hands, the same way they held his child now, by the waist, steadying her atop his swaying shoulders, his strong frame, his shirt open and shivering in the soft wind that trailed above the frozen water. No daughter ever thinks a father is capable of hurt, and when he is and when he does—hurt, that is, hurt others—no daughter ever believes it. Because if a mother is saying it, relaying the hurt in small patches of images dissected and turned over and over again, then the daughter is saying it too, from the same small lips and the same eyes speckled and shined with tears.
When the room of bag-headed men comes in her dreams, then, there is always the worry that one is her father. Or the man she loved or had loved or might have loved or never loved. And then the dream hangs like a shaded bagged veil over her daily life until the river comes twisting into her vision all iced and frigid and slicing through time and she is not on her father’s shoulders anymore but they feel like a man’s and they are not his hands but someone else’s, someone who buttons his shirt one button higher and there is less wind and then more wind and then enough to blow her off the pedestal of what one might call love if one saw it clear, but she never saw it clear, never a face to remember or a hand to hold or a shoulder so strong it felt like steel below her, something solid on which to place her bags and ask for them to be carried along with her.
It will take time for you to tell what good wine tastes like.
Her mother again, in that dusty country where the trees both bent to eat the patched grass and rose too to meet the sun.
The two of them were beaded in sweat and the dust stuck to their thin frames like the whole earth was attracted to them. They drank wine for thirst and wine again for honesty. She did not want to tell her mother that all wine tasted the same, sweet but not sweet enough.
Wine is like all men, her mother said, you never know what you’ve got until you hold it in your mouth for a little while. Do you want a cigarette?
She nodded. Sixteen and smoking under the shade of an acacia with a mother she was slowly realizing she would slowly become.
She wanted to tell her mother that she had dreams of men touching her and she did not know what that meant. Later, years, she would want to tell her mother that she had dreams of touching men and she did not know what that meant. They had been walking slow across a country whose language rolled so soft off the tongue it almost tasted like something. She had seen her mother strip into loose panties and wade into a lake to wash the dirt from between her toes.
Can I have more wine? Holding her bottle beside her mother’s breast. A mother’s smile.
You’re becoming more and more like your mom.
Daughter smiled, a fleck of risen dust or ash spread from a volcano too far away caught in her eyelash. It hung there for some time before the wind came to venture it somewhere else invisible.
a world of hurt is what they say
women are born into no greater
curse than a daughter in your arms
no greater thing made to house
what hurt this world has to offer
and you runaway train i feel you
when i close my eyes soft steam
arise when the sun wakes soft
love come touch me so i know
how it feels so i know if i never feel
or never know what it is to feel it
ever again before i grow into time
and know the world was never
what my mother cried what my
father said on dark nights his
voice so tender it could quiet
a steaming train rolling highballed
across a horizon invisible
In the waiting room while she is waiting to see if something cancerous is growing inside her faster than she is capable of aging, a child comes screaming through the door, wearing a mask, black-eyed, wide-mouthed, long-faced over his own soft cheeks. He is a tiny terror, running so that she only sees his small sneakers skirting across the floor, peeking out from under a black cloak. A nurse sees him and smiles. His mother shakes her head, entering after him. Other people grimace, and the world outside moves and wheels and turns its deep blue fall sky past the windows. The child stutters to a stop, his mask still screaming into that day. It looks at her.
Are you afraid? It says. He says.
Me! And then he is off running again, past empty chairs.
Yes, she says. But he is gone.