Once you warmed the shower wall with water
before pressing me against it. Some nights,
the bed was feverish heat. You, a man
burning, as the sheets twisted into peaks
not from our lovemaking, but nightmares.
So similar to the snakes in mine: centipedes,
the threat of their endless segmenting. Breaking
apart like mornings you left me for food or family,
the wife and daughters towns away who will never
know my name, theirs on your lips in a way
that gave me pause, that their conjured bodies
might leave the room first, let me have you fully,
before I leaned to kiss you. Tomorrow, I will drive
to the ocean, past the fish camps and souvenir
shacks, to the town where soon my sister will be wed.
She will tell me that she, too, once loved a man
whose brain burst into lace as he vowed himself
to trigger, hammer. She will turn as I enter the room,
careful not to shake loose our mother’s veil
bleeding from her blonde hair, same as mine.
And if I must look away, it will be to the grey
of our wintry piece of ocean, as I imagine a swim
so far from land I might find you whole
and floating, no barrel poised in your gorgeous mouth.
I thought my sadness was a moron’s elbow.
Thought I could offer it a salve,
or the comfort of a well-worn arm-chair.
I thought I could buy a corduroy shirt
and wash it the exact right number of times.
I hope you have better ideas about yours.
Maybe yours is the referee
of the driveway free-throw drill
I practiced evenings after dad’s no-chop dinners.
Back then, he had a rule for keeping things simple,
but lately I’ve seen him take knife to carrot,
tomato. Maybe yours is the referee,
who helped me count how many
out of one hundred I had made.
It is hard to make friends with the pinstriped,
but I have seen signs on television.
Maybe your sadness is the small belly
peeking through the misty t-shirt
of the early morning jogger, increasingly
invisible to all but the most unkind.
Maybe you are the master of sadness and yours
is the beagle’s drooped ears,
or the quadriceps of the bicycle commuter,
or the tear in the beagle’s owner’s tights,
which must be too comfortable to discard
for such a slight disfigurement.
After each miss, the referee stood under the hoop
unwilling to chase the ball, but after a make,
he gathered it, spun it in his hands as if
examining it for disqualifying flaws,
then snapped a chest pass back to me
with the form my youth team’s coach
must have dreamt of while his wife sat up
watching him whimper and squirm.
I caught the ball, with a developing sense
that something was horribly wrong.
I focused, made eight in a row.
I wanted to know more.
To become a world carry your wounds with you:
bright plums split on a dish
a scattered alchemy in the limbs metal upon heart upon glint
could you ever leave? Steal this
in passing, in looking sideways: an owl, a doorway
ever-crooked I have no use for perfect vision
walking downhill always means hold on
to me like a rush of insects ringing heavy in the bells
in a key of light dive bombing outside my window, alight –
my advocate of world-making I assume that you can hear me
tapping along the wall testing poetry or
the solidity of my name language has nothing to do with what I want
these heaps of words, stone upon stone cairn to mark the way above a tree
line, pointing think of the wound instead –
the units of the wound, these lake-worthy moments
the boarded – up houses we sleep in
My mother cuts the legs
off a moving crab.
The legs curl in a bucket
washed to garbage
to sea. When I come home,
I tread water on the carpet
and hang my head low.
Guillotine of the heart,
the wind causes trouble
between two trees.
The trouble causes splinters
enough to build a forest
in just one hand.
What can we learn
from disaster if not
the familiar angles of a face?
How I can touch yours and say Paul.
I crack open a geode
as a reminder of grace.
From the crystal center,
yolk splinters, pours.
25. Ellison, Tony Samuel, et al. Photograph Album. Twenty-two Albumen Prints: Life in the Louis Armstrong Houses with Views of Marcy Ave. Brooklyn, circa 1986.
A quaint example of urban pastoralism typical of an age when public policy and planning isolated urban poor like so many shepherds on a hill, these images capture a distant and harmless charm. A city block is cordoned for a riverless baptismal, for example; the skin of churchwomen in white linen buffs brown and brightens in sunlight beneath the spectrum shimmering from a fire hose, a curious counterpoint to hoses of Birmingham, these aimed skyward as if to cleanse the undercarriage of every chariot in heaven. In a style that marries Edward S. Curtis and Walker Evans, these images witness conflicting efforts to ennoble a stigmatized community. Of note is how the boom boxes of the youths, their fat shoelaces and hair-styling rituals obscure more complex, personal rites that would otherwise lift them one by one from the muck of type. Yet there is joy; the face of the bodega’s happiest man alive is carved from laughter and a lifetime of tobacco use. Carved deep like the rivers. Sentimental and simplifying, these images highlight the ease by which other can conceal a verb.
Oblong quarto, period-style full green morocco gilt; 22 vintage albumen prints, each measuring 8 by 10 inches; mounted on heavy card stock each measures 10 by 14 inches. $7500.
Original photograph album of Urban America circa 1986, with 22 splendid exhibition-size albumen prints
837. Wilson, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising Consciousness in the Post-Nationalist Home. Blacktalk Press, Lawnside, NJ, 1974. 642 pp., illustrator unknown. 10 ½ x 11 7/8”.
Want tips for nursery décor? Masks and hieroglyphics, akwaba dolls. Send Raggedy Ann to the trash heap. This tome is a how-to for upwardly mobile black parents beset with the guilt of assimilation. Revealed here are the safetypinnings of the nascent black middleclass, their leafy split-level cribs and infants with Sherman Hemsley hairlines. Of interest are bedtime polemics on the racist derivations of “The Wheels on the Bus.” Chapter headings address important questions of the day: How and how soon should you intervene if you suspect your child lacks rhythm? When do you prepare your little one for the historical memory of slavery? And the two cake solution: one party for classmates, and another one you can invite your sister’s kids to. Indispensible to collectors for whom Aesop’s African origin is no matter of debate, a more appropriate title for this book might nonetheless be, “What to Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting Revolution.”
Usual occasional scattered light foxing to interiors; contemporary tree calf
exceptional. About-fine condition. $75.00
Last night I dreamed you gave me a rabbit.
It is time, you said, then extended your hands,
the rabbit unfolding slowly from your chest,
trembling. The rabbit was white with dark eyes,
which I have never seen in waking life,
and lighter than rabbits I have held before.
One of its ears slipped between the buttons
of my shirt and touched my stomach. I tried to think
of what the soft ear felt like on my stomach,
but as I did you disappeared. The rabbit
became an enormous white dandelion.
I breathed on the dandelion and feather-seeds
scattered above my head before becoming
teeth that fell to the ground in sharp rain.
The headwind runs cool fingers
through my hair. The opal
of rain clouds & the treeline
lit up like the eyes of a woman
& I am drunk, pedaling faster
than I am dying. The divorce
getting smaller & smaller behind
me but still big enough I know
when it’s breathing. Drunk & fast,
I’m a procession of heartbeats
somewhere between where I’ve come from
& where I’m going. Long before
I met her, when I was still a child
the great bird of loneliness
came to roost in me. I didn’t want
to drink it to sleep tonight. I let go,
first my wedding hand, sinister hand,
certain hand, then the other, divorce hand,
love hand, writing hand. The frogs
purring in the creek & I close my eyes
as a way to hear everything
better. I pray
out loud because I’m the only human
creature there. I want to be a glad
man. I want to go up singing.
Forgive my hands, false
& true hands, fail & try hands
that each release so easy
let me be an animal
that believes again
& I hear them first, urgencies
of fur over the pavement
then open my eyes & I
see the rabbits
little arcs of their leaping
taking the shape of rainbows,
& disintegrating as quickly,
dozens of them, bolts
of brown & iron light
a promenade before the quivering
of my front wheel as if to say
this is a new road, it is the same
road but it is a new road, the rabbits
the rabbits & then it is night
& they are gone & I am alone
in my humming & burning,
the stars throwing
light from before the age
of vertebrates across space at me.
I saw the rabbits. I said
amen & I am still
saying it. I go home with dust
on my ankles. The rabbits
flashed east & west
in front of my face splitting
the air into two fists of turbulence,
roads often & less taken
& this burned me, eternally
the way music can burn
& home, at the river
my bicycle fluttering
against the house
from the ride & I stand
at the kitchen door hearing
what the current & the trees
have to tell me & I am rabbit,
I am furry-souled now, I have now a heart
with the hocks & long hind
legs of a rabbit, my deepest self
long-eared & listening
I have now a way to kick & sprint,
& a way of knowing the wind
& its fickle cousin the river,
I have two new hands.
I dream you into being—mongering wolf
who stands outside the self, makes
its way through the transparent world
& its motions, its laughter & quarrels,
its rows of teeth, its tears, its chiming of clocks.
The pages turn. Words often fall between
the rising walls where your shadow
draws to an end.
In some region of vellum & toccatas,
it will be as it is in this life, the same room,
simple rural day, & the cinema of sleep.
Stories one has never read.
More & more I see the human form,
a nothingness which longs to be the sea.
Lives infinitely repeated down to atomic thinness
like footfalls in a strange house. If need
be from nothingness, let today
froth from your mouth.
Sources: Jules Supervielle, Maxine Kumin, Yves Bonnefoy, Robert Fitzgerald, Tomas Transtromer, Pierre Reverdy, Sandor Csoori, Alain Delahaye, O.V. de L. Milosz, Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, Eugene Guillevic, Miklos Radnoti, Boris Pasternak
Cripple of light opening against my back.
The summer like blood clots.
Silences crowd here, inhuman & abandoned—
wide-mouthed red flowers whose sweat reminds us
of approaching war. Unsure between two borders,
on this deep trajectory, my body in a sea-gull
line behind me like smoke, frail
flicker in the wolf-howling to the west,
& secrecy, the human dress.
We still live in another world
& what is empty turns its face to us.
Night in all things: in corners, in men’s eyes–
bees in a dried-out hive. Thus we forget
that only words still stand like tar fires in the woods
with a strange animal smell, phosphorus
peeled from old bones. Country
of anonymous pains, to die means leaving
all these things unsolved—arrow, flower, fire.
Sources: Anne Marie Rooney, Sandor Csoori, Lucian Blaga, Tomas Transtromer, Angel Gonzalez, Paul Engle, Sara de Ibanez, William Blake, Philippe Jaccottet, Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Gumilev, Rolf Jacobsen, Gottfried Benn, Oswald de Andrade
With a cigarette between my fingers
and flowers bound up in her hair
dry morning bathes us
in the claw-foot tub. Asphyxiation
by drowning. This dawn welcomes us
to another side. Every bird lies
belly up while critters walk the wire
between worlds. The cracked abalone
gives its water. So floats the lone skiff,
her satin dress. Ashore, bodies bait the sun.
And if this afterworld could turn us
back, resurrection might seem less
magnificent. Like impossible succulents,
meaty vines, we soak in every drop.
And intricate systems pump life
through arterial hoses, strain veins
to their splitting point. And our hearts
bloated with intuition and lava
burst from the surface. All that ash
and pitiful flame. All our parched bits
smothered by smoke. Bury us
in this world after. Lock us into lucid rock
and porous memory, capturing
heat, old worlds, and mineral.
Let your lover fish pesos from his pocket
to buy you one bright pitaya—dragonfruit—
pink as your bra strap, with yellow, inedible
nipples. You’ll want to devour it then,
thirsty as you are, dizzied from the heat
and his hand on your thigh, the other steering
cracked highways, radio hissing faraway norteño
with every right turn.
Forget the fruit in each hotel he brings you to.
It’s buried beneath wet clothes, a baggie
with toothbrush and soap. Let him peel you
with his mouth, scoop you with his hands
to each hard bed, every rough maroon comforter
that dissolves you like sugar. Let him call you
sweet in an accent that hurries your kisses
across his skin like water.
It’s best eaten cold, he’ll tell you in the morning.
Dream of its taste like his flesh,
if he disappeared tomorrow. Dream of its color
like heirloom suns flaring above Coba, Tulum,
baking your shadows in ruins. Leave it firming
in the fridge, but have him steady your hand
when you’re ready, the shaking blade splaying
its center: two ice-white glaciers.
He will offer its seeded belly with a spoon—
he’ll feed you all of it, tickling
your throat like goodbye, all instantaneous melt.
How could you ever depict its flavor?
Call it a doorway—you will never again return
to the pale, misspent girl; the you before dragonfruit.
Now you carry the tart pucker of those exotic husks,
now you’ve crossed over.
Stone flung to crater: we gather what we can of the dead, but they remember us in our entirety, filling our pockets with bones and pink rhododendron.
We pass the pavilion, toward the wooden skiff, its nets suspended in loam. You winnow through the ruin of porous shore, your hands murky with sea urchins, palms stung with their dying stars. The basalt gods gaze on, graved full of moon. They eclipse dark at dusk. They are not our gods.
You move among them, a constellation of absence threaded through the fractured lights
 Jeju Do is the name of an island located off the southeast coast of South Korea. Hallasan is the name of the volcanic mountain on the island.
STILL LIFE WITH FALLEN GAME
For (and after) J
At the edge of want, everything is cast
into ebbed relief; not only each
waxed and gorgeous object,
but the distance between:
boar-shadow and bloodied quail, which is to say,
the negative space that desire is:
between what we want and what we are capable of,
overripe peach as slow eclipse ::: lover
turning afield – praise be
hunger and fear, the brutal devotions
that will lean us out
praise be to what this dark bounty
would hallow us into
EPITHALIUM WITH SPIDER AND SPARROW
See what our bodies make
of each other, my seraph sung
from reed and seeding stalks;
my blue-mouthed beauty –
see what ellipses we
spin and snare, radiant
of limb and muddied wing.
NO BODY, NO TOWN
Whiskey, my father said, can live
in an oak barrel for seventy years. As for me,
I shed skin, and every year I am a new
girl. I need no time to marinate.
It is said that I ruined my body with butter,
Midwestern comfort, and boys
who say, “Missour-ah” loud and benevolently
as they knock back a beer with a twang.
They gather me and drink; their hangovers kill.
The cashiers stare when I need soap
and a crate of apples; they forget
to give me change. They fumble,
mistaking a five for a twenty.
Green eyes, my mother said, are a sign
of an incurable meanness. She always knew
this is no country for women.
When making a fruit salad, does he leave you
the mango pit to suck on?
Do the sweet strings get stuck in your teeth
until you swear off palpable love forever
as though it were a bad habit, a perpetual
Do you love a man’s body or do you prefer
the softness of a woman’s, an apricot
that is dull enough to adore, but quickly
tart and sharp in the back of your mouth?
When I say the word “resentment”
who do you think of first?
When I ask you how many times you had
to cut your own hair with a butcher knife
don’t tell me this was done in your sleep.
He hands me the mango pit, but only
as a replacement for his finger tips, which
are unavailable, forlorn and usually out
of reach physically and spiritually.
The only sweet strings are the ones I pull,
a craft learned in college and in bed.
I love how hard a man’s body can be;
it can cut through tomato skins and muffle
screams like chloroform can. A woman’s
body is lethal in different ways,
like how children can pluck legs off unsuspecting
spiders and leave them dying on the playground.
When you say the word “resentment”
I think of my mother, for she only taught
me to love men who didn’t need women.
And I would never deny sheering off
the one thing that made me beautiful;
but the thing about hair, is that the second
time it grows back, it devours.
When I pick Kirti up from the bus station, I don’t want to look at her all at once. It’s been years since I’ve seen her last and I want to take her in piece by piece. I look at her brown arms that hug her dirty yellow backpack to her chest, a pose too childish for her twenty-three years. Her elbows are so dark they’re nearly purple, from the bunching of her skin. Her right ear has a ring pierced through the top of it, like a goat’s.
“Let me take that.”
“It’s not heavy.”
I unlock the car. It’s a hot day and the seats have been baking in the sun. Kirti rolls her window down. She’s got sunglasses on that cover most of her face, so I’m allowed just her large, elegant nose and her cheeks, browner than I remember.
“It’s almost never hot here.”
“I don’t believe you. Remember last time I came?”
“You’re just picking hot days to visit. We can go to the beach.”
She’s looking out the window, her hair, loose, blowing all around her face. Prettier than me, of course, as little sisters are. The sunlight falling on her face looks like internal radiance, that old trick. Her lips are parted and I can see the white-yellow edge of her teeth.
“I don’t feel like the beach,” she says.
We get out of the car, and I notice that her gait has changed. It has become slower and more swaying, a little dreamy. She lets me hug her, but holds herself away. The house is clean—has been cleaned for her. The day before I came home from work early to dust and vacuum and put away. From the corner of my eye I watch Kirti as she looks around. She hardly seems impressed, but I didn’t really expect her to be. I take her to the guestroom where the air mattress is all set up and she puts her backpack down at last. She’s wearing an uncharacteristically loose dress that gathers on a cord at the neck and falls to her knees. Her legs are unshaven, hairy as a man’s.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Kirti.” I catch myself. “You don’t look fat. I’m not saying you’re fat.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s the way you’re holding yourself.”
She rubs her hands in her hair. She’s taken off her sunglasses, finally, and I can see her black, bus-tired eyes. “Okay. I was going to tell you. I just didn’t want you to freak out.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
Since there is no place to sit except the air mattress, we stand awkwardly in the doorway. I have managed, at least, to keep my voice tremendously level.
“Have you told mom and dad yet?”
“Not yet. They’re going to lose it.” Then she says, “Where’s Brianne?”
“She went to pick up sandwiches for lunch. Are you hungry?”
She shakes her head.
“What do you want? We have OJ and milk, and I have some of that French lemonade mom used to get.”
“Just some water.”
I go to the kitchen and lean against the counter. It’s hot. Even with all the windows open, we’re not equipped for it, have only one mostly ineffective fan. Something I have not thought of, since we use it in our room when we sleep. We’ll have to buy another one for Kirti to sleep tonight. Take a few deep breaths. In an emergency I am often calm, and can hold myself back until it’s passed. I pour my sister a glass of buttermilk and bring it to her. She’s moved to the living room, slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the couch.
“Water, I said.”
“Have it, na?”
She wraps both hands around the glass and holds it to her cheek, then her forehead. Cold, and slightly sour, sweetish too, and thick. I remember her, of course I do. She drinks it quickly and with pleasure, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Do we have to talk about it right now?”
“No,” I say. “We don’t have to do anything. Have you seen a doctor?”
“I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Kirti, are you crazy? You have to see a doctor.”
“For fuck’s sake, I saw one. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“What did she say?”
Kirti shrugs. “I’m about four months in. Everything looks fine. Need to take folic acid. No papaya, which is weird. But okay, I don’t really eat papaya.”
“Yes, four months, stop repeating everything.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying—I’m just trying to get my arms around it.”
“Listen, Anu, I promise we can talk about this. I just really, really don’t want to right now, okay? Can we please talk about something else?”
But we both can think of nothing else to say, and so we sit together in silence. Kirti runs her finger along the rim of the glass to scoop out the last of the buttermilk that has clung to the sides. She’s hungry but won’t ask for food. Her body, even now, is skinny, partly because she is naturally lean and partly because she hasn’t been taking care of herself. Her hair is thin, pulled back from her face, fuzz at the widow’s peaks where you can see the scalp. In this light, her skin is waxy and sallow. Skinny—our mother was never skinny. From my earliest memory she had a soft comfortable body that spread out with age, each hip large enough to seat a baby or a small child. Her lap, sought in moments of distress or the babyish need for comfort, often provided the kind of solace the mother’s body gives, even while her mind is elsewhere.
I am not skinny like my sister. My hips are wide, childbearing hips. My thighs and belly, between which I carry my useless womb, are both soft, a fact that in earlier years shamed me, then made me hopeful, and now seems like a waste.
Brianne’s keys are in the door and then she appears. Tall for a woman, my Brianne, pale and slender, wearing a checked shirt, carrying the bag of sandwiches. A moment passes between us that is enough to make the smile on her face wane slightly, but she puts down the bag and says, “Kirti, you’re here. It’s good to see you,” and Kirti stands and lets herself be embraced.
“It occurred to me that we don’t have a fan for her. For tonight.”
Brianne’s look says Is that all that’s the matter. “I got one while I was out. Arctic Hurricane.”
“You’re incredible,” I say and get up to kiss her. She puts a hand on the small of my back. We took tango classes one summer and she liked it more than me. But we were not well matched in tango, we both tried to lead.
“How long was the bus ride?”
“Thirteen hours, Jesus, you must be exhausted,” I say. “I didn’t realize it was that long from San Diego.”
“I didn’t come from San Diego,” says Kirti. “I think I’m going to lie down for a little bit.”
Kirti herself was a sort of surprise, at least to me, born a full ten years after my birth, to the month though not the day, in summer. I had long gotten used to my place in the world, and watched my mother’s belly grow for months with a mixture of anxiety, envy and anticipation. During this time my mother was self-contained and dreamy, and I grasped her hair, her hem, her fingers often in my hands, though I was already too old, wanting to reach her. Her lap, which had often held me, became to full to fit me, so I placed my head there, until that too didn’t fit. My father stood with me on this distant shore, watching my mother drift out further and further, though he seemed less troubled by it—she had already once returned to him. But she never returned to me, not quite. Instead, my father joined her and I stood alone, looking over the gulf that separated me from my mother and father, and feeling myself to blame.
Kirti arrived tiny, born premature, and stored for the first few days in a plastic case in a room full of infants in plastic cases, row after row of them arranged before the window like unopened toys. My parents spent their days and nights in the hospital, and I stayed with my next door neighbor, Tillie, and her mom, who took us, every day, to the community pool. I saw my sister just once in the hospital and couldn’t hold her. My dad held me up and pointed: that one, three over from the right. I didn’t know how he could tell. She looked just like all the other babies.
But something did come over me, when I at last got to pick her up. She was too weak to hold up her own head. Her hands were pink and exact, replicas in miniature of my own. Her skull, still soft, rested in the cup of my hand and her eyes looked right into mine. I looked back into those eyes and smiled.
She naps for most of the afternoon. Napping, maybe reading in there, or just looking out the window at the tree in the backyard, which brushes its leaves against the glass with the wind. Brianne and I eat together, and talk, quietly, about the news Kirti has brought. I can see immediately Brianne’s relief, which is premature, and entirely misplaced. She is more of a mystic than me and trusts the universe to provide everything one desires, at the right time of course. When she tells me this I ask her about people who are poor or dying of AIDS. Why hasn’t the universe provided them with a cure, money for dinner? What makes us so special? Brianne shrugs. Maybe they’re not asking right, is what she says, which we both know is a bullshit answer.
“She hasn’t said anything—anything—about adoption. We don’t know anything yet. And even if she does—”
“Do you think she wants to be a mother and raise a child? She’s come here for a reason.”
“Please, please stop,” I say. I’m sort of furious. “We don’t know anything yet.”
“You can’t trick yourself out of getting hurt by not hoping for things.”
I look away from her. There are tears in my eyes. The worst thing right now would be for Kirti to walk in and catch us: two dirty lesbians scheming to steal away her baby. Brianne doesn’t know Kirti very well and what little she knows should make her suspicious—my sister has the most fickle heart of anyone I’ve ever known. We finish our meal in silence. After the dishes are done there is nothing to do: we cleaned yesterday, and did the grocery shopping; laundry’s not until next week. Emails have been answered, bills have been paid. I had thought that the three of us would go for a walk, to the park or the beach, or go see a movie. I have made a list of restaurants to suggest for dinner, but have not planned for this. Kirti’s presence in the other room is constraining. We move quietly. I pick up my book, but have trouble focusing, I keep moving my eyes over the same sentence, the same three words.
Brianne wants a baby too, of course, almost as badly as I do. Not badly enough to carry it inside her and give birth to it, that’s the difference. After the usual sperm bank stuff failed, I had six rounds of IVF and three miscarriages within the first trimester; the other times my womb rejected the eggs outright. After the last miscarriage, I decided to stop trying. It felt too much like when I was in high school and in love with a girl in the senior class. I was a freshman. That girl was so tall and cool, she had a perfect face, and it was a shame to love her. I was so ashamed of it. Something about the way I had been made was wrong, I had been assembled incorrectly. I could at that time already see the ways in which Kirti had improved on me: bubbly, a charmer, a pretty child, and social, with her plump little cheeks and arms. It was all you could do when you saw her, little imp, with jam inexplicably smeared around her mouth, to not pick her up and kiss her. As she grew older she thinned, her cheeks and thighs became sleek. But that was an improvement on me, too.
She’s in her studio, Brianne, listening to Philip Glass. I can hear him, muffled, through the kitchen wall, circling himself, and adding, circling, and adding.
“What time is it?”
Kirti’s sleepy voice. Her hair’s mussed, nearly standing on end in the back, her feet are bare. And, I can’t help it, I see her, for a moment, exactly as I always did when she was little, her plump face further softened by sleep.
“Five, I think? Five-thirty?”
“I slept.” She sits down next to me on the couch and puts her head against my shoulder. Her hair is soft, a little oily against my cheek.
“Yes. For a few hours. Are you hungry?”
“Your sandwich is soggy.”
I bring it to her on a plate, and she eats it quickly.
Nods again. Mustard on her cheek. I wipe it with my thumb. I bring her some bread and cheese and milk and a cold, peeled egg, which she eats with an unthinking hunger I have never seen in her.
“Your new place is nice,” she says when she’s finished. “It sort of makes you think how much of a dump your old place was.”
“I mean, you fixed it up nice. But it was sort of just a cardboard box.” She looks at my face and says, “I’m giving you a compliment.”
“Where are you living?” I say.
“Well, sort of—sort of—I was living in Fresno for a while—”
“Yeah, and then I was visiting some friends up in Nevada City. There’s a farm up there we were all working on. I worked there for a few months.”
“And now—well, nowhere, I guess. I have some of my stuff in storage back in San Diego.”
“Where are you going once you leave here?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“And you were thinking maybe you could stay here.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything, Anu.”
“It sure seems like that, doesn’t it.”
She, oddly, remains pacific, only shrugs. “What’s amazing about life is that you never quite know where it will take you.”
“So you’re just swimming in the sea of life, huh, just floating on your back, drifting this way and that, wherever the current takes you, impregnated—maybe like a jellyfish, they just shoot their sperm out into the water, you know, Fresno, Nevada City, your sister’s place, and then who knows where for what or for how long and what after? The universe is full of mysteries.”
“Jellyfish shoot their eggs in the water too. They don’t get pregnant.”
“Okay, thank you Mr. Scientist.”
“I can leave, you know. I’m happy to leave.”
“And go where? To mom and dad?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
She looks proud. That familiar tilt of her chin. She used to confess to me, when she was little, her crimes, her secrets. She used to hug my neck as she slept and I was the one to carry her from the car. Now, I cannot see the oily panic that may be welling underneath the surface of her calm, or the anger. But she’s come here, hasn’t she, to me and not someone else. Perhaps she’s in trouble—and then I almost laugh for thinking of it like that: what does trouble look like if not this?
“Kirti,” I say. “Stay, okay? I’m sorry. Stay.”
She just nods.
The drive to dinner is silent, no surprise there. Brianne and I refrain from the private conversations couples sometimes conduct in public through glances, touch. She drives, and I look out the window. Kirti, sitting kitty corner from me in the backseat looks out the window too. I glance up and see her averted eyes in the rearview mirror. She’s showered and changed into a new, but similar dress, gathered at the neck and cotton, loose. This one is white; she knows well to set that color against her skin. It is her trick to glow when you catch her in your vision but are too afraid to stare, some illusion she must have learned early in life and has always used to her advantage. At the restaurant, we order a bottle of wine for the table, and she has a few little sips. “In Europe they drink through the whole thing,” she says, and I let it pass along with everything else.
“So, Kirti, you were in Nevada City? Farming?” Brianne says, bravely wading in.
“What was it like up there?”
“Oh, beautiful. We had chickens. When I first got there it was snowing, and we were all staying in this trailer together. We had to wake up really early—I mean, really, really early. And work with your hands, you know? And at the end of the day, you had these eggs, you’d planted carrots for the summer, and harvested—turnips or whatever, there wasn’t that much during the winter—you had the feeling you were really doing something. It wasn’t just punching things into a computer all day. You made food.”
“I worked on a farm for a summer too.”
“You did?” I say.
“Yeah, back in Boise.”
“You never told me. A potato farm?”
“We grew other things,” she says. “Aside from being stunningly homophobic, Boise’s pretty nice.”
“So you say.”
Kirti shifts in her chair. She dips her finger absently in her glass and licks at the residue the wine has left. I try to remember back to what all my books said about four months pregnant. Does she ache, are her breasts tender? Can she feel the baby move inside her? She has not yet rested her hands on the neat curve of her belly the way that pregnant women always seem to do, which sends a knife through me every time. She feels watched, and looks up, not shying from me, meeting me, my eyes with hers. They are the same color as mine but slightly different in shape, rounder, and have a small pocket of red in the inner corner of each, the first place to be filled with tears. They are sad eyes, even when they are not sad, when they gaze calmly across the table.
“I still can’t get her to come visit,” Brianne says to Kirti. “It’s been ten years and she won’t visit my hometown. They have bike lanes!”
“I just don’t want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome.”
Brianne tilts her head and lifts her eyebrows at me, you want to do this now?
I shrug. You brought it up.
“My parents are pretty old-fashioned,” she says to Kirti, half apologizing.
“Ten years, and where are the Shahs?”
“At least they’ve met you,” I say.
“Oh god, our parents are the worst.” How easily she can say that, Kirti, how much it takes for granted. “You can’t take it personally.”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
It’s empty. I wet a paper towel and pat it all over my hot face. When I get back to the table, Kirti is telling Brianne that they made their dresses from old sheets they found on the farm. Brianne’s face is fixed on my sister’s: not politely, but with genuine interest, at her story or her prettiness I’m not sure.
“I didn’t know that you knew how to sew.”
“It’s not that hard. They had a sewing machine.”
“We have some maternity clothes at home you could have,” says Brianne, “right?”
“Right,” I say. The food comes, but I’m not all that hungry. The wine has soured my mouth. Kirti eats and eats, finishing her plate of pasta, and then mine when it’s offered. She likes the restaurant, the food, it’s been a long time since she’s been taken out. My parents will lose it, they really will, but they’ll get the grandchild they feared they’d never have, and will soften and forgive when they see its face.
“If you guys want to,” Kirti says, in a show of politeness. We order three kinds.
At home she tries on a pair of jeans with the stretchy front panel and a pretty, expensive dress that we never should have bought to begin with, empire waist, eyelet lace, white, with little sleeves. We had been excited, the first time. At the store I tried everything on, filling out the extra room with my imagination. The clothes still have their tags.
“You can keep that,” I’m sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching her look at herself in the full-length mirror hanging from the bathroom door. “It looks really nice on you.”
“It’s a little big.”
“You’re going to get bigger.”
“It’s too hot for pants.”
She pulls them off her. Then she pulls the dress off too and stands in her underpants in front of the mirror. No bra, and her breasts have swelled, tipped in brown nipples. There is something almost grotesque about it, her belly, big as the distended belly of a starving child. A faint black line runs down the center of her, as though drawn in by a pencil. Her face is so tender.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Shasta.”
“If you want your baby to grow up to be a hippy.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad.” She looks at me in the mirror. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“I never said you were dumb.”
“I can see it. What you’re thinking.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“You used to tell me that I was dumb. You used to sit with me in the back of the car and whisper it in my ear.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do. I’m surprised you do, though. You were little.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“No. Of course not. I was just a kid. You only remember the bad parts.”
“I don’t,” she says, “I remember other things.”
She thinks. “Like…how you let me sleep in your bed. You didn’t just lie down next to me, you put your arms around me.”
I remember that, too. Warm and soft as a little animal, burrowing. She would narrate her dreams as she dreamt them.
She holds my gaze in the mirror. “Don’t I look different?”
“Yes. You didn’t use to look like such a mountain woman.”
She smiles, my beautiful sister. I ask, “Whose baby is this?”
She pulls her farm-made dress over her head, and sits on the lip of the bathtub. “Well, at the farm, I met—he owned the farm. He’s a little bit older.”
“And what happened?”
“What do you think?” She shuts her eyes tight for a minute, and opens them, still dry. “He wasn’t married, but he had just separated from his wife. And he had a little kid already with his wife. A baby, really. It’s messy, you know, he didn’t tell her about me and I met her, I met them both, that little kid and—anyway. It’s done.”
“Done? What does done mean?”
“I mean I left. He didn’t want anything to do with it. So I just left.” Her eyes are all red. “Don’t say it.”
“Whatever you were going to say.”
“You think I’m going to yell at you?”
“You want to, don’t you?”
I look at her, trying to see her as a stranger would. For one thing, I can see nothing childish about her at all, not the firmness of her pose, not the tight set of her jaw, not the pucker between her brows. For another, I can see it now, not panic, not anger, but sadness, vast and ocean gray coming up through her eyes and tilting the corners of her mouth, though she doesn’t cry. And shame, plastered over by false pride, the way she has deliberately squared her shoulders. How she’s grown since I’ve last seen her. It’s taken me this long to sniff out her broken heart.
“I want you to have her.”
With something like anger, I say, “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“Have you thought about it?”
“I thought about it, Anu.”
“Think about it more.”
“If you don’t want her just say so.”
Her. Not it, her. I look away. Kirti is just in the corner of my eye, and luminous again. A student, an artist, a stock girl, a farmer, a mother for nine months and then whatever she wants next, passing from one thing to another, as easily as a little bird darting from flower to flower. A child, six, and careless with a doll that had once been mine, drawing on its face with indelible ink, blacking out the eyes.
“I thought you would be happy.”
Shaking my head. “Why didn’t you get an abortion?”
“Because of you.”
In the bedroom Brianne is sleeping with a book open on her chest. The fan is on, and ruffles her hair and the pages every time it swings around. There is a small smile on her face, which is just the way her mouth is at rest, like a dolphin’s or a dog’s. She wears glasses to read.
I like this room. The bed takes up most of it, but it has a big window that looks out onto the city, a shelf of light in this dark. I don’t think I can sleep. I change into my nightgown and have to climb over Brianne to get into bed. Reading Moby-Dick again, and she’s lost her page. I shut the book and take off her glasses and switch off the light. A baby, three of us, a tiny army against a hostile world—is that what I had thought? Or proof that I was who I was meant to be, that I could give myself whatever I needed? I wanted that small body in my arms. It is something that existed before reason, words. Her arms around my neck.
“Are you crying?”
“Not really.” Brianne turns over and puts her warm feet against my shin. “Are we going to be parents?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she say?”
“She says things just to please people all the time.”
With a sigh, she pulls herself up, out of sleep. “Why do you think so little of her?”
“Do you think she’s prettier than me?”
“Anu. I’m not going to do this with you.”
Her face is a soft shape against the window. So pale, so reasonable, my Brianne, my complement, my opposite, my shame, my heart, my worst fear. One summer she took my two fists in her hands and unclenched them, smoothed them out to the palms, and I fell in love.
“Let’s go swimming tomorrow. We haven’t gone in such a long time.”
“If the weather holds.”
Which will go first, Kirti or the heat? I can see her in dirty shorts and a straw hat, standing on the top of a hill. The farm covers the slope in verdance, curly heads of lettuce, vines of blooming squash, Paleolithic fronds of kale. A man, the father, stands beside her with no face. And between them stands the child, their natural daughter, skin the color of earth, wheat colored hair, hands tiny bunches of carrots, cooing. I reach my hands out to this girl and she runs away.
After breakfast we drive north, out of the city. Kirti rolls the window down. She is delighted to be crossing the bridge, which wears today a skirt of fog that will vanish before noon. She’s borrowed a two-piece that barely fits her breasts, and she looks oddly voluptuous when she takes her dress off at the shore of the lake. Her eyes are less tired than yesterday. Brianne holds her arm to mine, as she often does, to compare our colors, never in her favor. Out of the three of us, she is the only one to slather herself so entirely in sunscreen, she smells of it pinkly. We sit on a blanket on the shore, heating our bodies until we feel the desire to cool them in the lake, Brianne with Moby-Dick, Kirti with a book on philosophy she’s picked from our shelves, and me with a magazine that I look up from often, to stare out across the water. A pair of children in colorful bathing suits wade into the lake, and I think of Tillie and me, swimming at the community pool the week of Kirti’s birth. Tillie had wanted to splash around and make up water games—kid’s stuff. I just wanted to swim from one end to the other. I’d touch the wall of the pool and turn right back around again, shutting my eyes tight against the stinging chlorine.
The baby would look like me. The greater world would see her and assume she was mine without question. But I would know. In three years, another person might return to me, someone who has finally settled with the wildness of her youth, coming to me with her arms open, wanting back her child. And how easily the world could tilt from mother to aunt, aunt to mother.
“Christ, Anu, are you always this morose?”
I look up at her. She’s crosslegged on the blanket next to me, sitting up very straight. Somewhere along the line she has corrected her terrible posture.
“Don’t needle me.”
“It’s not hot enough yet.”
I look at Brianne. “How many times are you going to read that book?”
“Go on,” she says.
I take off my shoes and walk with my sister to the water, watching her slow, careful steps. So close, she smells peppery, and her back bears the traces of dormant acne. There’s a welt on her arm, purple in color and perfectly triangular, where once, long ago, I accidentally burned her with the tip of an iron. I touch it. The skin has cooled and healed, but still remembers.
“That hurt like crazy,” she says, looking.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
We’re at the water. It is cool, but not cold. Touches our feet, pulls away, returns. Our wet skin is the same color.
“I can feel her move now. It’s so weird. She has eyelashes already.”
“You can’t feel that.”
“The doctor told me.”
Kirti walks in a little further, covered in goosebumps, feeling at the ground with her feet before she puts her weight down. Her shins, and then her knees. “Be careful,” I say.
Her thighs, her waist. Then all at once, she ducks her head down and disappears, and comes up grinning.
“I do it slowly.”
“It’s worse that way.”
I wade in to my knees, then my thighs. The water is cold under the skin of the sun-warmed surface, true cold, and murky from the silt stirred up by our limbs. I feel bright, entirely awake. I too duck under the surface of the water and hear it booming in my ears. Push out and knife my body into the water, pulling myself with my strong arms. Kirti is just a few feet away, floating on her back. Her toes poke the water, her nose, her breasts, her belly. Her eyes are open, serene. Standing, I look back at the shore, Brianne is sitting right where we left her, pale pink and tiny. In that entire thousand-page copy of her beloved book, there is only one sentence I found underlined and starred by her hand: Ah, the world! Oh, the world!
The trick of floating took me a long time to master. I was always sinking at the knees. It was Brianne who taught me, balancing my body’s mass in her hands in the YMCA pool. I doubt anyone had to teach my sister. I let the lake lift me. The trick is to stay loose, which is harder than it sounds. I can see us from above, two planets spinning their separate orbits. But we have the same eyes. She closes hers, I leave mine open, filling them to the brim with sky.