a family portrait

i.

 

my father is an electric guitar.

he spends most of his time displayed on the wall,

shining when the light hits him just so,

hovering in the perfect spot.

he is not new, but neither is he old–

used so rarely, he would gather dust

if he were not kept so pristine.

the only music i’ve ever heard him play is

carefully rehearsed,

read off a page of inky black notes,

perfectly following the italicized instructions,

 

con amore

bruscamente

diminuendo.

 

i never understood the words,

but they nestled in my psyche anyway.

 

i always thought he would be better if the instructions

were tossed away

and he was played instead of displayed,

his strings singing the wordless tune

of a mouth that knew what it would say

if it only had a voice.

 

ii.

 

my mother is a little black book,

filled cover to cover with tiny, illegible handwriting.

there are notes scribbled in her margins,

lists of wishes both practical and fantastic placed in columns,

some crossed off, some forever untouched.

she has handmade calendars scrawled across her,

dates for travel to far-off places marked carefully in royal blue ink,

trips to be prepared for post-haste.

she is made up of half-formed sentences

and dreams that are yet to be

and knowledge that is hidden between her pages,

next to the wisdom

that the i ching gave her.

 

iii.

 

i am the mirror that sits in the downtown train station.

silver and smudged, with handprints and graffiti around my edges,

i reflect the frazzled glances and unconscious preening

of the people who scurry by, tickets and suitcases in hand.

i explain to the shadowed boy that he should sleep on the train;

his travels have made him too tired for words, and everyone can see it.

i mention to the girl with sixteen bracelets and a scar on her throat that

there are still traces of her mother in her face, connections that she thought

she’d lost.

a little girl giggles

when i point out the chocolate on her lips.

i play back the little wonders that i see every day,

but i have no voice to add to them,

no lungs to scream my passions,

no thoughts that can take an idea and twist it into something new

to touch the minds of those who hear it.

i am a reflection of what you already know

and i am as beautiful and as hideous as my surroundings

 

and when the station empties and the lights go dim,

i am nothing at all.

a lie that tells the truth

please don’t write me as a ghost girl,

all blurry lines and faded features

that caricature themselves into the minds

of those that think they see me–

 

i am not a canvas.

my life is not a blank sheet for you

to paint your vision across,

and i have no wires in my bones–

you cannot pose me so i’ll catch the light

just so,

like a kaleidoscope of clever quirks

and tragic backstories;

 

i am written in the words i discard

when i write bad poetry at 3am, and if you look,

you can find me echoed back to you

in my all time top five favorite movies.

 

i am the way my hands hurt

when i get nervous;

i am the urge to speak italian,

even though after a year of classes, i can barely

say hello;

i am the calmness that hits

when i smell cigarettes, even though

i’ve never smoked,

and i am the grudges that have lingered

because i forget to let things go,

and i am the passive-aggressive comments

that i should be sorry for, but

never really am.

 

if you want, you can trace your pen along

the creases of my skin,

the slouch of my spine;

you can read my past in old photo albums

and taste my lips at midnight

and listen to the stories that i whisper in the dark

but when the sun hits us in the morning,

neither of us will light up the room

in a cacophony of kaleidoscopic beauty;

we will be piles of bone and sinew and sighs,

with morning breath and books to finish and work to do.

we are not ghost people.

kiss me anyway,

and smile when i say hello.

through struggle to the stars

before you were born,

you scraped per ardua

ad astra onto the inside of your collarbone,

and injected glowing nebulae

in between your vertebrae

because you always loved finding shapes

in star clouds

 

and on your longest days now,

when the heat wraps its loving arms around you

in an embrace you can’t escape,

and the sun lays salty beads across your skin,

you trace your collarbone absently

and draw a little strength out of your spine

 

and you’ll stoop a little more with each passing year,

but that’s okay.

it just means the star stuff did its job right.

the boy with twelve bracelets

the cobwebs of your past cling

to the inside of your ribcage

and gently strangle your heart.

 

when i saw you for the first time

i had already known you for weeks,

taken part in your gorgeous

conversations and watched you spread

laughter like a perfect virus

among all the people you met.

you wore twelve bracelets,

six on each wrist;

once upon a time they served

to cover a mistake you made

when you were thirteen,

but it wasn’t a mistake now

so much as a story

about a boy who was brave enough to keep breathing,

and you kept the bracelets just because their memory annoyed you

when you took them off.

 

that was what you said, anyway.

then i learned how sure you were

that you were only pretending

to be brave.

 

you wore a mirror as a face,

silver and starlike,

molded to your features and well-rehearsed

in reflecting just what you

knew people wanted to see

 

and one night,

terrified of seeing nothing but myself

in you

[and greedy to see your face]

i smashed the mirror.

 

i expected you to scramble to pick up the pieces,

to yell,

to scream,

but you just stood there,

fully clothed and naked in front of me,

and for the first time you whispered about

those cobwebs in your chest,

how they were killing you slowly,

strangling you–

how your heart couldn’t beat right,

your lungs couldn’t breathe

 

so with guesswork in my eyes and hope on your face,

i told you differently.

i told you those cobwebs weren’t strangling you,

they were staunching your wounds–

filmy bits of cloth that beat off the scar tissue

whenever it tried to form,

keeping you forever alive

and forever dying.

 

broken glass crackled under my feet as i

pulled your lighter from your pocket

and placed it in your hand,

 

and, with the moon watching impassively,

you set your past alight.

your nails tore into my palm,

my shoulders,

my back,

as the infected bandages burned away,

and your wounds,

for the first time in six years,

bled.

blood-red wine and skeleton jazz

i.

the day you left,

your cobweb dress clung to you in ways

that i would dream about for years,

in hot, fevered nights

when the moon thought it might burst

in the sky,

and even the wind wailed your name.

 

ii.

i remember how you called make-up war paint,

and you drew it across your face like a message

i could never decipher;

i remember how i got goosebumps when i heard

your heels clicking across the floor at 3am

when you finally got home and slipped into bed;

i remember longing for you with every fiber of my being,

feeling separate from you even when our clothes lay on the floor

and your fingernails dug into my shoulders

and your toes curled into the sheets.

 

you were always just out of reach.

 

iii.

i tried to break my fist against the wall

the day you left,

but i couldn’t punch hard enough

so i lay in bed nursing my bruised knuckles

and imagined you going to parties in hell,

drinking blood-red wine,

your skin glowing in the light of the flames,

decomposed corpses playing you jazz,

party-goers flocking around you like

the devil queen you were.

 

iv.

i imagined you everywhere.

you were a ghost

and i was haunted.

 

v.

i saw you once, years later,

and i had to blink to make sure you were real.

you were so normal

so banal

so human.

you weren’t an angel come to save me,

nor an otherworldly creature with moonlight in your veins,

nor an all-powerful being with burning skin

and cruel, bloody lips

and perfume that smelled like bottled sulfur;

you were just a girl,

riding a crowded subway at rush hour

 

and you smiled at me with recognition in your eyes,

but you didn’t say hello.

femme fatale

i killed a poet once

spoke words that grated against his skin

until he was blistered and numb–

until the frozen night air could blast

right through his hungry body,

whistling around his ribcage

and icing up

his veins.

 

i destroyed a poet once

when i told him i loved him;

i thought it was the thought that counted,

but it didn’t that time.

not with those words.

i got so tangled up in

lying to myself

i forgot he could tell

i was lying to him too.

 

i bruised a poet once

left fingerprints and scratches

as i tore apart his favorite words

until there was nothing left inside him but

the hollow beat of his heart

and my voice

saying things that mattered more

than i ever meant them to.

 

i kissed a poet once

and i tasted blood.

thimblefuls of milk

butterflies tear apart the inside of my stomach

and pristine paper crinkles under my fingertips

and the back of my neck itches from invisible eyes.

 

i like rabbits in my poems

and the sea in my words;

hipbones and collarbones and ribcages

and lungs that don’t work properly;

i like melancholy moments and shoulderblade wings

and toes curling into sand;

hot, empty summer nights under pitch black skies

and the smell of rain pounding onto tarmac

in my poems

 

and they tell you to kill your darlings

but i like mine quite a lot

so i feed them bowls of milk instead,

and let them sleep in matchboxes

on my dresser

and sometimes,

when butterflies tear apart the inside of my stomach

and pristine paper crinkles under my fingertips

they sit in the spot that i can’t quite see

and they tell me stories.

the boy who swallowed a star

the moon drizzles through the clouds.

i’ve been thinking of you.

 

sometimes during a storm,

i imagine that the electricity snapping through the air

is your touch;

that the rain splattering on the roof is your

fingers, tapping impatiently;

that the petrichor-infused wind

is your perfume,

your breath

 

and i walk,

letting the water kiss my eyelashes,

caress my collarbone,

tug on my clothes

 

i let the wind give me goosebumps

and fill up my lungs with the smell of

 

you, my nowhere boy

my shadow boy

the boy with constellation freckles and

sensitive veins, who would swallow a star

just to feel its fire.

 

it’s been storming a lot, lately.

i’ve been thinking of you.

salty insomnia

it was a quarter past midnight

and everything spoke in the rain.

 

the trees, the windows,

the roof

all murmured softly

 

and the girl lying under the sheets

listened.

 

insomnia-riddled and morning-

crushed, she searched the darkness for

dreams she could only have while awake

and the monsters under her bed

whispered hush,

so she pressed a hand against her lips

and tried to stop her lungs from crackling

too loudly.

 

evanescent snippets of sleep left her drained,

itchy, lost

as though the rain had washed the rest of the world away

while her eyes were closed

and she had been left alone.

 

when she gave up on sleep entirely

[as she did every night]

she went to the kitchen and sprinkled salt

on her tongue.

it tasted like the sea they had swum in together;

like the soup he had tried to cook;

like the tears she hadn’t been able to cry

since the nurse had pulled the sheets over his head

in the frozen hospital room

 

so she carried the salt back to [t]he[i]r bed

and curled up on his pillow.

 

the trees, the windows,

the roof

all murmured softly

 

and the girl lying under the sheets

listened.

 

beautiful melancholy

the dreams left a bitter aftertaste

that stained my day

like smoke making eyes water

long after the fire is put out.

 

sometimes i miss riding on trains,

i think,

when things were simple

and all i had to pay attention to

was the voice naming stations,

and all i had to listen to

was the clang of metal on metal

and all i had to look at

were the fields blurring in the windows

like the watercolor paintings i did as a kid.

 

because it was easier then,

traveling at a hundred miles-per-hour,

surrounded by suitcases

and people who averted their eyes and

turned up their ipods.

i think my DNA could have unraveled,

my atoms disintegrated,

my hipbones snapped and my spine shattered until

i turned into a pile of stardust,

and no one would have even glanced up;

i could have drifted out the window

into the mess of fields and sky without anyone

even

noticing

and this thought filled me with a beautiful sort of melancholy

that would last throughout the day.

 

but i don’t ride the train anymore.

i’m just a mess of tangled sinews and broken bones

instead of stardust

and the beautiful melancholy has left me with nothing

but a bitter aftertaste that stains my days

like smoke making eyes water

long after the fire is put out.

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