I learned to swim from being shipwrecked on your shore.
My hands still dream of the way your skin felt.
The truth is as rough and tangled as the creases in our hands.
We hold our breath, waiting for the fall to remind us we’re alive,
and there I am, one sorry, confused son of a bitch.
They never tell you it takes so long.
We hold our breath, waiting for the fall to remind us we’re alive,
and your eyes look like the sky before a storm.
They never tell you it takes so long.
My lungs are drenched with the weight of water.
Your eyes look like the sky before a storm,
and you hold me like mud.
My lungs are drenched with the weight of water,
and even now, you still have to remind me to breathe.
You hold me like mud -
I remember the day I knelt before you, knees aching against the soft grass.
(Even now, you still have to remind me to breathe.)
And the perpetuating game of truth and lies is played with dice and cards rather than certainty and expertise.
I remember the day I knelt before you, knees aching against the soft grass,
and here I am, one sorry, confused son of a bitch.
The perpetuating game of truth and lies is played with dice and cards rather than certainty and expertise.
The truth is as rough and tangled as the creases in our hands.
And I would ache again and again for the chance to love someone else the way I loved you.
Have patience. Train your heart like a dog: tell it it sit; tell it to stay. And God so help the person standing in the way when you say, “Sick.”
I will lay you to rest in notes by your bedside, adore you one last time as you sleep, bury you with the sun. I will come to you bare-faced, tell you the last train leaves in an hour, ask if I ever meant anything. My goodbyes will be apologies that drip through my teeth. I will say, “There is so much more than this.” I will say, “This will ever be enough.” Neither one of us will know what that means.
My feet will scream as I walk away. I will break my fingers when you ask to follow.
I will bury you with whiskey and cigarettes, with lilies and roads that spread through the darkness for miles. I will caress your memories like a violin, compose symphonies in skin and bone, draw my hair across your strings until sleep comes, pray I’m still the dream in your blood. I’ll bury you in fistfuls of sheets, weave you a casket of all the love letters I’ll never send, think of your lips when the bells toll.
I will wash you from my hands with water that burns through every place on my body you ever touched. And some days, I’ll think there will never be enough years to dig your grave, that the earth will never be deep enough. That I will collapse before I can put you under. That silence will fall between us like a sunrise. I will live and call it dying. But I promise you the night will be short. I promise you’ll bloom with the dawn.
I will bury you where my heart is still soft, tuck you in under my bruises, speak of you tenderly. Your eyes will pull at me like the tides. Your name will cling to my throat like honey. I will think of you often.
Daylight will stain my dreams. I will learn to sleep through hurricanes. My breath will go heavy when I walk your streets, and I will drown in the hours before you wake. I will run, but find my way home. I will cry, but not for the reasons that you think.
You talk about salvation as if it’s the river that will carry us home, as if it will fill the glass that’s never empty. You walk the senderos singing hymns that soak Sundays with heaven. You baptize me with kisses every time the plane lands.
There are days you forget the words. You ask me to put the milk in the cupboard or to turn on the windows. You let your thoughts trail off, leave sentences fragmented, unfinished. “I’m stupid,” you say. “This disease makes me stupid.” But beauty folds out of every hesitation, every unremembered phrase, every imperfect thought.
It doesn’t matter how many years pass, how many disagreements press against our lips, or how many times we falter, you always rub my back when I don’t feel well.
You dress up to go to the Burger Barn.
You send me to sleep with angels on my pillow, wish me dreams so bright I forget it’s night, remind me that with the darkness comes the stars.
We sit on the phone, not speaking, your fingers typing out emails on the other end. We work from home, from couches and beds and makeshift desks. From cities so far apart it seems like the miles sprawl endlessly between us, telephone lines sigh softly through empty rooms.
You walk your dog with a gun.
I stopped eating meat when I was ten - a decision long time coming. For almost ten years, you cooked separate dinners for me without judgment or complaint.
You whistle, often and off key.
We make the three-hour drive to South Padre Island, spend the days with the Gulf at our feet, spend the nights chasing fiddler crabs into the darkness.
“You got a dollar?” She says. “I’m just trying to get a couple dollars for the bus.” We walk the Missouri streets in the dark. You pull your purse to your chest, seeking out your wallet in the darkness, hand her a twenty. “Oh, bless you.” She says, “Bless you.” You look at me as she walks away, “It’s all I had.” You smile.
There are nights you still hold me while I cry. You cradle my heart in hands that have held every piece of me that’s been torn, hands that have rocked every sorrow to sleep.
You give me hell, and I give it back. There are things we may never understand, differences that will always push against us. But years and fights and age have weathered the touch. We’ve grown old. We’ve grown soft.
You are content to live simply, with your desert and your dog. Nearly half a century of the city has given way to roads not even streetlights can reach, unfinished homes, plywood floors. You live simply, but life isn’t easy. No stops for milk on the way home, no quick runs to the store. Everything takes time here. Patience. Trunks full of coolers, warehouses of canned goods and seltzer water, garbage pits dug deep into the dirt. Loneliness. Life isn’t easy, but the wilderness brings warmth and cactus blossoms and stars that shoot clearly through the night.
“We had a storm come through today.” I can hear you smiling over the phone. You laugh. “I get so excited every time it rains, I go outside and take a picture.”
You sing my name into every song.
At fourteen, I dye my golden hair red - an unnatural color, you say when you ground me. At fifteen, I cut it all off. You don’t say anything about this, but ground me again a year later when I shaved only the left half. You taught me to take risks despite what other people might think. Despite consequences.
We stand at the fence that barely manages to keep the neighbor’s bulldog in their yard. She paces the length of the lawn, barking. “She’s nervous,” you tell me, holding your hand out for her to smell. You talk to her softly, brushing your fingers against her head. You look at me and smile, “Sometimes, you just have to be patient.”
You send me cards just to tell me you’re proud of the woman I’ve become.
You miss the diversity of the city. “Everything is the same down here. When I see a black person, I sometimes just stand by them for a while,” you say, as if it makes you feel like you’re home.
I did theater every year of high school, bringing months of late-night rehearsals, silent memorization, four days of performances. And when winter came, you were in the front row for every show.
You make the entire family read the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July.
You drive me to the Laredo airport in the early evening, parking the car at the back of the lot and insisting on taking my photograph in front of the cowboy statue at the entrance. You stand with me as I check in, walk me to security, almost crying, and stand at the top of the escalators, waving until I’m out of sight.
You send me care packages filled with books and old spoons and prayers to get me through the night.
It took years for the doctors to make the diagnosis. The right one, anyway. “It’s a bit of a disability,” you say over the phone. “I can only work thirty-two hours when I’m having a flare up, but, you know, I can do more in thirty-two hours than most people can do in forty.” You work harder on principle, faster out of necessity. You never slowed down or settled or made excuses.
You teach us to plant gardens in our spinach at dinner, flattening the fields with our forks until they spread across the plate, tapping salt gently into rows we say will grow popsicles in the spring.
It’s November. I’m heartbroken and stranded on the snow-covered Milwaukee streets. I’d been without a car for months already, and my replacement was a 5-speed, gold Saturn. “A zippy car,” you said over the phone. My hands trembled when I took the wheel for the first time. You sat in the passenger seat, white-knuckling the door handle as first gear stalled me into frustration. You were patient, holding your breath until I could go more than a few blocks without killing the engine, until I could make it up a hill without rolling backwards.
You give us pajamas every Christmas Eve so you can still hold us while we sleep.
The house in Hebbronville shakes every night when the trains pass. We walk the trestles in the heat of the morning, looking for the glints of pressed copper in the gravel. The iron wheels can carry the coins for miles down the track, but we never venture that far. We fill our hands with all the pennies we can find, lay the twisted metal on the kitchen table, fly the memories home in our pockets.
You sent me to private school until I was seventeen, paying for an education that promised me college and God. And although I found both, it wasn’t in the ways you expected.
You tell Meryl to come say hi every time we Skype.
You let me sleep on the couch every night.
We brought Chinese food to grandma Edith’s every Saturday for five years, filling her living room with as many people as it would hold. We’d sit cross-legged on the carpet, plates full of rice and gravy, mouths full of stories, lips covered with ice cream and memories.
People come across the borders in packs. They build shelters out of hand-woven blankets and plastic bags, find home the things they can carry. They sleep in the desert, starve their homeland from of their body, wait for the next ride. On the days they come desperate and begging to your porch, you fill their water jugs, offer them food to get them through the night, let them call home, pray for them as you fall asleep.
You raised me on Les Miserables. We sang together until I knew the words to every song, until I understood the meaning of forgiveness and redemption and compassion. And the year I turned ten, we made the two-hour trip to Green Bay on mother’s day to see it live. I spent the four hours silently mouthing the words, and you sat next to me with hands full of tissues.
You always took the scary way home.
You still do the “parental arm” whenever you hit the brakes too hard.
We grip the rusted metal grate mounted on the back of the pickup. Red dirt pushes unevenly against the tires, and we rock back and forth in the heat of the Texas summer. We sing country songs - the few that I know - even though Dennis keeps saying it’ll scare off the wildlife. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because in that moment, we’re falling in love with the sun fading into the desert, the soft footsteps of the cattle in the underbrush, the prickly pears that climb higher than we can reach.
You smoke cigarettes in the attic when the winters in Wisconsin get too cold and unforgiving. This wasn’t the first time you tried to quit, but old habits always seem to find their way back to your lips. We hang no smoking signs on all the doors, steal the Marlboros from your jacket pockets, tell you we love you.
December fifth, and there’s always a package on my doorstep. You send stockings filled with everything the south Texas dollar store has to offer. You write your holiday greetings on floral stationary, wish me happiness, sign XOXO.
You spent the half an hour after I shower gathering wet hair into dozen of tiny braids that dried overnight into long, blonde waves.
You still braid my hair at the dinner table.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and you spend the morning cutting Pop-Tarts into hearts before anyone else is awake, toast them until they’re golden-brown, set them carefully beside the pink-enveloped cards on the table, wait for the sound of our eager feet on the stairs.
You fill my pantry with groceries every time you visit.
You dig the small cactus from the sendero, pushing the trowel deep enough to loosen the roots. The package arrives on my porch as the summer heat spreads across Missouri. I call to say thank you. “Make sure you wear gloves,” you reply.
We sit across from each other at Emperor’s Kitchen, the only people in an otherwise empty restaurant. “Why did he kill himself?” I glance at you. “He was an alcoholic,” you say. “I blamed myself for a long time.” We both try not to cry. You take a deep breath, brush the tears from your face. “I’d forgotten how to love until you were born.” Your feet brush against mine under the table. “I never knew I could love someone so much.” You smile.
You nursed me for years. (We won’t say how many.)
I will never know the sacrifices you’ve made for me - the things in life you’ve wanted, but left untouched; the things you’ve reached for, but never held.
I love you, I love you, I love you.
I traced the constellations of her back.
The tides of blades that rose from weathered skin,
in sloping rhythms sunk to dreaming sheets.
My hands found freckled novas on her spine;
lips eclipsed fragile lunar sighs from lungs
that taught me how to breathe the equinox.
He negado que te amé.
(He mentido debajo de las sábanas.)
Y soñé con irme y la vuelta. Y con no volviendo.
Porque todos se van.
(Y por eso, debo dejarme).
He deseado el suspiro de tus labios hinchados,
la caricia de tus manos, la cuna de tus caderas
(las garras secretas de tus enigmas).
He negado que todavía lloré.
Yo sé que las nubes son tus respiros trás el cielo.
(Siempre anhelo los halos.)
Y dentro de tus pulmones encuentro mis lágrimas.
(Porque a veces, nadie vuelve.)
She could take God’s breath away with her sleepless
mind and the way her tongue mines gold
from her teeth and lips. Her restless smile spins
tales and lies, and her unsettled eyes
awaken adventures that would make the sun
blush and the devil walk
back into the night. We walk
clumsily, still half asleep,
finding our graceless way toward the sun.
Day breaks across the sky - gold,
blinding, beautiful - and we close our eyes,
hanging wishes on the first light, the world spinning
softly and silently, somehow elegant in the wake of our mad-spun
minds. Her fingers curiously, lazily walk
my spine, daylight shining in her eyes.
The stairs slowly climb us to sleep,
the pale glow of dawn running gold
along the walls, and the faint curve of sun
slumbering across her face - a halo for her sunless
body. Our troubled tongues spin
silk into the night, and I dream of wrapping her fingers in gold.
Rain shivers against the pavement as we walk
the puddles home, hoping to never sleep
again, to never shut our eyes
when the light fades dismally and starry-eyed
into the dusk. The weightless kiss of her sun-
drenched skin falls warm and sweet with every sleeping
breath, and handsome nightmares spin
solemnly beneath soles numb from walking,
hair falling in twists and knots of gold
against her back, gold
across my chest. My day-swept eyes
stare long and low, my feet walking
tirelessly beneath the sheets. The sun
hushes the dark on the horizon, memories spin
too fast to sleep.
She walks into the room dripping in gold,
stars sleeping beneath still-dreaming eyes.
She opens the shades to the morning sun, and the room starts to spin.
There will be no second chances. No baring
of teeth. No bitter tears. No faltering goodbyes.
There will be no shyness in the voiceless soaring
of stars. No shame in the first glance of morning.
No hesitant lingering in the cold and broken sea
of hollow lies waiting desperately to be heard.
There will be no time for repentance here.
No silent prayer for sins we cannot bear.
No mercy at the hands of all we have seen.
No salvation for those of us caught by
the wide net of dreams. No mourning
the hopes that have died and left us sore.
There will be no brief triumph that soars
softly with the delicate relief of hearing
the first bleak calls of birds in the morning.
There will only be this: a fever that bares
you in the heat of uncertainties; the byes
that leave you lost and alone in the sea.
There will be fear for what’s coming, seeing
what’s always been tucked behind still-sore
wounds. And the sorrows will come by
the torrents - heartache for all that’s here
and all that’s gone. There will be hell to bear,
wrongs never righted, a constant mourning
of what will never be, unshakeable mornings
that tangle your lips in an unapologetic sea
of words you’ll never speak. Your bare
ribs will spread like wings eager to soar,
and there will be times you’ll refuse to hear
all the breathless and threadbare goodbyes.
But, there will also be this: slowly getting by,
learning to miss the timid stars that mourn
the sun at dawn. And then you’ll know: here
is where it all begins. You’ll know you haven’t seen
the end, the tears will never leave you sore,
and there will be more love than you can bear.
You bare yourself to the morning, bear the mourning,
hear the reluctant goodbyes, stay here, disappear by
the sea soreness cannot reach, see the dusk, and soar.
I’ve loved you now for nearly nine
years, creating a beautiful mess
with every graceful pulse of time.
And even now, you still have to remind me to breathe
because I always lose my mind when I lose
my heart. And I always end up getting lost in you.
There are things I’ll never know how to tell you:
Starless shadows that, even after nine
years, still sleep behind my teeth, lost
in the dark, unsettled mess
of dreams, where words breathe
without knowing time.
I’d like to think all we have is time
to discover what lives in the ocean between me and you,
to tread beneath the surface until we forget how to breathe,
to know what’s mine is yours, and what’s ours is nine.
And to think of what a wonderful mess
we’d make if we ever chose to lose.
I remember moments I could have sworn I’d lose
you, moments I could have sworn time
would never be enough to bloom beauty from the mess
we’d created. But things with you
are never that simple when I think back and count to nine.
After all, we were stunning once we learned to breathe.
There are days I think of you and have to catch my breath
when I consider all we have to lose
in the spaces between our hearts and nine.
And an infinite smattering of time
will never be enough for me to know you,
or unravel myself from this fortunate mess.
In the end, though, you make a mess
of me. The tangles of your laughter steal my breath,
and in those moments, I don’t think I could love you
more. We’re most brilliant when we lose
ourselves in the delicate undertow of time,
waves thundering through us by the nines.
You will always be my gorgeous mess,
my dearest nine. And all we have to do is breathe
to lose ourselves on the dream-filled lips of time.
I wish there were words for you. For the
rain pooled behind your tongue, or the way
hurricanes twist in your eyes. I don’t know
how to describe the landslides your hands
carve, or how beautifully your heart breaks, or
how the softly the tides of your breath fall.
You told me there are days you want to fall
into the ocean, that you could sleep away the
nights learning to breathe the sand and brine, or
lose yourself in the endless currents that give way
to the horizon. That you’d drown your wind-worn hands
into the depths and unearth things I would never know.
I wish there were enough years between us to know
it all, but sometimes we’re only left with hope. We fall
and close our eyes, praying to find someone’s hands
before we hit the ground, and no one tells us that the
sun never stays because the clouds are shy, that the way
down is cold and quiet, that our mouths will never be full, or
that we’ll spend our lives running from love or lies or
things we’ll never be able to name. And I don’t know
how to tell you that stars simmer on your lips the same way
flames devour forests one lick at a time, that leaves fall
and so do the limbs of men and chance and time, and the
truth is as rough and tangled as the creases in our hands.
The lights are off in the basement, and we hold hands,
half-dressed, kissing. I don’t know what time it is or
if we’re the only ones awake, and your face is pale in the
glow of streetlights pouring through the window. I don’t know
why I’m so nervous and clumsy in the dark, but you fall
asleep, head on my shoulder, dreams whispering the way.
You fell in love with eclipses and the equinox and the way
stars burst slowly under the weight of their own hands.
We promised each other that gravity would never let us fall,
and I held you close so we wouldn’t have to choose to sink or
swim when the moon pulled eagerly at the edges of the
sea. I wish there were words for the fall. I wish I could describe the way
you outshine galaxies, the way meteorites collide between your hands.
Or that I could tell you there are constellations even the sky doesn’t know.