After the apocalypse, I yearned to be reckless. To smash a glass
brought first to my lips. To privilege lust over
tomorrow. To walk naked down the middle of a two-lane
road. But, too late, without my bidding, life cracked open,
rushed, openmouthed, like a panting dog whose name
I did not call—my lips shut like a purse. The last man
I kissed was different than the last man I fucked.
We were so desperate then, the two of us, undone
by longing, drawing night from the cracks
inside us, drawing the night out, as long as we could,
until dawn broke like a beat egg and our heartbeats
quieted in private fatigue. I’d be lying if I said I don’t recall
his name. The end of the world has ended, and desire is still
all I crave. Oh, to be a stone, sexless and impenetrable.
Over half of me is water, a river spilling into restless limbs,
the rest of me is a scalding heat like the asphalt under my feet.
After the apocalypse, I mothered my mother, became
grandmother to myself, distant and tender, temples turning
gray. The whole world cascaded past my shoulders, like the hair
self-hatred taught me to crave—though all my Barbie dolls
were black. And the Cabbage Patch Kid my grandmother
placed under the artificial Christmas tree, sprinkled with tinsel,
in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where my mother waited
for her first pair of glasses in the Colored Only waiting room.
She said the world changed from black-and-white to Technicolor
that day. My mother watches TV as I roll her hair. She sits
between my legs. I’ve never birthed a child. I have fondled the crown
of a lover’s head, my thighs framing his dark brown eyes.
I entered the world excised from my mother’s womb. Her scar
is a mark the color of time. I am my mother’s weeping
wound. On my last birthday, I cried into bathwater.
I hid my tears from my mother because that’s what mothers do.
After the apocalypse, I had the urge to dance on the president’s
grave. The dispossessed threw me a belated quinceañera. My godmother
wore a necklace of the dictator’s teeth. She sliced an upside-down cake,
licked her forefinger, and said, “You have mastered sadness, querida,
may your rage be sticky and sweet.” My father offered his hand—this time
I took it. We glided like ballroom dancers across the red dirt floor.
He wore a grave expression. I embraced him tightly
so as to cloak my face. Instead of a toast, he handed me a handkerchief,
wet with tears. My father circled the guests silently, dabbing gently
each of their cheeks. This too was a dance unfolding.
I folded the handkerchief into a fist and raised my fist like
a glass of champagne. The pain in my father’s eyes sparkled
like the sequins on my tattered gown. If it hadn’t been so ugly
it would’ve been beautiful. The party ended just as the world had:
with the sound of rain beating against the earth and each of us
on our hands and knees peering into pools of mud and thirst.
After the apocalypse, time turned like a mood ring. My mood
changed like a thunderstruck sky. The sky changed
like a breast, engorged, staining the front of a white silk blouse.
I got laid off. I went thirteen days without wearing a bra. I changed
my mind about the fiction of money. Money changed hands.
I washed my hands religiously. Religion changed into sunlight—
something allowed to touch my face. My face changed into
my mother’s. No, into a mask of my mother’s face. Traces
of heartache changed into a pain in my right hip. The stock market
dipped. The S & P fell freely. I did not fall to my knees
promising to change my life. The price of paper towels changed
and the price of toilet paper and the price of white bread and milk.
Whiteness did not change. Some things stayed the same. We named
the moon for its changes, but it remained the same. Gravity
pulled at my organs like the moon’s tug makes a king tide.
America’s king would inevitably change and inevitably stay the same.
After the laughter subsided the crying kept after we held hands
and screamed and screamed and squeezed and screamed after
regret and shame and a single bush filled with speckled thrushes
singing redwing bluebird wood thrush on the wood of a branch
and forest thrush in the branches of a forest open pine
and after your mother refused to haunt your dreams after
you placed her in a wooden coffin and you sang like a blue bird
breast trembling beak open like a mother’s beak foraging feeding
offspring after laying on a clutch of blue eggs and after spring
after pining for spring ignorant of your grief and unraveling
with or without your blessing cool days and rain after icicles
crying and after you kept from crying and after you cried
there was no one left to protect after you blessed the demon
possessing you and after it left you were even more alone
a grandala calling and calling and after calling after your mother
a hole closed and a hole opened after that after all of that.
There is a scar near my right eye no lover ever noticed
or kissed, a faint mark: split skin sewn.
And so, and now, there was never a before. Never
a time when the wind did not smell of dust
or storm or brine or blood. Never an hour when I entered
a field of bluebells without trampling at least one flower.
And so, and then, on the day I was born, a stampede
of horses filled my chest. Astronomers can only guess
how the universe formed. The planet is dying:
the horses, the mothers, the farmers, the bees. I am
the ground, its many grasses and wild clover.
My teeth grow yellow, ache, decay. I wash a plate,
polishing the moon’s face—both will outlast my brutal
hands. And so, in the minutes of after, the moon drips
on a silver rack and the plate floats, cracked with age,
in outer space … a stray soapsud sparkles then bursts.
Ama Codjoe is the author of the chapbook Blood of the Air and the recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, a 2018 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, a 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and a 2020 BRIO Award from the Bronx Council on the Arts.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.