I give her chances all the time — not to make
her the mom for me. But I’m just passing through
her stop, on a middle track, seeing her go left
across my window while she stands on the platform,
arrived. So I let her think she’s growing me up
with makings of a boy: stripping my wet sheet,
blowing a match out near my penis, in training
to wait, and sending me to school. I play for time.
I drop hints now and then: sit wrong, unhear
what she’s said, egg her on to slap my face
far enough red that I can dare back at her.
Whenever she takes me for a good kid, I lurch
from her moisty mommy chews on my ears. But I grant
her power to save me a stool at the counter, to wait
on me, to slice me thick pound cake for free,
to keep my mind from the nearing end of her treat.
I put up with her locking the living room and cursing
her own weak curses to me. Each “freaking bastard,
son of a bitch” gives me more time to burn
the more away I get. The inexhaustible
smoke is so sweet I live on choking words.
The engine runs on time: the early flash fires
of volatile vowels, then the lasting, deliberate flames
from the n’s of morning, noon, and afternoon.
Once she rode with me part way to school. I stared
at her holding a book. “I’m studying to be a baby nurse.”
I wondered if we could be together in studying,
so I offered my one sure sign, “How d’you find out
your grade?” Her voice went different: “By finishing the test.
What I learn, I know. So I’ll know what I knew to get right.”
I gaped, with nothing to think of next for a while.
Since that ride, she has never brought up nursing.
Evenings I go through motions — eating her vengeance
meals, filling my cheeks to spit in the toilet,
drying the dishes. On one of my rolls round
to the kitchen again, I find I’m stepping off,
frantic to scour the dented pots. Sure, the char
will come back, but the gurgling clatter, the pink suds
of Brillo, my abraded fingertip, and the coming to
shine will stay, like a love note left under a rock.
Some laundry days I think of staying for minutes
at a time. The warm fresh smell used to be enough.
Now I only wait for the sheets and pillowcases:
her hands clutching opposite corners as she casts
the clean polyester out to snap to its final arc.
And before that caves, her arms swing to join the corners
— freeing one hand to swoop to its first fold.
In no time, she’s dancing with shoulders, arms, and white.
CONSTANTINE CONTOGENIS is author of the collection Ikaros (WordTech, 2004), winner of Writer’s Voice “Open Voice” poetry award, and co-translator of Songs of the Kisaeng: Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty (BOA Editions). His work has been anthologized and published widely. He is a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theories and Empirics (INCITE) at Columbia University.
image: Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Cake, 1818