Remorse for Being Young, Written in a Kroger Parking
Being angry at the world has its ups and downs.
I realize this as IÍm leaving Kroger and
thereÍs a guy in a torn leather jacket
crushing a Toyota with a sledgehammer.
Everyone in the parking lot has stopped to look at him.
His face is as red as the car heÍs beating.
Pieces of glass are flying everywhere.
And IÍm fifteen again.
The backyard is an empty battlefield
underneath a good October sky.
Marching ghosts in crimson uniforms
disappear in and out of smoke
as I nurse wounds
with a cigarette under a large oak tree.
The sun is bouncing off the chain-linked fence.
The air is stale and brown like a seventies movie.
IÍm thinking of passing trees on the highway.
IÍm thinking of thumbing rides all the way to New York,
sleeping like icicles underneath an overpass.
Melting by candlelight in a girlÍs arms.
But here the hard skin of oak trees will rub your back
and white cigarette smoke clouds and burns your eyes.
Here IÍll never know what changes when you leave.
I clutch a dirty fist and run.æ IÍm fifteen.
IÍm an empty battlefield.
IÍll go where the marching ghosts will take me.
When I die IÍll be with the trees.
When watching someone die, you
must be very quiet.æ Always look down at the ground
and examine your feet.æ Be uncomfortable and very somber.æ
Allow your eyes to fill with tears.æ You will bite your
lip until it bleeds, but you wonÍt notice until you
wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting
of the sleeve on your lips.æ You will see the bloodstain
on your sleeve, and then you will believe.æ Since the
woman you are watching is your godmother and your motherÍs
best friend, go over and kiss your mother as she weeps.æ
Hug her and love her.æ Watch your motherÍs tears roll
slowly down her cheeks.æ Watch them fall to her shirt.æ
Watch the tears leave large circles on her shirt and
on your shirt, since she has been crying on you as well.æ
Watch the womanÍs teenage babies crawl on the bed beside
her and stroke her hair as she dies.æ They pull the
stringy blond hair sticking from her swollen white face.æ
You will remember how thin her face was before, wonder
if she looks healthier with her face filled out.æ You
will start to cry again and try to hide it.æ Make sure
you have a tissue in your hand so you wonÍt have to
keep wiping your nose and your eyes on your sleeves.æ
Watch her girls lie beside their mama and hold her hands.æ
She will be sleeping, and you wonÍt want to disturb
her, even though you know you canÍt since she is in
a coma.æ You will want to go and hug her and lie beside
her as her daughters are doing, but you will resist.æ
You will decide instead to sit on the end of her stark
white bed next to her feet in the hospitalÍs socks.æ
The bed will sink as you sit next to her weak body.æ
You will regret that you hadnÍt seen her more, even
though you lived in the same city.æ You will regret
that you felt you should not lie beside her.æ That you
felt that this time was for her daughters and not for
you.æ You wonder if she felt like you were her daughter,
and you decide that she probably did.æ You will hear
her raspy breathing, and the tension will build as you
wait for her father to arrive from Virginia.æ You will
wish that you were in Virginia, instead of in this hospital
room watching her die.æ You will look at her pale, blank
face and she will looks so small.æ And you will jump
every time her breathing stalls, even though she is
hooked up to a respirator.æ You will place your hand
on her foot, and your father will place his hand on
your shoulder, and you will suddenly be aware that your
motherÍs crying has ceased.æ You will hear her strong
voice out in the hall, arguing with the nurse, begging
to let the family stay with her as she dies.æ You remember
that there are too many people in the room.æ You will
look around to see pleading faces looking longingly
at the pale body lying limp in the bed.æ They wish that
there was something they could do.æ There isnÍt anything.æ
Your mother will exclaim that this woman will die today,
and you will flinch as you hear her say this.æ You will
take a firmer hold on her foot and lay your head on
the bed next to her leg.æ You will whisper that you
love her.æ Wish that you had told her while she was
conscious.æ You will wonder if she can hear you.æ And
you will cry as her daughters stroke her hair.
Breathing Under Water
My parents never argue
Instead they sit side by side
On the couch, not touching
The television always on
They must have forgot
The evening news
Reflects in my dadÍs
Blue irises, as my mother
Sits folding laundry
Her small fingers running
Along the hem of the shirt
He bought her for Christmas
Watching them, I remember
The time I was pushed under water
In the neighborhood pool
I could see something else
Just above the surface
That I could not reach
My lungs ran out of air
And my arms began flapping
Like a drowning bird
After a minute, I realized
How normal it felt
To be deprived of oxygen
And I wondered if I could live this way,
Just beneath the surface
Breathing under water.
Alex sat behind me in math.æ
Sometimes IÍd lend him one of my pencils, and when I
got it back, the eraser would be worn down to a nub,
his nervous teeth marks scattering the wood with shallow
dents.æ His fingernails were always grubby.æ It was
startling to hear his voice, as he rarely spoke, and
when he did it was always in short, unpunctuated sentences.æ
He smelled like oranges
It must have been about a month or so after my brother
got sick that Alex started giving me parts of his lunch.æ
I never saw him in the cafeteria; I donÍt know where
he went for that twenty-minute slice of time every day.æ
But at the end of math heÍd shove a rumpled paper bag
across my desk before scrambling out the door like he
had somewhere important to go.æ Inside the bag would
be the dessert his mother had packed him that morning:æ
a Twinkie, a cupcake, sometimes a baggie full of gumdrops
or jelly beans.æ IÍd walk home, my cheeks filled with
sugar or frosting, crumpling the paper bag with his
name written across it in slanted printing, throwing
it at the big sycamore tree in the schoolyard as hard
as I could.æ Walking and eating slowly, to make both
The night before EddieÍs
funeral it snowed.æ I fled from the house, shuffling
between the sickly yellow circles the streetlights made
on the ground.æ There was a terrible dark song in my
head that I couldnÍt remember any of the words to.æ
It leaned hard on my brain, and I wondered what would
happen if I just exploded right there in front of Mrs.
RobinsonÍs white-capped lawn gnomes, my whole body going
up like fireworks for some unannounced holiday, the
sparks sizzling against the snow as they fell.æ I thought
about all the violent things I could do with so much
snow:æ bombard cars with white missiles, destroy snowmen,
bury the town with a huge white wave.
That was when I felt
the snowball smack against my neck and slither down
the back of my coat.æ I whirled around, expecting someone
amazing:æ God or the devil standing there in a snowsuit
and mittens, grinning sardonically at the trick he had
played on me.æ What would he do once I saw him?æ Would
he lift me up and carry me away from all this dark,
or would he meet my nose with a right hook, delivering
me swiftly in to the arms of the snowbank?
Alex stood there, shifting
in his oversized rubber boots.æ It was too dark for
me to read his face, but I could see well enough to
hit my target.æ He didnÍt look surprised when I slammed
him with a fistful of snow.æ He stepped back a little
to keep his balance but lost it instead, sliding across
the white ground until he landed in a sprawl across
the sidewalk.æ His laughter broke over me like a thousand
tiny bells, but instead of crystal they were made of
spun sugar that shattered into a sparking deluge.
When our fingernails
were raw from scraping snow and our throats were hoarse
from laughing, we started walking.æ The yellow lights
of the plows flickered through the blackness like steady
fireflies.æ We stomped through the snow in silence,
our breath billowing in puffs ahead of us as if we were
dragons or steam engines.æ Standing at my front door,
watching AlexÍs back slowly blur into the blackness,
I could see our side-by-side sets of footprints, clear
and deep on the sidewalk, going on forever in the snow.
That was all.
Later that year, his
dad got a job in Sacramento.æ I passed by the moving
truck on my bike as it rumbled out of town.æ The driver
wore a Phillies cap and a splash of stubble on his chin.æ
I didnÍt see Alex.æ The truck whushed by, blowing up
the first few dead leaves of autumn in its wake.æ They
fluttered against the wheels of my bike like brittle
butterflies before settling on the road.
In school in the fall, there were new kids who filled
up all the empty seats in the classrooms.æ Autumn was
longer than usual, and its warmth cut into winter, making
for a soggy New YearÍs, with sidewalks still cluttered
with the dead leaves that shuffled into the gutters
and clogged the street drains.æ WinterÍs driving rains
turned to springÍs mild deluges, and the crocuses crept
out of the ground as if to say that nothing had ever
changed.æ But that year in math, I crossed out all my
mistakes instead of erasing them, and my pencils were
still dotted with teeth marks.