Strychnine at the Bottom of the Decanter

Your betrayal lives
a secret life inside of me,
stealing oxygen in places
where I should be freely breathing
and tunneling its way
through bone and tissue
disturbing my peace
and making me hollow
and leaving poisonous residue
of itself everywhere.
I hear its voice when I think
I’ve saved up a square inch
of silence to rest in, throwing
sharp icicles down my bloodstream.
It is your voice saying things
you only say when I’m not listening.
It is your voice mastering
the intonations that make
the lies so damn convincing.
It is your laughter,
hidden under the plastic sympathy
the perfect shade of lipstick pink
while I suffer.
It is the merciless static noise
of your absence after you
dealt the coup de grace,
when all it would have taken
to stop the bleeding was
a few sorry words from you.
I’ve drunk the cocktail of
your toxicity and wrongly thought
that I could handle it.
Now it runs rampant in my veins
screaming obscenities and
switching on all the lights.
The mere sight of you triggers
seizures in my inner peace
and all the bonds we used to share
are brought into question.
All the ways you’ve used me
hemorrhaging onto the spaces
where I used to hold
the inner child that once
believed she’d always love you.
Is that what happens when
you swallow forgiveness
without stopping to taste it?
It doesn’t do what the label
on the bottle says it would.
The mind regurgitates it
in slimy, undigested pieces
soaked in acid and
indistinguishable from the hatred
it was supposed to cure.

Loving Quasimodo

My soul is not the same shape
as my body
and doesn’t hurt the same way.

So when I tell you I come
from a past of abuse
but have no bruises
or scars to show for it
I hope you realize I need
a different kind of rescue

and a healing that follows
no straight path

you don’t watch one part
for signs of bleeding
or keep the same few bones
in splints or tourniquets

you watch for triggers

you read between the lines
where I don’t seem to respond
with an attitude you might
expect from those
whose childhoods were soft
and whose coming-of-age
is blanched in sunshine

you wait for madness to strike
and dance with it
until it slowly passes
and welcome me back

you save me from myself
by being there
by letting me borrow your courage
when mine runs out
and take temporary asylum
in your peace
I’ll be carrying luggage
but I won’t unpack
and I’ll take them back out with me

you take the words I mean
and those I throw over my shoulder
like they are nothing
just to hear how loudly
they crash on impact,
bend them into shapes of questions
and leave them by my bedside
so I can straighten them out
and apologize
and make everything right

you take my trust
and never ever hit me with it
otherwise you either
break it or break me

and my soul will have to
amputate another limb
or grow another organ
to compensate.

My soul is not the same shape
as my body…

Trauma is a Shallow Grave

I saw him again, once,
briefly, years later,
the man who raped me.

I was looking at scarves
at the women’s section
of the department store,
making stream-of-consciousness
associations:
fabrics with light,
colors with moods,
prints with voices,
trying on new layers
with which to define myself,
not thinking about unmade beds
or untended corners
of the past,

when he found me.
He was cocky as he’d always been,
coming up within a yard of me
and calling my name out loud,
flashing a smug, macho smile
like maybe he expected me to
salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
I froze
and stared at him for a while,
not remembering who he was.
It came back to me all jagged
and contaminated,
like fistfuls of dirt, suffocated
by a slow-moving anger
and a helplessness that
for a while used to
give a monstrous form
to my inner darkness,
and that I was only able
to crawl away from
by closing my eyes
and waiting for it to be over
and pretending it didn’t happen.
Not out of shame;
no, I have learned that
shame is too simple,
and too big a word.
I did it just so I could recognize
my body in the mirror again.

He was already far away
by the time I had dug up
all the bruised and bloodied details
of the old nightmare that
contained his face and his name.
By then, the scarves
had become crows
and rattlesnakes had started
spilling from inside the shoes that
were on display two aisles down.
And I felt violated all over again.

The Choice to Remain in Disrepair

He is a withered husk of a man
with his spirit permanently hunched over
slinking away in tiptoes
on family reunions
at the first sign of his ex-wife
or his children’s arrival,
as if breathing the same air as the people
he had abandoned decades ago
were impossible
and would burn him alive.
His sons have grown
to be fine, upstanding gentlemen
who love their own kids
just a little too fiercely;
his daughters’ trust issues with men
kept their needs complex,
streaked with defiance
and covetous of solitude.
They have divided forgiveness
among them, unevenly.
One swallowed it dry and found
it tasted like burnt pride.
Others carried it in their hands
until it softened
and rubbed it against their bruises.
The last one sat it on the shelf
for years, forgotten
until it took on the shape of a wedge
that he now uses to prop
his door wide open.

If only he would gather the words
and offer them. Maybe whomever
he had pawned his life to
would sell a part of it back to him.

He missed our wedding
and it was the first time
I saw my man weep.

He came to me, later
while I was recovering from childbirth
in a lovely little room with lilies
and whose windows let in the lake breeze,
healing my body with sleep
and ballads from Sugarfree.
He picked the time when his son
was away at work.
He wore a suit that reeked
of cigarette smoke and missed chances,
and all his words were drunk with sadness
no matter what he said.
He talked a lot but left
without saying anything.
And when he was gone
there was a dark imprint of hunger
that lingered where he had sat
and felt more tangible
than his presence had been,
reminding me of an empty womb
and my newborn son,
somewhere in the building,
being held and cared for
by somebody else’s hands.

Deaf to our Own Dissonance

I didn’t say you lied
I only said you might be mistaken,
that what you refer to as
self-forgiveness is actually
nothing but a volatile pause
in the echo chamber
of your raging inner angst
filtered through scathing wit and
passive-aggressive commentaries
on the ways of the world
masquerading as wisdom.

The Epilogue of The Girlfriends Show

It’s been a while
since she and I last caught each other,
both with some time to spare
in a place we used to cram chock-full
with warm laughter and conversation

and I savored telling her
all that had been going on
all the roads I had been on
and the places they had led me
told her about him and how he makes me happy
told her that he and I make
a regular pilgrimage
to the temple of our shared peace
and how we work to keep it sacred

and she told me
that she missed the way I used to be
the way I was a rebel soul on fire
with my irreverent questions
and my problem with authority
the way I allowed no man or group of men
to mediate between my spirit and my spirituality
the way there was no legal contract
or holy covenant strong enough
to put reins around my wild heart
and tame it and make it stop running

she said I wasn’t the same woman
she said it with a touch of pity
and the parts of me she missed, she gave names to
meant to pass as compliments:
my “defiance”, my “vigilance”
my “strong character” and “inviolable passion”

but I think what she really
meant to say she missed was my doubts,
my eloquent misery and my being lost

because maybe my settling down
and finding a color-filled quietness
was too difficult to sit with
when she and I had been so at home
among the rusty nails and jagged shards
of our once mutual brokenness
and how we would run to each other for comfort
and take turns cussing out the men in our lives
and blowing shotgun holes at organized religion
and calling the whole world hopeless fools
and vowing we would never be taken

so I pulled a painful thank you from inside of me
and passed it from my hands to hers
and told her I wouldn’t argue
and finally said I only wish that she would find
something she could believe in again
something that might compel her
to be vulnerable enough to gamble again
because hadn’t we only too many times
declared that it was all we wanted?
or does she no longer remember?

and something about the way
we said our goodbyes
told me it was the last time
and we would never speak again.

On the Anniversary of the Inquisition

Everything is bright now,
everything is well lit
and there’s plenty of room
for the eyes to maneuver
and the heart to understand,

but I’ve seen darkness,
I had once embraced it
and kissed its fangs,
I have entered it
(or it has entered me),
traversed its moldy alleys
where there is only enough
passage for one weak spirit
and all her favorite sins.

Back in the years when
apostasy was religion
and cynicism was cooler
than mercy
there was no love to save me,
there was only me
and an ambiguous taste
of redemption that
hummed inside me
underneath the layers of wrong
like unearthed diamonds
and a danger, a tangle of thorns
and no promise
that if I started down
that road,
I would finish it.

I forewent innocence
for knowing.
Oh, but they told me
I might go to hell for that.
There were questions
whose poison lay
in being asked,
but I gathered them to me
like an inheritance
and trod the opacity of night
with them strapped to my back
like arrows in a quiver
that could easily betray me.
(Even now, with the answers
in my arsenal protecting
my triumph, I guard
those questions from falling
into the hands of those
who may not be built
to survive the asking.)

My only weakness
was my only strength
and my final rescue:
my blind hunger and faith
in beauty,
a propensity for intoxication
in witnessing the brilliance
of fellow tortured beings,
pushing our history
ever forward through time.

* * *

And there, now,
the things you have heard
and think you know about me
are chapters of my soul
and I never really said
that I came out unscathed.
But I am stronger than you think,
and my scars,
even when most of the time
I ignore them,
are my everything.