after Little Italy by Bond No. 9
I had hoped that it would curve and disappear
and take me with it, the passageway
under your city, until it did
and then I was alone down there
and all there was for me was the smell
(to say scent is too delicate for it), a little hell,
most of it my own, the echoes of my wounds,
my footstep sounds, end-stops from my insteps
every foot I crept, following the tunnel.
I was a creep, and worse, a scary creep,
I had been told: not man, not moth,
not mouth nor breath nor gust of wind
nor guest. Because of the incisions,
these lines that radiate from my eyes
and scar a map into the peachskin of my body,
I should shun the sun and turn
my face away from man.
I know they’re disconcerting. I too wonder
at their meaning. Each night I count them
down and watch the skies for revelation.
Of course it does not come.
I bear them with what might as well be pride
but is not. At best I might have called it spite:
a refusal to be diminished by the meaninglessness
of the stars, to shrink from gaze, to count for
less. To be scarred like this
is to incur the fear response in others
and the gag response in some, Halloween excepted,
a night when I am free among the other monsters.
I learned to live with your averted eyes
& so I wore them like a Boy Scout sash,
badge-adorned, an orienteer collecting welts
on legs from scrub I refused to skirt or skip
for a reason I couldn’t bring myself to name.
I should have moved.
I should have loved less.
I should have closed myself to pain
but I did not.
So I was here in the underneath
below your home, singing
into the ringing song of traffic
from above. Manholes keep
what’s below the street
from coming up into the street,
you told me once, when I inquired.
I said I thought these sewers were designed
to drain the undesired away to underneath,
to keep the city livable and bright.
That was a year ago.
Now I’m here but you are not.
it smells of daylight and love’s sliver
fading, and how spring means differently
in your desert than it does in the lake country
I once called home.
I left—well, I had been driven out
with my belongings and a strongly worded
note that told me never to return.
I could not stay gone like that
so I returned at night and festooned
the city in sequins in my stead: a burst of them
in every place I used to haunt,
a line leading into morning
to remind them of my absence:
a peacock’s trail, a skunk’s plume,
a sign of light and doom
for anyone who remembered me
or deigned to say my name.
I thought of the boy whose burns
I could not stop looking at
in the food court watching television:
his face polished smoother
than a lakeglass mirror. In this light
his smile became translucent. It had been
his fault, the burns, he said, the fire
he’d started in his father’s workshop
after dark and how, aflame, the gases
gathered him and claimed him as their own—
but it didn’t matter now that he had TV.
A new family broadcast itself to him each day,
as he flickered from mall to mall, a ghost.
He’d shadow couples—subtly, as subtly
as a bad burned shadow of a boy
can live underneath our gaze—but we were
the ones to see him there and I paused
and wondered if he was even there at all.
His fate might have been mine, I knew.
To be bound to a placeless place,
unmarked, a faceless face out there
in darkness. Somehow the tunnel smell
brought him back to mind.
An afternoon: the boy and you and I
shared a bag of lemon doughnuts
in the food court between the Sbarro
and the Auntie Anne’s and the vague stink
of the trash of everyone around us
and we looked down anyone who looked at us
and did not blink until they passed
and resumed their lives. We would be
their story. We were danger,
otherness. Later they would think of us
and fuck others who looked like them
and think themselves rewarded
for their bravery.
It could have been anywhere
but it was here and it was him and you
and we were us. And then you left.
And it was just the boy and me
and the expression on his face
when I stuffed another lemon doughnut
in his mouth like a turducken and he grinned
a grin for memory. It was like he stared out
into the dark without a sense
of what it might contain
only to find it held him there
like a star along with everyone
but that somehow it was okay
because of stolen lemon doughnuts
because of sadness and Sbarro
because of pain.
I was not so sure: he was gone
so long that I knew only telling myself
this story kept him here.
Perhaps I made him up,
a golem of memory
multiplied by desire. But what else
was memory except desire
to understand a perfect afternoon?
What else was it for
if a scent from underground
could bring you back
as if you never left
as if you had not left the two of us
as if you had not left me
as if you were not now my missed
connection, maybe my only. Hit me back
if you read this and tell me what I wore
so I know it’s you.
This poem also appears in The Book of Scented Things, Literary House Press, 2014.