Some days I can go nearly an hour
without thinking of the taste
of your mouth. Right now, I’m at school
watching teenagers fidget through a test.
Outside, the sky is smoky and streets are wet
and two grackles step lightly in yellow grass.
Two weeks ago in Atlantic City
I stood on the boardwalk
and looked out across the water –
the railing was cool, broken shells
dappled the beach – I had been
playing the slot machines
and lost all but a dollar. I
tried to picture you in Paris,
learning the sound of your new country
where, at that moment, it was already night.
I thought maybe you’d be out
walking with the street lights
glossing your lips, with your eyes
deep as this field of water.
Maybe someone was looking at you
as you paused under the awning
of a bakery where the smell
of newly risen bread buttered the air.
I remember those suede boots
you wore to the party last December,
your clipped hair, your long arms
like the necks of swans. I remember
how seeing the shape of your mouth
that first time, I kept staring
until my blood turned to rain.
Some things take root
in the brain and just don’t
let go. We went to
a movie once – I think
it was “The Dead” – and
near the end a woman
told a story about a boy
who used to sing: how, at 17,
she loved him, how that
same year he died. She
remembered late one night
looking out to the garden
and he was there calling her
with only the slow sound
in his eyes.
Missing someone is like hearing
a name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you. Even after you know
no one is there, you keep looking back
until on a silver afternoon like this
you find yourself breathing just enough
to make a small dent in the air.
Just now a student, an ivory-colored girl
whose nose crinkles when she laughs, asked me
if she could “go to the bathroom,”
and suddenly I knew I was old enough
to never ask that question again.
When I look back across my life,
I always see the schoolyard –
monkey-bars, gray asphalt, and one huge tree –
where I played the summer days into rags.
I didn’t love anybody yet, except maybe
my parents who I loved mainly when they
left me alone. I used to have wet dreams
about a girl named Diane. She was a little
older than me. I wanted to kiss her so bad
that just walking past her house
I would trip over nothing but the chance
that she’d be on the porch. Sometimes
she’d wear these cut-off jeans, and
a scar shaped like an acorn shone
above her knee. In some dreams I would
barely touch it, then explode. Once
in real life, at a party on Sharpnack Street
I asked her to dance a slow one with me.
The Delfonics were singing I’ll never
hear the bells and, scared nearly blind,
I pulled her into the sleepy rhythm
where my body tried to explain.
But half-a-minute deep into the song
she broke my nervous grip and walked away –
she could tell I didn’t know
what to do with my feet. I wonder
where she is now, and all those people
who saw me standing there
with the music filling my hands.
Woman, I miss you, and some afternoons
it’s all right. I think of that lemon drink
you used to make and the stories –
about your grandmother, about the bees
that covered your house in Africa, the nights
of gunfire, and the massing of giant frogs
in the rain. I think about the first time
I put my arm around your shoulder. I think
of couscous and white tuna, that one lamp
blinking on and off by itself, and those plums
that would brood for days on the kitchen counter.
I remember holding you against the sink,
with the sun soaking the window, the soft call
of your hips, and the intricate flickers
of thought chiming your eyes. Your mouth,
like a Saturday. I remember your
long thighs, how they
opened on the sofa, and the pulse
of your cry when you came, and
sometimes I miss you
the way someone drowning
remembers the air.
I think about these students
in class this afternoon, itching
through this hour, their bodies new
to puberty, their brains streaked
with grammar – probably none of them
in love, how they listen to my voice
and believe my steady, adult face,
how they wish the school day would
hurry past, so they could start
spending their free time again, how
none of them really understands
what the clock is always teaching
about the way things disappear.