You Have to Be Careful
You have to be careful when you invite a man into your house.
You watch the way he takes off his coat, watch how he pets the dogs.
See if he lingers too long in the doorway when you’ve stood to suggest
it is time for him to go, see if he stares too long at your neck or shoulders,
check to see if his hands are in the pockets of his thoughts.
If you decide that he is safe, maybe you’ll walk him
down your thirteen basement steps to show him who you are
(they say before you are killed you should show the man with the gun
your face, tell him about what you love, say the names of your children
so he might not hurt you).
You offer him a beer. You sit on the floor, cross-legged, like children,
and when you hand him one of the baby chicks, spring born,
helpless in his white palms, he does not crush her.
He smiles into his hands as she shakes her yellow down.
You have to be careful when you invite a man into your body.
You watch how he presents his scars to you, if he still rubs raw on them,
if he rubs them against yours as though to tell you he won’t let go
of what shrunk him, made him small before.
You don’t want too raw.
You have to watch to see if he puts his hands on you or waits
until you take both of his and bring them to your own open waist,
your face. You watch his mouth.
You don’t want one who bites.
He tells you once when you are making love, “I’ve got you,”
and not very carefully, you believe him. You offer your kitchen,
meals shared between you in one bowl. You offer the space
between your legs, your lips, the space where no one is allowed to walk in the yard,
it is secret. You hope that he does not plant weeds.
You lead children to him, children who have learned
they too have to be careful. You hope.
When you stop being careful, you look different in the mirror
in the morning light. You are cloven.
The light has been let in. You hear the children in the park
across the street, the ones you didn’t hear before,
their laughter bright. And you think you can remember
how it felt as a child, arms linked on the asphalt schoolyard,
you and the others sang “red rover.” How it felt to hear your name called,
to have it be suddenly your turn. You waited all day
and so you run, the first push of energy against the ground,
your heart in your feet and they see you coming,
their fingers linking stronger.
And you can’t break through.
Their hands hold you around your waist, your belly,
your weight a soft burden on their side now.
And with the brick of the building a blur behind you
a nun is standing, her habit a silent billowing, a whistle between her lips
and in that moment all you see is the face of the boy, Catholic school skinny,
who catches you, his eyes wide with the pleasure of touch.
I first learned love by watching two parents who hated each other.
My mother clinging to the paperback, the cover torn off,
the veins in her legs from years of standing in that bookstore.
My father clinging to the other women,
their strange bodies in strange bedrooms.
So many nights she washed the lipstick that wasn’t her color
off his collars. The glances between them a sonic panic
that even I, their half deaf kid, could hear.
When the house grew too loud with their silence,
I walked instead into the forest with the old beagle.
She had watched all her litters handed away,
and she let me follow her trails.
I’d watch the light change to low in the sky,
the waterbirds swim to the shore to nest for the night.
I’d watch the mosquitoes land on my forearm,
Watch the proboscis needle under my skin.
In school they called me hard of hearing, but I could hear.
I heard the tritone ringing in my ears, heard the classroom chair
scratching over linoleum, all this over the teacher’s voice.
And when they’d sit me in the back of the classroom,
her frustrated hands steering heavy on my shoulders,
I did not mind. They’d put me back by
Mark Palachek in the dunce’s hat (they did that in school)
and I did not mind like Mark did.
Mark who now works in Chicago and married the too-beautiful woman
as though to say, f*ck you, Sister Cristine,
Mark, all the money he made, for Sister Cristine,
All the cars he drives, for her too.
Years later I asked him, my father,
Why he did it. Why did he hurt my mother like that.
“Because I could, I suppose,” he said, guiltily,
the age hanging in his eyelids, the skin on his hands.
“She could not leave me.” And we stood in the rocking boat,
me reading lips, and him admitting his secrets.
At night he stands before his dresser,
taking his keys and wallet from his pockets,
loose change, a bullet maybe, but not the shame.
That’s coiled inside him now, twisted around his smile,
it’s an organ now, an old forever bird on his shoulder
whose small black wings spread wide as it squats on his chest,
all heaviness in his sleep, the white of his old undershirt