James went first because James went first. The year I was
and he eight, when we invited
all the kids on the block—Linda
little Amy, Jenna and Adie and her brother
Ludie the snake boy—
to slide on our Slip-n-Slide in the backyard.
James pulled the
out of the garage in a wrinkled heap and brought it out back by the
fishpond. The pond where I fed my favorite fish too much and
Those were the years we still had money, when Mom still carved
out of conspicuous bolts of
brushed silk, linen, and furry, beige
James held one end, and Ludie
the other, backing away from each
long arms outstretched but
bent at the elbows as if pulling hot
from an oven. They
laid the Slip-n-Slide out across the lawn,
the garden hose to the orange
plastic nozzle, and watched as the
filled and shone with warm
and then cold summer hose water.
James went first because he always
went first—not because he
was the oldest or
the tallest or the least smart
of all the kids. He went first because
the protest, the jerking one-footed
whines of girls with smaller
voices, and smaller, white thighs.
I was obsessed with germs that
wouldn’t have eaten at all if I had
known that to make it, someone,
had to take it into their hands.
The butcher, with slabs of meat
and bone, wrapping it up
in gleaming, invisible cellophane. The maid, washing lettuce,
tearing it to shreds
before washing it again and placing it in a heap in the crisper. Even
washing the boneless pork under the faucet before dipping it into silt
turning it over, and over, and again, before laying it softly in the
sizzling copper pan.
At dinner, when no one was watching—no one ever did—James
would lean over
and let out his long, hot tongue. He’d lick his lips, my meat, the
edge of my milk
glass, or the tight, cold corner of my mouth. So he slid first down
He backed up to the fence and took off full speed, tight-fisted and
leaning into his leap,
belly-down, sliding in a jagged, wild line. And his sudden wailing
to come from somewhere in his shining, glassy eyes. It took hours
for the doctors
to extract the shards of glass from his chest and stomach, his skinny
A broken jar? Camping
lamp? No one knew. But when I went,
finally, to that
tall white bed where he lay for one long afternoon, I let out my
small, cool tongue
and ran it up his peach-fuzzed arm from wrist to elbow to shoulder
and for one day, I was first,
and no one was looking.
This is how it happens. You are just out of the shower maybe
in the afternoon when your
lover comes up behind you and kisses you
on the shoulder. You turn, kiss back. And you even remind yourself,
during that first heavy breath
or fall to the bed—I am not
going to close my eyes. But you cannot help yourself and you
close your eyes, forgetting
your promise, and you see him.
A figure, moving form, enormous shadow appearing somewhere
between your eyelids and the air. There
he is above you
and for a moment you are happy about it, amazed to feel again
what it is to be that small. How exquisite your tiny finger,
how fragile the bones of your
wrists. You see how easily
your thigh fits in a hand, your shin in a mouth, your buttocks
in the crook of a hip—how easy it is then
to be filled.
is real to you: this is what you turn sex into.
You feel your knees pushed open with thick warm thumbs and
you can feel your knees are skinned and then you see
getting skinned, you see yourself
beyond that shadow.
You see your white skates on the drive, the slope of the tar,
and into this vision you escape. Leave. Cease
are gone from the place of the thin bed and the blue panties
caught around an ankle. Someone else has taken your place.
You then are on the driveway
and your cat is in the flowerbed
and your mother looks out the kitchen window at you in your
good dress which you are not supposed to wear
You skate in circles and watch
the sky, picking shapes
out of clouds—turtle, clipper ship, heart, hand.
Your mother tells you Watch where you are going young lady.
And even before you skin your
knees you feel something
slowly rising in your throat, the way the cream lifts every time
from the milk in the glass bottle that arrive on Sundays,
no matter how many times your
mother shakes it up for you.
It rises in you like that—thick and lukewarm as your father’s skin.
The taste inches up but you keep skating,
try to make the circles
perfect and small, try to smell the beefsteaks on the barbeque
in the side yard where your father calls over the fence
to the neighbor, saying This is the life.
But when you hear
his voice it is enough to send you down. You fall.
Your knees are skinned and full of rocks but you’re
you again, panties wrapped
around an ankle, undershirt pushed up.
You hear your breathing and his breathing. You’re hot.
Your eyes are open again, staring
at something they
don’t even see. And when finally it happens you realize
that it isn’t your father filling you
this time, he is
only making you fall. It hits you that you’ve done it again:
this shrinking into someone, then somewhere else.
It is always
the same. You cannot control it. You never learned to skate.
You are there in your grown
up bed with your lover and you have
just made love and he says Isn’t sex amazing and you say Yes.
Human Nature: Poems; "The Split" was recently included in The Courage To Heal,