Color

Last night I made a list of every drug Katie and I were able to procure in high school. I then made a list of every drug we consumed in excess dosage intentionally while somehow still managing to wake up the next morning and make it to class in time. Regardless of our poor decision-making, we always handled our priorities well. Even when she took the Halcion (a sedative prescribed to treat insomnia) she stole from her grandparents’ bathroom that had an expiration date of March 1987 (it was 2006 when she discovered it). I passed on participating and even though she threw up three times after taking it (twice in the hallways, once in the boys’ bathroom), she swore it was the best experience she’d ever had. She said that about every drug and it made me wonder if she was even capable of ever being truly happy sober. I didn’t need any of it really, and although it helped pass the time, I was content just being around her. It was a privilege, really, to watch the corners of her lips curve upward and with every experience, every trip, every conscious risk, she shone a different color, a hue of brightness that to this day, sticks like paint to the walls of my otherwise lacking memory.

At fifteen, we smoked weed we bought for too much money on the trampoline in her backyard while her parents were asleep. Giggling and bouncing, we would toss arms over each other’s bare shoulders and bring one another down together repeatedly. One night in particular, when our jumping ceased, she paused for a few soft moments and then wondered aloud if life was just going to go downhill from here on. I said I don’t know and then paused myself. I thought for a brief moment and then replied confidently that I thought it would only get better. She asked if I really thought so and I said yes even though I didn’t know for sure and she said alright then, I believe it and smiled that smile that made my heart feel as if palms were pressing magnets against it. It was a smile she wore often, in which the bottoms of her teeth peeked out from underneath lips. That night we stayed outside until the sun came up in tones of purple and red and yellow, and her, the softest shade of pink I had ever bore witness to.

Did you know that it takes a mile for a train going 80 miles per hour to come to a complete stop? She asked me once. Freight or metro? I replied. I don’t know, she said. Hmm. That’s interesting. She was random in a way that was gratifying. There was often some underlying purpose in her thinking out loud, it seemed, and even when there wasn’t, you would learn something that most people would probably only learn from a fact on the lid of a snapple bottle.

I loved her that way in which some things are so beautiful that you have no choice but to love them with every ounce of your being. From the first time we met at the rise of freshman year, I had already memorized the way her strawberry blonde mane traced the lateral curve of her chest, wrapping ever so slightly underneath it. Her hands, lanky and pale, extended like trees from the small of her wrists. Lashes expanded from her eyelids the way branches might crawl out towards an open sky. She had a charm that could knock God himself into a state of submission. But beyond anything else, a laugh like liquid- one that could fill a room with just the echo of it. I’ve never been too bare a face to be unable to elicit admiration, but next to her I was nearly translucent. I didn’t mind. I would’ve taken the place of every lightless bulb if it meant being near her sun, the sweet gold that dripped from her every movement with me by her side, mouth open, hoping to catch even the slightest bit of it on my tongue.

I’d listen to her talk about the men she was pursuing. At 16, it was a 25-year-old construction worker from Texas named John who lived above the dog kennel on the outskirts of town and taught us both how to parallel park. And then later it was Asher, the manager of a local Pizza Hut and a self-proclaimed potato chip connoisseur. Her dating habits were cyclical though, and after a few weeks she’d return to her routine of disinterest and continue on with her search for the next. After each date she went on, she’d lay her slim figure across my lap and ask me to run fingers through her scalp. I treated the job as though I’d been asked to carry the last surviving Pollack on a tight rope across Lake Michigan, the edges of my nails tracing carefully for fear of faltering even the slightest bit. Most of the guys were similar, lacking enviable careers and confidence. But then there was Jason, the first to have what seemed to be a desirable future. A senior business student at the University of Illinois, he was the first to keep Katie’s attention for longer than a two weeks. What I immediately sensed as an air of arrogance, somehow managed to transform Katie’s usual unimpressed attitude into a full-fledged fascination. At the sight of his name glowing on the screen of her phone, her cheeks grew into a deep wine, ready and eager to pour out into his hands.

When they had sex for the first time, she came to my house after to tell me every detail and I swear I saw colors impossible to even imagine emanating from her vulnerable pores. She was the smoothest shade of crimson and cherry combined that I had ever seen. I was jealous. But the envy I maintained deep inside of me was not a jealousy of her, but of he who had the ability to fill her with so much pigment. Eventually his attempts to see her grew fewer and his sweetness morphed bitter. When she confronted him about the possibility of his cheating, his fist etched a patch of black and blue into the side of her temple. I nursed the wound as she defended it as an act of passion. It happened, twice more, once when she questioned his commitment, and again when she threatened to leave. But when he was the one to break contact and move out of state, I watched the usual teal of her eyes dim to mimic the dull of the Chicago River during the wintertime. I said, you’ll get over him and she cursed me for even assuming it was possible. Still, she had me run fingers through her hair and lay quiet next to her in her bed every night until she fell finally asleep, heartbrokenly blue.

Katie was never one to spell out her dejection, but detecting it wasn’t necessarily a challenge. When she was happy, or at the least, content, every hue of her spirit reflected through the pale of her flesh. She rarely talked about that which upset her, and if she did, it was a sentence or two about the topic and not much else. Through the lending of her body to the hands of careless men, she grew more and more despondent. I didn’t ask why she did this but wondered to myself how someone so impeccable could waste so much time with those so undeserving. Without prompt, she told me, If there’s one feeling that never gets old, it’s the feeling of being wanted. I could’ve told her then and there that there was nothing I wanted more in this world than her, that I would make it my life’s work to bring it to her knowledge every day if I were granted the right. But instead I nodded my head silently in agreement as she mellowed out into a dusted gray.

In our 17th year, her smile had begun to wane into a constant expression of exhaustion. She didn’t care much to get high anymore, and because my willingness to do so was never really more than an extension of hers, we ceased the hobby that had become a regular habit. She no longer had the desire to harass my neighbor for the pills in his parents’ medicine cabinet, and we stopped buying molly from the guy who lived behind 7-Eleven. It was unusual, certainly, that after almost three years of consistently searching for adventure in substance, the impulse terminated almost all at once. When she began failing assignments, I figured it was none other than a conscious attempt to do poorly. This was someone who, in the midst of an acid trip, could perfectly knock out an AP calculus final in under an hour. For her to achieve failure, it meant putting forth the effort that most people needed just to make a passing grade. But the below average results continued, and she carried on apathetically, donning a shade of purple I hadn’t yet seen in her before.

I was shocked when one Monday morning at the completion of our junior year, she informed me that at end of the summer, her family would be moving across the country to Washington. I watched the uncertainty tremble its way out of her lips, hiding my own ambivalence harshly between my teeth. With the reality of the situation stinging, I pushed through the feeling to promise her some sort of hope. She sighed, but nodded, closed mouth and eyes, unconvincingly. I said, everything will be okay, I know it. She said, I wish I saw things the way you did. I thought about what could happen if she really did see me in the same lens as I saw her, how we might expand beyond the friendship I so valued but also secretly wished was something greater. But I knew it would be useless anyway. After all, she was leaving and the possibility of her ever loving me romantically was beyond unlikely, and so I assured her that things would get better, attempting to also reassure myself in a way. But the light looked like it’d been plucked from her eye sockets. Any remaining spark seemed to have been replaced by her now fully dilated pupils. Her eyelashes still curled, but sparingly and weaker than ever, as if they were leaves in Autumn prematurely anticipating their descent. She’d ask me to shift fingernails through her hair and I’d watch the thinness of its strands retire exhausted from her scalp. Even when the glow started to dim, there was always an ever-present lightness in her being, but that too had started to fade and its departure didn’t seem like it would come to a halt anytime soon. I was concerned, but all I had really was a heavy perception of color and the knowledge that within a few months, we’d be apart.

The first of August was the brightest Saturday I had ever seen. Through Katie’s bedroom window, the heat looked tangible and raw, ready to plaster itself onto the bodies of everyone willing to leave the house that day. It is still to this day, the brightest I have ever seen. I heard the sound of the early morning metro arriving nearby. The color drained from the room. Katie wasn’t next to me.

She had walked the few blocks from her house to the metro crossing, directly onto the tracks at approximately 8:09 am, when the most popular commute was en route towards Ogilivie station at the heart of the city, while I was left sleeping next to the imprint of her body in the mattress, unknowing, soon to discover, to be changed indefinitely.

 

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Diseased

 

Remember when they thought I was dying? My white blood cell count was so low I was certain that I could fit each one into the palm of a hand and name them. I pictured my soon-to-be bare scalp reflecting against every light in every room it walked into and wondered if you could still love me like that. Of course you said yes, laughing, my hair wasn’t what drew you to me in the first place, it was my writing but that terrified me just as much because what if one day I just stopped and never started again?  I figured that if I was ever happy enough, that I wouldn’t need to anymore. When I say happy I don’t mean it in a momentary sense but that raw kind of happiness that just about makes you forget every bad thing in this word. When I’m that kind of happy, the words that feel like they constantly need saying will find comfort in silence.

You barely knew me when I was sick over thanksgiving but yet you spoon fed me soup you made from scratch full of vegetables you cut except for onions because I hate the texture of them. The pads of your fingers pulsed the ache out of my lower back and my upper back and my ribcage until I finally fell asleep against your chest, rhythmic and warm. You tipped shots of orange dayquil through the base of my lips and kept your hand on my stomach at night because it was the only cure to quieting the waves. I often find myself with my own fist splayed open against my abdomen when needed in hopes it will know the same magic as yours.

I cursed you for pulling my cuticles out of my teeth and for trying to stop my bad habits that I’ve never had the audacity to try to stop myself. I said, I used to be worse you know and you asked what that meant. I said it’s funny because I hate having my blood drawn at the doctor, it’s the worst thing in the world I swear, but I could sit on the tile of my shower for 2 hours straight with a flood pouring from my veins and call it therapy. You were quiet for a moment and then said don’t you dare ever do that again and I said it’s been two years and also that it would ruin my tattoos and I’ve spent too much money on those to risk it.

But you knew what you were getting into because I make a hobby out of passing out my trauma to people for entertainment. That’s what art is isn’t it? When you asked if I wanted to talk about it I said yes but no but yes. I said sometimes at night I could still feel him kneeling on my chest and then my gut folds itself into one of those origami swans I learned how to make in the fifth grade. I said I’m embarrassed because I don’t want to seem weak but sometimes it takes me four hours to fall asleep or sometimes I just never do at all and that I’ll get out of bed four times just to relock the doors if I can’t remember whether or not I did already. You nodded softly but I think the actuality of it really only hit you after that time you came on my hair by accident and I started crying. I didn’t even know why I was but you did and you understood without me having to. Three days after we were laying in bed and I laughed and then cried again and then laugh-cried and you said shh, it’s alright, I’m sorry, and I said don’t be sorry, I’m okay, just realizing, just realizing.

You don’t understand mental illness and I don’t really either but I’ve learned that you don’t have to understand something to live with it so I figured you could too. The depression is bearable enough so there was never a reason to warrant it a deal breaker although I did get mad that time I told you I was feeling depressed and you told me to be more optimistic. You learned very quickly that it doesn’t work that way and I learned very quickly that you learn very quickly and I liked that.

I warned you about the mania but that means little to someone who has never seen it and by that I really mean someone who has lived it. It doesn’t matter if I told myself early on that I’d never let myself call you 87 times in a row because I did it more than once and more than once I’ve said I wouldn’t do it again but still have. More than once it has been three in the morning and my hands have been eager to pluck the follicles from my head and I’ve been recycling my tears and the snot is foaming above my upper lip and it’s such a sight to see. It’s not the thought of my fingers sheering my scalp or the mucus crawling down my face that is shocking, but the onset of the disaster I expect but can never quite prepare for. I said I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry and you said it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay and I wondered how you could ever last the instability long term. I ask myself the same question but choose to not answer because I don’t have the choice of leaving and still being alive and also how many times can we repeat this cycle until you stop picking up the phone?

How can such a pretty girl be so ugly? As a child my mother would ask me this when I was misbehaving. One time you said I was a mean person when we were fighting and I swear that pulled my stomach so far down my body I thought it would fall out of me entirely. But I’m not mean. I’m not mean, I’m not. I hold the door open for strangers and drive my roommate to get her car fixed when I have things to do and if I think someone looks pretty then I tell them they look pretty. I can be selfish and demanding and sometimes I avoid eye contact with homeless people asking for money but I’m not mean. When I told you I hated you that time, it wasn’t a meanness, just another way of me saying I hate who I’ve become and also a fraction of who I’ve always been and probably always will be. I hate that it started showing with you, I hate that I couldn’t keep it under control long enough for it to pass, I hate that regardless of how well I was doing in one way, a different part of me was always going to be sick in another. My mother asked why you were with me, how could you love such a crooked thing, and how long until you leave and then of course, what did I do to finally make you go?

You stopped asking me to read poems. I could feel the patience slipping from your grip as we held hands. You used to grasp onto me like a hurricane might arrive at any moment and sweep me up and away from you right then and there. But then it was spring and I had walking pneumonia and you were too busy to stop by that week so I took myself to Walgreens in search of aspirin and fainted in the candy aisle. You gave just one attempt to get me to stop biting my nails and then no more. When I asked if we could keep the light on while we slept, you said that you were tired and it was late and to just go to bed already. Our arguments ended with silence rather than sorrys. You let the phone ring longer before picking up. You didn’t answer after the 5th call. You didn’t answer.

 

I still use your toothbrush head you let me borrow because I have small teeth and it’s easier to get to each one individually. I know that you’re supposed to change them every couple of months but it reminds me of how we stood side by side in front of the mirror brushing in unison. I keep your box of Lucky Charms, too cloying and stale, in a safe place in my cabinet just in case you decide to come back for a bowl of it. Even though I hate the taste of them, now and then I’ll put a few marshmallows on my tongue and let them dissolve. There’s always a bad aftertaste. Your sweatshirt smells like my dog but I keep it on the right side of my bed in your absence. It’s a bigger bed for one person that I remember it being.

The hair on my head is intact and my blood cells are at normal levels for now but I am still writing. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop.

Preservation

 

Is this their heartbeat or ours?

 

 

Is a river

still a lifesource

if the life there

is disregarded?

 

The quality of

its content only important

if the stream ends at

a white mouth?

 

And preservation,

only necessary,

if it ends up in a museum?

 

Maybe water isn’t an issue

if yours is clean

just how a city doesn’t exist

if you don’t live there

and all lives only matter

when yours isn’t the topic

of conversation

.

 

 

have you ever held your breath

through passing smoke

only to find that three years have gone by

and the air has yet to clear

?

 

To have to choose

between dehydration or

disease

says more about a country

than an anthem or

a flag

ever could

 

the lengths

others have taken

to keep history alive

are almost as remarkable

as our attempts to forget it

 

 

 

5.16

Donald
was never
Donald to us
was always pappy
or puppy
always grandpa
never a name
loved angels and pranks and the little wooden boxes
with painted bugs on the inside
that danced when you opened it
Mom played Luther Vandross in the car
for weeks after he died
sat in the passenger seat with her feet up
and wiped the tears from her face
my brother and I in the back,
learning all the words to her grief
I didn’t get it then
sat at the shiva unknowingly
went to the funeral without worry
didn’t cry at all
how do you explain permanance to a kid who knows only that the seasons change regardless of how harsh the winter is?
or that the leaves will always grow back in the Spring?
or that a mistake is just a mistake?
or that life goes on even if the ice cream falls on the ground?
-there’s always a promise of redemption.
if I had known how to write more eloquently then
I’d have written God a letter asking for more time
for everyone who cried at his funeral
for my Nana
who wasn’t ready to be a widow
who still isn’t
for my mother
who loved her father identical
to how I love mine
and me, eight years too young to understand
that loss means you don’t get something back
if a skeptic tells you she believes in heaven will you believe it too?
what if she saw him in a dream once at eighteen?
ten years past a clear memory and he pulled her from a threat to safety?
how strange would it be to be reminded without a reminder?
to be reunited without a yearning for it?
a moment that everyone has now forgotten but I remember is when
Alissa found the outline of an angel stamped into a penny wearing the year of her birth
every time a coincidence comes out of my mouth
I can’t help but want to call it something else
I don’t believe in ghosts but I see his eyes
whenever I ask someone if they love me
like the way he asked daily, voice shrinking to invite laughter
mine ringing, as I ran to another room
to avoid an answer
shy then, I am now anything but.
three days from a new age and wondering
if he’d recognize me today
my voice, more loud than soft
and me,
never just a name

4/14

I’ve been looking through the yard
for a four leaf clover
but even if I found one
I wouldn’t know what to wish for
because with april comes the yellow roses along the fence
the hibiscus have started forming
there were less in November
when we met against a background of bare trees
when I hadn’t yet let my guard down
and we bloomed prematurely
—-
before the heat got to us
before the chill stopped calming
we were all the nature
that my clumsy hands never got the chance to ruin
I planted my future in your palms
waiting to watch the fruit form from your fingertips
—-
we plucked oranges before they fell
from the branches I couldn’t reach
with the juice dripping from your teeth,
smiling
—-
I found spring in our winter together
summer every time you looked at me
we built a sun even in its absence
painted stars in a quiet sky
this is how we loved
enough to keep the temperature still
enough to keep the unknowingness calm
this is how we still do
attempting to hold the promises we made
attempting to keep steady
—-
now the peaches have grown into their soft skin
just as we have
we pull one from a branch to split into pieces,
the juice slipping from our mouths as we eat them
—-
it’s easy to forget how sweet the sweetness is when you’re used to it
but I havent forgotten
what a privilege it is
to have tastebuds
and there’s a reason
I still keep you on my tongue after
all this time

4/11

admiration for the mundane:
I like the way your toothbrush
lays next to mine
I like knocking over your face wash
every time I open the cabinet
above my sink, I like
that you left your face wash
at my house on purpose
so that you never have an excuse
to not spend the night
I like that you leave
your belongings at my house
on purpose
.
It’s a good reminder
that you’re coming back
even though I already know
you’re going to anyway
I like having inanimate objects
to remind me now and then
so that just in case you
wake up feeling differently one day
you’ll still have a reason
to return
.
When I asked if
I could keep the sock
you left on my dresser
I was only kidding
I asked because I wanted
you to notice that I
keep parts of you
scattered around my room
just because
I miss you easily
I guess
.
Your alarm gives me
a headache
but I don’t mind it
the way I don’t mind
finding your hair on
my pillowcase or on
my face
the way I don’t mind
finding you on my pillowcase
or too close to my side of the bed
when we sleep
I don’t care that one
of your best skills
is hitting the snooze button
on repeat
my only regret is how
little we utilize the record player
and the fact that I was too
tired to kiss you
this morning
.
I am grateful for the day
your toothbrush
found a home in my bathroom
and also for the day
you decided
to find one in
me
.
In learning about the Holocaust for the millionth time:
___
I wonder if this ever becomes
a worn topic to some
because for me
it always feels
too new
___
I count the decades from
where we are today and
they always feel
too close
for comfort
___
maybe it’s because
I know enough bad jokes
about myself
to silence an entire synagogue
___
maybe it’s because
I learned how to make
a mockery of my people
before I knew why
there were so few left
___
this was before I was
old enough to understand what
it meant to be
a dying breed
___
and the town I lived in
felt too much shtetl
to understand that
the hatred we laughed about
wasn’t a joke to
the rest of the world
___
and us,
just enough Ashkenaz
to keep the blood still
alive
___
I imagine a scene:
a room crowded by
too many bodies
and wonder how any God
could pass by without
noticing
___
how he would be
unable to hear
that many last breaths
being taken at once
___
I still wonder the same.
___
In learning about the Holocaust for the millionth time:
___
I’ve written this poem a
million times
but it never seems
enough
___
I picture six million
and wonder how many of them
would have had my name
___
I picture six million
and wonder if we’ll ever learn
from our mistakes
___
and somewhere
in a classroom
a kid is rolling his eyes
at a story he thinks he’s heard
too much of
___
and somewhere still
we are saying things
like never again
knowing too well that
repetition has always been
one of history’s greatest
talents