“Earthbound women share bread; / make; do.”
– Marilyn Hacker
It was not the tiny basketball shorts fit
for a Bill-Russell rebound, their double white stripe beckoning—
a rumpled road, untraveled by my feet.
It was not the sight of your legs, their cross-stiches
of fine hair; how you’d lunge in wait, laughing for me,
your geometry slaking the parkway’s violent green
with long strokes, and my Vaselined thighs with a cruder oil.
It was not the log-sunning turtles you pointed to
on our walks as we huddled, our slatted shadows
kissing on the footbridge as you waited for my eyes
to parse sun, moss, and serrated bark for a sight
of six cobbled backs milliseconds before they plunged
with a supple splash, the water ringing like my vestibule.
It was not the Northeastern butches you clocked on the trail;
the knowing smiles they offered our passing, midsections decked
in fluorescent fanny packs, breasts flouncing like wild geese.
It wasn’t the pizza after, how your languid digits
stroked shakers of Parmesan and pepper flakes,
groped the grooves of tumblers, and fingered napkins
blotched with pepperoni drippings like diluted blood.
Perhaps it was the time we were really there—
or close—sharing a borrowed bed in Boxborough,
the customary strip of sheet and our backs between us
as we spoke to the walls about tasks at hand:
tomorrow’s roundtable; the poise needed to return
home and love people we had reason enough not to trust.
Perhaps it was the way you paused
when I confessed men were as frightening to me as God,
though I couldn’t shake them, my lead-tipped messiahs
of foreskin and fickle flesh. It was a declaration
I now recognize for what it was:
the weak jangle of my master key,
my body’s unbolting as beckoning,
preconditioned to lie in wait. To wait to be taken.
All my ignorance, balled up in some stranger’s bedclothes
and in traces I’d left in the small box of the shower;
the refuse of me still sudsing its stall.
You knew there was a woman wrestling there, drowning,
whose head I’d plunge then pull from my dammed
water, hold up briefly for breaths of air
in the heaving possibility of your dark.
Perhaps you held her too, in your mind, first
as theory, prospect of conquest, then as fragile unfurling
until the balance became clear, and you said, I love you
and goodnight. And we slept soundlessly
as the snow falling outside: pristine, unfound
by workboots and the glaze of mufflers dragging the road.
You would fall, one day, for a woman from that place.
I would learn to touch women without blame—
and the migration that could have been ours changes shape
each time I look back at myself—chimera of uncertainties,
every animal straining to be free from the rest.
Next day, on the train, you named for me a bird
I’d seen months before, perched on a powerline
outside the window near the bed I shared
with the lover who would sire a son without me.
The bird’s color was so blue I questioned my sight.
Indigo bunting, you called it. Passerina cyanea.
Cardinal of the night, prone to disorientation
when it can neither migrate nor see stars.
Its names grazed my lips with electric wings
as we rode, hushed, on the gauntlet of that city
meant to be both of ours, where Ben Franklin
first watched then mimicked scientists wrangling
current from cloud, rerouting every charge
into the safety of solid ground—a discovery
that made every other illumination possible.
Photograph of Destiny O. Birdsong by Hunter Armistead.