Copyright 2007 by Madeline Sharples
What Is Loss?
I lose my keys or sunglasses
and find them in my hand all along.
I lose my little boy in the department store
and he pops out squealing with laughter
from under the clothes display.
I lose important papers
and find them
in the stack of other papers on my desk.
I didn’t lose my son, Paul.
Paul is dead. Death is forever.
There’s not a chance of finding him.
The light I’ve left on in the hall for him
every night since he died
doesn’t show him the way back home.
There are no more piano gigs out there for him.
The Sunday paper entertainment guide
doesn’t list his name at any jazz club.
He can’t join the young guys at the Apple Genius Bar
and help people solve their computer problems.
Paul would have loved that job.
He was made for that job,
but he checked out too early.
The new meds and surgery for manic depression,
the new information about mental illness
are not for him.
Why do people refer to death as loss?
Maybe just to encourage
people like me.
Maybe just to keep me looking for him.
Maybe so I can pretend he’s still out there.
Maybe that’s why I long to mother
the strong young men at the gym
who hardly notice me
and the bright ones at work.
They are the right age.
They have the same look.
They have the same appeal.
Every time I see a young man
with close-buzzed hair,
a white t-shirt and a black jacket
sitting outside of Starbucks
sucking on a cigarette,
every time I see a skinny guy
walking fast across the street
carrying a brown leather bag over his shoulder,
I look to make sure.
Blizzard in B
It is mid March, 1993,
and a bitter blizzard blows in.
the century’s biggest.
Flakes of snow swirl in gusts to the sidewalk.
Cold slaps our cheeks
pushes through our clothes
as we cling to each other,
walk through the cavern
at the feet of New York’s skyscrapers.
The sirens set our teeth chattering
as impatient cabbies honk,
inch their way up the streets.
Yet, we trudge forward
uncertain of what
we will discover when we arrive.
A more foreboding blizzard, perhaps,
blows through our boy’s broken brain.
The Last Night
How could I have known
it would be the last night? A night
like all the others:
the low creaking groan
of the garage door,
tires screeching to maneuver
into the narrow place,
the roar of the engine before silence.
Then slamming the door,
my son, sweeps down the long hall,
calling out hello in his deep friendly voice.
I startle as I hear his heavy strides
pass my door,
I call out to him.
Returning, he enters my room –
standing, staring, looking more calm
than I’ve ever seen him.
His blue eyes like sapphires
fringed with thick dark lashes
never leave mine while we speak.
My lips kiss his cheek
cool as alabaster.
I marvel at his smile – lips
barely turned up not showing his teeth.
He looks like the angel
he will soon become.
He has already found peace.
Only I don’t know it yet.
When all I heard was silence
behind the locked bathroom door
that Thursday morning,
when all I saw was darkness
through the open bedroom door,
when Bob went to investigate,
calling his name, Paul,
pleading with him, Paul,
open the door,
when Bob went to the garage
for a screwdriver to pick the lock,
when he opened the door
and closed it quickly from the inside
while I stood on the stairs,
as Bob found our son in the bathtub,
sitting in a pool of blood,
blue, already cold and stiff,
tongue hanging out of his mouth,
when Bob came out of the bathroom
face red, hands shaking
and told me
Paul is dead,
when all I heard were sirens
and the footsteps of the police
as they stomped though our house,
all I could do was huddle
in the corner of the couch,
my legs drawn under me,
my arms folded around me,
as I rocked back and forth,
my hands clamped into tight fists.
There is no gentle way to say it:
He killed himself
Took his own life
He ended his life
He released his pain
He committed suicide
What he did one night was
put himself in the bathtub and
slash his throat with a box cutter.
That’s what he did.
That’s the truth.
Calling it dying, passing away
does not change the reality
for me and his father and his brother
who cared for him and loved him.
but couldn’t keep him from his destiny
death by suicide.
beat it out
on the mighty eighty-eights
played those riffs
tapped his feet
bent his head
down to the keys
felt those sounds
on his fingertips.
Yeah, he was a hot man
on those eighty-eights.
But, all too soon
his bag grew dark.
He went down
played the blues
lost that spark
closed the lid.
And, yeah, you got it right,
quit the scene.
laid himself down
in that bone yard
for the big sleep.
They came in droves at first
out of concern, out of curiosity.
They sent flowers, cards
and sweet notes saying
anytime at all.
Now it is quiet.
A few friends
invite us out,
or come by.
The rest have moved on
glad to have done their duty.
Don’t they know I’m not contagious?
My son’s death will not rub off.
I’m the same person I was before.
A sadder person, perhaps
but needing my friends
just the same.
September 23, 2002
The phone rings once
startling me awake
from a deep sleep.
I jump out of bed to answer it
knocking the Waterford
perfume bottle from my dresser,
and there is no one on the line.
Only 5 a.m. but I am up
for the third anniversary of Paul’s death,
a day I dread every year.
All I can think is
Paul called to check in,
to let us know he is still around:
I go out on the porch
and watch the orange half moon
set behind the trees.
We don’t have to look into that room anymore
and wonder if spots of blood still remain
on the floors and walls.
We’ve demolished the scene of the crime.
We will no longer step into that tub and see Paul
in his white long sleeved work shirt
and khaki pants sitting against the shower door
in a bloody puddle.
They’ve taken it all away.
The old aqua blue tub
the toilet, and sinks.
the faux marble counter
with burn stains from the tiny firecrackers
he set off as a teenager.
The god-awful blue and yellow vinyl flooring is gone.
Sterile white tiles and fixtures
will take their place
in a room with no memories
either of life or death.
Six years later
instead of the dark room
he walked out of for the last time
leaving the door slightly ajar
his bed never slept in
his dirty laundry
slung over his over-stuffed chair,
his paychecks left on the side table
uncashed for weeks,
his pictures and posters meticulously thumbtacked
in perfect rows on the walls
his books and records all lined up
in alphabetical order in his closet
along with his shoes and plaid shirts from second-hand stores,
his keyboard, electronic drums, amplifier,
and his music, each tape labeled and packed
in a canvas bag,
so we could easily choose
a piece to play at his funeral.
Instead, the room now totally bare
except for a new bay window
that looks over the garden
and new shiny hardwood floors.
A writing table and a comfortable sofa
will go in there
with space in the closet
for shelves of poetry books,
files of poems hoping to be published.
Boxes labeled Paul’s fiction A-Z
Paul’s jazz records K-O
Paul’s rock and roll A-F
stacked where I can see them
as I open the door
park my car every evening
after a long day at work.
On top of the boxes
a pile of dungeons and dragon games
one tarnished brass duck bookend
he got for his Bar Mitzvah,
the purple treasure chest
where he kept his pot,
a cigar box filled with metals and belt buckles
his uncle brought him from Russia.
Leaning against the wall
a roll of drawings
he made in Bellevue’s psych ward
each declaring his love for Sally
now married with two children.
A photo of her
with high pointing breasts,
slim waist, flat stomach, and round, firm buttocks
shows her proud, and so ready,
though Paul was not.
He let her go
He let it all go
with one sweep of the knife.
The Dreaded Question
It happens again like so many times before.
I’m at my sister’s house,
talking to her neighbor
someone I’ve just met
and she asks me the dreaded question
one that I’m avoiding
by talking about what a great day
this has been in Portland
and isn’t my sister’s garden just beautiful
and what do you do for a living
and where are you from.
And there it is,
after I’ve tossed the salad greens
put the tomatoes in the bowl
and sliced in the avocado
“How many children do you have?” she asks.
And never missing a beat
I say, I had two
but now, only one.
My oldest son died.
Then I leave to get myself together
and wonder what she and my sister are saying
while I am lying down in my room.
“The dead we can imagine to be anything at all.”
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
He sits cross-legged in a tree
deep in concentration,
the way he would sit on the floor of his room
learning against the bed doing homework,
composing music, talking on the phone.
His closed-mouth grin shows
he is pleased to be where he is.
No longer a skinny rail, his cheeks filled out,
his skin clear, his eyes bright.
His tree has everything – soft jazz sounds
flowing from all directions,
deep vees and pillows for sitting and reclining,
the scent of incense and flowers,
branches of books by Miller, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky
the music of Davis, Gould, Bach and Lennon,
and virtual communication to those he loves.
He needs no furniture, no bedding, no clothes, no food.
Those necessities are for worldly beings.
The passing clouds give him comfort
and the stars light his way.
Heaven takes care of him
as he imagines himself
to be anything at all.
Paul is a bully.
Always waiting to take over my poems.
I’m writing about my mother
who starved herself last year,
hanging on for weeks in a morphine-induced coma,
using up every bit of energy I had
until she finally died.
And here he comes pushing her aside
to get to the front of the line.
He brags so the whole playground can hear.
“My suicide is bigger,
I used a box cutter; she just stopped eating.”
And he’s right.
Compared to his death
hers was a bump in the road.
He was my beautiful sick boy,
she, a not-so-nice shriveled old woman
who had wished for death for years.
She’d call me a bad daughter for saying this
but I don’t miss her at all.
We sat at the wooden table
shaded by large heart-shaped leaves.
The crone with wispy white hair
hanging in strings around her face,
a mouth that’s forgotten how to smile,
skin drawn, pale like rice paper
hunched in her wheel chair
listening or not.
This is where you’ll be for the rest of your days,
this is the end of the line.
You’re done moving, I said.
You’ll never be able to be on your own again.
No matter how much you hate this place,
get over it.
It’s a done deal.
Then, I laid out the plan.
I’ll give notice at your retirement hotel,
put your things in storage
minus the few pieces you can bring here.
And, don’t worry,
I’ll keep them all safe.
Not saying anything in return
she tapped her painted red claws
in between the grooves of the table.
When she couldn’t see or hear me anymore
I pushed her chair inside
while her vacant eyes
stared out into the gloom.
I look toward my mother’s bed
in its sunny spot by the window.
Her young nurse is smiling.
So is mother.
She lies in a blue hospital gown
printed with triangles, squares and circles
in shades of gray, burgundy and dark blue.
Her skin looks healthy.
Her thin, white hair brushed off her face.
After the nurse leaves, she looks at me
with wide eyes and asks,
“Do you want to play bridge? We need a fourth.”
“I haven’t played in years,” I say
She accepts that excuse
and points her long painted nails
to two or three other people
she imagines in the room.
“They will play,” she says.
I stroke her damp forehead,
holding her bony hand bruised from the needles
that had been stuck into it.
I brush my fingers down her white, silky legs,
now devoid of hair.
“Do I look a mess?” she asks.
The sun casts a shadow across her bed.
“No, you look wonderful,” I say.
She smiles at me, not minding
that her mouth has no bottom dentures,
and brags how her cousins
tell her how good she looks
and how well-dressed she is.
Even here with her gown hiked up to her diaper,
I try to pull her gown down
but she keeps grabbing it.
I cover her with a sheet,
and sit down to watch her play cards.
“Six spades,” she proclaims,
“Play out.” I play out.
Using her night gown as her bridge hand,
she tries to lift off each pattern section
one by one as if it were a card
and place it on an imaginary table
in front of her.
I want to know what happened to her,
and what can be done about it.
“Hospitalitis,” the nurse says.
She has seen it a million times before.
I go back to the bed and continue play-acting.
I am thankful too. Her mind is taking her to that other place
where she is young and beautiful
and lives on the west side of Chicago.
“I like this little room,” she says.
“I’m glad,” I say.
I gathered all the papers
piled on my desk for weeks
and put them into neat stacks –
Medicare receipts, bank statements, insurance policy,
taxes, unpaid bills, funeral records,
and a special pile called “Memorabilia” –
with her typed-up life story,
her citizenship decree,
and her husband’s death certificate.
We had already divided her things:
each piece of furniture,
each piece of silver,
china and jewelry laid out
and chosen one at a time.
My brother got the breakfront,
my sister the Illadro figurine
and I kept the diamond watch.
She flexed her fists
on the cold bed railing
with her heartbeats,
Soon her hold relaxed,
and fingers intertwined
she wrapped her hands gently around the bar
Drugged from the morphine potion
placed kindly under her tongue
she lay there in a ball
like a sleeping skeleton,
head tucked into her sunken chest
I sat with her, stroked her arm
like a skinny rail itself
and soothed the damp hair
off her forehead until she pushed me away,
took hold of the railing again.
Finally too weak to reach her metal friend,
she allowed her folder fingers
to rest on the bed.
And I, kissed her gray, fading face.
A woman strong until the very end
took 94 years to finally let go.
Reaching for a Star
It used to be comforting to see her
at her computer as I passed her office door.
Sometimes we’d nod or say hello.
Other times I sat in her guest chair
against the wall and we’d chat.
I don’t remember about what –
our work maybe, her art projects, my poems,
or an exhibit one of us had seen
at the Getty, LACMA, a gallery at Bergamot Station.
Now her door is closed,
her name and title still on it,
but, she doesn’t work in there anymore.
Now we sometimes chat in her nice
third floor room in a tall building
on Prospect Avenue in Redondo Beach
with her favorite books around her
along with photos, writing papers, art supplies –
even a big screen TV –
all the comforts of home.
Not at a computer anymore,
she sits propped up
in bed in an aqua gown,
an oxygen tube in her nose
and a permanent IV shunt in her arm
to receive the doses of morphine
that increase day by day.
We look at the ocean as she tells me
her plans for her death.
Her ashes will fertilize several gardens
and her spirit,
happy to miss the daily catastrophes
of the living world,
will soar to her own personal star.
If all goes according to schedule,
she’ll be there in time for her 52nd birthday in August.
You didn’t even touch me, Mother.
I was just down the hall,
sitting against the shower door
in the blue bathtub.
I was cold in there.
Why didn’t you touch me?
All you had to do was step
inside the bathroom.
I was still there
sitting on my box cutter
in a small puddle of blood.
I was dressed.
I still had on the clothes
I wore to work,
my white long-sleeved shirt and khakis.
It would have been okay if you came in.
You didn’t have to keep the door closed.
I was lonely in there.
You could have come in.
Why didn’t you come down to the garage
to kiss me goodbye?
Strangers from the coroner’s office
put me on a gurney
stuffed me in a plastic bag
and took me away.
I didn’t want to go,
but they had to make sure I was my murderer
not someone else.
You could have unzipped me down to my neck
and kissed me on the forehead or on my lips.
I wouldn’t have minded.
Even though my tongue was sticking out a little
I didn’t look too bad.
I know you weren’t allowed to visit
during my four days at coroner’s office,
but I don’t understand why you didn’t come
with Dad and Uncle Ken to the mortuary.
That was your last chance,
That was your last chance to see me whole
and you stayed home.
Why did you stay home, Mother?
Oh, sure, Dad probably told you to.
But you could have come anyway
How come, Mother?
I wanted you there with me
before they took me away for good
before they turned me into a bag of ashes.
Were you mad at me, Mother?
Were you mad that I did it?
Were you mad that I killed myself?
Were you frightened to see me dead?
Swaddled in this
black bomber jacket all weekend,
I am safe from the Big Sur chill.
It’s too large for me.
And that’s okay. It was Paul’s.
I bought it for him
years ago at American et Cie on La Brea
before he went crazy
and decided to leave us
way before his time.
I like how it snuggles me,
like he’s in there too giving me a hug.
It’s the only piece
of his clothing I have left.
I’ve given away the rest:
his favorite plaid shirts
that smelled of sweat and smoke,
the torn jeans he salvaged
from second-hand stores,
his worn brown Doc Martin oxfords
that took him miles on his manic escapades,
and the tan suede jacket
he had me repair over and over
because he couldn’t let it go.
Like this jacket –
I’ll never let it go.
It has stains I can’t remove
and threads unraveling,
My son is gone.
But, this jacket –
try and take it from me.
On a cool, sunny day in Normandy
the breeze does not disturb
the graves at the American Cemetery.
No matter where you stand,
looking diagonally, horizontally,
or straight back and forth,
each alabaster white grave marker
each chiseled engraving
in perfect precision
as far as the eye can see.
The grass covering the graves
mowed just the right height
a shade of green
from a Technicolor garden.
The surroundings –
a rectangular reflection pool
the curved wall inscribed with the names
of 1,557 Americans missing in action,
the center bronze statue commemorating
the spirit of American youth,
and the Omaha Beach below –
create a restful setting
for the 10,000 allied soldiers
killed in 1943 or 44
during World War II.
On a gray, rainy day
hordes of tourists stroll
through the Jewish cemetery.
Their feet crunch
the brown and yellow leaves
covering the ground.
Housing 800,000 graves –
some over 12 layers deep –
this cemetery, not functional since 1787,
on the verge of collapse.
The packed gravestones lean
every which way
in a hodgepodge of rectangular, square,
and triangular shapes
so old, so worn and broken
the Hebrew or Yiddish markings
are hardly readable.
Just like the Jews
who were forced to live
crammed together in
the Prague ghetto,
these gravestones want
to escape the barriers
that keep the visitors and vandals out.
On a stormy day
in Los Angeles
we drive through the gates
of Hillside Cemetery
and curve around the drive
to the back wall
and a small plot
of miniature flat rectangular
gray and black marble gravestones
with the closely cropped grass
marking the cremated remains
of fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles,
Full sun interrupts the downpour
just long enough
for us to kneel
at our son’s grave
on his December 31st birthday,
wipe away the raindrops,
leave a smooth black stone,
and four yellow roses
and allow our tears to fall.
I’ll always remember he slept
without closing his eyes all the way
I’ll always remember he walked fast
and way ahead of us
I’ll always remember he had long, thick, black eyelashes
surrounding clear blue eyes
I’ll always remember he played the piano
legs crossed at the knees, leaning
way down over the keyboard
I’ll always remember he liked to wear
second-hand clothes and didn’t mind
if they were ripped
I’ll always remember he stood
at the pantry door munching almonds
I’ll always remember he liked to climb –
trees, rocks, diving boards
I’ll always remember he was meticulous and anal about his things
I’ll always remember he could play almost any tune by ear
And that he was always a loner
And how much he loved his girlfriend
and wasn’t touched enough after she left him
I’ll always remember he was sensitive
I’ll always remember he drove too fast and erratically
I’ll always remember he got lots of parking tickets
I’ll always remember he was in love with John Lennon
I’ll always remember he liked Doc Martin shoes
I’ll always remember he tapped his foot when he sat down
I’ll always remember how he sat
all folded over like The Thinker
when he drank coffee at Starbucks
I won’t ever forget the feel of his cool pale skin
the last night I saw him
Or the sound of his voice
I’ll always remember his hair was thick
I can’t forget he knew all the nursery rhymes
by the time he was two
and he said he wanted to watch a record
when he lay down on the red and black plaid couch to take a nap
I’ll always remember he and his brother
called the back of the station wagon,
“the really back”
I’ll always remember he loved to fish.
A Poem That Wants To Be for Ben
They are always about Paul, my dead son
the one who died of his own free will
so many years ago.
My hordes of poems go on like a mantra:
his mania, depression, his delusions, escapades,
his suicide. They never fail to mention
his piercing blue eyes, the little half smile
that never showed his teeth, the smoky smell
and the way he slumped over the piano like the thinker
as he played.
Paul and his death have been my muse.
Ben’s living eyes brim over with love
as he looks down and folds me in his arms.
He is the son who says
I love you
every time we speak.
His smiles are wide
even when he faces disappointment
in his own life.
This son is the reason I choose to live.
Why isn’t he the reason I choose to write?
Twelve Hundred Head Shots
I scroll through them
one by one.
Each a full-face shot
in black and white.
His clothes change – tee-shirts,
dress shirt, tie and suit jacket,
a sweater slung over his shoulders,
a shirt with open collar and loose hanging tie.
But the poses repeat again and again.
First his face is serious, eyes slightly squinting,
looking dark and foreboding,
His hair slicked back
not one out of place.
This guy means business or he’s got a gun.
Next he shows a little half smile,
long dimples on the sides of his mouth
but no teeth.
Full, dark brows, deep,
reflect the light of day.
Finally he smiles wide
showing teeth, dimples,
and crow’s feet
around the eyes. His jaw is long,
This is a guy
you can trust to be your friend
When this young son of mine
played tournament tennis as a boy
I sat on the sidelines at every match
with all my fingers crossed and my legs crossed
and my arm crossed
as if my body language and my wishing
could win him the point.
Now I click through the head shots
and wonder which one, which look, which outfit
will get him a part on a TV series
as a smart aleck lawyer or sinister gangster
or a part in a movie as the leading man’s sidekick
or better yet, the role perfect for the Tyrone Power,
Laurence Harvey,or Montgomery Clift type
that his new manager says he is –
the role that will find us both sitting together
at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
on Academy Awards night.
He in his Hugo Boss tux,
I in my long Armani gown
waiting, holding hands,
squeezing them together until they hurt,
until his name is called
and he goes up on stage to accept his prize.
Making It Hard
The bright room is almost full.
Four walls of mirrors reflect women and men
in baggy shorts and sleek black tights.
The music so loud
the woman in front of me
stuffs ear plugs in her ears.
Lisa G says, “work from the core,
your workout relates to your real life.”
I want to get on with it.
I don’t come here at 6 a.m. to listen to a lecture.
The neon sign on the wall says, “sweat,”
and that’s what I want to do.
The woman behind me complains.
I don’t know her name, but she’s here every week.
Always in the same spot, always complaining, always in black.
Black tights, black sports bra, black thong leotard,
black headband on her head of black hair.
Even her lipstick looks black.
A drill sergeant in baseball cap and high-top aerobic shoes
Lisa begins her mantra.
“If it were easy, everyone would be fit,” she shouts
“Don’t come here and expect it to be easy.”
She doesn’t single me out.
I like it that way.
I like being anonymous here
I don’t know anyone and no one knows me.
Being anonymous is a benefit.
It keeps me in shape, calms my mind,
gives me the space to be myself.
It’s a mini vacation from the horrors of my life.
So, I thank Lisa G
for getting me moving,
for making it hard,
For making it hurt,
for helping me
trade one pain for another.
I face the shrine,
place my palms together
bow and walk into the room.
I choose a spot in the second row
and sit in the middle of a brilliant red cushion,
cross my legs, straighten my spine,
take a quick look around
before I gaze ahead,
lowering my eyelids until
my eyes focus on the gold leaf mandala
adorning the lacquered alter.
Soon the tang of incense sends up
a trail of smoke, like a fine silk thread.
It disappears above my head.
I begin to settle down and listen:
my breath moving in, moving out.
It sounds like I’m in an echo chamber.
This is not my breath. It’s the sound
of something far away.
I keep listening. The echo louder,
enveloping me, swaddling me
in its raspy arms.
I’m lost in this warmth until I startle,
my head lurches forward,
my eyes pop open, my body arches.
I barely catch myself
from keeling over.
The instructor at my side nods.
I unfold my legs,
and leave the room with him.
I sit with him in another room,
a smaller version of the shrine room,
to hear his lesson on how to meditate.
I try to listen carefully,
I try to stay focused,
I try to stay with him
and his words
but my mind is anxious to try again.
I take his words with me as I open
and close the creaking shrine room’s entry doors.
I go back to my spot and sit again,
I fold my legs again,
I straighten my spine again,
I fix my gaze again.
Yeah, I’m ready this time.
I can do this
if only my right ankle will stop
distracting me, aching, giving me fits.
Okay, focus, like the instructor said.
Pay attention to your breath.
If you get distracted,
count your breaths
cleanse your mind.
I must let my ankle hurt, let my nose itch,
and watch my breath move in and out
I must push invading thoughts aside.
Okay, take it easy,
How hard is that?
The leader, sitting slightly elevated in front,
strikes the copper gong once, twice,
then produces several more short bursts of sound,
letting the prolonged vibrations permeate the air.
It’s time for walking meditation,
and boy am I ready for that.
I know I can do that.
My legs feel like a couple of stiff rails.
but, wait a minute.
Is this supposed to be a walk in the park?
No, of course not.
I enter the circle of my fellow meditators
walking the perimeter of the room.
I tuck my left thumb into my left fist
and cover it with my right hand,
holding my spooned hands close to my belly
just like I was told to do.
I begin to become aware of my feet
as I take slow step after slow step
around the room.
As I walk my arches rise,
my toes curl like a ballerina’s,
my feet are like wings made to propel me,
elevate me into a perfect pirouette. And,
I am there,
one in breath
one out breath
at a time.
“You’re prickly,” my husband said.
“hard to get along with
I just stood there, surprised.
“I’m sorry for being prickly,”
was all I could think of to say.
I am never so blunt
when critical of him.
He would retort as he’s done
so many times before,
“I guess I’m just not good enough,
“You should just find someone else,”
he’d say. And, of course,
I would quickly shut up,
I wonder what prickly means.
Do I hurt to the touch
like little pin pricks?
Do cacti envy my prowess?
Do the cats that roam the streets
and sleep under cars hiss
and scatter when they see me coming?
Do the few stars
that burn through the haze
look down at me in wonder?
A Summer’s Day in New York
My back is hot to the touch.
Still, the sun beats down
as the whole world strolls,
taking in the smells at the Union Square market.
Fresh basil, warm bread, cut flowers,
vegetables as vivid a still life,
all the way from New Jersey farms.
We go to breakfast at The Coffee Shop,
across from the square,
and eat mountains of eggs and crispy fried potatoes
while listening to live jazz.
Afterward, we head uptown on the subway
breathing in the soot, the pee stink,
and body odors
to see the Jackie O exhibit at the Met.
The lines are so long we huddle
against the wall for an hour,
but we don’t care a bit.
Then we push and shove our way through the crowds
just to get a glimpse of her clothes.
Over 80 dresses are there – by Givenchy, Cassini and
who knows how many other designers
who made those
60s A-shaped dresses in stiff fabrics
that hit just below her beautiful knees
or skimmed the floors she walked on
with matching coats or capes and little pill box caps
she wore way back on her head.
The sparkly strapless white gown,
its gauzy train
made her look like a fairy princess.
We think of her that way,
mouths open, teary eyed, watching
the clips of her upstaging her husband,
beaming at Nikita, Nehru, or Charles de Gaule,
speaking fluent French and Spanish
as she ignored those rumors about Marilyn.
Those were magical times for both her and me
before our tragedies changed everything.
We leave the Met
walk downtown on Madison Avenue
browsing, trying on dresses,
Jackie O sunglasses,
and shoes until
we can’t take another step.
So, we perch ourselves on bar stools,
sip some Chardonnay,
and watch the hordes of people go by.
We sat across the table
covered with a white cloth.
Her bright face glowed in the light,
her smile radiant
punctuated by deep, long dimples
in each cheek.
Simply dressed in black slacks
and a white sweater
she spoke confidently in English.
And, when speaking her native Italian,
she spoke slowly so we could
understand her words.
At this first meeting
in the quiet La Casa Volpi Ristorante
just outside the city,
we ate heavy ribollita soup,
we dipped our bread in oil
from olives grown and pressed nearby,
we drank smooth, dark Chianti,
and we knew we would be friends.
We lingered, over biscotti and vin santo
giggling about our language goofs,
not wanting to end this evening
and our time in Arezzo in northern Tuscany.
When we parted
we embraced with hugs so tight
I knew she would forever
have a place in my heart.
She must have thought so too.
The next day, as we were leaving her city,
she told me she was giving me a piece of herself –
lavender she picked from her garden
packed in a heart-shaped sachet.
Black and White Dreams
I feel like snuggling in,
feet up on the coffee table
watching whatever inanity
the tube spews out
to attract me. Like the dashing
Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes
as his eyes smolder in their glow,
Lauren Bacall flipping her hair
off her face
as she gives Humphrey
the come to momma look
There was a world one could live in,
black and white and out of focus,
where one could get lost in dreams.
We’d sing, we’d shout,
we’d kiss and do the Continental
down the wide boulevards of Rio.
All our endings would be happy
as the credits roll
over our bodies
locked in a smoky embrace.
Romeo and Juliet’s Wedding Night
The black drapes open
on center stage, a bed
covered in heavy red quilts and pillows
with a red satin cloth sweeping up
into the rafters from the headboard.
The bed covers and white sheets
crumpled in heaps
by the bodies of two lovers on top,
then on the pillows at the foot of the bed,
then on the floor
as they wrap their arms and legs around each other,
first one on top and then the other,
never separating as they kiss
and stroke each other
until almost daylight and it is time to part.
But still they don’t part.
While he buttons his shirt,
tucking it in half way,
she, wrapped in a sheet,
long dark hair covering her breasts like a halter,
her arms out to him,
kneels on the bed,
pleading, “Don’t go, not yet,”
calling to him to come back
crying in full soprano voice,
“It’s not light yet.”
And he turns around and looks into her eyes.
His tenor voice roars,
“Yes, I’ll stay,”
and he tears off his clothes again
leaps back onto the bed again
pushes her back down
and enfolds her in his arms — again.
At daybreak, finally getting up,
picking his clothes off the floor,
he dresses, this time for good.
He pulls her to him,
crushes her body against his,
jumps over the balcony
to the ladder.
He begins to climb down and stops,
looks back up at her on the bed,
the new light glow on her pale face.
He raises one hand to her.
She runs out to the railing,
Leaning, reaching, stretching her arms out to him,
until she almost falls over,.
Their fingers touch once more
before he climbs down and runs from her,
before the full morning light discovers them together
on this their wedding night.
And, we all know,
this was their last night together alive.
Across the Parking Lot, Into the Gym
in the dark, the cold rain,
lines of cars jockey for the space
closest to the door.
The huge gray flatbed
always in the compact section
just to piss me off
blinding light reveals every pore,
sleepy eye, yawn, bed head
every drop of sweat,
every added inch
gained chomping on chips,
shoveling in the cookies
pizza pies, McAnythings.
The same folks line up
like race horses
in rows of stairsteppers
rows of treadmills
rows of elliptical trainers
rows of bikes
rows of rowers
ab crunchers, thigh shavers,
hip slimmers, arm deflabbers, chest expanders
dumbbells, barbells, bars with no bells
and no whistles.
They’re on slantboards, flat boards, balance boards,
wood floors, carpeted floors, balls, bozus
You ask what’s a bozu – it’s a half ball.
You have to be there.
baggy tees, baggy sweats,
long shorts, short shorts, tight shorts,
skin tights, tight tights,
bra tops, tank tops, see-through tops, no tops –
whoops, did I say that?
Really, they all wear tops.
Guzzling, suckling like babies
their sports drinks
from those ubiquitous plastic nipples.
They’re plugged in
to iPods, CDs, cassettes, radios, TVs.
Anything to drown out the drone
the cacophony of weights bouncing off the floor,
feet clip clopping on the treadmill,
Anything to miss
the macho guys yelling across the room,
ridiculing, riling up their buddies,
exposing their pecks
and their sex lives.
Anything to erase
the voice of the brunette with glasses
still gloating over W’s win –
The I told ya sos
And so what?
Others running, climbing, cycling, walking,
flexing, flaunting, strutting their siliconed stuff
The old geezers checking out the babes.
The comes ons, turn ons, hard ons and on and on.
They’re all there when I’m there
Day in, day out.
He folds her in his arms
and looks down at her
with his deep blue eyes
and a small, closed-mouth smile
that shows just the hint of dimples
in his ruddy cheeks
the way he looked
as he stood at her apartment door
on Mentone Avenue
that first night,
straw blonde, cut short,
stuck straight up,
his beige raincoat
damp from the March drizzle,
carrying a bottle of champagne
under his arm.
He remembers how
after drinking champagne
after dancing so slow they hardly moved
after she invited him
into her bed
they were up all night
exploring, tasting as they got to know
and feel every inch of each other
stroking faces, necks, thighs, feet,
kissing, mouths open,
almost swallowing each other,
coupling, coming, resting,
one on top, then the other,
over and over again
until dawn and hunger
drove them out into the rain
to find a place to eat.
And though he admits nothing,
has ever come close
to that first night,
his memory of it
and the girl standing in the doorway
with short dark hair,
a tight-fitting yellow dress,
black patent-leather stiletto pumps,
keep them joined together
It’s the mothers and fathers I care about.
When my son died, I grieved for him
and all mothers and fathers
who ever lost a child.
I breathed in pain,
and with each exhalation prayed
that no parent
would have to feel
the pain of such a loss again.
But I can’t do it alone.
over all the world
must practice Tonglen with me.
We must take the pain into our bodies,
into our souls, into our hearts,
and cleanse it with our healing breath.
Then with our collective breathing out
give this world a chance
to be safe for all our children –
all our sons and daughters.
Breathe in, breathe out