progressively making my eyeliner wings larger and larger until i can just fly away
broken glass coca-cola,
morse code on my back –
almost hated. almost.
tree’s fingers stretched
across cracks, across morse code:
goldfish eyes burned gills
in my rooster chin.
i imagined wine to numb me.
i wonder if she could feel
the burning on my wrists
on the back of her throat.
sweat; watermelon; moon,
fuller than her body
which now burns my eyelids.
a name of a goddess of a mortal
of a tragedy walking, carrying
blood, saliva, rusty
razorblades, bloody lips, broken
of a krokodil, acid
on the tongue
when said out loud with
quivering whisper mind
like her hair
her hands, feet,
chest can’t breathe can’t
run can’t think no escape
she likes it.
take her, peel her skin
like a sour lemon eat her, taste her
blood, savor, grimace, she’s
felt it all before try harder try
harder try harder again
she laughs it tickles
excise her ribs, rip her skin
stitch her with staples
she’s felt it all before try harder.
feed her future porn stars, bloodsuckers,
bib-wearers, motherfucking skin eaters
choke her ‘til she turns blue can’t
breathe she’s felt it all before try harder.
get angry you’re losing break her
fingers, her teeth, her heart, her soul,
empty like her skin,
with a cinderblock paint it
watch her laugh she’s felt it all before try harder.
you’ve had enough haven’t you try harder
suck in her breaths they’re
shallow taste the desperation,
the words of wisdom,
wishful thinking, do
as she says she’s felt it all before.
take her in a car on a road trip with a gun decorate
the flag with patriots’ blood,
teeth, mascara tears, lie
in a pool in the center of the universe
and do as she says she’s felt it all before.
strip her to her skeleton
tickle her lungs, her heart
take her skin make a dress
dress her nice take a picture smile
she’s smiling she’s felt it all before
try harder you’re losing don’t lose
she’s felt it all before can you win?
try harder carve her name
in stone put a gun to her lips
wait one second two
pull the trigger. decorate the immortal words
with filth and photo album memories
and a silver bullet.
walk away drop the gun
she’s happy, smiling from her place
on the grass by the stone, happy
she can’t feel anymore.
reached up his hand
and laid it on
he swung into
our eyes locked
his unfocused as he stared
unable to process
with his hand on my
his fingers were
scraped my skin and stung like bullets and bees
but were therapeutic
and i closed my eyes and felt on my
the last words to me he couldn’t
in his touch
the only way he could tell me
before he closed his eyes,
to go away from me
that he loves
when i die, i want to be a piece of art.
displayed in a museum made of marble
in a black suit,
white shirt and tie
and people will see me,
the modern david,
the male mona lisa,
and come from canada and japan,
to see me
in all my beauty
that won’t exist
until i am dead
and a piece of art,
displayed in a museum made of marble
in a black suit,
white shirt and tie.
Papa sat on the edge of the fire escape, his ankles crossed and one hand on the bar above him. Between his index finger and his middle finger was a cigarette that he wasn’t smoking, that burned like the setting sun. His eyes stared at the abandoned train yard before us, and all I heard was the wind and the cars passing on the highway thirty feet above where we sat. I listened to them for several minutes, wondering what colors they were, where they were going to or coming from, if they were running from anything, if I could join them, wherever they were going. Anywhere.
I rested my head on the cold metal and felt water on my cheeks and salt seeping into my lips. It tasted bitter and I shifted when I felt it on my taste buds, wiped them into the sleeve of my jacket, which was stained with Naum’s blood, despite Mama washing it three times at the Laundromat, where she stayed for a lot of the day. Papa told me that that was what she did when she felt like I did; she stayed alone, put her mind elsewhere. It was the reason the house was worthy of a magazine cover; the curtains were straight; there weren’t dust particles in the beams of light from the overhead lamps; the dishes were washed and the oven was clear of spattered oil and grease and food and why there were pots and pans sizzling food on the stovetop.
Papa told me, when we first climbed onto the fire escape that it does no good to cry, even though I’d seen him cry at the train tracks. He had held me like a golden vase in his arms while I watched, though I didn’t want to, the men in white gloves put Naum’s body into a black bag.
Papa’s chest quivered, and he began dropping me, but I gripped him, scratched his neck, tried to make my way back up into his arms. But he was weakening. When my feet touched the gravel of the train tracks, I felt like he’d defeated me, but still I clung to him.
He pulled me to the edge of the gravel, and he sat down and he pulled onto his lap where I crumbled into his arms and, while I sobbed, listened to the sound of him sobbing with me.
Now his face was dry; his eyes were a charred skeleton of a house that burned for twenty days and twenty nights before wilting; his body no longer quivered with emotion.
The sun began to set more, and he became less of a person and more of a shadow, but I knew he was there. I saw the orange glow of the lit end of the cigarette, and watched as, for the first time in a long time, he moved. The orange glow moved closer to him, brightened, and then I saw a long stream of blue-gray smoke dissipating in the night sky.
“Papa,” I said.
My mouth stayed shut.
“What is it, Ilija?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
Papa’s mouth stayed shut.
“Here,” he said, finally, “take it.” He handed me the cigarette. I held it like he held it, and stared at it. “Smoke it.”
I brought the end to my lips and inhaled. It masked the taste of the salt, but it was even worse. My chest heaved and I let out several severe coughs, and Papa patted my back and took the cigarette from me.
“It tastes terrible,” I said.
He didn’t respond.
“Why do you smoke?”
“It keeps me calm,” he responded, and he took one last long drag and then flicked it over the fire escape.
“It tastes terrible,” I repeated.
“You will get used to it.”
“Is Mama okay?” I asked.
“She will be fine.”
Papa paused, then added, “We all will be.”
A truck passed overhead and laid on its horn and sent a deep, loud thundering boom down through my spine and I felt myself shake. The wind began to blow from beyond the train yard and my hair fluttered.
“It’s cold,” Papa said. “You’ll get badly sick. Come.”
He turned and opened the window further and I pushed aside the cotton curtains and climbed into the apartment with floors that, for once, shined in the overhead light. The smell of a late dinner, of tomato sauce and vegetables invaded my nose, and it was followed by the loud sound of boiling water and steam creeping up from the bottom of the pans laid out on the small stove. Mama’s hair was tied back and her shirt was wrinkled and she was wearing sweatpants that Naum had gotten from the church.
She turned to us when we came in from the fire escape, and she came up to me and kissed me on the forehead as Papa shut the window.
“Dinner’s ready, boys,” she said, her voice as even as it always was.
“What’s for dinner?” Papa asked.
“I made a lot of stuff. I made grilled vegetables and herbed meatballs and pasta with pesto sauce.”
“What’s pesto sauce?” I asked.
“It’s good. You’ll like it,” Mama said.
“I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat,” Papa said.
He moved to the counter and got bowls and began filling them with the pasta and vegetables and meatballs. Mama went to the windows and shut the curtains, then took a bowl from the counter and sat cross-legged on the floor by her mattress.
“Ilija, take some.”
I did, brought it over to the floor and sat across from Mama, who had already begun eating, though she seemed dissatisfied with what she’d made, like it wasn’t good or there wasn’t enough. I barely touched the food; I held the fork in my hand and stared down at the bowl until Papa sat down beside me.
He said, “Let’s eat.”
And Mama and Papa ate and I didn’t. They talked about work and the apartment and their friends and everything but what was on all of our minds, that I no longer had a brother, they no longer had a son.
I woke up later that night curled in a ball in Mama’s arms. She was asleep in a sitting position, a pillow behind her back and a sweater behind her neck. I looked around the dark room and heard a cough from the front door, and I climbed off Mama and walked towards the front door.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
After a short pause, Naum said, “Ilija, it’s only me.”
“Why are you awake, Ilija?”
“I don’t know.”
Through the darkness, I felt Naum touch my shoulder.
“Take my hand, Ilija.”
I took his hand and he led me out of the room and down a hallway and down some rickety stairs and then out the front door of the tenement. It was very dark outside. No streetlights were on, but there was a lit candle on the stoop and a newspaper beneath it.
“I was reading down here, but got hungry.”
“Is there food?”
“You’ll get used to the feeling.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t think we’ll be eating very much anymore.”
“Mama and Papa can’t afford anything.”
“Why do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you seen where we live?”
“You’ve worn the same clothes for your entire life. I have, too.”
“Mama and Papa could barely pay for your tonsils to be removed.”
I didn’t say anything.
“They want to move to the America.”
“What’s the America?”
“It’s a country. There’s a lot of opportunity there and a lot of places to get work and live and go to school and get education.”
“Where is the America?”
“It’s very far away. I don’t know how far, but Mama and Papa said that if we move to the America, we’d need to take a train to Paris and take a plane from there.”
“Do they speak Bulgarian in the America?”
“They speak English.”
“You know that language Mama and Papa sometimes speak? The one that you don’t understand?”
“I don’t know how to speak English.”
“Can you speak English?”
“Yes. I learned a lot in school and Mama and Papa taught me when I was growing up.”
“Can you say something in English?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“How do you say, ‘I love you?’“
He said something in English, and I tried to repeat it, but it ended up sounding weird, or I assumed, because Naum smiled and told me that that was wrong. So I said, “I love you,” and he said he loved me too.
Today, I was in the park at lunchtime, thinking of you, my love.
Then a bird flew down from the skies, out of nowhere, and landed on the bench beside me, not terrified by me, like it wanted to sit beside me.
It had feathers like palm leaves, only bright neon yellow with neon green tips, your favorite colors. Its eyes were pearly white-blue and sharp, like yours, my love. Just like yours. Its talons were sharp and curved like your hands once were, and it had a small beak, the same color as the lipstick you used to wear when you wanted to be silly and festive, when you still could wear lipstick.
And I know this sounds crazy, and maybe it is, but I swear it was you, my love. I swear it was you.
I had cinnamon raisin bread in my bag, and the bird ate it. I broke it into little crumbs and put them in my hand, and it ate them. Devoured the crumbs from my palm.
It was the bread you used to make, my love, and as the bird I am sure was you ate the bread, its beak didn’t touch me at all. It didn’t nip me. Not once. It had a soft touch of a sharp mouth, like you did.
And when it was done eating all the bread from my sandwich - and I know this sound crazy, my love, but I swear it happened exactly as I describe - the bird looked at me and opened its small beak, and with a sultry croak like you had, it said my name.
I stared at it in disbelief. It stared back at me before displaying its wings, long as your arms were, big as your heart was, beautiful as you were, and flew away.
I swear it was you, my love. I swear.
I didn’t cry when the bird flew away.
I realized today, while sitting in the park, eating ham sandwiched between the cinnamon raisin bread you used to make, that you are not gone. You are still here, and maybe I can’t see you and hold you, my love, but I know you’re still here. You are all around me.
And last night I cried myself to sleep in the bed too big for me alone. But tonight I won’t, because I know you’ll be sleeping beside me like you did when you were still with me.
I recognized her because of her face, but she didn’t recognize me, because she had no reason to. She lived in the same building as me and Naum. She had high cheekbones, a narrow face, a downturned mouth, and very red hair, and I saw her around a lot, on the staircase in the building and in the store down the street sometimes. She was Russian and her husband was American. That much I knew about her; nothing else.
She was in front of the Russian food store. I was sitting on the sidewalk outside. The Russian food store was next door to the coffee shop. Naum was inside, getting me and him big hot chocolates in white paper cups and whipped cream. The Russian woman was standing outside the Russian food store, talking to her American husband, who was wearing a black backpack and holding a wicker bookshelf, leaning on a wooden log carving of a bear, painted black, wearing a fez.
I was sitting outside because I had a headache and Naum let me because it was nighttime and not a lot of people were out at nighttime, and he could watch me through the window while the people in the coffee shop made our hot chocolate. The Russian woman said something to her American husband and then turned away from him and walked into the coffeeshop while looking through her purse. Her American husband stood around and looked around and I watched him as he waited and then eventually began walking away with his wicker basket, leaving the bear head behind.