“Basic Needs” by Sarah Ederer

Sarah Ederer


I could tell you about the hot cat shit
That lay in the hallway
Just outside of my mother’s bedroom
Nestled into itself on the floor
Like a sleeping dog.
I could tell you that,
Like a sleeping dog,
We stepped over it carefully.
Like a sleeping dog,
We walked past it every day and
Most of the time
We ignored it.
I could say that we treated it like a part of the backdrop
A landmark of home
Hanging in the air under our noses
Like a soft-baked pretzel
Comforting and familiar
And you might think that I’ve said enough
For you to understand just how outrageous the situation was
But I haven’t.
The truth is,
The cat shit never bothered me that much.
Not at first.
There was a brief moment of disgust,
But that moment would end
As quickly as I could take one step
And get over it.
Then I was in another room and,
As far as I was concerned,
The cat shit was gone.
What bothered me
About the pile of cat shit in the hallway
Was what I suspect would bother anyone:
How shameful it was
To be living that way.
But that shame wasn’t something I could access
In the folie-a-quatre
That was my childhood home.
I became aware of the shame much later in life,
Found it wafting over me one night,
When my own family’s dog
Had an accident
At the foot of my bed
And I got up to clean it
without thinking.
It was an automatic response:
There’s shit on the floor
It must be removed
Remove it.
It struck me like a freighter
That I had been robbed for sixteen years
Of something I felt that I was entitled to,
But never received.
I couldn’t quite put that thing into words,
But it amounted roughly to
“The right to not have to step over piles of cat shit
Every goddamned day of my life.”
Then the shame arrived
In its fullest form:
A revelation
About the burden of secrecy.
I had spent sixteen years of my life
pretending that the pile of cat shit wasn’t there
Waiting for me
When I got home from school.
I got so good at pretending
That sometimes I wasn’t even aware
That there was a pile of cat shit
Waiting for me,
For my mother,
Outside of her bedroom door.
But the cat shit was always there,
An ornament of a broken home.
The cat shit was there
When I kissed my first boyfriend.
The cat shit was there
When he fingered me in the car outside
And I lied and said my parents were home
So he couldn’t come in.
I stepped over the cat shit
And fell into my bed
And dreamed of him kissing me,
Touching me,
Touched myself to the thought of it
All while the cat shit,
Sun-dried and brittle,
Shifted with the floorboards,
With the weight of the house,
With its damned foundation,
Settling lopsided into the hole
Where the previous owner’s septic tank was
Until it eventually collapsed.
I spent sixteen years
Falling into someone else’s shit.
They kept twelve cats I never wanted
And they asked me
“How could you not want them?”
As if I was cruel
They called me Bob Barker
I repeated it so many times:
Spay the damn things.
You can be buried alive
By a certain kind of love
One that I’m not so convinced
Is kind at all.
But the cat shit wasn’t what bothered me.
Not really.
What bothered me
Is what I lost under the hordes of cheap, dysfunctional garbage
That my mother compulsively lifted
From flea markets,
Dollar stores,
Yard sales,
And clothing exchanges.
A book of nursery rhymes,
A keyless trumpet,
A mummified tangerine,
And a dressmaking dummy,
Buried under soiled laundry,
Buried under moldy dishes,
Buried under childhood photos
In frames with broken glass.
Buried somewhere under
The junk that nobody wanted
Was my family.
It became difficult to distinguish between the two.
I wondered to myself,
Standing next to a puddle of cleanser
At the foot of my adult bed,
Why I had never cleaned the cat shit
In my childhood home,
Why I stepped over it every time.
A form of protest, maybe
A sinking sense that it would never end
That twelve cats could shit faster than I could clean it,
That flea markets,
Dollar stores,
Yard sales,
And clothing exchanges
Never ran out of junk,
That I was a child
Who had a right to something
That I never received.

from Rattle #78, Winter 2022
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Sarah Ederer: “To me, writing poetry feels a bit like lancing a boil and sending a ‘thank you’ card to the pus. I tend to use free verse narrative fiction to tell the untellable stories of people marginalized by the taboo nuances of a life lived under oppressive domestic conditions. I hope to help make experiences that might make one feel unintelligible to the world a little more easily understood by emphasizing the humanity and dignity of the protagonist.”

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