“Purgatorio” by Zella Rivas

Zella Rivas


It goes like this:

Two girls sit in a room and talk about God. 
I’m one of the girls. You’re the other. 

We don’t love each other and we don’t have a door.

All we have are bruises and bleeding noses and broken ribs because
maybe we fought at the beginning a bit too much, but, in hindsight, 
you shouldn’t have called me a coward
and I shouldn’t have called you all bravado. 

At least you stopped calling me a coward.
At least my lip stopped bleeding an hour ago. 

You think you look tough, I think you look like I punched you
because that’s what happened. 

Anyway, that was the beginning. Now we’re talking about God. 

Praying tastes like blood, I tell you. 
No, you say, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t breathe while you do it
and it won’t taste like anything. 
It’s supposed to be something. 
Yeah. Not blood. So stop biting your lips
or stop breathing. Your choice, sweetheart. 
I feel like there’s a third option but I don’t say that. 
I wouldn’t know what it is. 

Besides, you called me sweetheart. That isn’t allowed. 

* * *

It goes like this: 

Two girls sit in a room with no door. 
Both of the girls are you this time. 

You don’t call each other sweetheart, 
because you call each other darling. 
You love yourself, 
so you love each other. 

There’s a lot more fighting this time. 

Neither of you win. 

* * *

It goes like this:

Two girls sit in a room and talk. 
I’m one of the girls. You’re the other. 

We’re the same girl. 

We don’t love each other because
we sort of hate each other
and we don’t have a door. 

We still have bruises and bleeding noses and broken ribs because
we fought, in the beginning, and we’re probably going to fight again
because you still think I’m a coward
and I still think you’re all bravado. 

We have an understanding. We always have. 
We don’t get along but we need each other 
like the paring knife needs the fruit. 
I don’t have any bravado and you don’t have any fear. 
Except I do, and you do, because we’re the same girl. Remember? 

We’re talking because that’s better than looking at one another. 
It gets worse at night, I tell you, 
but my clock is stuck at midnight. 
You don’t offer to fix it because I didn’t ask and, besides, 
You’ve never been very good at fixing anything. 
Let’s talk about something else, you say,
but I ignore you because 
I’ve never been very good at listening to you. 
It gets worse at night, I tell you, 
but I don’t know what anything other than midnight looks like. 

You don’t say it was never good in the day either, 
you don’t say midnight and midday look the same on a clock, 
you don’t say nothing ever matters because nothing ever changes, 
you don’t say we’re not getting anywhere, sweetheart,
you don’t say I need us to start getting somewhere and 
I hate you for not letting us. 

You want to say those things because 
you’ve never been good at fixing things
but you’ve always been good at breaking them. 
You don’t say them because you’re all bravado. 
I don’t make you because I’m a coward. 

You don’t have to because we’re the same girl. 

We’re in a room with no door
and the clock is broken 
and when we fight next time 
I hope you win. 

I hope you win, 
but I’m not going to let you.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Zella Rivas: “The poem is inspired by my experiences growing up and living with mental illness that is incurable and has never not been part of me. It is a difficult experience to describe, but poetry allows us to share experiences of the most inexplicable and human sort even as it allows us the room to further understand ourselves, and it does so with beauty. Poetry is, to me, a beautiful and essential medium through which to participate in this world.” (web)

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