Ekphrastic Challenge, November 2021: Editor’s Choice
Image: “Easy Like Sunday Morning” by Shannon Jackson. “Study Abroad” was written by Cassie Burkhardt for Rattle’s Ekphrastic Challenge, November 2021, and selected as the Editor’s Choice. (PDF / JPG)
His name was Francesco and he was the first boy who ever made me a coffee
the morning after.
I say boy, but he was a million years older than me, wore a suit and worked at a bank in Paris.
I say morning, but it was 2 p.m.
and we had been rolling around in the sheets, windows wide open
for hours and hours, in and out of half-sleep, and is it Sunday?
Hair a blonde rumple, pillows gasping for air,
underwear slingshot across the room.
This is love, I thought.
I was twenty.
He was the first boy I didn’t want to forget instantly the next day, no need to slink off
into the terrible sunlight leaking mascara, no,
he made me a coffee,
an actual coffee, a café au lait,
with the bialetti on the stove,
poured it into a bowl as big as my head
or what was inside me holding its breath.
Pour toi, ma belle.
This is what adults do, I thought,
as I tented my fingers around the warm bowl.
I tried to sip it gingerly, make it last, but
it’s hard not to gulp what’s good.
We took another tumble into the bedroom, grabbing and melting into each other’s bodies,
whispering secrets in two languages: j’ai envie de toi, te voglio bene.
It was the first time sex was pleasure, and I wasn’t about to hold back.
I am alive, I thought,
and went home wearing his t-shirt, which smelled exactly like clouds
and vibrated like a cello on top of me, which Francesco also played
beautifully, I should add here.
He picked me up on his motorcycle whenever we went out
and I have no memory of anywhere we went
because my arms were around his waist and my brain got lost in the
roundabouts, my hair a streak of blonde against woolen coats,
the gray November sky, Paris, my heart,
a pigeon taking flight out of an alley,
buildings illuminated, a blaring siren, the Seine.
On va chez moi? Oui, on y va.
And we were back in the sheets,
his hands cupped around my ass.
I am a woman, I thought,
a desirous, covetous being:
toes, breasts, hip bones, curve of spine on cotton …
I divided him in half with my tongue, a slow line from hip bones to lips
before I undressed him completely and then we switched.
He could taste the hunger in me, could tell I was one wick
and a handful of matches on the inside.
He fed the fire.
He fed it motorcycles, sex
This lasted for exactly two months
until I could tell something had worn off. Quelque chose a disparu.
He wasn’t answering my calls, suddenly very busy. I stared into my Nokia for days.
Finally, I panicked, cut class, showed up at his place in the afternoon unannounced,
knocking furiously at the door.
The room stopped, bows midair.
I had interrupted their string quartet rehearsal, my high heels and halter-top-desperation
oozing all over the salle de séjour like octopus ink.
I am a fool, I thought,
and excused myself to the bedroom,
stared out the big beautiful window at the foot of his bed,
watched the curtains take deep breaths.
Eventually, he came in and sat down quietly beside me
like how you might at church, a funeral.
He handed me a coffee. He didn’t have one.
I smoothed the sheets, held the warm bowl to my chest.
The curtains, caught in midair, were clinging to the wind.
Don’t say anything, I whispered. Please.
Let’s just sit here for a moment and look out the window.
Let’s just look out the window
and watch the curtains float a little longer.
—from Ekphrastic Challenge
November 2021, Editor’s Choice
Comment from the editor, Timothy Green: “Among the many excellent poems submitted this month, ‘Study Abroad’ stood out for its pure storytelling. It’s a portal to another place, and remains thoroughly engrossing no matter how many times I read it. Only a poem is capable of working that magic in three minutes.”