WHAT THE BODY DOES
Our son plays a German child in Hansel and Gretel
and dances with a girl dressed in braids and a pinafore
once in Act 1 and once in Act 2 but when they do the show
twice on a Saturday, sometimes she falls
the third or fourth dance.
Later her mother tells me she has cystic fibrosis
but she doesn’t want him to know.
When I was 12,
there was a girl on our 8th grade cheerleading squad
whose muscles snapped like a rubber band
when she tried to straighten her arms
so I tried to hold them for her
like a violin. She had a limp
and couldn’t do the jumps so we put her
in the back row. She had blonde hair though
and a big house where we spent the night
sitting on our sleeping bags in the basement,
rubbing the plastic threads
of the red and white pompoms together
until they curled. We pretended we didn’t see
the girls on the walls, naked women in cheap frames.
He must have cut them out of magazines
but the way they look now
in the blue room of memory
is like paintings, their skin pink and thick.
I see him at the kitchen table
after his daughter has left for school,
dipping his brush in the paint and sliding it
like a hand over their breasts which some of them
hold in their hands like gifts, and they’re perfect, circle
of nipple in circle of flesh. He likes the clean lines
of their legs, how the muscles lie neatly along the bones.
Later when I no longer knew her
I read about him in the paper. They had a day care
in that house where I slept
under the kitchen and heard him open
the refrigerator at night and felt the light go on
and the pressure of the low arches of his feet
on the linoleum. And of course he touched them,
the young girls in their flat chests
with their arms they could hold up straight.
He was heavy so when he stepped
the ceiling sank a little and I wondered
if the other girls saw but I thought
they were sleeping, I could hear their soft breaths
like a metronome. His daughter was broken
and the basement the kind with fake wood
paneling and orange carpet with bits of food
caught in the shag and stains from the dogs
and maybe he hoped the girls
would help and he didn’t think of us
or maybe he hung them there so we would know
what he wanted.
Today I am 41 years old. I know that man
was wrong and I think of how it felt
to be young and sleep beneath
the cross of a painted woman.
I know, also, that he loved his daughter.
He came downstairs that night with her mother
carrying bowls of chips and plastic cups of punch,
and I could see it, the kindness that flooded him
so when he walked he spilled a little,
and he was ashamed like she was
of what the body does.
—from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist