You were my first in all ways.
You covered your mouth when you laughed.
I saw you cry so rarely that knowing now
how often you cried is a razor’s clean revision.
We were sixteen together, and seventeen.
And then, later, every few months, you’d send a letter
where I learned where you’d moved, what the work
was like, who you’d seen in a supermarket, how you cried.
There was a pact, a particular year when we’d meet again,
the day after your birthday, a phone call
I would make. When I heard what happened
I was thinking of someone else, a new person
I shouldn’t love, would like to love, am not allowed to love.
And as is true so often, no one else knew: I was
trying to get it wrong again, succeeding.
And instead of you or her, my girlfriend phoned
to say, What is it with you, to say, Never mind,
which is what I’d been doing. And then we said nothing,
though we didn’t hang up. The silence stretched between us
along roads and rivers, from phone pole
to phone pole, through circuits and switches:
a line man found his hands going numb;
the birds lifted off the wires
in fear or disgust, then fell in waves
like dissipated noise, took cover in the tall grass.
Take cover. Never mind me, she said, a phrase
instead of nothing, the gentle hiss of distance dissolving.
You’d had a child, nearly died giving birth. When my mother
called she couldn’t tell me. Then she told me. She said,
She almost died, and her voice caught before finishing,
like a leaf snagged in a fence waiting for the wind,
for a chance to keep falling. And I remembered
when all my mistakes could fit in your small hands,
how you cupped my face like a handful of water,
then let it go.
I didn’t handle it well, a sudden friendship
in the Copernicus Room high above San Francisco
with a beautician from Stockton. She was in town visiting
her father, whose left leg had been removed at the knee.
“Diabetes,” she said. “What are you having?”
We sat and watched the bay darken like an angry face,
talked over drinks about his stubborn refusal
to give up cigarettes, how he kept his extra shoe
on the nightstand beside his bed. And then,
like a severed head, sincerity made its appearance,
scaring the hell out of both of us, I didn’t intend
to tell her that my father was whole but absent
(“wholly absent?” she said), or that I’d dreamt
for years—a recurring nightmare—of slicing off my hand
while spreading mustard on a piece of bread.
“What kind of bread?” she said. The light began to change
just then, the strange copper light that seems to smother
the headlands before passing from Alcatraz to Angel Island,
a fast retreating shadow we stopped talking to watch,
sunlight traveling towards us, then vanishing. The fog
closed off the bay, left the bridge a pair of rusty towers,
cables dropping into silence, a silence that seemed
solid as stone, a cliff of chalcedony. I imagined the clouds
stiffening like egg whites, a confectioner’s dream
creeping slowly towards the city. And how do we measure
the world, I thought, with what we see, or what we know
is there? “Another beer, please,” she said, “and some nuts.”
She was ordering for me, pulling her chair a little closer.
“Look there,” she said tapping the glass. Forty floors down
and two miles out, a small tug had popped free of the fog
and was chugging toward a circle of sunlight on the bay,
the one spot of bright water. She held her breath
until it got there, then broke into applause.
“He made it!” she said, and drained away her rum and coke,
patted my arm and picked her purse off the floor.
“You’ll never hurt anyone,” she said, but I didn’t get it.
“Your dream. . . You’re scared you’re going to hurt someone,
it’s a symbol.” Then she scooped the ashtray—made of flesh red
carnelian—off the table into her purse. “A souvenir,” she said,
and left. My beer arrived a few minutes later,
along with a fresh bowl of nuts. It was the Carnelian Room
I later learned, when I told my sister what had happened,
not Copernicus. “CarNEELian,” she said, as if what mattered—
as if what I needed to get right—was where I’d been.