Panic Attack on the Corner of College and Vale
There’s no point in fixing the bedframe
because next time I get too nervous
it’ll cave in again. I don’t eat much
because I can’t lift my arms to do the dishes.
I swear it’s not for lack of trying.
When you texted me last week, sighing
I just wish people knew I wasn’t an abuser,
I thought about how I’ve learned to talk about you
without naming you, the way it feels
like sticking a swollen foot in a skinny shoe
half an hour before the party, the way
“rapist” and “ex-best friend” don’t sit right,
how nothing does, how the world
hasn’t needed this terminology before,
at least not enough to care. Like a sweater worn
too often, we unravel the ones that love us
until they can’t wrap themselves around us
anymore. And whose fault is that? It astounds me
how young we were, how little of our lives
took place before this agonizing meiosis,
how I will spend the rest of my years
referring to you in the past tense no matter
how present you are.
Beneath the white-hot glow
of exam room lights,
the male ER nurse tells me
the seizure was stress-induced.
His face flickers into those of
the white boys whose names
I can’t remember, all Dylans
and Jakes and Maxes, probably,
phantom penises creeping up inside me
like tomato vines snake up trellises in the garden.
Hard nipples, white van. Womanhood
like a church we walk into
knowing it will hurt us. Womanhood
like looking for God in all the wrong places.
Womanhood like being slobbered over
by customers at the meat market,
I’ll take that one, I’ll take that one,
red and dense with cow blood, hanging
like piñatas from the ceiling. Tie me up there
with them. Let me sway and swing.
It was my nineteenth birthday and I did not have my shoes,
headphones, phone, or dignity. They took it all
before I walked through the metal detector, arms up
like a criminal in surrender, made them believe
I was a danger to myself. It was my nineteenth birthday
and I talked to Pops because there was nobody else
to talk to — he was a biker guy, older than my dad
with 50% fewer feet, and he kept peeling away
the wet cloth of his hospital socks to show me
his shiny stump. I didn’t want to see it, but I had to,
like my blood swimming up the tube, or the Asian woman
rubbing her shit on the walls like it was soap, or
the sun in its stubborn state of rising. They didn’t know
where to send him, he told me in a husky smoker’s tone
that suggested he’d never learned how to be quiet.
Maybe a place in Texas. No room in this Catholic hospital
for a maniac with a PFA who tried to skin his roommate
and kill her before she succumbed to stage-four cancer.
I thought I was doing her a favor, he told me.
Who wants to drag their most desperate moments out
so long? Would you? I admitted that no,
I wouldn’t, but I’d rather a bullet to the head
than a roommate with a knife. I never asked him,
Why skin her? If you’re helping her out, why kill her
like that? He did say, though, that
when the police came, he begged for them
to shoot him, make it quick for him too,
end whatever drawn-out death had compelled him
to do what he did. I asked him what advice he had for me.
He said, Stay in school. Get better. Don’t do anything harder
than psychedelics. Thanks, I said. And then I said,
It’s my nineteenth birthday. Happy birthday, he responded,
and happy incarceration. And he smiled, and so did I,
and for a second, I forgot where I was, at least until
he flagged down the nearest nurse and asked
if she could scrounge him any razor blades.
Do This in Memory of Me
I’m afraid of the dark again:
not what it hides, but what it does to me.
How it folds itself around me
like a gag, like a blanket,
swaddles me into silence
like a crying infant at a show.
I think I am too loud for my own good.
I think I’ve said nothing of importance.
We spent a lot of time together
back when eye contact didn’t feel like a rusty fishhook
and you an angler. We did a lot of stupid things,
thinking we had our whole lives left
for everything else. The two of us
did not waste time. We corroded it like baby teeth
in jars of soda. It was rotten and brown, and then it was gone.
Now, in a corner booth at our favorite coffee shop,
I plug my phone in and tell you how much I hate you.
Now, we’ve moved away from home
and both our cities are colder than we’re used to,
and I’ve been sweating away your fever
for a year and a half. Nothing I call mine
is uncolored by your absence. It leaves a gaping hole,
open mouth, jaws expectant, stomach rumbling.
I see it now: the two of us,
shadows receding into anemic sky —
hands not entwined but hair entangled, mine long
and yours short, a marriage of what has been
and what won’t stay together.
The morning after, I was clumsy.
Like I only had one contact lens in
and couldn’t quite figure out where the ground met my feet.
I tripped over a sidewalk crack, muttered
Oh, fuck me
to which you responded
Can we joke about that now?
For the second time in twelve hours,
I didn’t say yes or no. For the second time
in twelve hours, I knew which answer I’d spit
if I had the courage.
I loved you
like a bird loves the lights in the living room
on Christmas Eve. Like falling to the ground,
wing bent backwards, shattered by glass
I couldn’t see.
Your mother is a devout Catholic.
She always pops up under my “People You May Know” bar
on Facebook. I’d friend her, but she looks too much like you
when she smiles.
She was always disappointed that you didn’t adhere to her beliefs,
that twelve years of religious education churned out
an atheistic twink who wore nail polish and called himself a man.
You always said my unwavering belief in God, of all things, came closest
to convincing you your mother’s faith was founded in something real.
Thinking back on that, it feels a little insulting.
Somewhere just outside of Portland,
in stark, harsh light, they pull the baby from inside me.
I knew there would be bodies strewn all over the place, like Missoula
or Mount St. Helen’s in the eighties. I just didn’t think
I’d look at myself and see a murderer.
Now, I feel like a third-grader
with a crush across the cafeteria
or furious parent with a defiant teenage daughter.
Look at me.
A hitchhiker on the side of a notorious and dangerous road,
a carless and careless young woman with somewhere to be. Goddamn it,
look at me with my arm outstretched and thumb like a compass
swiveling north. I am not floored anymore
by the steadiness of ants
traveling in lines, transporting loads
ten times their size.
Look at me, at the leaden breadcrumb on my back,
tell me it’s mine to carry.
Maria Gray (b. 2000) is a poet and writer from Portland, Oregon, currently based in Lewiston, Maine. A member of the Adroit Journal summer mentorship class of 2018, her poetry and creative nonfiction can be found in publications from the University of Portland, Scholastic Writing Awards, and Indie Blu(e) Collective's forthcoming anthology This Is What Love Looks Like: Poems By Women Smitten With Women, along with anthologies from the Oregon Poetry Association and National Federation of State Poetry Societies. She is currently a 2019 creative writing fellow with the Counterclock Arts Collective. You can find her on Instagram @mmariagray.