She was an organ donor, I say, to anyone who will listen, which is everyone, because when your beautiful 24-year-old cousin dies in an accident, people have to listen. Most people just nod.
My grandmother wants to know where my cousin’s organs have gone. She keeps asking me. I know it is myself who is asking me, in the form of my dead grandmother, in all these dreams. Finally I say, can’t you get that information up there? Aren’t there files or something? No, she says, and tells me although she doesn’t approve of tattoos she is happy to hear I’m thinking of getting one in her handwriting. We talk about this until she changes the subject. I meant it you know, she says, when I came to you in that dream and asked you, in the southern accent I had when I was alive, what YOU wanted with your life. Oh, I say, the dream in which I could fly? No no, that was two nights earlier. OH… I say, dragging my voice across all the pillows crowding my bed, the dream in which my ex-fiancé brought his new girlfriend to Thanksgiving, except that it was in the summer? That’s the one. She winks. They’re not together anymore I tell her. He wasn’t your fiancé, she tells me. Well, I didn’t cheat on him, I tell her, so apparently truth is not the major factor here. Two wrongs don’t make a right, she tells me. I tell her she could come up with something better than that. She laughs and it sounds like all the beads she used to wear around her elegant southern neck clinking together. She tells me necks cannot be southern or northern, and that I am still a little silly. Do you see her? I ask. Have you talked to her? My grandmother doesn’t answer. I wake up too early to the mattress scratching my legs where I have writhed the bottom sheet off and the sun in my eyes. I think my grandmother would probably tell me to put up blinds. After, all, I think in her voice, you just moved to a new neighborhood. You don’t want the neighbors to get any ideas. Ideas about the shape of my breasts, or ideas about the kind of woman I am? Both I respond to myself in her voice.
During the daylight hours, I sit around topless in my empty apartment, hungry and sick at the same time, sadness spreading like a fire under my skin. I eat and throw up immediately, the food still whole and bobbing cheerfully in the blue toilet water, like the one cloud in the cerulean sky from the collection of rainless days this summer is turning out to be. The sun peels my skin back in layers and exposes what is beneath. The lawn is growing brown at the corners. I double over again. The things that flash through my head are crystallized moments, out of sequence, from my whole life, and I wonder if I will die soon too. I scold myself for turning her death into mine, but it doesn’t stop this darkness from metastasizing. I want to cry all the time, but the cable installation man will be calling back about the missed appointment, and the new roommates will be arriving with their smiles and their boyfriends and their normalcy. All I can do is choke on the bones of this half digested grief, which is tentacled and touches every loss. Tentacled and boned. A preserved monster that students somewhere are dissecting, wrinkling their noses at the smell of formaldehyde. She must have scattered in the accident because her young face was lined with the adhesive of makeup and powdered with dust.
And everywhere people are answering pain with pain. My ex-fiancé who returned the ring before he could be my fiancé, answering my fumbling for words, my gasping for air, with things like: you cannot know how much you hurt me. You destroyed me. Please do not contact me again. I answer with a long gash of a sigh, watching my resilience collect in a pool at my feet and stain the carpet red. People are playing with hangnails and flaps of skin from popped blisters. People are biting the inside of their cheek until it is pinched apart from the rest of the velvet skin, until the raised flesh is something to do with one’s mouth when there are no words left. She was an organ donor I say to the cable installation man. I can hear him tongue the knob of flesh he has just chewed from his cheek, biding his time until he can say what he has called to say: The next available slot is tomorrow from 1 to 6.
What he really says is he is very sorry for the misunderstanding. I misunderstand, and say, no, she really is dead. He says he will be over first thing in the morning. I hear mourning and tell him he’s missed that appointment too. He is polite in spite of everything. When I hang up, I know only that I have to be awake tomorrow for 8 am, and that it is easier to cry now. So I do, and it washes away the stains from the carpet at my feet. I fall asleep in the afternoon heat sucking on a pacifier of guilt and grief.
I wake up, still sick with something I diagnose as “dehydration of the soul”. I drink a glass of water. My eyes feel like a beach at low tide. My ex-fiancé who was never my fiancé answers a text I sent. His words are soft like he-loves-me he-loves-me-not he-loves-me petals. For the first time in a long time, I want to lick his wounds instead of my own. I say to my neighbors that I am sorry for not wearing a shirt and for neglecting to put up blinds. The lovely writer next door shrugs and says, it’s summer, and continues to water her garden of Jurassic weeds. The girls rugby team across the street say they barely wear clothes as it is, so they don’t care, and the law students who play competitive board games are too busy looking up unusable words in their pocket scrabble dictionaries to respond. The flipping of the pages sounds like rippling water and leaves spinning in the wind. Everywhere, people are answering pain with life. I empty my twisting stomach once more, brush my teeth, and get dressed.
Review by Pamela O’Shaughnessy
This text could be flash fiction, with its prose style and conventional paragraphing. It has an introduction, time passes, there is learning, movement, resolution. Why is it poetry also? I think because it takes place at a deeper level of the psyche than the more literal story. Style is part of what makes it poetry, the stream of consciousness/slice of life, and the movement of time in a kind of continuous present.
The themes are of losses, of earlier experiences of death and current lost love, adding up to the emotional state of the narrator in this poem. The narrator is ill, in pain. She has been injured emotionally. She dreams, she sits. It seems to her that “everywhere, people are answering pain with pain.” Time passes, and the narrator begins to see that people are not just answering pain with pain. Even her lover is softening, trying to heal and help her. The narrator looks around and sees that, now that she is recovering, “Everywhere, people are answering pain with life.” She is going to be all right. Survival is all, one might say, in the primitive health one brings to a situation. There is resilience, or there is breaking. Dangerous moments come, but on the whole existence seems to seek our flourishing, not our destruction.