‘Boys were animals with animal hungers
I learned early. Better to stay close to home.’
— Philip Levine
I split her side at six months. It tears her, the way she turns
her back around and leaves me standing, pebbles of feet
against the terracotta tile. That I will wobble, a loose milk tooth
inching its way out, but learn to steady; standing as she takes
the stairs, standing as she clips the belt, standing as she turns
the key, sounds the horn, pulling out, tongue mapping
the ridges of her mouth. I face the louvered door of the pantry
until her scent dies off. I count the panels. Forty-eight panels,
ninety-six panels. I cannot know these words, yet. I count them
without words. Her day is a misery. As I nap beside the space heater,
her boss finds an unpatrolled corner and observes his right
to commend her tireless efforts. What is that wild and searching
smile he forms, just a moment before her paws her upper thigh.
How many times before this time, did a smile like this one
trigger from its catalyst of force—splinter, crack, spread. She gasps,
then swallows, or swallows her gasp. I cannot know. It goes on.
She lives with it. My grandmother claps her hands. All of a sudden,
I am a child. It is my time to learn. What do I remember?
She asks and I will tell her: toast, chocolate milk, schnitzel,
sort of—mostly how to grill it, how to slide its slick brown rubble
onto a plate beside the green beans, their inching yellow pool.
Another day without title, I will stir cake batter in a new way
I have been taught to keep the air inside. I am stenciling
the gestures from her demonstration, grappling with the jagged
edges of infant reflexes, so when she leaves this time, I do not
look up. It requires a determined disposition. Five minutes
after the engine starts, her car finally pulls away. It goes on.
A lesson in tenderness—it is always tenderness, or moistness
or pull-apart-ness, any undemanding texture—of long and soft.
Grandmother inscribes our lessons with tidy mottos
so I come to understand these methods as universal. A hive
mind of speckled index cards, the patina of sagacity
a sticky little key. I could open this room up to myself, I could
set timers for the whole of my life. With wet eyes, she will
impress upon me the hope of ages, a dormant depression
marinating with dirt. She will remind me, in a loop of matter
softening, that any unfortunate cut sliced then tugged
from the wrong section of flank; any repossessed remnant
might be coaxed with enough care. I watch the wrinkled cubes
toughen and shrink into pallid skins; I feel the meat in me shake.
Even now, I understand, she means for me to transfer this
fresh knowledge to my men: that in my silence I have pledged to
wait out the bake, a stubborn sinew. From workable to destroyed,
to recovered. Tenderness. That meat is a fixed form; it is we
who have been tasked with the invention of new methods
to work with its unspoken limitations. There are many ways
to love. The cost of education is human. I cannot know this.
I can scarcely see her there, in the back room, leavening
beside the black garbage bags, jutting with coat hangers;
eating her salad lunch without noticing the plastic is empty.
Greasy fork falls into the hollow, broken eighties ballad inserts
its pitched key tones through the threshold. She is not there,
is not here. I lift the lid on a heavy pot, surreptitiously ease it back
to smother. I do not burn. I am waiting for the clattering
of a distinctive intonation to announce her before her body
does. I will divine this audibility through a rehearsed appetite:
no set of keys sounds exactly alike. Any child patrolling the doormat
of her own life and its moratorium, is tuned. She is driving home,
her errant thigh quivering against the vibration; her headlights
beaming back the glare of a fog between her worlds. It has not fallen
upon us here, and if it has, I cannot stretch myself enough to see it.