I’ve been feelin’ a kinship with your plants lately, thinking about the gardens we choose to plant ourselves in. Moving here for grad school taught me that my roots were stronger than I would’ve guessed, even if they get all tangled up and knotted, and that I can learn to bloom in the driest dirt. Some days it rained so hard I thought I’d drown, and some nights I made bad decisions out of desperation to drink something in, and both of those ended up being okay. I would be okay if I chose a different garden. If I had to learn a new climate or new soil conditions, I could do that. But it feels so good to grow here with you. Not that you’re my world, or that you control my growth, but that the nutrients you give me are the very things I’ve always wanted.

You have a way of looking at me that reassures me you won’t leave when the sunlight goes away. I know my bones get heavy and my mind gets hard to read. It isn’t that I’m all in my head; it’s that I’m all in my heart. I look back at you and there aren’t words for that energy, that peace, that happiness. I didn’t know two people could lay themselves bare like that, sharing those little slivers of darkness, trading them like magic cards. I forgot how good it felt to be a soft person, a real person who didn’t have to moderate or mediate herself. Really, who are you? How did I find you?

I hope you see the stories that I see in your hands – your green thumb, sure, but also how I think my body will always rise to meet your touch. Those callouses, that scar, the width of your fingernails, watching your fingers dance across guitar strings and feeling them run down my spine. I’m falling in love with you, I can’t make it sound any prettier than that, it happens when I get to rest my head on your shoulder and listen to your parents’ voices on the other end of the phone, when I turn over in my sleep and you climb out and walk around and get back in bed to cuddle on the other side, when we’re the only two people in this city goofy enough to run our own made-up 5k in the pouring rain.

I’m all blossom, full-grown daisy, my face turned up towards the sky, soaking it in, and your garden, your life, I’m thankful to be in it.

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center stage alchemy

She ran through the motions as if reciting the alphabet: arabesque, brise, couru, demi-plie, each tinged with the grace of more than fifteen years of experience. Auburn hair, red lips, and yellow dresses sparked her into fire, alchemy on center stage. Now she sunk to the stage floor alone. She planted her feet wide on either side of her and crossed her wrists so her arms hung in front like a protective charm.

Inhalation – she took a sharp breath of sweet oxygen against the ascending sourness in her stomach.

His breath had burned her ear like acid searing her skin as he’d pushed her against the side wall of an unmarked building and pulled at the silver sequins of her dress. One hand had forced her arms above her head in a perverse fifth position, though the struggle had ruined the alignment of her feet. He’d lifted her leg, gripped the other, and she watched them, herself and her dinner date, thinking this was the strangest pas de deux she had ever seen – where was the slowness, the fluidity? Her crucible was all wrong, all overheated, and she collapsed, tarnished, leaden.

Retention – the second step in controlling her breath, quelling the combustion.

She was glad she had crossed her arms at the memory, so she couldn’t be tempted to look again at the purple spreading across her inner thighs. The ventilation tugged some wisps of hair from her tight bun, and she flinched as the tulle of her tutu lifted at the knees. Dancing in front of hundreds had never left her as exposed and raw and gasping for breath as tonight had. She crawled backstage to open her black bag. There were her silver dress and heels, with bits of dirt and brick dust caked on the fabric. She reached inside to pull them out and throw them away.

Exhalation – to purge her body of the fear bubbling inside.

But she paused at the sight of her arms riddled with red marks, the same color as the rubedo signaling the end of a successful transmutation. She rose and followed along the wall to a panel of switches hidden by the heavy curtain, using her long, graceful fingers, defenseless against his rough hands earlier that night, to illuminate the stage. The energy, her defiance, raced through her body, unsettling her for a moment before she found her equilibrium.

Then she stepped into the spotlight, pure gold melting into movement. She thought to herself, avant – forward – and never again would she be anything but gold.

what my mother said

Maybe he heard his mother’s words replay in his mind, memorable as the latest hip-hop CD that dropped just that morning: “look both ways before you cross the street, remember jaywalking is reason enough for an arrest; say thank you when the cashier gives you your change, count every coin but don’t raise your voice if he shorts you; hold open the door for the elderly woman coming in, keep a respectable distance so you don’t frighten her; take your hands out of your pockets like a gentleman, show the world that you have nothing to conceal; speak when you are spoken to, avoid mumbling but avoid sounding as if you’re mocking; make sure you’re home by midnight, try not to raise suspicion by leaving too fast; walk away from a fight, but don’t turn your back to anybody; believe the good in people, but don’t be naïve; grow up fast, pick your battles, stand your ground, please just stay alive.”

“Maybe that will teach young thugs not to be so sketchy,” my mother commented with her chin held high, the television screen making her face ghostly white and her blanket pulled closer as if the chill that spread across our living room wasn’t from the coldness of our judicial system. My boyfriend turned his face away so she wouldn’t see the tear that scarred his handsome black skin. And I didn’t have the words to change her heart or help heal his.

without a shell

His hands smell like detergent when she wakes in the night and wonders why he would do her laundry in all its lemon-scented lightness when he won’t even do his own, but she lets him trail his finger down her cheek in a state of semi-consciousness with the same quiet, thoughtless touch used to brush silk shirts in passing at secondhand stores or skim the surface of water as legs dangle from the dock: feeling only to feel. Her breath catches in her throat as his finger falls into the dip under her bottom lip and she turns her face away like a wounded animal before she fakes the lethargy of sleepiness in reaching for his hand and examining his fingers for traces of the other woman and trying to remember when she stopped identifying her own smell on his skin.

“William?” she whispers. He turns to her and exhales the light, sweet breath of sleep and she doesn’t cry when she realizes he probably also used her toothpaste. She chokes out, “You can wash her clothes, but you can’t wash her off you.” She bites her lip in anticipation of the accusations of distrust and paranoia and the excuses of loneliness and misunderstandings and the little landmines that settle in as nightmares and hot tears and panic attacks. She curls into herself, wishing she had a shell and remembering their first date at the park when he told her he admired turtles because they mate for life, but he was wrong because the twin aquarium brochures she found tucked in the side pocket of his briefcase said the male always leaves, and what options does that give her?

Some hours later, his hand crawls over her stomach, and when she lifts it in irritation she catches another whiff of the citrus and softness and while she throws up over the side of the bed with the quiet acceptance of a young woman just needing a family and sits on her knees scrubbing and crying and praying he isn’t dreaming of the other woman, he sleeps on.

luminescent

It wasn’t the whisper of leaves along the concrete that pulled the hug apart and spread sheepish smiles across their faces. It was the passing question of a pizza delivery man: “Could you let me in?”

After he was in the building, it was the footfalls of strangers who rustled papers and clinked their keys in the pursuit of misplaced student IDs. She felt each gaze land on them like a curious butterfly and then alight with quiet judgment, but she was looking at the reflection of the lampposts in his eyes, little sparks in dark almond-shaped pools. She wondered if he could sense her hesitation, the budding fear in her stomach that at any moment might blossom into rejection. A light wind picked up, sending the leaves dancing down the sidewalk towards them again; she pressed her fingers deeper into the warmth of the space between his cotton shirt and his wool pea coat, hoping to cloak herself in his acceptance.

“What are you thinking?”

“Nothing,” she lied. She was doubting.

She trained her eyes on the quad over his right shoulder, hiding her mouth in the dip of his collarbone. Two nights ago he had accompanied her to a baseball game, and she had blushed when a friend suggested the pair would end up on the kiss cam. He had hugged her closer and replied without missing a beat, “They wouldn’t put a mixed couple up there.” His voice was matter-of-fact, with no trace of resentment. It broke her heart even more to think he was right, and she could agree to be his girlfriend, but it wouldn’t make their faces light up Turner field. He was right, yet that’s how she felt with his arms around her: full of forbidden energy, photo-illuminate. He was right for her, and maybe that would make up for everything that could go wrong.

The pizza delivery man came down the steps, empty black bag tucked under his arm. He got to the end of the sidewalk and turned back around, facing them.

“Y’all are adorable,” he said, loud enough to carry his words across the length of the sidewalk. The girl tensed, unsure of what might come next, unsure of how she might respond. “My wife and I just divorced after four years together. But I didn’t look at her like that.” He paused. “Don’t let her go.”

“Thanks, man,” the boyfriend replied, waving as the pizza delivery man disappeared into the night. Then he tightened his arms around his girl, and she smiled at the way her white skin seemed to glow against his black.

the cost of victory

You manage to wipe the raindrops off your lenses, but your tears are more difficult to make disappear, as is the red swelling under your left eye where your glasses punctured the skin. Someone places the soccer ball a yard in front of you, setting up for the second chance, the do-over, the opportunity to turn the tide in this game. You see a teammate’s sweat sliding down her thigh and knee and soaking into her shin guard, your father drinking from a tiny paper cup in order to prime his throat for more shouts of encouragement. He has traded in his trademark scratchy, digitized camouflage and now fits right in with the other dads in their wrinkly cotton t-shirts and crew socks. This is the first game he has attended, though it is your third season playing, and his presence heightens your senses.

You put your broken glasses back on just to have something to stabilize you before taking the indirect kick. The ball veers too far left yet manages to sneak between the posts with an assist before you are swept up off your feet, up into the air, up onto shoulders of girls who understand the magic of scoring your first soccer goal. The last bit of rain lands on your tongue; you laugh with your head tipped back. Your father raises his cup in celebration, a wide, proud grin changing the landscape of his serious, suntanned face.

You assume your position at midfield once again, resting your hands on your knees to catch your breath, noticing the line of other girls who do the same. The synchronicity of it takes you by surprise – the result of intensive training and running drills for weeks. A whistle blows and you all maneuver backwards in a semicircle as the other team presses forward, a drop in the ocean spreading out in one fluid motion, building energy as it ripples.

That energy is what keeps you always moving despite the burning of your muscles and your parched throat, until an enemy sprinting towards the eighteen yard line slips on the slick field, a bone snapping as she collapses to the ground, sinking like your stomach as the ball rolls out of bounds, forgotten. Your own father stands over her in an instant, shouting orders at the members of the crowd who gasp when the girl’s river-blue eyes roll to the back of her head and she cries out for help.

You see your father as he must have been in the war: the first one to respond, the only one with complete clarity even as fierce winds whipped him, filling every crevice with sand so that he had to scrape his ears out before bed, the sun beating down so hard on him during the day that he could still feel the brutal heat like a slap to the face when he lay in his hammock at night. He rarely talks about it. But you can see it now. The way his broad shoulders sag as he stands over the fallen in her uniform. The gratitude etched on horrified onlookers’ faces, thankful he is fighting the battle so they don’t have to. The first of his many traumatic flashbacks with no pattern of triggers.

The cost of victory.

heights

I hope you feel tall when you hold me, and strong and stable and secure. I hope you, too, notice the way your fingers fit between my ribs and mine naturally land in the valley of your upper back between your shoulderblades, where I suspect you hide your wings somehow, not because you’re an angel (what holy entity licks their lips like that?) but because you are magical, and sensitive, and the way you look at me is like you were put in my life just so I can adore you with everything I have. I hope you feel what I’m thinking, so one day instead of asking you can trade the question in for a quotient: what happens when you and I are divided? The answer is I miss you and I sleep in your scent and I dream in all the different ways you smile. I hope you feel not just like a man, but like mine, and when you hold me, you know that I’ll hold you close and hold you together but never hold you back, because you will do amazing things and grow even taller.