We look side to side like we’re being booked into prison,
and we are.
But it’s not our fault:
it all started when we were taught to look both ways when crossing the street.
Look left, and then right
so you stay safe.
Next came you turning to your friend to ask
“what’d you get on the test?”
Next came you looking at your body in the mirror,
measuring it with media’s ruler
Next came you weighing yourself against your sibling
And as you get older,
your younger self.
Comparisons is the everyday person’s assessment:
a high-stakes exam
where test anxiety is inevitable,
but I choose to opt-out.
"you were not meant to thrive here.”
she told me, as she put out her cigarette.
her teeth are piling in the corner,
they’re yellowed and brown
my baby teeth are piling by the stove,
a reminder of why she is here.
we eat spaghetti for the fifth time this week,
we sweat. we burn.
one hundred degree oklahoma heat,
the air conditioner stopped running two summers ago.
I am panting on the sidewalk,
outside the crumbling house.
in the spring time, whirling winds take the chosen away
far from here,
yet in the summer we all burn under the scorching light.
I help myself to you
in the morning
in my mind
Mimic the downward slope of
your throat, the pads of
I cannot remember
your words, only the ones
I’ve repeated so often
they come back in
my own voice
Round like from the end of
an empty toilet paper tube
held up to
my mouth, then up to
my eye, slicing life into a circle
I like it like that
A clean picture
Cardboard cutting crisp
into the soft skin around
I can feel the boundaries
four inches out, like
a shadow puppet to the wall
I can turn my head and
redraw the frame, sand the corners
from a fresh picture and never see
the shavings fall.
News of a Walmart reached Eaton, Ohio when Kathy was still only a lump of spineless tissue, hiccupping and floating blissfully inside her mother’s swollen belly. Kathy’s mother was alone at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and reveling in the house’s rare and fleeting silence, her husband at work and her children on the bus to school when she discovered the front page article in the Eaton Local News. Her mother rested the newspaper across the shelf her midsection had formed and cupped her hands over her mouth as she read the headline aloud to her unborn daughter.
Later that month, the entire town of Eaton crowded the once-barren strip center to cheer on the ribbon cutting. Kathy’s parents had woken her siblings up early and driven their 2004 Ford the six miles downtown. By then, Kathy’s mother was so large she needed a wheelchair. The mayor spoke, the ribbon was cut, and Kathy began to swim towards an exit. She hadn’t been due for another three weeks. The ambulance that drove away from the Walmart towards Eaton County Hospital was the only vehicle on the other side of the road that afternoon for miles. The newspaper clipping of the grand opening was framed and hung in Kathy’s house above the living room mantle and next to a sepia-toned photo of Kathy’s great-grandparents. Kathy’s mother liked that the event had coincided with Kathy’s birth and as a child, Kathy was delighted as well. She had pretended the mayor and the ribbons were there for her. Yet as time wore on exhaustively, Kathy began to resent it, to try over and over and fail, to forget it.
When Kathy was seven, she was caught stealing candy at the checkout aisle. Lumpy bags of gummy bears and starburst slid out from beneath her purple dress as the teenage cashier and her horrified mother looked on. Kathy stood unflinching, too terrified to acknowledge the bags that leaned against her ankles. The teenage cashier seemed indifferent but Kathy’s mother was mortified, and on the way back to the car and locked in her room that night with no TV and no dessert, Kathy could feel the weight of her mother’s disappointment for the first time. It was a heaviness and an anger that had been handed down for generations within their family, and Kathy felt it more the older she grew, equally in her mother’s scolding and in her silence, until one day, before Kathy could realize what was happening, the feeling had become her own. She would feel it within her and throughout the far corners of Dayton, weighing down every resident, like the final relentless days of a long drought.
Kathy was hired to restock aisles when she was 17. There was no formal interview, just a casual chat with the manager, who gave her a speech about the hardships of adulthood and put his hand on her shoulder. To celebrate, Kathy and her friends drank Smirnoff from the bottle on the school playground. They pushed each other on the swings, daring to go faster, to fly farther, until most of them were left throwing up all over the playground’s soggy wood chips.
Sid and Kathy met later that year. Sid was hired to work in the electronics section, to show customers which iPhone was best for them even though he couldn’t afford one himself. Sid spoke minimally and had a gut that was often visible between his khaki pants and blue polo, but he remembered Kathy’s favorite songs and bought her yellow carnations, so within weeks they were kissing and grabbing for each other’s body parts in the storage room on breaks. Sometimes Kathy would grab his penis and mold it with her fingers like playdough, and she’d watch the alien expression in his face as he struggled to steady himself against the shelves of staplers and post-it notes behind him.
Kathy attended classes at the community college one town over, but they were so crowded that it made it hard to hear the professor. Sid dropped her off and picked her up because Kathy didn’t have her own car, and sometimes he’d be an hour or two late because he had to work an extra shift, or simply because he had forgotten. Kathy would sit on the curb of the parking lot waiting for him, watching the sun set across infinite miles of browning suburban lawns while eating peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been flattened by her fingerprints. During those evenings, Kathy found herself fighting boredom but also another feeling, something less understandable yet even more palpable. As the dust turned to darkness and night surrounded her, she slumped forward with heaviness.
When Kathy was promoted, she stopped attending classes. Her manager had told her the news with one hand resting on her back, and had complimented her on the fine young woman she was becoming. Kathy told Sid and her family that she didn’t think college was for her, and they didn’t argue against it. Kathy had a second cousin who had moved to New York City to study art, but Kathy’s mother would roll her eyes whenever her name was mentioned at family dinners. It was something about dating a man twice her age or dating a black man, Kathy could never remember which. She taught herself to roll her eyes too, yet when her bedroom door was shut and the lights turned off, she’d shut her eyes and think about living in a house next to the Empire State Building.