Beauty From Ashes
Sometimes there is a light at the end of a poem
that calls to all the other lights
at the ends of all the other poems.
When no one is looking I give this light to you,
rescued from the bottom of the bathroom trash
when I cut off my hair this afternoon.
I couldn't bear to look at myself in the mirror
and still see the promise of a future with you
somehow staring back.
My hair that you were supposed to tussle.
And grab. And wash.
Climb up in the middle of a bad dream.
Climb up faster in the middle of a good one.
Now I am me, again. The me from before,
with a gate of scissored bangs
guarding my pale head, precise
crown of brunette thorns to scare away
the touch of any lips to my brow.
I am myself again, before you.
The bench in the park. The water.
The afternoon I touched my head to your shoulder
and there were no lights at the ends of poems
because I was too full of living to care about poems
and, for one afternoon, you were too full of living, too.
You promised not to forget, and you forgot.
You promised not to tell, and you told.
Lafcadio's Yuki-onna in the summer.
(Who do you think brought this rain?)
Ariadne's thread near the garden.
(Why did you have to turn around?)
That there were lips doesn't really matter.
I brought this rain last night so I could stand
outside and not look like I was still crying.
I heard coyote's howling in the meadow,
close, and this morning found
a rabbit's foot on my front porch,
a rabbit's tail sitting beside,
the sweetbreads discarded in a grey mess
my parents left me to clean up after
with napkins and a bowl of warm water,
some sort of penance for calling
the wildness of you to the wildness of me.
I always knew she would come back.
The me before you who doesn't like
to be touched or talked to.
She was always waiting, in the dark
when I shopped for dresses
and fingernail polish,
when I talked to you instead of reading books,
when I forgot about the light at the end of the poem
to wonder if you were eating, or sleeping,
The catastrophe of regret can snuff out
the light at the end of the poem
but I only feel sad about having to step aside
and make room for her to push me
out of the way when I'm zipping up my dress,
to ask me why I keep trying to make something
from the phantom of you
who forgot the afternoon we cast
a spell on each other, an agreement
to live while everyone else is dying.
That there was not one kiss, but two, doesn't really matter.
Cutting my hair is not like Frida's hair
when she painted herself on a chair
after Diego left her one last time.
(Mira que si te quise, fué por el pelo.
Ahora que estás pelona, ya no te quiero.)
My hair in the trash, great handfuls,
golden at the tips, is the hair of a promise
I cannot keep.
The hair of remembrance
I'm too sad about to remember.
But it will grow back if the woman I now am
allows such sentiment to rise again
from that very cold place
so I blow on my handfuls of hair,
warm breath almost as warm
as the inside of your mouth in an August past,
and I see an ember glowing in the brown.
The light at the end of the poem
if you only hold out your hand.
That was such a long time ago, and now her old drama teacher was dead. Not old at all really, come to think of it. There had only been a few years between them, but to her Ms Lavonne felt a world away. Sweeping in, her petite frame made elaborate by a generous laugh and expensive scent. Ms Lavonne: her first love. Glamour, embracing arms, kitten heels. No sign of that now. Cathy stole a glance through the milling funeral party at the urn on the mantelpiece. The blinds were drawn halfway down and the lights were turned low on their dimmers and inside the urn lay ashes in place of life. She was gone and although the room was full, Cathy sensed the void. A West End show without its lead.
Mostly the room was filled with more recent students. Beautiful, bright faces, shining with wet tears and youth. She thought about him looking at them and wondered how she could make herself attractive when there was such stiff competition. Perhaps it was useless to even try, she thought, as she studied the rich nut-brown tresses of a girl by the fireplace. Cathy imagined running her fingers through her hair, her fingernails gently scraping her scalp, and then letting them fall through the heavy thickness to the tips. She could feel her heart at the surface of her chest. She inched up the blind and looked out of the window. Perhaps he wasn't coming.
It would have been the first week of secondary school that they had walked home together. She liked to think he had run to catch up with her, but they probably just fell into step as they left school that afternoon.
It was a warm September day and he had taken his jumper off. She was hot and wished she had thought to take hers off too, but now she was self-conscious. He was walking with her. He was sauntering. She attempted to saunter.
His hair was bright blond back then, almost white. Easy to pick out in an assembly hall or a school photo years later. Blue eyes, clear. Bit of a lad, Ms Lavonne had said when she cast him in his first role. Another girl had been cast opposite him, someone outgoing, one of the crowd. Was her name Vicky? Vicky had worn make up since day one: an orange line across her jawbone diving her face from her neck.
Cathy had been put backstage and she watched him, unnoticed, from the wings. It was good to feel part of something.
On that first walk home, in the heat of the sun and with sidelong glances, his hair had been shocking. Later, she imagined feeling it beneath her fingers, imagined electric charges jumping between them. Too late for all of that. His photos on Facebook showed him to be completely bald. He had grown a beard but it was a slightly disappointing sandy colour. Divorced, his status said. She had never married.
He was kind; that was his biggest attraction. Who else had bothered to talk to her in that first week? They were too busy forming alliances, positioning, posturing. Those first few days would establish who you were for the rest of your school career. She hadn't known that.
By the time he walked home with her, she had already been cast as the aloof loner. Not that the kids used those words. She remembered 'stuck up', 'snob', 'weirdo'.
He had paused to tie his shoelaces. Should she wait? Should she carry on? She dangled her foot nonchalantly off the kerb and looked into the distance. She had all the time in the world, except she had promised her mum she would be home by half past three. He shifted and began retying the other shoelace. Halfway through, he glanced up and seemed surprised to see her.
'Why are you waiting?' he said with a grin.
She hadn't known what to say and felt her face flush red. His grin spread further and he began to laugh, but he stood up again and they carried on, her face turned away from him as they walked side by side. Why should she be embarrassed? He had caught up with her; he had joined her.
'I was being polite,' she said finally and then realised how unnecessary her reply was.
He raised his eyebrows. 'Polite?'
'Waiting for you. I was just being polite.'
'Well madam, I am most grateful to you for your airs and graces,' and he bowed low.
It had been a mistake to say it, she knew that, but it was said and now he would think of her as everyone else did.
After that first walk home, he slid effortlessly towards the crowd and over the next five years she charted his relationships with several girls.
Michelle, a younger sister of his friend: loud, abrasive, corkscrew perm. After Michelle came Alison: skinny as a stick, sharp elbows in netball. Finally, in the last year, there was Vicky. The school rejoiced. It had been a long-awaited love affair, its seeds first sown in that first production of Ms Lavonne's Grease. To celebrate, Ms Lavonne cast them together in a final-year showstopper of West Side Story.
He signed her notebook on the last day, just as everyone else did. No personal message, no hint of a secret between them. And all that time she had been harbouring the memory of that first walk home.
She blinked back the tears and looked past the urn. A bald head ducked through the doorway. He looked up and caught her eye. Through his sandy beard, she thought she saw him smile.
Glancing at the digital clock, she realised she would be late if she didn't hurry. She got out of the car, wrapped her coat around her, and began walking the short distance towards the cafe where she had agreed to meet them. The last dregs of the night sky were fading away, ushered out by the crisp, cold morning. The town was slowly rousing itself from sleep, people scurrying to work or to run their errands.
Sara reached the cafe and lingered outside for a moment, her breath floating in little clouds on the cold air. She realised she didn't even know what they looked like. She peered through the window and saw a few tables occupied by people sitting alone to drink coffee and read the papers. There was only one couple, towards the back of the cafe. That must be them.
Sara pushed the door open, a little bell announcing her arrival, and the couple looked up at her. She could see now that they were the right age, in their early fifties. It was definitely them. Half-smiling, Sara walked towards them. "Are you John and Kate?"
They both got to their feet. The lady was shorter than Sara, and her body had spread and softened with age. Sara could see that her face had once been pretty, but all beauty had been carved out by deep wrinkles which splintered her face. Grief had dragged its fingers through her red hair, leaving streaks of white and grey. She wore a long, dark skirt and an anorak, clothes which hung from her body like an afterthought. Her eyes held Sara's with a blend of hope and sorrow.
"It's nice to meet you." Sara held out her hand, but Kate folded her into an embrace. Sara put her arms around her, feeling the shudder of Kate's body as she sobbed. She looked up at John. He was a tall man, but stood with his shoulders hunched, weighed down by the burden of pain. His face was marked with the same lines as his wife, as if grief had slashed them both like a child with a marker pen. He stood solemnly, his poise counterbalancing his wife's unrestrained sobbing.
After several moments, Kate drew away from Sara, her face smeared with tears.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's so emotional meeting you. Let's sit down."
The took a seat at the table, and gave their coffee orders to the waitress. Once she had gone, the three of them looked at each other, the weight of their emotion strangling any words they tried to speak.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet me," Sara said, eventually. "I wasn't sure if you'd want to. But I'm very glad you did."
"We were glad you got in touch," John said. It was the first time he had spoken since Sara had arrived, and his voice was soft and low. "We want to hold on to any part of Josh we can."
He bowed his head, smarting from the pain of speaking his son's name.
"How are you feeling now, after the operation?" Kate asked.
Instinctively, Sara placed her hand over her heart. The surgery had been more than nine months ago and her doctors were pleased with her progress. She had made an excellent recovery and was now back to work, back to the gym, back to socialising. Sometimes she almost forgot about what had happened, just a blip on the graph of her life. But the scar down her chest, stretching from neck to sternum, was a permanent reminder of the gift of life that she had been given. Gratitude would forever be engraved on her body.
"I'm doing really well," Sara said, guilt threaded through her words. "And that's all thanks to you... and to Josh."
Kate grasped Sara's hand in her own. "We are so glad we could help you, Sara. It gives us such comfort to know that something good has come from our loss."
Sara tried to smile at her, but a swell of emotion squashed her lips. She saw in Kate's eyes the same shadows that she had seen in her parents' eyes when they thought they were going to lose her. For her parents, the darkness had rippled away once they had been handed the miracle of hope. For Kate and John, it was forever stamped into their hearts.
"Tell me about Josh," Sara said. "What was he like?"
Kate and John exchanged a brief glance, agreeing with their eyes what they would tell her.
"Josh was our boy, he was wonderful," John said, looking down at the table, his hands clasped together. "But, he was.... troubled."
The word swayed in the space between them, infused with a thousand meanings.
"He struggled with life, found things more difficult than other people," John continued. "He didn't seem to fit in at school, he was a bit of a loner really. We worried about him a lot."
He paused for a moment. Sara could see from the sorrow in his eyes that he wished he still had the luxury of worrying about his son.
"And then, a year ago, he met a girl," John said. "Laura. Over night he seemed to turn into a different person, didn't he Kate?"
Kate nodded, smiling through the flecks of tears. "You know what it's like, first love. They were mad about each other."
"They were," John said. "It was Laura this, Laura that, all day long. We were happy about it – she was a nice girl and he seemed happy for the first time ever. He was doing better at school and seemed to be making more friends."
John paused again, gathering his strength to tell the next part of the story.
"And then one night they were driving home from the cinema and the car skidded on some ice and crashed into a tree. Laura was killed instantly. Josh had some minor injuries, but he survived."
John began to cry, his shoulders jerking as his body tried to untangle the anguish that was knotted into every organ. Kate covered his hands with her own, her tears drying as his fell. Sara saw the reciprocity of their mourning, how each one's grief was indirectly correlated to the other's. They grieved in rotation, taking it in turns to hold back the torrent of pain that would otherwise destroy them.
"Josh couldn't cope after Laura died," Kate said, picking up the story where her husband had fallen. "We tried to talk to him, we sent him for counselling, but nothing helped. He just stayed in his room all day, barely eating. We were sick with worry, but we didn't think he would....."
Sara followed the footprints of Kate's words and heard what couldn't be said. "He....?"
Kate nodded, her head confirming what her whole body wished wasn't true. "Yes, he took his own life. He couldn't carry on. His heart was broken."
Sara put both her hands to her chest, feeling the dull thud of Josh's heart, giving life to her body. To her, his heart had been a blessing, a gift that had pulled her back from the foggy line between life and death. Every throb of his heart hummed a tune of gratitude. And yet for Josh, that same heart had been broken, scarred with an affliction so fierce that he couldn't carry on living.
"Look after my son's heart," Kate said, a whisper of urgency in her voice. "Mend it for him."
The shadows in her eyes parted for a moment to allow a blink of hope. "And maybe one day, beauty can come from ashes."