Who Are You?
I say to myself
as I fill a glass with water for the night.
“Come on, little girl. You are tired.
I’ll put you to bed.”
My mother awoke today for a moment
from her kaleidoscope world
where my father is 25,
my brother struggles to be born,
her sister is dying again,
she is selecting a hat for church,
and always, always searching for her own mother.
She placed her hand on mine and asked again,
“Who are you?”
I said, “I am your only daughter.”
She smiled like she had just made
a butterscotch cake for dinner
and said, “Poor little girl.”
I counsel anxious and depressed clients,
work with autistic, aggressive, and withdrawn children,
know the art of psycho-dynamic therapy
and cognitive behavioral therapy,
even write poetry
which I have read in New York City and Chicago,
but she’s right again. I am also
a poor little girl whose mother is almost gone
and I must fill my own glass
with water for this night.
Mind if I sit here?
. . . I know there are some empty tables, but you look like a poet with those thin junkie arms.
. . . I don’t know. By your veins, I guess. They’re high as hills, like on one of those 3-D maps.
. . . The tattoo? Let me tell you, before I dropped out of 8th grade, I was brilliant. We’d started to learn about things like Fibonacci numbers, and it opened a world for me— a universe of order and patterns that I’d never considered before.
. . . The point? I’m getting to it. My mother thought I was dirty, you know. She was dirty, too, but there was no hope for her. Every day after school, a scalding bath awaited me. I hated it at first, the itchy soap, the bittersweet shampoo. Then, three months into honors math and Mr. Freebottom—not his real name—began to touch me. First, the hands fluttered on my shoulders. And then they slid down like lava. Picture it. I’m wearing a pink herringbone skirt and sweater, bending over an exhibit of igneous rock fossils in our stinky auditorium, home of the Sea Side Science Fair, and this pencil-point dick grazes my ass. After it sideswipes my ass and gets away without a ticket, it does two at once. Tit, ass, etc. Do I have to go on about the rest of this? I bet there’s a perv at every table writing it all down: Girl with bear tattoo molested by her teacher.
. . . Yes, I guess I could have stopped it. But by then I was grateful for the showers. I begged Angeline, that’s my mother, to let me get in there in my clothes. She allowed it as long as I would wash with Tide Laundry Detergent. “You’re a dirty girl, dirty,” she cooed, and spilled the powder, which sudsed up around me. “I heard you were flirting again at school. Don’t you know Mr. Freebottom is Mommy’s boyfriend?” Then we’d wash off the sluttiness, and I would emerge, safe as a mermaid, knowing that nobody would ever touch me or my gorilla mother.
Are you listening? Talk to me. I still like your arms. They were the first things I noticed. I couldn’t help it. Parchment pale, with veins like rivers of sweet, lusty, whatever-it-is-you-shot. It was a pure cold deer running straight to your heart.
. . . I know there’s nothing romantic about heroin. Can’t I just admire your veins?
. . . Alright. From a distance, then.
. . . How do you know?
. . . Really? She ignored me?
. . . You’re right. She was no raving beauty, but certainly not a gorilla.
. . . I see. A girl who was ritualistically washed would not elect to get a tattoo of a bear eating out of a garbage can on her butt? How do you know about girls? Aren’t you gay? Why are you smiling? You think your skinny ass knows everything?
. . . Yes I’m listening. I heard everything you said. OK, so you lived with a girl at one time. I bet you had a tub in the kitchen, and let’s face it, you’re not into chicks and she’s not into fags, so why bother with inhibition? You got stoned and sat nude in that glorious tub while the water cooled around you. She cooked bean stews and grain casseroles and sweet potato pies, and she was from Virginia, this girl, and spoke in a drawl, and you never listened to what she said, or practically never. You just lay back against the cold, cracked tub, your toes grazing the faucet. You listened to her stories and smelled the cooking, and heard the cooking and smelled her stories.
. . . They can if you sniff deep enough.
. . . Hers smelled like hay and horses, or sometimes like truck stops in the morning, when your throat feels raw and the gasoline scent burns. Sometimes you drifted off to sleep, full even though you were hungry, of bacon and eggs and coffee and a trucker’s broad, muscular back. And there were times when Fred, that was the girl’s name, Fred, would join you. When the kitchen was full of steam and her neck was running with sweat, she left the lids on the pots and the pies in the warm oven, took off her jeans and top and wrapped her soft, cool limbs around you. And in this way your realities penetrated.
. . . Maybe not exactly, but I’m close, aren’t I?
. . . You say you’re not a junkie?
. . . Well, yeah, it’s obvious you’re not a fag. By the way you’re looking at me. Did anyone ever tell you you have the eyes of a serial killer?
We lived along a corridor, made a village of it, nineteen storeys in the sky.
Children running into rooms, emerging with an iced barley or bandung.
The Wongs and Chans sharing an apartment, more plywood shacks within.
Nineteen of them, shoulder to shoulder, on the linoleum, dinner on lap.
The children hung jasmine garlands, looped origami notes on door handles.
The Soeurs boiled a big pot of lemongrass soup, left portions in tiffin boxes.
And bowls borrowed from the Chans, disposable forks and chopsticks too.
On payday, they made coconut cakes, and mung bean pudding to share.
The Soeurs hid the Dasguptas in the storeroom, its window boarded up.
You could hear the Dasgupta sewing machine, its whirring bobbin case.
The Dasguptas added cinnamon and nutmeg to the Soeurs’ puddings.
When the grocer brought by bagged almonds, they made badam phirni.
Their sewing machine was an heirloom, a Singer, lasted four generations.
A Bhatnagar woman gave it as a dowry, her servant married off to a coolie.
The badam phirni recipe was passed down too, whole almonds, not blanched.
No green cardamom, three cups of goat’s milk, brown sugar to the taste.
The coolie died on a rubber plantation, the servant barely escaping the pyre.
She kept her son, but left her daughter with the Yuans, who ran a food stall.
Arrived here by boat, found refuge at the mosque, worked as its goatherd.
Her sari always the white muslin for widows, her stone bangles bartered.
The daughter learnt Cantonese, acknowledged her new ancestors by name.
Kept her mother’s bindi in her waistband, a bit of jasmine, for her sutras.
Only white for her wedding cheongsam, red collar of Chikan appliqué.
The Soeurs told the Nguyens their tablecloth was made from its cotton.
The bindi is now glued on the door of the Wongs, for luck the Chans say.
I was orphaned at four, the Wongs told me, and I took a long time to speak.
Only ever ate at the red hem of the tablecloth, thumbing its embroidery.
The Soeurs told me this, as did the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.
I was orphaned, they told me, so I could live with them, all five families.
There is rich plot in this, even without the particulars; and poetry even.
I told the Soeurs this, as I did the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.
They looked at me and nodded, filling my spoon with lotus root and lentils.
There is history in that, with or without the particulars — always a poem.
The way we only called each other by our last names, I told the Soeurs this.
Eyes downcast, as if in prayer, like the Wongs, Chans, Dasguptas and Nguyens.
That day I started writing in my diary, oval bowl of badam phirni by my side.