A few summers after I graduate, I return to my alma mater as a camp counselor. I have six teenagers in a group all my own, and I am to spend the week living in a dorm with them and ushering them between acting and writing workshops. There is, for once, someone else to shelter under the umbrella; I am truly responsible for other people for the first time in years. I quickly grow attached. Some of the kids are passionate so outwardly it’s clear they’ve had to defend their interests in the past. The only boy in my group tells me he “really needs to make a good first impression” with the theatre professor offering workshops in Shakespearean speech, and he out-oos and ays the rest of the group, swinging his arms more wildly than the intimidated girls, shouting improvised lines—“You’re being abusive!”—during a pantomimed fight. Three different campers apologize for talking to me “too much.” “You’re probably sick of my voice,” one says on the first night. I’m not.
“My heart is broken,” I tell my boyfriend over the phone after staff orientation. The campers don’t arrive until the next morning, so I’m stupid drunk, having piled into another counselor’s car to go to the closest pizza shop and buy one six-pack each. It’s Sunday, limiting our options for liquor. In the spirit of dorm life, I spend $11 on some Smirnoff Ice and down it trying to bond with the other counselors in the twisted old college way they proposed. It is my first time ever drinking in a dorm.
My heart is broken, by association, after the first day ends and we adults make rounds through the cinderblock dorm building all night. One of the girls in my group had a roll sprinkled with cinnamon for lunch. “I had a big breakfast,” she says, like what was happening wasn’t absolutely clear to the other female campers and the counselors, us veteran girls. At dinner, she talks eagerly about YouTube makeup tutorials, then discusses neuroscience with a girl who has already had me call her mom to bring her another book. “Just Google ‘neurotransmitters’ and you’ll find tons of stuff. I’ve read so much about them,” she whispers across the table. Heartbreak.
Some of the campers forget to bring extra clothes to the pool, so I run them back to the dorm through the rain. My soggy sneakers adorn a corner of my single room for the rest of the week, lined up parallel to the dead roach along the wall. The next day, one of my girls asks if she can use her pool time to talk to me instead, and we sit on the floor with the roach in the middle. She tells me about her parents, her role models, her friends and former friends, the trajectory of her life as projected at sixteen, and I’ve heard some iteration of this so many times I can listen instead of cry. I know the stories; these girls are still writing them, still surprised by the plot twists.
It’s amazing how fresh and vivid teenagers’ wounds are. Their hair is cropped short and dyed purple, their T-shirts plastered with neon band names I’m already too old to recognize. One girl’s shirt reads in big, white letters: BLAME SOCIETY. They struggle to be praised, to be read as mature, to come across as intelligent. A theatre professor eats dinner with my group after a session, and my girls impress him with their criticism of school dress codes: “We laugh about it all the time, how the school can’t handle our sexy shoulders. Boys in gym shorts are distracting, but no one says a thing about that!” Then, clockwork, the internalized hatred fired back out into the world: “a promiscuous girl,” “and you could see her underwear—on purpose!”, “the cheerleaders…” The few boys at the camp segregate themselves, downing plates of college food at the next table over. The girls nervously eye the rest of the group when practicing walking with a chest-lead around an emptied event area during an acting session. “Now try a head-lead!” and they all fix their shirts in relief. It hurts so badly to become a girl. It was probably just as clear when I was in the center of it.
One of my girls tells me, and later several workshop leaders, “I wrote a little short story while we were sitting in the lobby,” and I think of myself filling notebook after notebook with scribbles, heinous poetry, character sketches, vague journal entries written in code, most often just to fill the pages. “That’s smart, can I take that for my notebook?” the most outspoken girl of the bunch asks another at lunch. Flattered, the speaker of course agrees, and the quip is recorded in cursive on the first page of a brand-new notebook designated specifically for camp. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I threw stacks of such notebooks directly into the recycling bin, my ninth-grade self too raw to stomach, so deep In It I could barely translate. My charges this week have the distinct auras of being In It still, in that rough part of growing where you’re unsure of yourself but desperate to please. I ask my campers what genres they like to write, meaning fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. “Fantasy,” one tells me; “Science fiction,” responds another. “Really, really complex stuff,” says a third, and I cringe, cringe, cringe, not because I’m embarrassed on their behalf—they’re just starting out; they’re safe; they’re among friends, as they say—but because I can feel a smaller version of me there with them, the one who wrote poems that hurt me to read a decade later.
How much smaller, really, is that person, though? Here she is, though more tools are available to her now. Intimidated by the other counselors, her indifferent peers, she starts in on her camp paycheck with a six-pack she downs in one night, lining up the bottles on the dorm windowsill, sharing her curated set of impressive stories, letting them out drunkenly a little at a time before getting emotional, as desperate as any camper to stand out, to be heard. I carry her downstairs to her single and lock the door, but she calls my boyfriend, overwhelmed with tears, and announces her preemptive heartbreak. Once the campers arrive and are each directed through their counselors’ hangovers to their rooms, my focus thankfully shifts off myself and off her—possible now that I’ve long graduated from my teenage years—to my crippling responsibility for these hesitant souls.
No one remembers her camp counselors. I had the same thought when I was, ill advisedly, an elementary education major at the beginning of college, first having the experiences that built up my library of horrible confidences from children and young people. Who remembers her student teachers, her assistant religious education instructor, the girl that walked them from session to session at a one-week summer camp when she was sixteen? But, maybe with a touch of that teenage self-obsessed quality, I believe I can do something real for my campers, even as a temporary role model: I can show these girls that they will come out the other side, that this part of their lives is as transient as my relevance to them: isn’t it?
the water doesn’t lap, it rocks, quakes, quivers
has the freedom to feel the weight of itself
we all rest somewhere, in a gradient of density
i don’t sink, i float on stone
a piling of mountains too light to subside
and must be rendered old by other means
there is no mountain of a sandbar that can grant
eyes to the other side of the atlantic
guarded by a curvature that works only in aggregate
punctured by dolphin fins and boat sails
outlined by sunsets and sunrises
clouds cresting over waves
the water doesn’t lap, it rocks, quakes, quivers
has the freedom to feel the weight of itself
we all rest somewhere, in a gradient of density
the other side of the atlantic doesn’t exist
or, if it does, exists a galaxy away in time
only it’s ghost bridges the distance, carried inside me
“Blazing fires,” yelled the Preacher. “Blazing fires will purify you! Just go on– walk through them a sinner and exit a saint!”
We smiled and we clapped.
The next day, we all lit our homes on fire and strode through our front doors into the flames.
Oh, how it hurt! How it burned– how we melted! We all rolled on the ground, writhing and screaming.
The Preacher tore off his face and his bloody skull laughed at us from our front yards.
THE HOSPITAL ROOM
The Hand of God reaches down into my shadowy inferno and yanks me out like an elevator going up, up, up.
I am a prophet and no prophets need eyes. We see the darkness and walk through heavenly fire.
So, I blindfold myself with white bandages.
A black serpent has curled up inside my head. I feel it inhaling my clean air then exhaling its own polluted smoke into my lungs.
On a Friday, I tried to gouge out my eyes so it could escape from my skull.
Despite all the blood, it still hasn’t moved.
As a gift for my sacrifice, the Hand of God touched my blackened eyes and taught me how to see like angels do.
I awoke on a Sunday in a white room dressed in a white robe.
i sniff at every room i enter, expecting blood everywhere. starting from
between my thighs onto the wall. this is a healthy habit.
i check the stove a couple of times for a gas leak. deaths should be as
deliberate as the skeleton of your body on my bed. could say there’s
some history there.
in my mind, a trail of catpiss. in my mind, the fire dies out as I wait.
last night, baba played begum akhtar. again and again; that woman who
yearned to die, that woman who confided in strange men in strange
places. her strappy voice cut through my veins letting open a river. the
air was salt. only so much colour i could scrape off the nails.
my eyes swivel to the old winkowl and pause, lids heavy with secrets.
this is not the night I die. when the dreams come, i welcome it.
despite the crushing feeling of inadequate reality, after. when I leave this
space, i will leave no gaping hole.
seventeen times I woke up last night, seventeen times I missed a train.
there was little to take off, but the nails fought back. the colours faded
a crochet of blood later, we ate at each other. disciplined the storms in
our chests. nudged calves into creases. chased the crest and then the fall,
so soon, too soon.
so less, too less.
if there is a noose, i don’t die today.
if there is a noose.
such a shame the patch outlived the planter.
‘don’t tell my father i have died.’
I’m standing in front of your mom, fingers
Twitching at her sides, blindly grasping at your
Stamped onto a silver chain,
Glistening obnoxiously on a hollowed chest // empty // stained // suffocated
She isn’t fixable.
Collar bones protrude as she bends forward
Committing herself wholly to eating a slice of Cake.
(She’s been put back together by a 3 year old | projects her anger into nurturing | care- taking
But he doesn’t understand. And maybe deep down she hates him for not
Missing you More.)
She’s comfortable being worse.
She’s comfortable not eating | leading support groups
But what am I to say? : if skipping meals and teaching
Orphaned parents the task of essential deception is her way of honoring you, fine.
She isn’t fixable.
But you could have been.
I’m expecting another phone call. Or a Facebook upload : a sunflower tramp stamp.
Everyone grieves in their own way
But please God,
Let it be the tattoo.
"The project of a summer began with the notion of freezing different objects and photographing the results under different lighting conditions to attempt to preserve the purity of colors as they may be seen in nature. I was restricted to a very small area of land, and had to use found objects in my proximity. After collecting flowers in the garden and freezing them, obtaining better results than I expected I began to add found objects, such as three abandoned and broken windows, old books, as well as different utensils. The purpose of the study was to observe the interaction of all these objects in different situations, under diverse lighting conditions, in the studio, and in the case of the images here, mostly natural light. "Church," is a photograph which I took at Salisbury cathedral in England, printed, then placed into water and subsequently froze. "Later," "Staining the View," and "Window Pain," use one of the windows at different stages of the study, as I later painted it with a number of found paints. The project thus began with a simple idea, and because of the restrictions of space, allowed me in fact,\ to further explore possibilities by including a number of other objects."
i am an impatient narcissist
a kid in line for the ferris wheel
yanking on your nice coat
asking why lines take so long
whining about my starvation, it
has been a full three hours since i ate
up some of that good validation
i count my past lives on my fingers
and then i lick the funnel cake
sugar off my fingers
i want to achieve a chill level
of drunk so i can explain myself to you
and not throw up in your lap
saying: ‘i am a kid at the top of this
fucking wheel of mediocrity, just
trying to remember what fun is’
i’m sorry i am asking a lot of you
tugging on your nice coat until it stretches
and i wrap myself in the fabric
What did you bury here,
What did you leave so deep in the ground
That dirt tattooed under your fingernails?
It wasn't a perfect funeral,
Nor a funeral at all.
You simply threw it under the eucalyptus leaves and hoped it would sleep in peace.
You carved into the tree with your teeth.
You carved: Don't come back.
What made you feel so much has left,
Has become decrepit in old age,
Has longed to be back just as much as you.
Eucalyptus leaves cover that place,
Long and bony.
You want to throw gravel and dance in it.
You want to swim.
You want to walk through fruited flowers and be happy. But you can't. You can't.
Temptation tugs at your years,
Begging to be fed.
You're begging too, tears pulled out of the well you dug,
Each droplet a letter of "I miss you."
You let it be robbed.
You let it be destroyed.
What made you leave it so cleanly?
You let it be desecrated from the inside.
You are leaving it still.
You see your family in need but there isn't a shovel in sight.
Soft and wet, dark coffee colored soil.
You could dig forever.
You should dig forever.
For all the time you buried alive,
A little self-flagellation wouldn't hurt,
The dirt against your back like a cold cold rein.
If somebody died here, speak.
The mourning rains dig plenty deep,
Dig plenty well.
A single daughter you were,
Curled inside the womb of roots
Sinking slowly as you cried.
Like a babe, you clutched to your chest
One red tile
And a bouquet of eucalyptus leaves.
The best way to grieve is to live with it
Live in it
Die in it if you must.
Bury your soul until it can walk again.
As a second birth, a birth in reverse,
You can and you will be able to breathe.
Be not afraid of the soil that still clings.
Be not afraid of your home.
She pulls out her ponytail and shakes,
Releasing the scent of her shampoo into the air.
For a moment, she looks like a dandelion bustling in the wind
Until her mop settles into waves down her neck.
She puts her hands above her head in sleep,
And suddenly she is stuck in Greek myth.
Either she raises her arms to avoid another tragedy,
Or lifts the world on her fingertips.
Sleep, my titan child.
The world will wait for your hands.
She blushes against the crush of bodies,
Rosy to a clumsy touch.
For an eternity of a moment,
She imagines falling toward heaven,
Upside down in her own head.
She melts on a hearth, on a memory, on imaginary fire.
Her fingers, so delicate, slip into the clouds.
Her body, so protected before, lingers in the crush of bodies.
She comments that this place must be heaven.
A cool summer night, cloudy,
Streetlights shining dreamlike over the surface of the earth-
Something is suspended for a while by telephone wires.
Her heartbeat heavy and spasmodic, but not labored,
Feeling like a gulp of ice water.
She repeats the invocation that this place must be heaven.
Hypnotizing static buzzes overhead, stars further up,
Funneling into her glassy eyes.
I can believe that.
In these moments she feels outside herself,
Watching the part of her that longs to be beautiful.
She coaxes the gentle, bright magic out of its cavern piece by piece.
Beached on my tempur-pedic foam, feet balance Pinot.
I shut the window blinds, the distant lights of Bloor Street.
This summer, I will tan through osmosis.
In an old pair of shorts I found a transfer of the 509 streetcar-
when I took those two dollar vacations to see you.
We circled downtown and Lakeshore,
you butchering lines from “Manhattan”.
Because of you I prefer Diane Keaton to Muriel Hemingway.
You know all the dogs in my neighbourhood by name;
Sadie, Zelda, Zoe, and George.
They don’t wag their tails when I jog by,
sensing your ghost running beside me.
I count the minutes until the end of August,
hands clutched on the mattress raft.
Telling my tongue vanilla tastes like sand
and looks just like suntan lotion.