Heather McHugh (20 August 1948 / San Diego, California)
I owe you an explanation.
My first memory isn’t your own
of an empty box. My babyhood cabinets held
a countlessness of cakes, my backyard
rotted into apple glut, windfalls of
money-tree, mouthfuls of fib.
At puberty I liked the locks,
I was the one who made them fast.
The yelling in our hallways was about
lost money, or lost love, but not
lost life. Or so I see it now:
in those days I romanticized
a risk (I thought I’d die
in the alcoholic automobile, die
at the hands of nerveless dentistry). Small hearts
were printed in the checkbook; when my parents called me
dear, they meant expensive.
Where were you in all that time? Out looking for
your father’s body? Making for your mother’s room?
I got my A’s in English, civics,
sweetness and light; you got black eyes, and F’s,
and nowhere fast. By 1967 when we met
(if you could call it making an acquaintance,
rape) I was a mal-adjusted gush, a sucker for
placebos. Walking home from Central Square, I came to have
the good girl’s petty dread: the woman
to whose yard you dragged me might
detect us, and be furious. More than anything else
I wanted no one mad at me. (Propriety,
or was it property, I thought
to guard: myself I gave away.)
And as for you, you had the shakes,
were barely seventeen yourself, too raw
to get it up (I said don’t be afraid,
afraid of what might happen if you failed).
And afterwards, in one of those moments
it’s hard to tell (funny from fatal) you did
a terrible civility: you told me
thanks. I’ll never forget
that moment all my life.
It wasn’t until then, as you
were sheathing it to run,
I saw the knife.
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