The Back Way

the-back-way

Cemetery Road used to be the back way
to Northampton, but now everyone knows.
I have this memory of being a kid, just shy
of 10 on my mother’s 40th birthday. It was
December. Something (a rock?) shattered
her windshield. (Or was it just cracked?)
All I knew was that she seemed sad.
I liked writing and wanted to make her happy
so I wrote her notes saying she was the best,
best, best, best, best, best, best, best, best
mom in the whole world. My sisters were
teenagers then and windows were sometimes
left open at night and I listened for fighting,
my ear to the door, but all I remember hearing
were the hisses of the s’s as I strained for more
of the mysterious conversations the grown-ups
were having. Back then, we took the back way
to Northampton, and it meant we lived here
now, we were locals, we were no longer
from somewhere else. Where are you from,
you ask, and I tell you, here, gesturing around
tobacco barn and houses with year plates
over the doors: 1791, 1834. Back then, not
only weren’t we here, we weren’t even in this
time zone. Take modern-day Macedonia,
take L’vov and take Romania, take what was
once a town in Spain where maybe my great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
grandparents on my father’s side were writers
or bakers or scholars or sages, and you will
find the beginnings and middle of us who sat
tonight around the same dining room table
where we ate nine-minute family dinners
(I know this, because once in 6th grade,
I timed it to see how long it took from setting
to clearing), my father said, “It takes a long time
to grow a family.” He and my mom just marked
53 years together, and my sisters and I sat
in the very same spots as all those decades ago
when I was still trying to be good, still feeling
special for knowing the back way to the next town
over, still becoming a woman who wrote poems
like “Glad 2 B Female” as I walked the one main
street in my Docs and leather jacket feeling tough
but actually lonely and with a head full of Russian
verbs. “Life is long,” my mother’s mother used
to say. “God willing,” I say back, and suddenly
miss her and realize she’s sitting here on the edge
of my bed; she can’t believe I’ve married a woman,
I’m wearing this Star of David from Toledo
on a silver chain and it has my birthstone,
a garnet, and we are the children of the ones
who got out or the ones who chose to seek
something better, the ones who lived so far
downtown before there were tall buildings
and the twins were Annie and Celia, my Grammy
and her sister who died of the flu when the first
war started. All these years, so many wars later,
no more twin towers, no more predictions
of the best way to get there — who knows really
what you’ll find — only that luck may have nothing
to do with whose shields are shattered and
whose families are broken and whose seeking
is rewarded and whose tables will always
have empty chairs reserved for the ones
who didn’t make it home. The back way
isn’t always the way back. Now I know.

**

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The Thing I Thought He Should Know

Unfurling Tattoo

It is morning and I am writing
about a book from 1940 about sex
and men and women and the rules
that no longer apply to me
and maybe never did.

And suddenly it’s 1997, July:
I’m remembering that first time
he and I swam across the pond
together — my 23 to his 31.

How right about in the middle
I stopped to catch my breath
and, treading water, looked at him
and said, gravely,
“There is something you should know.”

He waited, eager to know
all the things about me
that would seal some agreement
we didn’t even know we were making.

(I look up from the writing
for a moment at my wife,
who is stretching side to side,
her naked body soft and mine,
the undone tree inked on her back —

a reminder that
we don’t always finish what we started
in the way we planned way back when.)
I swim at this pond all summer long,
and sometimes, when I am floating

on my back in the middle,
I remember that moment
when I told him I’d been bulimic.
I shake my head in such a way

that you wouldn’t even notice,
marveling at the way life
unfurls and we, with it, as if thrust
from the unfolding itself

into the thing behind the thing
that I didn’t know yet
and so didn’t say:
“You’re really nice,
but I’m really gay.”