It’s perfectly normal that she’s on the balcony,
Topless, three floors up,
She does a back bend over the railing,
Wine-stained smile to the night sky.
“Sincerely,” I say. “Are you listening?”
Of course she isn’t.
I’m not sure she ever did.
In the smoke I am set aside, categorized, dismissed.
The picture I take of this moment
Is developed at a pharmacy, later, back home.
Her breasts in an envelope with
The Bateaux-Mouches and The Bastille.
The landlord is concerned we won’t pay our rent,
But there won’t ever be a drug as potent as her skin.
Ellen’s the only one who could get me to jump.
I sit at the edge of the dock, my legs dangling into the brown water. I can’t see my feet, or the bottom of the lake, which Ellen says is at least ten feet below.
She’s a bobbing torso I splash with a cupped hand. “Scaredy-cat!” she calls, laughing, just like she did at the city pool when I froze on the high dive.
The water is her otherworld, opaque and soft, made up of everything I don’t know yet. I stand, the dock slick beneath my toes, and jump.
I rolled over on it, half-asleep, and thought I’d been stabbed
Or stung by a bee somehow resting among the sheets.
It belongs to Helen.
Yellow shirt Helen, Helen whose hands are bigger than mine,
Helen across the table, who I couldn’t look in the eye.
She’s a throw-her-head-back-when-she-laughs woman,
An I’m-strong-enough-to-hold-you-up woman,
A leave-in-darkness-before-you-wake woman.
I tasted her earlobe, fitting the gold post between my teeth.
It yielded to my tongue, slept in my mouth,
And bit me good morning.
We were kids when we crashed our bikes on the playground. You skinned your knee, and I rode you to my house for band-aids and a Coke.
We’re grown up now. I mean, we’re juniors, and you have your license and all. (But we still have curfew, and my mom will be expecting me.)
Your bedroom is a mix of both. You got rid of that pink wallpaper last year, but stuffed animals still crowd your bed.
“Can you braid my hair?” You ask.
You sit between my legs, your wavy hair in my fingers.
I’m going to be late.
Give to me your mouth.
It fixes me as if with a hammer and nail,
Abruptly, with no denying.
Your tongue polishes my voice,
Your lips fashion a chain clasping your breath to mine.
Give to me your hips.
They push the world,
Grind and level with their insisting sway,
The invisible language of currents
Caught by my hands.
Give to me your hair.
That darkness, that commanding forest
Untethered by ribbon
Is silkened by an exhalation of water over rocks.
Breathing on its own, deciding.
Give to me your elbow, eyebrow, and ear,
Your full throat of gasping bliss.
I can’t believe I’m not scared.
(My brother teases me about all the things I’m afraid of. He laughed when I screamed at the spider in my shoe. He tells tall tales about the creature under my bed, so I can’t sleep. He said I wasn’t brave enough to talk to Ella Whistler.)
It’s dark, and Ella and I are alone together, in the woods. But fear can’t show its face when she walks beside me.
It was her idea to call the owls. We cup our hands around our mouths, whoot-whooting goodnight. They call back, invisible under the moon.
We learned to swim together at the community pool, the summer before first grade. I mostly remember the polka-dot suit I wore. It had ruffles, and I thought it was something a princess would wear.
We swam in high school together, too. It wasn’t about suits anymore; it was about split times, conditioning, and drives with our hair still wet, one hand on the wheel and the other hand in hers.
Now our swimming happens only in my dreams. We race strong, the time no matter. When she wins, I twist a lock of her wet hair around my finger.
We made each other a promise. We tied ribbons around our fingers and swore it.
We vowed we would never kiss again.
Though how can I resist, when the rose blooms so high in her cheeks? Surely she doesn’t blush from the exertion of pulling my corset ties, as that was nigh on an hour ago. She has since dressed me, buttoning my dress, smoothing my stockings, lacing my shoes.
Jewels are saved for last. She brings the necklace the viscount gifted me. He’ll be waiting, pacing among the guests.
“Let him wait,” I whisper, pushing it from her hands.
My best friend got a black Mustang convertible for her seventeenth birthday.
“Mustang Sally,” my dad called her from then on. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen up close. I wanted to touch her impossibly smooth cheek, twist her curly coffee-colored hair between my fingers. She’d pick me up and we’d go for ice cream, the movies, or the diner; we’d come home stinking of cigarettes even though we’d ride with the top down all the way.
The radio played Skid Row or Sting, and she’d sing off-key, her one endearing imperfection, crooked notes trailing behind us.
Sara’s hands glide across the tops of my shoulders and tug the fabric of the sleeves. Juliet’s Nurse’s dress does fit better now that she’s altered it to accommodate my long arms.
“That feel okay?” she asks around the pins she holds between her lips. Her brown eyes study the bodice, the waist, the cuffs, while I study the downy hair at the back of her neck that didn’t make it into her ponytail.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I whisper, then clear my throat. “Fine.”
I’m weightless as she turns me, my thighs heating, praying she’ll find something else to fix.