Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
I was never just, like you*
Whether fire, loneliness or love hurts more than death I don’t know, but I’m reminded of driving 14 hours to Key West. I grew up like a weed. The field became a swimming pool. They kicked me in the ribs. I remember pulling the elastic band of my underwear down behind my balls: now I can relax.
I remember sex on too much grass and the total separation of my head from what’s going on down there. Wait for news of one kind or another. There are sometimes trees. Once the ground beneath seemed a window we’d learn to fall through. I want to tell you that I’m dying. All over town, the buildings rise the way we learn to sleep.
What if, all of a sudden, out in the middle of public somewhere, you get a hard-on? You can look at your body naked in a mirror, with the furniture of the infusion clinic. His stainless steel ribs, thin as the blades of pocket knives. I confess to the hornet’s nest of police whistles. The whole hive courted me. I remember Liberace. His face gives nothing away but the job at hand. He wanted to protect me from the things out there.
Your face was new, as if it had never been used, a sweatshirt in Florida. You select colors: a streak of primary yellow. Karen brings plums from her garden, the thin skin of the tomato. We are grateful for the slenderness of needles. The nurse is called Bud, too: a gay man, but grumpy. Or sex: a white t-shirt, a kite flapping skyward, dreaming only of the ground. I want to be mentioned more. The hole in my chest a lip-smudge, life-like. Joe is going back to Arkansas.
Notes on the articulation of time: no longer gemlike, disinterested. They are not going to get me to think I am that important. I remember one cold and bleak night on the beach with Frank O’Hara. He walked through rain like it wasn’t raining, tomorrow morning he’ll take the Greyhound to Fayetteville. My shrink told me it was unnatural to be obsessed with the Nazi extermination of homosexuals. He knew that here in America we hide things. Hotels we stay in have no flowers left by management, we manage without. We steal. Various skin diseases and the paintings of Jackson Pollock. I remember when I tried out to be a cheerleader and didn’t make it.
When I was 15 he wanted to see me with my pants down. I admired his tongue. His own body giving way, with him caught inside. I remember how untheatrical the act of getting undressed can sometimes be: the purity of my body, a Buck knife twisted into a washboard stomach, distant neighbors stamping out the cinders, a yellow that uncurls. Black out. White rooms.
It’s spring and there’s another crop of kids with haircuts from my childhood. And the lesions joining them. Flying is graceful because it’s so hard to believe how fast you are really going. She reaches for him, holds nothing. I’d like to have a showdown, too. Room set at infrared, mind at ultraviolet. You walk at night, alone, the moon as brittle as a tooth. The dark swallows it, and sighs like we sigh, when we rise from our knees.
I remember catching myself with an expression on my face that doesn’t relate to what’s going on anymore. All around me are people unpacking anything of value to declare. Even our dinner parties gain a topic: the mystery of tap water, the way I cringe from flowers, and the blue sky. Feed it my hair, strand by strand.
The sex over and done, we were, more or less, our audience of aunts. A really fine thing, smashed to pieces. The door sees more than ever: yellow jackets, blue-bellied hornets, furry bumbles, two-inch wasps. Refuse to blink, we hoist our lives over this thin white cane of outrage. I dreamed the snow was you, when there was snow.
There’s no age when one doesn’t feel awkward, headlights open to the empty street. I remember trying to get a guy’s turtleneck sweater off, but it turned out not to be a turtleneck sweater. Boxes without front yards, built on old front yards. It still goes on—wherever hands can find response of hands; hold, in the hollow silence, a tangible warmth. First we have the radio on, for the music, and then we have it off, for the diplomatic corps. Rushing into someone’s colorless morning, we want a history. Even the idea makes me nauseous.
*This poem was created using phrases from the work of the 45 poets included in Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (Alyson Books, 2010), edited by Philip Clark and David Groff.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of the memoir The End of San Francisco (City Lights, 2013), winner of a 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Nonfiction, and the novels So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights, 2008) and Pulling Taffy (Suspect Thoughts, 2003). She is the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform (AK Press, 2012), an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, as well as four other nonfiction anthologies. Mattilda’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Time Out New York, Utne Reader, AlterNet, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Bitch, Bookslut, and The Stranger, among others. She is a columnist and the reviews editor at the feminist magazine Make/shift. Mattilda lives in Seattle, Washington.