My aunt’s pregnancy was too unfettered—
each ultrasound showed my fetal cousin docile,
never kicking—the doctor always found a heartbeat,
but we knew something was wrong.
My cousin emerged a few weeks early with skin
the color of carrots and a cough no doctor could define.
I remember looking at her—the myth that she would not survive
—lying in her crib day after day, a sickly child.
When she was three, she was so sick all she could do was lay on the couch
and watch Shrek ad nauseum, letting the disease drip
from every part of her, not caring if her nose ran stains
against her lips and chin, if the shit leaked through her jeans
and through the couch and through the stench of it all, she couldn’t move,
had to be carried to the bath which ran thick yellow
with the salt and sweat of disease.
I didn’t want to be near her, but the cat did—
the cat, all night, laying her tongue against my cousin’s cheek,
lifting away the sweat and, I swear, the layer of orange.
The cat disappeared a short time thereafter—
we don’t think she’s dead,
simply traveling—she was never ours to begin with.
When I spent my summers in Indiana,
before I lived there, I would sleep in the room
to which the deck was affixed. My cousin and I
would leave a bowl of milk on the deck and,
subsequently, stay awake half the night in wait of the cat,
watching intently that bowl of milk, silently,
so as not to wake my aunt or uncle.
My sixth grade science teacher never made a pass at me,
but I always wished he would—I wished he’d look at my chest,
the unbloomed equal of my female classmates—
with the same longing as when you told me
my Super Man t-shirt was cool, and I told you
I was interested in men.
I waited for you to give me that same, sideways look
I got from Mr. G and all the other boys, but it never came
just like you said you never came that first time
you were with a girl, so I leaned in and kissed you.
You said you felt nothing, but we could still be friends.
That was the year I cut off all my hair and went to school,
my aunt said, looking like a real boy for once,
but knowing nothing of manhood,
so I consigned myself to sit with the women in the kitchen,
learning nothing of womanhood, but reading—always reading,
and I learned that dying is an art I thought I might like to learn.
I couldn’t afford a gun that day at graduation,
when I’d spent so much time finding the right pants
but your girlfriend was there, her chest in full bloom,
and I decided I didn’t want to become a doctor
because I didn’t want to know what kept my chest
from blooming, what kept us always friends.
I’ll sit in my corner still reading, listening
to stories of manhood, trying to find exactly where I land.
*Note: “dying is an art” is a line borrowed from “Lady Lazarus,” by Sylvia Plath
We called our bodies temples in cities already built—
the old man on the bus said Rome has only two subways because,
should you branch out, you will run into a necropolis.
The Colosseum was already in ruin when we saw it—
you called it beautiful then turned to me.
We toured those palaces of stone and echo—
echo the product of so much empty space.
The arches were crumbling, the domes a patchwork quilt—
what was your distinction between art
and between destruction?
When I was younger it terrified me—
the surge of stomach to gut,
the distance of feet from ground.
I learned, nonetheless,
how to pump my feet and gain height,
to avoid sneakers scraping wood chips.
I held the chains like reins
to a horse going nowhere but there
and back again—you know some cultures
have no verb for to swing, just for the path
from point A to point B—
I was always afraid of the jump.
Not the fall, or the possibility of it,
but the letting go, the lifting off—
the sudden stop of motion.
As I grew I learned to love the lift—
not the weightlessness—rather, the shift
of weight to force.
I knew the equation for it, once.
The surge of stomach, I found,
was more a pleasured feeling
pressed into my groin—not orgasm,
though I was not far from it,
but a combination of fear and motion
that was not replicated until
the first time I was between another man’s legs.
He held my flanks
like he was reining a horse,
like his fingers were trying to make
two fleshes one, or at least
find a way inside another.
His grip marks were left on my sides
for a week thereafter—I watched them fade,
like he was picking each finger away by force,
the way my mother once had to pry my hands
from the chains of a swing long after the final sweep.
now breeze, how the leaves on the ground
form a wave and surge—
how they can’t always stay together
and some of them falter,
scrape the ground at your feet,
how you watch them and—
and what do you think of them?
Now think the trees,
think them in fall,
how there are only so many variations
of orange and brown and yellow and red,
and think how you can still never be sure—
how you can never be sure which will fall,
and when—which trees do you want to see dying
Now think your lover,
the different ways you’ve seen him:
The way the blinds dappled light on his skin.
The way his skin puckered the scrapes on his palm.
All the times his skin was hidden, not yours to see.
You will miss the way it smelled.
*Note: The title of this poem comes from “Fray,” by Carl Phillips
is an undergraduate at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, set to graduate with majors in sociology and English, minors in Spanish and women & gender studies, in 2013. After graduation, Neal plans on pursuing graduate degrees in either poetry or social work (eventually both), or working a low-end job to start paying his already-incredible debt. His work can be found in Dark Highlands Anthology and The Spoon River Poetry Review, among a few others. Neal lives in Zionsville, Indiana when not at school, and has never lived near a large body of water.