Best Worst Year: Episode 74 (Or, Spine)

You are flat on your back in a hotel room in Indianapolis–a sharp and instructive pain reminds you that you are your father’s son. No one outruns genetics. The truth is a slow deflation of our tread-bare tires. Your girlfriend buys you a cane so you can stagger around. You write your age in the whites of your knuckles. She ties your shoes for you in the morning. Your back reminds you of your father’s hospital room, the scar running like a dead river to his tailbone.

Your father limps with an invisible weight. Your mother writes the rosary in perfect cursive.

Your parents have read almost every poem you’ve ever written about being mixed race. You spent so long revising an invented history. Your carry doubt low against your waistline. Do you own the right to bring voice to your skin? That blended pigment of pineapple and coal which has come to mark the rings around your eyes–says so much when things get smokey; offers nothing to you when you go quiet and get spineless in an attempt to be invisible. The longer you are in the sun, the darker and deeper the island bakes inside you. You never burn–the skin doesn’t redden, blister, or peel. You only smoulder. You blushed and sunk to match your stomach, sliding down in your seat on the school bus–when they called you a multitude of races–never getting it right.

There was so much confusion tucked into the pages of your marble-skinned composition book. You had taken to tucking it under your shirt–like a line-ruled flak jacket. It protruded from your ever-growing stomach, bows out. You wrote for most of your teenage life and still don’t know where to put all these parts of you fragmented into bad line breaks and exhausted metaphors. Your hometown was known for its hospital and the old iron mill. You understood being born of fire–how raw materials collect and harness something stronger. The forge which housed your anvil chipped away at insecurity late at night. You didn’t realize that molten metal is slowly being poured into your mould until much later. Instead, you wrote away your weekends, quietly constructing a bridge for yourself. You were so scared. You were not even sure you want this skin. In elementary school, you would take the chalk erasers, run them full along your arms–breathed in chalk dust. Just to be a little more white in a town of cream and vanilla faces.

When you came home from college, the first thing you do is look for your old notebooks–dead set on erasing those initial steps. “Leave no trace” was your policy. You made short work of undergraduate literary journals, deleted or destroyed disks and files chock full of lonely language and undelivered Morrissey-drenched poetry. You made short work of those awkward faux-beat-Venus in Furs moments. You wanted to be Lou Reed but listened to The Replacements and Mudhoney way too much to be so confident. Even here, postgraduate, your swagger was more record collection than you’d care to admit. And what about your skin? You had spent so much time being pleather jackets and truck stop raybans, you ignored the other flag that hung in your parent’s basement.

You write so many words and none of them break the way you do when you’re driving.

You still haven’t learned that you carry nothing alone. Invisible hands guide and steady you. You still haven’t learned that you have everything and nothing to say. You are reminded that the pages and grooves empty themselves of poetry and music at your whim. You still haven’t learned to let go of so many anchors. You are as much rust belt as you are the buckling island of faultlines and volcanos. The ache in your back begins to ebb, and you are not sure if it’s getting better or if you’re getting used to it. You hold your girlfriend’s hand and her pale fingers thread the unclenched fist. You relax. You still haven’t learned so much about yourself. You breathe deep, through the back and into the floor, let that lesson escape in a sigh that resembles release.

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and The Minnesota Review. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.


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