A Wrist, A Fork, An Unlicked Stamp
Contemporary physicists claim that most of our universe is made not from what we can see, but from dark energy. This invisible current that may or may not exist permeates everything: car doors, bridges, arteries, bed-sheets, a flower that has yet to blossom. Sometimes I think about dark energy while washing my car or standing in line at the grocery store or reading the label on a can of tuna, wondering if there’s lead inside.
When I was seven, Dad drove me to the grocery store. I asked him, “How can there ever be nothing?” I cupped my hands to demonstrate and held them close to his face. “Most people would say that there’s nothing in my hands but there’s air and dust and skin and salt.” Dad looked over his shoulder to check his blind spot. He answered me, keeping his eyes on the road, “I used to think about that kind of stuff when I was your age,” he told me, “but after a while, it doesn’t bother you anymore.”
At the end of another party, Dad was in the kitchen washing the wine glasses one by one so their stems wouldn’t break. I sat at the top of the steps in my pajamas, too excited to go to sleep. That’s when I heard Dad’s voice: “Okay, here we go. First step.” And then Mom’s: “I’m okay. I got it. I got it.” From where I sat, I couldn’t see them, though could hear two sets of feet climbing the stairway, slowly, and their voices growing louder. When they rounded the turn in the stairs, I saw Dad holding Mom’s elbow the steady way he did with his own mother. Her body swayed from side to side, her eyes fixed to the ground as though she’d lost something important and needed to find it. One step. Then another. And another. “Go to bed, Patrick,” Dad said, and I ran into my room. The padded soles of my pajamas hardly made a sound.
A few minutes later, from my darkened room, I watched the sliver of light from the doorway widen, revealing Dad’s silhouette. He sat at the edge of the bed and looked over my body at the windows that framed a few patches of night. “Your mother has drinking problem,” he told me. I didn’t know what the words meant, but there was something about the low gravel of his voice, something about how he wouldn’t look at my face.
I cried for everything I didn’t understand. “You know, every family has its own idiosyncrasies,” he said. Even now I remember his use of that word—idiosyncrasies—how good it sounded, long and song-like and complicated. To him, it must have seemed more intelligent and palatable than what he really meant: secrets.
That night, I did what I wasn’t supposed to. I walked into my parents’ bedroom, Dad trailing behind me, and to the foot of her bed where she sat upright in her nightgown. “Dad says you have a drinking problem.” I said the words exactly like he had, their cadence already stuck in my mind. “Why did you tell him?” she asked, staring at Dad, her eyes sad then quickly flashing to anger.
And just like that, it was like I wasn’t in the room anymore. Their voices grew louder. I slunk away. It was as though the house had always been soaked in alcohol and all I had to do was light a match.
Dad studied Latin for years in seminary school. He didn’t know a word of Greek, but claimed, at parties, that one day he’d learn.
The word ‘secret’ derives from the Latin secernere, meaning ‘to sift apart’ or ‘to separate.’ Exactly what Dad didn’t want to do. We were a family, a team, he reminded us constantly. He insisted we eat together each night, and would leave one last bite of food at the end of his fork as a signal that the meal hadn’t ended, that nobody could leave the table. ‘Idiosyncrasy,’ however, has Greek roots: idiosunkrasia, or ‘one’s own private temperament.’ After dinner Dad would shut the door to his den and I wouldn’t see him until the next morning. When I looked in, I’d find him leaning over his desk, sometimes staring into space. Often, mid-conversation, his eyes would glaze over. When I asked him what he was thinking about, he’d say the same thing: “business.” I never knew what that meant.
I never meant to tell you about secrets, or about Dad, his fork resting at the edge of his plate. No—I meant to tell you about Michael, the man I love who doesn’t exist but whom I write to anyway: letter-poems that I keep in a box. He’s an effigy, a ghost, a mirror covered in dust. As a child, I believed in leprechauns. The reason I couldn’t see them, I told my parents, was that they knew to hide at the exact moment I looked in their direction. While my back was turned, I could sense them—shredding the edges of clovers, laughing, getting drunk on nectar.
If only you could know
what I’ve done to you
Once, when I had a fever
I watched Sleeping Beauty
out of consciousness
as the prince
the forest of thorns.
I woke in a basement,
………of the TV screen
filling the room,
the royal couple
having long since kissed.
This is exactly what I asked for.
They say time heals
but I do not believe it:
………approaches a thought
the way you once ironed
the collar of my shirt,
navigating each button, so
not to burn a thing.
But then there were the men that did exist, the ones I loved whose secrets I tried to decode; who, when they talked in their sleep, said everything I wanted to hear.
When he told me he didn’t want to sleep with me anymore, the trees seemed to split open. We were lying on our backs in the park, forearms touching, looking up at the leaves. That morning, I’d woken in his bed and lay still while he set the snooze and held me for exactly thirty minutes before leaping from the sheets as though I’d never been in them.
“You mean, ever again?” I asked.
“I mean,” he paused, narrowing his eyes as though he were reading from a far-off teleprompter, “I don’t want to continue the physical part of this relationship.”
Somewhere on the outskirts of the park, an ice cream truck passed, its tone becoming lower and lower as it faded into the distance. There was something I needed to tell him, but it was as though I were holding a glass egg in my mouth. If I bit, it would shatter. We turned onto our stomachs and he pointed at a small hole in the ground.
“What do you think lives in there?” he asked. “Ghosts?”
I could feel my heartbeat amplified in the earth. I kept holding that glass egg in my mouth, tempted to bite, but there he was, smiling right at me.
“Worm-ghosts,” I told him. Together we stared at the pinprick of darkness.
We walked to the reservoir at the other end of the park. Usually, the reservoir provides most of the drinking water for the neighborhood, but earlier that week someone had been caught peeing in it so the city had drained it, leaving an empty cement pit. I’d brought a book with me, Moominvalley in November, a book that he’d told me about weeks ago while we lay on a blanket in his backyard, drinking wine. It was his favorite, he’d said. Though I don’t normally like reading children’s books, I bought it right away, hoping to discover what he saw in it. He asked me to read to him. I sat cross-legged and he rested his head in my lap. I began:
Early one morning in Moominvalley, Snufkin woke up in his tent with the feeling
………………………that autumn had come and that it was time to break camp.
He shifted his head a bit. I read slowly, not wanting our time together to end. He laughed at all the parts I didn’t quite understand. The story continued:
It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth
………………and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety
………………where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own.
Without warning, he sat upright and said he should go, that he was feeling hungry. I waited a bit to see what he might suggest—maybe we’d get tacos or try the new pizza place down the street.
“I’m think I’m gonna go home and eat a peanut butter sandwich,” he told me, then paused. “Alone.”
I watched him bike away. The sun was so low in the sky that it seemed to swallow him whole. I finished the chapter aloud as though he could still hear it:
………………….Snufkin walked faster and faster staring into the forest. Then
………………the door of the last house opened a chink and a very old voice cried:
………………‘Where are you off to?’
‘I don’t know,’ Snufkin replied.
………………….The door shut again and Snufkin entered his forest, with a
………………hundred miles of silence ahead of him.
In the Yucatan Peninsula, there are systems of underground waterways, flooded caves where fresh water meets the sea. The region is now uninhabited, but for the Maya who once lived there, these caves were their only source of water. In parts of these passages, the salt water sinks to the bottom and the fresh water rises to the top, creating the optical illusion of a surface: a layer, that, if you punctured it, would allow you to breathe. But if you tried, your lungs would fill with water and you too would be floating somewhere under the earth, waiting to wash out to sea.
My friend Corinna tells me that the color blue contains the energy of pure love, that I should focus on it whenever I’m feeling lost, rejected, confused. She says that a bright, pale blue is best, like a robin’s egg. When I was seven, I found a robin’s nest in a hanging basket on the front porch of my parents’ house. The mother was away. The eggs were the size of the Easter candies I’d received in a plastic basket the week before. I cracked one open. The half-formed chick fell to the floor and died in minutes.
Blue, in my mind, has always meant desire: the underside of a tongue, the most expensive cheese, whales I’ve never seen in real life. On my left wrist is a scar that obscures the veins. It looks as though I tried to slit my wrist, but that is not true. As a child I fell from a chain link fence and the bone broke through. I remember the blood saturating my white shorts, the balloons tied to the fence, each stoplight on the way to the hospital, the nurse who forced a needle into my good hand. I do not remember the bone.
This morning, before I got out of bed, I checked OkCupid on my phone. I clicked on the face of a man surrounded by red balloons. The image was tinted a bright fire-engine red and I almost mistook his face for one of the balloons. Though he lives hundreds of miles away from me, I read every last word of his profile and paid close attention to the photo of him sprawled out on the deck of a boat, his forearm covering his eyes. I even watched the YouTube video he included: a scene from the 1976 production of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach in which a bus driver, his hands on the wheel, told a story:
Two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the
………………moonlight. There was silence between them. So profound was their love for one
………………another, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence on a park
………………bench with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.
Last night, my friend Ellen texted me. She said she was obsessively listening to the soundtrack of the movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night because a boy she likes, a boy who won’t text her back, told her it’s his favorite album. I know what it’s like to follow another’s obsession, so I watched the movie right away. In one scene, the main character, a vampire whose dance moves I envy, stood face to face with a man she was either going to bite or embrace. She tilted back his head, leaned into his Adam’s apple, narrowed her eyes as if she could see through it, then pressed her ear against his chest and listened to his heart. As I watched them hold one another, I envied them, thinking, just like that.
On the drive home from the new release, Boys Don’t Cry, I noticed the way Dad rested his wrists on the wheel, the way he seemed to lean back a bit as though the car could drive itself. “I just think,” his voice boiled up abruptly, “that the movie was making a mountain out of a molehill. Being gay really isn’t that hard. People are pretty accepting!” I shifted my weight in the cold leather seat, pressed my forehead against the glass. “But Dad,” I paused, unsure how to continue, as though I were attempting to climb a vertical slope of polished marble. “It is that bad. For some people.” In the film, the main character had been harassed, heckled, abused, killed.
We waited at the stoplight next to the cemetery where, he’d once told me, his father was buried: a man I’d never met whose portrait hung above the piano. In it he wore a stiff grey suit with a red pocket square and sat upright as if under strict instructions. His face wore an expression halfway between uncertainty and pride. Sometimes I’d stare at that portrait and try to glean what he wanted, what he might be thinking, as he waited for the painter to finish each stroke. I adjusted the heating vents that didn’t seem to be working.
I could have said it right there: Dad, I’m gay. I hate the soccer games, the locker room jokes, the hard slaps on the back, the way you talk about Bob with a muted disdain because he is that way. But I kept my eyes on the road, counting how many seconds it took for each light to change from red to green.
The cemetery was behind us now. My grandfather was back there somewhere under an 82nd avenue streetlight ironing his white collared shirt, tightening his tie like a noose. Perhaps he was enjoying a cocktail with the dead, his secrets tucked behind that red pocket square.
The car never did heat up, so I finally buttoned my coat. When we got home, Dad asked if I wanted some ice cream. “Sure, why not,” I said. He served us each two scoops, more than I wanted. I ate it slowly, holding each bite in my mouth until it tasted like nothing at all.
A car: a place where you can see the outside world but where that world is inaccessible. From inside a car you can’t smell the Douglas fir trees unless you roll down the window, but that would create too much wind. When you’re driving fast enough, the trees seem to bend a bit, to become one another. A contained space. A space in which you’re strapped, held, in which you could die. But really, you’re going someplace! It could be the beach or a grocery store or a friend’s house. The younger you are, the less you know about where you’re off to.
There was another night in the car with Dad. The streetlights reflected off the wet road. We were passing a church on 39th Avenue, the one with the giant fir trees in front that blocked the view of the entrance. I told Dad that I wanted to go to church more often, that I really wanted to know God. Dad seemed so pleased and started telling me about his own desire for God and the time he’d spent studying to become a priest at the Mt. Angel Seminary school. Did I want his approval or to be a part of the divine?
Our Father. My father.
And all the while, I was still in the passenger seat, the belt pulled tight across my chest, the leather seats still cold, the pistons firing below us, the neon sign from the grocery store across the street flickering in a Morse code I couldn’t quite crack.
In college, I fell in love with a photographer. I liked how slowly he talked, as if he were inventing each word. He seemed uncomfortable in his tall, lanky body, towering above others when he wanted to disappear and observe them. He told me he wasn’t my boyfriend, yet we slept together every night, ate oranges in the car on a long trip to the beach, and placed our hands on one another’s thighs at his friend’s avant-garde production of Hamlet.
I helped him with all his shoots. In one, he airbrushed my naked torso to make it appear as if I had large, rippling muscles and photographed me naked, standing in a bathtub. He was most interested, he explained, in the border where my painted body met my naked one. I stood facing his lens, slightly aroused to my own surprise, wondering if we’d fuck after the shoot. We didn’t.
In another, I held a pink spotlight behind a door, slightly ajar, out of which spilled a half-deflated balloon and some confetti. He told me he was trying to capture the memory of a party, that he wanted the viewer to feel the nostalgia for a party never experienced. I had to hold the light at just the right angle and could barely hear his muffled instructions through the door. Whenever a part of my body appeared in his lens, he told me to move. After he’d captured the shot with just the right amount of light, we unloaded his equipment in his kitchen, and he told me I should go home—he needed to get some sleep.
Years ago, I really did date a man named Michael. Together, we sat on my living room couch and watched an art film, The Conspirators of Pleasure. During a scene in which a man dragged a lint-roller across his naked body, Michael planted his hand in my hair and began to massage my skull. We stepped out onto the porch, and, still holding our lit cigarettes, began to kiss, our teeth touching in a matter-of-fact sort of way. In bed, he pulled my hand over his shoulder and draped it against his chest. His skin wasn’t soft or rough—it was heat itself.
The next morning he pulled the covers just beneath my chin and rubbed my hair one last time before heading to work. From then on, all my calls went straight to his voicemail. I didn’t stop calling, and each time I did, I became more and more accustomed to the sound of my own voice.
When Dad chopped onions, he’d hold two matchsticks between his teeth as a trick to stop the tears. “Anything made of wood should work,” he said. I watched him: one unlit match sticking out of each corner of his mouth, his head down, his eyes dry.
Last night, I chopped an onion but could not find any matchsticks. Instead I wedged a wooden spoon between my teeth and bit hard like a horse preparing to halt. It didn’t work. Within seconds my eyes were filled with tears, and I couldn’t see the knife in my hands.
When Dad had finished, he’d use one of the matches to light the pilot on the stove. Sometimes, the tip would break off, but he didn’t mind—he’d just pull the match from the other corner of his mouth and try again.
Michael often appears to me in dreams. He’s made his cameo disguised as the following objects: a wrist, a fork, an un-licked stamp, a man I dated years ago, a broken rotary phone that only rings when kicked, a large plate of spaghetti, sauce dripping over the edge of a shallow plate, a man I dated weeks ago, a Christmas stocking, a buoy, a spoon crusted in dried soup, a spoon so clean I could look into it and see my face reflected upside down.
Dream analysts claim that everything we dream is a part of ourselves. I am both the spaghetti and the person eating it, the plate and the sauce, the spoon and the tongue that licks it clean, the phone and the foot that kicks it.
Last night, I dreamt I stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was a cliff that I visit often in dreams, one that I remember well and that doesn’t actually exist, like Michael. I am the cliff, the trees jutting from its edges, the ocean beneath it, the distance my body would fall if I jumped. Michael was not in this dream.
Memory relies on emotion.
No other part of the mind does.
Diane Wakoski wrote that in her poem Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands. But I want to change it:
Memory relies on emotion.
No other part of the mind does,
Except for dream
Which relies on memory.
I keep telling myself that tomorrow I will write a poem: tomorrow I will tell how the cum spilled onto my chest like an almost empty glass of milk.
What I didn’t tell Michael was that I’d already seen The Conspirators of Pleasure weeks before, alone, stoned in my bedroom. I nestled close to him during my favorite scene in which a woman picks apart an entire loaf of bread and rolls it into dough balls the size of grapes. As a child I did the same thing, and sometimes flattened these balls into wafers that looked like the ones my parents ate in church. I’d slide these coin-sized discs into my mouth and wait for them to dissolve on my tongue the way I imagined the ones from church did. But my handmade wafers didn’t dissolve. Instead they became slimy and soft and eventually, no matter how much I wanted them to disappear, I had to bite and swallow.
In another scene, a man makes a papier-mâché chicken out of a stack of pornography he’s collected. He adds wings made of umbrellas. The man drives his effigy to the countryside where it comes to life and attempts to fly but can’t. The man dresses himself in his chicken outfit, becomes it, then finally crushes it with a boulder. I can’t remember if Michael and I made it that far in the movie before we started to kiss. If we did, I don’t remember whether he laughed, whether his hand was on my knee as the man slid into the costume, whether his hand was in my hair when the costume flattened under the boulder’s weight.
At the center
of my chest:
the size of a child’s fist.
I want your hand
to enter it,
for your fingers to
until I feel
like the twigs
you stepped on
to reach me.
My friend Katie tells me she has many Michaels in her life, men who exist only in her fantasies. Katie and I call each other sometimes, a support group of two, to wean ourselves off our addiction to the men we invent. Yesterday, Katie asked me for a tarot reading. She wanted to know: when would she finally find love, not an imagined love, but the real thing? I wanted to know the same for myself, and hoped Katie’s cards might provide a clue. The cards she drew were about anything but love: addiction, fantasy, bondage, burden, abandonment, work. A woman in the park asked Katie and me if she could pray for us. We sat on the grass, the tarot spread in front of us beginning to fall apart in the wind, and told her no, we didn’t want her prayers. We wanted men to render prayer useless.
Patrick Dundon lives, writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University where he served as Editor-in-Chief for Salt Hill Journal. His poems have appeared in Hobart, BOAAT, The Collagist, Sixth Finch, The Adroit Journal, Birdfeast, DIAGRAM, Smoking Glue Gun, and elsewhere.