ELISE QUA ELISE
No matter the now of it, in the beginning
there was willingness
and there was a long summer
turning the black paint on the fire escape
to tar sucking at our shoes
in a greedy love, don’t go, don’t go,
and the roofs turned the rare rain
to air again,
and there was no meaning in any of it, just the ordinary
prayers and hands,
just songbirds competing
with traffic noise,
her, standing in my doorway,
explaining how my life
was no longer solely mine,
how sometimes skin and skin and the air through lips
bring us to each other
in one form, then another,
and my quarrel wasn’t with her
but with God
That summer was a drought, the city was parched,
the lake low on the shore and the gardens abandoned
to what could grow without care or love
except for the secret tendings
of illegal sprinklers in the dark hours,
and in that summer the few trees outside
our apartment complex were still
and a blight took them out
and then a chainsaw.
When I said my life, I meant my husband
how she’d wifed him one night
after a party I’d left early.
Despite this new information
history and the greater world
continued, the first plane
hit and the radio announcers jabbered
confusion, a mistake, a freak
accident but then it wasn’t
and we watched the live feed
of one body,
two, darting through the smoke to the ground below.
Later, we would try to cast the memory
from a mold of acceptable rhetoric, from received sources,
from cooler heads, the moment
because the bodies had families
and the bodies had carried in them something
other than body
and if we didn’t name it
we could avoid mistaking it.
In her mouth
took wing, her brandy and champagne
one arm, crested one breast, and we listened to the rattling
call of buildings under threat,
through the colors
of alarm, took our shoes
off and passed through
and let strangers press our underwires
for hidden sharps and nails
to years until the fear felt
familiar and earned.
I divorced. She married.
There were postcards,
then there weren’t, there was talk
of arrest and there was talk
of drugs and then there was no talk.
Across the rooftops the curls of vapor.
Across the smoke the silhouettes falling.
The birds against the mechanical.
The mechanical bird against the flat gray.
So she said it was a mistake, our bodies’
collision, no different
from other accidents, and so I said
it was a mistake, our bodies’
collision, and in other years
there were other accidents,
and we each put a footnote
at the bottom of the history.
The problem with a history is the memory
won’t square, the house leans
to one side with the pressure
of ghosts, and all the rats
breaking the drought
with their rolling bodies.
There was no great love
between us. I’ll never know
if the body she was in held the brighter thing
I looked for,
but I have my doubts.
One summer, another, ended with dark descending
and all through the parks the fireflies
synchronized, though one man giving another man
relief by the empty swingsets hardly noticed,
though a roman candle
spattering in the hands
of a drunk and laughing girl running
lit nothing out of the ordinary
and sputtered out, leaving
only the same stars
in the same patterns as before
among them the red lights
of travelers sleeping
with only slight fear
far above, and her below
the earth somewhere
I’ve never visited, her name
returned to her at last
from the mouths of others
who passed it back and forth,
fraying its edges,
myself among them.
Rebecca Hazelton has been published or is forthcoming in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review and others. She was the Jay C. and Ruth Hall Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Creative Writing Institute, and also received a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center. She teaches creative writing at Beloit College. Her book, Fair Copy, won The Ohio State Press/The Journal Award in Poetry and is forthcoming in fall.