Over nineteen years spent between
Florida and California and
I simply couldn’t eat them.
The white part was too gross.
Stringy bitter bits of
cotton lining, the hidden
tangy meat underneath.
It’s called the pith,
which is a suiting name,
since it sounds equally as
unappetizing as it tastes.
One flat syllable
that makes the tongue
stick to the top of the
mouth, awkward and
unsure of what to do with
itself after suffering through
such an utterance.
Luckily, your tongue
knew how to fix it,
remedying the situation by
pressing little citrus shocks
against my taste buds,
giving them something else
to want to attach themselves to.
Darkness was on
pith’s side that day,
hiding from my eyes
the unsightly dandruff
the peel left behind.
The pounding in my chest
sped up when I agreed
to take the piece you
offered, my mind already
making my tongue recoil
at the thought of processing
such a horrid flavor.
But I bit down and
the beating stopped.
All I tasted was pulpy juice;
acidic sweetly sticky juice.
No bitter pith, just the same
citrus shocks my tongue
found on yours.
So I ate another piece.
To delve into a sea of blue
And not get wet
But still feel the exhilaration—
Now, that is the magic
To hear the sound of wings
I am a bird, whispering
To the people and trees
That swish by—
I am victim
To the lure of flying;
I am a hobo of the air.
I shower long.
Cascading down sore limbs.
If I could stay here
forever, I would.
Slide along the sleek frame
of the tub, down
into the drain
and hide among
his dark hairs,
the filth of me.
Daddy rubs swollen eyes
“Did you wash well?
Wear your long sleeves,”
as an after thought-
“It is cold out.”
I am dressed
and the kitchen
and he is bent over
cinnamon French toast
and he hands me a plate,
do not meet mine.
I take the plate.
I always take the plate.
While rain pelts against the windshield
they talk about what they’re good at
who they’ve been with
how many times they’ve had to take
the morning after pill.
I don’t speak.
I press my nose to the glass
and I think of a different world.
It’s a world where
when someone says they love you
they mean that they love you
and only you
and they don’t need to kiss someone else
or touch the lace of her bra strap
in the backseat of your car
to get what they need out of this life
like you weren’t enough or something.
And it’s a world where
my dad still sleeps
in the same bed as my mom,
and when the credit card bill comes
they don’t need to pretend
that all those dinners
halfway between Brentwood
and Hacienda Heights
never really happened.
And it’s a world where
you can drive around
with your friends at night
and do the things
that young people do
without fantasizing about
the moment you can return
to your empty apartment
you can eat your mother’s leftover tamales
in the quiet of the kitchen
where no one cares if you’re smiling.
In this world
you don’t have to laugh
at the jokes that aren’t funny
or explain yourself to anyone
or even react to anything
And in this world
what you do matters
because God isn’t so far away
like the priest on Nelson Avenue
tells you he is
he’s right where you’ve been-
at the bottom of Clint’s inflatable pool
by the back alley of the Spearmint Rhino Club
inside the old recovery joint
where your cousin was staying for a little while-
before his best friend blew his head off
with your uncle’s 9mm;
that even the ordinary people
can touch him.
Silent white ash of
sheets and sofas walls
and cows trees
rabbits and baby bottles
on my car
I drive away remembering that
we once thought we had
And now I
My Heart Goes Out at the Sight of You
Mother’s eyes had a vocabulary to them. Like words in foreign languages, certain looks had such precise, definite meanings. What were the words?
Litost. Czech. A state of torment created by the sight of one’s own misery. It’s the look my mother gets after my grandma calls, telling her inevitably to go out and meet nice, new men. “He can’t grow up without a father. It’s been years since he died,” Grandma will say, and then Mother will sit in my dad’s chair, holding a picture of all three of us, him in his dress uniform, and me in his hat, and her eyes don’t shed tears. They are dark, no longer their bright brown color, but seemingly transformed into pure blackness. Her eyelids hang down, giving her the look of something dazed and sedated, and her whole body curls into itself on that massive, yellow velvet chair. She looks empty, but I always knew that everything inside her was hurting with a pain I never quite understood.
Ya’aburnee. Arabic. It means “You bury me” and the look my mother gives me when she thinks this, it’s full of that word in the happiest of senses. I remember it most from when my mother would bathe me as a small child, or from when we would snuggle on the couch during a thunderstorm and the power had gone out. She would run her fingers through my hair, hold me close, and her eyes, they were so thankfully tired. They were lighter than the sun in those times, sparkling with distant hopes, dreams, futures for me that I could not comprehend. If ever there was a picture for gladness, my mother’s eyes, which hid a smile of satisfied morbidity, were the epitome of it.
Dépaysement. French. My mother was not from this country, and this word, which I learned in eighth grade French class, epitomizes her: “the feeling that comes with not being in one’s home country.” My father met her on duty, while he was stationed in the Philippines, her home. Oftentimes, walking throughout the desolate, cold forest hideaway of Oregon where we stayed after he died, with my mother’s mother and my father’s sister and son, she’d take me to the park and we’d stop just a ways before we got to the playground. She would look around at all the trees, searching for something that I couldn’t see. She looked defiant, angered, but lost all the same. Oregon’s fogs always smelled like the sea air, and a part of me knew that was what she was looking for. She was used to the ocean being her backyard. She was used to gulls and sand and sun, and here she was merely taunted with the mixing smells of pine and salt. Her eyes would squint up at the sky, and her mouth would be set in a demanding frown. All of her looked powerful, but from the hand I would hold, I could feel her shaking.
When I left for college, there was nervousness gleaming in the small dusk of shadow between the eyelid and the tear duct. There was pride in her smile, of course, and her fear for me was written all over her body, but that shadow, so distinct amongst all the other planes and valleys of the face—there hid all of her anxieties for herself. That’s why it was small—it was a selfish nervousness, but a valid one. We spent so much time together, she and I—for much of our lives, we only had each other. I bet somewhere, perhaps in the slightest flicker of a nostril flair, that same fear was in me too. “What am I going to do without you?”
Today, I’m leaving officially. I’m moving out of the house and going overseas. I’ve always wanted the Navy. And it wanted me, just like it wanted my Dad. I had graduated. I had trained. And I was off. We’re at the pier now, and she’s here with my aunt and my cousin, Rick, to say goodbye to me before I go offshore. There are hugs, kisses, “proud-of-you’s,” and tears all around. Even big ol’ Rick, always eager to give me a quick punch in the arm or a flick in the ear, is crying between slapping me hard on the back. But today, my mother’s heart is broken—or something more. I cannot place it. She’s proud of me, I can see it in her smile, and in the way she holds her hand to her face. She’s desperately frightened for me, I can see it in how small she’s made herself. She’s hopeful, lonely, nervous, thrilled. But in her eyes, I see a word I’ve never learned and I want to say defeated, dejected, crushed, dissolved, but all of that is not right. There is something so in love there, so happy to give and give and yet is torn apart, tearing at flesh just to give more. It’s hidden behind the cornea, below the pupil, deep in the oceans of hazel colored iris. It’s a longing of sorts, a wish, a gift, a nostalgia. A prayer spoken only in a tearless, wistful sigh. No one loves like this singular, shining, faded gaze, held long as if to memorize every feature of my face, this moment, our lives. A life given for a life. A love all encompassing. A dread of losing a piece of one’s self—a part of who you are. I read it in a book once, Nabokov maybe, “At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause… In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness.”
“Goodbye, Mom,” I say, and there is almost nothing left in my voice. Just a wavering, weak breath of air.
“Good luck, Tony. Be safe.” A kiss. A wave to all my family. I walk away, on deck with a new weight in my chest. Perhaps it had been there all along.
to Gino Coviello
Here is her cigarette tin in the dumpster of your memory
here is the piano in prayer
your children’s ears pressed to the floorboards
here is your honeymoon in old black and white
two years after the Grand Canyon swept her ashes from your fingertips.
and here is the longing. that aching hard-on.
the beating heart
and the pounding headache.
you regret their friendship. Here is the dinner plate
upon which the food gets cold. here is the man
across from nobody.
here is your mind. catch it now like a red balloon
before it floats away.
here are the doctors
you search their faces to find out
how long you’ve been here. here are the needles
the probes the metal on skin.
here is your mind. catch it now like a red balloon
before it floats away.
here is the whisk
the toaster. here is your daughter on the telephone.
here is a photograph. leaning
against an old VW, a woman
next to a man who is also
smoking, leaning and looking at the woman.
She is beautiful
My God, she’s beautiful.
Apparently her feet get tired,
Door to door.
She wore a
Smile and carried
A plastic lunchbox.
“I do birthdays too,”
she told me brightly,
as she bit into
“Want some?” she asks,
holding out some oreos.
“Thanks,” I say.
We walked away
Hand in hand.
Boys Toys, Girls Toys
Boy toys are bulky toys.
They’re articulated, molded,
And somehow targeted,
To boys who were born
To like this stuff.
Girl toys are softer.
You can play tea party,
Brush their long hair,
And give them baths.
And somehow girls are born,
To like this stuff.
When a Girl asked me
Can we play Power Rangers?
I told her no, thank you.
You’re not a boy.
The next day she asked me,
Let’s play with Power Rangers.
My uncle got me one.
I walked into her dollhouse,
Every inch covered in blonde hair.
Plastic boobs all brushing against
The cream carpet.
Barbie’s little sis Kelly
Is on the driving wheel,
Of a pink convertible.
Ken and his Kens,
Who the Girl nicknamed The Kens
Lying one on top of one another.
Barbara Millicent Roberts
The old blonde hag,
Forty at the time
Still has her toothy grin.
Through pink and glitter,
And rhinestones and beads,
I saw her.
A power ranger.
Trini the yellow ranger.
With her removable helmet,
A saber-toothed tiger on her chest,
My uncle got her at the local drugstore.
Naturally, I wanted her.
Dragging my parents to the drugstore,
I told them over and over,
This toy can be for boys and girls.
Mom and dad exchanged nervous smiles,
When I carried the doll in my hand.
The box read Power Rangers for Girls.
And when the lady at the counter saw,
She grabbed my toy and said,
No, no, no
Boys do not play with dolls!
Love of Our Lives
“Are you sure?” Morgan asked, “Maybe we should wait.”
Rona smiled up at her wife, the moonlight transforming both her face and her shimmery white dress into something ethereal. Even her wheelchair appeared somehow otherworldly.
“No, my love. It should be tonight. I’m ready.”
“But with you just out of the hospital… your leg—”
“—is fine. Or at least good enough to visit our son.” She adjusted the picnic basket and the kid’s red Elmo blanket in her lap and reached back to pat Morgan’s hand. “Let’s go,” she whispered. Morgan nodded and pushed Rona slowly up the road next to the grave markers. After a short distance, she turned into the dirt. The wheelchair bumped and squeaked up the hill, and Morgan muttered a quiet sorry each time Rona groaned.
They arrived at the grave and Morgan quickly laid out the blanket, topped with kiddie bowls and spoons, cups, soda, a plate with rolls, and a thermos.
“Help me down so I can tidy it up,” Rona said, still smiling sweetly. Morgan lifted her and put her next to the tiny grave. Rona cleared weeds, brushed away leaves, and wiped off the marker that said “Justin: Love of our Lives/ February 22, 2006 – March 19, 2012.”
“Goodbye my love,” she whispered, kissing the cool marble. The wind whispered through the nearby grove of aspens as if in answer. She turned, scooted the few inches to the edge of the blanket, and nodded at Morgan. She adjusted her skirt to cover the stump of her missing leg, then reached for the thermos. She poured a thick, steaming stew into one of the bowls and handed it to Morgan.
Morgan looked down at the bowl, then searchingly up at Rona. “You seem… so much better. Are you? Your leg… I mean…”
“Dancing,” they said together.
“I won’t be able to dance any more. And you won’t go on and on about how much you love my beautiful legs.”
“I don’t care about that. I love you, not your legs.”
“I know. It’s okay,” Rona said. “This is an ending, but it’s also a new beginning.”
“So… we’re okay? You don’t want to leave me any more?”
“Who said I was leaving you?” Rona asked, leaning toward Morgan.
“I… oh… I —”
“No, it’s okay. You’re right,” she chuckled softly. “I was leaving, but I’m here now. Go ahead and eat. I made it for you.”
Morgan took a bite of the stew. “It’s tasty. Thanks for making it. I know how hard cooking is… now. You really mean it, don’t you? About a new beginning?”
“Who ever loved me more than you? Who would do more than you have?”
Morgan took another bite and nodded. “You’re right, Rona. No one ever loved you more. But I haven’t done that much.”
“’Course you have, Morgan. You did something to the car, right? Isn’t that why the brakes failed? Why we went off the road?”
Morgan stopped chewing, her mouth hanging open, the spoon frozen on its way.
Rona wagged her finger playfully. “I knew it. I knew you’d done something to keep me.” She stared at Morgan, her face flushed with love and adoration. “No one ever wanted to hold and keep and possess me more.” She closed her eyes and lifted her face to the moonlight. “Now that our boy is gone, I’m all yours. All of me. I’m so glad the hospital let me have my leg.”
She reached over and patted her wife’s face.
“Go ahead, Morgan. Finish your stew.”
Always in your presence, a certain patch of brain begins to hurt. But not for long, don’t fret, only when our eyes have met. Catching your eye, which once used to smile with the memory of kisses in the morning and kisses in the night, stalls my heart in the hopes of reaching back to those moments.
Every time, that certain patch of brain, right in the back, towards the top, and a little to the left–it pinches and my lungs squeeze tight. Forget breathing. God knows, if I were to breathe in your presence I would only sigh your name. How it can be that you are only across the room, and I could walk just a few steps, and breathe that blessed sound.
I step, and Madison walks by, raising her inflection in that way people do to show how interested they are or how interesting their conversation will be to you. “Jaime,” she says, “Jaime, you’ve just got to meet Kendra, she is a doctor veterinarian astronaut something that isn’t you.” Kendra is merely a distraction from that certain patch of brain, and I cannot bother with the poor girl.
Lost in the noise of Madison’s falling and rising chatter, my mind wanders to the last words we said to one another. “Maybe.” “No, we can’t.” “Oh.”
Perhaps that “Oh” would live with me forever, for I can still see it tracing your lips, plump and red with your biting at them nervously. Quietly, you walked away, and quietly you left the party, without saying a word to me. Regrettably, I caught your arm before you left, and said, “Hi, sorry to have missed you.” Still, not a word, just an attempted smile. That was all and that was all it could be. Unfortunately, I still see you. Very rarely in person, but always in my dreams, located in that certain patch of brain, etched forever in that space right behind my ear, where I will always hear that plain, ordinary and tragic “Oh.”
What could have been, my love? Xenophobia ruled my heart, and I could not let you behind its borders, but now. You were all I ever wanted, needed, could possibly have hoped for, and that night at the Christmas party was the last night I had hope. Zealously, I’ll dream of you, and always wake up wanting.
A Message to the Cornrowed White Girl
peppa jack n holla back
2 da qurl who think she black
y don’t she just axe me y
i belize her life’s a lie
wit cho, juicy sweatpants
n ur clean cornrows
n them chains u call cheap
u look like a hillbilly flinstone
on da real.
n look at the otha girl
thinkin she a chola
or a chonga
or a chimichanga.
n u got the audacity 2 say
“use american manners”
n “dis aint messico”
n “dis ain’t afrikka”
well im not blaq
but i know how it feels
said natalie portebello
white tears streamin down her face.
“bitches try 2 phase me
but they don’t know my last name
they just think im lazy
but ahm really cray-zee”
white people can rap
the best christmas gifts
technique so unique
n how neat ur aunty taught u.
i guess i get enohado when my neighbors get made fun of
even doe i hate them cuz
man they munch 2 much weed!
white girl i dare u 2
go 2 a black girl
“yo im blaq 2”
tic tac mints n toe nail trips
to da mini mart called Lil Dipz.
fiddy cent chips n ramen noodles
where da white girl at
oh yeah she don’t go here
she realized she got her cozy home
but she took some funny photos n everyone laughed n when she went
back 2 her cozy home
n took off her sharpie makeup
n went back 2 bein white
she just said
hmm what a good day
what a funny day
i was black for a day.
what did u do today?
Amurica I once ate a Gushers candy and I thought my head would turn into a
Amurica that same night there was a marathon of The Iron Giant and after watching it for the fifth time it hit me that we all die and I cried to my mom and she said, “Let me sleep.” Amurica it was only eight at night but my mom had been working since five in the morning.
Amurica her arms hugged a pillow instead of my father who would not be home ‘til midnight.
Amurica I cried that night and looked out my window to see that the moon was half eaten
and I wondered if it would die soon, too.
Amurica I told my mother that I loved her from here to the moon and that night I made it my mission to steal a helium tank to inflate my mom when she gets old.
Amurica I was eight years old.
Amurica I went to school and I stayed in school and yet I feel like the dumb inner city schoolboy whose trying “to make it” in college.
Amurica I had nowhere to go afterschool but home because it’s not safe in da hood. Amurica a gangster once put his hand in my pocket on my way home from school and said “Ey you got gum?”
Amurica I followed D.A.R.E to this day and I thought everyone else would too but I feel like a unicorn.
Amurica my heart still skips a beat when my friends from elementary school who also made the D.A.R.E pact post photos of their drinks or drugs online.
Amurica I’m twenty-one now and I was too scared to buy a drink at Disneyland.
At Disneyland. Amurica when I was twelve I went to a Shakespearean play and pretended to laugh along with all the white folk when Malvolio said, “By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be
her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s.”
Follow your dreams because there’s a difference between working and serving.
Follow the footsteps of your parents am I a babysitter who drives shuttles at night?
Follow the yellow brick road and not the flying monkeys. How unfair!
Amurica if Marilyn Monroe were alive today would we all like her as much or would we consider her “too fat?”
Amurica if an apple a day keeps to doctor away then why are we putting pesticides in them?
Amurica why do I remember SexEd more than I do any other class? All I remember in my English class was that if you didn’t read you could always watch the movie.
Amurica why don’t we just say Amurica instead of America because Amurica feels lighter on my knees.
Sometimes I wonder what the Prez is doing in this very moment.
Sometimes I don’t tip because I’m so poor.
Oftentimes I want to shake the hand of every person I see.
Other times I wonder if we can go one day without a person dying.
Can I just break into song for a moment:
Rica de ah-mor
Oh ha, yeah.
Amurica’s Next Top Model has a dream to be Amurica’s covergirl.
Amurican Idol wants us to vote from our eyes and not our ears.
Amurica’s Got Talent to go on a show to become famous for a night.
It’s as easy as saying ho instead of hoe.
Amurica do you ever stop and think, “Maybe el señorito has a dream, too.”
Amurica do you realize how many Amurican dream poems there are?
I want to go to school and not have a gangster put his hand in my pocket.
I want there to be more books that teach children at an early age that death is natural.
I want everyone to realize that experimentation is healthy and making mistakes is better than learning from the mistakes of others.
Amurica do you holler?
Amurica do you listen?
Amurica do you agree?
Amurica do you remember me?
For Nights When the Moon Is Sleeping
Life is made of gold,
the only way to know if it’s real
is to bite and see if it melts on your tongue.
Life is soft,
we swallow flecks
until it’s gone.
My uncle swallowed all his gold before he turned 40.
When I touched his cheek in the casket,
I could swear his smile got bigger.
I hope we all go with the taste of metal in our mouths.
Once, I met a banjo player on Haight-Ashbury
who called himself Echo.
I believe that right before we die,
we hear the sound he came from.
When I was 14 my best friend and I
cut crosses in our chests.
I didn’t know it then,
but we were just looking for a way
to let our love out of us.
On a good day I still find blood spots on my T-shirts.
They remind me of the children. The ones
that we have the audacity to call aliens,
children who have known no other home than here.
Somebody tell me
who gave Congress the authority to turn a Dream
into an Act they refuse to pass.
The United States has psychiatric hospitals
that the Department of Justice calls “jail.”
In underbelly America,
there are 13 year old soldiers
dressed in street-clothes and bandanas
that we are training to go insane,
too many of them will pass the test.
But if you think this is a protest song
look me straight in the mouth.
I’m just chipping teeth on cement
to expose the gold
no one thought to polish.
Sometimes the most valuable things
We find them in the dark,
swallowing our fears for us.
Be careful not to let them mildew.
Sometimes a tiny flash on a monkey planet
down a gravel road off Milky Way
In spite of my infant cries, it’s enough for me.
If you want to know why I still believe in stars
when I live in a city with a sky made of smog,
ask me if I’ve ever fallen out of love.
Sometimes it takes light-years
to see how brightly people have cherished us.
I can only hope my love makes it through
on the dark nights when the moon has its eye closed.
I wrote this for the day my mother
remembers that her smile is the DNA
that makes us run toward the sun.
I wrote this because there was a girl
who never got asked to prom,
but went anyway in Cinderella slippers
still covered in ash.
She was found well after midnight
dancing with the fireflies.
The clean-up crew the next day kept asking,
“Where did all the flecks of gold come from?”
I’m coming to find
that I don’t really know anything—
how I feel about raspberries
what color the sunrise is in the east
or what makes the birds sing each morning
but neither do you.
You just know about the little things
like sea glass on the shore
and kisses on the neck
and what you wore today.
It’s a funky tie,
I dig it.
Anita Chen grew up in the Bay Area, devouring poetry and mysteries. She was editor of her high-school magazine’s literature column, and her lifelong dream is to build and reside in a library.
Casey Coviello is an emerging Spoken Word artist with two feet in Los Angeles and a heart in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. She loves little more than Leonard Cohen, old photography, photography of old things, and drinking out of coconuts, and can often be found singing off-key and barefoot in the middle of a jam session.
Kimmery Galindo is an undergraduate student studying Creative Writing and Political Science. She plans to teach after graduation in a local Los Angeles high school.
Allie Harrison is a Creative Writing major at USC looking to teach English abroad when she graduates. She is interested in nonprofit work and in bringing Creative Writing to inner cities.
Rica Maestas is a freshman studying Cognitive Science, Narrative Studies, and Communications Design. She is from the Land of Enchantment.
Sara Newman is a freshman Creative Writing major at USC with a passion for the arts. When her head isn’t buried in a book, you can find her exploring LA with her camera, cutting out photos for inspiration boards, and admiring the work of other artists.
Kylie Nicholson is a sophomore Media Arts and Practice major with a passion for photography and images. She photographs nature, concerts, headshots, and more.
A poet, synesthete, world traveler, and Early Music enthusiast, Orli Robin is a second year Creative Writing major with a minor in Judaic Studies. She interns at the USC Shoah Foundation and has recently published a presentation on fiction, social justice, and polyphony at the University of Paris 8’s research institute for political theories.
A junior Creative Writing major from Tampa, Florida, Genevieve Shifke prefers her tea three degrees hotter than just right. Her favorite word is facetious.
Caron Tate, Grandma of Jelani and Zahara, is in her second year of the MPW program at USC. Her one-act play, Power Play, is the First Place winner of the MPW “Writing for Stage and Screen Competition.”
Sarah Tillery is a junior transfer studying Narrative Studies and Animation. If you would like to see more of her work, you can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joey Varela was born, raised, and still lives a block away from USC. He writes a lot about gender and race and once he wrote a poem on his paruresis.
The work represented here is the intellectual property of each individual author and is not subject to replication or use without permission. © Genevieve Shifke 2013. © Anita Chen 2013. © Allie Harrison 2013. © Caron Tate 2013. © Sarah Tillery 2013. © Casey Coviello 2013. © Jose Varela 2013. © Orli Robin 2013. © Kimmery Galindo 2013. © Sara Newman 2013. © Gabriella Maestas 2013. © Kylie Nicholson 2013.