Two Poems

Hell Bent in High School, 1973

I was bent on being straight.
I studied the girls in the girls room
lined up after lunch before a row
of cold silver sinks as they uncapped gold
tubes of frosted lipstick, swiped
left to right across bottom lip
right to left across top, then rolled
both lips inward before releasing
them with a self-satisfied pink pop!
Next each girl as if on cue, leaned
towards the mirror above her sink
but somehow at the same time
backed away to avoid getting her waist
wet while puckering up as if she were
about to kiss her own immaculate reflection.
Sometimes one girl would gently tap
the tip of her right polished pinky
against the southwest corner of her mouth
smoothing an invisible smear which seemed
to be a signal: ladies, put away your lipstick
and whip out your mascara!
Now each girl brandished a wand
in the air, like a miniature baton before
raising it to her eyelashes which grew dark
darker, darkest, while I stood on the fringes
waiting to wash my hands, nails bitten
to the quick, not filed into perfect ovals
like these pearly girly girls
or the mother/daughter duo
in that commercial for Jergens lotion
who giggled at how alike they looked:
hair smoothed into bouncy flips,
dresses with sweetheart necklines
cinched at Scarlet O’Hara waists,
Who was the mom? Who was the teen?
They could be sisters as they rubbed creamy
white cream into their hands and then caressed
their own hairless freckle-free forearms
rubbing the slick grease round and round
in synchronized suggestive gestures
while a velvety voice that belonged to a man
waiting in the wings or perhaps to God boomed,
“Even their hands don’t give them away.”
Oh how my mother longed to give me away
in exchange for a daughter who knew her way
around a makeup bag, a daughter
who wasn’t fat, frizzy-haired, and flat-footed,
a daughter who didn’t talk
back or favor baggy army pants
over skin tight mini-skirts,
a daughter who knew how to flirt,
who gladly skipped seconds, said no
thank you to dessert,
a daughter who wanted nothing
more than a husband and children
and who didn’t dare stare
at the girls in the girls room
so intently that one of them glared
back and asked, “What are you, a lezzie?”
which made all the others shriek
with laughter as they tossed their tools
of the trade back into the unzipped bellies
of their shoulder bags and then marched
back to class single file, leaving me
to my lonesome with all those mirrors
like an un-fun funhouse
reflecting myself back to me,
the only girl in the girls room
hopelessly bent on being straight.



The Reading Of My Life

Whose idea was it to book me for a reading
on the Tuesday night right before Thanksgiving?
Of course a Manhattan monsoon was raging;

when I raised my hand to hail a cab
rain rained down my sleeve,
a frigid river flowing from wrist to elbow

to shoulder. Taxis streamed by, one
after another after another after another
until I turned and trudged up Sixth Avenue

like a toddler stomping through puddles
past discarded inside-out umbrellas
stashed in trash cans, their silver ribs

glowing under glassy streetlights flickering
like dying stars. The bookstore manager
was a wisp of a woman flitting from shelf

to shelf like a trapped moth and had no idea
who I was. When I told her I was The Author
her look of pity summed up everything

and then some. She led me to the sea
of seats she had set up; they sat in front
of a lonely wooden podium with a glass

of water perched precariously on its edge.
As if on cue, Ms. Moth and I both glanced
up at the clock: 7:32. “Do you want to wait

a few minutes?” she asked. I shrugged
off my clammy coat and sank into a seat
in the front row, turning my back

on my non-existent audience and shaking
droplets off my head like a dog
who had just swum across a lake

dragged itself up on shore and dropped
its waterlogged body onto the sand. Eventually
the bookstore manager returned, and again

we gazed up at the moon-faced clock:
7:47. “What do you want to do?” she asked.
What do you think I want to do?

I stopped myself from saying. Instead
I muttered, “I guess I’ll go. Nobody’s
here.” I made a grand gesture with my arm

presenting the rows of empty seats
like they were the greatest accomplishment
of my life. “I’m not nobody!” a voice boomed

from the back of the room. “I shlepped
on the subway all the way from Brooklyn.
You’re going to read.” It was not a question.

It was a command issued by a soggy woman
who collapsed onto a couch in the corner
snatched off a water-soaked woolen hat

she could have wrung like a sponge
and arranged an array of damp
full-to-bursting shopping bags at her feet.

Her scarf was a drenched dishrag
drooping over the arm of the sofa.
Her glasses were fogged over windows

a child had exhaled onto before scribbling
her name. She wiped them on her sleeve,
sat back and stared at me. I rose

to the occasion, opened my book
and gave her the reading of my life.
She laughed in all the right places

and clapped hard when I was done,
her gray fingerless gloves thudding softly
against each other. Then she pushed

herself off the couch with a grunt
and shuffled soundlessly up the aisle,
lightly patting the back of each chair

she passed as if it were the shoulder
of a beloved friend she’d last seen
long ago. She stood before me and shook

my hand saying she was sorry for not
having enough money to buy a book.
I gladly handed over my dog-eared

underlined, cracked-spine reading copy
which she pressed to her chest,
the lollipop green cover I had fought

over with my editor oddly matching
her green unbuttoned button-down sweater.
She asked for my address so she could send

me a thank-you card. Which she did.
I wrote back. She wrote back.
This was 30 years ago when we still

composed handwritten notes, folded
them in half and slid them into envelopes
we licked with our tongues

and sealed with our spit.
I wish I had kept hers.
Here’s what she told me:

Her name was Maua Flowers.
She was a poet.
She was in her late sixties.

She had lupus. Her knobby knuckles
and flat feet ached all the time
and turned blue in the cold.

Six months after I met her
she died. I don’t remember how
I found out. I do remember the way

she carefully tucked my book
into one of her sodden shopping bags
slapped her hat onto her head

wound her scarf round her neck
one, two, three times, buttoned up
her baggy dank sweater, yanked open

the door and turned back around to salute
me like a sailor before stepping out
into the icy embrace of the bone-chilling night.




Image: by Marcin Kargol, licensed under CC 2.0.

Lesléa Newman
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  1. Both of your poems made me chuckle and left a lump in my throat.

    Thank you for the verbal feast.

  2. so beautiful, Leslea . . . so bent on being straight! what a line. The second poem made me want to cry on so many levels . . . nostalgia of written words on letters, emtpy seats at the reading and that woman dying 6 months after you met. the shade of green on her shirt matching the green lolly pop.


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