Early morning: someone putting a kettle on the stove,
cracking an egg on the skillet’s rim; lid of the trash
can opening and falling back on itself to receive the cast-
off shell. Somewhere in the house, steam rising around
a body standing under the warm spray. Yesterday, we sat
around the table to eat and give thanks, slipping
sticks of cinnamon and woody stars of anise into the wine.
This time of year, past a certain hour, the world
darkens rapidly, enclosing each flame-like tongue lightly
tethered to the branch. Any day now, all of them will lie
in heaps, carpeting the ground. Russet and brass, lichen’s
bitter yellow: they are most achingly beautiful before they go.
Even the sleek white egret that stood still at the water’s edge
for hours unlocks its one folded leg; stretches, then flies away.
A sliver of soap, a whole spoonful of chocolate. Time
to do nothing but sink into the oblivion of the ordinary,
read books, sleep until noon. When will such voluptuousness
be within reach, instead of seeming almost obscene? Once,
a catalog arrived in the mail addressed to the previous
tenant— I gaped at the glossy pictures: mounds of pearl-
escent caviar from the Caspian sea, ink-dark and salty; one
tiny kilogram the cost of 3 months’ mortgage, which
the caption warned should on no account be scooped up
with metal spoons, only crystal or bone. My luxuries
are smaller and monastic: the welcome blank between
chores, the silence of a cold yard punctuated by the pass
of a rake through fallen leaves; steam from a kettle,
hands grateful for the warmth steeping in a bowl.
Today is four parts mulch, one part roots negotiating
with one part water. Or: too much earth, too much
gravity, too many regrets packed away in jars or pickling
in the cellar. I’ve envied air plants in their miniature
clay pots, suspended by slender cords of leather. They lean
so slightly on close to nothing. They even thrive. Did I
ever feel like them, seemingly unperturbed by the imminence
of early passing? The blue half life bright and moldering
away in its dish; carnival masks pleating into their base
of sequins and glue. I think I will miss me too when I
am gone. Let’s open the tins of escargot someone left
in the back of the pantry, and eat them with buttered toast.
So many things others call trivial can give such glorious
pleasure: a sliver of soap; a whole spoonful of chocolate.
How to live in time, how to have it acknowledge the gold-
brown body you press into its hull? Consult a rune, fortunes
slipped into a shell— You will need to make an important
decision this year; or Change is soon coming. But when
is the future’s bony finger not scratching at the window,
or bending back the stalks of wheat as if to make a path
for the unseen’s passing? It’s hard not to grieve for all
the slow sifting above. But rising at dawn, I marvel
at the sky’s coloring: saffron of a mango’s cheek, velvety
peach. Fruit out of season. Or a dry tremor of wings
unhinging in the canopy. Sometimes the moon remains visible,
blade of dented silver poking through the branches. Tiny
forms affix themselves to the substrate where the sea
rises through a network of roots, no longer negotiating.
Insinuation of impostor against their bonafides.
Insinuation of time as imponderable longing for salt
and rice and fish, and many other things I can’t dream,
and so can’t name. The idea of gods always wanting
a taste: first or last. In tide pools, every octopus
is related to the squid. I could live as well in rocks
and caves. Wherever I find myself, I learn to become
my own infinite ecosystem. When they call me dog, I bare
my fangs. I nose at the sky, where I am the brightest star.
When I am stripped from the stalk before I’ve even had
a chance to flower, like buds of the Flinders rose I
allow to be embalmed in brine. Always, it comes down
to the question of how to live in time, how to have it
acknowledge the gold-brown body you press into its hull.
They look at me like someone tamed out of the wilderness:
burned out of foreign villages made from thatch, unbathed
and stuttering amid the ruins. How did I come to learn
their geometry, take their measure, provide blueprints
for their progeny’s future? A friend once advised, as we
tended the copy machine: work quietly at your perfection,
for they resent being shown up. That was decades ago;
now, she’s both physician and COO. Even so, the self-
important person gasping for breath in the ER insists
that he be seen by “a real doctor.” In classrooms where I
have stood under fluorescent lights, marker in hand before
the whiteboard, I’m the one who points out: woman, not
a women; could have, not could of; in spite, not despite,
of. Insinuation of impostor against their bonafides.
Are we the kind of people you think we are: law-abiding,
peace-loving, generally not rocking the boat, wanting the same
kinds of opportunities afforded others, speaking such perfect
English learned on the way here— Aren’t we more than lumpia-
and-pancit-eating, more than karaoke-mic-wielding, more
than are-you-a-nurse or are-you-a-doctor, are-you-a-mail-order-
bride or the wife of the Oklahoma bomber; more than the crazy
boxer or the woman with three thousand pairs of shoes; more than
the madman’s boast of how he can rape and kill or cause to be killed
outside of the law; more than the Italian designer’s killer, more
than the maids in Hong Kong who sleep on a makeshift pallet
wedged between refrigerator and stove— Aren’t we the islands
you ceded then annexed after a staged war; that you ordered
turned into a howling wilderness, tamed, then plundered?
From curiosity, from unwarranted discipline,
or pressing need— I’ve learned that I too have
the right to speak and ask; and more, expect. That this,
too, is my due. Our second landlord came to check on
“the facilities,” moving from room to room, talking about
the previous tenant, a lady (white) who lived alone but was
“extremely fastidious” about cleanliness. I looked straight
at him but did not then know how to retort, did not say,
Why did we have to scour a quarter inch of dust and oily
residue from the top of the fridge and behind each radiator
if the previous tenant was really all he made her out to be?
When our rent check was late because of a postal holiday, he
sent someone to tape a warning on our door: as though we’d
broken the law, just by being “the kind of people” we were.
Without interruption on the surface, our biases work
like invisible engines driving what we do. When you
visited for the first time, alighting from the plane,
you smiled then whispered nervously: I hear there are
many blacks here? Having grown up where we did, far east
in a country that used to be a colony of the one where I
now make my home, I understood this wasn’t something
seeded from cruelty, but rather from an idea we were taught
before we even learned to think: how beauty was everything
white and blond, everything unlike our brown selves
parroting See Jane run! and Look, Dick, look!— their picket
fence and buttoned cardigans alien and fascinating as the two
yellow braids Jennifer Moser wore in grade school. I touched
them out of curiosity: for which I was promptly disciplined.
I watched you but never learned to sew facing
and interfacing, while understanding how two
pieces cut from the same fabric could still pull
away from each other, though forcibly joined
at the seam— Just like how you were aways careful
to match the colors of every outfit, finish with scent
and lipstick and jewelry; while I chafed at mohair
twin sets and pantyhose. I’m past your age when you
decided on the dresses of my wedding entourage: yards
of lace and chiffon, pearls. Now I grow increasingly
comfortable wearing jeans to work, though I’ll top them
with a clean-lined jacket, a sweater in fine wool.
Something to do with warp and weft, how to make two
biases work, without visibly interrupting the surface.