I'm strangling a paintroller clean
when your crooked lips pop into my head.
I spent the afternoon painting my bedroom in pale green,
slashing bright swatch over dull wound over a dark gray
the same hue as those Victorian painted lady blues.
It had to be three tones, three types of the same;
a family by any other name but always subject
to those fanning subtle degrees of abuse.
When we cleaned brushes at the end of the day,
you always told me to use Dawn; I've got Palmolive but,
really, what's the difference?
They both bring up suds, pry out pigment, leave tiny flecks
of latex looped into my armhair.
For a split second, I can feel the old house-phone against my ear,
remember what Casey's voice was like back then,
knowing you were eavesdropping but too in love to care.
I can see smudges of blue on threadbare jeans
just as clear as I can feel Marie's disgust
booming over your silence as you settled into your armchair.
I can also remember the temperature in the college bar where you begged me
over a honeywiess and some potato skins to start taking my medicine again.
Your dying wish, you said; you could die relaxed then, unworried, you said.
I can't remember what came out of my mouth, then,
but I do recall the tears falling out of your head.
I look up in the now, three hundred miles away from that house
and there's light here -- diffused, sun setting, trees in motion with leaves full furl;
but still, to this day, I get an unhappy prickle across my neck
when someone calls me 'girl.'
I haven't cried over you in years, haven't written a poem in months
but two nights ago, you appeared in my sleep:
Marie was at your side, your jaw muscles were jumping in time
and in the full force of that tidy dark space,
I remembered what it was like to feel small.
She's remarried now and I eat at Perkins with my second partner --
I never order potato pancakes and I don't listen to her new husband, either.
In fact, I sold the necklace she plucked off your corpse and didn't feel a thing;
a voice in the back of my head tries to tie that weight in silver to Judas
but you were never a savior to me, so I let it drift away, unfinished.
I've learned how to do that, in the past year: to drop the hornet,
to ignore the distant rumble of echoed belittlement,
to pull my hands from the fire when they're warm
and to walk away when enough becomes enough.
There's been a great settling in the swampland of my heart --
I don't cling to blind hate, normalize neglect or repeated abandonment;
neither do I push myself to read love in the rotten edges of nostalgia falling apart.
You know, Kyle asked me once: "Why do you care he's dead?
He was always an asshole to you anyway."
I'm not mad at him anymore, to tell the truth;
it's easy to speak in ultimatums
when you've always had the same man to hate your whole life.
Whenever you were around and anyone asked,
you said you were my dad; I've always had issues with that,
but, really, what's the difference?
You hugged me when I allowed it, butted heads when I presented,
packed up your flesh and left like all the ones before.
I outlived Sheila this year and, if I have my way, I'll outlive you, too --
you and your tempter and your belly laughter and all those years of fucking blue.
I still remember the glass I threw at you; can still see the blood
sticking to the cracks between your teeth
as you climbed up from the driveway and kept charging me.
I don't know if you'll believe this but Dennis actually yelled
at me for that, for defending myself against you.
But he said it was because you were an old man and he also hinted
that he'd help me break Todd's legs,
so I've come in time to almost consider it even.
You know I made my poetry professor cry once, with a poem I wrote to you?
I haven't spoken to him in years, either,
and I'm miles away from the path I used to pave then.
You never had faith in my art, never encouraged my paper
or my pen or anything I tried to use against the heat
from the bed of coals you two forced me to sleep in.
You wanted me to sing, bullied me into joining choir,
reserved your thin pride for the moments I stood at the front of the church,
an unbeliever tugging at the hem of an uncomfortable dress.
It burns me to admit the child inside wanted you to approve of me;
to admit that if I'd spent few more years in the mine,
I probably would've learned to love those thin tin bars.
It's funny to think I almost killed myself three weeks ago.
In the thick of the storm, all I thought of was holding on, growing up,
spreading out -- I was always becoming more and more a creature of hope
because my misery was measured in years, because the finish line of paper adulthood
came closer and closer each morning I woke up.
Today, I'm a hundred times the cerebral athlete I was then
but the sprint for freedom slipped past as time carried me forward
into a long haul, straight into the longest con;
I lose a lot of nights now trying to figure out
whether I'm the mark or the criminal.
But, really, I guess, what's the difference?
I'm still six feet above cessation, surrounded
by the unconditionally stubborn tribe I always deserved;
and, despite time, despite hate, despite all wounds and wonders,
my brain still refuses to do anything but percolate.
I'm almost done wringing out this ink
when the paintrollers pop back into my head,
bringing with them the non-judgmental truth
that I don't owe anyone anything -- especially the dead.