When my youngest niece sees me in a swimsuit,
she peels various cloth to the side and reads the words I’ve painted on my skin.
Three years ago, when she was falling asleep,
she’d rubbed my arm.
Her small body stiffened with the question when she felt the raised flesh
but she didn’t ask.
Now they ask.
Now they tell me they love me.
My oldest niece still reaches for my hand when we walk on beach sand.
‘What happened to your arm?’ they say.
My mouth falls open.
I try to retch the words out,
try to explain something I’m not sure they’ll understand,
until I settle for silence,
because the language I would use
is a gunshot through their bodies.
How do you tell someone who loves you so much,
who runs across parking lots to jump into your arms
that you hate the person they love?
I packed you up today
after selecting the perfect box.
I took the hat you gave me
the night it was cold,
the chalk from the elementary school
the blue one I stole,
the sticker I peeled from the fridge,
the blankets from my bed.
I carved off the skin on my arms
like the white meat on a Thanksgiving turkey.
I expertly washed you out of my hair
with bleach and chemicals.
And once all of it was
labeled, dated, bubble wrapped in case I get to unpack,
I dug my fingernails into my chest,
And became as empty inside,
as the shoebox I placed you in.
And so you ask me to open
Like a library book
That promises a good story.
You ask me to press my tongue against my lips,
And spread my legs like pages,
Flip, and turn, and move forward.
But when I take too long to get to the point,
The words you choose are annoying,
As though my life story,
Bound between leather holders,
And read by the masses,
Is too long.
Too many words.
Too much in general.
And so you pick me up,
And put me on the shelf,
Without another look.
I collect dust,
Learn to tear out pages,
So that the next person who picks me up,
Won’t get bored.
I learned to breathe in your arms,
pressed against your chest,
your heart setting the tempo.
Two beats in,
Two beats out.
Your skin became a compass
used to navigate life;
A bad day meant palms fused together
like two cars in a collision,
metal and shrapnel so intertwined
paramedics couldn’t tell my car from yours.
A good day meant finger tips on throats
Pressure, patience, and patterned bedsheets that
needed peeled in the morning.
And so it makes sense that when your skin settled into
I was gasping for air.