Ghosts in the water

CW: Sexual assault, trauma

I’ve been working on this a while. Poetry doesn’t come as easily to me at 47 as it did at 17. It requires down time and time to think, things I have almost none of these days.

I’m working on that, too.


The other morning, I told my 9-year-old I was raped.
I hadn’t meant to; it slipped out
as I was explaining why the dirty dishes upset me.
It’s not the messy counter, I said,
but that his trailer was alive with roaches.
They meandered along the walls and the ceiling
while he ripped away the last of my innocence.
I remember clearly watching one crawling directly above us,
hoping it didn’t drop as I was trapped beneath him,
because that small weight just might break me.

He refused to wash dishes, I told her.
Every flat surface was covered in used plates, cups,
forks and knives, sticky with ketchup smears
and soda residue. He would use the same cup for a week,
then rinse it out and use it for one more.
The dishwasher was broken,
so I would fill the sink with scalding, sudsy water
and gummy, crusty, reeking dishes,
in hopes that he would rinse them off later.

Days later, in defeat, I would pull on rubber gloves,
plunge my hands into the icy, slimy water,
fish out the dishes, and scrub them clean.
At the bottom of the sink
were handfuls of drowned roaches.
Decades have passed, I told her, but the smell of dirty dishes,
the feel of cold dishwater against my gloved hands,
brings feelings long since buried swirling to the surface,
like those soggy roach corpses in the sink.

A few days after our talk, a book appeared on my office chair.
Folded between its pages was a drawing:
“The man who raped my mom”
(I refused to speak his name)
bleeding profusely from the head,
while my fiercely loving baby girl
glared at him with red-rage eyes.

I haven’t mentioned it to her.
I don’t really know what to say.
I don’t need vengeance; not after all these years.
I don’t need you to hate him.
I don’t, not anymore.
Rage burns at both ends.

I just need you to do the dishes.

Kai’s lullaby

Kai does not always like to be sung to sleep. For the days when he’s not in the mood for music but needs a little help drifting off, I tell him the story of his newborn days as we rock and nurse. The words vary, obviously. But this is the gist of it.

Do you remember?
When you were just born,
you and I nestled close,
gazing into each other’s eyes
as you nursed.

Our world was small.
All dim light and quiet halls
and soft music and Daddy snores.
I stroked your hair with my fingertips,
the softest hair I’ve ever felt.

When your belly was full,
your cheek resting on my breast,
you would sigh, and smile, and dream.
You were so sleepy still,
and unaware of how much you didn’t know.

I told you that you were safe
and that you were warm,
and that you were fed,
and that you were very, very loved.
For such a small baby, that is everything.

You are a big boy now.
Each day you dance, and sing, and draw, and learn
outside of my arms.
When you are tired, you return
to sleep safe, warm, fed, and loved.

Do you remember?
I do. I always will.
You’ll always have a place in my arms.
Relax. Sleep. Dream sweet dreams.
Mama loves you.


On womanhood

I am rusty — REALLY rusty — at poetry writing. But this one came to me nearly fully formed while I was in the shower one evening, and I dashed out to jot it down. I’ve tweaked it a little, but it’s pretty much as I first wrote it. Feel free to skip if poems aren’t your thing.

I shudder to think how close Anya is to all this. I am not ready.


I am ready for menopause, because
I have been at war with myself since I was 11.
I tried to conceal my new breasts behind oversized t-shirts,
and my new pimples behind makeup,
and my new insecurity behind sarcasm and disdain.


I remember the day I,
still more child than woman,
looked down at my short-clad thighs on the rubber swing seat,
how they melted together into one big blob,
and I felt shame.

I remember dabbing Clearasil on chickenpox blisters
for half an hour
before I realized they weren’t pimples,
and the relief I felt
when I realized it was an illness and not acne.

I remember the shame I felt
in the girls’ locker room
because I wasn’t wearing the same underwear they were,
and again when I was wearing the same underwear
though I lacked the flesh to fill it out.


I remember the day I apologized to a boy
for the bulge along the insides of my knees
when I drew them to my chest,
and I remember his bewilderment
that I had apologized for a part of me.

I remember apologizing to a different boy
because my breasts weren’t growing
as quickly as other girls’.
and apologizing to a passing stranger
for my too-thin thighs, which had somehow offended him.

When I was thirteen,
and seventeen,
and twenty-six,
and thirty-eight,
I apologized for the shape of the space I take up.


When I was 11, I began to have cramps, but no period came.
All my friends had their periods,
but I just had the pain.
We all wondered what was wrong with me,
though I was secretly pleased, just this once, to be different.

My periods eventually came, of course.
Then I was ashamed of being incapacitated by them,
because I thought other girls suffered as I did,
but worried only about white jeans and swimming,
while I couldn’t sit up without crying.

It was a decade later
before I learned they didn’t —
that there was something wrong with me.
A decade after that,
people still didn’t believe me.


I was painted in shame when I was almost raped,
and actually raped,
with touch-up coats for
every boy I let touch me after that,
because there was nothing left to save for marriage.

The paint became watery and murky
after my divorce,
because I thought by then I’d earned the right
to do with my body what I pleased.
But I was wrong, of course.

I struggled to get pregnant,
and then struggled to stay pregnant,
and they didn’t believe that, either.
Some tried to paint me with the shame brush again,
but the pot was long dry.


Girls (and women) have looked me up and down,
then in a single breath declared
they wished they, too, were thin,
but not so thin as me,
so I would know that neither of us measured up.

I grew up breathing in dissection
and exhaling scrutiny.
I can still tell you the exact measurements of each of my parts,
and what I wish they were.
I find myself wishing for the body I used to hate.

I don’t care anymore what people think of my body
or what I do with it.
I am only trying to make my own peace with it.
These days self-acceptance is the new 36C,
and I still don’t measure up.


Since I was 11, I have been at war with myself
because for thirty-two years
I have been found wanting, and wrong,
and I’m ready to trade my youth and fertility
for the chance to just be me again.