is really quite
a veil is lifted
with a gasp a girl
revealed to be sawed
in half where once
there was one girl now
there are two, disbelieving
the other. You look like
your mother, fat women
really aren’t my thing,
your father never said.
You’re just not nice
to him; one day you’ll slip
in your own blood and
vindicated, he’ll applaud,
cite his big achievements.
You’re a great city, he has
I thought about writing a personal essay
titled ‘Why I Stayed in a Verbally Abusive
Relationship,’ then decided that was histrionic
and predictable like the title of this poem,
like my petty click-bait feelings, like when I was
fifteen and my father instructed me to grab
the fat on my stomach, told me I’d inherited
the metabolism of my mother, who he admired
for not shaving her legs but was never really
attracted to physically, whose irrationality
was repulsive, really. He didn’t say it exactly
like that, I’m lying of course, imputing to him
what he never said except I know he told me
I was more beautiful when I was two years old
but he’s glad I didn’t grow up to be a Playboy
Bunny because being beautiful is a hard
life. Maybe he didn’t force me to bike-ride
at six in the morning so I wouldn’t be fat, only to better
me, and maybe no one can force anyone to feel fear or
anything else, it’s a choice, really. Maybe he didn’t really
throw me against my bed, maybe he only pushed
me, only rolled the chair forcefully in my direction
instead of throwing. I do like to embroider.
In the strobe-lights of my memory he threatens
me with the handle-end of a butcher knife,
tells me he’s the one bleeding, I’ve cut him.
My grandmother and aunt agree: I am manipulative,
a liar, breaking my father’s heart.
Maybe when a machine sucked tubes of subcutaneous
self-pity from my sides, he meant to say,
I’m sorry, not I’m disappointed
by your vanity, not how can you spend your money this way?
Maybe I should be more generous.
On our first date my verbally abusive
ex-boyfriend told me he’d also been raised
by a single mother, had always related more to women.
Talked about intersectionality as his thumb
stroked my palm. We came at the same time, which seemed
significant. He was a rebound, replacement
for the man I thought I’d marry, maybe that’s why
I deserved his mean. He told me
what I already believed and believed I needed
to hear: that I was a mediocre talent,
bad kisser, socially incompetent,
incoherent in argument, my successes a product
of chance. That thing I did
where I pressed my pelvis back against his when he felt me
up was weird, I was too much
like a boy, hyper-sexual. Later, self-loving friends
would ask why
I was drawn to a fish who ate the feces
of other fish. On vacation, he and I paddled
out to a sandbank ringed by reefs. I was scared to stand
in the sucking aorta of surf, so crouched, cut my hip on coral.
Get up, God damn it, he said, like my father those afternoons
I did arabesques coasting down our downhill street, fell and scraped
my knees, axle-grease spattered shins, I cried maybe-
alligator-tears, but couldn’t be free
until I did it over again, did it
right. What a typical and obvious
parallel to draw. The boyfriend did buy me
cortisone cream to bring down the swelling from microscopic pieces
of sea-creature embedded in my skin. My father, after all,
did love me. Maybe anyone who loves me differently
is only telling a kind lie.
My father liked to read me poems he’d written about women who rejected him. Of a sonnet dedicated to my kindergarten best friend’s mom he said, this is as good as anything Yeats ever wrote. All women born are so perverse no man need boast their love possessing. That line from Triolet by Robert Bridges was his favorite. His fingertips are cigarette butts and the yellowed pages of old books, they spooned me fish oil, regulated my diet, encompassed my ribs. Sometimes he read fun things too: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. He spent hours helping me practice for my voice lessons, teaching me to keep time like a metronome, one and two and three and. There is a mole on his shoulder. The skin of his back soft, clean. There is a crest of thin dark hair on his chest, circling his nipples, burst blood vessel on his rib cage like a bite. I smell the oil of his scalp, see him with spray bottle dividing thin silk strands into a precise part. His breath rattles against my nape still, men wrap their limbs around me and my skin burns, gut turns to bile. There is a rhubarb-colored comforter with a tulip pattern. The pads of his thumbs. I tell myself I’m summoning phantoms, clench my jaw and ignore the shredding in my sternum until I forget to have a body. I can only breathe when big spoon with my lovers though I cum most when made match-box small. My father’s tenderness is more painful to dredge up than his rage.
Phoebe Rusch is a lecturer in the English department at the University of Michigan, where they were a Zell fellow and received Hopwood awards in screenwriting and non-fiction. Their essays also appear on the World Policy Journal blog, The Mighty, Bust magazine and in Luna Luna. They blog at https://phoebecrusch.wordpress.com/