What I knew of you before I got in the car
could float freely on the surface of the scalding coffee
you had placed in my hands:
I knew your eyes were caramelized sugar
and oozing comfort; I knew your skin like mine
was not a true café au lait but something similar;
I knew your lips were full,
plump with the words you held back,
and your best feature;
I knew your cheekbones spoke of a native ancestry
which likely explained the scar that ravaged
the left side of your face; I knew
you were insightful from the worry you radiated
when our hands touched and I flinched.
You were of an average height, our eyes perfectly aligned
when standing toe to toe. I knew you worked hard
at being unintimidating; I knew you were compassionate,
having driven out the twenty-odd miles
on the strength of someone else’s love of me;
And I knew you were strong,
lifting me out of the diner and into the truck
without breaking your stride
when my feet refused the forward step;
I knew that she would know enough
about what had happened though I said nothing
when I stood in that booth and dialed her number;
and that having sent you rather than come herself
I knew she trusted you.
In the dim lighting you cupped my face
and buckled my seatbelt,
murmuring reassurances to calm my tremors.
I knew enough to say nothing until we were away
and you less likely to repay my trust
by leaving me on the side of the road.
The late night DJ played country tunes
that required no translation,
plaintive singing and subdued guitars marking them
as songs of heartbreak. I knew she trusted you
though I could not feel safe trapped in the dark
with a strange man who had touched my face
though he spoke my language.
“Tell me, love, what happened.”
The words gained traction and heft
as they moved from your side of the cab
to mine. I knew they were a plea
but in a man’s mouth they underwent
a hideous transformation.
I felt the force of them like a command,
stiffening joints and muscles testaments to my fear.
Taking your cues from mine
you fell silent. You knew I was a wounded thing
apt to lash out at the nearest warm body.
You knew I would not let you touch me twice.
If I could have wept again I would have done so,
for myself, for what was lost.
You saw the terror in my eyes, and knew to
leave well enough alone.
A daughter of surf and sky invading the land of earth
I stared at the trees keeping ominous watch. I knew
without asking which one was yours. The house was
an oasis of light in the darkening woods, the string lights
blinking the warm welcome the trees had not.
I knew despair then – the crunch of the tires on gravel
one of the many sounds I had been trained to listen for –
because I would never fit myself seamlessly into a place
where the forest brooded so loudly.
She left me no more room for such gloomy thoughts,
for fairly flying down the path, she grabbed me
in a running bear hug that tasted like my tears.
I did not know I had gotten out of the truck to greet her.
“Soraya,” she said – an incantation.
I knew that in it was
an abundance of love and grief,
for leaving me behind.
“My baby,” she wept,
this glamorous creature that
lived in the mountains but came from the sea,
this apparition that had once scrabbled and scraped
alongside me in river shantytowns
at the world’s end.
Then meaningless words
spilled from her mouth onto my scalp,
furiously fast in that horrible guttural tongue
the language of our oppressors,
the language of my father,
the one I never spoke.
“Patricia, slow down, she doesn’t understand,”
and I jumped in her arms. You were wrong.
I had forgotten your presence
but your harsh voice cut through my euphoria,
no matter that you made it soft.
Your presence was no longer reassuring;
I remembered instead the sly glances my way
when you thought I was asleep.
I hoped for her sake that this trust was not misplaced,
fingering the pocket where the knife
that bought my freedom was sheathed. Already blooded,
it would protect us both from anyone if I asked it to.
Afraid though I was, I was angry more,
now that the immediate burden
of running to safety was gone.
I made to move but she held on tighter
as if fearing that her touch
was the only thing
that could keep me grounded.
Over her shoulder
you watched us carefully,
caramel eyes alight with an emotion
too soft for a man’s face; on you it seemed
natural, even sincere.
But I could not trust in your goodness,
nor anyone’s, ever again. I disentangled myself
from her suffocating embrace,
her guilt washing over me like the tides of dirty water
I had played in as a child.
She asked me again what had happened,
her syllables hard and awkward in our native tongue.
I knew then that here, in this land of evil forests,
she spoke only in English,
except maybe at home, at night, with you,
and my hopes dimmed a little more.
I shook my head and refused to answer,
seeing no advantage in rehashing a familiar story
to one who knew better – was that not why she had run?
She asked another question, and yet another,
her frustration with my muteness lending
an edge of hysteria to her voice.
“But how did you get here?”
Now that the shock had faded I could see the conflict
that raged within her: I was something
she had once loved and lost.
In turning up again I had ruined
all of her carefully laid plans to reinvent herself
in this harsh land she had fled to.
“Let’s get her inside, Patricia, it’s cold out here,”
you said, having noticed the fine tremors
rocking my body and deliberately misattributing them
to the weather
as to not irritate her further.
With that act of kindness you rose
another notch in my estimation,
your essential recognition of my mother’s frailty
almost softening me towards you. If I were another,
I might unburden myself to you,
taking a chance on the compassion,
ignoring the sly glances as products of
my youth and your gender.
I do not have the luxury
to indulge in such foolishness. I have trusted you
more than I should, given the circumstances.
She gave me one last look, her eyes overflowing
with pointless tears that begged for a forgiveness
I could not grant, and turned away,
guilt and resentment making it impossible
for her to sustain my gaze.
I was not the daughter she wanted me to be;
the disappointment has always been mutual.
You extended out a hand, a chivalrous gesture
designed to negate her rudeness, a kindness.
I do not have that much trust in me.
I pointedly ignored it, and with a sigh,
you followed her down the driveway. I stayed where I was,
undecided, reaching into my other pocket
for the crumpled piece of scrap paper
that represented another, riskier scenario.
I would take it, make no mistake,
if I had to; I did not crawl my way out of a cage
to be pushed into another one.
Knowing I had an out made it easier to walk
through the gloomy trees into the house.
I knew she loved me,
that she loved you, that she would inevitably
fail us both.