by Priscilla Atkins
“The Captivating Life of My Ten-Years-Older First-Boyfriend’s Ex-Wife”
I am nineteen and want to be the one who snapped
the little 3×3’s of “our” newly-wed life in Ramstein,
Germany. The husband is enlisted and she’s a six-month
business school grad. (There’s a lot to be said for a
smart typist.) I want to have slept with him in the cute
honeymoon suite in Switzerland: “Our tiny bed.”
I want to be inside her script. A picnic table set for four:
“Steaks on the grill—our first entertaining!” I want
all of it. Especially the long dark hair and spray
of pale yellow flowers pinned above the ear. Even the angry
good-by note (that I “stumbled on” while he was off
at his bartending job): “You and your god DAM nude
beaches. Your drinking . . . always sneaking away
on your motorcycle. I wanted a husband and children
who love me. Not a man who’s never home.” I’m nineteen
and wish the rolled up parchment, the tube from the Vatican,
was addressed to me; to be on the verge of a brand-new, Pope-
approved life with the police officer who lives downstairs
(to have typed his academy papers). I want dark hair, and pale
orchids. To be Catholic. To be worshipped. To be the face
on a 3×3 tucked in someone’s wallet long after I’m gone.
“Is This What You Want?”
My brave, long-haired sister misplaced the hidden house
key—out in the dangerous world, or under a pile in her room—
gone. No one notices until late one night, I am dropped off from babysitting
and discover after the car is gone, I have no way in.
When our parents return from whichever party of scientists and their spouses
and, soon after, my sister, my father loses
it; bawls her out, dark-knifed swipes of furious. He’s scary and bald. Right there
on the living room carpet, she gets down on her knees, facing
him, voice shaking,
“Here, is this what you want?” (Me,
I want—always—to disappear.) The house prickles. Chaos surging underneath
After that, given my own personal key that I keep in a soft round purse,
two figures embroidered on the face, some nights I creep out of bed,
tiptoe to the closet, riffle all of the pockets
until my small hand comes up against the zipper’s rough blue pulse.
Bent, watery. I passed through your harrowed hollow
with my first-ever boyfriend
on a twenty-four-hour Miami-to-Massachusetts “forced march”
in his big-deal Buick.
The butt-head liked non-stop, liked to prove he’s every-inch-
the-man his alcoholic father was.
Leaving Florida at noon, eventually
rolling into the ash-can gloom of the shroudiest edge
of pre-dawn Eastern Pennsylvania
I still know the sour-sorry taste of ghostly searchlights,
cars driven by blank, commuter-ghosts. From coal mines
to cubicles, we’re all robotic goats. Swallow anything. Cubed
days passing through us in a thousand ways.
I had never gone so long without sleep.
Swore I would never stray so far from center,
a life of 10-to-7 in-bed-quiet forever. But there I was, and here, I am,
thirty years hence, reading Celan’s biography. See how it’s done:
you walk straight out of innocence and don’t realize
the fractured universe includes you;
glass shatter, grinding, bearing up. Stop
and turn quickly so reflections don’t catch.
Then back on board, everyone’s midnight-blinded, together, hoofing it to France.
About the author
Raised surrounded by cornfields, Priscilla Atkins gravitated to Los Angeles, and then Hawaii. Eventually, she leapt back to the Midwest – Indiana, and now Michigan. Her poems have appeared in Shenandoah, The Los Angeles Review, Poetry London and other journals and anthologies. She teaches women’s and gender studies and a first-year-seminar on comedy at a small college in Michigan.