Jisan, I keep having this dream: a hornet burrows into my body. In the morning, when I'm awake, there's a bump.
The one on the roof of my mouth is an extra tooth; the one below my ribs is not cancer. In another dream, I clench my jaw until every tooth shatters. When I wake up, I'm always okay. This is my anchor.
I breathe into the space my dream isolates.
I breathe out.
Eventually my mind wanders to another ache.
I know I can return to this place.
I've been trying to respond to your letter for five years, but haven't found the right words. Somehow, it's easier to say what I mean by saying something else. When I think of America now, I think of fear.
Friends born elsewhere say we're friendly—and I do think most of us would hold the door for you, let you merge in traffic—but aren't those gestures trivial, meant to pre-empt more difficult transactions? Veils to hide Schrödinger's Asshole, quickly revealed should you cringe at their Thin Blue Line crucifix bumper sticker?
My favorite joke about white people is any variation that mentions how we can't help but comment on the weather. Probably because there's nothing controversial about heat, cold, rain, humidity. Topics that follow from weather talk, too, are easy: the weekend, trouble our pets cause, how long or short the week has felt, whether we've had too much/too little coffee.
The first thing I remember learning about America, in elementary school, is our nickname: the Melting Pot. Because of all the cultures & creeds that influence and are influenced by us. Somehow though, we're still afraid to acknowledge obvious things like I am white & You are brown. We don't say it with our chests.
And right now, I admit, I'm wondering if I should ever read this poem out loud. Because I'm afraid to say the wrong thing. Echo some daily trauma, request you tend my emotional garden.
If you were here, we'd start with a hug. Our first connection. The thing we built our friendship around. Like:
Jisan & Andrew hug just a beat too long. Maybe I'm projecting onto our colleagues, because here, it's still a little transgressive for two men to touch. Easier to file those men or that action under gay.
I admit, it's still sometimes my knee-jerk reaction. I hope it will be different for my godson. I also admit—I'm desperate to be touched. I am not desperate for sex. I want to touch another human and have it mean nothing more than
let's recharge our batteries or
I think most men have no one but their partner to touch. Imagine asking one human to manage, in addition to herself, the entire physicality of you. It must be an endless labor to love a man. How badly did we need to hold each other back then? What anxieties arose in us, waiting for evening when we could greet each other?
Because that touch is what I remember first about you, I think the muscle memory must live, still, in the curve of our arms, my cheek against your temple, your hand on my shoulder blade.
In your letter, you describe your fear. It's been five years & eight months since the election, and I keep thinking about the undercurrent of panic rousing before you check the news each morning, when you try to guess the hearts of your white coworkers, that insists you carry your passport everywhere, just in case.
I'm afraid too, Jisan. I don't have so much at stake, I know, but I do feel the broth boiling. I look into the eyes of my coworkers for an extra moment, trying to know. I'm afraid of what's ready to burst from the paper-thin hearts of White America, the acid of their fear:
which they call patriotism
which they call love of this great land
(God bless it)
for which they defend our customs & values
In the greatest country on Earth
History & heritage
Keeping America Great
I breathe in. I breathe out. My eyes lose focus.
I breathe in. I breathe out. My jaw
I breathe in. I breathe out.
My shoulders drop.
I breathe in.
I breathe out.
My stomach, hips,
legs, feet relax.
in. I breathe
out. I can take
Jisan, you understand, I think, this country better than most born here. Heard more keenly its promise, seen more clearly its ragged delivery. We've both felt the itch of being inspected. The exhaustion of existing as They among We.
The way they reveal themselves, unrestrained, when they think the local language is their veil, a confessional—the like-mouthed public their confederate priests. I don't know the suspicion—the madness of questioning whether my worry is logical. I don't know the tyrranny of fearing my own home.
What is your anchor, my friend? What recess do you visit for solace? I walk through my city and hold together a suspicion of every stranger with the desire to embrace them. One on one, who wouldn't I adore? Given the right setting—summer night, two drinks deep, the freedom of anonymity—who wouldn't you ordain family?
I want to believe in us. I want to see this mass of us pulled together, building & breaking & beautifying for the joy of it, because we can, because to not would be a forfeit to the fire born of fear that has always balkanized us, always burned our feet from below. The fire filling a crucible we're taught binds us, forges an alloy, all of us stronger.
And aren't you augmented when a man you just met calls you
brother? Doesn't a small star ignite, swell from your belly, expand & enwrap you both?
I want to believe in us, but even our myths foreshadow the monster in power manipulating the plot.
If you take Horatio Alger's propaganda, strip its empty promises, acknowledge the serendipity of a wealthy benefactor showering his bounty, what's left is a myth pulled from antiquity, the story of America—a man cursed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill.
Every year, one coast of our country burns
(I breathe in)
The other drowns
(I breathe out)
Every place between swallows
(Choke on the ash, the flood)
The refuse & runoff of our fear
(I breathe in I breathe out)
A melting pot, yes
(Zoned for sacrifice to capital)
Thrown to the fire, all of us
(Deep breath & hold)
If we have no masks to remove,
(My jaw shatters)
Can't pay for second citizenship
(Breathe in out in out in out)
Proud to be one step from the bottom of a ladder
(Blood pools under my tongue)
That's white. That's what I think of
(Breathe in breathe in breathe breathe breathe)
when I think of America.
- Jisan wrote to me in January 2017, trusting me with his thoughts & fears regarding the rise of Donald Trump & fascism in America. Though I replied with a quick note, it took almost six years to write this poem as a thoughtful response.
- See this explanation of
- Christians for Roman law & order? I wish I were making up the thin blue line crucifix, but satire is dead.
I want to believe in usin the penultimate stanza is a variation on a line from Katie Ford's Foreign Song.
- Horatio Alger left Brewster, MA after allegations surfaced that he had molested boys within the church where he was a pastor. Alger denied nothing, left town, and promised he would never seek another position in the church. Neither the church nor local officials decided to pursue the matter.