underwater | poem

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emerald isle

i wrote this poem last year in my english class, for an assignment about describing the culture of a specific area at the time of an important historical event. i chose chicago, 1919, during the race riots. it’s very different from the poetry that i usually write; those are typically about my own experiences, while this one is based on research & the life of eugene williams. even though it was a little bit out of my comfort zone, i enjoyed working on this because i think experimenting with different kinds of prose helps me grow as a writer.

so with the backstory out of the way, here’s the poem!


my mama said she feels like her head is being held underwater.
she’d just lost her job preparing italian beef sandwiches in a diner downtown.
the day she was fired, my mama slumped over the kitchen table
with a cloth dripping cold water pressed against her flushed cheek,
which sported a shameful red handprint.
a white customer had spotted her dark, plastic-gloved hands in the kitchen,
slicing rolls, tucking in meat, folding sandwiches shut.
she told me that the white woman who had pitched a fit
had been sipping a milkshake through plum-painted lips.
that pursed pout spoke venomous words into the ear of mama’s boss,
who told mama that white folks felt the hair stand up on the back of their necks
whenever people like us were in their spaces.
he kicked her out of the shop with a slap to the face,
telling her to search for a job in the black part of chicago.

wise men believe that nothing is black and white.
there is only gray, an area where both sides can be right.
the gray tells us that mama deserved to keep her job because she’s a hard worker,
but it also says that the white woman’s discomfort was valid.
in my mind, the world is divided into black and white.
white cops, white stockyards, white neighborhoods.
black prisoners, black schools, black slums.

my mama shooed me out of the house one day in july.
she was looking for a new job sewing glitzy flapper dresses in a sweltering factory.
my friend eugene and i spent the afternoon together,
cooling off in the cerulean water of lake michigan.
we buried our callused feet in the warm sand of the beach.
eugene and i joined some sweet girls from the ghetto, splashing in the water on the make.
summer was perfect that day, in the heat with our new dolls, not a care in the world.
i figured my mama had gotten the job and everything would be back to normal.
when the sun was hanging low in the sky, eugene and i
kissed our girls on the cheek and set off to our black neighborhood.

we took a shortcut through the beach on 29th street, wading through the surf.
the people lounging on the sand were made paler
by the zinc oxide streaked on their bare, outstretched limbs.
eugene and i trudged along the shore, our feet covered by gentle waves.
he hummed the song i’m forever blowing bubbles to himself.
a white man yelled at us in a throaty voice that rattled through my skull like thunder.
dark dots showered down from the sky — gnats? polluted rain?
they struck my naked chest, shaking arms, horrified face.
dull pain rose up in my skin wherever they hit.
stones sailed from the heavens and pelted eugene and i as we began to run.
howling white boys raced along beside us, pebbles flying from their hands.
“get out,” they hollered, “this is our beach!”

i saw the shadow before it happened: dark and eager, searching for its target;
a lion chasing its prey across the savanna.
the rock, as big as my fist, smashed into the back of eugene’s head.
he stumbled, his feet slipping in the shifting sand.
then he pitched over and landed facedown in the surf with a thud that stopped my heart.
the splash from his fall sprayed the back of my legs as i fled.
over my shoulder, i urged eugene to pick himself up and get the hell out of there.
eugene stayed in the water, still as a statue, letting the waves lap up over him.
the hunting white boys halted their pursuit to gather around his quiet body,
crowing and and circling like buzzards.
“he’ll drown,” i screamed at them, scratchily,
as though i was speaking through a mouthful of sand.
they hurled stones and slurs whenever i tried to get close.
eventually, my wailing drew the attention of a scowling white cop.
the hunters scattered; the man whose voice shook the earth approached.
calmly, as though the world was not collapsing in on itself,
he explained how two “suspicious-looking boys” had violated the segregation of the beaches.
“the bigger, more criminal one,” he told the officer, while gesturing at eugene’s limp form,
“fainted in the water for unknown reasons.”
i crouched in the lake beside my best friend, praying for him to lift his head.
salty tears rolled off my chin and puddled in the dip of his back.
anger seethed under my skin, burning and all-consuming.

if there is only gray, the policeman would have arrested the white boys
for murdering eugene as he strolled innocently along a beach.
if there is only gray, someone would have listened when i accused the thunderous man
of shouting at us and setting the crime into motion.
those girls from the ghetto, who kissed eugene and me in the lake,
had watched us go, their expressions dizzy and light, then shocked and drained.
they saw the commotion and the rocks in the air.
if there is only gray, folks would have believed those honey-voiced girls
when they took our side and called the white killers sick.

when i got home, mama was at the scuffed kitchen table again.
she must’ve gotten the job: a new striped dress hung on the nail in the wall.
worn and faded, it was the uniform workers wore in the clothing factory.
with her tired mouth, she asked how my day had been, and how was eugene?
“mama,” i told her, “eugene feels like his head is being held underwater, too.”

xo apollo

letter from last summer | pt. two

| the cast |

jordan: eccentric handicraft director; the kindest, most helpful person at camp; doesn’t believe that birds are real.

kaitlyn: assistant trailblazers director; struggling with being in love with the wrong person; my camp mom for the past two years.

michael: handicraft instructor; wears a cowboy hat; has the exact same laugh as me.

mary: health officer; looks just like me; always has popsicles hidden in her freezer.

you: CIT; has the loveliest brown eyes; awful at goodbyes.

 

week four

i came home from the fourth week of camp & wrote in my journal, i knew this week would be the worst & it absolutely has been.

the thing about camp is that when one person gets sick, the whole staff has it by the end of the week. & when one bad thing happens, it is sure to be followed by something else tragic & infinitely worse.

the first bad thing: jordan got bronchitis & had to go to the hospital. the second bad thing: as assistant director, i was put in charge of handicraft while he was gone. i had to go to meetings & deal with fuming scout masters who wouldn’t listen to me because i am a girl & 5’2″, & then there was that incident with the applesauce. the third bad thing: the other staffers kept asking if you were coming back, & kaitlyn pointed out a young scout that looked just like you. after that, i wore the red bolo you gave me every evening for the rest of the summer. it was my one reminder of you that didn’t hurt.

the really tragic, infinitely worse thing: i got sick in the middle of the week & the awful thing happened while the health officer was checking on me in my cabin. i was in a sports bra, hair stuck to my skin from the fever, with mary kneeling beside my bunk. someone else needed her right then & it was my fault that she couldn’t be there to stop it. it’s been five months already, but sometimes the guilt still knocks me over like a sucker punch.

they told us that it was sensitive information, that no one else needed to know about it. i still haven’t told my mother. but there was an ambulance that everyone thought was for me. there was a sweet little boy who didn’t understand what he’d seen. when i cried about it later, it was because of that boy. there’s this pit in my stomach when i think about him growing up & realizing what he had witnessed.

i was here with you & i was happy

week five

i came home from the fifth week of camp & wrote, i am so very confused.

because that’s what the week was all about, right? being confused. rumors & conversations with hidden meanings & little hearts doodled on bare legs.

the teal car parked in front of the health lodge. lighters left as gifts. engraved tomahawks. a sword tattoo. nine years apart. these were things i paid attention to in the middle of july when i was lonely.

he said, you’re trouble, but just for me. he said, you look like an angel on the outside, but you’re definitely not on the inside. he said, i think you’re going to get me fired.

we went on walks together at night, wandering through the bike trails without a flashlight. he called me angel.

that week was the one year anniversary of the worst day of my life. i’d been dreading it all summer, & even though i knew it was coming, i still cried at the campfire. i put my head between my knees & sobbed in front of everyone, because oh god, when is it going to stop hurting? when will i stop remembering how it felt when the world ended? i couldn’t breathe. i can’t forget.

it’s been a year & everyone still hates me, i told kaitlyn while we watched the flames dance. i don’t understand why they let me go home. i didn’t understand a year ago, & i didn’t understand then, & i don’t think i ever will.

kaitlyn & mary made me stay in the health lodge that evening. i kept ending up there with wounds of the heart, not something that could be fixed with an alcohol wipe & a band-aid.

week six

i came home from the sixth week of camp & wrote in my journal, i learned how to shotgun a drink. it made me pass out.

my last week was filled with art & anxiety. i remember sitting in the handicraft pavilion at one in the morning, painting in my pajamas. that white van shuddered up the gravel road, coming to stop when the driver saw the lights were on. hey, angel, he said when he got out & came to sit on one of my acrylic-covered benches. he told me that his head was messed up.

you’re the cutest person at camp, he said. i would date you if you were eighteen.

nine years, i thought, & i was afraid.

i wished that i wasn’t wearing my ex’s shirt. i wished that i had just showered & gone to bed instead of deciding to paint. i wished that i would stop finding myself in situations like this. everything felt like déjà vu that summer.

i think i almost cried from relief when jordan showed up with his friends. then someone cut their finger on a pocket knife, & there was blood all over the concrete floor, & the taste of it filled my mouth again. when i cried then, it was because of the bad memories from last summer, by the lake with michael. how it’s always my fault when someone goes to the hospital; how the year-old bloodstains still haven’t washed out of my yellow shirt.

but there was one last good thing in store for me, & i have never been closer to singing praises than the day i saw you again. you still had all your gear with you when you showed up at my pavilion out of the blue, which made me think that you hiked straight from your car to me. straight from my memories to being by my side again.

it was friday evening. we were getting ready for the last closing campfire of the season. your return made the end of summer more sweet than bitter.

we ate a whole apple pie together in the health lodge. we laid in the grass during the campfire, listening to the drums. we shared your hammock later & i told you everything that i hadn’t been able to explain over the phone, & it took until morning.

you are awful at goodbyes & i am terrible at letting go. i think we were made for each other.


here are the songs that hold my memories of the past two summers:

august love // grayscale
shut up and dance // WALK THE MOON
i know // motherfolk
always summer // yellowcard
mamma mia // ABBA
ocean avenue // yellowcard
letter from last summer // charlie burg
summertime // my chemical romance
there’s a place // the all-american rejects
the longest time // billy joel
summer nights // grease the musical
our last summer // mamma mia! the musical

xo apollo

letter from last summer | pt. one

lake dillon

| the cast |

jordan: eccentric handicraft director; the kindest, most helpful person at camp; doesn’t believe that birds are real.

you: CIT; has the loveliest brown eyes; awful at goodbyes.

week one

i came home from staff training & the first week of camp & wrote in my journal, it is only ten days later but the world feels completely different. there was a burn across my cheeks & bruises splattered over my legs like paint, but i was electric; i felt like i had swallowed the june sun.

the first week was ecstatic & exhausting. it was reuniting with old friends & throwing together lesson plans & moving into a tiny cabin with three other girls & learning how to live in the woods again.

the troop i was in charge of must have thought i was the greatest person at camp. they invited me to have dinner with them again & again & even picked orange daylilies for me. the flowers were gorgeous, but i wished that they were from someone else.

it stormed one evening so we had a game night in the dining hall. we were playing a round of twister that refused to end & you were sitting by yourself with a practice pad & drumsticks. my heartbeat matched the cadence you were playing & i have not been the same since.

week one i became best friends with a CIT & it almost ruined everything. we stayed up late together every night, talking from inside our hammocks & playing cards & listening to classic rock. i had a gut feeling that this would be a summer for change. i was right.

lake olga

week two

i came home from the second week of camp & wrote in my journal, it has been one hell of a week.

let me set the scene: it’s my night off & you tell me that we are going to have a campfire. later in the night, you will accidentally hit me in the head with a smoldering stick & my favorite pair of shorts will disappear forever; but for now the air smells like cedar smoke & i’m counting fireflies as they flit through the twilight. at this point, i have known you for fifteen days.

my best friend called as our campfire was starting to crumble into coals. you’d never met her, but you got on the phone with her & talked about me for twenty minutes. she told me that your voice was adorable & that i should keep you. i promise i’ve been trying.

week two, you learned something about me that everyone else already knew: sometimes everything gets to be too much for me, which is when the panic & shaking sets in. that week, the thing that pushed me over was all the attention from the campers & scout masters. i should’ve been used to it from last summer, but the comments & stares & questions still made fear & bad memories creep up & down the back of my neck.

i came to you crying one night. that was weakness & i know it, but you invited me into your hammock & held me against your chest until the shaking stopped; you told me stories about your childhood until i calmed down enough to fall asleep.

from my journal

you asked me what i looked for in a person (i feel like i’ve heard this question before) so i made you a list: brown eyes, percussionist, likes adventure, takes care of me, comfortable silence, not restrictive, believes me, understands my anxiety, talkative (not too much), always gentle. you fit all but one. i made you guess & of course you got it right.

here’s something you keep bringing up, months later. one evening we were in my hammock & jordan cut the straps with a car key. cue crashing to the ground in a tangle of limbs & you storming off. i’ve tried to tell you that he just wants to keep me safe. i hope your bruises from the fall have healed.

remember the sunrise? we sat on the plaza overlooking the lake at 5:52 in the morning. the sun rose somewhere behind the trees & the colors were lost to us. you yawned & said that it was a waste; i was just happy to have a quiet, soft moment with you in the morning. i remember glasses & messy hair & bare feet & putting on your shirt to ward off the chill.

week three

i came home from the third week of camp & wrote in my journal, i started crying during the campfire & couldn’t stop.

it was a whirlwind of a week, made worse by the fact that you disappeared.

you were a camper that week. you told me you’d stop by handicraft to see me but you never did. i tried not to let it bother me, but i kept winding up in the health lodge before classes, crying on the quarantine bed. i’m learning that i get sick when i’m upset about something. i was sick quite often that week & the something was you.

that was the week of the wilderness. we left camp for a day to hike through the forest, jump from waterfalls, scale rock faces. i had never been stunned into silence by nature until that trip. & i like to think that i am brave, but i never would have leapt from that cliff if you hadn’t done it with me. it was falling & falling & feeling like throwing up before hitting the water with a crash & a whoop of joy.

this is where i want to kiss you

i dreamt about the view sometimes, so i went back to the falls by myself. it wasn’t the same because i wasn’t in love. i stood at the foot of the cliffs in the exact place where you asked if we were just going to be a summer fling, & i am not ashamed to say that the memories in that forest made me cry.

there were fireworks the night after we got back. we sat by the lake to watch the explosions. it was raining. let me be poetic & pretend that the storm was mourning you & me, because the week was almost over & then you’d be gone for good.

on your last day, i wrote two love letters at one in the morning. in the letter that i gave to you, i wrote, nothing is guaranteed in life & i am trying to be ok with that, but i hope i see you next summer & the next one & the next one & the next one. the letter i still have says, when i’m with you, it’s like i’ve never been sad in my life.


i finally finished writing about my first year staffing at a boy scout summer camp. i’ve been going to this camp with my AHG troop since i was twelve, so getting to spend the whole summer teaching there was almost an unreal experience.

i miss that place & my friends more than i know how to express. it’s always been a safe place for me; somewhere to recenter myself. six & a half months until i get to have another wonderful, chaotic summer there. i hope i get to fall in love again.

i’ve already written part two, so expect to see that sometime soon.

xo apollo

o captain! my captain!

your mama likes me & she doesn't like anyone
your dumb, drunk friends don’t care for me & always told you so. (we need to talk // waterparks)

we need to talk, i tell you, in the backseat of a dim bus, in a hallway with the lights off, in the middle of a vacant parking lot at one in the morning. & we do, but we never say anything that matters. it’s always i don’t know how to start this conversation & i don’t think it’ll last & i don’t want to give you false hope. we’re endlessly circling the point, which is that i love what you are but not who you are.

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i feel sick every time we talk, like i might throw up my heart onto the ground between us. i ignore your messages as long as i can & i don’t look you in the eyes anymore, not after that. but i still end up listening to antique love songs with you on long drives home from a city i used to live in. you make me feel so young, the music promises, sickly sweet; put your head on my shoulder. so i do because you’re warm compared to the autumn air clinging to our skin, & your cologne makes me dizzy. i tell myself that it doesn’t mean anything, that we are asleep or drunk or thinking about other people. but the truth is, it’s hard to think about him when it’s your heartbeat singing in my ear.

did i tell you that when you held my hand, i closed my eyes & pretended you were someone else, or did i only say it in my head?

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i can’t recall how many times i’ve gotten that i think we need to talk about last night text from you. but we speak with words, not feelings, so it doesn’t even make a difference. trying to be honest with you is like tiptoeing around the truth.

you intimidate me: leather jackets & a voice too deep for your age & injuries you refuse to explain. i’ve told you so, & maybe you thought i was flirting again. but i don’t feel any butterflies with you, just anxiety. if i could speak to you without the words getting stuck in my throat, this is what i would tell you:

– i remember seeing you cry in the hallway on the phone. my heart shattered that day in the summer & it has ached for you ever since.

– every time i look at you, your face is different; sometimes your eyes are soft & other times, you see right through me. your eyes shift colors in my memories. your features rearrange themselves like a puzzle that’s never quite completed. i think it has to mean something.

– your cousin made sure i knew that you go through girls quicker than the weather changes in a southern summer. it didn’t matter to me because i didn’t care about you at all.

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you treat me differently depending on who we’re with. you only pay attention to me when we’re alone or your ex is watching us. i’m sick of it, sick of my clothes smelling like you, sick of saying yes every time you want me to come over. i want to kiss you & i want you to go ahead & move to the city & i want to forget how guilty i feel when i’m with you. i want for us to talk with feelings instead of words & for you to understand what i mean when i say that i wish i didn’t know your middle name.

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i think that i am the worst person alive because i let you cook dinner for me & i wore your jacket when i wasn’t even cold & i asked to watch a horror movie so i would have an excuse to fall asleep on your chest. i know the way to all three of your houses & i pretended to really consider it when you asked me to stay the night. i don’t even love you at all. i am so used to having my own heart get broken that i never realized i could be doing it to you.


a scatterbrained, unedited mess i wrote at one in the morning. i wish i could be honest with the people i care about. i wish you hadn’t walked me back to the stadium that night after the game because i am not myself when i am alone with you.

xo apollo

eye for an eye as long as yours ends up black

three cheers for sweet revenge

 

i have been told that i am being dramatic or too violent
that i need to be brave and let it go
i have even heard the word forgiveness
maybe my bravery is bloody knuckles, angry tears
and making myself impossible to ignore
i will not back down until you get what you deserve

i am sick of being ashamed
i do not care anymore if i ruin your life
i swear that i will scream my head off if i hear
but he’s such a sweetheart
one more time

here’s how this game works:
a girl, crying and shaking, is brushed to the side
because the cherub-faced, dimpled boy
says she’s making it up; he would never do such a thing
everyone forgets because how could those soft hands ever hide claws?
i have not had the pleasure of forgetting
i see him when i am awake
when i am asleep
i am tired, i am tired, i am tired

i could have sworn that i was over it
i didn’t shake from the dread of waiting and remembering
i didn’t flinch at a longing hand on my skin
i was learning how to be close again
i could have said that i didn’t daydream about hurting him
and almost have meant it

so here’s why i’ve been practicing my right hook again:
you spread a fire fueled by your hatred for me
twisting the story so that i was the crazy one
but isn’t manipulation what you do best?
i close my eyes and see your fake tears
you need to make it up to me echoes inside my head

yesterday you laughed and said spiteful things to my face
it felt like a knife slashing across the cheek
like venom burning my veins
if we still spoke, i would have two things to tell you:
who the hell do you think you are
and sorry about your eye
i think you’ll look better with a shiner, anyway

xo apollo

 

pyres & pills, hell & his hands

pictures by my mom

you are standing in a curbside graveyard on a foggy morning
it is ten days before christmas
you have never been so cold in your life
so that cold that you can feel the frost creeping over your fragile bones
you forgot your gloves so your knuckles are stained
the same pale, icy blue as the winter sky

rain from the heavens that mourns your innocence drips onto your cheeks
a murmured prayer of thanks to whichever ghosts or angels
are listening for disguising your sorrow from your best friend
she meanders through the rows of worn marble graves beside you
her fingers brush the wet headstones
as you walk through the downpour
she whispers the name of the departed as you go
when you ask why, she tells you
that people die twice
once when their heart stops beating
and again when their name is spoken for the last time

you can’t say that you agree
you feel as though you died that night one month ago
amidst the frigid mountains and fresh snow
yes, your haunted heart still forces blood through your veins
but have you truly felt alive since?
paranoia has made a home in your aching head
glancing over your shoulder and searching crowds
for that dimpled face that stalks you
in the nightmares that are more like memories
have become second nature
oh, how fear makes prey of us all

you imagine that you can feel his hands
under your rain jacket, and shiver
at your best friend’s imploring look, you say
i thought i felt a ghost, on my skin
and then, as you tremble once more like a tattered white flag in a storm
i think i’m getting hypothermia

the two of you leave the dead, but the past follows you home
i never felt safe with you


i’m over it, i’m over it, i’m over it, i’m over it.

xo apollo