by James Harms
You were my first in all ways.
You covered your mouth when you laughed.
I saw you cry so rarely that knowing now
how often you cried is a razor’s clean revision.
We were sixteen together, and seventeen.
And then, later, every few months, you’d send a letter
where I learned where you’d moved, what the work
was like, who you’d seen in a supermarket, how you cried.
There was a pact, a particular year when we’d meet again,
the day after your birthday, a phone call
I would make. When I heard what happened
I was thinking of someone else, a new person
I shouldn’t love, would like to love, am not allowed to love.
And as is true so often, no one else knew: I was
trying to get it wrong again, succeeding.
And instead of you or her, my girlfriend phoned
to say, What is it with you, to say, Never mind,
which is what I’d been doing. And then we said nothing,
though we didn’t hang up. The silence stretched between us
along roads and rivers, from phone pole
to phone pole, through circuits and switches:
a line man found his hands going numb;
the birds lifted off the wires
in fear or disgust, then fell in waves
like dissipated noise, took cover in the tall grass.
Take cover. Never mind me, she said, a phrase
instead of nothing, the gentle hiss of distance dissolving.
You’d had a child, nearly died giving birth. When my mother
called she couldn’t tell me. Then she told me. She said,
She almost died, and her voice caught before finishing,
like a leaf snagged in a fence waiting for the wind,
for a chance to keep falling. And I remembered
when all my mistakes could fit in your small hands,
how you cupped my face like a handful of water,
then let it go.