The Cousins.

My poem, The Cousins, just was published in the mot recent issue of a lovely literary journal, Gravitas.

The Cousins

We came together infrequently but intensely, with the tenderness of lovers, and the jealousy of thieves.

We knew everything about one another, and nothing at all.

We chased fireflies in August, plucked raspberries that burst in our mouths.  We ate snow in December, the Florida cousins’ eyes wide as the pale ice melted on their tongues.

We ran inside for a winter meal, the New Jersey chill still on our cheeks, our fingers frozen.  We smelled the oysters in the red broth and pulled away, disgusted.

We watched the baby Florida cousin suck her long spaghetti noodles in and out or her tiny mouth. We giggled when the red wine spilled like flower petals on the rug, but hid when the Italian Uncle saw it too.

We shared beds, pillows, and tank tops.

We heard them fighting, kept the pillow over the baby cousin’s ears. We knew the sound of our Aunt’s ribs breaking.

We ate picnics on the beach, the Uncles tossing children in the air between beers. We grilled hotdogs on an open fire and crushed a beer can with our bare feet.

We did not lose the baby.  We knew she was swimming.

We should have watched more carefully. We thought she could swim. We wiped her crying face, and felt the precariousness of our position, the fragility of life, the lack of adult attention.

We invented games with live bugs in Nanna’s bath tub, chased the greasy dog around the kitchen, peered warily into the darkness of the basement, where the one-eyed angry cat awaited us.

We feared our Grandmother, her lipstick a bright red gash across her face, her eyes eagle-sharp, her hands long talons. We listened to the gossip from under the kitchen table, the grime from the floor marking our dresses. We rubbed the bruises from Grandma’s pinch.

We watched the addictions appear, like unwanted guests. The curl of smoke above the Christmas turkey, the rattle of ice splashed with Scotch. The crack vials broken in the bathroom; picking shards of glass from our toes. The weed on the window sill, the cocaine wrapped in tin-foil in his pockets.

We were red-haired, blonde, dark-haired beauties. We were olive skinned, fair, gypsies and princesses. We could have been anyone’s children, not family. We shared only memories.

We weren’t sure who the actual fathers were, or whether some of us were found, not born into the chaos.

We knew some babies had been given away.

 We learned to say leukemia, moved the tubes from our Uncle’s IV out of the way and climbed on the couch to watch T.V. next to him.

We drove to Manhattan to visit the hospital. We carried Jello to his bedside. We hid under the bed when the uncle died. We came out later, to find mother’s pills and get her to bed. We held hands at the funeral.

We wondered about the uncles in jail, we ran our fingers over each other’s hair and tickled the youngest.

We followed Uncle Joe through the garden, loading our arms with basil and tomatoes, the stems itching our fingers.

We crawled under Nana’s car to share a joint, our long limbs sprayed with car oil.

We took money from the Moms’ purses, we snuck into drive-in movies, we lied about our age or drank the gin from the bottom of the Aunt’s glasses.

We took communion and kicked our brothers gently as they went up the aisle.

We kissed older boys, we read poetry, we sang every word to the Rolling Stones’ songs, and thrust our hips.

 We pitched a tent in the backyard and talked while the stars moved slowly across the sky.  We never told each other what had happened with him. We wondered if the others knew, or didn’t. Or remembered.

We cleaned up vomit when our brothers drank too much, we helped the youngest cousins out of their snowsuit. We pulled the tails off Florida lizards and compared our nipples. We cried over Bob Marley.

We played too rough, broke an arm. Broke a leg, stitched a stomach. We were bitten by dogs and passed kidney stones. We had migraines, PMS, depression, pregnancy scares, freckles, and nightmares.

We grew despite the odds. 

We went to college, to jail, to law school, to rehab. We owned restaurants, cleaned gutters, used needles on our patients, used needles to get high.

We counseled the homeless.

We were the homeless.

We bought houses, jail bonds, maternity clothes, and a bus ticket to California. And weed.

We sold houses, data systems, hamburgers, and our bodies. And weed.

We shifted states, memories, agreements, husbands, mental illnesses and values.

We live far away now.

We live in the same town now.

We never see each other. We see each other and reach for one another across the void.

We eat each other up, tenderly. We turn away.

We share holidays, phone calls, a bottle of wine, a joint, old pictures, a few wounds.

We don’t share.

We drink too much. We don’t drink at all. We should have a drink, sometime.

We remember everything, except the parts no-one remembers.

We should have told someone, should have gotten him to stop, should have protected the others.

We should have killed him.

We should forgive him.

We should never forget.

We should move on.

We share stone mosaics, raspberry tarts, old jokes, fading photographs, and politics. 

We write novel, emails, truths and lies.

We call when things are bad, and we need to know if it is bad for them too.

We call when there’s a funny memory.

We don’t call at all.

We are the sisters, the cousins, the survivors. We trace our lineage back like the edge of a wave in the sea just before it breaks. Here we were, a family, for a moment. Then nothing, molecules dissolved into the wider world.

We blow kisses at the camera in 1978, Christmas lights in the background, snow drifting outside the windows.

We blow up at one another.

We blow smoke into a summer breeze.  We watch it drift, and touch our daughters’ hair.

We remember the sun on the Florida cousin’s baby hair. 

We remember the one white Christmas.

We remember the food in the hospital cafeteria, the thirst we felt after smoking our Uncle’s weed, the hunger we knew for one another.

We came together infrequently, but intensely, with the tenderness of lovers, and the jealousy of thieves.

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