Letter to Half a Lifetime Ago

Dear girl waiting outside, alone,

just tossed out of your parents’ house:

I offer this age’s adage—

it gets better. Sometimes it does.

Other people’s mothers will take

you in, admit the sin’s to leave

a kid on the streets, but they’ll turn,

too, when they find your fingers twined

in their daughters’ hair. You’ll seek bars

where you don’t get carded, linger

under the beneficent reign

of queens who bring you to diners

in the wee hours, make sure you eat.

You’ll play pool with butches who teach

you to flick your lighter open,

chivalrous, although you don’t smoke,

how to shave your head when barbers

won’t, what to do when men eye you

in a parking lot, hurl insults,

then rocks. You’ll learn the exact size

of bruise left by a fist, the shape

of the girl who lifts you, carries

you to her car, her home, lets you

sleep while she cooks you eggs and toast.

She’ll lend you book after book, whole

pages underlined, where you glimpse

worlds of two women together,

fictions where they do what they please

with their lives, and still they survive.

When she declares you just a friend,

you’ll write your gloom and grief, won’t cry.

You’ll drink until your mind’s scrubbed clean,

                then test sobriety at clubs

where you press sweat to sweat to bass

and drums. You’ll wear studded leather,

white tanks, black boots: signals that say

both fuck off and come here. You’ll fall,

gobsmacked, and they’ll fall, too: broken

beauties, motorcycle chicks, punk

princesses, gynoanarchists.

Each time, you’ll buzz with kisses

you wish wouldn’t stop, embraces

in the midst of busy sidewalks,

bustle around you forgotten.

Each will leave you waiting, cast off,

alone again, but now knowing

this isn’t the end, that you’ll see

your way through with one long, steady

stride, and the next one, and the next.

Previously Published in No Confession, No Mass (University of Nebraska Press)

The Students Have Asked Me to Be More Visibly Queer

First, you must peruse my shoes. Always black

boots, chunky, militant. Do these heels seem

too high for a dyke? Then you must assess

my hair. Is the fade ethnic or gay? White

women say, You pull that look off, meaning:

Even with a buzz cut, you still look straight.

If the shorn locks don’t disclose what you’d hoped,

eye my clothes. Do jeans, do shirts that expose

lean biceps read as queer? No? Punk, you say,

or the prof’s slumming today. In drag, then—

boas and leather skirts, peacock strutting

his stuff—do you name this dragon lady

or genderfucked? Here’s where you scrutinize

my nails, painted deep green and blue, livid

hues. Lesbians keep theirs short. What do bi

and pan folks do? Do my fingers obey

the rules? Will you view instead my tattoos:

snake circling my shoulder, Venus symbol

on my fist, the sheela na gig spreading

her vulval lips. Are these clear enough clues,

or do you wonder, as my father did,

How will you explain these to your husband,

your kids? Last resort: please appraise my space,

my office adorned with rainbow stickers,

safe zone signs, bookshelves lined with Cunt,

Gender Outlaw, Stone Butch Blues. Attributes

of a good ally, or have you unearthed

definitive proof? Still confused? That’s not

your fault—the world erases us faster

than we can carve our marks. Listen: if we’re

out in the forest and no one sees us,

let’s learn other ways to find each other,

to walk together, even in the dark.

Previously published in Crazyhorse