He looks like a more drunk, shorter Santa Claus, minus the charm & good cheer
except he’s got a fresh gash under his left eye that’s bleeding Christmas red & every word from his mouth is buckets, & I mean buckets, of cheap fifths of gin. This white homeless man, first asking then demanding a dollar from me & the woman I love in front of the pharmacy on the corner of 8th & University. I raise my hand, silent apology offered
as we move toward the door to find a birthday card for a friend. It’s people like you,
he says, catapulting his five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch frame into a monument of self-
righteous fury, and I’m talking to YOU, he barks the spit-laced words, calloused index finger nearly touching the raw umber hue of my fiancée’s clenched jaw—You’re not even
human, he says, you fucking monkey.
I knock him the fuck out—feel the sting
in my index & middle knuckles, relish
that crunch from when I sledgehammered
his jaw. His face becomes Mr. O’Reilly
telling me to stay out of trouble when
I came back to visit freshman year, it
becomes the mutiny of my body on
a dark street passing a man in a low-
pulled hoodie, it becomes my father’s
slight accent & my fifth grade friends
who giggled whenever he said the word
womens, it becomes my deeply buried
relief at knowing a cop protects me,
the time I carried my drunk hallmate
home in college, held her hair back
while she threw up for three hours, how
a hallway of mostly white faces still
assumes I fucked her.
When I write the story
in my head, I am always
the hero. In the old ones,
I was always the victim.
I easily have twenty pounds of muscle on this dude, not to mention
thirty years, seven inches, & one less extended tour at war—
not to mention enough light-skinned privilege of my own, enough
class benefit-of-the-doubt. I could pummel him into a coma
with a gang of NYPD officers nearby, explain why & have them chuckle,
nod, & say, Don’t worry, pal. We get it. Just clean up afterwards.
He follows us, my love in tears, as she retreats into the closest aisle.
I turn & face him: You just called my future wife a ‘monkey.’ Why?
You’re better than that. Imagine someone said that to a person
you love. And his eyes suddenly arrive—no longer
in Vietnam or his uncle’s basement in fourth grade chained
to a radiator or three decades’ worth of park benches—histrionic tears
start to drown the haphazard whiskers on his ruddy cheeks, as he pulls
sheets upon sheets of stolen frozen crabmeat from his tattered backpack,
his arms extended to her, offering them up as penance. The irony,
the allegory of this white man offering cold seafood to a Black woman
with a shellfish allergy.
A broken man has bullied the woman I love & anything I do will make me his bully.
I ask her, What would Darnell or Maurice do? What would Dr. King do? What would a ‘good man’ do? What should I have done? And again, the world demands answers from her but then mutes her response, silent as her voice in this poem, asking her to answer for something she has never owned nor sought. She’s between sobbing & punching the next man who talks, trying to busy her hands with Hallmark cards she can’t read through tears.
I imagine the scenario again, except this time while holding the hand of our six year-old
daughter & I am convinced that what just happened was either the bravest or most cowardly thing I have ever done.
I lie awake until we finally talk – she’s angry still,
the ache fresh as the gash on that hobo’s left cheek:
Honestly, fuck your social worker bullshit. He was
more important to you than me.
But, baby, what was I supposed to do? Beat his ass? What would that have done?
I don’t know, she says, I guess sometimes our options are only what is
At rest upon a body
of water without life
at the bottom of the earth
wedged between two peaks
in the middle of the Middle
East, serene resort
in the midst of a cluster
of ubiquitous crisscrossing
wars that are now just
landscape: two bodies
learn how to float again
for the first time. Two
best friends. Close
enough to the end to no
longer keep track of hours
or days. They carry
nearly two centuries
of stories and losses
and secrets between them
into this stinging cold
that refuses to let them
sink. Each refusing
to release the other’s
arthritic grip, knowing
they came here today to
let go—and so the lake
becomes a sea of schoolgirl
giggles hijacking their hoarse
throats, now laughing as
their scars make them
into glowing quilts beneath
the sheen of heavy salt. I see
only them in this sacred
pool that is closer to hell
than any other, called Dead
because nothing is able to
survive its grasp for too
long and yet here they are:
two old ladies who’ve defied
Carlos Andrés Gómez is a Colombian American poet and the author of Hijito, selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2018 Broken River Prize. Winner of the Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize, Fischer National Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, his writing has been published, or is forthcoming, in the New England Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Yale Review, BuzzFeed Reader, The Rumpus, Rattle, CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and elsewhere. Carlos is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.