Sixteen and Twenty-Five
We are at the burger and ice cream place
Where the kids go after dances,
I’m eating all my fries, each one deliberately
Dragged through the ketchup.
I’m chewing, staring, thinking about ice cream.
She is strangely silent.
I soldier on, working my way through the pile.
Did I tell you, she says, about when I was sixteen?
Sure, I say, you went to college.
No I didn’t. That was much later.
She tells me about a man who played piano
He frequently ate dinner at her house,
Enticed there by her mother.
His own parents would no longer have him.
When he set foot on their sill, the door slammed in his face.
My mother spun into a web of
Older, handsome, flash.
No money but shining cars with
Edges that snagged her dress.
Clubs on a school night,
Her hair drenched in smoke.
Her mother inexplicably letting it happen.
Laughing, holding his hand a minute too long
When he brought my mother home.
We married, she says.
Sixteen and twenty-five.
I stop chewing,
hold the edge of the table.
Married, she says.
But what of my two bookish parents
Falling in love at the university?
My father was her teaching assistant.
Bearing children after her dissertation,
Both entrenched in the same profession.
I thought had learned each chapter
of the book of before I existed,
Knew it backwards and forwards.
Charming, beautiful, cruel, she says.
I was wretched, ketchup sandwiches, bills.
An apartment with only cold water,
a bed with graying sheets.
Shaking roaches out of her shoes.
I watch the words slide out of her mouth,
drop to the table, build up in layers.
They are black, shiny, slippery.
Not my father?
Not the first one to be under the chuppah,
Grasping her hand a little too tightly?
The black and white photo with scalloped edges;
She leans back into him as they cut the cake,
Her smile so huge it pushed her eyes closed.
She says she was sixteen,
One year younger than me.
I already have sheets for my narrow bed
in the college dorm.
She has stuffed my suitcase with shampoo,
As if I could never get them for myself.
My time in my own house is ending.
My family watched me do it, she says,
No one said anything.
Five years before I broke out.
I’m rearranging pieces in my brain,
Lining up photos, shuffling, realigning.
Try not to get pregnant, she says,
This snaps my eyes open
And I stare at her face.
I’m still holding the edge of the table,
Sticky with ketchup and God knows what.
I’m told I look like my father.