Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Epidemics of Desire

- Tarfia Faizullah

Through leaves curling into delicate
fists, I walk before dawn across Franklin,

past doorways where the dark scent
of urine rises stronger than coffee brewing

behind the counters of this Lebanese diner
where I twist warm and worn forks and knives

into batons of flimsy cotton. Across town,
you are doing the same, I know—and soon

we will be hefting in our hands trays
filled with bowls of soup, neat wedges

of sandwich you will slide across tables
to customers, smile with blue eyes. They

will not ask you where you are from, or
how long you have been in this country

these mornings I tie back my black hair,
line as usual my eyes with black kohl. How

like those boys of my youth you look:
unmarked, smooth as the pressed white shirts

they wore days they knelt at the classroom
altar, offered up again their bright tongues.

I line the fork and knife up with each edge
of paper napkin and twist, begin again, trying

to get this work of the hands right, recalling
your stories of summers spent carting boxes

of cold beer from bar to bar, satisfied
with the day only if not a single bottle broke

as they do here each night, glittering shards
knotting sidewalks where men lean against

brick walls, their eyes and skin as dark as mine.
This morning, too, they called out to me as they

do, though I said nothing, unsure whether it is
affection or aggression that volleys the air

between us. Already the tables are filling up,
so I wipe them down, empty ashtrays, and smile

at men in business suits asking me to "say
something in Arabic." I think of the man

on Monument you told me tripped and fell
from a ladder, how another man stumbled into step

beside you, exclaimed, Look at that
What did you wish you had said,

or done? Easy enough to forgive the man
his assumptions, but I have always wondered

what it is like to move through the world
in a skin like yours, bearing a face that women

adore, and men trust—its blue eyes framed
by a shock of blond hair, golden as the Turkish

tea I pour for customers as light startles
each wide window. Perhaps you wanted

to say, I hate that word, or, Shut up, or perhaps
you were thinking again of the poem you had

been carrying with you for weeks, whether
to exchange the drift of sparrows rising

from a sycamore
for a flare of starlings
startled from a pine by a freight train.

I imagine, unfairly, your silence: a moment
only you knew as shock ushering in the day

and its faint beginnings, the light just flaring
out onto rings of grass circling Stonewall Jackson

on his horse, gazing always northward.
Al-Jazeerah blares from the small TV

in the back room, and I continue to fill round,
white cups, listening for the train that will lumber

past pale bellies I imagine rising and falling,
warm in their beds. In that same poem, you asked,

Are bodies nothing more than epidemics
of desire?
Here is what I know of desire: these

men who gaze at me as I walk past them
as though I might be the one to turn their cups

stained with dregs of coffee over, read
to them their fortunes. The eyes of the man

that night outside a gas station in Vidor, TX
when he warned me, You may not be a nigger,

but you sure could pass for one.
How blue
they were, fevered with both lust and fear—

not unlike the blue of that afternoon you once
described as a sky buttoned to the neck. I want

to ask you why, when I stumbled towards
my car door, the man moved towards me, more

as if to offer an arm as he would his mother
than to wound. But I do not want to be this

strange, foreign shade asking you what it means
to be a white man moving through this world,

or why the man in Vidor let me go. In the end,
neither of us know whether he would have

twisted fistfuls of my hair in those bruised
and tattooed fingers, or whether we will always

wipe curls of straw wrappers off tables
in the settling silences of these emptying

restaurants. I do know that there are men
like you desiring to become men. That there

are still men like those who once menaced
these streets in white hoods, carried crosses,

transformed their god into crimson, amber,
gold spines of light. A body, epidemic, perhaps,

but flesh also—flesh that fills, as you
wrote, the ever widening spaces we are made

strangers to.
Flesh: beaten, burned, pierced
through its sides, stroked into flame, this weary

pinfold of skin I button into a heavy coat
after untying from its waist another stained

and wrinkled apron. In winter, the sun
descends at 4:30, so I walk my way home

through the dark past street lamps flickering
on, knowing that when I get there, I will unlock

the door, and, fully clothed, push myself
under the unmade covers of my bed, stay there.

No reason not to.

Originally Published in Copper Nickel

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