Thursday, July 30, 2020


My son lost his front tooth
when he bit my arm 
and I jerked it away.
Every afternoon he spirals 
into a fit of exhausted rage. 
My midlife version is coiled
but I pulled back a little too hard
and the tooth went flying. 

It was his third tooth of the pandemic,
the second in a week. 
Like those dreams 
where my teeth splinter and crumble, 
like the walls of a Berkeley wreck
purchased by friends 
back when two young teachers 
could afford such a thing. 
The husband put his hand 
through drywall like bread dough.
The wife patted it back in place:
No, we need that. 

We believed we could save things
with our hands, though even then,
we smelled our own desperation.

This morning an earthquake hit,
the single-jolt variety,
the sound of wood creaking,
old bones stretching.
When our house stood foreclosed 
three residents ago
it became a party spot.
The evicted owner's teenage son
invited his friends. 
There was beer and a yard,
but no electricity.

Have you ever seen a small child's skull?
The rows of adult teeth waiting 
in vertical wings? 
Behind their perfect skin,
a horror show. 
My son says,
"Maybe I will grow a vampire fang."

My dad told me the richest town near ours
was built on sand 
that would rock during an earthquake 
like a bowl floating in a bowl--
he cupped his hands to show me. 
It wasn't a metaphor,
but I know he envied the homes there:
acreage and old trees and tiled roofs. 

Look, it's easy to see loss upon loss,
all that is stationary becoming sand.
Because it will. 
Because I stopped Googling virus deaths.
Because it's 147,000 now.
But after 17 years of therapy,
sometimes, in the dreams 
where I lose my teeth, 
I tell myself,
Maybe things will work out.
I'll call my dentist. 
And the Berkeley couple 
remodeled a guest house 
that they lend out free
to anyone visiting the neighborhood.

I searched for my son's lost tooth
as he screamed at the sight
of blood on his shirt. 
When I bent down and looked up
I saw it in his nose
like a kernel of corn.
I thought of teratomas,
those tumors with teeth and hair,
and I laughed. 
Tragedy plus time and all.
Even if the time is minutes,
even if we never quite catch our breath.
What world is this, 
where a parody of life 
springs from tumors 
that are, mostly, benign.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

at five and a half

Yesterday you turned five and a half. You woke up in our bed and I relayed the news, this number clutched from the air. You said, "It's my birthday?" Half birthday, I said. Halfway between five and six, between the first COVID cases in Los Angeles and, if we are extremely lucky, the first vaccines needled into an upper arm. "Will we have cake?" you wanted to know.

Time, at five and a half, is a torturous trip from popsicle to popsicle; there is so much waiting for all of us. Numbers are tricksters: the days since you were born, the days I've been in remission, the days in a row I've unrolled a yoga mat, the anniversaries that sideswipe me, a hit and run. I promised I would write you letters every month, and I haven't. I've written about myself instead, though you write me into new shapes every day. Today I am a net, full of holes, lightly shimmering.

I tried to run a science lesson for you and the girls next door. We poured water in empty spaghetti sauce jars and dripped in food coloring. You all wanted to use all the colors, none of you believing red or yellow would be beautiful on its own. I poured olive oil on top and screwed three lids on tight. We shook and shook and watched the oil split into tiny bubbles, three murky ponds. I searched my phone for what scientific principles we were witnessing, read you something as you ran off.

Later, we scootered to a coffee shop, where I made you wait outside. I knocked on the glass and smiled through my mask to let you know: I'm still here. There was more sugar, more concern over who got what. You blew bubbles in your water cups and pondered what you might turn them into. Telescopes for your box fort, or a kindergartner's version of beer pong.

At five and a half, everything is a treasure, and everything is trash: lessons, meals, the movie we just paid $6 to rent. Play-Doh and cheese ground into the floor. Easy come, easy go.

"Look, the sun went away," one of you said at a corner. "It made shade for us." We stood in the starburst shadow of a palm tree.

We watched the same sun dip behind a different palm in the evening. "The moon is in the pool," you said. At five and a half, you love space and Stormtroopers and Jupiter and talking with a loud voice. The power, the gravity. (Your pitch goes up when you see a cat or Penny, the neighborhood chihuahua mix. The girls have taught you the noises girls make, and together you are your own planet.)

Nino and Gracia fed us salad and rice balls next to the pool. You gunned for cake. You leapt from the edge of the pool into Mama's waiting arms.

It's been five months since we had a babysitter. Sometimes you go next door. Stand in their small neat kitchen. The food smells. The rinsed yogurt containers waiting to be recycled. Their kitten doing flips on the tile. Mama and I wait in our living room in the strange quiet. It's never more than thirty minutes before you burst back in, and our upside down world rights itself, and I feel the familiar exhaustion that I mistake for equilibrium.

Last night Nino said he'd watch you one or two nights a week. I cried: our knight on a sleek unicorn. But no, that's not quite right, or that's too European, too gendered. What I felt was something humbler, more Eastside: The unintentional communities are as important as the intentional ones. I want you to grow up knowing this--that who you let in and seek out can be more like magic and less like a job interview.

I drove you to sleep beneath the treed streets that edge Pasadena. You murmured about Cheetos.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

dozens of narrow fault lines

Denise's mother flip-flopped onto campus
in a white tennis skirt each afternoon.
Smoker's cough, sun-browned legs
heels a jigsaw of fissures. Her feet were a wonder
to my shade-grown, eight-year-old self.
Perhaps Denise's mother made a choice:
tennis over moisturizer and a pumice stone.
Perhaps in the hours between work
and ferrying Denise to gymnastics,
she had time for just one luxury.

In the months between March
and the relentless now, I became reacquainted
with my feet. Saw them emerge from boots
to meet air and driveway dirt.
Was the nail on my second toe always so thick?
Dozens of narrow fault lines
spread across my soles, and I was helpless
to stop them.
I always think that knowing should save me.
I knew about time and it happened anyway.

It was a place where anything was possible
I told someone yesterday, through my cotton face mask,
referring to my work with former gang members.
There was the guy who started
a solar panel installation company
with twenty men who called him boss
but other things were possible too:
relapse, suicide by cop,
the woman who had two babies in two years
and lost both to foster care.

Our days have a rhythm now:
cereal, Star Wars, visits from the girls
next door, more Star Wars, work
squeezed between the cracks,
always so much work.
Our lives are comprised of aftershocks
and a sense that we re/built all this on sand.
So much has changed, I said.
So little has changed, my partner said.
This is no one's fault and everyone's.

If pandemic then why not cancer?
Why not a shiny new job and a unicorn
extending her long neck toward us
flaring her wet nostrils, whispering,
I'm an endangered species and so are you. 
There's a phrase that medical types use:
If you hear hoofbeats, it's probably horses, not zebras.
A migraine, not a brain tumor, but people
in rare disease groups post zebras as their avatars.
Black stripes like cracks in the hard white desert.