community, memory, neighborhood, Purpose, Relationships, spirit

Anniversaries are Dates on Steroids

I overhear a woman outside chatting with two neighbors. She says, “Twenty-four years ago today, I lost my brother.” She slow-shakes her head. “It’s hard to believe, 24 years.”

One neighbor asks, “What are you noticing? What do you miss the most?”

“Having someone who cares.”

A year ago Thursday was the first day I kept my son home, one day ahead of the county-wide school lockdown. The previous evening, a Wednesday, we went out to our favorite Vietnamese place and sat down for bowls of pho. We knew something was coming to an end and that this could be our last time in a restaurant. For a year, now longer? I could never have imagined. Like the woman outside, I am slow-shaking my head. 

Continue reading “Anniversaries are Dates on Steroids”
Art, Creativity, Poetry, Writing

Like Riding

Valenti VeloTykes

How to write a poem
is one thing you thought you’d never forget
but after a while even the wobble escapes you.
Wheels warp, refuse to align.
Months of days passing the place you stashed it
before you notice it’s gone.
Stolen? At first it seems so, a ragged hole
the size of your fist
in the door just below the lock.

Continue reading “Like Riding”

body, Poetry

Office Hours


Petals from nameless tress, blossoms pink as sisters
edge sidewalk, gutters, stairs
drawing a perfect pillowed frame around everything that separates us.

With a form to cement the end
of a project that’s kept her here eight years,
she stands at the threshold
of my office. Her offering of gratitude
a satchel of lotions and oils, heavy with the perfume of peach flowers.
The girl in me feels the kiss of a sundress on her calves. Remember
grass? Body paint, sun-streaked boys,
pennants stained with soot and crushed blackberries,
gymnastic arcing bonfires,
bare arms in pas de deux with dusk.
Continue reading “Office Hours”

Divorce, Growing Up, Things I Can

63. Things I Can Recite: Alas, Poor Yorick

denmark-girl-at-kronborg-castle-garrisonsIt’s July 9th and raining again. My former father-in-law sends me photos of my son at the beach on an island in Lake Michigan. Bug is scrabbling on the shore near his two cousins. They are all turned away from each other, each bent over a single small universe of sand. The girls are 12 and 10 now. I held them when they were babies. They were my nieces before. Now they are just someone else’s children.

Sorrow again.

Or rather, sorrow as always.

In Pacific Heights, the 1990 thriller that put even the most liberal of us squarely on the side of monied landlords, a happy couple invites the dude to move in. He does, and proceeds to lay waste to an entire world one light fixture at a time.

This sorrow here with me? He is my tenant from hell. It is hard to believe he once so completely charmed me, but he must have.

Back when the pages of my 8th-grade diary needed an indigo flourish, he came oozing up from the spiral binding and began scoring my lines with crenelations. He had callouses and clean fingernails, serving up a Darcy-Heathcliff cocktail with a twist of Bond. It took a few years and a semester of college English Lit to peel back the pinstripes. He was the Danish prince all along and stopped bothering to claim otherwise. Now he’s as indelible as he is unmistakable, moping around the crumbling grounds in a state of masturbatory melancholy that borders on solipsism.

It’s too late to eject him.

I’m too mortgaged to try.

What came before? I see a picture of myself at 10 or 12 on a beach in New Jersey. The snapshot catches me mid-leap in the surf, a dragonfly in amber. Water arcs from the bucket in my hand and my friend shrieks. Her note twinges the air, humming across years like wings. We are neon streaks, brown limbs, airborne, foam.

I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The faithful prince catches me again and twines my feet in those calligraphic lines. He promises me Elsinore and all her ghosts, as if such an offer holds any appeal. I climb the stone steps still trailing silver thread, making my way to the keep. A trap door opens in the floor and I follow the stairs as they spiral down and away. Back to apotheca. To kitchen. To dungeon. I trace the walls again, again, walls unbroken by portculis or bridge.

I remember windows when he lets me.

Sorrow. My voice. My lodger.

My common-law spouse.

The shape of the skull on my shoulders, the heft of it in my hand.


Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, Keenpress for National Geographic

People Watching, Things I Can

57. Things I Can Smooth: The Lines

She perches on the powder-blue cushion that pads her brass vanity chair. Lifting her chin, she smooths a dab of cold cream into the barchan expanse of her throat. The tray on the counter is mirrors and filigree. It holds the fluted light, reflecting back a tessellation of silver lipstick tubes. They stand alongside brow combs and kohl pencils, upright in frames whorled with beads and rhinestones.

Fanning out on the glinting surface are brushes thin as needles and broad as petals, brushes as coarse as thistle and fine as down, virgin brushes and brushes worn to nubs. For the baser applications, tissues the color of an Easter sky pop from the top of a crocheted box. Cotton balls in a nesting tower press their breathy faces against the glass.

At her back, a wooden cabinet with worn brass handles opens to stacks of folded washcloths and bath towels. The linen fits in a perfect geometry between containers holding a disco-flash plastic spectrum: Pert and Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, Aqua Net and Johnson’s Detangling Spray. There, too, extra bars of scented soap, boxes of band-aids for every joint and laceration, hair nets and pink sponge curlers and shower caps and amber tonics with squat-lettered labels fading into oily glass.

Up around the ceiling and down to the chrome fixtures and hidden pipes drifts a perfume of clay dust and crushed flower, spun cotton and wood stain.

From a round box, she lifts a fluffed ball the size of a kitten. Powder whooshes just inside the low lace neckline of her satin slip. She plucks from a bouquet of combs and hairbrushes a pick to fluff her thinning auburn curls.

On the side of the makeup case she carries in her purse is a tiny mirror. She chooses a tube from among the silver array and twists it awake, tracing color across her mouth before dropping the lipstick in the case and snapping it shut. In the small rectangle of glass, her lips peel back. She frees a blue tissue and dabs a coral smudge from her teeth.


Growing Up, Parenting, Things I Can

44. Things I Can Remember: The Lyrics

“Can you sing tonight?”

This request stuns me silent. It is an hour past bedtime. The bath and books are done and we’re actually in bed, which is no small feat at the end of a day involving a swimming pool, a river kayak, and a playground. He’s wiggly. He’s stalling.

What stuns me more than his request is the realization that I don’t remember which lullabies used to accompany us during this sweet, sleepy time. Half a year has passed at least. Maybe more? A parent once wrote that none of us knows when it’s the last time we read Goodnight Moon out loud, or the last time we give our kiddo a piggyback. Only later, when weeks have passed or maybe months, do we realize we’re characters in a whole new chapter. The one before is over and we failed to catch the moment the page turned.

For Bug and me, singing slipped away as silent as seasons. December 2013 is the most recent reference to bedtime songs here on SmirkPretty. Those nights of music are now impossibly long ago. He’s already tall enough to fill the bed.

Tonight, though, he cuddles up against me.

“Baby Beluga?” I ask.

He scrunches up his nose and shakes his head. “Anything besides that one.”

I stroke his damp hair. “You know what’s weird? I don’t remember any of the other songs we used to sing at bedtime. Do you?”

He thinks for a minute. “Oh yeah! ‘The Cat Came Back.’ And also ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain.'”

Yes. Our trio of lullabies comes riding the current and spills over me. The same three songs, every night for what seemed like forever but turned out to be just a blink.

So I begin.

Old Mr. Johnson had troubles of his own,
he had a yellow cat that wouldn’t leave his home.

My lips shape the words, my throat the melody. It comes from somewhere other than conscious memory, rising from down in that pocket of the brain where the old rituals live. The lyrics are stored deep in there alongside maps of my childhood neighborhood and the uncanny ability, even after neglecting to touch a piano for decades, to play Chopsticks flawlessly on the first go.

I understand now that this moment could be the first in a reawakening of bedtime music, or might be the farewell tour. The only certainty is that it’s here now.

They thought he was a goner
but the cat came back,
he just couldn’t stay away.

Bug’s head settles on my shoulder and I sing each line, full and slow. My voice wraps itself around my boy. He falls into its waiting arms and lets it carry him to sleep.

Love, Relationships

Don’t Blink

Maybe when the moving van is idling in the driveway. Or as the plane lifts off. Maybe when the only ones left encircle the bed with whispers of permission. Or when chain link goes up around the place where lovers learned to fox trot long before they could imagine what would be lost.

It’s rarely so clear when we have our last shot.

Endings don’t come with a narrative pause.

When they do, the impulse is to fold like shutters. Pain approaches on horseback. Voiceless momentum, the vibration down low, the faint stink of iron and scorched powder. Get small and douse the lights. Better yet, dash out the side door and don’t look back.

My grandmother told me about the dust coming like night. More than a vision of it choking out the horizon, it was a growling, quickening pulse. Like the collective hackles of every living thing — mule deer, jackrabbit, gnat — bristled to action. Burrow. Batten down the hatches. Take cover.


It takes an act of will to unclench. That ending is not going to put on rouge or slow its gait. To look it right in the eye means staring down something whose ugly keeps expanding as it shambles into view. No wonder the urge is to cut it off before it can fill the frame. Call it claiming the story. Call it authorship. Call it power.

Call it for the cowardice it is.

Dare instead to turn towards that death. Creak open. Blink clear. See the arrival of the departure.

See it whole.

The architecture. The clay shards. Cracked paint, rusted locks, weathered lips. The polished steel fragment of a fallen bridge.

See the lines in its face. The leathered scar that masks its soft place.

Dare to love completely what you already mourn.

The chance won’t come again.


Family, Fitness

Kid Gloves

From the steamer trunk where we keep the dress-up clothes I unfold a pair of ivory gloves. Tiny rhinestones dust the wrist and blanket stitches trace the bones. I slip them on. Their buttery grip hugs my skin. I can barely bend into a fist, but that’s not what they were for.

Her voice flits in from somewhere back then. Little golden-haired me, cracking my knuckles. She, fretting.

“Oh, sugar. Don’t do that. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older.”

How is a kid supposed to consider her own hands? Her own faraway adulthood? The mind, kinder than the most well-meaning loved ones, guards against premature knowledge of time’s merciless work.

The threat’s vague consequence quavered at the edge of focus and refused to sharpen. Would my busted flesh swell taut and hot? Maybe, but I couldn’t stop. I took my knuckles into the bedroom, the shower. Shame pricked, echoing every snap. There I would be at 40, I imagined, carrying regret like a scar, tucking once-were-lovely hands into kidskin shrouds.

In the trunk now is her scent. Maybe it’s the scent of her house? By the time I knew her, one was the other. Traces of it slip loose of language. Musty? Floral? Sort of like old dollar bills. And bath powder. It’s nicer than it sounds.

I pull off the gloves and begin to look through things my little boy has ignored. A few pieces of coral costume jewelry. Pins with cloisonné baubles dangling from gold chains. I unfold a floor-length embroidered Chinese robe. It is far too big for my bird-boned grandmother, but who in the world would have worn it? I dig deeper. Tucked into the corner of the trunk is the aquamarine pillbox hat, all metallic threads and glittery flourish. Once she had a dress that matched. I’ve seen the faded photos but they don’t begin to capture the gleam. This getup belongs in a Mardi Gras parade.

At the bottom of the trunk rests a folded, floral something-or-other. Table linen? An apron? I packed it all in a rush before the house and all its contents were sold at auction. I shake the fabric out to its full length and marvel at this piece of her.

I had forgotten how bright my grandmother’s taste. Big rust and teal flowers leap across a creamy field. It is a sundress, darted and tailored while also falling out in soft flare. The whole creation is edged in a turquoise border that rises into ribbon-thin straps. It is a masterpiece. I trace the tiny seams.

We say, “I wish I’d known them when they were young.” Maybe if we don’t meet them as children, it’s a failure of imagination, not timing. Every one of us is still a kid, still climbing the tree, still ducking from a blow, still burning for that first kiss. I knew her as a girl without even realizing it. I was busy looking at my hands picturing them old. She was looking at hers, remembering.

She danced in this dress. She danced even when she couldn’t anymore. I try to imagine her in it, her burgundy curls kissing her bare neck and shoulders. That image, too, refuses to sharpen into view.

I do know this: before children, my grandmother was a petite hourglass of a thing. My barrel chest would have swallowed hers whole with room left for dessert, yet her cup size was at least three times mine. Even before she began to shrink, the top of her head barely grazed my chin. She always wore lipstick.

I hug the dress close, carry it to my room, and shed my jeans.

With deep breath and a little tug, the zipper – did it really just do that? – makes it over my ribs. Fabric hugs me in a pinch at the waist. The chest gapes open enough to stow a sack of flour but the rest of it slips like gift wrap around my frame.

I couldn’t be shaped more differently than the woman who first inhabited this dress, but it stands a chance. I wish I could give her a fashion show. The last of those was nearly twelve years ago and the other way around. I sat in her bedroom and helped her try on the blue chiffon she chose to wear into the ground. How is a young woman supposed to consider death? The mind, still kinder than truth, continues to stand to stand guard. We laughed together on her bed. It never occurred to me that it would be the last visit, even as we chose her pallbearers and picked out her silk slip.

On that trip to Oklahoma as in all the others, I ran out into the early morning, charging up past farms to Cemetery Hill and back down around the 4-mile loop. Flushed and stinking, I stretched in her living room while she ate breakfast in her robe. “You’re such a strong girl,” she said, patting my thigh with a powder-milk hand. I felt immense next to her. Bovine. But there in her own body, she was giddy with the memory of motion. “I used to touch the floor,” she said. “With my palms flat like this.” She tried it, right there in her robe, giggling as she dangled her tiny fingers and reached.

The ghost girl twirled into view. Her hips swayed. I couldn’t even see her right there next to me, fanning out those feathery hands. She was still a dancer, still turning one pirouette after another into breathless almost-flight.

I understand now because I feel it too.

Not in the dress which I peel off and hang in my closet. No, her pretty was – is – so much finer than mine.

No, I feel it here in this other now.

Now, when I go down to the basement. When I wrap my hands three times at the wrist then up through the fingers, locking the thumb. The music is cranked to a click shy of distortion. Megadeth. Nirvana. Anything that drives. No sleep till – pow pow – Brooklyn! I watch the man and lick my lips.

Then the bell.


I use my teeth and rip the Velcro tighter on the glove. My hands tighten to fists.

I am up, one – one two. Remembering the rhythm but also slipping outside of it. The first time we went three rounds. Then four. Then, once, half drunk on Shock Top, we cussed and slogged through five rounds. I know retreat is not an option so I give in. The weak left, the strange feet, the wobble. Then, the grrr, the slam, squatting for the upper cut, shuffling for the left hook that always feels like a wet noodle compared to the right. There is a clock but no time. The only event is this shuffle, this tuck, this goddamned bag, this blow. Except that it’s not true, at least not yet, because when the exertion is so total, I’m counting every beat. When he grunts, 30 more seconds, come on, I think fuck. Then haul back, hands up, wham.

When I forget to keep the curl tight inside the glove, all the padding in the world doesn’t help. I feel the crack and the moment of wrong impact a split second too late. The skin slips. There is no rest. The heavy bag lets you know if you’ve slacked or misjudged. It smirks while you wobble. So, I zero in. I hunker down, square myself, and pound.

In the morning, my body groans in the shower then winces its way into trousers. Knuckles burn. On my way out the door, I double back, remembering to take the dress. On my lunch hour, a co-worker sends me past all the bargain cleaners with on-site tailors to the custom seamstress one neighborhood over, telling me that suffering the cost is better than regretting a discount.

The bell chimes as I open the door. From between poofs of sheathed tuille, a little woman pops out and scowls. “What you need done?” She is built like my grandmother but does not smile as much. She scoots me into a dressing room. “You put it on,” she points and disappears.

Under the fluorescent lights, I strip down. Five panes of glass stretch to the ceiling, each claiming a unique angle. I step to a platform scuffed with the eager feet of hundreds of brides-to-be. I drop the dress over my bare shoulders and freeze. Then I flex, unsure if I’m seeing something real. Whose back is this? The sea-blue ribbon tips over and the zipper gapes. Muscle rises there, rippling, coarsely cut. The scapulae, biting against ridges like the twisted braid of a banyan tree. Can this be me?

The tailor returns with a hedgehog of glinting quills strapped to her forearm. Gathering and folding, she tut-tuts. The gap is huge at my schoolboy chest but she does her best. “Not easy,” she says. “Have to cut. See? Here and here. Line is. . . tricky.” The dress is so many shapes in two different fabrics. “No one make like this now,” she says. “Nice,” she says. She bends to the crenellated hem at the foot where the inverted castle wall notches up into the field of the skirt. “Take long time to make.”

She orders me to reach for the ceiling. My arms shriek. Last night’s 5 ½ rounds were a rout. I made all the moves but the bag did all the damage. The tailor steps back and assesses. The skirt flares from my waist and kisses my calves. I twine my hands together in the air. The scrape there, the purple place between the pinky and the ring finger of my right hand, barks. I’d let my grip fall open at the wrong moment and I’m paying today. On a sweaty strip of webbing now limp in the bottom of a laundry bag, a bit of my flesh festers.

“You have to wear bra,” she says, grabbing at my breast and getting a fistful of the impossible darts. “Still too big here. Okay?”

“Yes,” I say. “Okay.”

She leaves and I straighten the straps, catching sight of my hands. Brown from the sun. Bruised. They are dry, too. I’ve never had the discipline for the Pond’s my grandmother applied religiously. Here, a sheath of rattlesnake diamonds. I turn in a slow circle. The skirt whispers open

Oh, sugar. You’ll have to wear gloves when you’re older

and I stretch my bruised hands wide.

Divorce, Poetry


This is the ritual. Like smoke
braiding then falling then
choking. We fumble
(at least one of us does)
unwinding ribbons of cabbage and shrimp.
We are so civil. So kind.

The sun is a slow river
of lava rolling over the windshield of a car
that growls at the curb. Heat seeps in
through the cracks around the door
and eats at the legs
of our narrow table.

How can he be
so quiet? So calm?
I want to cry
out for the server to close the curtains
and turn up the chill, to cry
for the sake of noise.
I strain to say
how good it is we survived
and he says Yes, this is what we do.
This is how it is.
So I press on
the scorched balls of my feet (to stanch
the boil or start it?)
but he does not
call for ice. He does not shudder
from the quiet. He’s never known
what it is to be a woman

We rate our happiness on a sliding scale.
I felt big things
always, never anything as tiny
as a skewered curl of shrimp
poised over sweet vinegar in a tea bowl.

This man will be a friend
of sorts even though he opens the door
for me on my way in and
in the slope thrusting up
before us.
He waits
for me to step through. I want to marry
myself. If such a thing could be done,
if by walking backward
across the face
of the clock, I could take the weight
of the girl who shares my name
and let her lean here on this older
version. The one across the table
is old too
but I would not be so warm
or pleased
or waiting at the door
with a white smile.
I would be the one
who grips the earth
and her
when she forgets how to keep her skin
around her bones
and carry her

over the threshold.
I would reach to loosen the cord
at the volcano’s neck
and take the first step
into its spilling open

Choices, Family

Keep Stirring

When you heat the sugar and butter, you have to keep the temperature low. Never stop stirring. This means either working backwards or having a helper handy. Ideally both. When it is time for the vanilla, you will not be digging in the cabinet for it, unless you like your caramel smoked. The candy thermometer will become goopy and steamed, the phone will ring, and you will remember you forgot to butter the pan. Do not turn around. Whoever is on the other end cannot chop the pecans for you, and that person has already bought Christmas cupcakes for her kid’s class.
You wanted to use your hands. This is what you get: a burnt fingertip from believing the thick taupe suede to be a solid thing, just because your tongue was fooled into longing for something it would have had anyway, given one teaspoon of restraint.
Nothing you buy from the store will be half as good as even your most mediocre effort. This is what you know to be true, even if the sequined and tiara-studded confections behind the glass case whisper their siren song. Keep stirring.
Do not check the recipe again or grab ice for your blister. You know the steps by heart. You know the hard-ball stage cannot be rushed and will never be passed – never, because the kitchen clock always moves as if treacle has gummed the gears. Turn down the flame. You should not be able to hear it roar. The only sound that will come is the low moan of the air making its sluggish escape from the candy as it roils. Keep the spoon moving.
The recipe card is written in your grandmother’s script. Shaky, even then. What a thing, her hand: here and also not. Perhaps alive somewhere, in its way, because of microbes and the relentless pull of decay and rebirth everywhere, even in that crimson box they lowered into an Oklahoma hilltop a decade ago. A decade!
This, too: she, alive and also not. The jagged flourish of her script is frozen in motion all the way onto the next line. The 3×5 card is yellowing and blotched with boiled fat, caramelized Karo, and something hard. Another dish, maybe? This recipe, caught in the holiday crossfire. Cornbread stuffing, perhaps, or the clove and orange peel glistening on the crusted pink hide of the sacrificial ham.
She did not stop until her heart did. But which was she? The heart? Or the girl whose powdered cheeks betrayed a heady blush as the boy whirled her across the dance floor? She kept her hands so pliable, the old lady skin as delicate as honeysuckle petals and just as fragrant. How she managed this is one of life’s great mysteries. She stood over boiling sugars and popping Crisco. She took up the catfish who’d been, just that morning, blissfully sucking mud at the bottom of Murray lake, and dragged the poor fellow through bread crumbs and egg before releasing him to his oily fate. She donned the apron and held at least one corner of that restaurant’s kitchen on the hollow bones of her narrow scapulae.
Even so, nothing caved in. No part of her contracted into hardness. The blisters didn’t callous and the wounds of her unplanned servitude never thickened into scars.
When she was in her final year and no longer venturing near the stove, she asked me to rub her hands. Beneath that most delicate tissue purpled like Monet’s garden were thick, arthritic roots delving down to the springs below, blocking the way. She ached all over. “Oh, sugar, it hurts something awful.” She had spent a lifetime trying to restrain the tears ducking just behind her voice. She’d spent that same lifetime failing.
I took her hand and pressed into the tender meat between the thumb and forefinger, holding back my full strength because by then, she was made of air and moonless night. Her marrow had long since leached out into the prairie grass for the copper cattle and oil rigs to pull back up when the time is right.
Those last years, she was draining away but age had not taken her best self, only the extra, the unneeded weight, the constraining thoughts. The only things left were softness and pain. Also those relentless tears. Also the bottomless hunger for touch.
They say that if luck favors us (or scorns us, as the case may be) with a long enough life, each of us returns to infancy.
With my fingers, I drained what I could of the useless strength in her hands. What was the use of muscle and its dedicated ache? What did she need with holding? I had taken up her place at the stove, the ink, as the bearer of a name on my own more robust shoulder blades. My only job was to help guide her back gently to the womb of a woman waiting on a hill in the morning sun. That matriarch had herself returned to forgiving clay. At last, the serrated edges were worn from her mother’s tongue.
In the trunk I hauled from the foot of my grandmother’s bed into my own home 1500 miles away, I find the gloves she had worn in an earlier life. The embroidered delicacies are white kid and cotton, hand stitched and studded with graying rhinestones. Also from that steamer trunk rises a gust of the same aging honeysuckle that clung to her and forever softened her.
This was her secret? Something so simple? The gloves do not fit over my swollen knuckles. Thick digits already leathered in the first third of my time on this planet strain at the seams (though I do try to force myself into that silken sheath. Who wouldn’t?) I put them away for a keepsake since they will never grow to envelop me nor will I, God willing, ever shrink sufficiently to squeeze in.
I close the trunk and wonder if her determination to stay soft was the toughest part of her. Her man may have cornered her in that crucible in the back of the restaurant. Necessity may have demanded she plunge her hands into whole chickens and dice bushels of yellow onions for the soup. She may not have had any real choice but to stir and stir those cauldrons of beef and butter beans for paying customers. Kids and mortgages greeted the young, bewildered families at the end of the war. And maybe it was impossible to buck a man built of the same stuff of stud bulls and dust bowl hickories.
Maybe all of this is true.
Also, she chose.
Do not be fooled: selecting from among just one option is its own act of defiance. Submission is never truly complete as long as the one doing it decides to submit. Somewhere down below even the most bending grass is one deep root that cannot be split, not even with the sharpest spade.
And so she stayed. With him, she stayed:
Soft, the most tender, and forever threatening to tremble into a watery mess. She stayed:
Alive ten years beyond him, then a few more. She was the one whose hands rested in the warm grip of her grown sons and granddaughters during her final months. It was her timeline that claimed a stretch in which the tears could come without reprimand. She let them come and found, to no one’s surprise but her own, that on the other side of pain, when someone finally rubs it free, all that’s left is a heap of stupid giggles, memories of first kisses and big-eared boys, and a craving for the caramels made in the cluttered kitchens of the women who taught us to keep stirring.