Proceedings: Writers Read Their Work II: Poetry, Fiction, and Erotica: Leah Gardner

Sewing
Leah Gardner

I used to watch my grandmother sew,
The hum of her Singer coaxing troublesome seams in to place,
Fitting cloth gently and meticulously to meet her design,
Mental blueprints of how things should be
evolving to perfection under her determined hands.


I remember her endless knitting,
Quilts and blankets crafted throughout long winters,
Urging each intricate pattern in to symetrical formation,
Her wrinkling hands painstakingly attempting to save the world
with afghans and bedspreads.


My grandmother knitted while I endured endless treatments for relentless tumors,
My sight dimming as those blankets multiplied,
Her hands flying over recalcitrant cloth
After my mother suffered a stroke,
worry creased her eyes but her fingers remained steady,
Her hands stoically mending pants
The day her mother forgot what year it was.


She understands patterns,
Precisely drawn specifications for the way reality should unfold,
Pieces that she can reshape when they rip or fray at the edges,
People she loves subject to her emotional framework.
This is why we’ve failed one another.


I hear ripping sometimes in my dreams,
As she stands in the cold shredding that poster,
A college GLBT flier with my name listed as a contact in my dorm’s lobby
fragmenting between desperate fingers,
Her hysterical hands ferociously erasing the evidence with quick ripping motions,
Hands so used to creating bent on destruction,
Pieces sharp and taunting in her wrinkled palms,
Paper cuts dotting the pads of her skilled fingers.


“What are you?”
She shrieked in hysteria,
“Did somebody lure you in to this?
Are you friends with these people?
Quit this group or you’ll break your grandfather’s heart.”
I can almost see her brain trying to sew,
patch the seams again,
Fit the cloth of my failure in her Singer and rework the flaws,
Her hands sifting empty air in search of coherent pieces.


She made me a new bedspread last year,
And I never could demonstrate much enthusiasm for it,
Because I know the danger of sewing,
Careful hands designing each square with rigid determination,
A botched section unraveled and reworked until it is flawless,
Crooked edges or variations in texture forbidden in these unyielding hands.
As I run my queer fingers over this smooth bedspread,
I know I will never inherit the art of sewing.


Tainted
Leah Gardner

His skin reeks of relentless nicotine,
His flesh slimy and slick under my frigid fingers,
But I am supposed to like this,
I repeat monotonously as he drives his gritty tongue
Hot and stale between my teeth,
That this is what I am supposed to anticipate,
What fourteen years has bred me to desire.


Even as those summer sheets rancid with sweat permeate my nostrils,
“Man Eater” pulses from the next room,
fear gnaws at my swimming thoughts,
I think I am supposed to like this.


My hands trace his ass,
That moist perspiring skin leeching in to my fingers,
All of him drowning me in some eternal nicotine hell,
My mind with my best friend one hundred miles away caressing her skin,
Planning, scheming as my fingers fumble with his sticky balls,
Planning to tell her I did it,
Tell her at fourteen I acted on what all girls want.


Even as Hall and Oates permeate my mind,
Because I can’t focus on what my fingers are working at,
My mouth dry with reality exploding like the rhythm through the wall,
“Oh, here she comes.
Watch out boy.
She’ll chew you up.”


My hands dripping with sweat and his nicotine-tainted cum,
His fingers hard and unwashed,
The sheets clinging to my fourteen-year old fright,
I know I am supposed to like this,
Because women want this,
expect this,
And I’m struggling for that tingling to descend.


I poison my fingers in his privates,
Willing that same intense need that erupts when I touch my best friend’s hand,
Desperate to like this,
Because I am supposed to need this,
Am supposed to anticipate his fingers inside me,
But I feel nothing but nausea,
Nothing but loathing for my hands in his pants,
Nothing but greasy and scared and trapped by these repulsive sheets.


I can’t stop thinking of her,
Can’t make my fingers dream of masculine skin.
I can’t do this!
Even though I am fourteen and know now I am not normal.
I unwind my tainted fingers from him,
peel the sheets from my mutant flesh,
Shove him away with some incoherent apology,
Fumble with my sneakers,
The laces sticky with him and my shame.
I don’t ever want to wear them again.


I can’t think anymore,
Can’t focus on anything but the smell of my fingers,
That stale, permanent memory of my dissembling,
Hot indelibly etched stains I will try to wash out with soap all night,
The stains I must endure because I am fourteen,
Knowing I only desire women.


Tears
Leah Gardner


I can still feel the sting of pavement shredding my knee,
Hot tears of pain rising to my eyes,
My father standing above me,
His disgust heavy in the air,
“I don’t have time for sissies.
Get up. Stop this nonsense.”


There was never a good time to cry.
Unsensored emotions were just like tears,
Messy, childish, embarrassing frailties.
My father flicked disappointment or fear away with a flash of angry words,
“Stop whining little girl.
Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.”


He locked his feelings up tight,
Grimly setting his jaw in silence
As his father relinquished his body to cancer,
Analyzing each stage of his deterioration
As if processing mathematical equasions.
I never saw my father cry.


I learned not to say what mattered most,
Those I loved victims of my coldness,
Hard edges creasing my carefully formulated words,
The fear of pain as humiliating as that first tear drop,
Unguarded sentences as wrenching as years of contained sobs.


I’ve lost people because of my fear,
Scared of my own gentleness,
Somehow equating vulnerability with shame,
Afraid to say unedited words without a safety net,
A place to run when the response is unclear.


But right now so many things are making me cry.
Each word raw as life itself,
Every emotion hot, fierce,
Every thought more honest and painful than ever.
I can’t hold back any longer!


I’m starting to respect these tears,
Their wet expulsion showing me how to be free.
Though I know life is unfair and unjust,
Though I fear losing you more with every word I say,
I fear numbness even more,
Fear ever setting my jaw like my father,
walking away from what matters most.


So I’m not afraid to say I have tears in my eyes,
That I’m scared of life’s rough edges,
That I hate the unanswerable questions between us,
That I am terrified of where I am standing now,
But I am not scared of my tears.


Vision
Leah Gardner

My friend Dwayne is a proud man,
Gay pride jubilant and vital,
Burning strong and steady amid all that St. Louis inner city heat,
This crazy gay boy force bursting from him,
So strident I want to inhale every last ounce.


Dwayne is a musician,
His fingers nimbly caressing those yielding piano keys,
Notes tumbling from his fingertips flawless and determined,
His music like electrical current
driving him miles beyond ordinary.


Dwayne is scared though,
And fear clouds his phrases often,
This man who knows dozens who evolved in to old men too fast,
This rock who defies bigotry and idiocy with steel grit,
A man who will accept any musical challenge with grace,
This man’s eye sight is fading,
And he is terrified.


He rarely articulates this fear,
But I hear it in that desperation edging his questions,
That finely cut trace of horror that laces bad dreams.
I hear it when he grumbles about learning blind skills,
Learning to read computer screens through synthetic speech,
Learning to navigate his neighborhood without eyes,
Learning to retrieve some dropped item without visual assistance.


He asks me if it gets easier,
And I know he fears reaching infinite darkness,
Fears getting lost somewhere without hope of regaining his stride,
Fears waking up with nothing but tears streaming from his eyes,
The light bulb dead and irreparable.


This man who has seen so much,
Fought so much,
played so much,
Is losing the path,
And I want to shake him, shout at him,
Make him see this is no excuse to surrender,
But this is war,
The same war he fights every time some ignorant fool yells,
“Fucking faggot!”,
The same war he’s fought to drench himself in queer fire
in a world shrieking with unrelenting violence.


I want to hug this proud human being,
This man who fears his fading sight more than anything in his life,
And dig my fingers in to his shoulders hard and rough,
Because I want him to wake up,
To a light other than eye sight,
And see beyond,
See this new war like every other one he has fought,
And I want to say, “Dwayne, you’re losing your sight.
But damn it man, don’t you ever lose your vision”.