I remember that one tuesday after my first year of college
you took me shopping and told me you wanted to get me
a nice white dress.
you said, “my baby, she’s going to graduate college soon,”
and picked a beautiful lace dress off the sale rack, a smile
on your face I hadn’t seen since my sister was born, and then
you told the woman at the cash register, “can you believe it?
my daughter is going to graduate college. and I didn’t even
finish my first year of high school.”
the woman at the register smiled at us both, even though
the shop was crowded and she was probably tired. you
were tired too, because you drove all the way to boston
by yourself after work, just to come pick me up from school.
I remember when I was young, you told me smiles made you tired.
you smiled this day. you always said you hated your smile,
because growing up you didn’t have the best teeth, but I loved to
see your smile, because it reminded me that you, too, could be happy.
the woman at the cash register rung the dress.
your frown is a shipwreck. a car crash.
an allergic reaction. an asthma attack.
my lungs are in a panic, and I find myself already looking for an exit.
“I thought it was on sale,” you said. the woman apologized,
and when you told me, “I’m sorry, I can’t get it, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,”
you didn’t look at me.
when we left the store with nothing,
I pretended I didn’t see you crying.
I wanted to tell you it was okay, that it wasn’t a big deal,
but the bitterness that burned in my throat burned my eyes, too,
like spoon-fed honey does, crawling down my throat like slugs,
all because someone put a dress on a sale rack
because they didn’t want it.
mom, if my throat didn’t burn, I would have told you
I wish your smiles weren’t always ghosts, fleeting things that
come and go like a lost relative does. I wanted to tell you that
my mother’s happiness wasn’t a lost relative, spoon-fed bitter
and cold, whose frown feels like an accident, unavoidable,
that chokes us both like the lace on the dress does.
I would have told you your existence isn’t an accident,
like the wrong dress on a sale rack.
I would have told you
I didn’t cry because of the dress, that I didn’t want
the dress not because I didn’t think it was pretty,
but because that dress made you unhappy.
I would have told you
I cried because you couldn’t be happy.