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James went first because James went first. The year I was six
and he eight, when we invited all the kids on the block—Linda
little Amy, Jenna and Adie and her brother Ludie the snake boy—
to slide on our Slip-n-Slide in the backyard. James pulled the orange slip
out of the garage in a wrinkled heap and brought it out back by the
fishpond. The pond where I fed my favorite fish too much and
Those were the years we still had money, when Mom still carved
out of conspicuous bolts of brushed silk, linen, and furry, beige
James held one end, and Ludie the other, backing away from each
long arms outstretched but bent at the elbows as if pulling hot
from an oven. They laid the Slip-n-Slide out across the lawn,
the garden hose to the orange plastic nozzle, and watched as the
filled and shone with warm and then cold summer hose water.
James went first because he always went first—not because he
was the oldest or
the tallest or the least smart of all the kids. He went first because
the protest, the jerking one-footed whines of girls with smaller
voices, and smaller, white thighs. I was obsessed with germs that
wouldn’t have eaten at all if I had known that to make it, someone,
had to take it into their hands. The butcher, with slabs of meat
and bone, wrapping it up
in gleaming, invisible cellophane. The maid, washing lettuce,
tearing it to shreds
before washing it again and placing it in a heap in the crisper. Even
washing the boneless pork under the faucet before dipping it into silt
turning it over, and over, and again, before laying it softly in the
sizzling copper pan.
At dinner, when no one was watching—no one ever did—James
would lean over
and let out his long, hot tongue. He’d lick his lips, my meat, the
edge of my milk
glass, or the tight, cold corner of my mouth. So he slid first down
He backed up to the fence and took off full speed, tight-fisted and
leaning into his leap,
belly-down, sliding in a jagged, wild line. And his sudden wailing
to come from somewhere in his shining, glassy eyes. It took hours
for the doctors
to extract the shards of glass from his chest and stomach, his skinny
A broken jar? Camping lamp? No one knew. But when I went,
finally, to that
tall white bed where he lay for one long afternoon, I let out my
small, cool tongue
and ran it up his peach-fuzzed arm from wrist to elbow to shoulder
and for one day, I was first, and no one was looking.
This is how it happens. You are just out of the shower maybe
in the afternoon when your lover comes up behind you and kisses you
on the shoulder. You turn, kiss back. And you even remind yourself,
during that first heavy breath or fall to the bed—I am not
going to close my eyes. But you cannot help yourself and you
close your eyes, forgetting your promise, and you see him.
A figure, moving form, enormous shadow appearing somewhere
between your eyelids and the air. There he is above you
and for a moment you are happy about it, amazed to feel again
what it is to be that small. How exquisite your tiny finger,
how fragile the bones of your wrists. You see how easily
your thigh fits in a hand, your shin in a mouth, your buttocks
in the crook of a hip—how easy it is then to be filled.
This is real to you: this is what you turn sex into.
You feel your knees pushed open with thick warm thumbs and
you can feel your knees are skinned and then you see them
getting skinned, you see yourself beyond that shadow.
You see your white skates on the drive, the slope of the tar,
and into this vision you escape. Leave. Cease to exist.
You are gone from the place of the thin bed and the blue panties
caught around an ankle. Someone else has taken your place.
You then are on the driveway and your cat is in the flowerbed
and your mother looks out the kitchen window at you in your
good dress which you are not supposed to wear with skates.
You skate in circles and watch the sky, picking shapes
out of clouds—turtle, clipper ship, heart, hand.
Your mother tells you Watch where you are going young lady.
And even before you skin your knees you feel something
slowly rising in your throat, the way the cream lifts every time
from the milk in the glass bottle that arrive on Sundays,
no matter how many times your mother shakes it up for you.
It rises in you like that—thick and lukewarm as your father’s skin.
The taste inches up but you keep skating, try to make the circles
perfect and small, try to smell the beefsteaks on the barbeque
in the side yard where your father calls over the fence
to the neighbor, saying This is the life. But when you hear
his voice it is enough to send you down. You fall.
Your knees are skinned and full of rocks but you’re almost
you again, panties wrapped around an ankle, undershirt pushed up.
You hear your breathing and his breathing. You’re hot.
Your eyes are open again, staring at something they
don’t even see. And when finally it happens you realize
that it isn’t your father filling you this time, he is
only making you fall. It hits you that you’ve done it again:
this shrinking into someone, then somewhere else. It is always
the same. You cannot control it. You never learned to skate.
You are there in your grown up bed with your lover and you have
just made love and he says Isn’t sex amazing and you say Yes.
-from Human Nature: Poems
BIO: Alice Anderson is the author of Human Nature: Poems, which won the Elmer Holmes Bobst Prize for Emerging Writers from NYU, the Best First Book Prize from the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and was short listed for for both The Bluestem and the Walt Whitman Prize. Human Nature earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and rave reviews from Library Journal, Booklist, and The Boston Review of Books. Anderson holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is the recipient of The Plum Review Prize and the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Prize. Her poems appear in journals such as New York Quarterly, New Letters, Agni, and The Plum Review. Poems are featured in the anthologies On The Verge: Emerging Poets and Artists; American Poetry, The Next Generation; and The Why and Later, Poets Speak on Rape. Anderson's classic poem "The Split" will appear in the 20th anniversary edition of The Courage to Heal. She teaches writing at an urban community college. An advocate for victims of incest and domestic violence, Anderson lives and writes in a very old house in Sacramento, California, having escaped the deep-water bayou hell of post-Katrina Gulf Coast Mississippi. She is the single mother to three light-filled, miraculous children and is, remarkably, still standing. And smiling.