by Jennifer Givhan
I was dancing in a Richard Simmons video while you were in court. They let me bring him to the studio, our adopted baby whose curly hair matched the aerobic instructor’s. I’d been infertile & lost fifty pounds to stress & though everyone kept telling me how healthy I looked, I wanted to tell them I was starving, how even strings of chicken breast turned to wires scratching at my throat like nooses though I know this is the 21st century & we’re beyond those times of killing mockingbirds in public lynchings. The day you lost your job (you got it back) was the day Michael Jackson died. I’d just heard on the news, our baby on my hip in the living room of that Koreatown apartment, wooden spoon for the red rice in my hand, my face splotchy from crying & the baby not understanding but singing along in his baby words lookin’ through the windows & Michael in that orange jumpsuit as a boy on Sonny & Cher with The Jackson Five saying I can’t decide what I’ll be when I grow up—a jet pilot, an astronaut, or the governor of Georgia, how I held him tighter, fighting fear our world would end (earthquake, swine flu, police knocking at the door) when you walked in shaking midday. You kept apologizing. Like you’d done something wrong. We got WIC cause my adjunct job didn’t pay shit & I held my head high at grocery registers when the cashiers sneered at me & double-checked my math. We moved in with my mom who invited me to drive the thirty miles through Los Angeles traffic to Beverly Hills for Saturday morning dance class with Richard to boogie down the pounds. But really, she said, to save my life. I wasn’t eating & Richard was all about recovery, those pre-dance circle chats on the spongy wooden floor, disco ball above us, we’d talk eating disorders & loving ourselves, I mean, really loving ourselves. Richard had lost his hair to anorexia & the curls were plugs, our boy in the corner sucking his fists. What are you going to be when you grow up? Richard asked him. I wanted to say He can be anything & still end up at the courthouse like his daddy but I was shimmying with the spandex-neon tagalongs who’d come to poke their fun, the hipster gentrifiers stepping on my feet or the plus-sized men & women who needed a savior like we did—I was chicken, love. I got you a lawyer nothing like Atticus & took our baby to nothing like Gymboree. The producers came to the studio & it was like cheer squad again, another out. I’m not asking for forgiveness. The way I didn’t believe you at first (Don’t walk to the police station, man, run—tell them your side of the story!) the way trauma works. In the medical field the term is “second victim.” When the caregiver fucks up & injects potassium chloride into the IV drip instead of plain old saltwater—stops the heart. How for years the nurse will revisit that night in the dark & turn on the fucking light & read the label on the bag of liquid death. What else could I have done but sided with the girl whose body shamed her into silence? I mean, my body. I mean, I know now there was no body. See what I mean? It’s hard to tell sometimes the smell of chicken boiling in a pot on the stove in our small world where news of the outside came like birdsong over the wall A/C & the neighbors below never knew we were threatened with death when we moved in quietly & kept to ourselves, to our small days beside the manicured lawns & stocked koi ponds. Those fish. They terrified me sometimes. The way they burned in the water. But I’d lost enough weight that my body stopped breaking—or a miracle in my otherwise sac of sulfuric eggs because the pee test turned pink twice & I loved to joke that Richard Simmons got me pregnant. Even you laughed at that.
Jennifer Givhan is a Mexican-American poet from the Southwestern desert. She is the author of Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize) and Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Series, University of Arkansas Press, forthcoming). Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship, The Frost Place Latin@ Scholarship, The 2015 Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, and The Pinch Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net 2015, Best New Poets 2013, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Blackbird, and The Kenyon Review. She is poetry editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal and teaches at The Poetry Barn.