Kim Matthews Wheaton
Cliffs Over Lake Lahore
I. Elegy for a Woman, Hiding
shoulder.) Or in the ballroom with broad windows and sunlight that stretches golden fingers through your hair. (I imagine myself as that light—long, languid limbs hovering above you.)
Once, as I looked too long at you, your sleeve slipped, and I saw the tattoo on your wrist, a mottled green blossom from across the room. Was it the cold you felt, then, or my lingering gaze, when you placed your hand over that spot? Now I have some detail of your body that’s real. I picture you naked, add to the tattoo what I haven’t seen. But I can’t put you into words, not yet. I need to know what’s worth its place under your skin.
I run around town, hoping mostly to run into you. But I find only the shimmer of sidewalks, the whisper of chamisa, the bright wideness of the New Mexico sky. I find the Gallinas River swollen from the late-summer rains, the acequias straining against their banks. I find a garter snake not just dead but severed, split clean in two by the mower of a grounds crew. Crows hover heavy overhead, their caws like auguries. In this land where you’ve lived all your life, why can’t I find you?
You know where to hide.
I drive south to Albuquerque thinking, somehow, I’ll see you on the street and you’ll call out to me: salty voice, sand-cracked lips. The high-desert wind whistles empty breath-notes on the back of my neck, as if all this time you were right behind me.
II. Elegy for a Woman, Found
On Central Avenue, wind-kicked dirt stings my eyes, and the Royal Hotel’s sign says “Vacancy. Dust returns to us.” Us—a word that contains both you and me. A word that encloses the moments we go to bed together, marvelously naked, freckled, sweaty, your breath spearmint and juniper, your hair at twilight blackberry, blackberry, blackberry, the word Robert Hass used to show that language is always an elegy to its object.
I return to all the places I found you: the trails and arroyos at the foothills of the Sandias, where we ran together at sunrise; Frontier restaurant, where we ate bulging burritos to sate our hunger after seven, eight, nine miles. I want to—but don’t dare—drive past your house, where we settled in on weekends, you tending tomatoes while I cooked dinner, where from your backyard we watched the mountains, bathed in sunset, brighten to magenta. Where we fell asleep to the hum of traffic on Paseo del Norte, to the dirge of thunder before the rains came, to the hum of each other’s sleep-breathing, faces pressed close and shaded lilac. Where in the morning I awoke with your back to me, the night over and the light no longer lilac, lilac, lilac. Say any word too many times and it’s bound to lose its meaning.
My words now are an elegy to you, to the lilacs beneath your open window, their heavy purple smell warning us not to forget the moments when we found our way under each other. I touched your tattoo, a line of Sanskrit meaningless to me as word or thing, another piece of you I could never read. Your skin in that spot is no softer than any other part of you.
III. Elegy for a Woman, Lost
A quick cut severed us, your only goodbye a grocery sack left on my front steps—soap and running clothes, perfume and a book I’d read at bedtime in those last days when you wouldn’t reach for me. Since then, I startle easily: at the rustle of a plastic bag ensnared in a chain-link fence, at creaking tree limbs blown sideways in the wind, a stranger’s wink on my walk to campus. I’m still looking for you but finding you only in hindsight. The drivers of loud, jacked-up pickups catcall or, more alarming, pull flush with the sidewalk, rims gleaming in the sun. “Hey, honey, want a ride?” asks a boy no older than twenty, face shaded by a ballcap brim. Everything in this dusty, rusted, wind-torn town grips me with fear, and the sense of being alone that’s at its root. But perhaps more arresting is how these encounters, these small starts, make me think of you.
They are as sudden as a lover’s unexpected gesture: a hand on the small of my back, your startled gasp as you came, as if you’d said something shameful—lit a candle and just as quickly blown it out for fear of the flame—same as the quick wisp of your breath on my neck, blowing me away with no time to figure out what it was, exactly, that did us in, and how I’ll start all over again.