On The Boys, The Men, and Those Not Quite Either
Ali Barthwell, Age 17, River Forest, Illinois
I. The Smart One
1. His arms are made of ginger ale:
Mama’s failsafe cure for a stomachache
I’ve been aching for someone like him.
He’s what they should put in college
Viewbooks, but pictures can’t capture how
his lips smell of bone: something older
and stronger than me. His mouth feels like
Nail polish: thick, smooth.
We’ve been waiting for someone like us.
A girl in glasses ardently seeking
boy made of the stuff schools like this are
built on to sit under unused lights in a room
Where a life like the one we need can bloom.
2. The sun woke up by our sides as we
sat and smiled. Shutting off the need for
blue safety lights. The sun shines brighter when
It’s shining on something too beautiful. We’re too beautiful.
We live in the dark of the sun, refusing to exist in between,
but instead, I’m in between, proving us awkward. Our
silences are static, crisp, buzzing-full of what we long to say
I wish we’d shifted from static to dynamic earlier, because
then you could have woken up beside me instead of our sun.
We could have slept too tangled to cry on our spilled
Words, but now we’re tangled in the strings of morality
Our lips frozen behind the walls of your decency, but our hands
Curled into one fist. Our hearts pounded with the same rhythm,
But now I’m cowering, trying to find you instead of the smile of our love’s phantom.
3. We are not unlike Beatrice and Benedick.
Within a week married
we would talk ourselves mad –
not mad and further out of love
but mad, driving our hearts
deeper into love. Pushing our souls
into each other with our tongues.
We are not holding each other
with our arms but instead with words.
We’re laced together with veiled hints of
What’s to come. Our teeth clash
As we laugh into each other’s ears.
We live too far apart with just words –
We should keep each other close, niggard our hearts.
II. The Quiet One
1. Flash to boarding that plane, vacuuming up my tears alone
Next, the first day of class. Where to sit? With the girl or
the boy whose glasses are hiding those gorgeous eyes
I know he has. I sit with the girl, afraid to be my outgoing self,
but he can look so serious yet smile so broad. I want to overcome
him with radical ideas and revolutionary propositions. I hear those
Gorgeous eyes speak at last, as the devil, winding me around his
voice. I always did like a good voice and quite frankly, I’m
desperate. Days end longing for contact, wanting his stunning eyes, that
voice. The final night, I want another week, another day. I tell him
“We’re going to be friends” at 9 pm. Two hours until lights out
I tell him “we’ll be the king and queen of cool” We embrace and
I kiss him. Trying to press onto his cheek the words “I saw you
when no one else did. And as you leave, I’ll say ‘I need you’ instead of ‘adieu.'”
2. I kiss him on the cheek,
at last, after three weeks.
He’s the King of Cool. Alacrity please kiss
The whites of our eyes and spin
Green moss from under his nails.
His black Nikes flatten the villains
that live in gold edged books. He’s finally
freeing our cold love. Still, I wish
He could make the earth spin so fast that
We could grow ivy with the wind’s speed, covering
the walls we once lived in. I wish he didn’t live in
a slave state. So far away from my eyes and
Motown’s fingers. I wish I could build a fort
That we could live in, one built of rock that no distance could contort.
3. He’s the perfect boy to sleep with,
Not hot awake over the covers sleep,
but cool sleep. Five years old, Winnie the Pooh
comforter, hogging all the sheets, true sleep.
We’d lie on our stomachs, feet kicking the wall,
The light from the TV box coloring his dark gel eyes,
blue gray cream. Sitting cross legged,
I begin to tell a story of friendships past, how we used to paint our
shoes with nail polish. He tells me one of building forts made
with precarious folding chairs. We muse about older brother’s lies
and bruises before glimpsing a green faced time. We fold ourselves
into a bed built for two and a half. Chastity preserved, we sleep.
Cool hop-a-long gang sheets, glasses on the night table
Sleep, we sleep. As the world changes, our sleep forever stable.
III. The Mistake
1. I’m sixteen now. I’m old enough to wear eye shadow,
explore the city by rail, get numbers for my cell phone away
from the watchful eye of parents. I am getting on in years.
Enough so to smile and kiss in the dark of nightclubs with
poets who seduced the audience with glue
drenched accents. He was too excited. He stared too deep.
He was a father. I asked “Are we old enough to be doing this?”
I was old enough to have boys lie to me so I’d think they were men,
so I’d fall into them as they congratulated me. Poets in the dark
want nothing more than to pull down wrapping paper
skies to serenade and impress, they want to carve their words into gift
wrap to shut in hearts. Are we old enough to have the right to steal skies?
Because we seal the hearts of conquered lovers. I’m a poet in the
dark now and old enough to know they’re trying to seduce their quota.
2. I see sex from behind lecture hall eyelashes.
I study textbook cases of boys that carve their name
with Cub Scout knives on the inside of girls
to whom they whispered, “I love you.”
boys in the dark tear down wrapping paper skies
for the mothers of their children, paste IOU’s on their childhood,
then dig through bassinets for pacifiers to mollify the
spinning tongues of the society girls they subsequently seduce.
Why peel back the eyelids of girls in nightclubs? When under your fingernails
live wedding ceremonies and baby showers. You tried to scrape off
perfectly traced diagrams from under
my eyelids of maternity clothes. Your hands were stuffed into
pockets fishing out phone numbers for those you kissed in the dark of a bar.
So, I’ll ignore you: the boy with a past and what hides in his boudoir.
3. Let’s face it: you’re not black. You never were;
Never felt the struggle of Watts and King,
but you could have been, under my fingertips, caught in the shadows of
A sensuous crash course. I could have carved the Underground
Railroad through the Andes of your back. Plucked
cotton from our eyes, pulling out what stood between us. Or you
could have known what’s left of my romantic drive.
Painted a tapestry of our transgressions on my thighs; tumbled dried my
tears in sheets of skin and crossed joints. We might have seen our downfall, seen
our lies flower and bloom. We
could have seen our hearts crash into the wall. But all I see is
Me, limbs frozen in ice, sliding memories out the window.
Trying to separate the you in my poems and the you I almost kissed.
All I see is a poem on ripped paper, a love story I can resist.
IV. The Foreign One
1. We’re standing under the honeyed mist of leaves, hearing
Autumn in children’s backpacks, we smell grinding
bike wheels, feel our tension erupt into our frog-like
hands grasping one another. I’m trying to resist the
Mistakes of boyfriends past when a gliding thumb slid open
doors that should have stayed closed. But thumbs cannot
stay silent when forced into your denim kneecaps;
then your broken English learned simple clucks and coos,
thumbs roam into unnamed backs of hands, filling my
empty palm with your mangled bamboo joints, loading
your joints with stonewashed wrists, as my lonely thumbs
glide to uncover locks, your denim kneecaps bend
and our broken English blends with early school year
homework. Assiduous children fade behind our alluring cheer
2. My junkie deals me cards for a game I never learned.
He’s the only man who can look fantastic with beer and
Simpson’s chess. Flowing his first language, it’s romantic –
Mine is loud sarcasm, more suited to African-
Cynical American love songs. He put his head on
My shoulder for the second time but when
My arm falls asleep; I can’t hold him like I want to.
“Do you like me? Yes? No? Maybe?”
His beer says it’s because I have cool hair. He says
It’s because I’m the fun. I’m the fun. He’s the dreamy
the awesome, the off-this-planet cool. As I slip on my coat
I’m afraid I’ll shatter the gossamer glass he’s framed in.
Blaming the whole evening on the beer, discarding our playing card
affections. So I left, I could still see him from his front yard
3. It doesn’t make me easy that my freshman told me
that my hands were made of cashmere. What happened back
there is none of your business, just coffee pots of sexual
Tension boiling over. His hands smothered the fire I
Fanned for you, but I can’t shake this feeling you create.
I told him to hold me one minute longer and I was
comfortable to him. And I tried to recreate with him
a fire that we couldn’t light in my living room.
Someone has to drop acid rain on my paper chest. My
darling freshman already scalded me, but still I can’t pretend
to be just your friend. I want to teach you the secrets
of American love songs, pry open your olive hands with my chocolate
ones. I want to own your lips to suck inverted fires out of my heart.
I want your eyes to give my remorseful heart a kick start.