THEY by Joanna C. Valente

I sat and there a scatter 

       of bushes,

earth & one 

       purple flower fled
       like jazz notes, the station

he listened to & something his father
used to listen to, pre & post a lot
of things.

One night I asked if it hurt, his father & the silence
& he said no, nothing ever

       only hurts. 
       We continued to talk until

our jaws began to hurt
but his father never came up
again. 

*

You don’t want children. You are firm
with this. I have mixed feelings. 
You walk out of the room.
I fold extra napkins, put two extra
plates out
            just to see what it would
be like.
The empty plates are a black lake, home 
to a thousand bull frogs, a green shag carpet
   and I no longer
   know how to talk
   to you.

*

There were coffee rings on the end table 
in his mother’s house. When she died, 
he inherited it—
    the ringed stains, his shrinking body, the memory
    of snowmen. 

*

The snakes were on the path, their heads
at each other’s backs, tails 
           in mouth
                                   as if to agree to never
go back, a covenant of wills not love.
            This is almost the truth.             

Instead, another truth:
pomegranate seeds nestled inside 
of stars, some purple orchids, a door
           opening to

forty degrees and a glimpse of
a Mustang red like clay

& cookie dough in the kitchen, 
           you naked until

           the timer goes off, no record
           on until you are in 
           clothes again. 

Now it is mostly cloudy & you play
           Peter Grabriel instead of running
           outside. For now—
we will sacrifice.

*

               Of silver things, obsidian things, red things.

I find that I am still digging.
           You ask if I have postage stamps.
           I say nothing only hurts. 
           Nothing really hurts.

A second puberty came.

*

Unearthed like wild 
            moons dancing lost 
& out of orbit, a telephone rings somewhere
& someone stands in a wedding dress across
            from their wife 
            while ghosts wake up in the same house
over and over unable to read the newspaper
or know existence
and the existence 
            of all these new living creatures
            these things—these clouds like murals, 
suns in every sky
            in every time. 

In one apartment, the door opens to rooms
full of closets and doors and fur coats
           in the walls, grocery carts, nutrition facts,
           receipts for cigarettes, for someone’s time, 
           for all the boys
           who never were, for all
           the girls who couldn’t. 
           She has waited her whole unlife, 
           death unparted
           unearthed, reearthed. 

*

After nona died, I looked for maps 
to find my ancestors, the dreams 
of our ancestors

& wait for silver to spread 
           from my toes to torso
           but it never happened,
           these legs long like wet
           eels. 
There was a time I believed
in you. 

You planned to take us to the lighthouse,
learn how to swim 

like smoke blown
into holy statues, the faces
of our parents, the
ugly teeth beneath 
their lips & 

the afterlife beyond blue. 

*

Make a wish:
One day you will wake up
            in a place where 
strategics
            are passé, archaic, 
            socialized to 
            ethics. 
Our intentions won’t be like theirs
reddened by the dye of their dead.
Or so you think. 

There is room enough.

*

We drove past the sea
and didn’t stop for the dreams
that keep on killing us.

We instead argued over 
soggy french fries
& greasy hamburgers
            & blamed each other
            for making the wrong choices,
unstrategic. 

This was the evidence I needed 
all along.

Not yet broke down by maggots,
turned.

*

We were outside and none of us
could breathe.

Where were the Greek diners 
with all the waiters that were always
there? Where was Yiayia putting on
            her makeup, her Chanel No. 5? 

Where did my mother once ride
on the back of a motorbike
with a man named Pete?

I don’t remember at all, 
she said—and she never did believe
in Beethoven or ginger candy

or the diner on Central Ave
as sacred

like I did. Can you
breathe?

I might have asked,
tasting bitter 

apples, orchids dying
from not enough rain,

and have you discovered
every species
of birds in these trees 
that your grandfather grew? 

You are underneath on all fours,
balancing on your teeth balanced
on my teeth. 

There is no mathematics 
of speech just as there is

no neutrality

in love
& devotion. 

*

Stark and naked
like a pearl,
we haven’t yet been
born.
In this house of sea you wash,
each cell awaiting baptism, 
become an angel bearing
unwise fruits, unholy salt
& salted suns melting into
horizons, other planets. Undone
waves meet you
like a telephone ringing, a dead
number on the other line,
a grandparent’s voice, fingers lost
            in doorways of sleep, black
soil unhinged like a gate to hell or heaven
(is there a difference?)
            and we slip

*

I can’t stop. 

*

They told me about Poseidon’s
Delivery Service—and as a kid, I waited
for him to come to our house
on a giant boat made of seashells
           but he never came like that, only
           left me with nightmares of

kaleidoscope ghosts shifting through heart lines
palpitating distance & nondistance. 
                      I would never again be
           so grateful for every consistency,
           every variation in greyscale. Jazz
           dissolving into spring, tired stretch of pale
           rain tasting like the purity we were both
           searching for; 
                      frightened cats and wayward birds
           knot around azaleas. Into the
           sea we inhabit shells like parasites
           pregnant with adoration/I say don’t
           you think swimming 
                      is better than breathing?

*

The bathroom mirrors
in my grandmother’s house
were the exact color 
of ocean water
as it would foam over sand,
sharp critical sounds of
wind against leaves, wind
against broken fences, 
           underappreciated
resonance of vowels 
           of cars parking.
Is life a dash or comma, is death 
           a period or a question mark?

I always envied the fact that she never
needed anyone,
           only mirrors.

*

Everything in the world died.
It was a car crash or a hurricane

           or a tornado or an asteroid. There are many
           versions of truth.

           We were all happy together until we weren’t. 


Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Joanna is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015)  Marys of the Sea (The Operating System, 2017), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), Sexting Ghosts (Unknown Press, 2018), No(body) (Madhouse Press, 2019), and #Survivor (The Operating System, 2020). They are the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing By Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017), and received a MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.