It was a neon year, ’88, the year we moved into the studio on west Strauss, too far from the train station, tacky lights twice-taped over the scarred headboard your sister let us have, all eighteen books I owned teetering in a stack on the floor. You swore to me you’d build them a shelf, because I always insisted books deserve the respect of their own proper place just as much as anybody else with a slumped spine and a hundred thousand words or so to say.
You started working at the hospital as an orderly in the auburn of October, not the hospital where your father died, no, but you said that didn’t matter because they were all the same with their off-brand antiseptic cleansers, their instant coffee in Styrofoam cups, their waiting rooms as endless as an earthquake, with a thousand moving mouths to populate the damp of your dreams; did you know, you told me at least twice a week, kicking off your shoes and rubbing your raw toes red, that every face you see in a dream is someone you passed by in the park, sat next to on an airplane—that your brain can’t create a face you’ve never seen, a face you have forgotten of a girl delivering a baby in an unlocked bathroom stall, trying to find a wheelchair and talk to her through her hanging hair, a face from the infomercials we always ended up falling asleep to. I pressed my chapped lips to your chapped cheek and we didn’t dream.
You worked as an orderly into December, collar pulled up against the cold, coffee sloshing over the rim of your Styrofoam cup, the wind whispering its name in your ears. You worked as an orderly until you couldn’t anymore, tripping over the cheap tinsel tangled still and silver as the snow, until you started waking up at night with nosebleeds. We went to the hospital together then, where we waited on hard plastic chairs, holding our own hands while magazine mothers shush bundles of blankets to sleep.
You used to work as an orderly, the nurse says with a nod when she tells us you tested positive, my nails leaving half-moons in your hand. You don’t cry until it’s dark out, breaking into your hands at the kitchen table, pamphlets fanned out over the oak. I make you tea and toast, as if the worst thing in the world hasn’t just happened, and just like always you eat the crusts first.
We find a support group that meets, like most support groups, in a church basement full of folding chairs and discount lemonade, feel our suffering like Godliness, begging for belief, but people we don’t know still shout “faggots” out their frostbitten car windows when we pass by, especially after your new pills come in, and your bushy black hair comes out by the handfuls, sores splitting your chapped lips.
We do go see my mother, who doesn’t know you, even now, and I introduce you as my friend and she knows whatever she thinks you are, you are more than that, kisses your forehead unafraid. I carry you, slumped into sleep, to the car after I tell her almost everything, headlights glinting, brassy as Mardi Gras beads draped around the clouds’ narrow necks, and I count them the whole way home.
We don’t go see your mother, even though I ask you to call her every afternoon, sickly-thin sun pooling at our feet from the unopened window, because you are weather-cold and withering and I miss you just as much as I’ve ever loved you.
Laura Ingram is a tiny girl with big glasses and bigger ideas. Her poetry and prose have been published in literary journals including The Cactus Heart Review, Gravel, Glass Kite Anthology, and Voice of Eve. Her first poetry collection, Junior Citizen’s Discount, was released by Desert Willow Press in 2018. Her second collection, Mirabilis, is forthcoming in 2020 with Kelsay Books, and her third, The Ghost Gospels, recently took home first prize in the Southern Collective Experience’s Women of Resilience contest. Her children’s book, Stand Up, was published by Nesting Tree Books in 2018.