Delta Blues

Emily Smith

In bed with him, I think
This is what my mother warned me about--

what kept her awake those long summers pacing,
her hair curling from sweat despite the open windows,
waiting for me to come home.

And when I would,
with the sky still dense but watering around the edges,
what made her call out to me on the stairs,
her round face below me looking up,
arms full of folded laundry to prove
she'd been busy on her own,
just to tell me that she'd changed my sheets.

That was all, and she'd see me in the morning.

There were never any prying questions--
or not from her mouth.
But they were there: in her gray eyes,
her outstretched arms full of folded clothes,
hot and tumbling with my sheets in the dryer.

I don't know what makes me think of her now,
our own sheets kicked to the floor in little plaid heaps.
I say ours, but the sheets came with the room
which isn't ours either.

He can tell I'm distracted,
absently tracing the tattoos on his back with one finger.
They're blue and serpentine, warm to the touch,
which surprises me.
The silence must be awkward for him, and he thinks
it's something he's done in that way that
men always assume it's something they've done.

They're supposed to be darker, he says,
shifting his weight to his elbows and turning to face me.
He's had them redone, but that's just the way
his skin takes the color.
He talks apologetically, like I expected more from him
and from this new city.

Like I expected black ink.

And he's right--I did expect more.
Something electric and blinding like
white lights, rabid through stained glass,
or amber scotch swirling on ice.
I expected snow.

In bed with him, I think
This is what my mother warned me about.
This man with the blue tattoos and ordinary eyes,
smoking by the open window where, outside,
there is no snow on the ground.

He is the descending bassline at the end of the popping record,
slow and with extra weight around the middle,
and not the one full, round, perfect chord
that I wanted to fill me like an empty room.

But my mother always said music is music,
and now I know what she meant,
facing me on the dark stairs,
me--her daughter, already inches taller than her
and deaf from the pounding of music in my own ears.
I know what was heavy on her face while she paced in the still heat,
her gray eyes on the open windows
and peeling doors, already swollen shut.
I see her now--hands busy, then folded.
And the house where I was raised,
quiet and dark all around her.

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