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October 1968

Calvin reread her letter again as he pulled a leach off his arm. Damn monsoons. Water overflowed rivers and cascaded like waterfalls through the canopy, spilling into rice paddies and clearings and creating an oceanic expanse of new territory for the slimy boogers. You had to admire their resourcefulness though. They lurked in underwater reeds, just waiting for prey to pass by. They scented soldiers like the meat they were, sucking from men who no longer felt pain. Could they have also sucked out the fear, or the longing, Calvin would have sought them out like saviors.

Moisture dripped on the pages, and he took care to blot them. It was first light, and he was sitting in his hooch waiting for Max to wake up. They’d be pulling out soon, and he’d have to tuck Susanna away once again and try to concentrate on staying alive.

Tuck her away – like that was even possible. She crawled inside him with her words, and reminded him what it was to feel safe. Thinking about her, remembering the last time they were together, he could almost forget where he was. But that was dangerous as hell. Better to dive into the guilt that always accompanied his reminisces.

Besides, he couldn’t explain what was going on between them. She’d always been his best friend. And even after the night of the campfire, he hadn’t dared allow himself to look at her differently. After all, it was just a game. Or so he’d thought. But her letter changed everything, and now all he could think was that he must have been blind these past three years, as he wondered what might have happened had he opened his eyes and seen.

He filled his canteen with water from his tent roof and tried to tell himself that she was better off without him, that writing back to her would only cause confusion and pain. He knew it would only make things worse and yet… and yet he needed her now more than ever. She was his touchstone, his link to the person he was. And he wasn’t sure he had the strength to let her go.

Max turned over on his air mattress with a squelching sound that could have been his bedding or his ass, even odds. Calvin took a pull on his water, thinking that he’d have to take a piss before long. And he looked at the letter in his hand, bringing it to his nose to see if he could smell her on it.

Sighing, he gave into the compulsion. He tucked her letter carefully into a plastic bag and pulled out some paper of his own. He hesitated, trying to remember the person he’d been, the guy high on his own honor code, a person that would pride himself on being able to rise above the selfish yearning he had for her friendship. He reached for that part of himself, but it was elusive.

With a deep breath, he began to write.

“Antonio,” a voice says. It is raspy yet authoritative, and is at once distantly familiar to me, the way hearing an old song can resurrect a forgotten feeling and a glimpse of who you once were.

The shadows of his face, the way his cheeks sank like pools and his eyes floated above dark wells, which usually seemed indicative of his ill health and hard living, now seemed fitting – a tribute to death.

I am such a sucker for his coffee eyes with their dark lashes, like a ring of black flames. I think I’m trying to read my future in those eyes – like they are black tea, and the leaves in their depths hold some secret for me.

The Customs officer is wearing a brown uniform and has sideburns. The skin on his hands is thin and his veins stand out like a topographic mapping of a mountain chain.

The driver takes us down potholed streets, in and out of other taxis and cars and government vehicles. Buildings in every color line up to greet us like little girls dressed up for an Easter parade.

Gust of wind, like breath, across my cheek
Tears forge paths in Porcelain Cream number II
Absence scores ridges inside my chest
Losses, children, preciousness
Pressing against the cavity’s walls, beating like prisoners
Grappling hooks around my heart
Tugging it down, down into the pit
Behind my navel – my navel whose loss reminisces
The babe no longer attached.

Swings swirl, clanging chains
Dented metal slide reflects cold sun in a mocking ray
Straight down to dusty earth
No children laughing
No children playing
Joyless void until next Friday at 6:00 pm
My turn, to hide behind smiles and storybooks
To eat them up just to spit them back out
When court-appointed time expires.

Confusion and hurt
Intertwined as twin DNA
Chromosomes and molecules, protons and neutrons
Electrons, negative particles, bouncing within cell walls
Causing disarray, the root of confusion
Banging against the others, abruptly knocked out of orbit
Collisions of pain

Words are like that, floating in cellular goo
Slamming into each other with ferocity or indifference
Shards of foreign materials go unnoticed until the piercing
Blood-drawing impact of hurtful word on tender membrane
Love is a virus that invades your cells, makes them susceptible
Cells that forge ventricles and chambers
Tender organ in a treasured chest

Impurities in the blood
Plasmic doubt and hemoglobin of distrust
Again those words invade, undermine the systematic beauty
The network of arteries, red with heat
The veins, blue with sadness
If only they were recognizable
A plague with a vaccine
The pain would be avoidable, but so would the exquisiteness
Of the unknown, of love’s unpredictability