July 7th, 2010


Edited, on the occasion of my 34th birthday.

Our first date

We decided to meet at a BBQ joint on the Lower East Side,
but just sat at the bar, too nervous to eat.

We'd made each other's acquaintance before:
I was 19 when you walked past me at Penn Station
an hour after you were supposed to meet me there.
We rode the packed PATH train together in silence,

you in a beat-up motorcycle jacket and Bauhaus t-shirt,
me with a shaved head and nose ring
that had you convinced I was my mother
playing a trick on you.

When we arrived at your house in the sixth borough,
my being out of cigarettes became your opportunity
for another escape and a chance
to finally give me something I needed.

Later that night, Zoe suggested another remedy,
that you retrieve the marijuana from your bedroom upstairs.
"You're not going to hide it from her," she said.
"It's too late to start being a father now."
The pachyderm in the corner tried vainly
to shield its eyes from the pot smoke.

That was not the first time you saw me.
The first time you saw me is proof
that there's no such thing as love
at first sight:  me, a few hours old, in an incubator
in a Chicago hospital. Peering into the nursery
beside my mother, you thought I was
the wrong baby. You said, "But she looks white."

You live in New Jersey now
with your white wife and my half brother.
We could be a Shakespearean tragedy:
He's the fortunate son, and I'm the forgotten daughter.
His mother is Welsh; my mother comes from
Great Migration stock like yours, her veins a cacophony
of Native and African and slave trader blood.
Your son's study at Yale eclipsed my bartending
and work study-supported education
at a lesser Ivy League.

But now, years after those first awkward attempts
at knowing each other, sitting at the bar in a BBQ spot—
talking to each other instead of dancing around
the decades of your elephantine absence—
the bartender thought we were on a date.
Through my whiskey shock, I remembered to say
He's my father, and those words tasted so
foreign in my mouth.

It's been a decade since our "first" date:
you walked me to a café afterwards, hugged me,
and told me for the first and only time
that you loved me. I never heard from you again. 

That fall, when the city across your river went up in flames,
I left messages for days. My brother answered one night,
hung up on me. You never called back. A few years later,

I phoned you drunk, stumbling from party to party
in New York on New Year's Eve. I was on a plane headed
to the other side of the country by the time you called me back.

Despite all the nostalgia for your rock-and-roll days,
the clinging to the you of the late 70s, you never call back,
refuse to return to the scene of this particular crime.
I was wrong that night on the Lower East Side.
You're not my father. You're just a man who,
thirty-four years ago, made a mistake.

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