Hand Over Heart
When I wake I am flat on my back. Paddle my legs
to get up. Black hairs all through the bed. To tell
the truth, some little stains. I am so ashamed. I
rake up the linen, ball it in the corner of the room.
I hide under the bed then I am hungry. Breakfast.
I must have it. A boiled egg explodes hot in my
mouth like a bladder. My tongue is burnt.
Rubbery stump. I try not to show it. Ashamed.
Today, no one wants to touch me. Black hair on
the back of my neck. I meant to take a shower.
The train is exciting when it arrives. Inside, I am
sleepy. I lean against a woman, carefully. When
she gets up she pushes off from me with a hard
swing of her hipbone, nudge to say, Back in your
place. Someone else sits down. Doggedly, I
follow my nose to my classroom. I put my hand
over my heart when I feel love. I kiss my students
ecstatically as they come in. I try to calm down. I
pretend to fall over. Let’s go out to the field and
play. I can’t help myself in the game. A frenzy
comes upon me. When I am finished with the ball
I have ruined it. The children stand in little packs
snuffling. In recess they tell their secrets to the
door-ajar teacher. She reports to the top.
Escalated to formal complaint. Ashamed. I find a
can of tuna in the staff room cupboard. I have
always hated olives. The children are sleepy in
the classroom. I know every face and name. I take
them to the pool. We hold our hands over our
hearts, and howl. Tune-free. We feel our pulses.
We hunt for bugs. Those who don’t have their
bathers are allowed to swim naked. Then
everyone wants to. Everyone does. The pepper
tree is dropping spicy leaves, peppering the deep
end with shade. Where the light bites the
shadows, the dragonflies skate. I am hungry. I
herd the children back in to their clothes before
the bell. There is a pool of water underneath me
on the train. The wrong kind of clean. I shake.
People move away. Cold breath of the freezer
strays the hairs on my neck. Ashamed. Sleep. Eat.
The TV. At night someone lies next to me. Smells
spayed. I feel fixed. You can hardly hear her
breathing: how she shows me she’s awake. She
holds my hand and puts her face to my face. I
have never been so happy. Then the midnight
crack of the gate. I make a formal complaint.
Hungry. Chocolate I hid away. She comes out
crumpled. I am on my haunches, wrapper
wagging on my tongue. Her seeing eye fixed on
mine. Ashamed. For the first time, I have the
thought: I can’t die today.
So I said, That was the very best, sweet-
heart, that I have ever had. It wasn’t the last
time, but close to it. Should
have been closer. Mine
was a complex lie, designed to hurt
in the short term, me, soothe
you, but ultimately
get me back the stage. Me, the liar,
me the self-abaser, me the praiser,
me the bottom feeder, grouper and star-
gazer, lying low
with my legs and my mouth splayed,
waiting for you
to fuck up again.
You replied—with something
I won’t repeat. Not that it was so painful.
You were as cruel as you could be
but by then you had slipped me
so many cruelties
that I had grown huge,
hairy and insatiable, a frogfish.
My hidden lips sucked up
punishments twice my size, and I
begged for more, just to see
what you in your disgust could say.
I never moved from my deep place
underfoot—biologists call it
both bed and floor, and both
were mine—I took
and took, but even the frogfish may betray
a gleam in her golf-ball eyes. I had the look
a misplaced home surveillance system
blinking with an urgency dismissed
as habitual, the better to be ignored.
Well you did that, you could kick
without looking but it meant you never saw
that you only gave me pause
when I chose which response to feign--
delight or pain?
One long breath—I learnt from you--
will buy the weeper
time for either.
I got used to you. And yet I lived
on tenterhooks, swam
like I sensed a lightning rod in the water.
I expected the sting, I watched for it--
but watching mortifies
the frogfish. Drifting round corners, her eyes
on stalks, the frogfish cannot believe
her wobbling face is met with laughter
when it’s obviously the disguise
of the predator vigilant,
creeping, unseen. Then I knew.
The sting was me.
I stuck with you, even though you
were so stupid as to believe
that I was true to you, and not
merely waiting for my moment--
not in the sun but spot-lit
by the private luminescence we deep-
sea divers specialize in.
I lay with my mouth open, all
lit up by my organs, waiting
for the moment in which
I would swallow you whole,
without a scene.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham
is an artist and writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Ginesthoi (hard press, 2017), and her writing has been published in journals including Min-A-Rets, Sport, un magazine, and takahē. Evangeline’s recent exhibitions include solo shows La belle dame avec les mains vertes (Rm Gallery, 2018) and Look Out, Fred! (Enjoy Public Art Gallery, 2017). She currently lives in New York City, where she is pursuing an MFA at The New School.