THE FIRST CRUSH*
I was wise until fourth grade gym,
when Alison's hips jagged and shimmied
to The Hokey Pokey. Before that day, field trips
through the diluted holiness of nature,
dissecting butterflies and stinkweed,
I was really getting somewhere. I learned how
plant cells have walls, but ours don't
How we have nothing to fear from sundown.
I was the height of a verb, sure,
but fresh nouns streamed in every hour.
I bear-crawled across the gym mats
in my Wal-Mart sweats, immodest as a platypus.
Then it happened. The nuns corralled us
into a circle. Needle met record
and Ray Anthony's big band told me
it was time to shake my inheritance.
Across our little circle jived this ribboned thing
hosting anatomical differences
we Catholic boys knew nothing about.
But she met each command with naked gusto
and I felt that first tectonic shift.
Somehow I made it home, bewildered
but sensing that henceforth, grasshoppers
and baseball would not be enough.
No matter that the rest of the world stood still.
I have been wobbling ever since.
* * *
I am the only one of three trumpeters
in the Sacred Heart Catholic Band, fourth grade,
who did not turn out to be gay.
Still, I suppose being a poet counts
as a kind of coming out, a strangeness
among herds of farm boys and wrestlers
who counter doubts with fists
and wear as little as possible to work.
One leads a gay men's chorus in San Francisco,
the equivalent among clich's'
of fighting fire with fire. The other
moved just down the highway to Cedar Falls
and switched from trumpet to oboe,
harkening back to when he helped change
the double reed of a dark-haired girl who loved him.
We three were also the quickest
to come back with the correct scripture
while others avoided Father Connelly's gaze
and flipped in vain through their bibles,
tissue pages brushing wrists of dubious thickness.
I am thinking about this because last night,
at a party welcoming new faculty,
a man said he could see the Bohemian blood
showing in my eyes, which he held
until I reached awkwardly for the spinach dip,
feigning cluelessness the way women do
whenever I compliment one feature
while staring too long at another.
Still, how not to be flattered? It's autumn
and our planet is broiling, thanks to the exhaust
left behind as we hurry along,
speechless in our haste to escape
or hasten back to a chosen lover's touch
that still kindles the skin like the kiss of God.
* * *
When the black woman walks in
with her child, I think about giving up
the best seat in the coffee shop,
which happens to be my seat,
way in the back by the big window
overlooking a patch of lawn,
bees hauling their fondness
for the tulips planted along the curb,
because yes, isn't it awful—
that whole slavery thing
we learned about in textbooks,
and shouldn't we show her
how different we are, you and me
with our tornado bait ancestors
and our manicured haircuts?
The black mother turns to go,
toddler on her skirts, as though both see
the danger of lingering too long
in the sweet mist of espresso,
of stopping to read the newspaper
while wreathed by our familiar smiles,
our strained, toothy kindness.