You were the only one on that bus who was white. You did not talk like white people, you did not dress like white people and you did not own white people things. You carried plastic nun chucks held together by tape and you played with cardboard throwing stars. You had a poster of Bruce Lee and you called your dilapidated house, the crib.
The day that our school busses stopped side by side in the rain on our side of town, I saw you through foggy rectangular glass. Your knees rested on the seat in front of you. Your body tucked in on itself like a small mammal. You were wearing the out of fashion jacket that your brother handed down and a stocking cap to keep your hair, the color of tree bark, close to your head. You had puffy lips, so red they looked sore. I waved but you were too busy being invisible. Two boys play boxed behind you while someone else made beats with his fists on his thighs.
You were mean the day you showed up with your brother and the camera meant to take pictures of my mother. Your brother was the artist who painted pictures of my mother, on canvas, on buildings, on his bedroom wall. The bedroom he still had in his mother’s house was the only house full of white people in the heart of the black side of town. Your mother’s house had the long gravel driveway up the long backyard, overgrown and colorless as an old man’s chest hair. You were not like explorers full of deigning enthusiasm. You were not the Ingalls, nor we the Osage. You sucked your teeth like everyone else when Ray Ray turned funny and started wearing tiny pig tails and plastic jelly slippers. You stuffed candy down your socks and walked out of the store. Your mother bought your winter coats from Diego’s trunk. You crowded in cyphers in the middle of the street for battles; the verbal kind, the dancing kind, the fisted kind. Your sister sat under trees at family gatherings and picked at bumps on her unsunned legs until they bled and made dark spots like rust on apples.
Your family made music on an out of tune piano piled high with school pictures framed in tarnish that sat atop an uneven living room floor with a corner where the boards rotted through. The family whose bedroom doors had no knobs and whose bathroom had no shower and whose tub had the porcelain worn clean off the interior scraping every tailbone. The forgotten family who were all so slight and pale and you especially with high cheekbones and lips like a girl’s. You especially with legs so thin that you never wore shorts, not even to swim, not even in the throes of summer when the air turned to broth. Your legs were your secret, your most invisible self.
My legs were loud. My thick thighs, ginger bread brown and big as a woman’s stretched the terrycloth jumper that fit loosely everywhere else the day you came with your brother and the camera, the day you were so mean. I was seven and you were fourteen. I quit sucking the first two fingers of my left hand a year and half before I met you.
My mother said I stopped just in time “before you turned your big teeth into buck teeth”. You noticed the tip of my middle finger was flat from years of being soggy and compressed. “You’re a big baby aren’t you?” That wasn’t a question. I loved you the first time I saw your sharp cheeks and girl-mouth.
I was in your mother’s kitchen when I watch you walk up the patchy driveway. “So you’re here to bother me” you grunted while refastening the chain-lock. It was late autumn and the trees were bald and your muddy backyard was depressing but your mother kept the kitchen warm with a tea kettle. You were right; I was there to bother you. I followed you downstairs to the basement where your brother’s room was covered in paintings of women and there was an old drum kit and an amplifier with oxidized bolts and a rug over the dead cold cement floor with a drain at the center and exposed plumbing in all places You started to play a battered guitar made of strong mahogany. It was your brother’s guitar. Your brother shared his things, it’s what families do. In this creaking damp house full of splinters and treacherous stairs, innards bared by time and poverty, there was art everywhere. You were fourteen and I was seven and I thought, that day, you were my family.
Outside we played warring Indians and you tied me to a tree stump to set flame to a pile of twigs at my feet. Inside we played mobsters and I hid under the stairs of planks worn soft and grey with age. I covered my mouth with nervous hands so you couldn’t hear me breath, my finger nails lined with a thin rim of black dirt. When I sprung to life, announcing myself with the voice of a cartoon gangster, you arched your two fingers and your hand formed a gun. You shot both of my legs so I’d fall to the ground. Next, you shot me in the chest and taught me how to die.
There is a park where the forest is so dense that the canopy barely lets light through. There is a felled tree still attached to the ground by roots. Other trees have grown from its substantial trunk as if they were branches. There is a sign that explains how the tree is still alive and connected to all the other trees by the root system. Once, the land sunk and almost uprooted the tree for good but the roots, connected to the others around it fed the tree intravenously. The land eventually rose up to support it as the branchlike trees sprung up, stabbing through the canopy hoping for its pines to scratch a piece of sunlit sky.
I got lost in that forest, walking away from some holiday picnic, where your sister was preening her shins and someone was grilling and everyone was talking with their mouths full of dry hamburger meat. I hoped you would come looking for me so we could be alone and you could shoot me until you had your fill, until I was full of holes. Instead I met a misshapen man with acne scars who said he could help me find my way back. He had a camera around his neck and he was wearing a wrinkled shirt tucked into jean short. He asked me to stand on a stubby pile of rocks and told me to put my hands on my hips so he could take my picture. He asked my age and I told him seven but we both agreed that I looked much older. I smiled big and cocked my head and said “string cheese” right before I heard someone call my name. My mother and your brother cursed the man to his face, then grabbed my arms so hard and led me back to the picnic tables.
I hated stretches of time between seeing you. They were epochal and could only be measured by growth rings. Your brother broke it off with my mother because of the night she was drunk and howled his name like she owned him from the muddy back yard before she punched a hole through the glass panes of your mother’s kitchen door and cut her arm and bled on the crooked stairs. In your backyard she became that stump, cut to the quick with her bottom left to decay in the remembering ground.
I believed you when you took me to the church in the grasslands. You folded into the prairie congregation like I blended with you in your basement. God made you sincere. We sat on noisy pews beneath the ceiling of massive beams latticed and laminated, timber glowing from sun poured through skylights. The church was strong, like your brother’s guitar, like your new faith.
You loved someone’s dewy complexioned daughter with limbs as pale and thin as your own. Her hair was curly, dark and insistent like mine. You saw my persistence in her curls. In her limbs, you saw a bridge out of your past, a chance, to not be poor, to be white.
There was an afternoon, a threadbare couch; you made fun of my big legs while kissing them. They turned to knotty saplings in your jointed clutch; a pile of pick-up sticks on the mildewed carpet of a Kansas slum.
We walked through the trees outside of Lawrence where you talked about the future. We crossed small bridges over narrow creeks. Then, you slid your two fingers in my mouth. You told me to make it sexy. I was fourteen. “You’re such a big baby” you said to my face with your salty fingers still in my mouth. You were so mean it was stunning, the pain in my breast exquisite. You’d finally blown a whole clear through me, big enough for you to step through to the other side. We were bleeding Kansas.
Your brothers and sisters eventually marry people who look like those you grew up with. Your nieces and nephews look like me. You married the church girl and bought a house and planted fresh cedars at the north end of the Chisholm Trail.
When I finally saw your legs in sunlight, it was in a picture of your daughter, older than I was when we were lovers, knees indistinguishable from thighs or calves, just narrow spindly sticks that teeter precariously, verging on collapse like learning to walk. I see the legs you both own and I realize you hid them because they were precious to you. That part of me you did not want to share.
In your mother’s basement, we once napped in the room that had paintings but no door knobs. We slipped into your brother’s bed with the same ease as you slipped into his old jacket. The camera was on the headboard. We should have taken a picture. But how do you capture the unburdened sleep of children; sleep that’s as wide and unpolluted as a pioneer sky?
No matter where I am carried off to, no matter how many kitchens I’ve adorned, no matter what I’ve been fashioned into, my insides mashed to a pulp and re-formed for re-use, Like the heavy trunks so mired in that addled backyard a part of me stays entrenched, while you grew legs long like stilts yet light enough to carry you away.