Runner-up, 2021 Joe Bolton Poetry Award
There at the corner of Swain and University Streets, the first house my parents owned was modest but it had real hardwood floors. Only one living space and they bought a used baby grand that dominated the room, a piano they couldn’t play well enough to justify its size. My mother began taking lessons. In her teacher’s apartment, she felt nervous to play for him the sonata she’d practiced alone all week, so he’d walk into the kitchen and talk to his bird— an open door between them while she struggled to improve her grace notes’ agility. This was after my father had quit then returned to law school but before he started really drinking. Occasionally, he came home in high spirits, rendered melodies from memory. Heart and soul, I fell in love with you . . . He got the good job at the respected law firm but when they moved into their second house— two stories with four bedrooms—they still sold the baby grand. Had it all been wishful thinking? Back then, I was a twinkle in the eye, a glimmer on what you might call the horizon. I never saw the piano, but it’s what I think of when I think of newlyweds—a pleasing aesthetic that leaves you wanting. A house filled not so much with music, as the idea of it.
We wake still to darkness on a summer day of storms. What little light slips in falls gray across the bed. July, two months married and already I’ve punctured my palm with a knife while dislodging the pit from an avocado. It wasn’t a thrill. The blood hesitated, then surged. You pushed my hand beneath the faucet as nausea rose through my throat. I need to lie down. All morning my care was kept by you. What would a psychic say? A scar on my heartline. I press the lump of hard tissue just below. Will it stay there forever?
In the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, my mother at 16 test rides a quarter horse. Inside the barbed wire fence, she spurs the gentle giant into a canter then pulls the reins into a trot. Her practiced hands hold the leather ropes with ease until the horse bucks—spooked by what, we’ll never know—and my mother flies, splays, lands on barbed wire, her upper right thigh ripped into a crimson spider-web. Many times, I asked to hear how it happened. Something about my mother’s airborne body I couldn’t get enough of. Maybe this time it wouldn’t end with barbed wire or blood. Maybe this time my mother would flaunt her thin legs instead of wearing ruffled skirts over swimsuits. She’d take us to the pool and show bare skin all the way to those hips so narrow I struggled to comprehend how they bore my older sisters and me. There are the scars three daughters gave her and then there are the scars we demand, over and over, she relive.
Because of the house where I grew up, I will always worry about too much drinking. There’s a lens in my mind, a filter coloring your third glass of red wine a shade darker than it might actually be. So I’m sorry if my love for you feels fickle or hypercritical. I won’t call my fears unfounded but I can choose to remember: We have made it this far. Look outside, I tell myself, and there is proof of your steady devotion—the sunflowers you resurrected despite the late April snow. The vines you pruned back when I was afraid they’d strangle the power lines. I am lucky. Not least because of that house where I was raised. I saw two people make it work come hell or highwater. Vodka buried in a briefcase or hidden in the linen closet. Forgive me when my most anxious days are also my harshest. Whatever poor ways I sometimes display it, know that my love for you is chronic. Not a disease but a habit I never want to break.
MARY ARDERY is originally from Bloomington, IN. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Missouri Review’s “Poem of the Week,” Fairy Tale Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, Best New Poets 2021, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where she won an Academy of American Poets Prize. You can visit her at maryardery.com.
Cover image by Lee Miller.
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