Face cross-hatched by violet shadows that fall round her like a net,
she struggles through steel walls to squeeze back
onto the street just before I wake, as if an unknown planet,
cross-currenting earth’s gravity, tugged her harder, harder:
Planet Pizza Crust, Planet Souvlaki Scrap,
Planet of Her Little House of Cardboard on the Corner,
Planet of Her Little House of Rain When It Rains.
She seems almost to swim, her legs on one side of the detention
center’s walls, her head and shoulders bursting
through the other: tagged in white paint on the steel doors:
Dios es amor: and then she slides
on through, exhaust fumes shawling round her shoulders.
I’d wake, she’d fade: and all through my walk to work, threading
hi-rise grids of Cor-Ten steel, I’d feel my grip, in that planet’s
influence, slipping off my lower rung; or like swaying on an I-beam
80 stories high, could I freefall as far as her?
—Face shoving through the dream, bundled in holey sweaters
and men’s sweatpants bulging with newspaper
to keep warm, she’d stare right through the lady cops
threatening to shoo her off—but just as often turning a blind eye
while she sat selling crayons loose from the box,
scratched bottles of nail polish, tattered books and magazines,
even a beret. Once, a draggled kitten
peeked its head out from her coat. Once I saw a man trying
to hit her, her screaming back, Get your pinche shit
away from me, pinche culero—everyone looking
away until the beat cops happened by and broke it up.
And once I saw her coming out of the detention center’s
cable-gridded doors: escorted by a guard,
she shrugged eyebrows in greeting; I smelled her odor,
laminar as wet spring dirt giving off leaf-rot,
urine tang, sweetish, acrid mellowing of dried feces:
there was something stolid, pugnacious even in her jaw’s jut
that shoved past barriers; yet she held aloof, caught
behind her own fragile walls, eyes signaling Posted No Trespassing
to mine. And behind that depth of silence, what?
“Underclass” “street people” “homeless” “the poor”—
as if such terms didn’t dull the gleam, amidst cratered concrete,
of the mother-of-pearl butterfly comb holding back her hair,
her own sense of her inside different than the eyes that looked at her,
no matter the seamed lines raying her mouth and eyes,
mascara smudged; as if the city’s lights could afford her nothing more
than her little busted lawnchair tethered to a single square of ungiving
sidewalk … but of course I knew, my dream made sure
I knew, the real nature of that illumination: her face keeps dissolving
into the detention center’s floodlights sanding smooth her features
even as she tries to hoard what she can against that glare: and as I give
her a quarter, the dream envelops me, she bends down to where
I huddle in a ratty sleeping bag, walkie-talkie voices crackling in my ear
Move Move as I lie there, unable to flinch a muscle.
And now she’s saying, what, she wants a dollar?
And the dream fading out, I’m shaking my head “no” with that little
annoyed shake that says, “who are you to me”
as our eyes swim away even as we exchange strained smiles . . .
Soon after that, I saw her counting spare change into
her drink holder, her face shining an angry orange:
jaundice, I remember thinking, she’s for it now:
and two weeks later, she was gone: maybe she moved to another part
of the city, but I’d seen that same orange
on a friend’s face just days before he died … Weeks after that,
I couldn’t walk by that spot without thinking how “Fenix”—
the name the dream called her, I never knew her real name—was still
there: so that when I neared the corner I couldn’t help but tense
a block or so away and grip whatever spare change I had,
knowing it wasn’t enough even as I tried not knowing, ready to trigger
loose my coins and nod, with feigned ease, to her nod . . .
And even now, in that tension that makes her absence
present, her atoms seem to leave a trace
that some sixth sense in me feels the way planets
feel the gravitation of black holes:
I see her at the edge of all that energy being sucked
into anti-matter feet first because gravity pulls
slightly stronger on her toes. And without really thinking
any of it’s there, I see the rickety, flashing wheels of her laundry cart.
I see her hand thrust out, face unreadable, gone wooden, gaze pointing
at my chest right at heart level. And most of all I see her sunglasses
that say in florid cursive on one tinted lens Kiss
and on the other lens My Ass.