Gina was a bitten lip,
swollen from brute imprecision.
But even when I spat red,
I couldn’t stop biting,
teasing it with my canines.
I knew better,
and so did she, but there’s no arguing
not when a night seemed so endless,
awkwardly pressed between her
and a brick wall, my hands claiming
territory in spite of myself, that dumb
shit I said, my acne.
And she kissed me often.
I was blessed. She taught
me about alleyways, about
how cops are cowards
on this side of town.
“Belligerence is bliss,”
she would have said
if she weren’t busy chugging
and puking like an angel,
in one glamorous, life-giving spew
like Moses’ rock in the desert.
A golden calf, brilliant
in the sun, with so many mouths
chanting for it.
I was one of them, fevered,
praying for the chance,
to rub my fingers along the trim.
The others built her up
just to point, touch and call
her sinful, a slut. She fell,
and always fell so hard,
turning rounded corners
into pikes. Soft edges drowned
out by that famed belligerence.
I thought I had arms
built to catch such a cosmic force.
I know she wasn’t a slut, ‘cause
that’s not a real thing. ‘Cause
she told me so. ‘Cause
she cried when she overheard it,
when men left her to smolder
and reignite her own embers
with booze and repetition.
They called her a lot of things,
but she just did what she wanted,
what she had to.
Gina taught me so much.
We threw our dumb blue hats
in the air, ‘cause ritual is the difference
between childhood and now.
We disbursed, to embrace
our grandparents, and some
shiny responsibility. Walking back
to our families’ cars as adults.
Then she found me to say,
“Hey, good luck, man.”
I remember the gown’s Halloween
plastic feel and the subtle, but sad
way her lips leaned back
before she said
“See you later.”
Might have been the only time she spoke
to me since the sixth grade.
But it wasn’t goodbye,
it was a baptism.
A cleansing wave,
erasing everything she had ever said
about me since the sixth grade.
Oh, but I took it. I smiled back
and a redeeming light
carried her home.
And she truly was forgiven.
The only one that said goodbye to me.
Mine or not, I kept that offering,
used it to buy a plaque:
“People can surprise you.”
I look at it
every time I think of high school.
People can surprise you. I mean,
I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve lost track of.
I often shuffle my thumb
to avoid messages from long-lost
those people who locked eyes,
had something to say, but couldn’t keep
such company in such a crowded place.
Locked eyes, but moved on and suddenly,
they find Jesus in their thirties,
and want me to drag them
into the Jordan,
‘cause it’s my job to hear confession,
to tap on the big man’s shoulder:
“You can let them in now.
Surely, they didn’t mean it.”
People can surprise you, I mean,
she didn’t even accept my friendship
request on Facebook.
Timothy Tarkelly’s poetry has been featured by Haunted Waters Press, Paragon Journal, Altcoin Magazine, Rise Up Review, and others. He was recently named an Honorable Mention for the Golden Fedora Poetry Prize by Noir Nation. When he is not writing, he works for a non-profit that serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Western Kansas.