We were the plowed-over berry fields, the paved dairy farms, the post-war subdivision.
We were the line of obedient ranches on numbered streets, each allotted one picture window, two bedroom windows, one square garage door, and a boxwood hedge.
We were a capillary off a vein off the long arterial road pumping its twelve-mile way to Portland, blue Metro buses jerking away from the unsheltered curb.
Gresham, one mile in the other direction, was where pioneers had settled and named streets after themselves; they still gossiped together in the cemetery where Mr. Gresham had the tallest marker.
Gresham had the family-owned shops, the pharmacy, the genuine post office, the sixteen churches and no bars.
In our no man’s land I could have walked to the Lariat, the tavern whose windows were painted over, whose fizzing neon sign was upside down my entire childhood. I couldn’t imagine who sat on the stools inside,
nobody’s father, certainly.
Once I lived in a square whitewashed room
on an island. I woke and walked in the direction
of the sea every day. I listened to it lap
and read news of home and drank Nescafé.
Throughout the day I wrote different things
in a notebook. When the sun slipped down
I bathed in the sea. I returned to my room to wash
the brine and dress again, then walked back
to the sea, dark now in its whispering,
the places of food and company now bright
with strings of lights. The breeze was like your favorite
acquaintance—you never knew when it would come,
but you were always glad it did, bringing
its own kind of salty gossip.
There was usually a special fish for supper,
some wine and bread. You ate with people you knew
by name, and people you didn’t know; they were
the same. Everyone felt related in some
way, in the intimacy borne of living
on an island together, the sea everywhere
else. Going back to my room was not lonely.
A new couple moved into the room
next door, arguing in another language.
It was neither my language, nor the language
of the island. His voice was loud, hers was
pleading. An old story. Then a banging,
indistinct but regular—a bed
frame knocking, or maybe the sound of her head hitting
the wall. I pressed my ear to the stucco
dividing us, trying to meet the mystery
halfway. His low, bitten-off voice, her small
whimpers, and that banging. I was lonely then.
If I ran to my acquaintances in the harbor,
what would they do? Would they frown at me,
shake their heads over things I should not
have paid attention to, things between
others that no one can change? The breeze,
sweet in every other respect, was only
a breeze. The proprietor would offer
a drink. The sea would hiss and say, what
do you expect of the hardness of the world?
And from the cooling stone of the plaza
even I would not be sure of what I had heard
and where I should carry its message.
Hallo, hallo, said the tailor, cutting the cloth,
fitting the suit, pouring the chai.
You come from?
Forward, we come, out of the Ganga, where we
breathed poori bubbles with the Goddess Lakshmi underwater,
where we danced a Masala dance with Hanuman
and took the spa treatments with the monkeys.
You like mud? You like mud on the face?
I’ll take the oil drops on the forehead, too,
and three times OM, sung from the roof.
I’m back for more, more cobra on the mat,
more dives off cliffs,
more blind passing on the uphill curves.
Honk if you like to go fast, or if you want me to henna every
inch of your lily-white skin until you are nothing but
blossom, blossom, blossom
aflame on your floating boat of offering.
Suzanne Matson grew up in Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Boston College. A 2012 NEA creative writing fellowship recipient, she is the author of two volumes of poetry from Alice James Books, Sea Level and Durable Goods, and three novels published by W. W. Norton, most recently, The Tree-Sitter.
Woman with henna photo by Nadya Korobkova, courtesy Shutterstock.