One morning I'll leave the house naked
and stroll down the street, fun for everyone
to be relieved from shame for a moment,
nourishment for my inner scold.
Most people I've seen, I've seen clothed.
What anyone wore I don't remember,
while the people I've seen nude
I remember everything about, or can I
draw the first nipple I kissed by video light
or the cyclorama of middle school showers
all of us in awful proportions, half-kid, half-dude.
Classmates with the largest dicks
have been first to die, by misadventure,
cancer, problems-of-the-liver. Still,
most Swedes debut sexually at fifteen
and in China it's twenty-three.
Everyone in this floating world is naked.
I'm tired of having a body. The mind's a bore
too, with its video light. On their patio,
my neighbors talk about their bodies
in low voices while the bug zapper
administers its anonymous questionnaire.
Last week I went for an HIV test
at the free clinic below the repair shop
for musical instruments, also
housing a children's theater,
and I could hear them improvising
as I waited twenty minutes for my blood
to signal the presence or absence
of antibodies. The woman who
administered my test and an anonymous
questionnaire did not believe my story
though it was both rehearsed and true:
the gas station in Nevada, the basin
where I washed up after hours dazed
on the road bloody with a stranger's
inner life covering my hands,
my face before I noticed. I remember
going to the traveling show of Sweeney Todd
in which my cousin Stuart, trained for opera,
submitted his throat to the "demon barber's"
stage knife, sending his body down
the ingenious chute, where Angela Lansbury
baked him into pie. His only sung Sondheim:
"A lavabo and a fancy chair." Lavabo,
from the Psalms: I will wash my hands
in innocency, so will I compass thine altar.
But it just means a sink to wash the blood.
Whose blood. You don't get more naked
than blood. At the clinic, mine dotted
a simple device to rehearse its speech.
I answered her questions of history, sexual
partnerships, gender, gender preference.
Whether rough or high, or had traveled
to any of the following countries.
Behind the wall's frank posters and the plush
toy vulvas piled in the corner, some children's
play dreamed itself into being. We know
without being told that theaters are haunted.
They share with graveyards the whistling taboo,
the seatbacks curved like tombstone tops.
It's the stage manager's job to make sure
a light is left on in that cavern when the last
actor's gone home, stagehands to the bar:
the spirit light, one bulb to keep company.
Of course, my blood maintained its old narrative
and I left with my burden lifted, or shifted.
Behind the wall, child actors assembled comedy.
Because my cousin had done it, and family
spoke proudly of him, I wanted to be an actor
and made the customary adolescent gestures
toward it. Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou
signed his portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
the way we signed one another's playbills
after the run of a high school play, some inside
jokes that even we forget the story of, that mask
the love between people who wear masks.
Not much was said of him after that, alas.
Plays scare, endear me, even a children's summer
production, or wherever in suspended belief
a figure steps forward, outstretches
costumed hand and pronounces my name.
is how many sentences here begin.
Wherever I live, someone I love says it.
In the west, and Midwest, and south,
no day’s whole without its nutrition.
I’ve never lived in New York,
but each of the dozen or so times I’ve visited
I wanted to stay. Such residency may be achieved:
Dale moved there, and Erik and Laura, and Maili,
and Nate. Mark and Elizabeth after the storm.
Adam, the name of the first man,
and Ruth and Bryan, who wrote Y: The Last Man
lived there for a bit. It’s hard to believe
Ben and Ari haven’t always lived in New York.
Maybe I’ll move there, in twenty years,
buy a parrot, and we’ll chatter up and down
some companionable street, red and blue feathers
lighting the alleyways. I’d see my friends
in their natural state, those who don’t leave,
or August. I pick them up by baggage claim
in my green Subaru with the Holstein baby seat cover
and dog hair still circulating, though the dog’s
dog-years gone. I ask what’s going on in the city
but what, exactly, is a secret they may not tell.
I was that way. When I lived in New Orleans
I hated leaving even for a few hours, because
I’d come back changed, less in love with it.
Catherine wheels her razor scooter
through the Manhattan grid. I’ve slept
a wild night off on a brownstone roof
sipped Baltika 7 on a subway,
crashed couches and yoga mats and beds,
their usual sleepers either beside me
or on their own couch or in the child’s bed, and the child
kicks dream on plush animal-theme rug.
I suppose actual New Yorkers sleep the way
anyone does. I could be mistaken.
Do they still murder Topekans in New York?
Follow us home from bodega with knife
the way two men followed my friend Amy,
sister of my high school debate partner,
and stabbed her on the sidewalk
in broad daylight, for money, not much
of it? When she lived in New York.
One Topekan may hide another,
but we feel safe when we live there.
I live very far away from myself.
When I lived in Topeka I had already left
yet I ride hometown, charioted by street-view
wings of Google. There’s my father on his porch!
White puff of pipe-smoke caught above his head,
a thought balloon, and his sister beside him
in her purple jacket with a black feathery collar
balancing the Kansas State Department
of Geology coffee mug on her knee.
Ed Skoog was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1971, and is the author of Rough Day (2013) and Mister Skylight (2009), and Run the Red Lights (forthcoming in November, 2016). He lives in Portland, Oregon.