Letisia Cruz St. Petersburg (Maureen McDole)
Nothing of Beauty
The summer I was 11
I learned from Yanina and Yvette--
girls much older than I—that the religion
of women who wear lipstick is beauty.
Beauty. I wore no lipstick then,
had no religion. But I could disappear
into any room. Blend into the wallpaper.
At times I wondered--
do I even exist?
One night under a summer diluvio,
I stood outside our green
watching the neighbors run
from the bodega to the laundromat,
to the corner bar. The sun sank lower
casting orange shadows on the front steps,
and I faded. Not a single soul lay witness.
The religion I learned as a child
was not beauty, but survival.
I did not know it by name
then. But I knew the sounds--
the timbre and cadence of gunshots.
Hurricanes rushing for shore. Fists
breaking over my mother’s face.
Now the stars were all
dim. A Friday night
and I sat in the back seat of Wilma’s Buick
parked a block from her boyfriend’s house
with the windows rolled up,
the engine turned off.
Wilma and my mother eyed the front door
like little hawks waiting
for someone to swoop in with dinner.
Wilma sank lower behind the wheel,
eyes full of flames.
I’d seen the same look
in my mother’s. The man strolled
out the front door and we followed.
Love makes us hungry,
my mother said.
My stomach grumbled.
Hunger, too, was religion. But one
I already knew would fail me.
How hunger, like beauty,
leaves you vulnerable.
Makes you forget where you are--
in a car. In a field.
Locked up in the basement
of your own house.
Not survival. My religion
was the worship of place.
This—here and now. This.
Open your eyes. By god girl,
don’t you ever forget it.
Religion is a barred window.
The flame of a match. A sky void of stars.
The smell of burnt rice. Fog.
Religion is your mother’s long hair.
Burning. Your father’s smile.
The way he looked at her.
Then darkness. Nothing but night.
The place you came to as a child.
Your abandoned reservoir.
Your escape. Religion
is setting your crosses on fire.
Holding nothing of beauty.
How the night sky is wide open.
Originally published in Migrations & Other Exiles, Lost Horse Press (2023)