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“My Therapist Tells Me I Keep Dating My Mother”

Book Excerpt: Negotiations

My Therapist Tells Me I Keep Dating My Mother

It’s the holidays, and the stretch of I-30 between
Little Rock and Texarkana is a vortex
of clouds, conical spires, black-veined concrete.
Your voice, cutting out over my headset,
is another kind of closing; I’m testing
logarithms here: what questions can I string
between mile markers to make you respond
with the breathless syllables of my name?
When I imagine your mouth baptizing
the collapse of bone at my hip, or the river
below this bridge kissing the rubber song
of my tires, my throat seizes.
The way home is a place where I remember
all the ways I cannot leave myself.
Do you tremble at the memory of your childhood address?
The water that ran rust-colored? The fenceless yards?
Section 8: an infinity of sameness. Did your mother
ever have to tell you good people can live anywhere?
That a woman pregnant with anything will eat dirt
to prepare for the possibilities of two deaths?
Talk to me a little while longer; I’m growing
something the color of my mother’s skin in the ’80s.
Something like my relief when she’d return
from chopping our Christmas trees in the woods
between our neighborhood and the city. She’d shake them
for birds’ nests and water moccasins on the car porch,
then make stir-fry or taco salads and chocolate chip cookies,
and it was the only place I knew where everything
could exist together and make sense,
like her complexion and mine. This was years
before the husbands, before the imprint
of the bathroom cabinet’s knob under her eye
like a swelling wreath of purple thistle;
before my brother, throwing tantrums at the airport,
and her breaking down, and me listing toward the gate
in shame as I did every year, to other mothers,
other gods. I think my hands will always be stained
with her blood; maybe there’s nothing I can do about that.
But the old days: the layered smell of peppers and pine.
Then one year, of rotting eggs from the heater
that almost killed us. What calm, before we knew
the language of storms — when there was no one
ahead of us to brace for, and no one behind us
we couldn’t carry home, dress in light.

“My Therapist Tells Me I Keep Dating My Mother”

From Negotiations. Reprinted with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2020 by Destiny O. Birdsong. All rights reserved. Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction writer, and essayist. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the MacDowell Colony and won the Academy of American Poets Prize. She earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville.

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