By: Sally J. Johnson
Or So the Legend Goes
it is a myth, but suppose there are still pieces of gum in my stomach 7 years after I’d swallowed each of the other girls’ molds, one after the other—because they couldn’t and I’d said I could (and I could)—right there on the fifty-yard line with the rest of the color guard and band: we in our leotards, in my want to help or taste or love or maybe just have some of what it seemed like everyone else was having. it is and is not that joke about band camp. it is fabric so cold it feels wet. metal cold. the game is the before, the after; the game is not the show. my high kick when I throw my flag to her as she throws hers to me. mid-air crossing of paths. the room nature leaves so synchronization cannot be science. the times we catch. miss. marching as choreography. choreography as language. canned heat in my heels tonight. oh, and, percussion. the mouthpiece of the trumpet kissing the humming lips of the boy who took my virginity. not took—a trade. by definition these are not always fair. it is not expectation nor its let downs but the parts you imagined exactly as mundane as they happened. nakedness. not nudity. it is learning how to hurt someone else. not hurting, but near that. the coaxing you do through the eyes of someone else to get to that threshold of loving yourself. the light bulb you stop turning off for fear of your own flesh. closing your eyes instead.
Dog Years are for People
Before she died, my grandma Betty couldn’t stop asking how old my dog was. How old is this little one now? She was always surprised by the answer for different reasons: that old already? or So young still; you’re lucky. She’d ask because she really wanted to know, and it was a good conversation starter with the prompt to ask the question right there, wagging its tail underneath her. She’d asked because her Alzheimer’s washed away the answer plus the memory that the question ever left her mouth before, so I’d always tell Betty the truth.
I used to imagine the future, telling her my dog’s age while my dog aged—so the answer really was different and the question needed to be posed again and again. I did that for two years. She remembered my dog small: she remembered. Something like a breadcrumb her brain had left her: ask how old the dog is so nostalgia for her puppydom could come flooding back and we’d both laugh and say yes, I remember how we measured her by how much smaller she was than the silverware, yes she was that small; I remember it like it was yesterday, and wasn’t it? This leash tied to the last and she’d eventually ask what ever happened to our old dog, Peanut. I’d have to tell her again she had died.
About a human year ago, I got out a board of Chinese checkers and played against Betty and her caretaker, Mary. Betty beat us like she used to when I was little; setting up the field and impressing us with multiple jumps per play. We set the board again and she stared at it; looked to me, then Mary and asked, “Can you teach me how to play?” Sometimes, when you’d wake her she’d ask if it was the first day of school. I wonder if she forgot to scold me about my tattoos, or instead really loved them each time like new, petting my arm, asking when I added such a loveliness to my skin.
Betty always saw Peanut’s life again after she learned she’d died, not pretending like she sometimes had to. She’d finish my story by pointing outside, telling me Peanut is buried right here in my garden. I remember. I hope she did, but not how sleep-heavy she got before going, or how she lost her house-training. Not the fact that all my sisters, my mother, and I braved the veterinarian’s office to watch her die while my brothers and father couldn’t face that, staying home to dig the hole.
The casual way we’d recount the years wondering about their meandering walk away from us would become a magic trick—a cruel one—the mystery in how she could have blinked away a spoon-sized puppy’s ripening into dog. Her whole life.
Sally J. Johnson is a poet and lyric essayist. She was a 2016 Fellow at the Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and a finalist for the 2016 Black Warrior Review Contest for Nonfiction. The winner of the 2015 Poetry International Prize judged by Carol Frost, she was also a finalist for Sycamore Review‘s Wabash Prize in Nonfiction, and winner of Madison Review‘s 2015 Phyllis Smart-Young Prize for Poetry. You can read more of her work in places like Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Collagist, Bodega, Whiskey Island, and elsewhere.