Tonight, I trace figures on the frosted windowpane
like fluid lines of cursive
stenciled by the blade of a dancer’s skate.
Or like the stars outside giving shape
to the formlessness that surrounds them.
Their rhythm, shaped by darkness, patterns the sky.
For ten billion years, twisting
even as they’re held
in a single spot in the universe.
My nana looks out a different window.
Her fingers curl around the pain in her breast,
work rhythmically as steps in a dance,
or the continuous, deft motion
of the restless stars.
It is 1943. My nana, thirteen, finds herself
three days from home in a midwestern suburb.
She’s run away with the circus,
taking with her nothing but a worn pair of tap shoes,
a glamour shot of Ginger Rogers
from her mother’s Esquire, and the conviction
to not return until she sees her name, Pearl,
studded in Hollywood bulbs—
her lipstick a sequined gleam in the spotlight;
platinum hair and ivory skin
diamonds held to the light—
but now, she hears the ragtime
from the old Steinway, her voice singing
Sunny Side of the Street.
There are catcalls at her feet.
She undresses, one shoulder at a time,
forgets her lines, flashes a glimmer of thigh,
a can-can kick of her naked, pointed toe.
Men her father’s age
toss shiny silver coins on stage,
and what she sees then, the glint
in their eyes, the luster of the coins,
is nothing like the stars.
On a south Boston beach, the saxophonist plays
Sunny Side of the Street, his instrument
one more sparkle among the distant lights
of the nighttime city. He leads the big band
at the Hi-Hat where she auditioned.
There, she got her chance
with a man who could lift a song
from her throat with a melody
syncopated as the glimmer of her gown
under the spotlight. And at seventeen,
his wink and his smile when he caught her eye
might mean he saw in her a rude shine
he could polish, lustrous as his sax.
That together, they’d swing brighter—
only now, he has come up from behind
like the ocean at their back—His breath
hot on her neck, Leave your worries on the doorstop,
as he pushes her down to the sand.
She closes her eyes, turns her face away,
thinks if only she could remain
as she was on stage—luminous, beloved at a distance,
light years away—but instead, she lies very still
as he, Life can be so sweet, unsnaps her garter.
She is pinned under him,
so she leaves her body on the sand:
she will dance, dance with the stars
from her fixed spot in the heavens.
In rhythm with the constellations,
she will hold this moment,
like the sand clenched in her fist,
when she danced with the stars
to the promise of a song,
Life can be complete,
for ten billion years, radiating
against the blackness.
Tonight, my nana sits at her bedroom window
holding the breast that tomorrow she will lose.
I press my hand to the windowpane.
It is traced by stars, like my nana
the night she wrote her name
across the dull firmament of the sand;
each grain formed and stretched to shape
the constellation of herself.
The night she closed her eyes
and awoke to motherhood and a life
that didn’t seem to have anything to do with her—
just as the stars writhe each night
against the lusterless space that binds them there.
And what she tried to hold now becomes
exactly what the universe gives women like her:
this blackness in her hand; an indignity
so complete it can only be the stars’ want
to flit and go out—and suddenly her hand
becomes the blackness in her chest.
She’s back on the beach: she closes her eyes
to find herself a wayward star, arching her back
as she kicks and pirouettes, ten billion years
from her fixed spot in the universe,