Birthday Poem

For my little brother

I am teaching you to wash your hands
with foam soap: the special kind that smells
pink and sweet and froths from the nozzle
in airy peaks, a merengue on our small palms.
I am eight, you maybe four.
I have shut the bathroom door and
this makes your shrieks louder when
you laugh at the endless slurps of soap
growing bigger in the sink—
we imagine it overtaking us, filling
the room until we are suspended in it,
sounds muted, the rosy froth buoying
us up, hold us together inside.

I am a cruel sister to you, bitter
with my suspicions: they love you
more than me.
I take every opportunity to
make you cry.
When my mother tells me fifteen
years later about the child she lost
after me—I always wanted you
to have a sister, she said—I knew it was true:
love is not undiscerning.

I do not know why, that day,
I decided to be kind.
It made you so happy to wash
your hands with me.
I wish many things about
our childhood but the most
is that you knew how much
I loved you. I tried so hard to
convince you otherwise.
Is it unfair to blame a ghost
I never knew was there,
a filmy web between us?

It is a relief to have something
to blame. I should not
accept it.

In the bathroom you could not
reach the sink—I had to take the soap
bottle down for you.
It was afternoon, summertime.
The sun a ripe tangerine low and
heavy in the sky.
I could hear our mother calling
dinner on the stove.
But I kept the door closed
a little longer.
Everything we both wanted
was inside, right there,
still.

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