Poetry

Pay Ourselves What to Ourselves Is Debt

Elisa Gonzalez

All year, the boy’s ankles are naked.
His mother can’t afford pants that fit his sprung-­up
  eighth-­grade bones.
Soon the boy and his mother will be evicted. She owes too much
for mercy. My mother and I, we are walking by what she calls
      “my lake”
but is a pond if anything: low murk hoarding run-­off.
The dogs plunge in, then emerge drenched, toxic and delighted.
Not my mother’s lake, nor my mother’s house:
on the solstice that house burned down. By accident.
Who was I in eighth grade? Who knows. I know
I read Hamlet, and now, with my mother, I feel
the pressure of the play expanding our little lives:
grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident. The Player King says.
His ankles make me sad, my mother says of the boy, who is
      her student.
She means what grieves her is power: in whose hands
it’s held. What to do with hands that can’t do much? I pet
      the drier dog.
My old dollhouse burned too. In my hands, everyone would have a house.
I’d fit every house with everything needed.
In eighth grade, my clothes didn’t fit, bought big so they’d clothe me longer
then clothe my younger sisters. I was so slender then. Sick with it.
When did I first buy pants because I wanted? I mean desired,
      not lacked.
It turns out there is no one who has wanted for nothing, so I learn
from a rich woman who credits her white life as dear,
by which she means beloved, not costly.
Love the Gift is Love the Debt—
lone scrap of long-­winded Tennyson I remember.
Who knows why I hold some words like debts.
I promise to give money to the boy and his mother.
I owe them love. My mother owes me money. What I promised
as a child, I haven’t yet paid: When could I possibly be free of love?
My mother has a room at Americas Best Value Inn. God bless
insurance. For years she paid, and for this! A slender mercy
after a burning. The dogs curl puddles into the bed.
      My mother and I
laugh because we need. The Player King claims
who not needs will never lack a friend.
The names of the boy and the mother aren’t mine to give,
      however much
you want. Nor my mother’s either. That which doesn’t burn, save.
In the burning house, paint melted like Dalí’s clocks.
All the windows exploded. They glitter the grass.
And the ones who peopled the dollhouse are ash.
My old friends, I owed you so much. Dearly, I grew up.
      My fortunes changed.
The Player King asks whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.
Whatever the answer, no matter: the economy wheels into time.
What I want to mean: the revolutions of love and forgiveness.

Elisa Gonzalez is a queer, Puerto Rican writer raised in the Midwest. Her work appears in The New Yorker and elsewhere. A former Fulbright scholar, she is the recipient of a 2020 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

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