My aunt married a man with a wide waist
and fingernails like tombstones
but my sister and I
had to stay there anyway.
He stood at the sink, serious as a surgeon,
washed a glass, held it up to the light,
washed it again.
Down the hall, the incinerator burned.

We didn’t call him uncle.
We didn’t call him anything.
He gave messages to her
to give to us.
“Tell them not to be so loud.”
“Make sure they don’t get in my way.”
Through the winter streets
we followed his black hat and overcoat,
her camelhair cape,
Past the boarded-up amusements
of Coney Island,
across the soggy sand,
down to the gray, foaming Atlantic.

My aunt sewed outfits for our Barbies.
Skating skirts from squares of felt,
Wedding gowns from doilies,
She pointed out the tiny beads,
each perfect buttonhole.
At night, dolls propped against our pillows,
we fought to stay awake,
Listening to the elevator hum
and traffic slide over the wet streets
and footsteps paused at our door.

Instead of suitcase my aunt said valise.
“Pack carefully, girls.”
We did, first our boots and shoes,
then our pants and shirts.
Finally we dressed the dolls,
one layer over another,
like they were immigrants
leaving for a new country,
And when we zipped them in
I could see the outline of their bodies
pushed against the vinyl.

Published in Rip Rap

Photo by sebastien cordat on Unsplash