Pilgrimage 1975

On the edge of the city, a Hari Krishna blesses my wallet,
pokes a flower stem between each bill, takes ten bucks for himself.
A few blocks over, a pony-tailed man plays a flute
and a group of children follow.
The streets are filled with promise:
in the summer, humid and stinking;
in the winter, damp as steam that rises through the sidewalk grates.
I seek you out for months, searching for signs in crowds of strangers-
a dropped glove, a waxy smell.
At last, you signal from a park bench and I fall in step behind
the sway of your pea coat, crocheted scarf around your neck.
Past bleached-out beggars leaning against storefronts.
You know them all, elbowing me: I turn to look but find only
the lucent half-moons under your eyes, a red hypnotic mouth.

Here we are kissing again beneath an awning
and you wrap the scarf around us both, reel me in.
Aha, my captive
with an angry laugh that bites off chunks of my future.
In a borrowed 4th floor walk-up, I kneel like a supplicant,
mattress on the speckled linoleum, blue ticking
and torn off buttons.
Then raw and aching,
I squat in the frigid water of a corroded tub.
A sheet tacked to the window, my breath coming in streams
while the pigeons fluster on the fire escape.
In another borough, a family waits for you:
pale wife, two scowling kids.

We wake to the shock of snow outside bright windows,
a blinding cleanliness that buries the grime for the morning.
Then by noon, it sinks to grey slush, a foot deep at corners.
My boots rotting, socks striped with leather stains.
I will not complain about blisters or hunger.
I will not think of drawers filled with everything back home.
I renounce it all for your frowning judgment,
Say what?Moi? as you smoke and read:
Penguin paperbacks abandoned in the Laundromat,
Marlboros snuffed out on the floor of the pizza joint.
At a party, you place your hand on the head
of a stoned waif.
I confess: Maybe you’re tired of me.

Then one last rush to the corner;
Are you still coming? I am.
Down into the subway station. Dull light bulbs on tiled walls.
Shredded straps and razor-bladed seats.
Through tunnels into darkness and out again.
You fling open the door between cars, drag me out.
We smash against a loose metal chain,
rattly and rusty. I grab for a steel handle
but it slips beneath my fingers.
There is nothing below us but nubbed icy metal
and beneath that, dizzying track.
The train rises to street level, then higher.
We’re up above the city, level with the rooftops,
street lamps flickering like candles,
the wind nearly toppling us over.
You plant your feet and spread your arms,
Look! Look! At this beautiful filthy world.
Who needs redemption? Who needs salvation?
I only need your voice,
and the grid of streets below, frozen and slick.

Published in Fixed & Free Anthology

Photo by Jason King on Unsplash