When I am fourteen, my father will quit
his job and sell our home. He will use the money
to start a sign-making business. He will start
by buying computers and big heavy equipment
and we will spend nights sleeping in the van.
I’ll try my best to sleep, to close my eyes
and feel warm in my wet socks and thin winter coat.
In the mornings, I’ll brush my teeth at school
and comb my hair so I’ll look like nothing is wrong
with me. I’ll wander the empty dark halls
before the students fill them, and sometimes
I’ll sing and dance like a star in a Broadway play.
When I see a teacher, I’ll sit quietly outside
a classroom door with a heavy book in my hand.
Moby-Dick. The only teacher to ask
is Ms. Irons. I will tell her that I’m just
so excited for school and I’m so happy to be here.
It’s not a lie. I’m happy that for the whole
of a day, I’ll be warm and I can be with my friends.
I don’t tell her all the other stuff. That this will be
the year my parents’ marriage will begin to fall apart.
That they’ll stop dancing in the living room
and that my mother will stop making me beautiful dresses
which match hers from leftover materials,
that the bottles full of colour and fragrances dry up.
I didn’t know it then so how could I tell her?
After school, my mother will pick me up and drive
for hours. She’ll sometimes stop at a lake somewhere
in cottage country and listen to the radio. She’ll walk
back and forth, never saying anything. And I
will bow my head and work out the math problems
in my homework. The math problems are easy.
They are always about some guy who had to get
to the other side. There’s always an answer, a sure thing.
You just have to work your way there. Everything
you need to know to solve it has already been given
to you. There is no secret but the answer,
shimmering alone without any signs around it.
I will keep my print small, filling up every blank space
I can find like a Captain plugging leaks in a sinking ship.
It will get dark and just as the sun sets,
the streetlamp will turn on. I will angle
my notebook to catch this light. This light.
I will go back to school and hand in my notebook
and it will be perfect. Perfect. It’s what I’ve earned.
A friend will lean in and announce my score,
and I’ll hear someone ask, “How’d you get perfect?”
I can’t begin to say what it took to get it that way.
It’s perfect. Perfect.
From Light (Pedlar Press, 2013) by Souvankham Thammavongsa