You get used to it: twisting the rod to the blinds,
every morning and every evening, as soon as the dark hits.
You get used to it: laying your laptop across your lap, across milk crates,
flashcards precariously balanced atop, legs folded beneath you.
You get used to it: drinking tea to stall the incoming hunger,
washing everything - doorknobs to dishes - with bleach and hot water.
You get used to it: studying in dim daylight until your eyes fail you,
flickering the wifi off just as quickly as you turn it on,
saving electricity to the last.
You shiver through every bucket shower you take, wish for shorter hair.
You toss and turn; sleep against the wall;
lose the fight against the ever-deflating mattress.
You have burns from hot water on your hands; the smell
of cigarette smoke, woven
throughout every piece of clothing.
These are things that are harder to get used to.
Your cousin takes you out into his city
takes you sightseeing amidst closed buildings, empty streets.
he points out the theater, the library;
the hat shop, record store, night club.
This is where I used to live, he tells you,
gesturing around the sprawling downtown.
It wasn't so nice, then --
and he paints you a picture of gunshots flying, the country's crime capital
and he paints you a picture of affordable buildings and affable people
(the minorities and the poor and the low end of the middle class
every person keeping their head down, body posture careful)
and he paints you a picture of people playing frisbee next to train tracks
of anyone and everyone joining in, just trying to get by.
(you understand, in a way you didn't, before, the way people spit out gentrification like a curse -- like the plague of injustice that it is.)
Your cousin wears a well-worn hoodie,
t-shirt and bleach-splattered cargo pants,
dressed for comfort
And you wear your warmest hoodie,
bleach-covered shirt with jeans,
dressed for practicality
And your aunt wears makeup, a sweater,
carefully selected slacks, blouse,
dressed for appearances.
And your aunt has a shower, a dishwasher and a drier,
And working things: four burners, an oven, a sink.
Your cousin has bookcases of records and CDs,
And functioning things: a microwave, half a sink, a single working burner.
And the train does not
blast past your aunt's house at all hours of the day, the same way
the cobwebs do not
cover unsuspecting areas within your aunt's cupboard, the same way
all manners of bugs do not
jump out of various cartons of food, the same way
the sound of gunshots never
ring out in the dark.
And your aunt and uncle live
in a suburban community,
secluded, a drive up a hill,
trees and mountains surrounding,
where it is safe to wander the neighborhood.
And your cousin lives in a ghetto, and you smile
when the children one house over
run chasing after each other, giggling
to each other in another language, and you smile
at the fresh green in the air,
from the trees all around the property as you
pin the clothes, hang them to dry, and you stay
firmly, safely, within the property lines,
carefully out of any lines of sight.
And there is something odd about this:
Your Aunt's house radiates sunlight and cleanliness,
yet you have never felt so subtly claustrophobic as you do there:
You Cousin's house, for all its faults, feels like a strange brand of freedom.