Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn’t learned
young men learn from women
what it feels like to feel just right,
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband
in prison for breaking someone’s head.
Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness
was how much she wanted it, and all
were back seats and a night or two
in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
in the same office, banter and loneliness
leading to the shared secret
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits
was wildly comic, which led to my body
existing with hers
like rain water that’s found its way
underground to water it naturally joins.
I can’t remember
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,
though she did. It’s a word I see now
you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it
often enough to know what silk and deep balm
when at last it comes. I think it was terror
at first that drove me to touch her
then selfishness, the clear benefit
of doing something that would come back
to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became
reflexive and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are just abstract
until they have an ache in them. I met
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us,
I had new hands and new sorrow,
everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.