with a snaggletoothed grin.

Didn’t care much about winning, but I hated to come in last, my sweet spot was lane seven for long, slow miles of laps punctuated by flip turns


powering underwater, mermaid made real I felt my gills growing

I could breathe without air.


Underwater, city swimming pool

a shiver of slippery boys eleven, twelve years old with shark-toothed fingers and gap-toothed smiles isolate

the openhearted girls eight, nine years old tossed in like bloody buckets of chum.

The boys circle, then frenzy-feed crotch-grabbing, chest-pinching, hate-spitting

the water afroth

with glee and destruction.

Girls stay in the shallows after their baptism as bait, that first painful lesson in how lifeguards

look the other way.


I hated reading. Loathed the ants swarming across the page, lost my excitement about school, fought, reduced to a puzzle with missing pieces.

Once branded, the feeling of stupid never fades no matter how many medals you win.

But then we rode the bus downtown me and Leslie, who majored in music and lived in our attic, Mary Poppins with a Jersey accent, we rode the bus downtown, the coins hot from my hand plink, plink in the box next to the driver, all the way downtown to a Carnegie library built by an immigrant so everyone could read, free

and untrammeled by politicians seeking to bind them into ignorance,

chain them to the wheel.

Leslie promised she’d read me the books so I didn’t have to be afraid of mistakes and I wrote My Name in big letters got my first badge, a library card I asked the librarian

“Can I take out all the books?”

and she answered quite seriously “Of course, dear,

just not at the same time.”

And so, with extra Leslie help and a chorus of angels disguised as teachers and librarians for years unstinting with love and hours of practice, those ants finally marched in straight lines for me

shaped words, danced sentences, constructed worlds

for a girl finally learning how to read I unlocked the treasure chest and swallowed the key.

poem for my favorite teacher

   Mrs. Sheedy-Shea

   taught me haiku, I word-flew

   off the page, amazed


indoctrinated by magazine covers of skeletal white privilege like the Kennedys (only peasants ate, apparently) my parents, poor-clanned and striving rose to the occasion and smothered my hunger

by pinching my hips

grabbing the fat under my chin when I was eight years ten, fourteen

twenty-five hungry years old when they grabbed and pinched they called me “Baby Hippo”

the insult disguised as love, they said others would tease me for being so fat

so I might as well

get used to it

closeted shame

When we were girls we rode horses disguised as bicycles

though anyone with eyes could see from the way we leaned, preened their manes, galloped across the plains without ever leaving Dorset Avenue, their true equine nature we were magic-filled girls at large in a world of pedestrian dullness.

After riding hard, we’d walk to cool down our steeds, feed them sugar cubes, pump their tires, straighten the playing cards in the spokes

that made the thwacka-thwacka-thwacka-thwack announcing our arrival, knees always skinned, crusted with scabs from tripping over the buckled sidewalk that was heaved into the air by killing frosts and held there by the roots of long-dead trees, left broken to teach children lessons about watching our step.

I used my jump rope for reins and a lasso for runaway calves, and the whirling dervish of girl games, sky-jumping, earth-touching, clap-backing

shouted with rhymes. We got tangled up a lot and fell,

splitting open our half-healed knees, we licked our bloody wounds clean

and started all over again.

My bike had a shelf on the back, an ornament, I guess, but made of metal. One day, I let a friend’s little sister ride on the back of my horse

on that shelf, her shoelaces tangled in the spokes, her leg twisted at a horrible angle, then broke.

Her screams drove

me to the linen closet, where I hid for hours, sobbing

burning with the horror

that I’d hurt her, not my fault, but yes, totally my fault, and she wore a heavy cast for months.

I stopped playing horses after that.

The taste of shame smells like stubborn vomit in your hair lingering no matter how often you wash it sometimes you have to shave

yourself bald

and start again like a newly hatched chick leaving the faint rot of broken magic in shattered eggshell pieces

behind you.


After Charlotte’s Web but before Little Women, my sister stole the key to my green plastic diary, and blackmailed me

with what she found

We shared a room split in two with masking tape laid down the middle of the floor, and the closet, the lines never to be crossed

I hadn’t committed felonies or misdemeanors, yet; I was in fifth grade but still, she tattled about what I wrote how I’d cheated in math and planned to do it again I repaid her treachery by telling stories in the dark while we waited for sleep, said I was a vampire, the moles on my neck proved it,

Laurie Halse Anderso's Books