Denise Duhamel

Intimacy of Hair

Once Peter snuck up behind me
putting his fingers ever so lightly
over my hair as though he was my aura.
He didn’t comb my curls—he barely
touched them. His fingers felt
a bit like wind, or silent wind chimes.
I thought I was in love with him
but he loved the girl with pin
straight hair. So why did he almost
caress me, his palms electric
with twenty-something magic?
And why do I remember this?
So much time has passed—
the girl with the straight hair
married to someone else, Peter
married to someone else. I’m alone
at Christmas, my hair full of silver
linings, my hair full of tinsel.


I have lived in cities, dangerous ones,
where I’ve encountered men who made me
afraid. Everyone says don’t make eye contact
with such predators, but I always do because:

          1. I am saying to a potential attacker I can recognize you in a lineup.
          2. I am saying, look, we are both human beings.

Of course, I cannot guarantee this will always work.
When Beverly Donofrio was under
her would-have- been rapist she started reciting
Hail Mary, aloud, full of grace, until he stood
up, the lord is with thee, started to cry, blessed art thou,
and ran away. This is how I remember her reading,
but, when I buy her memoir, I realize she clearly was
raped and that the praying may have saved her soul
but didn’t save her from assault. I must have told myself,
as I sat in the audience, that the man was Catholic enough
to have the prayer mean something. And I wonder now
about hearing only what I could hear at the time and how
another woman might one day mishear my story
about the man who chased me down Avenue B. I thought
I recognized his voice, so I stopped running
and turned around to ask him what he wanted.
I want to think now that Joan Didion was with me
as she says in a new documentary—
I always had this theory that if you kept a snake
in your eye line, the snake wasn’t going to bite you.

The man’s fly was open, and his eyes were open,
yellow and wild. Bitch, you know what I want.
And as I turned away, he peed on my shoes. I ran
and he ran after me. My flats were from Salvation Army
but I loved them—they were pointy-toed
and royal blue. Until that moment, I never knew
that someone could run and pee at the same time.
When the man gave up, I threw my shoes
into the trash. Now my fingers were also covered
with a stranger’s urine, my bare feet
on the filthy Alphabet City sidewalk, urine
between my toes. My bare feet on the filthy tenement
stairs that lead to my apartment. I wish I’d known
to say a prayer as I washed my blackened soles
or at least reflect on Jesus washing the feet of the poor.
I wondered if I should call the police, but this
was before I told the story to anyone
and that night I couldn’t bring myself to say the words.
What if peeing on someone wasn’t even a crime?
I thanked Mary and Jesus for saving me from a worse fate.
This was before I’d read the theory that Mary
was date raped. This was before I’d read
Beverly Donofrio’s memoir or her earlier book
Riding in Cars with Boys. The author, like Mary,
had birthed a child when she young. I was pretty sure
that night that I’d never want to have children.
I had trouble sleeping even though I’d scrubbed
myself clean, even though I was lucky
my feet weren’t cut up. I saw the man the next day
and he was indeed the man I’d suspected, the man
who was homeless, the man who was clearly
a drunk, who must have been in a blackout.
Or maybe he was farsighted. I created a back-story
for him, how hard his life was, just as I’d created
a back story for Beverly Donofrio’s rapist.
I couldn’t bring myself to confront him
with words. But, as was my rule, I made eye contact
with him in daylight, waiting for an apology.
All he said was “Good morning.”
The next afternoon, “How’s it going, pretty lady?”
And the one after that, “Have a nice day.”


I’m sorry my voice upsets you
I’m sorry my tears box you in
I’m sorry you agreed with me at the dinner party but didn’t say so
I’m sorry you thought my tone was all wrong
I’m sorry I’m on the rag, preggers, having a hot flash, or all dried up
I’m sorry I never played football or pool
I’m sorry I never learned to go head to head with an opponent and then shake
          hands at the end of the game
I’m sorry I don’t like debating for hours on end for the hell of it
I’m sorry that it’s not theoretical for me
I’m sorry there will always be a sweet, complying women in the wings
I’m sorry I don’t trust you, that I never truly will
I’m sorry I’m a ball buster, a female chauvinist pig
I’m sorry sometimes that I am so damn hetero
I’m sorry you think with your dick
I’m sorry I think with my heart
I’m sorry I have to repeat everything I say
I’m sorry that you aren’t usually listening the first time or able to understand me
          the second
I’m sorry you refute me when I pipe up again
I’m sorry you catch me on a technicality
I’m sorry you find me passive-aggressive when I am trying to be aggressive-
I’m sorry my sad stories make you sad
I’m sorry it’s hard for you to hear what I have lived
I’m sorry you don’t believe me
I’m sorry you think I was partly to blame
I’m sorry my beauty distracts you
I’m sorry I’m such an ugly hag
I’m sorry you think I’m melodramatic
I’m sorry I can’t just chill
I’m sorry my throat closes around that chill pill
I’m sorry I puked on your shoe
I’m sorry I can’t let it go
I’m sorry I talk so fast
I’m sorry your ears prick up so slow

Denise Duhamel's most recent book of poetry is Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other titles include Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009); Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005); Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001); The Star-Spangled Banner (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999); and Kinky (Orhisis, 1997). She and Maureen Seaton co-authored CAPRICE (Collaborations: Collected, Uncollected, and New) (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). She and Julie Marie Wade co-authored The Unrhymables (Wild Patience Press, 2018). Duhamel is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenhiem Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

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