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The Bystander

Jill Alexander Essbaum

You put your hands on her. It is five years ago.
       Five years ago and to all clocks’ alarm and at
an hour unspecified she chimes o fraud, o fraud.
       Then you regard and re-regard her. Then she boards
her plane. Five years ago and nothing of you is
       a good idea. You are a patriot in no
man’s Reich. Non-partisan. Aloof. Precisely beige
       in your neutrality. You won’t step in. You don’t.
It is five years ago. She volunteers a mouth.
       You pull away as if she’s bleeding fire. Retreat
is every army’s arrogance. As if withdrawal
       lacked cowardice. As if surrender wasn’t brave.
This is what she says to you five years ago
       when you with oddly crude aplomb have shrugged her off,
a flak vest you’re longer so invested in
       protecting yourself with, content (if ill-equipped)
to quibble over whether she is Axis or
       allein. Five years of thoughts like drowsy boats you can’t
not steer inside a landlocked ache. Your plan is wet
       with strategy: A sideline’s still a line drawn in
the sand
. Five years ago she mails a letter you
       don’t read, but let her think you do. How cruel. You cache
it in a vault beneath the street you’ve cobbled in
       your spleen. It seemed the right response. But you can’t fill
with gold a guilt you don’t think you deserve to feel.
       Five years. You lay your lips to hers, your conscience cold
and white like spiteful stars so long away, or Alps
        that lie if they suggest they are impartial. Part
of every loss is shame. But you—cocksure in ways
       beyond the one— stand by, Bystander. She steps on
her plane. There is no ceremony. She farewells
       but to the air around you and the concept of
your eyes. For you are passive in the present and
       the past. And from your mirror’s black, scratched glass it is
forever those five years ago and your defense
       is achromatic, nameless, vague. Both walls and woes
have ears. And wars have wives. And armories have arms.
       And heart’s a muscle not a bone. It cannot break.
And yet she leaves. And that is that is that. She walks
       alone in woods and kicks at trees pretending each
is you. And calls your empty name. And peers through windows
       with a want that even controversy can’t
console. Five years. A tooth. A wedding band. A middle
       road of last perhaps. Don’t choose a side? That’s still
a choice. Pretend it’s not five years ago, it’s now.
       Her plane is late. You come to her, a white cross swimming
in a red and non-capitulating sea.
       She doesn’t call you devil and you are not damned.
No boxcar is refused. And you are not the man
       who lets her get away. Instead, you beg her: stay.

Jill Alexander Essbaum

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