At the Padre Hotel in Bakersfield, California

Ellen Bass

It’s Saturday night and all the heterosexuals
in smart little dresses and sport coats
are streaming into what we didn’t know
was the hottest spot between Las Vegas and L.A.
Janet and I are in jeans and fleece—not a tube of lipstick
or mascara wand between us. Grayheads:
a species easy to identify without a guidebook—
the over-the-hill lesbian couples of the Pacific Northwest.
Janet’s carrying our red-and-white cooler with snacks for the road
across the marble tiles of the Art Deco lobby
when we turn and see the couple
entering through the tall glass doors, slicing
through the crowd like a whetted blade. The butch
is ordinary enough, a stocky white woman
in tailored shirt and slacks, but the confection—
no, the pièce de résistance—whose hand she holds
is of another genus entirely.
Her cinnamon sheen, her gold dress
zipped tighter than the skin of a snake.
And her deep décolletage, exposed enough for open-heart surgery.
She’s a yacht in a sea of rowboats.
An Italian fountain by Bernini.
She’s the Statue of Liberty. The Hubble Telescope
that lets us gaze into the birth of galaxies.
Oh, may they set that hotel room ablaze—here
in this drab land of agribusiness and oil refineries
outdoing Pittsburgh as the top polluted city in the nation—trash it
like rock stars, rip up the 300 thread-count sheets,
free the feathers from the pillows.
And may that grande femme be consumed
right down to the glitter on her sling-back four-inch stilettos
and whatever she’s glued on her magnificent skin
to keep the plunge of that neckline from careening clear off the curve.

More by Ellen Bass

Basket of Figs

Bring me your pain, love. Spread 
it out like fine rugs, silk sashes, 
warm eggs, cinnamon
and cloves in burlap sacks. Show me

the detail, the intricate embroidery 
on the collar, tiny shell buttons, 
the hem stitched the way you were taught,
pricking just a thread, almost invisible.

Unclasp it like jewels, the gold 
still hot from your body. Empty 
your basket of figs. Spill your wine.

That hard nugget of pain, I would suck it, 
cradling it on my tongue like the slick 
seed of pomegranate. I would lift it

tenderly, as a great animal might 
carry a small one in the private 
cave of the mouth.

Eating the Bones

The women in my family
strip the succulent
flesh from broiled chicken,
scrape the drumstick clean;
bite off the cartilage chew the gristle, 
crush the porous swellings
at the ends of each slender baton.
With strong molars
they split the tibia, sucking out
the dense marrow. 
They use up love, they swallow 
every dark grain,
so at the end there's nothing left,
a scant pile of splinters
on the empty white plate.

Waiting for Rain

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener

someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on

making and unmaking. Maybe it’s wrong
to think of better and worse.
There’s no one who can carry my fear
for a child who walks out the door

not knowing what will stop her breath.
The rain they say is coming
sails now over the Pacific in purplish nimbus clouds.
But it isn’t enough. Last year I watched

elephants encircle their young, shuffling
their massive legs without hurry, flaring
their great dusty ears. Once they drank
from the snowmelt of Kilimanjaro.

Now the mountain is bald. Lucretius knows
we’re just atoms combining and recombining:
star dust, flesh, grass. All night
I plastered my body to Janet,

breathing when she breathed. But her skin,
warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out.
How tenuous it all is.
My daughter’s coming home next week.

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.