She’d pass our front gate as she walked up the long hill
from the town to school. I contrived to join her until
it was clear she didn’t need my company. Nothing said,
just politeness listening to babble, her head
held the way a dressage horse is, under rein.
And then those eyes noting something insufficient retired,
like a woman who declining a caller returns
back down a hallway and disappears.
She walked as good-looking girls do—assured,
self-contained, her long, thick, black, black hair,
plaited and hanging, straight as rectitude,
swinging slightly like a counterweight. Her hips.
In class she barely spoke, keeping to one or two other girls.
Yet there was something slyly innocent, sensual, mocking,
in the way she’d look at the idiocies of boys who didn’t realize
what a doe-eyed Jessica was among us.
Once, with my mother on the train back from Sydney
I shared a dog-box with her family. As soon as we’d settled
into a compartment, thickly foreign
with the headiness of real coffee, her mother offered bagels and lox,
which my mine accepted, somewhat primly.
The daughter read and so, escaped,
while I sweltered all the lurching way home
in a sauna of fantasy, and cloying perfumes.
That act seemed such an unusual generosity.
Not a bridge or prelude to anything, just generosity.
And gracious too. Yes, a graciousness, a refinement,
that was not assumed or mannered.
Yet my mother would sometimes say,
“It’s not hard to see why.
They always set themselves apart.”
Once, my parents returned from a slide evening at church
of a trip Mrs Starr and her husband had made back to Europe.
Mum woke me and couldn’t stop telling me—then and the next morning.
Especially one, of walls pocked, scutched, cross-hatched
by innumerable tiny claws—to the height, say, of outstretched arms.
“Why would this be so?” Mrs. Starr had asked.
Dumbness at what might be the answer, the hall silent.
All eyes glazed by the smoothness of tiles. Clean. White.
In the same way the sufferer wears a shadow
by which their condition sets them apart
they lived in that country town with what they were:
witness: that History was not terrible, improbable, fabulous.
It was terrible and warm, real and present
and linked as irrevocably, as tenuously as the breath, the word.
Once a mate taunted as Mr Starr drove past
on his newspaper round,
“Go on. Dare you.”
I did. Of course.
I thought I’d gotten away with it
but thirty yards later the car stopped.
A kind of weariness emerged,
a sadness shaking the bulk of him,
“Do you know what you have said?
Do you want me to call your parents?
I know your father. He is a good man.”
Currawongs let loose their last marbling calls.
Each house aged and hunched toward night.
I stood there in the chill, stripped in my shame,
my words like eyes, hollow and unblinking
“Hey, Jew”, “… You dirty Jew”,
“… fucken Jew.”