Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law
She is thin. She is listening
to them discuss this in the kitchen.
The walls, the thinnest. She is
nursing a baby and overhearing
crumbs, a trail to the cauldron
of their mouths. The relentless
aroma of warming cornbread.
One says, men don’t like skinny women.
No one says gutters are nests
for sudden pine samplings and men
do not like women in this house.
The men are soused, their cards
on the basement table, laid out
like tarot for toddlers. All children must
stay upstairs. The men are busy.
They are drunk and not to be disturbed
in their utmost disturbingness.
Upstairs, the females tidy up,
bide time. An aunt mentions how much
she hates Hillary. All present agree.
But she cannot. She is failing. She has
written a poem that tastes like raw lilacs.
The migraine watches from
the windowsill, waits.
The hour of poses takes shape near a couch.
Family portraits include matching pajamas,
the wish of the mother-in-law who sets tone for what
is sacred, who decorates the walls with quotes about grace.
The daughter-in-law reminds her children to smile.
Say cheese. Say please. She counts the leaves
on the poinsettias as a nephew is spanked nearby.
She turns her head from the tears, the choked
whimpers. Angels smile from the mantle, their eyes
frozen solid, their arms set like stone
against life. They say: this is not your rodeo,
pumpkin. They say: silence is the
single most safe space. The child cries
and cries and cries.
She learns to sew; upcycles a black toddler dress
from a beloved t-shirt. They say it is depressing.
They wonder why she can’t understand girls
were born for pink, and what part of love grows
in denial. Her grandfather is not welcome in their house
with his bad ears and broken english. She has no place
to leave him except with her mother.
It is her mother who must carry the burden
of divorce even further now, must care for
the father-in-law of the man who left her.
The daughter’s in-laws punish the daughter’s mother
and the daughter keeps getting thinner
as the baby thickens. The fathers drink scotch.
The baby wears pudge round its neck and cheeks
like puffy-paint halos. She loves feeding the baby.
She loves watching the baby’s eyelids fluttering,
tiny wings over meadow flowers. The angels
have moved to the bookshelf. They speak.
They say: everyone here despises you, pumpkin.
They say: Judas had the world’s softest lips.
She is at the beach-condo rented by in-laws
and nursing no one. She collects shells, baby teeth.
Her husband has woken from decades of beautiful
sleep. She will weave a crown of sunbeams
to soothe him. He cannot disbelieve
what he sees, the impossible brightness.
It rolls from the beach to the condo pool. The older
cousin asks an uncle to hold her baby. The cousin
holds up a bottle of sunscreen and screams.
The cousin’s face is purplish, contorted
into seven fists, five headless horsemen,
one single nightmare. You have always been
the problem!, the cousin screams.
You fucking fucking bitch–
Strangers stare, mouths open. The husband
holds the daughter-in-law’s children
who are wailing, Mommy! Mommy!
Don’t hurt my mommy! It is sunny
and it is so hard to hear an ocean.
The mother-in-law says, this is why we can’t
have open borders. See, this is why…
The angels are not present.
The child cries and cries and cries.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She serves as Co-Director of PEN Birmingham. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Prize and was published in May 2018. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for Pidgeonholes, President of Alabama State Poetry Society, Co-Founder of 100,000 Poets for Change Birmingham, and proud board member of Magic City Poetry Festival. Her poetry collection, Defect/or, was a finalist for 2015 Robert Dana Poetry Award. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, the 2019 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, the 2019 Frank McCourt Prize, and the 2019 Streetlight Magazine Poetry Contest, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. More online at Alinastefanescuwriter.com or @aliner