a/n: this is a long poem, one that started writing itself at 4 a.m. a few days ago. it didn't write itself, but it came close.

paper dolls

it's 4 a.m., a no-name town in alabama and you're in a motel
where there's graffiti in the bible and a stain on the mattress. no one
to sleep with tonight, just a stranger's name on the room receipt.
you find a little girl's leftovers under the bed, book
of paper dolls and pretend lives. you cut them out with safety scissors,
then slice your arms with razor blades.
the scars make cheap tattoos, but you've seen worse.

in another life you were nefertiti, you were marilyn, you were
sally sweetheart with a pink corvette. it was spring when he came
crashing through your picket fence with his pawn-shop guitar and needle tracks
to tell a junkie's story. should have been a warning, but all you knew
was his voice like pineapple-arsenic; exotic, a little
dangerous. he said you had jacaranda eyes
and you loved him in the backyard grass. that night he was your
prince: these days, the words you choose for him are mostly
of the four-letter variety.

now, an hour later, the alarm's numbers are still glowing
a sick and sallow green. the radio is cheap, but you find nine inch nails
and crank up the static. someone in the next room over is banging
on the wall and it makes the lights flicker. you keep
tracing along the dotted lines, clinging to this bit of logic
while it lasts. the dolls keep smiling. it occurs to you that
they're much too trusting.

he said he was trying to find himself. you told him he was
with you, wasn't that enough? but he kept searching for his shadow, every
night another unlikely place: the bottle, the needle, the girl next door
who read tarot cards. you asked her to tell you
your future once, but she looked away. later,
when you found them in your bed,
you understood. it was almost a relief.

and it's a sick joke, these paper people, pitiful imitations
that can't even stand by themselves. you line them up against
the windowsill in their cheap clothes, wonder who
ever thought of such a thing. up close, they could be
prisoners - those smiles are all teeth and no happiness. suddenly
you have an idea of what you look like.

three weeks, two hundred miles; it's not enough to separate
you. you call him on payphones and send him postcards
that he can never answer. sometimes you hear the poison
in his voice, sly lady heroin and her satisfied smirk, but
he's made his choice and there's nothing you can do for him except stay
away. when you try to throw away the ring it won't
come off, but you guess it doesn't matter. it's too late to pretend
you don't love him, anyway.

the old lighter in your purse still works, after all (and he hated
you smoking - one more hypocrisy), and paper isn't hard
to burn. at the end of the line is a woman
with tired eyes and short hair. you take his picture
from your wallet and set it in her hands
before that last flick of fortune's wheel. when it's over
you bandage your wounds and pay your bill.

nine months later
your daughter's name is truth. she never meets her father
except for a newspaper obituary, and she never
plays with paper dolls.