by Emily Banks

That’s when I started noticing

how loud she chewed—somewhere between

New York and New Orleans where we’d see

her mother’s body buried. 

My first time on a plane. As if a switch

was hit and then the gum

between her teeth, the squelching sound

saliva makes as lips smack shut, 

was all I heard. Her mother was dead

and we were going to look

at her dead body, face powdered

and perfume sprayed so we wouldn’t think

about what cancer does and I hadn’t decided

yet whether I’d look. 

That’s when I realized other people chewed 

with their mouths closed so nobody 

would see the meaty insides of their lips,

wet muscles of their tongues, but my mother 

would make you look because the body

is always beautiful, or something 

she would say. The last time 

I’d seen her mother, I saw the way her gums

had dried a porous brown and I tried

not to calculate how old she was.

The white-toothed stewardess

motioned safety instructions for just in case

our plane would crash. That’s when I started 

hinting, asking, “Aren’t you finished

with that piece of gum?” and holding out a wrapper

for her to spit it in. Her mother had just died

and I knew I shouldn’t tell her, but it felt

like shards of glass grinding into my ears

and she just laughed, then said she was laughing

so she wouldn’t cry. That’s when I started

moving my chair away from her at meals,

my eyes fixed on some corner 

of bookshelf space. I did decide to look

at my grandmother, dead, her face

still pretty and I wasn’t afraid

like I was scared I’d be, but the skin of her cheek

felt like cold wax when I leaned down to it

and I tried not to think that I had kissed

somebody dead, that I had seen a body,

dead, for the first time and all the chemicals

that stiffened her, concealer caked to make her

look alive would seep away and leave 

her bare and then—I wouldn’t think. That’s when

the wet noise of consumption wouldn’t stop,

a rapid beat like droplets on my skull

and after, her tongue wandering her teeth

to gather bits of food that might decay. 

That’s when I knew some sounds you can’t drown out, 

even with the hard part of your palms

pressed down over both ears, folded

into themselves, heating to red 

as your plane flattens out and hits the ground. 

Emily Banks is a doctoral candidate and poetry lecturer at Emory University. She received her
MFA from the University of Maryland and her BA from UNC–Chapel Hill. Her work has
appeared in numerous journals, including Cimarron Review, storySouth, Yemassee, Free State Review, Muse/A Journal, and Pembroke Magazine. Her first collection, Mother Water, is
forthcoming from Lynx House Press.


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