Marissa Bell Toffoli
2005 Cape Town, South Africa
Jackass penguins can swim up to 7 km per hour. 1971: penguin rescued from oil spill, rehabilitated in captivity, tagged, released on Robben Island. 1990: Nelson Mandela released from Robben Island prison. Within a month of release the penguin traveled 800 km to Port Elizabeth, but was it any safer? Same day spent visiting the penguins the Cape Times bore news of Hurricane Katrina. Pairs of penguins groomed and preened like cats. I wonder if cheetahs will stay on the endangered species list, or if it's true there are almost no more long-tusked elephants in the world. I heard there was a list you could check for the names of the dead, there's probably another for survivors but I don't have anybody's name to look up. We're becoming accustomed to relief efforts for terrorist attacks or tsunamis or hurricanes or endangered animals or earthquakes or AIDS or breast cancer; I can't keep track of which color ribbon or plastic bracelet I'm supposed to wear this week. Tom worked triage at the New Orleans airport turned hospital. Sue volunteered in the Red Cross call center. 1997: Robben Island prison reopens as museum, some former prisoners lead tours. Little left to flee to, nowhere to forget what people are capable of. Newspapers pictured rooftop rescues in water-engulfed cities, crowds of people praying. Ground-nesting birds, the jackass penguins were named for the donkey-like sound of their braying.
Are We There, Yet?
On a plane between Namibia and Angola
I hold my neighbor's Coke can as he shuffles around his computer and a plate of disappointing food, trying to find more room on his small tray or his lap for the Coke. His laptop is open, showing Madonna's "Immaculate Collection" music videos. She wails expertly and changes clothes again and throws me back to junior high. Situated, the man reclaims his Coke. He eats with one hand, snaps his fingers with the other. He lifts his laptop across the aisle littered with Duty Free bags so another woman can take a closer gander. They exchange words in a language I don't speak. They laugh the way strangers laugh over a shared joke. The woman smiles cherry lipstick at me. After two days of zigzagging across countries, I'm tired. I want to be annoyed by his elbow knocking mine. I want to be upset about Madonna infiltrating my earphones. I am tempted to get snarky when he moves his leather briefcase into my foot space. It's impossible. He is dressed in a suit, like most of the others on the plane. I stick out in jeans, sneakers, t-shirt, and milky skin. This man radiates good-naturedness, shoulder-dancing to Madonna, making puppy eyes at the air hostess. The whole packed plane smells like stale cigarette smoke. We've been rolled right in, lucky to get seats according to stories of mass overbooking. Not worth pretending to read my book. All I can do is laugh. Never in America. It's the picture of ridiculous. The man looks at me and holds out the Coke with a lightly pleading glance, a shrug. I take it. He holds up his index finger, one more thing, then points down the aisle. I nod. My neighbor gingerly places his computer on my tray and maneuvers out of his seat. A smile smooth as cream spreads across his coffee face.
Early dawn but somewhere we are two drinks happy on a porch in evening light, comfort given up for adventure, curiosity working the moment. Twirling and leaping out of our mouths, our words are Degas dancers warming up. We wait for children we don't know yet, with hair blonde, opposite of ours, who are supposed to meet us here when we finish our drinks. No rhythm to guide us to the quietest time at dawn, we feel the flicker of burn and move our feet away from the fire. Without speaking, we listen to someone's faint song, a faraway keening that feels like forgetting.
The dirge winds through the house, curling along the stair rail like smoke until it reaches our ears to pull us from sleep. No shock to our eyes and limbs, in the less and less shaded room we are just shadows—boundaries able to blend into air.
The fire dies out as we shift away our bodies. With the cello song closer, louder, I know we will not have time to meet the children and I can't let go the image: children climbing porch steps to find dwindling fire, pressing their faces and hands to the glass patio door as I turn back, attempt a smile.
My hand is holding onto yours. Even as our palms are about to slip their grasp I reach out with my other hand, hoping to unlatch the patio door. As if it were even within my reach. When the hot water of the shower streams down my face, I can only imagine.
Marissa Bell Toffoli
lives in Berkeley, California. She earned an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts (CCA). She works as an editor, teaches poetry with California Poets in the Schools, and publishes interviews with writers at Words with Writers
. Her poems have recently been published in Flatmancrooked
's Slim Volume of Contemporary Poetics