Saying Goodbye to Your Body

Throw it in the forest before it starts to spoil.
Let birds shit it to obscurity.
It won’t be missed. Not by you and not
by the man on the train whose hand
you grabbed by accident. The lights flickered
and you let yourself get carried away by fear.
I don’t know you, the man said, excused
himself away from you. Everyone forgets eventually.
Even the boy whose disappointment you captured
on parchment paper and hung in your bedroom
for years. His body is far gone from your bed
and slowly yours will be too.
Think of it as an extended vacation,
a sweet Valium dream.
You’ll be reborn, a swamp-monster,
slick and diamond-tough.
You’ll tear into an avocado and eat it,
pit and skin and all. And you will have forgotten.
That’s the only way to keep living.


No te metas

As hard as she can, Griselda pinches the skin between her thumb and pointing finger. The pain is a distraction. Earlier today, her dad grabbed her heavy metal t-shirts, favorite black hoodie, and smelly socks and stuffed them inside a black suitcase. The suitcase now stands by the open front door, and Griselda can see her dad. He’s outside by the yellowing yard with his head tucked under the hood of a fender-dented Ford pickup. Griselda sits on the couch while her dad fidgets with Craftsman tools. He’s trying to get his truck started by working on the carburetor, which Griselda hopes he can’t fix.


Her mother left them eight months ago. Since then, her dad has gone weeks without bathing, days without eating.


After an hour of tinkering, he tries turning on the ignition. The engine flutters. It’s a false start, and Griselda is relieved. She breathes deeply, tilts her head back, and gazes at the sparkled popcorn ceiling. The music coming out of the truck’s speakers reminds her of when her dad, in exchange for a powerful sound system, put several crisp fifty-, twenty-, and ten-dollar bills in the palm of a vendor at the Roadium open-air swap-meet that had once been a drive-in theater.


Singing along to his music, Griselda is dismayed that she knows all the words to “No te metas con mi cucu.” She didn’t know she had that in her, and she hates herself because the song’s corny rhymes embarrass her. She’s sixteen, after all, and won’t admit that she likes the song, so she shakes her head as if the sudden movement will scare off the Spanish lyrics.


Her dad steps on the gas pedal, revving the engine. Griselda presses her lips together, tightening and rolling them into a thin line. The rumble of the motor intensifies, but soon, it peters out. Griselda relaxes. Her shoulders droop down, and her lips return to their normal, full shape, with an undefined Cupid’s bow. Getting off the couch, she closes the door, sticks a mixtape of Metallica and Iron Maiden songs into the home stereo system, and turns the dial to ten. The cassette is a gift from Sergio. He’s the scruffy-looking teen who wears a black Misfits t-shirt, rolled up at the sleeves.  He’s the only boy in tenth grade that has a tattoo. On his left arm, there’s a black and grey skull, which looks more like a deformed mushroom. Griselda likes Sergio’s badly done tattoo mainly because she likes him.


The speakers throb with fast, angry, and loud sounds, vibrating the floor and walls surrounding Griselda. She bites her teeth and digs her nails into her palms. Once the truck gets repaired, Griselda knows her dad will come in, wearing his blue trucker hat, motor-oil-stained jeans, brown work boots, and smelling of cigarettes and liquor. Despite any outbursts from her, he’ll grab her suitcase, toss it in the rear of the pickup, and take her away. Seven days ago, he told Griselda he was moving back to Méjico, where things were simpler, but that he wasn’t going to take her with him. Griselda had felt her body, especially her chest, tighten.


The bottom tip of her nose is red, slightly swollen, and stings when touched. Yesterday, without her dad’s knowledge or permission, she took all the money he had out of his wallet. And with her best friend, Sylvia, encouraging her, Griselda got her septum and navel pierced. She also wanted to get her tongue and eyebrow pierced but couldn’t afford it.


Standing in front of the mirror, Griselda yanks off her green army boots, and slides out of her black jeans. She walks in her underwear and makes her way into the kitchen and grips the sharp knife her dad uses to cut his carne asada on Sundays. Griselda kneels to where her pants lie and starts stabbing and scraping. Her jeans become frayed, almost destroyed. Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” comes to a stop. Outside, the truck engine maintains its roar. It doesn’t stop. The edges of her eyes turn red. She drives the knife into the floor, leaves it sticking up, and pulls her pants to her waist.


Griselda goes to the bathroom and finds her father’s beard trimmer. She holds it for a few seconds and then begins to shave her head. Long, thick hairs clog the trimmer’s blade, and Griselda has to keep removing them to clean it. But even with the blade cleaned, the trimmer doesn’t always cut all the way through; instead, it pulls the hairs. Griselda likes how it feels and pushes the blade hard against her head, inflaming the skin.


Her father walks in and leans on the doorway. He lifts a beer that perspires little, wet beads and sips it. Grime blackens his hands and streaks his cheeks and forehead. He looks like a zombie, she thinks. After he glances at the messy floor and sink, he observes Griselda. She smirks. And he says, “Jesus, Gris, you really want to piss off your mother, don’t you?”


Griselda’s smirk disappears. She wipes her eyes, and over her mouth she smears the heavy-black lipstick she took from the Rite Aid on Redondo Beach Boulevard. Looking at herself in the mirror, she says, “No. Not really.”


“You missed a spot.” He reaches to touch her buzz cut, but Griselda moves, avoiding his hand. She takes a hard, wet-sounding sniff and places the trimmer over the sink’s countertop.


He shrugs his tired shoulders. “Orale. Vamonos ya. Your mother’s waiting,” he says.


When she stomps out of the bathroom, her shoulder digs into her father’s chest. It feels hollow to Griselda, and she tells him, “About time you got that piece of shit to work.” She carries the suitcase outside. It’s heavier than she’d expected, but she’s still able to toss it in the back of the pickup. Before her father jumps in and pulls the Ford away, Griselda ejects his Sonora Dinamita cassette out of the truck’s in-dash stereo and plays her mixtape instead because he hates esa musica. Stuffing his cassette into her pocket, she’s not too sure what she’ll do with it. As he sits, buckles up, and drives, Griselda’s forehead, covered with bits of hair, thumps the glass on the passenger side window and rests there. They pass houses, cars, and she stares at the white lines on the freeway. Picking up speed, the truck shakes and screeches, and the lines become a blur.


The Painted Skulls, Held by Wings, Glistened in Rain

 There is shadow
 of a sparrow
 left on the window ledge
 weeks after the poor bird
 had been removed.


The sun melted
 a permanent silhouette, tufts
 of feathers, and a faint point
 of beak still visible
 with three days of rain.


 Something is wrong.


 I had a dream
 where I said
 this is a dream.


 I’m certain
 no one noticed
 except my father
 who knew I’d try
 the salted rhubarb
 and pomegranate seeds
 that wept on my fingers.


 Beets turn
into sugar sweetly
 on the verge of burn and
 I am guilty with happiness
           of a kind,
 where I survive


 as a bird,

 an egret
 strange and white as my
 father’s mustache, a telltale
 for his murdered brother.


I don’t say
 I’m happy,
 a sort of guilty luck
 that I love because it fleets
 never follows, ripe to the point of rot.


 What if nothing moves
 still as sleep and my breath
 is not enough?


 I dream I am
 as steel as a swallow
 brazen head near bow and drink
 its forked tail a salute
 between death and habit.
The definition of egret
 is wrong,
 if I don’t hold
 the long legs in absolute stillness.


 Tonight, I find a cat
 near the shore. Let him eat,
 he will eat, he will return to
 animal, not pet. I say, here
            kitty, kitty. He reveals his belly
 to me and all who continue to pass.
 I have met people like this.


 Three egrets stretch
 above me in an arm full of rain
 I am older now than my Uncle
 dead at 36
all of history caught
 in those white wings.
 He too was killed for his
 feathers, a plume of decoration
       in a woman’s hat.


My Abuela, the Puppet

I have been a fan of metaphor since I learned to read, first in English and then eventually in rusty, copper Spanish. This is not a metaphor. My grandma has become a puppet.


It would be a good metaphor if the circumstances were slightly different. Her body had started to change in the past few years and, though she stayed human, her physique lent itself to a description of her as a marionette. She had clunky, white orthopedic shoes that looked oversized and cartoonish when she took her small, concerted steps. Abuela’s back was permanently hunched over, appearing as if she were being suspended by invisible strings at the shoulders. She lost a lot of weight, and the lack of fat in her face combined with her wrinkled skin made her head look huge like a Muppet’s. But Abuela was still herself then, flesh and bones and dust.


Then she become a puppet and no one knew what to do about it. Papi wouldn’t admit it, but there were signs that her metamorphosis was coming, and it wasn’t just those dreadful orthopedic shoes.


For a long time, Abuela lived in an apartment by herself. Her relationship with my Abuelo had been another precious thing lost to migration, and she’d never bothered to date again. She had her children, who joined her in los Yunai Estais after she’d been cleaning houses, theaters, and embassies for nearly a decade, for nearly minimum wage. But, of course, Papi and his siblings had grown up and left Abuela in that musty-smelling apartment building.


We visited her one afternoon and couldn’t avoid the putrid smell that’d snuck into her home. The whole building smelt of old-person. In less kind words, the carpet and walls smelt of dying. But that morning Abuelita’s apartment did not smell just of dying, but already of death. In the fridge, there were rotten casseroles and the unquestionable stink of not-so-fresh queso fresco. Papi managed to save five slices from the loaf of bread, but everything else went into the trash.


Abuela claimed that she hadn’t smelt the food going bad. Her nose hardly worked anymore, she told us in an attempt to gain our pity. So, we went with her the the supermarket and bought a fridge full of groceries. Two weeks later, they sat in the fridge, largely untouched and mostly spoiled. My grandma had begun to lose weight, but she was still human.


Eventually, Mami convinced Papi to let Abuela move into our home in the suburbs. Abuela said they were being ridiculous, that she was fine in her apartment, that she was happy. But Mami was worried that she’d fall one day, and that no one would be there to help her. The weight loss also worried Mami.


Abuela had a large gut throughout my childhood, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you tipped her over and tried rolling her down the street. But by the time she moved into my old bedroom, her gut was gone. If you tipped her over, she’d plop onto the sidewalk like a plank of wood.


There’s a purse that Abuela loves. It’s a knock-off Louis Vuitton that she picked up in MacArthur park a year or so before the rotting fridge fiasco. When she became a puppet, a  version of the bag was stitched to her side, though it was made of felt and with less details than the original. But the purse sticks to her side, even as she lays tossed on the ground when there’s no one to hold up the wooden operating cross.


Before she was a puppet, Abuela swung that purse around and hit Papi straight across the cheek, leaving him with neck pains he’d complain about for weeks. She was accusing him of stealing money from her purse. Papi assured her that, no, he hadn’t taken anything from her, but she continued. She remembered putting a stack of twenty-dollar bills in the small pocket of her purse, and now she couldn’t find them. Papi had stolen them, she yelled, the ungrateful son of his father and then she pulled back her flabby arm and took aim.


In his shock, Abuela made a run for it. She pushed past me, with a strength that her limp marionette arms no longer possess. That the woman who sang me lullabies about baby chicks and coyotes would lay her hands on me without any of the tenderness I was used to nearly brought me to tears. It left me immobile as she opened the front door and ran out into the  rain-soaked neighborhood with her Louis Vuitton fake.


Mami and Papi got into the minivan and went out searching for her. They spotted her through a sprinkled windshield, waiting at the wrong bus stop. Her plan, my parents would tell me after I’d wiped the bags under my ears dry, was to ride the bus back to her apartment. She had forgotten the bus route to get there, though she’d ridden it often for nearly a decade. It’d slipped her mind that she no longer had a lease on that musty pink apartment.


The home we moved Abuela into after the 75-year-old runaway situation didn’t smell of dying. It was sterile, and the hallways of doors where hers stood was fenced off from the rest of the living facility. A brass gate separated those who could remember and those who couldn’t. A nurse would press a four-number code into a small keypad, and the door would open up to let us through.


Abuela lived in the section for people whose memories were turning into small wisps, ready to float away from their temples and into the clouds. Each of the tenants had their own room, but they’d take all their meals in a large, open-floor dining area. The nurses would go knock on Abuela’s door when it was dinner time and she hadn’t arrived to eat. Her mind was a lost cause, but there was no reason her body had to be as well.


Every visit gave us a clue that we ignored, opting for silence the way Papi had taught Mami and Mami had taught me. One day, Papi asked her how she used to make Christmas tamales. Being the man’s man that he is, he’d never stepped in the kitchen to actually make the dish. But he knew the steps well enough to know that his mother had forgotten them completely.


A professor had assigned an oral history project, so I’d decided to interview Abuela about the war and the way it had affected her migration. She began telling me the story, and the most graphic of details were sharp and clear. She recounted how an army soldier took a machete to a pregnant woman’s stomach because they feared that her baby was a communist. She told me that the guerilleros befriended her favorite cow and three days later murdered it for the meat.


When I prompted her to tell me her immigration story, she’d have to correct herself. Papi, who was sitting just few feet away, eventually led her along, reminding her that she’d gone to Puerto Rico before moving to Miami. He’d stayed in El Salvador for the first two year she’d been in San Juan, he told her, the hurt reverberating in his voice.


Soon she didn’t know our names. She called us all “mijo” or “mija.” Eventually, she opted to simply use “linda,” regardless of the gender of the person she was speaking to. Slowly, we became nearly strangers to us. My grandmother treated us the way she’d treat the mail man or a friend’s relative she was meeting for the first time. There was a sense of trust, but nothing more.


In the months before her metamorphosis, she often repeated a single phrase, over and over. He jaw falling unhinged, then rising again, and then down again. It wasn’t a coherent phrase either, but rather a string of muffled noise. Now, I’m realizing that maybe Abuela was speaking a clandestine language puppets speak when a ventriloquist isn’t pulling at their lips.


Though Abuela was human on all of those trips, I pretended that she wasn’t. Like the other people in this caged home for the forgetful, she’d lost her stories. I’d smile a hollow smile at them, tell Abuela that I loved her even though I knew she didn’t recognize me, and then slink away to a corner of the room.


When she became a puppet, my resentment for her grew. Papi and Mami refused to bury her. She’s not dead, they’d insist, pointing to the place where fish-wire strings met her joints. Mami grabbed my hand and pressed it against Abuela’s skin. The new texture of felt was kinder than the soggy, old leather Abuela’s skin used to feel like, but I still pulled my hand away quickly.


Abuela the Puppet hung in my parent’s home for years. Not wanting to be disrespectful, she watched over us from a hook in our living room–hovering as we watched TV, ate dinner, got into loud arguments. Abuela was the only one who saw when when I snuck a man into the house when I was visiting one Christmas break.


Most days she just hung there, but one weekend, when I was visiting in my few free days from graduate school, she began to sing. Her voice was stronger and clearer than it had been for years before her transformation.


“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta, y no llores. Porque cantando se alegran, cielito lindo los corazones.”


It was my favorite song as a little girl, so I knew she was singing it just for me. My parents stared at me with a concerned look when I told them. When I tugged at Abuela’s strings and moved her mouth up and down my hands, trying to prove to my parents what I’d heard, she didn’t budge. My grandmother remained limp and unmoving. My father placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder and told me that it might be a sign that I had that memory-denigrating termite Abuela suffered from for so long. It usually skipped a generation.


Mami and Papi died a year-and-a-half apart, leaving me to deal with my grandmother. I hated her. I hated her so much for taking so much space for so long, for forgetting my name, for making a fool of me with her lullaby. I hated her for the termites she’d left in my brain, and for all the pain she was going to put my children through. At church serves, a very seldom occurrence in those days, I’d prayed for death. God, diosito lindo, please don’t make me a puppet.


Online, I found a company that stored family members in Abuela’s condition indefinitely. They’d bought out an old lot of storage units and repurposed them to accommodate rows and rows of human-sized puppets. Most of the puppets were of people who’d formerly fled countries ravaged by wars funded in part by the United States, so when I dropped Abuela off they placed her in the unit marked CENTRAL AMERICA, with the other shrunken caramel grandmothers displaced from the isthmus. As the door to the storage unit closed, Abuela’s jaw twitched. No sound came out. The shell of a woman disappeared into the dark, silent once more.


The Doctor Laments

For our kidneys cratered

 like the swollen moon


For the way time hangs

 on our bones


For our confused lungs, blooming

 white and yellow destruction


For our exhausted hearts, roused

 to expansion by want and need


For the loss of the ancient stars

 in our blood and marrow


For the mines of our bodies

 that generate iridescent crystals and stones


For the dark shadows shifting

 in our souls


And our inability to escape them


Two Poems from “open pit”

These poems are from Villarán’s forthcoming collection open pit.


he likes to stare at walls

you were born in davis

in a small inflatable pool

in april


during those first weeks, you would often wake up crying

in the middle of the night. without really knowing how

i would pick you up from the crib and hold you tight against

my chest, until you calmed down, and fell asleep again


i liked staying like this for a while

staring at the darkness

that would become the wall


the world is waiting in line / at target

imagine us in the car a sunny day the windows down


driving to the beach 88.3 driving and all those cars next to us driving

always in movement the highway is always full because the more

lanes we build the more cars are attracted to the smell of concrete

and white arrows painted over seemingly endless black surfaces:


the original infrastructure of future battlefields


imagine thousands of small highways running inside of you


all those cars driving somewhere taking something someone like us

perhaps to the beach with your mother so we would have the cooler

and the tent the umbrellas and the surfboards imagine all those cars

going somewhere taking something driving someone imagine all that

movement all that continuous movement the displacement dislocation

bodies inside metal vehicles on black surfaces running


imagine thousands of small really really small


a huge conveyor belt a network of swollen arteries imagine an open pit

an open wound the skin rupturing imagine your leg imagine your arm


imagine my leg imagine my arm


a big bag of tendons and ligaments necrotic tissue a bundle of nerve

tissue imagine bags of plastic inside your stomach lining your

intestines and climbing up your esophagus through the larynx

the lack of oxygen


imagine these huge pond type structures with plastic geothermal

liners stretching across the mountains dissecting the mountains

becoming the new mountain the only landscape leaching ponds laid

out in endless geometrical patterns


imagine every single muscle every fiber every synapse every neuron

needed for you to type with your right index finger:

n. n. n.
the letter n


imagine thousands of small highways pulsating inside of you


imagine it never stopping


thousands of small highways and the cars and the people and the things

and the places they want to take those things to because that’s what we

do we go places with things and we use metal vehicles that travel on

seemingly endless black surfaces just imagine all of this happening all

the time all the time happening all the time always


this highway


 there’s no outside


this open pit


this wound this rupture this crevice inside body this highway all the time



what i’m trying to say miqel is:


just imagine thousands of small highways always running inside of you


imagine everything that’s needed for this to happen


all the time




now imagine an open pit a large open pit in the middle of a valley

surrounded by fractured mountains


i think that’s how it works


we have that pit


we keep running: faster faster faster


birds die and their stomachs are filled with plastic


whales die and their stomachs are filled with plastic


the united states economy gets a billion-dollar daily shot in its arm


imagine your arm


i’m thinking of mine


we have that pit


and we fill it with these things


we keep running faster always faster


now imagine us at the beach, imagine it being sunny again but not

too hot, imagine the sky punctuated by a few curious clouds, your

mother would be smiling, she’s beautiful when she smiles


it’s still happening


i don’t know what it is


i’m not sure what to do about it either


but i know it’s happening, all the time, always, relentless


we have that pit, it’s open, really open


and things are exploding and people are breaking and burning and dying


and we’re distracted


because we love the sand

the salt in the water

the cool air


A Warning

The water edges closer, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. Nowhere she and her daughters can go.


Once at the very rear of the property, fenced in by sedges and cypress trees, it has risen past its own borders and laps at the ground only a few feet away from the back porch. Funny how the pond itself reminds her of her daughters, neither girl held anymore by the boundaries of childhood, of dollhouses and that insatiable little-girl-need to nurture families of stuffed animals and generations of digital pets, and, yes, occasionally, an actual baby doll with a permanent marker black eye. Now they too have risen, both girls taller than her, their curved bodies full, overflowing jeans that were once baggy, spilling out of bra cups that were once collapsed. It’s time they knew.


On this overcast day of no wind and no fog, the earth has slowed its breakneck spinning to a crawl. Inside the house, the girls are silent as usual. Lately it seems only their bodies belie their presence—the shuffle of bare feet, the hiss of hair and fabric. She calls them now, leads them outside, shows them the water.


“See?” She points. For the first time the water, usually cloudy and a green so dark that it’s a color without a name, is perfectly clear. They can all see it. Past the snails that are close to the shore, past the reedy legs of the wood stork, past the coral rocks and sandy beds of the bluegills, they can all see the dark, see the place where the bottom has given way. It is there that two eyes shimmer at the edge of darkness and rows of teeth as wide as trees, as sharp as razor grass, open and close slowly, and yet the surface of the water is undisturbed, still as death.


“This is here,” she tells them. “Even when the wind blows across the surface and makes glittering waves and swirling eddies and whips your hair across your face and rustles leaves so that all you hear is that seductive call to shhhhh. Even when the sky is bare of clouds, a blue so blue, it penetrates the murk, fools you into seeing some other color. Even when the water is so still and the sun is so bright, you can gaze down and see yourself and the sky together. Even when you are smiling down at your own pretty face and at your very own cloudless sky. Even then.”


She tells them, “Beware.” The girls nod solemnly, and they all go inside. But it’s much later, when the night has come and the winds returned and the earth has gone back to its delirious spin, that she hears them.


They are laughing, giggling, just as they once did and always seemed to do. And yet their laughter is different, and that difference stops her, hands suspended over the fish she has just fileted. She listens, her fingertips on the delicate feather of spine and ribs the knife has exposed.


“Now it’s my turn,” the younger of the two cries out. “You sit here, lie across the floor, and I’ll crawl to you.” And in a moment, there is a roar followed by a scream.


“I am caught, I am being pulled under, there’s no saving me.” The girls’ cries are filled not with terror or sadness but with ecstasy, pure delight.


She takes a deep breath, tries to calm down, tells herself there’s time before the water gets too close, before it sinks down into the earth, undermines the ground beneath them, swallows everything up in one satisfied gulp. But before she can stop herself, she is pounding on the door to the room the two girls share.


The girls go quiet, but she can’t help herself. She is shouting, telling them it’s much too late for screaming or laughing or playing of any sort, crying out that the time for all of that is over, and all that is left for them to do now is go to sleep, even though it is early still, even though she must still cook their dinner and watch them eat the fish she prepared, urging them with each bite to take care not to swallow any bones.



My father dies in the morning

& a candy jar


in the middle of the house

wants also to be empty


objects in our living room

float like hot flies,

blue couches clutch the ceiling

& the coffee table whispers into the wall


The people, the fallen people,

the loved ones, my loved ones

sitting in the patio

we still laugh at the joke

about the giraffe.


We may cry in our fluorescent rooms,

when no one is looking.


We may be strong, we may, we may

but first we will tear our own

skin from our own skin

first can we go find

the other side where he went

find that place is not empty too.



A long car trip to the desert in the outskirts of Juarez. A Tecate in a coozie between my dad’s legs and my mom’s arm outstretched, her hand caressing his neck.


Loud Mexican music plays on the car radio, either Pedro Infante or Luis Miguel. Depends on their mood.


My brother and I look out the window at the cotton fields and abandoned farmhouses.


My dad turns on to an unpaved road and keeps driving. Dirt hits our face in the back seat.


The car stops. The dust settles and reveals we are on the edge of a mesa. He gets out of the car and we follow.


As far as the eye can see: coarse sand, spirited tumbleweeds, a sunset like an erupting volcano.


My dad takes one last sip of beer and looks down at me. With one swift move, he launches the bottle into the virgin desert.


“Don’t litter, kids,” he says dryly.


I roll my eyes, and he erupts in laughter, loud and piercing in the open space.


It was the decade AquaNet was eating away the ozone layer and I, an impressionable pre-teen, had been very vocal about recycling. I thought he hadn’t been listening.


“Vamonos,” he says but I stand on the precipice a bit longer, the humiliation cementing itself into my consciousness.


In the car, he snaps open a fresh bottle of beer and my mom resumes her pose in the passenger side, playing with his hair. The drive back home is darker. Not even Luis Miguel can break the silence.