Norma Chapman




Whenever anxiety captures me 
 
and I can't sleep or read or think or do the dishes, 
I stop and remember the California ocean

at Laguna Beach in 1938, when I was seven.

 
I put myself back into my childhood body, 
dressed in a green bathing suit with a little skirt. 
I sit in the wet sand and dig and make sand sculptures 
while waves hit the sand, crackle and suck back

into the hugeness of blue. My head stops hurting 
and I'm not afraid, so long as I can stay there alone.

 
I have a pail and shovel. When I've dug up one spot, 
I move to another and start again. 
Rolling waves demolish everything I've done 
The new smooth wet sand delights me.

No one calls me in to lunch.

 

 

Laguna Beach, 1941 
 
Summer, before Pearl Harbor, 
and I'm ten and know almost nothing. 
My mother's family says 
"little pitchers have big ears."
 
My father's family, who owns the house 
on Laguna Beach, uses language 
I don't quite understand, 
any more than I understand 
the sound of the ocean. 
Everything happens about a foot 
above my head, but I'm growing. 
 
The house has a bedroom, living room, 
kitchen, and bathroom. That's all. 
Seven people are spending the weekend. 
It's February, but we live in our bathing suits 
and those who can swim, not me, swim in the ocean. 
 
Aunt Bebe takes me past our beach to a spot 
where there are no waves, just swells, 
and in that salt water I can float. 
 
Other people come to visit. 
The concrete stairs to the beach 
are full of people. The plaster lions 
are covered with human bodies. 
 
Bebe hides in an alcove halfway down the stairs. 
I write a newspaper in pencil on cheap paper 
but with columns and headlines. It keeps me out of trouble, 
but no one laughs at my jokes. 
 
When I return to my mother I have pneumonia 
and spend six weeks in bed where I forget how to walk. 
Mother is furious with my father, 
but I know it was worth it.

 

 
I Think I'm in Love

 

I'm 16. My cousin Wilma has a friend, Jack, who's 23,

a veteran of World War II, and he flirts with me.

 

He looks like he stepped out of a movie.

I don't believe a word he says, but I want to hear more.

 

I peel the faded sunburn flakes from his back. I don't burn.

He kisses me, gently. At night, alone, my pajamas hurt my skin.

 

I take them off. The sheets hurt my skin. I put my pajamas

back on. In the evenings, I do my homework, listen to Paul Robeson

 

and Ravel on the phonograph. My family lets me smoke

and have a beer while I study.  It's 1947. They're freethinkers

 

and the Daily People's World arrives in a plain brown wrapper.

I make the honor roll. I'm good at chemistry and English and algebra.

 

I want to be a doctor. Jack and I go out on weekends—to Hoover Dam,

to walk in the canyons, to a roadhouse to dance. He's the only man

 

I could ever dance with. My junior year is over and the summer

is over. What passes for winter in the desert is over.

 

It's spring. I want him to call. I want to listen. He takes me to visit

his Native American cousins on the reservation. We like each other.

 

One night he puts his tongue in my mouth and says I shouldn't

let anyone else do that. No adult has ever talked to me about sex.

 

He asks me to do one thing for him, just because he asks. I think,

Yes, yes of course. He says "Don't go to college." I look at him and laugh.

 

He never speaks to me again. I don't understand. My aunt writes to me

when I'm at Berkeley to tell me he's married the homecoming queen.

 

They have children, five in a row, no stopping.




Norma Chapman grew up in Perris, California, a small railroad town, and now lives in a small railroad town in Brunswick, Maryland. She made the shift to Brunswick at about the same time she developed an interest in writing—just after her sixtieth birthday. Passager Books published her chapbook, Perris, California, as the fourth in their Six Over Sixty series.  Individual poems have appeared in various journals, including Innisfree, Rattle, Passager, and River Styx.









                                    

 

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