Jan Steckel

Behind the Palisades

A Spanish hummingbird and I
staggered laughing over the cobblestones
clutching cut-glass cordial glasses of anisette
in Oxford May Day three in the morning.
Taste took me back twelve years
to a California canyon, filled with ferns.
How I chewed licorice in the green spray
of forbidden fennel for the first time,
running the ravine with you
and your sister, who burned herself ironing.
My mother wouldn’t let me lift an iron
until my bat mitzvah. You the awkward duckling
who swanned her way into a life of the mind,
butterflied into a fair physicist,
and I a physician. Now both of us crippled
out of our work, and the fennel grows higher
than our heads in this northern bay. You saw a flyer
I left in a bookstore, and we met (after thirty years)
in the library. Some secret stained
our tentative speech. You gave me a number
I never called. What happened to you
in the dry ravines and mica-glittering paths
of our childhood? What would I find
if I followed you home? For home was a
hollow of hurt burned worse than an iron,
and I ventured to England, to France and to Spain,
to stay away from that plain pain.


My step-grandfather’s grandson
danced with my cousin at a Bar Mitzvah.
He held her too close and murmured
“We’re not really cousins, not by blood.”
“Let’s pretend we are,” she said,
inserting her elbow between them.

I’d been working for gay rights for years
before I worked up the nerve
to ask my grandmother to take me to the Castro.

“Where are you going?”
my step-grandfather called from the recliner.
“To Castro Street, dear.”
“What do you want to go THERE for?”
“To see fairies, dear,” trilled my grandmother,
and skipped out the door.

Her feet were so long,
she had to descend the basement stairs sideways.
Her shoulders were wide, her hips narrow.
She could pitch a baseball like a man,
had taught my father how to throw.

Her Mercedes launched like a torpedo
from the underground garage.

When we reached the Castro,
manly beauty sizzled. We held hands
to protect ourselves from glorious torsos,
spreading of feathers, the sheer display
of pierced and tattooed flesh
preening that day on the summer street.

I wondered if we looked like lesbians:
a baby dyke and her still-beautiful sugar-mama.

I pretended we were.


Not even heavy gilt frames
could make art of the nudes
on the Gold Club’s walls.

Light arrays framed the dancers:
vermilion, emerald and ultramarine.
Dry ice misted the stage.
Polychrome rays made flesh by fog
pulsated in time to Nine Inch Nails:
“I want to fuck you like an animal.”
Men gaped like apes
brutalized by Circe’s show.

Five-inch strands of gilded chain,
three strands to an earring,
brushed thin shoulders.
Her gray, dun and hunter green
camouflage bikini undulated to Prince:

“Hot thing, barely 21
Hot thing, looking for big fun….”

When she lost the camouflage,
she became a deer in the stage lights:
fragile legs, knees still knobby,
gracile breasts that actually looked real.

A disco version of Pink Floyd played
“Teacher, leave those kids alone.”
I thanked the gods for real breasts.
As I fell under the spell, the men
all changed back to humans.

On the way back to the car,
the pavement sparkled
like quartz beads in a girl’s hair.
The freeway was a river
of particulate light.

Jan Steckel's Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) won the Gertrude Press fiction chapbook award for LGBT writers. Her chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) won a Rainbow Award for lesbian and bisexual poetry. Her writing has appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Find out more