top of page

5 poems

T H E O D O R A   Z I O L K O W S K I

Picture this: you wear girl-sized clothes the summer


your aunt passes down that porcelain doll. You are twenty-four; it is a family heirloom.

He carries your gift on the return flight from Michigan. There is no room in his suitcase.

Besides, the doll is delicate. Science says you can’t think straight if your brain isn’t getting enough

protein. The doll requires a cabin seat. You do your homework. The chocolate protein

shakes are less chalky than vanilla. You have always been a good student though this time it is hard.

The doll would need to get used to the heat. Every day you think: So much is wrong with me.

You see yourself waving as he passes through security, the doll tucked under his arm, but you

don’t trust that memory. You put the doll on the mantel for everyone to see, but it is mostly just

you there & you are so changed. For four years, you & he live in a college town that neither

of you can ever quite claim. Even when smiling, your face is a broken plate. Morning

is the only time of day to run without collapsing from the heat. Before sunup & chocolate shakes,

before he wakes, you jog around your complex until you lose feeling.



Leaving Vatican City, I was packed shoulder to shoulder


& jostled against rain-slicked arms & knapsacks

when I felt a hand groping my ass, then another

reaching up my dress.


For a moment, I thought it was an accident.

Then I turned & saw the glance

the men exchanged. They were a team.

Who would see what they were doing?


You are safe in your body, a friend had said

when I told her I felt as if somewhere

someone was walking around


in my body. Who was she?

A doctor warned I was in danger

of not being able to have children,

then provided a list of experts.


You’d think dining would be easy

but heaped plates glared, unappetizing.

Meanwhile, I impressed my ballet teacher


by what a perfect line

I could chaîné across the floor.

The trick is knowing how to spot.

You turn your head with your body,


train your gaze to prevent dizziness.

I chose a point in the mirror

to traverse the studio


as my teacher told the littlest dancers

what they saw required practice.

It took years to get healthy.

I pulled the cord to signal my stop.


Pushing my way out of the crush,

I turned to find what remained

of the men’s faces had blurred into nothing.


Just as I stepped off,

another woman stepped on.


It’s late, your cat is clawing the backseat, & you’re afraid your husband will nod off


so sleepy behind the wheel. Southbound, the air still smells of tar & fried okra. The only radio

stations are country & gospel—as if you’ve never left. The motel you stop at is run by a man

shaped like a bathtub. He greets you in a lobby aglow with gumball machines, a TV. The Waffle

House looming over I-59 bathes every view like a yellow moon; your room faces the pool.

Inside, you find the bed covered in surprisingly white linen. He scours for bed bugs while you

shower, recalling the time you & he stayed in an inn filled with mirrors. The night had a triple-

digit price tag & the air felt like an argument. Who had been fighting? That trip, you had a friend’s

wedding to attend & your dress was a tent. At the reception, you pawed the vat of dessert mousse,

dress straps sloughing, bodice like a sack while the happy couple danced. You are a wife, you’d told

yourself as you watched the groom spin his bride. You are the wife, you think now as you emerge

from the shower to join him in bed, in that fleabag motel off the highway you pay cash to sleep in—

over & again, you remind yourself that you are the wife, & the refrain will gather momentum, until

you are the wife is all that you hear when, come morning, your cat noses its way to the pool, where it

finds the deer carcass before you do.



There is a fact of memory & there is a fact of feeling


There is also a fact of feeling

in my memory

I did

not exist.


Cross this out

& this.


In his videos, look with what precision

my face is agreeable.

The pitch of my voice is higher, I sound childish.

Now everything seems like an omen.


The bat down the chimney

& into the glow of my parents’ living room.


Like a scattered Queen of Night tulip,

it blew across our heads.


Then there was the four-car pileup

behind me, Mom, & Dad.


When that Nissan hydroplaned,

the cargo truck struck our back bumper.

My head snapped back & forward.


Watching that Nissan torpedo,

I thought it squealed like an animal.


Later, Dad remarked on my scream.

That part for me is amnesia.

Had I seen the bloody face of that teen?


Back in Houston, my neck strained.

Nothing belongs to me, I told myself

as I assembled my new bed.


For hours, I listened to B.B. King croon

about the thrill being gone.


Heaving the mattress atop the frame,

I sang, I belong to no one.


At the memory care center, the waters are calm before they are choppy


& no matter how many times I show them,

they don’t understand

how to take

the napkin        where to place


the spoon        This isn’t anything,

says Karen, It doesn’t

go anywhere, this

is stupid


At dinner, I cut their chicken into pieces

& feed them


slowly              I don’t want Ned to choke,

but he’s hungry            Peas roll off his plate


My hand he mistakes

for potato        He draws it to his face


Our survival is based on the existence of holes


He can’t find his mouth

It’s easier to feed him

than myself                  What I love


about the care center are the doilies

& rose wallpaper, dancing with the residents to Elvis Presley


It’s a desire for the past I had no part in,

for the King of Rock n’ Roll crooning


Most nights, it is like the residents & I are on a ship

with no destination. From the outside,

the lit windows must look like portholes,


while we dine in a Flying Dutchman,

the dinner party just starting

Theodora Ziolkowski is the author of the 2018 Next Generation Indie Book Award-winning novella, On the Rocks, and the short story chapbook, Mother Tongues. Currently, she teaches creative writing as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her debut poetry collection, Ghostlit, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press.

bottom of page