Updated: Jul 30, 2019
Flapper Press is honored to feature a handful of gorgeous new poems from David Van Etten.
They used to call me Bubs, and they also
called me Noodles. Bubs was short for Bubble
Butt and was thinly-disguised praise, while
Noodles was a gently teasing, slippery fish.
When the doctor artfully butchered out
my colon and rectum, and I lost 70 pounds
to chemo, it mattered little what people called
me, so long as I existed in their waking thoughts.
I received a friend’s prayers with an ancient photo
showing off my plump little ass in the skinniest of
girl’s jeans, the Hudsons or Sevens I found on the
sales rack at Marshalls. It could be so much worse.
In 1915, the impressionist composer Claude
Debussy underwent one of the earliest ostomy
operations and concluded, “There are mornings
when the effort of dressing seems like one of
the twelve labors of Hercules.” Things got
better after they put me on depression pills.
Turns out the early 2000s era was one of the
rare moments in history when skinny jeans
were out of vogue in the market. In 1986,
my buddy’s mom tapered his grey Levi’s to
fit snugly in his high-top Reeboks and form
stick legs under his Union Bay pullover. Still
feels like the height of fashion in my youngish
heart. The tight breeches of the 1660s simply
flattered the legs under broad powdered wigs;
the tailored dandies of the early 1800s like
Beau Brummel conquered the Romantic soul,
until Beau exiled himself to France to evade
debtor’s prison; Elvis Presley’s pelvis twisted
and Audrey Hepburn’s drainpipe jeans were
alive, somehow both beyond gender and squarely
sexual. You can’t masturbate easily with an ostomy
bag staring up at you. My disappearing ass barely
holds up sweatpants. Hepburn fought bowel cancer
and lost valiantly. Vince Lombardi told Father Tim
he wasn’t afraid to die, but he regretted not
accomplishing more with his life. Bobby Moore
sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at least
200 times before defending East London
from West Ham United’s foes. The man that Pele
called the fairest defender he ever played against
underwent emergency surgery for colon cancer
before death spread to his liver. The problem with
post-grunge jeans was the long, puffy crotch,
which suggested that boys needed acres of real
estate to house the old Hampton Wick and
Cobblers Awls. Whereas what boys wanted
was to live in your thoughts, same as anyone
who guzzles air in this confusing existence.
Nuestro amado hijo: We finally bound
dear uncle to the chair, after he
discovered I had new Nikes.
He was still drinking; I was
eight years old. The gang didn’t
come for me until I was old enough
to kill effectively. Dear uncle was dead
by then, but still warm; as they say,
you’re either with us or against us.
Dad had fled the country and left
those he loved most, as his refusal to
pay the gang its rent on his taxi was,
umm, troublesome. The Black Shadow
killed my cousin and threatened me as
convincingly as the gang did, because
you’re either with us or we’ll kill you.
I got a chill reading Anna Burns’
Milkman, when the young girl is stalked
by the Catholic paramilitary chieftain,
and her expansive tribe assumes she’s
his doll. I read voraciously, and want to
be a lawyer, but maybe a better lawyer
than the one who carries my life
in the palm of God’s hand.
Nuestra amada hija: We finally found
a taxi willing to take me to Mexico.
I held a baby in my womb that
was fathered by the gang, and they
vowed me dead and the child theirs,
if they found me. She is with me
now in the north, and she is my love
and my life. I was just a breath
over eighteen when I arrived here,
and thus don’t qualify as
an “unaccompanied minor,” which
means my court case will be much
more—what did my lawyer say?—
“adversarial.” I trust him, even if he’s
not terribly good at being a lawyer.
He is responsible for telling
my story, and my future here
depends on his talent for taking
facts and making them truths.
A pickled jalapeno slice is like
a tasty/tacky snowflake. I was aloft
on a hillside, inside a queen-size bed at
the country club. I was only one adjacent
county from home. All you need
to prepare for the proper experience,
the very soul of the burger, is cancer
and chemo and an abject loss of appetite,
plus an anti-depression pill, simple.
And patience. The last time I tried to graze
on a fry, it smelled like ostomy bag.
A medium-sized chunk of my
life was lost mid-treatment.
I asked UPS why they blocked my
P.O. box. The court date was changed
to December, because I was blotto
during the April date. Make edit to
delete “because” in the prior sentence
and replace it with “and thank god
because.” I’m told I only ate yellow
curry from Door Dash through spring,
a third of a serving for each day’s meal,
until I stopped eating entirely.
The breakthrough was my dad’s
pancakes, bacon, and eggs, shortly
after my second ambulance ride. 125
pounds of spindly spider, formerly
195 pounds of marathon runner.
I left the hospital after five days with
sweet, sweet water coursing through
my body, and a bandage where they
poked a needle in my lung. I wasn’t
under for that one. The burger
was cooked medium but pink, and
seared but not charred. The secret was
the pickled jalapenos, which brought out
the technicolor Oz. The secret was vinegar
in the ketchup, and gruyere cheese,
and pretzel bun, and a mix of steak
sauce and BBQ, and the impatience that
follows the fifth repetition of order
details on the phone. Here we
were in the ritziest spot in Berkeley,
waiting for our oldest college
buddies, all the “Strapping Young Men,”
no longer so young or so strapping,
who didn’t want me
to be sick alone, or forever.
There’s a 53% chance that I won’t be.
The glass is far greater than half-full.
Wanderlust, Episode 5
This home is only empty enough for the
both of us. I tend to dine alone when you’re
surrounded by strangers. Bacon before
pancakes is a recipe for another pricey
pan-burning. I heard the ancient ghost
rattling around in that unexpected email.
I’d look into the future, but it’s simply
another version of the past, only with
marginally less time to repeat some of
the same mistakes. It was summer then;
it is summer no longer. I fell asleep on
the staircase—how’s that for a likely excuse?
It took me nearly ten years to earn a loved
one’s forgiveness—I’m so glad we all live
to remember our regrets. I was tempted to
weep through the whirling tempest, that
climactic show-stopper when Toni Collette’s
therapist says, “It’s all . . . too much.”
A fortnight on honeymoon goes so much
faster than fourteen nights spent alone in
a haunted hospital room. Love is one part
razzle-dazzle and three parts fastened to
the Ulyssean mast. The future might not be
another version of the past, because I can’t be
sure it even exists. You are told in plain terms
that a coin flip decides whether you return to
that room, and all you can do is guess who
flipped the coin already. I will contact my “step
nine” list to sort of check the box, but once
again I’ll include no one who truly merits an
apology. How can it end this way, I asked before
realizing that Episode 6 remained. I would need
to locate everyone who commingled souls
and/or spit, and confirm whether life gets
lonelier the longer you live alongside each
other. One part dazzle, ninety-nine parts mast.
The storm felled one of the plum trees, while
the giant eucalyptus danced like a dandelion.
I will impregnate a stranger I’ve known for
10 weeks, because she’s gorgeous and emotionally
unavailable. In the beginning, we may argue
about her parents, and mine, and parental styles
of discipline or lack thereof, and my boozing, about
which we will both agree. But then a few years pass,
and you notice she keeps changing the ostomy bag,
and you never go to bed angry without waking
the next morning afraid, her face emerging from
a separate room with that heavy look of shared
penitence, bound by the beauty of necessity.
You will weep listening to the second surgeon’s
second opinion, which you eagerly sought out
but never wanted to hear, and some strange
woman you love will hold your hand and softly
squeeze, joining you in that squalling chorus.
David Van Etten is a lawyer, teacher, uncle, theologian and poet. His newest collection of poetry. Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, will soon be available for purchase on Flapper Press, and his regular poetry educational series—Dave's Poetry Workshop can be seen monthly, along with his ongoing series of posts about his journey through recovery from colorectal cancer. To find out more about David, read his interview with Elizabeth Gracen here.