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On The Subway

Sharon Olds

The boy and I face each other.

His feet are huge, in black sneakers

laced with white in a complex pattern like a

set of intentional scars. We are stuck on

opposite sides of the car, a couple of

molecules stuck in a rod of light

rapidly moving through darkness. He has the

casual cold look of a mugger,

alert under hooded lids. He is wearing

red, like the inside of the body

exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the

whole skin of an animal taken and

used. I look at his raw face,

he looks at my fur coat, and I don’t

know if I am in his power —

he could take my coat so easily, my

briefcase, my life —

or if he is in my power, the way I am

living off his life, eating the steak

he does not eat, as if I am taking

the food from his mouth. And he is black

and I am white, and without meaning or

trying to I must profit from his darkness,

the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the

nation’s head, as black cotton

absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is

no way to know how easy this

white skin makes my life, this

life he could take so easily and

break across his knee like a stick the way his

own back is being broken, the

rod of his soul that at birth was dark and

fluid, rich as the head of a seedling

ready to thrust up into any available light.


From The North No 5 (1989)