Mary Kovaleski Byrnes

Manhattan on Valentine's Day

The bar’s got red lights under the chairs,
swanky, and Frank’s in the hot seat,
undertaker at his father’s funeral
home in Hoboken—tells us these insane stories
about how sometimes they get someone
on the embalming table who’s not really dead.
He says “once you start draining ‘em
it’s too late to go back.”
So it’s possible to die once
and then again, at the hand of your preserver,
some guy from Jersey who’ll tell your story,
maybe amp it up a little for shock value
at a Meat Packing District bar.
Any other time, this might be really disturbing.
But no one can be dead when you’re drinking
martinis, dressed all chic in Manhattan black.
We shriek, cover dark holes in our faces
with our hands, squeal like a bunch of girls
and the undertaker eats it up.
We ignore our thoughts of your sister,
on a table in some grim basement,
the funeral that followed, when someone like Frank,
his face getting flushed now from too much whiskey,
had on a calm suit and an empathetic expression.
We were there in our mourning black,
and youth was nothing to be so boisterous about.
None of that’s real at the bar called “Tonic”
except afterwards, emerging from the dank subway,
arm-in-arm and almost home,
we pass a bouquet of flowers,
cheap carnations chucked into a gutter
by an angry lover, and I remember
how you tossed the last flower
into your sister’s grave in a field in Pennsylvania.
How you stood and watched it fall
all the way in, never expecting
its restless refusal, how it would fly
out of the earth, turning over itself
in the air, always landing in your hand,
needing to be buried again and again.

Black Sea

When Borislav tells me to eat the fish,
slender silver finger of it, head still on,
fried to a crisp, I do. This is how the older men
at the table next to us spend a late afternoon:
coffee, strong clear rakia, eggplant salad, fish.
They eye us, my foreign face.
The Black Sea’s barren bottom turns up
no seaweed to clutter the beach.
In the distance, a barge moves toward port,
blares Москва in red Cyrillic.

Kaloyan joins us, dons Oakley sunglasses
bought four years ago in Virginia
with American dollars earned slopping remains
of prime rib and tiramisu at the sink
of a casino’s restaurant. Our talk turns to the sea,
its waveless waters, anoxic, breathless,
and all they touch, the rotten undercurrent
of black market slave trade, young girls
hustled from Georgia’s villages
to the brothels of Turkey, where pale skin
sells at a higher price.

We stay into the night, then find a bar,
gypsy band, violin ripping through the ancient
walls of what was once catacombs,
then wine cellar, then prison.
Now all its secrets revealed in the singer’s voice,
the gold honey of her low notes so beautiful
we forget, breathe deep the thick air,
turn to each other, touch glasses and hands, dance.