The Reflex

By Mitchell Jacobs

Featured art: Boats and setting sun by Ohara Koson

The scent of shampoo reminds me of carrots.
There’s an explanation, I swear, surfacing
from a developing-Polaroid brown. It’s April.
At recess an upside-down pizza slab is gooing
into the cracked blacktop, and a grainy beat
blasts from some girl’s hot-orange earbuds.
On the grass all the boys are playing wallball
with one of those rubber balls like a big pink eraser,
and when I’m up I don’t chuck it far enough
so Austin says, “Come on, Mitchell, you can’t
even throw like the girls,” which is heartbreaking
for a bunch of reasons. Back home, Duran Duran’s
“The Reflex” spins in the Discman on my bathtub rim.
You’ve gone too far this time, and I’m dancing
on the Valentine. My tunes are twenty years out of date
but I know them by heart. I’ve been lying there half an hour,
tub empty, stoking a burn in my gut. Next day in L.A.
(that’s Language Arts), it’s Fat Shawn’s turn at vocab charades
but he just stands there thinking until somebody shouts
“Rotund!” and that’s not his word but it is the end
of the game. That’s how cruelty works around here.
I’m no Shawn but I am Tree Kid and no one
tells me why. The reflex is a lonely child . . .
Jake calls me a poser for wearing skate shoes,
which is how I learn I wear skate shoes, and then
I chase him and kick him with those shoes. Mostly
I’m a head-down kind of kid. I don’t peek at the pull-down map
during the geography quiz. I don’t snicker when
the health teacher says gluteus maximus, but I am
the one who laughs when she can’t spell epididymis.
Another night and it’s the tub again, lights off, interpreting
the song with nonsense lyrics I’m sure have something
to do with all this clench and spasm. The reflex is a door
to finding treasure in the dark. I un-twist-tie
the plastic produce bag and glob out more Pantene, hating
the boys who run around cocksure with their narrow
calves and their throwing arms with actual
visible muscles and those stupid impossible taut butts
and I’ll show them with this soaped-up carrot
what I can take, how it stings, how I tighten my fist
as I hear them spit out my name.

Mitchell Jacobs is a poet from Minnesota, now living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in journals such as Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and Slice. His poems have also been featured in the Best New Poets 2019 anthology and on The Slowdown podcast with Tracy K. Smith.

Originally published in NOR 22.

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