Ali Shuffle; Or, When We Met

At the edge of the forest,
I saw a madrone bent by ancient winds
and remembered the way you danced
at the festival by the palace
when we met.

I wondered what you were doing —
whether you were serving tourists
in your family’s tavern —
whether you missed me.

When we made camp that night,
the firelight shimmered on cedar trunks,
and I saw your hair 
reflecting in the sunset again.

When we threw a fir branch on 
as it got dark, its pines popped so quick—
like your feet when the beat picked up—
like my heart when I saw you.

This poem is part of a collection called Shards of Kardpaz, which are texts I’ve written for the world of the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I run with students at my school.

Padkos; Or, You left so suddenly

I hope you’re alright.

You left so suddenly —
you needed to go somewhere to save something —
it’s what adventurers do.
I know that;
I’ve worked in this tavern my whole life.

I hope you’re not hurt.

News came in from a scout
that a chasm opened along the trail south,
where you said you were going.
They said they found a modest grave
a couple yards off the pathway near it.

Before you left, I got up early,
split our family’s culture, 
kneaded it into some dough, let it rise.
I sang songs to it
from my family —
stories of tavernkeeps from long past —
and from my favorite local bard
who can never settle on a name —
songs of decaying drow corpses
and sacrificing souls to Nerull —
before baking it in my family’s hearth
as old as the grove itself.

I snuck it into your pack before you woke up,
so that maybe when things got dire,
you might find a second wind
and be able to ride it back to me.

This poem is part of a collection called Shards of Kardpaz, which are texts I’ve written for the world of the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns I run with students at my school.

A Scrapbook for Our Anniversary

Each section is based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the day from August, 2020.

I. Chicane, v.

A sheet of notebook paper. Wavy as Saharan dunes. Pastel purple ink in your handwriting. Steady, certain curves. Circles for dots. A play-by-play description of your biology class. Casualness I convinced myself meant more than it probably did.

II. Angeliferous, adj.

You. That band uniform Merklin made you wear. Your smile. The way two of your front teeth didn’t quite line up. Your eyes. Your blonde hair a lighthouse in a sea of band uniforms shuffling around the band room with pre-concert jitters. Your sax strap tucked under your collar. You. Just. All of you.

III. Sitz im Leben, n.

A selfie you took of the two of us in our usual seat on the bus. Spring sun through the window. My eyes squinting. A small heart drawn with eye liner under my right eye to match the ones under yours. My cheeks pink as you lean into me, rest your green hair on my shoulder. Each of us with an earbud in connected to my phone playing “Los Ageless” by St. Vincent.

IV. Coorie, v.

A picture of me asleep on my bed that you took after the first time my dad yelled at me in front of you— the first time you saw how small I could get. He stormed out, slammed the door to the garage, and I just stood in the middle of the kitchen, frozen. You lead me to my room and told me to rest. I fell asleep, exhausted in the summer heat. Tears stain the sheet below my face. The picture is mostly empty, mostly shadow around my head, which you filled with a silver sharpie, writing: “ur the best & I love u.” The first time you used that word in direct relation to me.

V. Schola Saxonum, n.

Your family’s dining room. Every seat at the table filled. A roasted turkey splaying like soaked notebook pages. A container of mashed potatoes swirled and steaming. A bowl of green beans. A plate of beets that would remain untouched. A basket of dinner rolls. A vegetarian roast your mom bought after you asked if I could spend the holiday with your family. Half of my face obscured by the floof of your blue hair.

VI. Chicken-Pecked, adj.

A selfie I took of us in the back row of the movie theater when we saw Spider-Man: Far From Home. The light reflecting off your hair makes it look like you’re wearing half a Spider-Man mask— like if Peter Parker was also the Phantom of the Opera. You’re looking off frame, distracted by the kid a few rows ahead of us complaining to their adult that they wanted to see Toy Story 4. By the second trailer, the pair had left the theater and you loudly sighed with relief.

VII. Ambitus, n.

A screenshot I took of the Form our school made for ASB election ballots after they committed to being paperless. Admin called you down to get your picture taken to be displayed by your name on the ballot for 10th grade representative. You flung your green swoop over your right ear and held a peace sign under your left cheek. Your opponent, Dylan Forster, stood stoic in theirs, arms crossed over their soccer jersey. Their campaign posters used the word “no-nonsense” a lot, followed closely by “logical.” We were sad when you lost, but I was so proud of you for running and insisting on being yourself.

VIII. Sinistral, adj. and n.

A selfie you took of us sitting on the steps outside the main office. Yellow leaves tucked behind your ears, blending in with your hair. The office lights off, staff long gone. Waiting for your mom to pick us up, because I forgot my phone in Rosales’s classroom, making us miss the bus. I’m slumped over the steps, staring the at awning’s ceiling, my face hidden by my elbow, probably mid-apology. “It’s alright,” you’d said. “Don’t worry about it.”

IX. Top Bin, n. and adv.

A soccer field. People cheering in the background. I’m wearing my home jersey, black with green lettering, sweating and gasping for breath. You’re cheering, your face half-painted in silver. Behind us, several of my teammates rush toward me. In the moments after this picture was taken, I was tackled then hoisted up on shoulders for scoring the winning goal.

X. Calligram, n.

I had an art assignment in Supang’s class that seemed like a cool idea for a Valentine’s Day present. To do it, I needed to make a picture using words, shaping and coloring them to make the picture come alive. I had the picture in my head that I wanted to do, but trying to think of the words that would fit everything I felt about you was difficult. You know that I’m not great with words— the letters get all jumbled like headphone wires in a pocket. So, I tried starting with just the picture first and then I could fill in the words as they came to me. That revelation didn’t happen though, because I got so caught up in the details of the cherry blossom branches and the wispy clouds in the sky that the words never came to me. So I just sketched and painted them for you.

XI. Yever, adj.

A booth at Chipotle. Homecoming night. You. A burrito in your left hand, your right covering your mouth as you tell me to put my phone away. To not take your picture. But I don’t think you understood how much I loved you in that exact moment. Sitting under the florescent lights of a fast food restaurant. In your fanciest clothes. Devouring a burrito. Sofritas dribbling into your basket. I don’t think you understood how many futures I saw in the refracted timelines in your eyes.

XII. Bearless, adj.

A summer afternoon. Vapor waves from the sidewalk in the distance where your neighborhood turns away from the woods behind the elementary school. You’re holding a small watering can, a brighter shade of red than your hair, shaped like an elephant, pouring a steady stream of water into a planter of pale dirt. You had bought tomato seeds at the Home Depot by the park on our walk after the last day of the school, and you watered them every day that summer, always talking about how bomb your BLTs were going to be. They never reached above the soil.

XIII. Palynology, n.

Late August. Muted clothes shuffle between tables with small paper plates with small sandwiches on them. Your eyes are tired from the long night you spent dying your hair black with a cheap, temporary dye, rather than the dyes you usually use. You said a memorial is too solemn a place— you didn’t want to draw focus. Your hesitant hand is on your mom’s shoulder, who is cradling an urn against her stomach, who asked me to take “one last picture of my daughter, my sister, and me.” A bee sting, you told me later, while watering pumpkin sprouts in her backyard.

XIV. Acid Drop, n.

A selfie. My couch’s old, floral print fabric. Both of us with Sour Patch Kids sticking out of our mouths. We were watching something, but I can’t remember what. I remember you heckling the movie the whole time, until you double-dog-dared me to dump the sour sugar from the bottom of the bag into my mouth all at once. I groaned as my cheeks tightened, and I coughed. You coughed too, but from laughing. 

XV. Dulcarnon, n. 

A copy of the acrostic you wrote to ask me to homecoming. You told me it took you weeks to figure out how to ask, what to write. You scribbled couplets in the margins of your science notebook, you showed me afterward, saying, “It’s so hard to rhyme every line. Why can’t people just write their thoughts.” When I showed you the Wikipedia page for free verse poetry, you slapped my phone onto the comforter of your bed. “Ugh! Shut up!” you groaned, falling back into your pillows.

XVI. Angustation, n.

A picture of you sneaking up on a gaggle of geese at the lake in the park near your neighborhood. Your hair blending in with the grassy field. The brisk spring wind a welcome escape. You were so busy with tests and clubs and sports, I barely got to see you. I was stuck in my house, sequestered to my room to avoid crossing paths with my dad, having to endure another lecture about some other failure I had committed. You, squatting near the geese, your arms tucked like wings, staring at me with your eyes wide as theirs, were a breath I didn’t realize my lungs needed.

XVII. Observanda, n.

A summer afternoon. In the backseat of your mom’s Forester swerving left and right to avoid potholes in the road. Our hands splayed open, our fingertips dyed purple from hours of huckleberry picking. You wanted proof that you were the better picker, because the fact that your old Costco soup container was more full than mine wasn’t enough.

XVIII. Soirée Musicale, n.

A cheesy homecoming picture that I insisted we get. You rolled your eyes at first, so cliche, but you agreed, because you knew I wanted it. What I appreciate is how invested you got, not just standing there like a hostage. Really, I just wanted to remember the time we got so fancy and dressed up and happy, because I never imagined that I would be able to do all of those things at the same time.

XIX. Delicatesse, n.

The before picture you took of my brown hair before you helped me dye it for the first time. You said we should match for homecoming, and I agreed, because I knew you wanted it. Stress palpable in my eyes— uncertainty. I knew you knew what you were doing; I never really doubted you or your ability, but I couldn’t stop the worst-case scenarios playing in my head. My left eyebrow is bent from me trying to lower the volume.

XX. Meep, v.

The after picture you took of my blonde hair when you were done. Your excitement escaped from your hands over your mouth. Relief palpable in my face— jaw unclenched. I knew I could trust you to make sure it all went well. You made me feel safe enough to do something I never would have otherwise. My eyes contain the horizon, the sun, the ever-expanding possibilities— or its just the edge of the counter and the light above the mirror. Either way.

XXI. Rozzle, v.

A selfie I took of us as we walked around the mall before seeing Pet Sematary. My hand in yours. Fire. My fingers twitched every so often, I’m sure you noticed, with excitement. Fake cowering to justify getting closer to you. Setting the chair arm up to get it out of the way. Feel your warmth in my arms, against my chest. Shushing each other when the movie gets quiet. Quickly readjusting when the usher comes in with their flashlight to check the exit doors and scan the crowd.

XXII. Querimonious, adj.

The art show our school put on at the end of the year to exhibit the best student work. Somehow, a collage I made from a torn up printout of one of my Instagram posts and its comments was chosen for the show. I guess those troll comments were worth something after all? The collage is hanging on the wall, and you and I are standing next to it. I look nervous, you look proud, my dad is taking the picture. After you went to congratulate one of your band friends, he asked me what the collage was about, why I hadn’t told him people were saying these things to me before, why I would ambush him with it like this in such a public place. He shook his head before walking away to talk to the soccer coach on the other side of the commons. 

XXIII. Phlogiston, n.

A drawing I made for you. Not something required for Supang’s class. A lot of reds and oranges, yellows— warm colors. An abstraction of a portrait. No firm lines. More like waves of color lapping at the shore. Frantic energy along the edges, so shaky they blur and fade. It’s you. Well, I was trying to capture what makes you, you, at least.

XXIV. Totem, n.

A picture of a capybara that I got from Google. There’s an adult standing by a watering hole with a few younger ones. You always said you loved how calm and collected they look, how friendly they are to other animals. You frequently look up compilation videos of them when you feel stressed. I know you hate the term “spirit animal,” because we’re white and it’s racist to claim to have one when you’re not part of an indigenous group with those beliefs. I don’t mean to go in that direction at all. I just thought a cute capybara would be nice for you when you get anxious. You’re as calm and friendly as a capybara, even when you don’t feel like you are. 

XXV. Past Master, n.

A crowded ballroom. Rows of round tables, each with four large bowls in the center. One bowl full of crab, the others filling with their empty exoskeletons. Every chair filled. You are sitting in front of a plate with a crab claw lying on it, a small clump of lettuce and tomato on the side, a seafood cracker and pick in your hands. I am sitting to your left, my plate full of dinner rolls, a similar attempt at salad pushed to the side. My dad stands behind us, smiling, posing with a hand on each of our shoulders for this picture to commemorate the end of his term as Worshipful Master in his Mason lodge. A large chain collar hanging over his shoulders, a thick blue fabric the same shade as your hair, which he would later pass to the person who would succeed him.

XXVI. Ex Abundante Cautela, adv.

A screenshot of the first texts we exchanged where I asked you if you wanted to hang out. A lot of non-committal language to give the impression that my heart wasn’t an earthquake. Phrases like: “or whatever” and “idk” and “sure.” I almost don’t recognize the person I was trying to be there. I remember distinctly the sigh of relief when you agreed though. I remember sitting on my bed, breath escaping as my head fell into my pillow, looking at the ceiling and its safe, congratulatory waves. 

XXVII. Bamstick, n.

A selfie from the chaotic din of the Paramount, faint light from the stage rolls over the crowd, amplifying your blue hair as Sleater-Kinney goes into “Hurry On Home.” During the outro, someone behind us tried to start a mosh pit, leaning and thrashing around into whoever happened to be there, including you. You stood up straight, rubbing your shoulder, assuring me you were alright. The song ended right after that, and the thrashing whimpered into a stop, multiple people shaking their heads. 

XXVIII. Coopetition, n.

State Solo and Ensemble Contest stage. Silhouetted heads eating into the edge of the stage. The lights making your green hair stand out even more than normal, which may have been why Dylan had told you to dye it “normal” beforehand. They’re on the piano beside you gently walking through the chords and arpeggios for “Hallelujah,” while you swing through the melody on your bari sax. Your eyes are closed. Not wanting to see the crowd or falling into the song, I can’t tell. 

XXIX. Artotyrite, n.

The coffee table in your living room covered with a cheeseboard and a platter of your mom’s homemade sourdough. Barely in frame is your gas fireplace, slightly obfuscated by red and green stockings, a basket of children’s books. You have a slice of sourdough in your hand, covered with a slice of brie. Your mom is next to you, talking about how the sourdough recipe was passed down from her father. You’re nodding, knowing how this story goes, because you’ve heard it so many times before. 

XXX. Nudum Pactum, n.

The sky. Sparse clouds float over the park. I took this with my phone while laying on the grass next to you on the first day of spring break. I had just gotten the question that was stuck in my throat out. A question that I lacked vocabulary for— labels, exclusivity— about wanting to be yours. You said yes. There was a breeze then, a new breath. I took a picture of the sky then, the sky where we started. 

XXXI. Ambuscado, n.

I hid this scrapbook in the bottom drawer of my nightstand, the only place I could think of that you would never look. I spent several late nights going back through my phone history to find the best pictures, print, trim, and arrange them. Had to ask your mom for some that I knew she took, carefully placing them into my backpack between my binder and my calculus textbook, when you weren’t around. I wanted to surprise you. I’ve never put more effort into something than I did into this. For you. Because you deserve it.