Esteban Rodríguez


Nightgowned and hunched
at the sink, your mother says
she’s ready, and you wonder
if when you’re done shaving
her last patches of hair, she’ll look
in the mirror, sigh with relief,
tell herself how glad she feels
that the curls around her ears
are gone, that she no longer looks—
as she likes to claim—like some sad,
radioactive clown, or like the mangy
dogs that roam the neighborhood,
skulking every lawn. Or will she not
look, leave the bathroom without
saying a word, and on her way
to her room, reflect on how,
decades ago, she made you stand
by the same sink, and after washing
out the gel from your newly
bleached hair, after saying that this
is not how you were raised,
she shaved your head, and to emphasize
the punishment, slapped the back of it,
so you’d remember how not to behave
again, so when you’re on your high horse,
convinced you own the world,
you’ll remember how it feels
when what you love is gone.


Because pain can make anyone
a different person, I shoved my mother
off me, claimed that this was personal,
that my shoulder—dislocated, loose
like the wheel of a shopping cart—
was her chance to take it out on me,
payback for the socks I never picked up,
for the stacks of dishes I never washed,
for the one time I felt brave, looked her
dead in the face and talked back.
This was retribution, never mind the bump
in the asphalt that led to my fall,
to the sudden numbness in my arm,
and to how I, like a fugitive, fled
from the bike and ran to the middle
of the yard, where my mother, always ready
for an emergency, led me to the car,
and while whispering what sounded
like spells and prayers, while summoning
the strength to grip my shocked and shaking
body, slammed me sideways against
our van, not once, not twice, but until
my shoulder locked back in place,
and until I felt, because the cure had done
more damage than the cause, that the sting
could be healed if there was someone,
anyone to blame.


Even when work was steady,
your father went on the weekends,
stood with his hands in his pockets,
quiet, shivering, though it wasn’t
from the cold as much as it was
from anticipation, from the buildup
when more men arrived, and when
a truck passed by, then another,
and another, none of them stopping,
none of them fitting these men’s
visions of how they saw their days
going, of being picked out, jumping
into the back of a truck, and working,
all afternoon, on some part of a house
driveway, roof, new additions
to a backyard, or whatever made them
a few bucks, and that when they went
home, they could feel not just like men,
but like fathers who were earning
a living, who wouldn’t have to imagine
themselves still in that Home Depot
parking lot, hopeful and waiting.


At some point, your parents
must have felt like you feel now,
confined, claustrophobic, unsure
if riding in a trunk was a good idea
after all, although, from what you think
you know, they were not in some friend’s
car, but rather in the back of a cargo
truck, packed in with fifty other women
and men, all sweaty, fatigued, unaware
how much longer they’d have to bear
the dark, or of what would happen
if they were caught, which for you,
is nothing but in-school suspension,
than a reflection of why you wanted to go
to the beach so bad, but for your parents
meant soldiers, cartels, a coyote who’d warn
that if they wanted to reach the country’s
edge, they’d have to pay again, and if not,
be left by the side of some unpaved road,
where without any signs, cars, they’d travel
what they think is north, knowing,
from what they’ve heard, that if they made it
to the other side, the risk would be worth
the reward.


Nights your father wasn’t home,
you crashed his liquor cabinet,
which wasn’t a cabinet at all,
but instead a shelf, a dusty,
darkened space where between
the whiskey, tequila, and rum,
lied a bottle of Belvedere, which,
being the only one your father
never drank, you chugged, feeling,
from what you thought you knew
about vodka, like a Russian villager,
an old and jaded man who needed
to drink to keep his body warm,
only the coldness you suffered
wasn’t the weather, but absence,
the void you felt when your father
left home, when after a half-day at work
he refused to bear the same old same old:
stale dinner, novelas, game shows,
the silence your mother made sure
he heard, no matter which room
she was in. And where he went
was anyone’s guess, though you imagined
it was more than just a bar, that it
was a spot where his drink was filled
for him, and where when he downed
another round, his throat, unlike yours,
didn’t burn, but felt cool, smooth,
felt that every drop was a drop
he was proud he earned.

Author’s Statement

My writing seeks to document my Mexican American experience in the Rio Grande Valley. My upbringing is by no means unique, but there are moments that I feel compelled to write not necessarily as a means of catharsis and reflection, but as a way to give voice to a people, community, and landscape that shaped who I am today. Through lyric and narrative poems alike, the speaker of my poems attempts to understand the manner in which cultural traditions and expectations shape their understanding of the world. For example, a game of lotería with family members provides a meditation on gender roles and customs. A day at the public pool examines the body and youth, and to what extent a physical experience with someone else influences the way intimacy is thought about and viewed. Other poems look at the complexity of familial relationships, dissecting specific moments that although appear mundane on the surface (such as shopping for Christmas items to put on layaway), are – once fleshed out on the page – profound episodes that enlighten a labyrinth of memories. My work always seeks to shed light on universal themes, and it invites readers to relate their own memories and experiences with those presented. With a clear voice, humor, and great empathy, I explore questions of belonging, and contemplate past surroundings with a curiosity and an open-mindedness that expands on the human condition.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of the poetry collections Dusk & Dust, Crash Course, In Bloom, (Dis)placement, and The Valley. His work has appeared in Boulevard, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for [PANK] and Heavy Feather Review. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

Twitter: @estebanjrod11