Phil Goldstein

Form and Void

I am staring at a computer screen.
The past is staring back at me.

It is at once just a clickable PDF form
& my deepest shame, dripping in the dark.

I am thirty, surrounded by coworkers in an office.
I am ten years old, and I am alone.

The form interrogates me, asks me plainly in black and white:
Abuse history. Two words freighted with steel and lead.

Physical, emotional, neglect, sexual abuse. The options. P, E, N, S.
I am seized by the tight grip of memory.

I am back in the basement, on the cool gray stone floor.
I am holding by brother’s erect penis in my hand. I am twelve.

The form stares back at me, expressionless.
Its professionalism is detached, but comforting. It does not judge.

I do not want to lie. I’ve lied enough. I fear &
worry what will happen if I keep lying.

What if I lie and then my therapist, my first, finds out?
The fear of discovery purchased my silence. Now it pays for my voice.

What if I lie and this never gets solved? And I can’t have sex?
What if this never gets solved and I end up alone, again?

Age? I fill in 10-12. Type? I mark an S. By whom?
My older brother. Duration of Abuse? Two and a half years.

Reported? Y/N. No.
Outcome of report left blank.


The Last Act

On a cold April New Jersey Saturday, I was consumed
by a bad case of backstage jitters
riding electrically up and down my leg like a subway car.
The curtain was about to rise, velvet and crimson.

I had been practicing my lines for weeks,
hollow words for a vacuous occasion, a pantomime of affection.
I knew which marks to hit, when to pause for
laughter that would bruise me like jagged hail. 

The rites and the rituals were performed.
Rings were held closely and vows exchanged.
Lips met, tears fell, and the wind flowed through budding trees.
I hugged my abuser like he was my own brother.

As the pit orchestra played the fanfare, I knew it was time.
Time to shine, time to use all those years of practice
for this one final play, this role of a lifetime. 
The audience sat rapt and waited for my delivery.

Champagne glimmered in two-hundred glasses
under the bright klieg lights of the ballroom.
I began my performance and slipped easily back into
the rhythms that had governed my life for twenty years.

I dipped our childhood in amber and elided
the truth and anything dark, which was so much,
focusing on winters spent sledding and summers spent seeking.
Then came the crucial turn.

I extolled my brother’s virtues, with such seeming sincerity:
His work ethic, empathy, generosity, humility and love.
I choked back black tar. This is what the moment called for.
Honey swam in my mouth instead.

When the applause died down and the lights faded,
I took my leave from the Theatre of the Absurd.
Having fulfilled my contract, I sidled out the back door,
down an alley of my own creation — what power I felt in my legs.

And as I walked into the steam of the city
I tore the mask away from my face with wild abandon.
That was the last time I stood onstage
in service of someone else’s story.



I see you now in the hazy veil of painted twilight,
a shadow but not a terror.

You were the monster of my childhood
whose hand-me-downs once kept me warm.

Sometimes, the flash and force of memory shoots me
straight back, deeper than I want to go.

The way I lie down in a bed is enough to take me
to the times when you led me to lie with you.

I ache the way a tree must ache when it is chopped &
left to stand, gashed open, in a summer thunderstorm.

I stand now in a field with the sun bleeding away to violet.
I stand knowing what I have endured, what I can endure.

I am a promontory, gauzy in sunshine, the sea lapping green below.
You are a shadow passing over my face, a cloud, a memory.

© Phil Goldstein

Phil Goldstein is a journalist and writer who has been living in the Washington, D.C, area for more than a decade. His poetry has been published in the journals Rust+Moth, In Parentheses, The Ideate Review, Awakened Voices, The Galway Review, Amethyst Review and October Hill Magazine, and is forthcoming in Constellations, The Indianapolis Review and Linden Avenue Literary Journal.. By day, he works as a senior editor for Manifest, a content marketing agency.

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