ARUNI WIJESINGHE works for Affinis Labs, an award-winning social innovation firm that helps clients creatively tackle complex global challenges through entrepreneurship. She holds degrees in English, dance and TESOL. Aruni is getting her feet wet in the Los Angeles lit scene and has read with Roar Shack and Angels Flight Literary West. She lives a quiet life in with her husband Jeff and cats Jack and Josie.
My First, and Only, Poetry Recitation Contest, 1980
I am waiting my turn at the big poetry recitation assembly in the fifth grade and I am so small that they have to lower the mic stand six inches and I struggle to catch my breath and grope for the Shel Silverstein poem (you know the one about the crocodile) and I wipe my sweaty palms on the front of my jeans and look out across the crowded cafeteria to find the eyes of my teacher who nods with encouragement so I climb the steps and cross tentatively to the circle of spotlight where the mic stand looms and try to ignore the thrumming of my heart and the squeaking of my Keds against the wood parquet of the makeshift stage and squeeze my eyes shut and try to empty my mind and then, finally
I approach the mic
and remind myself to just
exhale… just exhale.
Water Cooler Gossip in the Animal Kingdom
Are the lines
“The quick brown fox
the lazy dog”
merely a simple typing exercise
we were taught
for keyboard fluency?
Or is this phrase a
to warn women of color
in the secretarial pool
of the need to avoid the advances
of their white bosses?
Is this innocuous
collection of words
a cautionary tale about
the brown girls
in high-rise buildings,
every be complacent
about our precarious role
in the executive suite?
How quick do foxes need be,
leaping over cubicle partitions,
darting through the copy room doorway?
Are the dogs really lazy, or
feigning languor in order to trap
Do they lay in wait,
listening for the echo of
advancing down hallways?
Early morning in the master bath bathed in pale light streaming in through misted window and me vulnerable in a white ribbed tank top and cotton panties shifting at the bathroom counter trying to brush my teeth and not think about meeting your family for the first time when the first wave of nausea hits me and I start to wretch when the faint ghosts of aging plumbing wafts up from the drain and mix with the stale smell of dried toothpaste barnacles and this bouquet re-ignites gag response so strong it folds my body from pelvis to sternum and as sweat stains creep across my lower back and under each arm I know it isn’t right that the first time I meet your parents will be at your gravesite.
I sink, sobbing, to sit on the edge of the bathtub as the cat winds himself in endless figure-eights through my trembling legs, then leaps to my lap where we crouch together, shivering, for this wave of grief and panic to break over us and then we fight our way to the surface, struggle back to shore.
home office window
overlooks the wall
dividing my yard
from the neighbor on the next street
barely visible branches
of an enormous plumeria tree
riot of fragrant white flowers
explodes every spring
here in the middle of
Southern California suburban backyard
I don’t know this neighbor.
Did he cultivate his tree
from a cutting bought
at the Orange County Fair
many summers ago?
In my life
plumerias have a different name.
blossoms gathered for
floated in pools of water
in the entryways of grandmothers’ homes
We are the same, this tree and me,
both tropical transplants
in arid foreign soil
somehow blooming, thriving
Vertigo in the Arabian Desert
to the observation deck
on the 125th floor
of the Burj Khalifa
takes less than
On the fastest lift in the world
at ten meters per second
you can almost hear each story whistling past,
tumbling back to the unrelenting desert floor.
Focus on the
illuminated digital numbers
over the metallic double doors
as they count up
at an unnatural speed.
Why are the best views always
from dizzying heights?
From this high up you can see to the edge of Dubai.
One edge grasps at the gulf,
extending greedily into the sea
in man-made islands shaped like palms,
forgets the other edge
where the dunes shift shiftily,
waiting to reclaim the city.
A Fresh Camellia
There is a framed picture of you in our home.
You are thirteen or so,
white dress and white socks rolled down to the ankles,
roller skating away from the camera.
Before you were married to Howard at age sixteen,
before you were Jeff’s mother and eventually my mother-in-law,
before you fell mysteriously ill and cancer ravaged your small frame,
before you quietly slipped away in your favorite armchair.
You were Sadie Marie in the black-and-white photograph,
a girl in roller skates, gliding away from the camera lens.
By the time I met you
you were just Sadie, in your large sunglasses,
sitting in the shade on the patio,
sipping chardonnay with an ice cube in it.
Your favorite flower was a fresh camellia,
plucked from the bush in front of your home,
creamy bloom tucked into a water glass on the kitchen windowsill.
We became fast friends,
and settled into a mother-daughter relationship
as you folded me into your family early on,
always referring to me as your daughter and not your daughter-in-law.
You gave me many gifts over the years:
sweaters, antique brooches, dolls,
your only son,
and a lingering affection for fresh camellias.
We couldn’t know that our paths would run parallel
for such a brief time.
When you passed away, I inherited your favorite vase,
Frosted glass and rimmed in gold.
I still prefer my camellias in a water glass, though.
the moment you leave our bed
the symphony of your skin
robs me of sleep
lie to me when you whisper
lovely honeyed langage
(let the girl dream of what she wants)
to have you still here with me
Haiku on Ablutions
cup of epsom salt
magnesium sulfate makes
a solo Dead Sea
my bath time soundtrack
provided by Depeche Mode:
when Buddhists bathe, we
keep our Original Sin
to be recycled
no baptismal font this tub –
more of a soup bowl
release the stopper
day’s errant thoughts drain away
but the sins remain
Bathing In the Wake
You are not coming back.
The realization hits me in a wave, drags me under,
curled into myself in a bathtub long after the water turns cold,
sobbing like the wound is fresh, though the news is months old.
And I’ve been living with the sucking vacuum that your departure left
Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” blaring out of my ancient boom box,
reverberating off the bathroom walls.
What comes after heartbreak? Soulbreak?
Is that even a thing?
It fucking ought to be.
The song ends, I crawl out of the tub and shrug on my hair shirt.
Because that’s what I do now,
now that you’re really gone.
languid days flooded with
Did we always have a picture of a life
Who were those two?
Drunk on sky,
delirious with the road beneath.
Weak from the fall in love;
it hit him in the head,
her in a more delicate place
to think of them then –
a boy and girl
the man and woman
they would be
The morning I get married my family walks me to the front door of the house and as I step over the threshold I remember that I left my hairbrush on the bathroom counter but no one will allow me to re-enter the house and this is the moment that I learn of the Sinhala tradition that a bride, upon exiting the family home, is symbolically denied re-entry because home is now with her husband.
Home is a fickle notion sometimes and it would seem that you can’t go there again.
“Do I dare to eat a peach?”
A line in a half-remembered love song
of Eliot or Ezra Pound.
What so unsettling about this fruit?
Is it the voluptuous weight of it,
the gentle curve of the seam,
or is it the simple fact that it is vaguely animal,
covered in downy hair?
In the nursing home
where my grandmother spends the last of her days
there is a china hutch converted into an aviary
to house a collection of finches.
Gone the shelves that once held
porcelain dinnerware and crystal goblets,
replaced with slim wooden dowels for tiny birds to perch,
like so many delicate souvenirs gathered on trips abroad.
Everyone here is frail,
built of hollow bones and fluttering hearts,
captive in a house of windows,
watching the world where others fly free.
Chat du Matin
In the silvering morning
Milky light leaks in the bedroom windows
Tiptoes across the pale green bedding
My patient shadow
Waits for the light to burnish the strands of my hair to fire
Watching for my eyes to flicker open before his tentative approach
Tawny eyes hold my gaze, seek my invitation
Lanky body stretches out on the sheet next to me
Places a paw gently into my upturned palm
So begins each morning in silent conversation
As we ease into the day
On cat feet
Road Trip Up the Central California Coast
We arrive in a dream town
that may be located
between Santa Ynez and Cambria
in my subconscious mind,
shrouded in the coastal fog so common to this stretch of Highway 1.
The travel lodge is fake chalet style cabins
with an odd pseudo-dining room
that allegedly offers a complimentary breakfast to motel guests.
The sputtering neon sign promises
a comfortable place to break journey,
so we, road weary, check in.
When we wake up
in a room walled with fake wood paneling and
dreadful art reproductions of bucolic landscapes,
you notice a mountain lion crouched against the far wall
next to a battered nightstand.
He is very still, but growls low.
The rotary phone does not work,
so we cannot call the front desk for assistance.
You jump on one sagging double bed, shouting
as I race to the door, fling it open
and dive out of the way as the big cat rockets past me
and off into the dawn, aiming for the car park
We make our way to the makeshift dining room
(really a converted reception area)
To choke down hard scrambled eggs
stale Entemann’s danish and Nescafe,
pouring over a roadmap, deciding our next move.
When we return to Cabin Number 9
you cautiously open the door
though we both saw the cougar bolt before breakfast.
Perched on the farther away of the two double beds
is a cheetah, regarding us with luminous yellow eyes,
tail whipping the air, poised to pounce.
When we check out,
we complain to the receptionist
and ask why they chose industrial carpeting that made it easy
for mountain lions to camouflage themselves,
and bedspreads that blended with cheetah’s spots.
She apologizes for the inconvenience of the mountain lion in our room,
but makes no apology for the cheetah.
It is not the hotel’s fault that a savannah cat invaded our room
as they are not native to this part of the country.
At least she does not charge us a fee for additional guests.
Upon Becoming Reacquainted with My Failing Radiator and Cooling System
once brimming light blue
fluid streamed from under hood
emptiness mocks me
stranding me in Echo Park
this first true Spring day
young tow truck driver
name one vowel away
my almost namesake
Notes On a Booth at Jimmy’s Coffeehouse In LuValle Commons
On the Eve of Our Twenty-Third Wedding Anniversary (haiku cycle)
late afternoon sun
slants through transom windows
warms the booth for two
we sit, side by each
we type so diligently
on matching laptops
like salmon return
to the scene of their courtship
so we two do, too
the set has not changed
we reenact a page from
our early couplehood
you maintain focus
small coffee cup at arm’s reach
thirty years later
working towards your masters
you’re my co-ed spouse
who knew that life would
circle back to beginnings,
our undergrad haunts?
hunting and pecking
sketch the arc of shared journey
across miles and time
back in our worn both
corner of LuValle Commons
coffee shop closing time
we gather our belongings
head across campus
as the sun descends
dying light illuminates
our well worn path
after all these years
edifying to know that
I am still your girl
Today I return the sweatshirt I borrowed from you last Thursday
Borrowed after we washed your car at the carwash right off campus
On an afternoon turned suddenly chilly
I helped you pick out new
At the campus bookstore
Worn almost daily our first year at UCLA
Now it lays wadded up on your backseat, most days
Scent of Barbasol Shave Cream on the frayed collar
Mornings I would sit on the edge of the dorm bathroom counter
Watch you shave
You do not know
I wore your sweatshirt all Thursday afternoon
After I left you at the carwash
And you will not have seen me
Fall asleep on my broken couch, still wearing it
And I cannot tell you how
The scent of my shampoo mingled with the scent of your shaving cream
On the frayed collar
How that heady aroma lingered on the cushions of my broken couch
Unbearable intimacy of
I’ll return it freshly washed
Folded neatly in thirds, and thirds again
It will rest beside me on the passenger seat
As I drive to meet you this afternoon
And you will never know
The melancholy of Dreft laundry soap,
Tragic hum of a Laundromat dryer.
she wanders in bright sun while
he walks in shade
listen to the rustle of squirrels
on the fresh grass path
together in this wild, verdant Eden
he still climbs trees
knowing his sanctuary is here
her secret blossom
tendril climbs stone
how we root is poetry
you fall so softly
The Silence of Bodies
let words fall away
and listen to
my quiet landscape
slope of my bare back
your warm palms
cascade of unruly black curls
whispers in torrents over
undulating expanse of exposed belly
sighs in concert with
barely audible brush of thigh
a constellation of freckles
the expanding galaxy of my sleeping cheek
and if you must speak, let it be in
a symphony of moans to score
this stolen hour
by now we have outgrown words
so embrace the silence
Did her slight body
draped in purple cloud
make lives spill,
let the invading army regain the bloody field?
What secrets did she share with
shaded against the glare from
the collapse of Ilium?
It is all recent history
for those who hid inside
the wooden horse,
now vacant and in flames.
The Spaces Where My Body Has Been
My body is
the curled comma in the hollow
left on your side
of our marriage bed.
My body is
the wisp of steam after your shower,
a damp footprint
My body is
the last swirl of coffee
at the bottom of the mug
you place in the sink.
My body is
drifts of typed pages
spilled across the left side
of your writing desk.
My body is
the whistling kettle
for the cup of tea you decline
in favor of more coffee, decaf this time.
My body is
empty dinner plates
stacked on the counter
to wait until morning
My body is
the drape of blanket
across your shins
while you watch television at 10 p.m.
My body is
a series of lamps
turned off while you sleep
on the sofa in the den.
My body is
a restless ghost, flitting through the house, inhabiting
where your body has been.
Lithe tail carving air
into endless question marks
my tiny panther
A New Spring
new perch for finches
a withered apricot tree
Death has its purpose
feathered bodies bloom
where downy fruit once ripened