“People of a tender age are loved; legal tender is appreciated; any tender meat or vegetable is usually delectable; and tender moments (perhaps fueled by a bartender) are unforgettable.”
We were boys playing like boys do. Rough, grunting, sweating. We played like this whenever T. was drunk. He was happiest, drunk. More willing to be a boy though he was our uncle and we hadn’t hit puberty yet. No way we could beat him. But we tried. That night he was rough. He put J. in a headlock and dragged him toward the kitchen, taunting me. Saying something like, “I got him, I got him.” I can’t remember. The thing that’s clearest is the fork I grabbed by instinct, the urgency with which I threw it, the cut it made on T.’s long nose. He froze. I ran because I thought he’d kill me. Before I knew what death was. Before T. and J. died on the same day three years apart. Both by self-destruction. But that night. My memory. T. ran past me down the long hallway and out the front door. I let my guard down. Laughed off the adrenaline with J. because T. was stupid drunk, or so we thought. But a few minutes later he rushed inside and slapped me across the face with the strength of a man. That’s when I knew I was still a boy. That we were different. It hurt so bad I went into shock, couldn’t speak and couldn’t move till my grandmother dragged me to the bath, all the while yelling at her son who was a man like he was a boy. I don’t remember if it left a bruise. But it left a memory, which is like a bruise that never ends.
In Derrick Austin’s Tenderness, wherever there is softness, underneath, a wound. In the poem “Epithalamium,” on a path by a creek where there’s peace and cruising men (read: possibility), there’s a history of lynching. In “Black Docent,” surrounded by the majesty of peacocks, bird’s entrails. In the collection’s closing poem, “Lilting,” the risk of togetherness:
“Tend to your joy, you whisper,
As if a charm against eviction or some harm
We might inflict on each other.”
Austin’s collection resists binaries in all categories: male and female, hurt and care, memory and present. It makes being in between feel easy with images of lavender and sun kissed summers. But the poems challenge the reader to take wounds seriously. Not in the way trauma is sometimes used excessively, ringing the reader dry of empathy and care.
Tenderness teaches us that if we consider softness with enough rigor, if we consider ourselves with enough softness, a wound is a portal, not an end.
I went to the club alone because that’s who I was in my mid twenties, depressed and careless and hungry to be devoured by the night. I met a stranger as I did sometimes. He grabbed me by the waist, pulled me into his groin, was rough in all the ways I needed then. He said his car was parked outside, I didn’t question it. He said he’d never fucked in a car before, I didn’t question that either. I broke the zipper on my shorts trying to get them off. I wanted to make myself more pliant, more open. I was ravenous. The only thing that gave me pause was his request. I wanna fuck you raw. I interviewed him like I cared about my safety. And he was patient. Even showed me his pharmacy receipt. Truvada. Of course I let him fuck me. It didn’t matter that he was a stranger, or that there’s a history of bodies like ours destroyed by illness for exactly this kind of careless behavior. I didn’t know I had such capacity for self-destruction. When he slapped me across the face without asking, I took it. I didn’t think of T. then, but my body remembered, there in that thin line between bruise and memory. And then the stranger held me. Asked me to call him daddy. Opened the windows just a sliver so that the heat of our bodies touching wouldn’t drown us, there in his car in the middle of Times Square.
Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro-Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow and 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. Myriam Gurba selected Alejandro’ s chapbook, You’re the Only Friend I Need, as the winner of the 2019 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Contest. The book was published in summer 2021. Alejandro’ s work has been featured in Auburn Avenue Magazine, La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Hunter College.