The little boy I babysit loves Hot Wheels and Zoids,
keeps a dusty Nerf gun under his bed. He prefers K’NEX
to LEGOs, has knobby knees and gapped teeth,
red-brown skin like me. In his room there’s a telescope by the window
where his brother’s bed used to be. At night we sit there,
necks bent, eyes to the glass. He just started fifth grade,
so there’s a star in the galaxy for every question
he asks me: Was the Big Bang real? Are aliens real?
When they die do they go to heaven too?
I want to tell him about the other side
of the universe where bombs go off that we never know about
for millennia. I’ve learned to boil answers down to one word—Yes.
Maybe. Hopefully. I’ve learned one word is all it takes
to break a kid—only ten, but he leaves rooms when he hears black
boy’s names on the news. He gets quiet when guns go off
in movies, so I turn the TV off at night. We don’t say his brother’s name.
On the couch he finds more questions. How do stars stay
in the sky? I say Gravity, want to say I don’t know
how to explain, say But you can recognize it by how the planets fall
toward them, say Everything out there is always falling.
He falls asleep with his feet against my thigh, kicks them
when he’s dreaming, and I want to kiss his forehead, want
to calm him. He reminds me how close we are
to explosion, that things always break apart from the center.
He’s lived it—a kid who loves space. He teaches me things, too:
In 50,000 years the Little Dipper will shift, will resemble more of a bent,
crushed coke can, the hind leg of Ursa Minor collapsing into its gut.
I’m afraid he will become like the stars of Draco,
serpentine curve twisted into shipwreck. He deserves more than this—
a solar system spinning around him, every scrap of gravity left over
from the Big Bang. I want to take the boiling stone from his core, name it
Dignity, mold it while hot, christen it with a kiss and cool it
into something the world will recognize, but I don’t want
to betray him. How many stars named after black kids, or light-years until
the next supernova? I want him to know what room America has left
for black love, black boys, black families. Maybe. Hopefully.
One night I dreamt Emmett Till visited Ferguson, Missouri.
Nobody recognized him. Not until he laid down.
next to Michael Brown’s body. Not until he kissed him.
This poem appears in the collection The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water. The Editors wish to invite readers to view an earlier iteration of this poem, which appeared in Winter Tangerine: