You were Sexy Sadie.
You were the original.
You broke all the rules.
You laid it down for all to see.

Our stepfather had long, blond hair.
He slicked it back with a wide-toothed comb
so that the lines of his hair
were as swift and powerful
as the lines of the cars
he used to make.
His teeth were thin and small.
Light seemed to shine through them.

That’s what I remember most:
hair and teeth and a rage
that prowled
up and down the stairs
and into our rooms
whether he was home or not.
There was this, too:
a deep, sensual tenderness
riding on the back of the rage.
Which was worse?
Rage opened our wounds.
Tenderness burned them.
I was ten, you were thirteen.
Nights, our mother worked.
When he was sure I was asleep
he called you into his room.

you tell me years later. “Yes,
I did it. Yes.
It felt better than being hit,
didn’t it?
Didn’t it feel better
than both of us
being hit?
Didn’t it?”


But later, when you
locked yourself in the bathroom,
and I heard the water run and run
and run,
I hated you
for your sacrifice.

In high school
I was embarrassed to be your brother.
They ridiculed
your beads and tie-dyed skirts —
the class hippie.
At a party one night
eight guys from the football team
taunted you:
“Prove it,” they said.
“Prove this love power.”
So you took them
one by one
on a mattress
in a back bedroom.
The sight of their underwear
down around their knees
made you want to laugh.
If their mothers could only see their babies now,
waddling to the bed.
They kept their shirts and shoes on.
Your naked body frightened them.
They came immediately.
Still, by the seventh one,
you were exhausted.
You propped yourself up
and took number eight
between your lips.

Sexy Sadie,
what have you done?
Sexy Sadie, you made a fool
of everyone.

Sexy Sadie,
you grew up and took LSD
on the hottest day of the year
and walked into the fountain
in front of the Municipal Building
in downtown Detroit
to end, once and for all,
the only war that matters.
Your clothes melted away.
A crowd gathered.

Water poured forth, sparkling,
from the mouths
of three marble cherubs.
You rubbed against them.
You moaned.
Men in the crowd
replied with the cries of
cats and dogs in heat.
You stared into the sun.
You left their chakras choking in the dust.
Just a moment more of
making love to stone,
just a moment more
of staring into the sun
and you’d have the power
to turn to the crowd
and flatten them in an instant,
flatten them like a bomb —
like an atomic bomb
of pure sex
and pure love.

But then the power of the sun
went over to the police.
They arrived and called to you
through bullhorns.
How ugly they sounded,
like fat, dangerous frogs
on the edge of the pool.
You turned away.
You pressed closer to the marble cherubs.
How wet and smooth and hard
their bellies were;
how safe their little stone penises were,
buried deep between their fat, shiny legs.

Sexy Sadie,
how did you know?
How did you know
the world was waiting
just for you?

The city turned the water off.
The marble mouths went dry,
the drains made a great
sucking roar.
You shivered in the sudden heat.

“It took three cops
to drag me out,”
you say. “I tried
to fuck one of them
on the way to the car.
I was pathetic,
humping his leg like a dog.
That’s what I think now
but I didn’t think that then.
Then it was only me
against all of them
and all I had was . . .”

After twenty-four hours,
they let you go.
They barely had room for gunshot victims,
let alone white kids on acid.
But twenty-four hours was enough.
You walked to my car like a zombie.
I had a car then
and a job, and a bank account and a fresh haircut
and a girlfriend from the suburbs — Melinda
was her name.
I was thinking about her
as I guided you through the parking lot,
wondering what I’d say to her
if she saw us together.

There was a lot I didn’t know then.
I didn’t know I was trying
to be everything you weren’t.
I didn’t know about the fountain
or the cops.
I didn’t know that two huge orderlies
strapped you to a gurney.
I didn’t know that the harder
you struggled,
the tighter the straps became.
I didn’t know they shot you
full of Thorazine.
I didn’t know that Thorazine
was like wet cement in your veins.
I didn’t know how slow and gray
human life could become.

Years later you tell me,
“I got a preview of hell
that night —
all nine circles.
I saw a woman
beating her legs and breasts
with the palms of her hands
as if she was putting out a fire.
‘Snakes,’ she said, ‘snakes.’
I saw a woman
chew her lip until it bled.
I saw a woman
huddled with her plastic sheet
under her bed,
laughing and sobbing.
I saw another woman,
strapped down like me —
she was the worst.
All night long
she raised her hips,
moaning and thrashing,
copulating with the air.”

“Ah, little brother,
don’t look so sad and shocked.
It’s over. It’s done with.
It was a long time ago.”

We are chain-smoking in your kitchen.
Out the window
we watch your daughters play
with my daughters.
The oldest is eleven, the youngest is six.
We’ll have to call them in soon.
It’s getting dark.

“Is it really over?” I ask.
“Is it really done with?”

“No,” you say,
“I guess we wouldn’t
be sitting here talking about it
if it was.”

“It’s just this,” I say,
but then I can’t say I’m sorry.
I said that already and you said,
Sorry doesn’t do a thing.
How can you be sorry?
You didn’t even know.”

This is what I don’t say:
I should have known.
Brothers survive by not knowing
what happens to their sisters.
Even as our daughters play in the twilight,
brothers are sleeping
all over the earth,
sleeping the beautiful sleep
of boys who are loved by their mothers.

We don’t speak for a long time.
No one is coming,
no one is waiting.
We are both divorced.
Our daughters’ shouts grow louder.
Suddenly, the radio we’ve been ignoring
grabs our attention.

It’s an old Mamas and Papas song:
“Do you, do you, do you, do you, do you wanna dance?”

“Hey,” you say,
“remember in high school
when I taught you how to dance?”

The truth is, I never did learn.
“Come on,” you say. “Let’s

I hesitate.
In the darkening kitchen,
I can barely see your face.
We haven’t touched like this in years.
But I rise
and you glide into my arms.
It’s 1966 all over again.
Except the last time we danced
my head came up to your shoulders.
Now it’s the other way around.
But still you nudge me through the steps.

We dance.
I envy you.
Isn’t that strange?
But I do.
I envy your past and future madness.
I envy the massive dose you took.
I envy your rocket flight into the sun.
Sex broke every bone in your face.
Sex nearly killed you.
But you survived
to slow dance
your brother around the kitchen floor.
Sexy Sadie, I envy
the way the music takes you.
I envy the way, broken face and all,
you rock
and sway
across the floor.

A version of this poem appeared previously in Kinesis.

— Ed.

“Sexy Sadie” by J. Lennon and P. McCartney.
“Do You Wanna Dance?” by B. Freeman.