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smoke signals

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

A ball is, the very word, whatever you want to be, you be.

In a ballroom, you can be anything you want.

Paris is Burning, 1990


the childhood bedroom won’t recognize me

anymore. two truths and a lie: my body used to be

a history of fear. i’ve forged the ownership papers

to this life too many times to count. i’ve lied

enough in my life. truth and truth again, the first time i went

to the gay club was in itaewon during a summer that cracked

open like a yolk—our shadows running golden

on the pavement. the butch girls wearing their sleeves

rolled halfway up, femme queens dripping

glitter down the basement stairs. blurred chaos

every friday night, the longing of it & the longing

to become it, love through relentless homage.


burning was the first

controlled chemical reaction discovered by humans;

no wonder it’s the oxygen that animates our lungs

which also feeds the flame. we have always been

here, burning. we have always been queer.

i pull a spark from the fluorescent body

of the lighter and inhale.


my mother used to tell me i could be anything

i wanted but mostly i chose to live. there are nights

where i want to dream in a language she understands

so much that i think do. but nothing’s loved me as much

as the clippers that licked up my scalp, sixteen

& godless shaving off my hair. or the needles

biting through my cartilage or the blood-candied lip

or the bound chest or the monolid eyeliner i had to teach

myself like survival. i want & want to become

the drag queen sliding across the grimy floor of the stage,

lashes cut like the scythe-moon outside. we call her

royalty for a reason. we learn by doing, in

transgression. when the bar door bangs open

onto the cold crush of dawn i return home:

prodigal daughter, extravagant child, hanging

herself on the family tree.


in my mother tongue, the word for oxygen sometimes

means mountain-grave. to make this connection,

i had to dislocate my tongue first. i breathe out

and the pyre ignites. the ancestral bodies rust in their grief.

i’ve built my own lineage enough times

to know there’s no return to sender for this body. girlhood,

like the ballroom floor, is a city that’s burning: shorter and younger

and more flammable than i ever thought.


Editor(s): Alisha B., Uzayer M., Blenda Y.


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