Some of what happened before I was seven:

Five was my year. It was when I started to recognize myself in the mirror. It was when I was able to tell people who I was. Some of it I did out loud. I watched my dad shake hands and say his name and I did the same. I’d reach my arm out and up. Fingers and thumb at right angles. My name is Otis, I’d say. Counting it out. So good to meet you, I’d say. Keeping time like I learned in music. My mother would smile down at me. Run her hand across my hair. My little gentleman. Just like his daddy.

I learned to write my name. O-t-i-s-stop. Counting the stop to make it five. Mrs. Brown called it a period but period is too many sounds. It was a stop and I always wrote the stop. Even when I had to use it in a sentence and there wasn’t meant to be a stop. Mrs. Brown would tell me every time. She’d write in green pencil on my paper. Sometimes she’d draw a circle around the stop and try to pick it up and move it somewhere else. But it was a part of my name. I told her it was the same as the other letters. She said it wasn’t exactly the same. Okay. But it goes there. With the other letters. And she let me be.

I arranged things in pods of fives. They didn’t have to be the same. They just had to belong together. It was possible to do this without people noticing. It wasn’t a secret but it wasn’t anything I needed to talk about. It was just for me. To make things mine. I was five and there were five places I could sit in my room. I was five and there were five books I liked to hear at bedtime. Five chews for a bite. Five sips for a drink. Five fingers on the door when it opens and five fingers when it closes. I tried to brush my teeth in five strokes but my mother wouldn’t have it. I tried five strokes per tooth and it took a long time but it worked. She’d tell me to hurry but she didn’t tell me to stop.

I knew how things worked at home. I knew how they worked at school. I knew the way to the park and all the signs and how to match my feet to the concrete blocks. Everything divided out over time and it made me safe. It made me a little gentleman. Just like my daddy.

The summer I turned six we went to the lake. The three of us but also the dog and also the lake. So that made five. On my birthday, my dad made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. I ate the first pancake in five bites and then I remembered I was six. I ate the next pancake in six bites but it didn’t feel right. The last bite wasn’t cooked right. It didn’t taste the same. I told them I was going to eat six pancakes because I was six. My dad said that was a lot of pancakes but I sure could try if I wanted. He made them a little smaller and I polished off three more pancakes and limped through the fourth. I did each one in six bites and each time my jaw stiffened on that final piece.

Then there were words. Everything was a five beat bar. Everything counted out before I made the words out loud. And now I had to add a beat. Everything ended on an afterthought. I found myself finished and unfinished. Adding a so at the end of each sentence. My name is Otis. So. So good to meet you. So. My name troubled me. I put a stop before the O but it didn’t look right. I tried a second stop after the first. It didn’t look right either. One day my teacher wrote her name on the board and she underlined it and there it was. The six. So that was my name now. O-t-i-s-stop-underline. And it worked but it wasn’t the same as O-t-i-s-stop. The underline wasn’t the same as the stop. It didn’t feel like it was really mine. Really necessary.

It took a long time to brush my teeth now. I would watch the water in the sink and think about the lake. My mother would tell me to hurry up. She’d turn the water off so we didn’t waste so much but I’d have her catch some first. Make a little lake in her hand or a little lake in the sink. And it would remind me to make the sixth stroke. To keep up with myself. To stay on track.

The biggest problem was walking. There were still five beats in my head and five steps to each piece of concrete. And so I would stumble on the six. On every six. Like a visible hiccup. That gap between who I was and who I was now. That failing bridge.

It was the walking that made them notice. Even more than the so. That I nearly fell at every sixth step. That I could not find my rhythm. Could not make a new song. I was so much my own when I was five. And some of me stayed there. Some of me stays there still.

Front page image by kimubert.

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Lisa Birman

About the Author

Lisa Birman has been teaching writing for the past ten years in the United States, Australia and the Czech Republic. She is the author of For That Return Passage – a Valentine for the United States of America, and co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, and has published several chapbooks of poetry, including O–A Conversation and deportation poems. Her work has appeared in Floor Journal, Milk Poetry Magazine, Tarpaulin Sky, Trickhouse, Poetry Project Newsletter, thuggery & grace, 26, admit2, Bombay Gin, and not enough night. Lisa is the Director of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where she also teaches for the MFA in Creative Writing.
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