Unripe Child

In Queens, my grandfather’s garden stretched
around our little corner house. I used to climb
over the brick stairs’ railing by the front door to
hover over his plants. Life rose into the world
over and over before my eyes.

Sometimes I’d gather tomatoes and peppers
into a large silver bowl for my grandmother.
I remember eyeing the green, unripe tomatoes
wanting desperately to pick them, slice them open,
see if they were green inside, too.

From the ripe tomatoes my grandmother would
make paste to use in stewed chicken or salt fish.
I would sit and watch, little fingers stretching
and asking constantly if something was ready,
if I could help.

But in the kitchen we couldn’t rush things.
Curries needed to simmer, to reduce and thicken.
And roti, you have to let the dough rest once
after mixing flour, water, baking powder, and salt,
and again after separating into sections.

When I am in kindergarten my teachers excitedly
tell my mother they want me to skip first grade.
She does not tell me of this offer until I am in college,
saying she told them no, repeating to me what she always
says: I wanted you to be the age you were then, because
you would never be it again.

I wonder sometimes if her insistence on my
taking time pushed me towards impatience. Even
if I knew she was right. Because of course, mothers
are almost always right. But I was restless, never
learning how to hold onto things, how to let them
grow. Even now, I kill nearly all the plants I touch.

Once, in third grade, I went to school with my thick
curls brushed out, a whole bush on my head, and the
boys laughed. This is where I begin to sour. Learn quickly
how to tame the excess of myself, only ever wearing
my hair in a ponytail or straightened through high school.
I became familiar with smell of singe, with the hour it took
to break my hair down. It was an unwanted kind of patience.
Who exactly was I slowing down for? Not myself. Never myself.

I think this must have confused my mother. To see her child
whose eyes once glinted and widened when she spoke, folded
in on herself—an unripe tomato retreating to rot instead of
bursting into red. I wanted to tell her I’m sorry. That this
toned down version of me wasn’t supposed to happen.

Her ripe child lives tangled in the back of my throat.
Wrapped with all the foliage and withered stems
I’ve cultivated. Sometimes I cough up dried flower petals,
pick thorns out from between my teeth. Sometimes,
I can hear the child humming, softly. And I want to hold her,
let her out of this barren body, but I think we’re both scared
of who we’d become if we were set free.

Jessica Nirvana Ram is first generation Indo-Guyanese who is currently an MFA poetry candidate at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Jessica received her B.A. in Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in 2018. Her work appears in Barrelhouse, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Memoir Mixtapes. You can find her tweets about teaching, writing, and all other life things @jessnirvanapoet.