by Barbara Leon
I found them on First Avenue,
in an iron-gated store,
down a short flight of steps,
Buster Browns, boys’ size 4 ½,
off-yellow with sturdy toes
and thick striped laces,
they hugged my feet clear up
to the ankles and the rippled
rubber soles lifted me high
above the city sidewalk.
Woman-size workboots were scarce
those days, but once I’d seen Irene
I knew I had to have them,
and the confidence they gave
as I walked the streets all hours.
More even than karate,
where I never got past white belt
while Irene’s yell grew fierce,
her forms disciplined,
till she became a black belt warrior.
Her hair awed me, too, coal black, kinky.
Thick, like her arched eyebrows,
like the oils, vivid purples and reds
she layered on canvas. I threw away
my rollers, loosed my natural hair
and reveled in the frizz.
And her laugh, sudden whoops of pleasure.
We all laughed, cried, shared secrets,
planned the world’s future
over cheese blintzes at Ratner’s.
The moment passed. Over the years
occasional news –
a hurtful separation, the scramble
to survive at artist’s pay. The illness that tore
through her body, tenacious as a bulldog.
They found her in bed, pill bottles
jumbled on a table, her supple limbs
and hard muscles atrophied.
Like the strength we’d shared,
one with the other,
like the urgency of our dreams.
Irene Peslikis was a founder/activist in the women’s
liberation and feminist art movements.