The fourth stair on my steps is worn down

It’s where I sit to listen

Like the center of an auditorium

I hear everything

Crystal clear

 

I listen to your words

And feel the walls recoil

The loud cacophony of harpoons

Aimed at our throats

Sharp, and ready to snatch a kill

 

I envy the joy of children outside

Their laughter twisting with leaves in the wind

It had once swelled in my body

But you made me feel

Like it didn’t belong

 

Happiness is now a foreigner to my lips

My tongue is bilingual in hatred

Poison dart words sit

Poised at the edge of my teeth

Waiting for their moment to strike

 

If you don’t have anything nice to say

Don’t say anything at all

But keeping it in doesn’t make it nicer

My stomach is so used to digesting my own venom

I feel I am rotting from the inside out

 

I question my every move

Every word

Gasping for the surface

Desperately grasping at straws

Anxiety to speak sits like a stone in my stomach

 

Years spent studying you

Trying to find patterns in the pitfalls but

The inconsistency in your behavior

Makes me feel like I’ve lost the rule book

To a game I’ve never known how to play

 

You said I needed a father figure

But you weren’t volunteering

And I went along voluntarily

Only to find out

You’re worse than my father

 

Mom says

Be the bigger person

But being the bigger person

Makes me feel so small

Inconsequential

 

This is survival of the fittest and

My legs have carried me across continents

But they quake in fear when you raise your hand

I have never had a father daughter dance

But I have waltzed on eggshells

 

Around your temper

Your aggression

Your indifference

I am different now

But my stairs look the same

 

Emma Bankert, this year’s winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize, is earning her teaching certificate and hopes to help students in grades 7-12. She says, “I currently volunteer as a Girls on the Run coach, helping build esteem for young girls, something I wish I had when I was their age.”