First responder histamine affects the top two
layers of skin, itch races up uncushioned nerves
like a house on fire: one that wants to unzip
its unfortunate human suit and go jump in a lake.
Science, for all its hypotheses, cannot explain

how the poison ivy bit into your organs the day
you hiked an overgrown trail with a lover you
refused to admit was ruining you, how the welts
outside and inside stung so bad you thought
about nothing else, and scratching only spread

the pain around, but that’s all you ached to do,
until in desperation you stumbled into a shower
and the cool wet chorus on your furious flesh
damped the blaze for entire moments, enough to
let you see you might actually live through this.



The intern was confident. Corneal abrasions,
he diagnosed, it happens with contact lenses worn too long.
At last I had a name for the tiny daggers pricking my eyes,
the roaring in my ears like a freight train every time

I blinked. The on-call resident pushed me into a chair,
dripped thick blue dye under my convulsing lids.
Behind each iris a faraway seam tightened, an invisible
ocean evaporated, and a maniacal white light swung down

from somewhere and aimed, scanning left, right, left.
I didn’t cry. Not at the nurse gripping my wrists,
or the bulb’s blinding wrath, or the curt ophthalmologist
the next day who tossed me a bottle of antibiotic drops

and said the hospital was wrong. This will not heal
on its own. You must be more careful. I went home.
Followed instructions. Stayed dry until you called,
days later, knowing nothing of it, purring low like I loved:

I got the hotel blood tonight, baby come meet me. I miss you.
As if the second separation never happened,
as if we hadn’t agreed to twist our breakable bodies
free of our year-long wreck. My busted sight blurred.

I could not open my mouth for fear of saying yes or no,
so I put the phone on the kitchen floor and curled up
next to it, pressed my burning face to the tile
and wished for the emergency room.



Today I addressed my belly as if speaking to a lover.
Promised her I’d be kind. Vowed to listen when she’s fed up

with my saltiest habits, when she sends messengers to claw at
the muscle in my neck that twists from cervical vertebrae

to scapula like a waterslide, moments before my skull meat
seizes in spasm and then there is only a darkened room

and an ice pack and the hum of 417 Hz to slacken the throb
a half-notch. I placed my palm on the familiar tempest

of her valleys and swells and fell to my knees, as if watching
a cried-out girlfriend standing quietly in the hall, suitcase

in hand, at rope’s end. As I did, I felt my belly calm a little,
the clench at my neck ease just enough. She’s got little reason

to trust me, but I’ll win her back with slow work; I have to,
I can’t go on like this, my body a delicate vessel I should

be thanking some uncredited stars for every day we awaken
together, messily alive, among the raw and miraculous.

Betsy Housten is a Pushcart-nominated queer writer and
massage therapist. Her work appears or is forthcoming at the Academy
of American Poets, Bone & Ink Press, Cotton Xenomorph, Glassworks
Magazine, Lunch Review and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans, where
she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Find her on Twitter @popcorngoblin.

Image: Close Up of Poison Ivy from Safety of Walkway by Andy Arthur (Creative Commons)