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Polyphonic Grocery List

Hybrid Prose, Shaawan Francis Keahna

On my birthday you said, “God. Our story would be so cute if either of us were capable of love.” I pushed off the bed or I pulled back. If this were a movie the action would read, “Frankie pulls back,” but you like to remind me that we live in real life, and I felt the sheets ruck between my angry fingers, the mattress give under my palms as I pushed. Because you know me, you knew exactly how I’d argue with you, so you interrupted. “I know. I know. But you know what I mean.” Our ex-girlfriends both live in our mouths when we fight like this. Arms crossed, eyes downcast, tapping their feet. A thousand “whys” and “hows” and the frustrated, sardonic chuff they both give when we offer the wrong answers. 

Living in this memory while in present-tense I’m hungry and dehydrated. I remember the birthday dinner you bought me just before closing time. We played the part and I felt awful—I hate being a customer—but the food was so good. It’s being infected by a different memory, years before I knew you, back when I was numb and adrift, a VIP teenage body at Toronto International Film Festival. How I met the white Canadian CEO of Huawei (remember them?) and he said, “You remind me of my son. He’s doing the starving artist thing right now.” He turned his company phone around and I (young face impassive) stared down the IMDb page of some pretty twink who’d never starved a day in his life and never would. I don’t know if the CEO really was seven feet tall, or if that’s just how all grownups looked to me back then. He told me everything about the plan to merge with Bell. Sinophobia buried that plotline and I never saw him again.

Something smells bad in your fridge right now. I think it’s your roommate’s fault. If there was one thing I’d change about you, anything at all, I’d make you more confrontational. You’re so good at fighting with me. You know I can take it. You’ve seen, time and again, how I get back up or I keep walking or I fight back, I don’t just deflate and curl into my phone posting vagues. I don’t trap you in a narrative of pain and betrayal. Anyways, I think it’s good to stand your ground. I think if something bothers you, you should speak up. Otherwise what’s the point? I try to say what I mean. I’m mean, too, but that’s neither here nor there. My cheese went bad. That’s my one weakness. I know I’m better now because finding the muenster covered in mold didn’t make me want to jump off the nearest building. I just sighed and pulled out my grocery list. I don’t know where I’m gonna get the money for any of this. Floating numbers out in space. Emails saying “I’ll loop you in soon to arrange payment.” Soon.

When is “soon?” Tomorrow? A week? A month? Not a year, though there have been times when I’ve signed a contract and it’s taken that long. I forgave the girl who did that. Withheld those funds. Other people didn’t. She locked her Twitter account and threw away the key when everyone else came for her neck. Another snapshot: I’m perched in the makeup artist’s chair for Itch, which only just came out this year. Adam paints my arm with self-harm scars and talks to me in a low, gentle drawl. He’s won an Emmy before for his work on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Small talk. Shop talk. He leans back and won’t meet my eyes, but I can tell he’s working something out in his head and it bothers him.

“You’re too sweet,” he says, after a time. “You’re too sweet for this business.”

I take it to heart. When people ask me why I quit, years later, I tell them the truth. Nothing bad happened. Nobody hurt me. A beautiful boy who’d later go on to have a significant role in Boy Erased asked to buy me a drink and I, terrified of being found out, said no, and he respected it. Looked at me with care and unabashed desire before I disappeared into the bustle of the light box, frightened. There’s pictures of me next to the surviving founders of TIFF, ancient history made flesh and draped in soft, loose, shimmery cloths. Half-ghost already. I was a good actor, I know I was. Everyone said so. I can’t really do it the same now. Too many tattoos. Still too sweet.

All these helicopters over Baltimore are horseflies on a corpse. We’re still alive down here and furious. I told my old Forever, the one I lived with in Toronto, where I am. I told because it’s the decent thing. We always do the decent thing. 

“What the hell are you doing down there?” my old Forever asked.

Someone new is always in my bed and losing their train of thought. Blown-out pupils mid-sentence, “You’re beautiful.” If this were a movie, you’d have stopped calling me beautiful months ago. Its absence another brick for the wall we’ve become. But you do. Every night we steal from each other, you do. I trace your face with my eyes and lips and fingertips and I’m floored by you the way people get floored by me. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you glow. You glow.


People talk to me special. We joke it’s pretty privilege, but there’s an undercurrent. Threatens my sanity. I’m afraid to put it in writing because part of me lives off it. Bread, eggs, milk, obsession. The look of vulnerability before they tell me what they think of me. Like I’ll do anything but smile back and build a bridge with honeyed words. In Brooklyn, I shivered across from one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve loved for a small eternity. People pin us to moving pictures and say they know who’s who and why and how. I asked him what we do after we’re mythologized. This happened and that happened and here we sat in his living room, just two normal, human guys, who were born and will one day die. He told me I just have to keep going. I can’t live in the pin. 

“You’re clearly wrestling… with something.”

He said it gentle and measured, like a dad or an older brother. I went to TIFF at his request. Everything I am goes back to him somehow. If you want to place blame. It’s him, it’s us, it’s our film. I told you once about another documentary I was in—not his, but hers—the one about me and my girlfriend becoming exes, where the future is an open ended question full of obvious answers. You joked that we should release a new cut and include us. 

Every day is episodic and necessary. The weeks get weirder but the months improve. My new cut with you: All of a sudden I am seven feet tall. All the halls and hovels darkened by unknowing grow illuminated nightly, until I can find my way to and fro no matter the hour. Now I’ll walk from Charles Village to Bolton Hill by myself at midnight. Here I take the light rail from Hampden, where a new lover of mine stays. I greet every stray and claimed cat like they’re my neighbors. I learn to keep the lies about this city alive in my mouth—keep the rot of the young urban professional out, keep the streets sacred and fearless. Crossing the interstates, a stranger with indigo skin reaches for me, catches me by the wrist and says, voice mellifluous with so much aching love, “Watch out for the car.” I lean into him on instinct and stammer, “Thank you.” 

Men are digging under my apartment building just like they did in last week’s nightmare. On break when I get home. I try to reconcile the lies with the truth when I meet their eyes and they smile and mean it. My landlord calls me up. He has forgotten my name. “Freddie, is that my building they’re cracking open or the building next door? Does your water still work? Did it work this morning?” I tell him honestly I’ve been in Hampden all night and his tone sours because everyone knows what I get up to even when they forget my name. He drily wishes me a Happy Thanksgiving and I wish him the same. In the nightmare, the men uncover a row of statues of the Holy Mother Mary on her back. Lined up in a virgin infantry. Stone eyes shut tight. They begin to rumble at the disturbance. Crystalline tears slip out in silver slivers.

Our story endears itself to me the more it unfolds. Even if we can’t love sensibly. Whenever I tell people how we met, you always interject, “God, I was so drunk,” and we laugh because you were. When we kissed for the first time, you told me you thought I was Jesus. I tell everyone, an evil grin at my lips, that we were trying to homewreck the same couple unbeknownst to each other. You chatted up the beautiful girl while I sat curbside with her dumbass boyfriend.

Pushed through my initial discomfort for loneliness’s sake. We struck out for puke-related reasons and found one another outside the bathroom. When I first started telling this story, even before we were lovers, I called our conversation “astonishing.” You thought I was magical because I pulled a baked potato out of my tote bag and gave it to your ex as soon as they told you they were hungry.

We live in real life. Come November, we tried to distract your ex by singing “Sugar We’re Goin Down” by Fall Out Boy at karaoke together. March, I tagged along with you and your gorgeous friend to a Leprous concert in Syracuse and you pretended not to hear when my chaotic little sibling yelled at me over the phone: “Are you with him? Are you doing gay stuff?” After our first proper night together, we separately told our exes it meant nothing. This was nothing.

The Bun Shop in Mount Vernon closes at 3am. Sometimes I walk there and sit in the amber tungsten dimness, sipping Mexican hot cocoa, and try to assemble my past.

The nothing continued. Friends of mine died by the armful. I fell down in your kitchen and you held me in silence and I felt the throughline pierce me. “You’re shaking,” you said. “Come, come to the couch.”

You moved to Baltimore one year and I arrived a year later. You offered me your bed while I explored this city and its secrets. I missed you every day and I still miss you. The other night, you said, “Don’t try to get rid of me, now,” because I was talking about how many ways I plan to avoid you when you’re somewhere with your other lover and I’m there with mine. We have all the time in the world for me to say what I mean. We have all the time in the world for you to believe me.

When this part is over and done with we’re still alive. I cannot see myself from outside myself. I know what I am (to an extent) but I identify with furniture and what I do to it. Fucked this man on the new table. Pulled a different man onto my white vinyl couch. A girl I could love, maybe, one day, took a book from my shelf and hasn’t returned it yet. Here I brought you home when you were hammered on Halloweekend and made you a grilled cheese sandwich. There are too many who’s-who and not enough whys. When you get drunk you call me your boyfriend. I’m stone cold sober, always, and I let people know I’m not theirs to keep, but they can borrow me as long as they want. At Goodwill in Fells Point, I buy a plastic rose gold Christmas tree for twenty bucks and the cashier squeals, “Oh, my God, you are so sweet.” You’re out of town and I cradle your cat to my chest as he purrs in his sleep. I go to a potluck for Native folks in Baltimore and a Haudenosaunee woman says, “Wow. We’re from all over. How’d we end up here? The fuck’s wrong with us?”

Keep going. We might find the answers. 


Shaawan Francis Keahna is a writer and cross-disciplinary artist. His visual work has been featured in TransLash, the Watermark Art Center, TransFire, and All My Relations Gallery. His words have been published by the Vassar Review, the Blood Pudding, Off Limits Press and others. His first chapbook of comics and poetry, Mayday, came out in 2023 through Bottlecap Press. Keahna lives in Baltimore. More about him can be found at, or on Instagram @sfkeahna.


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