Rina Nilooban

The Real Couple

presses into the pine table, leaning, wears
washed-out jeans and peasant blouses. We sweat

watching them, but I suspect they don’t care.
They are in it: the moment, the mussels,

the Fleetwood Mac melody. They will suck
abalone out of its shell, he will consider

her spare sparrow face, she his badger streak
and lined eyes, and they will love the wood ears

all the same. I am tasting my fish but
I want their secret. They’re laughing now

beyond the sad petunias and clashes
of gimlets and chatter- it won’t matter.

That’s really all it is: thumbs of salt, olive oil,
fingers sparking over the mushrooms, hand

over sweaty hand, rubbing under wrist.



What Happens When You Come to Another Country


The women here don’t eat. They measure what they do
with points- as if it costs them to survive, to sustain
themselves, as if eating is a competition you can lose or win.
We speak different tongues. We taste different. I taste
like pimientos and olives and sriracha. They taste
like non-fat yogurt and week-old Wonder bread
with the crusts curled up. I am in a country where the natives
do mud runs for sport but don’t enjoy getting dirty.
I am in a country where after 15 years, no one
pronounces my name correctly. I get, isn’t that interesting!
Where is that from? Is it Chinese? Or Jewish. Maybe Spanish.

They say, can I call you something else, a nickname? As if
the given is not enough.

I am in a land of blonde people: blond hair (for the most part
fake), blond tastes and attitudes. I don’t like blond.
No color. It reminds me of empty corn husks and scorched
land and snow banks where the people don’t smile.
Blond reminds me I am a freak, even though geneticists say
that 94% of the world’s population is natural brunette.
Why am I the different one, then? The ugly one. The circus
sideshow. The one who doesn’t wear makeup, won’t wax
for swim season or open up my legs to be someone’s mother.
I am not. Which is never what people want. It’s not easy
to understand mystery, the blended sky at dusk.
Which is why people don’t look up anymore at the sky,
or even if they do, there are never as many stars as they need.


Mother of pearl. Mother of my soul. I am in another country
but it is my heart’s land. The place I was not born but the soil
that gave birth to me. When I was sixteen and foolish and more
brave, I found roast suckling pig in the back room
of Hemingway’s old haunt. It was like I’d never known
pork before: its richness, its unapologetic fattiness. Its layers
pocked with lovely pillows of haunch and ham, carne y
cartilage. The next morning, I woke to myself, dreaming
I had lunch with someone dark-haired, smelling of cognac.
I felt slim and wise, nothing like the weighty rucksack
I had hauled off the plane. The one my mother had forced
me to get for my long exotic journey.


I have no idea how to explain it to people, when I say
that I’d like to retire in Spain. That I’ve known
for years. They think I’m a freak, an idealist who
romanticizes sangria and flamenco and socialized
health care. If you want margaritas, girl, then go
to Jose Tejas
. I fail to remind them that this is Mexican,
and barely, at that. I don’t know how to remind people
of what they’ve never known. That there are places
in this world where mint grows wild and free,
where the fish have bones you don’t mind
picking, where the earth is dank and dark, and it dips
sometimes, and even when you fall down, it is good.


Rina Nilooban lives and teaches in Highland Park, New Jersey.  Her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose Magazine.  She graduated from Brown University in 2000 and has studied under BJ Ward, Rick Benjamin, Cat Doty and Peter Murphy.