Chen Chen

Race to the Tree



I was 13 & it was night & without

even knowing it, I had successfully

evaded the Amherst police

for 4, 5 hours. It was night & without

            having committed any crimes,

            I was pursued, looked into

            by the Amherst police.

            Well, perhaps I’d trespassed:


scrambled up a tree past mine

& its bedtime. Stoic & oak,

it once served with dignity

as “safety.” It stood, so close

            to my family’s apartment

            it was pathetic the police

            couldn’t find me, so close

            the oak seemed to be


ours. But it wasn’t—every oak

& pine & birch in the complex belonged

to the landlord, whether or not

he’d climbed each one himself.

            I had scaled this old “safe” tree

            with my running shoes, planning

            to run away—if not far away enough,

            then for long away enough


that my parents would start to miss me.

I was 13 & it was night & all night I stared

at the moon from my tree, willing myself to think

not of them, but of how it would taste

            to kiss, to be kissed, oh

            moon, for a long time, for the first time,

            to be k-i-s-s-i-n-g in this

            or any tree…




I wanted to kiss a boy

on the throat, not the soft, smooth

neck but the protruding, tough

core of a boy’s throat, the part

            named after the very first boy

            & the stupid fruit his girlfriend

            made him eat. His girlfriend’s

            ugly, I thought in my tree, I’d be


much better for him. By dawn I was

still 13 & kissless, but had made it

(using my spy & JV track skills)

8 blocks away, without being detected,

            to the University, the glass

            & concrete country where my parents

            put on their best American accents

            & smiles, to earn degrees


the equivalents of which they’d already

earned in China. I was 13 & wouldn’t have

said it so succinctly, but I knew something

about the sadness of the facts, oh

            moon, hungry moon, unkissed

            & silent, I would kiss you.

            In that moment though, I decided

            to spit & kick


at the grey concrete, recalling Mom & Dad’s

idiot faces, yelling at me. I was 13

& it was morning & the concrete

deserved my punishment & my

            climbing it like a tree & my

            installing myself as The Landlord

            here & everywhere & everyone

            should see. It was morning


& my eyes hurt in the growing

light. & then, as the sun poured its useless

gold on all the solid grey, as I was about to

reach the top

            of the slanted edge of a wall,

            for the first time my speedy

            stealthy sneakers failed me—

            & I slipped.




Ankle-twisted & whimpering, I limped

back home. My mother rushed out

& greeted me with pale-faced

silence, then a command to get

            in the car. As she drove me back

            to campus, this time to the student

            clinic, she told me that she had called

            & called the police, who had told her


it’ll be alright, we’ll find him, though they couldn’t,

hadn’t, maybe didn’t even bother to try.

I watched my mother’s fingers

on the steering wheel.

            An hour later, I boarded the bus to school

            on crutches. At school I told the boy

            I liked, the boy with the best

            mile times on the team,


that I was just getting some extra practice

& wasn’t careful & guess now I’ll never be as good

as you this season. He looked at me

for a moment. Looked away.

            I didn’t tell him I spent all night in a tree

            because my mother slapped me

            after I told her I might be gay.

            I didn’t tell him that I hit her back,


that my father tried holding us apart

like the universe’s saddest referee.

I didn’t show the boy the bruise

I didn’t show the doctor.

            I said, Good luck at the race today,

            then closed my eyes, thought of night,

            of the moon bobbing through it,

            like an Adam’s apple


plucked out, bobbing through a dark

absence of throat, oh

silent & unkissed—that’s how I wanted

you to suffer, too, boy who wouldn’t

            look at me. Seeing you run so beautifully

            on the track that afternoon, I wanted you

            to suffocate, breath-starved from all the miles

            you’d run away from me.


“Race to the Tree” is from When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017)