Gnashing Teeth Publishing

| words that get in your teeth

The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Pepper Cunningham

black and white photo of a woman with pigtails wearing a hat and sunglasses sitting in front of a mountain range

I wore plastic heart-shaped sunglasses
from the dollar store paired with fault lines

around my mouth. Amy Winehouse bluesed on the radio
as I crawled through the cavernous hill country

to find you. At your rehab, no, no, no,
recovery center, you asked how’s school and I said good

though I’d spent sophomore year bumming time
and menthols from strangers and excavating

the lyrics of every song I loved to sing with you
from the cavities of liner notes in our Big Book of CDs.

Your rehab dorm was a grotto dank with smoky
quartz and pamphlets with titles like Nothing Changes

if Nothing Changes. Your roommate drank cocktails
of vanilla extract and Listerine. It had only been two weeks

since you drove me to school with a Big Gulp
of cabernet in the cupholder. I thought I was good

at keeping secrets but I was so sick, already,
of therapists embellished in amethyst, lecturing me on how to heal.

When you [blank] I feel [blank].
Mom, when you drink I feel like joining you.

When you returned I bleached my hair blonde and wore faux-fur
coats paired with chunky gemstones and stalagmites

of fingers clenched tight around sparkling bottlenecks.
The light at the mouth of the cave

was a mirror. I was yours and you were mine
and we were the same, life-drunk junebugs

spelunking through unrelenting hurricanes, only twelve steps
from safety in any direction. But for the grace of you go I.

Ten years later when it was my turn to go, I asked
if you were getting back at me and you said no, no, no.

You’re getting back at yourself.


Pepper Cunningham (she/her) is a writer and editor based in the mountains of Southern Ecuador. She is the Translation Editor at MAYDAY Magazine. Her poetry and prose appear in Split Lip, Rust + Moth, Rough Cut Press, and elsewhere. She is the author of “Hope Is The Thing With Teeth” (Bottlecap Press, 2023). When she’s not working on her manuscript, she’s usually by the river looking for beetles and butterflies.

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