Body of Longing
Make me look different, I said after walking into the below-ground barber shop. It can be short. I trust you, which was an odd thing to say to a stranger. What I meant was, Make me beautiful enough to get the one I can’t have.
I chopped it all off, up to my chin, because I couldn’t.
And then I did it again, almost twenty years later, when I stopped nursing my last baby because that was a kind of loss too. Dear weight of memory, I will leave you on the cutting room floor.
My hair is blond, but modified with words like dirty, sandy — my sleepy beach town childhood something I’ll never shed. Maybe, I think, every time, this is the change I need. To be someone, somewhere else. But as soon as the scissors start their work, I miss the length, how it covered my shoulders, snaked down my neck, like a shield, a security blanket. A source of confidence. Sexuality. Self.
Maybe I just want to keep things even when they don’t serve me well. Even dead things. Dear Stranger, make me beautiful enough to have the things I can’t keep.
When I say I married him for his hair, I mean I married him for his genetics. I wanted my children to inherit the brown curls that mesmerized me into overlooking his repulsive commentary about toe-jam as he fondled my feet the night we met; I was staring into the overgrown tangle I had fantasized for my Dream Husband and I wanted to possess him. I mean I wanted to possess his hair. I wanted my daughters to lure Ramona with those Susan Boing-Boing corkscrews, I wanted my sons’ dark haloes to pull partners into their vortex, I wanted to naturally-select for my children the trait I had wanted most, the one I couldn’t affect for myself.
I married him for those spirals; I mean I married him for the way it felt to have my fingers caught up in that coiled mop, how it felt to grab a fistful down to the scalp and pull his head closer to me. I could not get hair curly enough. I mean I could not get close enough. I wanted to climb inside those helical twists and funnel myself straight down into his mind, the mazed mind, the place I wanted to be trapped — beneath the skullbone, that ossuary where my envy could be buried.
I’ve always loved his ears — small, smooth, set close against his head. I married a large man — a 6’2”, big-boned, bear hug of a man. But his ears are, dare I say, petite? Delicate.
Smallness feels familiar. My own frame so slight I’d shove it into gym lockers to strip down after group swim. See, I can disappear if you’d like me to. A lifetime of Can you reach that for me, please? — my short stature a reminder of my need for another. An other.
My ear, the left one, is all that still sings of my rebellion.
It was a few months after I ended it with the man — the lithe wisp of a man, all elbows and sharp angles, the man who was forbidden by faith and family, and so the man I’d always miss, when a friend suggested a trip downtown to get piercings. I smirked at the memory of my parents’ disapproval of the eyebrow ring I threatened during high school. Now I was bitter and heartbroken and the prospect of punctured flesh seemed fitting.
I sat still in the high white plastic chair surrounded by chintzy hair accessories and fake tattoos in the far corner of the mall. As the gun tore through my cartilage, I winced, hoping somehow the sting would replace the pain of lost love. But of course, all I was left with was a hole.
Maybe absence is its own end.
I was the only girl without pierced ears; even Tyler and Jeremiah had one hole punched in their left ears — or was it right? That mattered, then, since a solo piercing was supposed to indicate sexual preference; as if we were signaling to each other at eight and nine, as if we could have read each other’s code — and Megan even had one double-pierced ear, which offended me because I didn’t even have singles and when I finally peer-pressured my mom, I got tiny gold hearts rammed through my earlobes, the shape so subtle I had to tell all my friends they weren’t gold balls, they were hearts, and of course they were just singles; my mom had once double-pierced her ears and let the second tier grow closed — she thought the two-set looked too uncouth for a married mom of three but she wouldn’t let me get two piercings either — so I waited until the day after my 18th birthday and I made the girl at the accessories store alternate and shoot me once, twice, a third time so I could sport three holes in one ear and two in the other, an imbalance I never corrected even after I became a married mom of three, and I never found out which side meant you were edgy, which side meant you were into your own gender; I just wanted visual evidence that I had finally pushed myself past the threshold of belonging.
The first thing I noticed about my third son at birth was his pug nose — a goyishe nose, my grandmother would say. So foreign and unfamiliar, not like mine or my husband’s or his two older brothers’ or the hook noses, the bulbous or angular or imposing noses of my people — Jewish noses. My own nose is at once the part of my face I like least and the one that most reminds me who I am.
The man I loved and left had one of those exotic noses — small, slightly upturned — and when we were together, I felt I knew him once I learned his tic of brushing it upwards with the palm of his hand, letting out a little sniffle, when he was nervous. Any time I see that musician who looks a little like him or smell snow in the winter or mulch at the start of spring, I think of how I’ll endlessly long for something different, not mine.
I stare at my son’s small, sweet nose with wonder, a question: I’m not sure I understand where you came from. But then, I suppose I could say the same for myself.
I had a classic nose. Not a ski slope like my sister, not a broad-bridged Laplander like my brother — it was a classic nose, straight as an arrow, and my father used to call it a “Roman nose.” I liked the idea that I was as venerable as a goddess. I had stick-straight brown hair, sticks for arms, sticks for legs, a classic knock-kneed coltish kid, and that’s exactly how I drew myself — a stick figure girl with one crucial characteristic: a bridge of freckles across my nose. Because even though I lived in the land of nine-month-clouds, I had freckles. I said I was a classic kid. My freckles were a constellation, a cluster of brown stars, every epithet a children’s book heroine had applied to her — brave and bold and mischievous and eternally sunny.
When we invented names at day camp, I leather-stamped my tag with “Spotti,” markered a rainbow cluster arcing over both my name and the cheetah I’d drawn, my favorite animal because it had freckles all over; it was fast like me, lean like me. I sprinkled freckles like pepperoni over Indiana Pizza, my derivative eight-year-old-archaeologist who solved the mystery of Stonehenge; dotted freckles like birthmarks on Christopher, the papier-mâché dinosaur my ten-friends-for-my-tenth-birthday battered till it burst.
I didn’t know none of that would last, that my nostrils would lengthen and widen until I looked like my French-Canadian grandmother. I didn’t know a nose grew. I didn’t know the sun would bleach my freckles off; I thought the years would give me more.
I was a popular child, befriended and honest and beloved. When did they leave me? When did that girl leave me? I can watch myself diminish in my school photos, my wide grin becoming a thin-lipped line, my eyes guarded, that classic climax when someone tells a girl that chapter-book-triumphs are contrived. You can watch the freckles evaporate off my nose, the confetti of childhood swept up.
It was a silly childhood game we used to play: if you had to be without the sense of sight or sound, which would you give up? Our noses would scrunch and our brows would crease as we’d contemplate a life without color or song, weigh the way a radio channel could carry us to another place or the look of black printed words on the pages of our favorite books or how it felt to see the slant of a crush’s hair on his forehead from across the classroom. We’d consider the question like our lives depended upon it, like the loss could be real.
My eyes — wide and round and seaglass green — were my trademark, the first thing someone noticed about me. Sometimes they were all I had.
Like with him, when words fell short. What was there to say? We wrote letters and lists, trying to prove something, that this was love, that it would last even after we left. Never one for subtlety or suggestion, I always wanted it spelled out: Tell me you love me, want me. Tell me how you feel, I need to hear the words for it to be real.
But after some time, when we’d said everything, all we had left was a look. I’ve written it before, tried to describe it, let me try again: the corners of his lake-blue eyes would turn down, his mouth set in a sad smile, and there was a longing like I’ve never seen before or again. As if the ache of all we wanted but couldn’t have could be captured in a single stare.
I can’t remember what he tasted like, how he kissed, his smell. What it felt like when he touched me. But sometimes a shared look is the strongest sense you can have of someone else.
To blink into a mascara wand, to close one eye, tracing the line over twenty years back to the boys who lumbered through my Hoosier-farmland high school, back to the dissatisfaction of never seeing what I wanted. Everything stagnated, everything happened too late. I was in college before I developed the unhealthy celebrity crushes most girls had already grown beyond; I stared after the famous long-limbed boy-men with eyeliner and black nail polish and femme affectations with violent fascination. What can I say? My teen years cusped the internet; I was barely allowed to watch music videos. Men stalked the horizon, but I didn’t know to lift my eyes from the sidewalk. So yes, Brian Molko’s shimmering green eyeshadow and Michael Stipe’s fluid hips and Scott Weiland’s smeared black liner were revelations, eyes piercing into fantasies of action.
When my out-of-town high school boyfriend lined his eyes before the Valentine’s Day Dance, how could I not fall apart as he awakened proclivities I hadn’t known I possessed? He was the only actuation of interest in me; he defined attraction by pioneering it. If my teenage boyfriend had worn khakis, I would be trailing behind men in Dockers today, and perhaps that would appear more acceptable — a thirty-something mom smitten with dad-rock dads. But he wore black eyeliner and painted his ring-fingernail black and I liquefied; when he didn’t notice my pupils dilated with desire, I sublimated, collecting images of gender-fluid men I taped to the wall beside my dorm-room bed, believing their dark eyes were burdened by hunger for the right partner, the one who wanted the acts they threatened to commit.
When my college boyfriend lined his eyes for my Halloween party, how could I not lead him into my bedroom, lock the door, pull things down? By then I had learned.
There’s a photograph from our final week together. We’re sitting on the bed — me in his arms, wearing a faded blue sweatshirt that once was my mother’s, torn at the cuff. He, in a yellow windbreaker. He’d leaned in for a kiss as the shutter snapped, but I got shy and put up my hand to shield our touching lips from the camera. That photo captures how he held my face in his palms, our pinked cheeks, close as can be, but it also holds my reluctance to document our forbidden love for all time, to permanently preserve what we were, what we’d never be. What was really exposed? This truth: between desire and fear, fear wins.
In the years since, I’ve stared at the photo so long trying to see the shape our lips made when they came together. I hate that I can’t remember what it feels like to kiss him — almost missing the memory of it more than anything.
I remember the fear I felt after my first kiss — that gnashing unpleasantness behind bunk 20. How I longed for something to wash its sour taste from my adolescent mouth. I stood behind a bush with the tall, freckled boy who came next, filling the summer camp night with idle talk — anything so his lips wouldn’t meet mine.
Now I have this fantasy of being alone in a room, far from home, with the man I cannot have. We would touch foreheads and say, Ok, we need rules. Ok, anything but kissing. Anything but that.
Maybe I want to want more than I want to have.
He had ceramic fangs and he’d bought them at Lix, the alternative Goth store downtown, the store where I’d tried on a see-through shirt with SLUT printed all over it but refused to come out of the dressing stall. He had ceramic fangs but he didn’t need them — his canines were naturally pointed, and with his close-cropped curly dark hair and his unnaturally pale blue eyes and his black velvet tee and his black corduroys, he was the vampire of my dreams — not nightmares, because I welcomed the fear, I wanted it, I was uncomfortably drawn towards what his facade warned: a fierce, feral creature, a boy out of control, teeth bared in frenetic teenage lust.
The night we’d first kissed he nearly ate me alive, tonguing deep in my mouth from the instant our bodies collided, my jaw unhinged like a snake it was open so wide, our teeth clacking and somehow he was biting my lip and it hurt but I remembered the Seventeen article about the first time you kissed a boy and how, if it didn’t feel good, you were supposed to tell him how you usually like to be kissed but I’d never been kissed and he was looking down at me with his teeth buried in my upper lip, eyes glowing, and I ran my fingers up and into his hair, cupping the back of his skull, pushing my mouth back at him because it was what I wanted, ripped wounds and ruin.
But he never followed through on the dark, sexual subculture he’d implied. He was a straight-A son dutifully bowing before his karate sensei every Monday and Wednesday night, restoring a ‘68 Volkswagen Bug with his dad on the weekends, and as I waited for him to pull me into a dark corner again, I missed the moon waxing, the brightening signaling the end of a phase. We never did make out while he wore his ceramic fangs because he worried the glue might not hold and he might accidentally swallow one. But I would have let that tooth embed in my organs, a broken proof, something immortal.
As a small girl, and still now, I hated the beauty marks on my skin. Tiny brown dots that interrupt an otherwise smooth surface. Little proofs of imperfection.
There was one in particular I couldn’t stand. A circle slightly larger than the rest approximately two inches up from the wrist on my right arm. I’d sit in class and stare at it, disgusted. So I started to scratch — so harsh, so hard, I scraped it clear off and it hasn’t come back. My own little surgery, an excision: I didn’t ask for this. I will shed this mark with which I was born.
As a teen on the bar mitzvah circuit, I’d sit on the sidelines, not one to dance, waiting for the slow songs. Then waiting for someone to ask me to join them on the floor. Some shy boy would, and we’d walk out, not touching, until I placed my palms to his shoulders, his resting gently on my waist. We’d sway side to side like that to “Lady in Red” or “You Look Wonderful Tonight,” arms outstretched, a full foot between us. Like we were afraid to pull each other close, press our chests one to the other, feel anything more than an arm’s length attraction.
I lusted after the cool confidence of the girls with perfect perms and gyrating hips, the ones who grinded against the boys that came close, the ones who felt the music in a way I could not. How foolish to think I could be anything other than born to the skin I am in.
Now, so many years later, my upper arms are where I carry excess weight. Tank tops are anathema; above the elbow is where things go to stay — a physical manifestation of all the things I hold onto, whether I want to or not. But the beauty mark has not returned.
Men with guitars, pumping their arms over their peens, finger-fucking the strings, heads bent down concentrating on the reverberation, what they could draw forth. I would sit at their feet, watching the tension they would build and release, confident and consumed. I was attracted to a bicep only when it was hard evidence of the hours a man had spent with a guitar, practicing with singular interest. I wanted slim-shouldered men with Kurt-Cobain-chests, bare and boyish and bookended by arms that only flexed when they strummed, power that disappeared when they stopped.
I didn’t care about the way men grimaced and gesticulated while playing their guitars like they were forecasting their masturbatory skill; I thought it was childish. Why would I need to know that? I didn’t want a man fondling a guitar to masturbate on me, in me. I was attracted to his complete absorption.
I fell for men with guitars because they barely acknowledged my existence, men so intent and so engrossed they did not see me. I recognized their mono-focus, their refusal to admit interruption. I wanted them self-absorbed 95% of the time; I wanted that 5% of attention. I wanted men like Lindsey Buckingham, men lost in their own world when they held a guitar, men who seemed angry when the concentration was broken, men to whom my presence caused a distraction. I thought about the MTV Unplugged performance of “Silver Springs,” how Stevie Nicks let Lindsey slide into a solo during her song, how Stevie locked eyes on him during the crescendo and Lindsey finally stared back, he knew he had it coming.
Every woman loves a man with a guitar. Every woman is quietly hoping come on, boy, sing about me.
When they start bleeding, I know I need to stop.
Sweet Jeff used to catch my eye across the high school English classroom to remind me not to bite the skin on my fingers. Not the nails, no, the skin — raw, pink. Tooth to flesh. The habit began as a way to preserve the nails, keep them intact, keep up appearances, yet still settle my nerves by secretly nibbling away at the soft spots of my fingerprints, my palms.
I was always a nervous child, a deep feeler, a poor sleeper, worried about house fires and drug dealers and kidnappers. What happens when you cross the street without looking, whether my parents would come home from a night out. I’d clutch my security blanket, turning it over in my fingers to find the cold spots, whisper words of prayer into the pitch. Maybe that’s why I’d rush headlong into relationships that weren’t right, seek to fill the space, to have everything — marriage, children, career, home — settled and squared away. Life is short; let me get on with it before it’s too late.
I don’t remember when I first said “I love you.” Back in New Jersey, there was a boy — boy because he was twelve, and so was I, but still we went to the movies alone. He had shaggy hair and soulful brown eyes and when we sat next to each other in the theater, my legs hummed and I had to take my hand from his and tuck my sweaty palms under my thighs to keep from wringing them endlessly. I was precocious and thought that restlessness was love and maybe it was.
Decades later, I’d sit on a bench outside a bar with a man who would leave me the next day. He took my hand, threaded his fingers through mine, and held me like that for a while. Soon we were squeezing each other’s hands so hard, they pulsed back and forth, back and forth on the seat in the small space between us. As if they had their own heartbeat, their own life. As if we could hold on so tight, we’d never have to let go.
I’ve always wished I were someone who didn’t work out her worries with teeth, with skin, ripping fingers raw till they bleed. But long as I live, by which I mean long as I long, I will need some way to release.
I haven’t figured out how to be the kind of girl who lets something go.
I was on my knees in a bathroom, crying about how I ate a chicken carcass, and then I was on the bed in my friend N’s bedroom, my two friends L and M on the floor with N, not drunk yet, or at least not drunk enough. Ben and I were passed out on the bed, or we weren’t. He was. They told me to pass out, and so I tried. N’s bedroom was a safe space to push tolerance, the tolerance I was testing at eighteen, and Ben was twenty-one and buying the bottle of whiskey we shared, all five of us, four of us linked up with boyfriends or girlfriends; we were all friends, it was nothing like that. Four of us linked up. One of us pretending to cry on the bathroom floor about eating a chicken carcass but really crying so she would be consoled.
I tried to look like I was passed out as I rolled onto my side, reaching over for Ben’s pinky finger, tugging his limber arm and tucking his finger close to me like a stuffed animal. I could hear them whispering on the floor and laughing at how drunk I was. But I wasn’t that drunk. It was the only way I could touch him, my friend L’s half-boyfriend. It was the only way I could touch Ben, the boy who bear-hugged me the last time I’d gotten drunk and had whispered “You’re so small I’m afraid I’ll break you” right there, right in front of my friend N and my friend M and Ben’s half-girlfriend L. I was so young and so hungry to understand how a boy fell in love with a girl that I read tentative interest into every time Ben looked over at me while we were all clustered together on the couches watching a movie, every time he jokingly scooped me up and held me in his arms like a baby, haha so funny, showing off his strength. Ben and L wouldn’t define themselves and so he was only half-hers, and I was willing to grasp at the other half.
It was everyone’s favorite joke for the next three years. The next ten years. How drunk Sad Girl was, no one knew why she’d fallen asleep cuddled up with Ben’s finger. I acted so confused in the morning when they reconstructed the night, all five of us safely stuffed in a booth at Village Inn. I acted so confused long past their half-breakup, their official back-together, their official-breakup. N wrote Ben and me into his student film and made our characters kiss, two years too late. I had to kiss Ben while my character was drunk, swinging at an elementary school playground; I had to lean over and kiss him and then I had to pretend to pass out. Ben picked me up and carried me out of the scene and I remembered everything, remembered holding onto his little finger like a little girl who wanted to fit into anyone’s arms.
At ten or eleven, I was one of the first to grow breasts. They were sizable and sprouted overnight, it seemed, straight out of my throat. I wore turtlenecks even in summer to hide the cleavage. My nipples were so prominent, no bra at the local department store my mother dragged me to could conceal them.
Around that time, my first period came fast and furious through white pants off stage left during Mary Poppins play rehearsal.
The girls were jealous and cruel: “But you’re the smallest girl in the grade! I thought for sure I’d be first,” one “friend” confided as I clutched the landline phone on the gold carpet of my parents’ bedroom. “Tell your mom to slap you,” another advised. “It’s good luck.”
The boys were aroused. It was always their attention I sought anyway. Or maybe this was why.
On the last night of the summer I turned fourteen, my camp boyfriend raised my olive green shirt on the porch of bunk nine, even lifted my bra, and felt them: palm to breast, night air to nipple. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, my mouth, my breath, suddenly so loud. Should we be kissing at the same time? Or only do this? Was this enough? It was finally happening and I couldn’t get out of my head. All through the next day and the months after that, back home, at school, the summer nights faded to fall, mere memory, it was only the idea I carried with me — a boy had touched my bare breasts. Mine. I’d doodle his name on my trapper keeper, dial his long-distance number after dark. I had to remind myself that it happened. This thing I’d always wanted. As if it never really happened at all.
Never enough, never enough; I’ve spent years cataloging the insecurities of an adolescence with small girlbreasts, waiting for the change. All the small, trite details — the bras I didn’t have from Victoria’s Secret, the white cotton sports bras from Walmart I never grew out of, the certainty that because I had no curves, no boy ever grabbed me, no boy ever wanted me.
But boys didn’t taunt me for having small breasts; I was invisible to them. It was the girls, the girls who wrote “pita-bread” beside my picture in the yearbook, the girls whose cross-country nicknames on the backs of their team shirts were Watermelons, Apples, but never Grapes, the girls who would complain about getting their straps snapped and look at me appraisingly, “You don’t need to worry about that; you don’t even really need a bra,” the girls with maturing bodies, the girls I wanted so desperately to join.
I was the most patient girl you’d ever seen. I read all the magazines, I knew all the signs to watch for, I waited my turn. I took on all the affectations of womanhood: shaving the darkening fuzz on my legs, rubbing a stick of deodorant to plug the sweat glands under my arms, hair frizzing from stick-straight to wavy. I knew the hormones were doing their work. I was waiting for the big bang, the period, the indicator that my breasts would change.
It came, but they did not.
I’d waited for fourteen years, the only divot between my breasts the break in my ribcage I called the “hunger spot,” that sunken pocket making the little muscle-tissue on either side appear larger by comparison. Five years after my period, I grew another inch taller. How couldn’t I have thought my body was still fluxing, not done yet?
The birth control hormones didn’t swell me much, and I stopped them so I could get pregnant. I was obsessed with my pregnant breasts, I was obsessed with my nursing breasts. I couldn’t stop squeezing them together, I couldn’t get over the cleavage I could create. I couldn’t believe it was temporary.
There were women whose breasts egg-drop-souped when their bodies returned to them, used, and women who side-eyed me at playgroups when I didn’t need a bra any more in the years after I’d finished nursing my children. But the woman had retreated into a girl, a little girl with little girlbreasts, the plumped-up tissue sucking itself back into my body like a vacuum, leaving no trace I had ever been changed.
Swipe a fingernail across the soft flesh of my middle — mock how they sliced me open four times to take babies out — go on, it’s all numb there. Every nerve ending shot. I can’t feel a thing.
Hands once clutched either side of my taut teenage waist — a holding pattern, a waypoint before moving up toward breasts or down toward everything else. I welcomed the suggestion of it. The before. The promise and possibility. Before anything ended.
Now my five-year-old son, my third, is all heft, all muscle, and he barrels towards me at full speed. Instinctively, I throw my arms across my waist, a little lower, to protect the tender uterus, the womb that housed them and is forever sore, sensitive to their unapologetic attacks from the outside. They stole the feeling from where it was and moved it somewhere new. A displacement, a shift. Here is what you once were; you’re not that girl anymore.
With one teenage boyfriend, we used to say we felt our love for each other in our stomachs — not our hearts or heads, but deep in our middle, our gut. It was the best way we could describe the overwhelming desire to run across dew-dampened grass and press our bodies against the paper-thin wood-paneled walls of summer camp cabins, our mouths meeting, hands everywhere. I love you with all my stomach.
But my stomach has been severed time and again, and after four births, my memory is fading more steadily too. Perhaps that is the salient sensation left as a life moves along: a slowly creeping numbness.
Tunneling through my navel, burrowing beneath the skin and following the muscles all the way down to find the rift, the split, the never-healed, the divide.
The only time I’ve ever seen my body change was during pregnancy, watching my abdomen inflate like a bellows. My body gave me what I wanted — three daughters, three daughters in a row, three girls I prayed for — and it gave me a diastasis. And it gave me split muscles.
What was left once the babies slipped out was an emptiness that never filled, a permanent pulling-apart, leaving a puff of a stomach, a rounding over, a swelling that will not go away. They say that once you’ve given birth you will never be the same again, but I did not believe I would never be the same. My body had always been the same.
As a girlteen, I had lamented my breasts, prided myself on my wrists, hated my hair and loved my freckles; I never thought about my stomach. I know that seems impossible, but it just was, like an ankle, like a tongue. When I outgrew clothing, it was because I’d gotten taller.
It is the only part of my body I think about now. The only part I cannot comprehend and cannot explain, my body’s weight the same as I was before I gave birth, but my stomach will not return.
My stomach was flat, my stomach was flat, my stomach was flat, and now it is not. I have three daughters, and my stomach is not flat. It is a trade I didn’t know I was making. Before, I crossed Clinton Street in a cropped tank and low-slung shorts on my hips and a car full of rowdy college boys hollered at me and I crossed my arms in front of my bare midriff; the attention was what I wanted but I didn’t know how to act once I’d gotten it. My stomach was flat. I didn’t work for it. I didn’t know to want it.
I’d only ever learned how to fill my stomach, to try to fatten my stomach, the Twinkies and the grab-a-handful-of-crackers when passing through the kitchen and the Poptarts for breakfast and the you-need-to-gain-some-weight warning bell chiming through my youth, my adolescence, all the way through my pregnancy. My flat stomach would not increase; but after my daughters it would not decrease and I’d never learned how to control that.
My mom-friends work out, they sit-up and they monitor their sugar-and-fat and I cannot bring myself to begin to limit like that; I don’t need to lose weight. I don’t need to lose anything. There is a hollow in my body, a gap that will not close, and instead of crunching it together, I delay, I think of a line from a song: I don’t want to work at it, it should come naturally; it shouldn’t be so difficult, should be more like honey to the bee. I don’t have the stomach to train my body to listen.
I was the last girl to start shaving my legs. The summer we were twelve, my bunkmates would gather in bathing suits with buckets of soapy water, razors, and towels on the porch. Shaving parties. I’d drape my arms over the wooden railing, looking out on the lake with my back to them, eavesdropping as they talked about blowjob techniques and which boys were cute. They mocked me relentlessly, and it stung something fierce, but I couldn’t understand the rush to grow up. I clung to my childhood like so many fine hairs on a skinny tanned calf — like something I wasn’t ready to shed.
Even when I did start shaving, I didn’t go above the knee. I couldn’t grasp the need for a smooth thigh, couldn’t imagine anyone going there.
Until I could. A bunch of us camp friends were crashing together at one of our parents’ houses over Thanksgiving break. In a child’s room, A. — an old friend with whom I always enjoyed a harmless flirtation — took the bed, while I lay on a heap of blankets on the floor. Neither of us slept. After a couple hours of the kind of conversation you can only have in the middle of the night, he joined me on the ground. My cheek to his chest, his hand in my hair, he told me things he would do and things he wouldn’t. His fingers had just started to trail my inner thigh when my ride came at 4 a.m. to take me home for the holiday.
Almost twenty years later, a friend asked me why I shave my legs — why I give in to some societally constructed standard of beauty. I instinctively answered that I do it for myself, that I like the feel of smooth legs, standards be damned. But in the quiet that followed my knee-jerk response, I realized: I’d do it anyway. If it’s expected, if it’s considered beautiful, I’d do it. Above all — convenience, time, ease, principles — above all else, I’ve grown to know I’d give up anything to be wanted.
I was infatuated with hip bones. Not the hips themselves, not what lay at the bottom of the valley, but the bones, the hip bone sticking out, the way it felt to grip it on my own body, on a boy’s body, my fingers dug beneath, the skeletal under my control.
With a boy I would sit and suck at the hip bone, refusing the push to go lower. I wanted to stay there, at the mouth of the cave, nothing discovered yet, nothing uncovered yet, keeping the mystery intact.
The bone, the hip bone, the suggestion of sex without the obviousness or the crassness of the peen, that boner. I watched endless replays of music videos with swivel-hipped men, and no slow undulations moved me like the quick twitch, the metric flick from one side to the next. It wasn’t the suggestion of how I would be fucked that made me stare, it was the knowledge that promise was foreplay; the last bones touched before sex-bones were the hip bones. Those were the ones I would clutch.
On my Myspace profile, under Interests I put “hipbones and maps of the old West.” On the Secret Santa questionnaire at work, under Interests I put “hipbones and maps of the old West.” I was twenty-two. Was anyone ever so young? Was anyone ever so fixated?
I couldn’t stop writing about hip bones. They showed up in everything I did. The earliest thing I wrote about my husband was a jealousy poem about how I was not the first to grip his hip; how I wanted to be the only one to know about the mole on his left hip. How I would never know if I was. Now I am the only one who knows it has been removed, but here I am telling you, ruining the secret.
Leave me perched on the hip bone, the peak of potential, where I didn’t know I couldn’t stay.
I never wanted a tattoo until I did. Until it became all I could think about. Until I thought it might bring me closer to you. Better yet: closer to some unrealized version of myself.
I know where I’d get it. On the arch of my right foot. In small script letters: “saudade.” A Portuguese word for the love that remains after letting something go. A permanent mark to mark the permanence of everyone and everywhere I’ve loved and left and love, still.
My mother would kill me. “Start with your right foot,” she’d always say. There’s a superstition that at any beginning — a new house, job, school — you should lead with your right foot, a good omen. I’d always forget.
Now I’d have a sign you could see — a way to step forward while dragging old love, old life along. A way to bring it all — the blue-eyed pilot and the split-level house on the shore and the campfire ash and the boy on the porch in the middle of a Mediterranean night who said, You’re a good person, Dina, before he kissed me (or maybe it was after) — with me as I go, right foot first, into what follows.
But here is the thing, the thing I know you know. I want to get it, I do. I want to imprint all I’ve loved, lost, left — for life. Take it all with me. But I don’t know if I can.
My teenage bedroom was a morass of the flotsam and jetsam I had gathered in my arms and threw into my next life, a living fence surrounding the perimeter of my room with all the totems I kept visible and unboxed. I wanted the proof they hadn’t disappeared. I wanted the proof I had been somebody before I had left that girl behind to grow into the next.
I traced my foot on a sponge and dipped the sponge in paint, tracing rainbow paths along my bedroom walls. My sponge-feet double-backed on themselves, they paused and redirected, they curlicued and bore straight ahead. I hugged myself into my room by wrapping my trails around me, my history of yearning for movements I could control.
I dreamed my husband before I met him; I dreamed every physical detail and I documented them in a wish-list in my teenage journal so when he finally strode through my doorway and stooped, taking my foot into his hands, it was less Cinderella-shoe than Pygmalion and Galatea. I dreamed a future and he brought it to life.
I loved that he held my foot, the place where, over the years, he would touch me with a roughness I never knew I’d craved. I asked him to stretch the ligaments, bend the tendons, make me leave a bigger imprint. The feeling of being pulled, of being held, of the part of me least-touched being touched; to love my foot is to love the landscapes I have trodden, the girls I was.
I loved my feet on the backs of his thighs, I loved his feet pushing away mine, opening them up. I loved the sinuous curve of a footprint — stare at one — I loved the absence beneath the arch, the hidden part; the deepest part cannot be seen.
When we are bookended on the same couch, toes tucked into the pockets under the other’s thighs, I think, Show me you are real. Bend your curly head over my feet and open your mouth. Lick the instep, lick away a layer of who I was; love who I am.
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