All I thought about the summer after fifth grade was catching minnows with my neighbor in the muddy lake by my house. I wasn’t thinking about how to lose my belly fat in two weeks or how to best cover up blemishes. How to hold my shoulders back at a party or apply lipstick without getting any on my teeth. I didn’t know there was a proper way to enter a bar so that every head would turn and stop to hold a second of me. These are things I have learned.
I was eleven that summer when the sun stayed up with us until eight, coloring clouds like pools of florescent soft serve. My sinewy limbs let me run back and forth, quick, between water’s edge and our spot on the hill. My arms, legs and torso were utilitarian, sunbaked, and brown. We netted and named twenty minnows one night, the blonde down hair on my legs collecting dry, caked mud. I was late for dinner for the first time. When I barged in on my family quietly forking at the dinner table, my older sister said I looked like a bear. I didn’t care. I had caught and named twenty swimming, baby fish before sunset. This is what my body let me do.
At twenty- four, I tutor Jade, a fourteen-year-old who does Pilates every Saturday with a private trainer, who wears Manolo Blahnik heels for her Confirmation in the photo her mother texts me. Her mother, Vera, enters a security code, opening the door for me on a Wednesday at four.
“Don’t you look pretty!” she says.
“Thank you,” I say, walking towards our tutoring table. I set my bag down next to the neat pile of college-ruled paper and the row of sharpened pencils.
“You should curl your hair like that every day.” Vera’s eyes are wide and eager.
“It just takes so long.” I adjust and re-adjust the row of pencils waiting for Jade.
Vera vigorously nods her grinning face.
I tuck a curl behind my right ear, considering adding thirty minutes to my morning routine.
I coast down the interstate on a Monday when I hear a fifty year old woman on NPR discuss how her sexual desires have dwindled to nothing.
“I don’t know why I feel this way,” she says.
I turn up the volume knob with one hand on the steering wheel. I listen to the NPR host explain Sprout Pharmaceuticals, how past drugs for female libido have focused on increasing blood flow to the genitals, but how this one focuses on the brain.
Cindy Whitehead, Sprout’s CEO, explains that it’s about restoring balance.
The FDA has rejected the drug twice, citing that there wasn’t much evidence it works.
Whitehead argues that there is evidence, that it’s increased sexual desires in women by fifty-three percent, and that the FDA is holding the drug to a higher standard than the same kinds of drugs made for men.
I turn the volume louder as cars rush past me.
Terry O’Neill explains that we live in a culture that has discounted the importance of sexual pleasure and desire for women, that she fears this cultural attitude where men’s sexual health is extremely important but women’s sexual health is not.
I pick at my fingernails and crack my neck. My heart rate rises. I imagine the FDA sitting at a conference table debating the female body and what works. I think of how I’m only twenty-four. I think there must be something wrong with me. And of Pam Houston’s essay in which someone asks her: Is there some good reason you’ve convinced the rest of your body that your hips and stomach and pelvis don’t even exist?
In the fall of seventh grade I decided to “go punk.” This meant cutting my jeans with Billie and writing lyrics in permanent marker over almost every inch of them. This meant buying black Converse sneakers from the Journeys at the mall and rolling them in the dirt until the whites were less noticeably new. This meant obsessing over Jesse Lacey and Conor Oberst, men older than me who used a straightener to flat iron their black bangs. Or Chris Carraba with his brooding brows and gelled faux hawk. This meant going to Warped Tour and asking a tall dude with one-inch gauges to lift me up over the crowd and pass me forward so I could surf to the stage. This also meant trying to be okay when I heard the grown men yell “flip her over!” as they passed me up, groping the front of me.
My body feels like it’s against me most of the time. Whether in the neck or the shoulders, the stomach, or the brain. My fingers dig into muscles, looking to relieve the buried bulbs of pain, the knots that have rolled themselves into existence. I think this digging just makes it worse, but I do it anyway. My temples pound with the weight of bricks. Migraines fog my nights. My boyfriend offers me a massage. But after, when he pulls softly at my hips, I turn.
“I just need sleep. Maybe that will help my head.” I roll over on my side, hugging my legs together in a self-preserving ball.
I wait on Jade’s doorstep on a Tuesday. Their front yard fountain splashes water into itself. I wear Nike sneakers, exercise pants, and a Ghandi T-shirt. My hair is rolled in a bun and I haven’t got a lick of makeup on. Vera’s frame approaches, her arm reaching right to enter the security code before she opens the glass patterned door.
“Come on in.” she says. “Would you like some coffee? An espresso from the club?” She squints at me, her nose slightly wrinkling. She looks as if she’s examining my freckles. “You look tired.”
“I’m fine. Just school and work.”
I’m not tired. This is how I look without makeup. This is my skin; translucent with blue veins beneath my eyes, with uneven, red tones swimming across my cheeks. These are my eyes; plain like the days when I played kickball on my street, the eyelids that were oiled when Anthony picked Dare and kissed me on the trampoline. These are my lips; flat and cracking from my teeth that bite them, that peel layers off when I’m nervous.
Next time I will wear something different.
Dr. Mulloy sits across from me in a lowly lit office, her reddish brown hair sitting in a blunt cut on her collar bones. I’m here because my boyfriend and I have been fighting, because of a distance that I’ve created. She lets me choose what we talk about, so I pull out the list of possible topics I’ve jotted down:
-Student who is giving me trouble in class
-Stress while trying to find a doctor
-My parents’ divorce
I go with the doctor issues; this is a safe place to start. I tell Doctor Mulloy about the frequent UTIs, how they often come after sex, how, as a consequence, they make me avoid engaging.
“Are there other reasons you don’t want to engage in sex?” she asks.
I’m quiet. My eyes shift to the corners, to the tissues next to me on my left. To the spot past her right shoulder, where her pens are sitting in a cup on her desk.
“Have you ever brought yourself to orgasm?” she asks.
I look out the window into the graying parking lot, noticing the yellow that paints the air like some mustard-gassed war storm. “I’ve never had a physical relationship with my body,” I say.
Dr. Mulloy nods. “Growing up, it’s not discussed but then you’re expected to one day have this sexual understanding of your body.”
The session is an hour long. She asks me questions, trying to steer the conversation to a place of insight that only I can find. I take notes in a lavender notebook.
She tells me to be mindful of my body, to balance the positive thoughts with the negative thoughts. I realize I spend a lot of time listing my ailments like I’m proud of the migraines, the knots in my shoulders, the ulcers in my stomach, the lesion in my brain. It’s as if I’m happy to offer up my symptoms, hoping they’ll excuse me from having to deal with the thoughts that caused them, these manifestations I’ve created out of ignoring the case that holds me. She tells me to be aware of gratitude, to say thank you to the body for letting me write words and think thoughts and walk across campus, to teach others. She tells me to think of what my body lets me do. To start small; it’s not about going zero to sixty. It’s about recognizing what feels good. Do you like to wrap yourself up in a soft blanket? Do you like hot cups of tea with honey and lemon? Yes. Yes, I do. Does it feel good when your hands rest on your skin?
“A lot of this makes sense,” I say. “I get the balancing thing. I should be more positive when I’m looking—”
“No, not looking. This is not visual. This is physical.”
I stopped kissing my family when I was thirteen. My mother hugged me while I let my limp arms hang by my side. I turned my cheek, wiping any wetness after anyone planted their lips on me. I think this is when I stopped living in my body.
Every Sunday was Switch Day where my sister and I packed our clothes and toiletries back into our suitcases that grew larger every year with additional pairs of shoes and bags of makeup. On Switch Day, we’d migrate back to Mom’s or Dads like pre-pubescent Sherpas. I never put any of my things away. My items lived in the suitcase that I pulled from as needed. This was fine. This was not a big deal. Packing was easy.
I lived with my friends. In their cell phone texts, in their IMS, in their pink bedrooms with white teddy bears, with doors closed. I couldn’t be without them, or someone else to make me feel less alone. Then I lived with boyfriends. And as a girl with a pretty face and a full body that came before many other girls’, it wasn’t hard to find guys who wanted to spend time with me. Who wanted to fill the hole where family was uprooted. Who looked at my body and said Yes. Who said No, I will not leave you. I saw it as a simple exchange. Make me forget what it’s like to grow up shuffled between parents who only politely say hello from the doorframe. Make me forget when I was six, when Mom and Dad let me choose Ho Ho’s Chinese for dinner, when we sat around the table listening to James Brown. Make me forget that once, we were a family unit, that now we are fragmented in separate cells. Then, you can have me.
By fifteen, my body was not for me. Yes, utilitarian, but for ulterior motives.
When Vera opens the door, her back and shoulders are poised. Her shirts are white, her hair subtly highlighted and makeup on full. She wears a red lip while asking what she can grab for me to drink. She wears a William Sonoma apron as she pulls a roasted chicken from the oven. She asks questions about school: What are you getting your degree in? Will you be able to be a professor after that? The next time I tutor, she asks me the same questions about school because she’s forgotten or she didn’t care to remember.
What she does remember is how my boyfriend gave me a diamond from Tiffany’s. How elegant I look when I show up in new glass frames, clear ones that show more of my eyes.
“Did you do something different?” She gestures a circle around her nose. I think she’s trying to ask me if I’ve had work done.
I tell her three times: “I got new glasses.”
In eighth grade, Billie and I danced and scream-sang in her bedroom. We blasted Vindicated and yelled the emo lyrics across the room with appropriately dramatic hand gestures and jumps. Billie didn’t care who saw her forcefully thrusting her hips or whipping her hair. I let go to some extent but was still concerned with how strained my neck might look or what her sister’s friends would think if they saw me bouncing like a maniac.
I liked Chris Carraba because he sang about how stupid it was that guys asked other guys if they scored or not.
“He’s so different,” I said to Billie as we scrolled through photos of him on the Internet, eyes transfixed on his brooding brows and sculpted hair.
On a Thursday, Jade opens the door in a green romper that barely covers her butt. She has legs for days and dark brown hair parted in the middle. Her freshly manicured nails are pointed and nude. She doesn’t do neon or any color I thought kids were into.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she says before turning her lightly tanned back. She carries her frame and her hands like they’re breakables.
“I wasn’t out here too long,” I say, clicking forward on the marble tiled floors in tan heels. Today I don black ironed dress pants and a crisp, blue blouse.
“I love your outfit,” Jade says without looking at me. She struts forward into the kitchen, flipping her long straight hair past her neck.
I can’t believe she is fourteen, that her nails are always done. I wonder if they are paper thin underneath the plastic. Where does she get them done? I ask, writing down the name of the place, pretending I can keep up before we start on her History paper.
My friend and I walk up to Dos Gatos handing our IDs to the bouncer in a white buttoned down and black vest. He stands with his legs spread apart, like someone preparing for jumping jacks. He takes my ID, looking down at the pictured face, the name, the birth date. He looks me in the eyes, squinting with fake suspicion. He seeks this mini encounter with two younger girls out of boredom and control, I assume. He nods, giving us the OK to enter. My friend and I strut in heeled boots to the middle of the bar, catching glimpses of head turns from the corner of our eyes. The bar is full of thirty-somethings and it’s almost one; we understand we are new faces around here.
After the offered free shot from the man who could be our Dad, we decide to dip. Outside, I scan the front of the bar for the address in order to call the cab. The bouncer is so still he hides beneath the awning’s shadow and says:
“123 E Forsyth St.”
As I enter the address in the cab-app, he adds: “You’ve got a great set of legs. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
“Thank you.” I say, without looking up. I pretend to be consumed by the phone glow.
The sun slides down the receding tree line. I keep my eyes ahead with one hand on the wheel. The other hand I let rest on my upper thigh. My thoughts are intentioned: My thighs are soft. They feel nice. My legs let me stand for hours while I teach. I don’t like—No. Reroute. I like how they are soft.
A friend and I chug beers at the venue where my boyfriend’s band is playing. Another band plays the same kind of pop punk we were so fond of as angsty teens. We sway our hips and nod with the thick reverb. The heavy vibrations fill my chest, almost making it harder to breathe.
“This is so high school,” I say.
“I know, right?” My friend says.
My thoughts are intentioned: Don’t sway your hips for the guys behind you or the pair of black haired girls who have been eyeing you from the edge. They’re too scared to dance. It doesn’t matter, stop comparing. How do you want to move your hips? What feels good for you?
Muscles relax. I try not to think of what my stomach looks like from the side or how my butt looks from the back, cropped in these jean shorts. The singer strums a cover of a song I used to know intimately. It’s only been ten years, but I can’t place the words. I’m surprised I forgot the lyrics or even the name of the song. Vindicated? I know every vocal turn, but my tongue can’t keep up. My friend knows this one from her youth, too; She sways forward with careless arms and no concern for who is watching. We fumble to yell the parts we remember, though our voices can’t be heard over the pulsing shreds coming from the amps.
We scream the sentiments.
We are flawed. But we clean up well.
Sometimes in the car, I let the windows down, preferring the Florida heat over the stuffy conditioned air. Sometimes on these rides, I remember when my hair was long and tangled as it blows forward around my face, like those muddy days at the lake, when I caught and named minnows. When the only thing I had to think about was getting home on time. When I wasn’t thinking about all of my mirrors who judge my height with quiet eyes, who comment on my alertness based on level of applied makeup, who think they owe me the piece of advice about my haircut. When I wasn’t concerned about what the man behind me in the stairs thought of my calves as I climbed. Sometimes I remember summer. When the sun sat fat and melted everything around me. When I ran with rugged legs, when no one knew my body but me.
Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes poetry and nonfiction. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Animal, Proximity, and elsewhere. She reads poetry for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is a poetry editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.