PUBLIC SPACE, PUBLIC BODIED
I want to say that I have many bodies. I have arms that lift weights, legs that walk across town, a stomach that hungers and fills. My body feels emotion, is energy. My body can give and feel so much pleasure. My body looks great in jeans and boots, my body flows in a skirt. Even in my flaws, my body is powerful and alive.
My body can also be damaged by other bodies. I have been relatively safe in my life, but there have been times where I was close to being killed by another body. I also know that my body is capable of killing another body.
I’ve heard people say that they could never kill another person. I want to say to them that they have not been put into the right situation. I want to say that there are words and actions that will break anyone. I looked into the well of my emotions and I knew that I could kill. At that point I knew I had to stay away from the body that had caused me so much pain.
I sat on my ex-boyfriend’s lap in my backyard and I looked at my son’s aluminum baseball bat in the grass, and I knew that if I picked up the bat, my ex-boyfriend would be dead. I knew that I could look at his bloodied body as it stopped moving. And I felt a rush at that. I felt all the rage from all the times of not hitting him back. I felt the pain of cigarettes put out on my arm, the stink of his piss soaking my clothes, the pain of his fist; I heard every slur he had called me, heard him telling me how he would kill me; I felt the pain of the surprise that I got away alive, just to come back.
So, I would have been justified in killing him, but did not. This doesn’t make me any better that those who have killed or hurt their oppressors. Long live Cyntoia Brown; long live Ahed Tamimi; long live those who hit back, who kill. Long live those who get away and don’t get back.
I want to say that of all my bodies, they all belong to me. This should be obvious to the world but is not. The power, the pleasure seeking, the sore muscles, the taking up of public space, the black eyes, the anger. Every body I contain can bubble up to the surface. The boy, the victim, the loud, the body that wants to make love every day, the body that likes to look.
In public places and in relationships I am reminded that my body is not my own. I must constantly work to re-own my body. No body is re-owned dead. Some folks must work harder to re-own their public bodies. I am thinking about mass graves; I am thinking about the body of Freddie Gray; the bodies of murdered indigenous women. Those who have lost their bodies, their lives, as they struggled to own their bodies, or just to be a body. No one even chooses to exist this way, as a body.
There are small and large ways in which we learn our bodies are also public bodies: the murders of those who exist as we do; the hug that lasts too long; the being told to smile. Those moments that pull us out of our private existence and put us face to face with the desires, hates, prejudices of others.
I have begun work to re-own my body. I say no when my girlfriend asks me if I will wear lingerie, realizing that for others wearing lingerie is exactly how they re-own their bodies. I take up space, I don’t ever smile unless I feel happy. But this is hard work, constantly met with resistance. My girlfriend tells me I am overreacting when a man touches my back at a bar and I cry as I drive home. When I put my body in a bar, I put it there for many reasons, but I do not consent to being touched by strangers, ever. Even if it is just his way of saying, let me walk behind you. I want to practice punching strangers who touch me without my consent.
I never consented to my body being a public body. A body commented on and touched by men in passing. I’m not dead and so I will work to take my body back. I will work to find my voice and cuss you out when you interact with my body in ways I do not like. Ideally my body bridges public and private space. It is how I let in what I love, what feeds me. My body is how I communicate. But it also must be how I shut out that which can harm; it must be how I shut out that which I don’t like; it must be my barrier between the world and me. My body must be my first line of defense.
If you have ever seen a person put their body between an oppressor and the oppressed, you have witnessed magic.
My body has harmed other bodies in ways I am ashamed of. I seek to step away from harming those who have caused me no harm. In the same motion, I will step towards harming those who harm innocent bodies. I reject pacifism, because that pacifism has allowed so much past pain. I did not hit back and he kept hitting.
I begin noticing the ways some bodies interact in public space, and I cannot un-notice these bodies and the violence of their existence. These bodies controlling public spaces tend to be male, they tend to be white in America, they tend to expect privilege. They expect to be smiled at. They expect other bodies to step out of the way. If they speak to me, they expect an answer. If they touch my back, they do not expect to be punched.
Claire Robbins serves as the guest creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.