Categories
2020 Essays

Kat Moore

TREES, MONSTERS, WITCHES: FRAGMENTS OF BEING A GIRL

Taylor’s cute and kind. He’s seventeen, I’m sixteen. He’s the valedictorian, I’m the weird girl with the dead brother, dead from AIDS, back when so many gay men were dying. One night, we sneak out and meet each other at a park. We walk through the tall grass next to a golf course. A policeman pulls into the nearby parking lot, and shines his lights across the field. We collapse into the weeds, among the tiny bugs that have been nipping our ankles. We flatten ourselves, our backs in the earth, as the bright white light sweeps over us, barely missing our bodies. The cop eventually drives off. Probably doesn’t want to bother with two kids or the overgrown grass. When we raise up, my hair has dirt in it, tangled flecks of green, and I worry about how I look. How Taylor sees me. The day before, he said that he preferred girls who didn’t wear make-up, and so, on this night, my face is clear, no eyeshadow, no lipstick, no coverup, nothing at all. In the night, under the distant streetlamps, I wonder if he notices. If he thinks I look pretty, if he understands this transformation is for him.

~

Metamorphosis is the action or process of a person (the meta, the self) changing forms, usually by supernatural means. No wonder men think they are little gods.

~

Perhaps, I’m Daphne, daughter of a river god, friend to animals, adoring of the leaves on the trees, and the babbling water of creeks, chaste, like the goddess Diana. It is my body after all. But then there’s Apollo, thick muscles, all brawn and brute, and his gaze lands on me. I feel it, the weight in his look, the intention, the violence, and I run. My legs pump, my calves ache, Apollo, so close to seizing me, his fingers close to grabbing my flesh, and I open my mouth and cry out to my father, the river god, and plead that he change my body, transform me into something other than girl. I stiffen into a tree.

~

My senior year in high school, unpopular, Taylor, the cute boy, now off at college in another town, and it’s common knowledge around my school that my father is a drunk. The jock boys and my history teacher constantly pick on me, call me names, point at me in the hallway, whisper slurs about my brother who died. I fall in love with the riot grrrl movement. In an edgy teen magazine, I read about the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. The pic is of them on a beach, but they aren’t sun-kissed with blonde hair and perfect bodies. One of the grrrls, Kathleen, has jet black hair with bright red fringe bangs. Tobi has a short red punky bob. Kathi’s blonde but pale and wears her hair short. Kathleen, in a bra and black skirt, tattoos on her arm and stomach, leans against Tobi. I buy all their records from a local shop, and listen to each and every song, and read each and every word in the liner notes. I learn about riot grrrl.

On a fall night, mere months after discovering them, Bikini Kill performs at small punk dive bar in my town. I dance around and sing along. Kathleen, the lead singer, wears a short dress with an image of a beefcake man on it. She’s notorious for her clothing. Sometimes she performs in a sequined top and black panties, and when her midriff shows, the word “slut” appears on her belly in black magic marker. Sometimes she wears her hair in pigtails like a little girl and howls their song, “Suck My Left One.” Their music makes me feel visible, makes me feel heard. Kathleen distorts what it means to be a girl. She has become something other than girl, other than the social construction of what a girl is. A rebellion of semiotics, she alters the symbol, and controls the signification. I stop shaving my legs and armpits, though, I start to wear make up again, black eyeliner, and bright red lipstick. At the same time, I cut off my long brown hair with a pair of dull scissors which mangle any consistent length, and I dye it black as coal. A dissonance between girl and me—a becoming—now, grrrl.

~

Older, in a college level lit class studying Metamorphosis, I realize that most women are changed into animal or tree in order to either escape violence from a man, or as a punishment for being the victim of violence from a man. I google the word morph and my browser suddenly takes me to morphe.com which features a colorful palate of eyeshadows on its home page. How appropriate, another way that women morph. Remember the you tube make-up tutorial, the one showing women how to shade their cheekbones, and the woman cackles, “wait until they find out we can shape-shift” but they, this masculine they, a patriarchal they, have always known. I mean, women have always burned for being witches.

~

At twenty-eight, I pile into Becca’s old Toyota, the small boxy kind from the eighties, the kind that doesn’t dent so easily, or fold in like plastic. Becca’s newly sober, like me. Both of us loud. Both of us lost with longing, unable to yet know what sobriety will transform us into. Both of us so delighted to not be in the twenty-seven club with Jimi, Janis, and Kurt. We are on our way to stalk, something Becca has talked me into. We think one of our friends, Kim, the nurse, the one who loves to dance and stick her tongue out, has snuck off with the guy I’m dating. We drive past Kim’s house first, and it’s dark on top of the little hill where her house, the one she’s renting in an attempt to offer her daughter some stability, quietly sits surrounded by freshly mowed grass. Kim hated mowing the yard, the way it slanted, and she always cursed over and over as she pulled the mower along the incline. Her house is dark and lonely up on that hill in the glow of Becca’s headlights.

Becca and I head to Rod’s apartments. We smoke cigarettes and blast music like we’re teenagers, and not women. We circle the parking lot of his apartments, and don’t see Kim’s car. I feel relieved, and silly, and a little embarrassed. Becca and I laugh at ourselves, and then let the guilt of doubting a friend sink into us. Becca turns onto a side street, and suddenly I see Kim’s black car, the one with the yellow paint on the bumper from where she backed into a pole.

“Stop!” I yell. Becca hits the brakes and stops parallel to Kim’s car. A fire surges through me. I don’t even care about hot Rod. I can’t believe Kim would do this to me. I want to find a brick and smash Kim’s windshield. I want to kick her car doors until they dent. I want to key “traitor” into the paint. I want to unleash curses on her. Sadly, I still want Rod to want me.

Becca asks, “What do you want to do?”

“Go,” I yell, and Becca’s tires screech as we pull out of there.

~

Or could I be Circe, born ugly in a family of beauty, but with a knack for magic spells, and I use my power against Kim as Scylla, causing dogs to bark where her legs once opened. All because of jealousy over a man. The gods banish me to an island, my own paradise over-run with animals, seafaring men who I transform into beasts, into lower creatures. On my island, I hold the top position of the hierarchy. I was forced out of society, yet, men still find their way to me, and one, Odysseus, tames me to his desires. My might no match for him. My sting gone.

~

When I’m twenty-two, a man rapes me. I transform into even more of a drug addict. I dive deeper into addiction, and pulsate with a need to obliterate. I don’t want to be more of an addict, I want to be gone. I feel gone. No longer grrrl, not woman, an absence where there was once meaning. The ultimate abjection of the self from the body. I steal my mother’s credit cards, and I rock shut, like Sylvia, until someone has to pick the bugs off me, so close to death, like all women who can’t be who they are and have to change. Is this our only means of survival? Like a caterpillar to a butterfly but more violent, a gross leaky woman into a junky with bruises on her arm.

~

Now, I’m Medusa, the one the goddess Athena turns into a monster with snakes for hair. My hair hisses and writhes, and my face turns men into stone. A woman turned monster as punishment for being raped. Yet, instead of a snake biting me, or tricking me to eat an apple, I am now the snake. Now, men can’t look at me. If they do, they will turn into stone. What wonderful powers! What if Apollo had been turned to stone? What if the man who raped me had stiffened in this way, limbs turned to rock, unable to move, when he first saw me? But if men can’t look, if men can’t control you, then you become monster.

~

When I’m twenty-five years old, I check myself into a long term rehab facility. When I arrive, I look sick, yellow skin, and dull eyes. After a month, my skin tone blooms back, my eyes bright and alive, healthy. My mother brings me new clothes to wear. Tops and jeans that fit me and aren’t falling apart like the clothes I had brought with me. The rehab is coed. The men on one side, the women on the other. We all share common spaces, but aren’t allowed to speak to the opposite sex. I’m young, thin but curvy, and the men stare at me in the dining room, in the day room when I play ping pong with another woman, and during group time.

One day, the director, Ms. Nola, takes the women for a walk around the neighborhood. She’s an older woman, and has been sober for twenty years. Her voice reminds me of my grandmother’s. We walk on the sidewalk, past the run down bungalow houses with shutters that hang lopsided around windows, porches held together by splintered wood. Ms. Nola tells us young women, “You know the men will look.” And I look at the leaves on the trees whose branches we pass under. “They will look, and it is your job to keep them from looking.” I only half pay attention to what she says. I am more enchanted by the way the wind rattles through the trees. One of the trees has white buds blooming, and I wonder if I’m really done with drugs, done with the life I had been living, done with being the addict I had become. Ms. Nola suddenly grabs my hand, and says, “Your momma has to bring you some oversized t-shirts, until then, you can’t be in the common areas with those men.”

~

I sit on the floor of Becca’s living room. We sit on the dull blue throw rug, an ashtray for cigarettes in between us. Becca flips tarot cards to tell me my future. “Oh, Miss Kitty,” she says, using the nickname my mother called me, and intentionally adding the Miss as an allusion to the prostitute on Gunsmoke. We love fallen women.

“I see hope,” she says as she points to the Empress card, “This is you.”

We stay on the floor. Read more cards until we get the answers we want. The ones that make us happy. Make us forget we are both newly sober. Barely hanging on. Her card, the Queen of Cups, the blonde ruler, full of intense emotions. Loud. Outspoken. A Katharina, still a shrew, still at the beginning of the play. That night, we both have futures.

~

Katharina exclaims, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

Married to the man who responds, “My remedy be to pluck it out.”

Katharina goes from a woman with a fierce spirit to a woman beneath her husband’s heel. Her final speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew places me on the edge of tears, a knot in my stomach, as Katharina renounces her former strength, and calls for all women to stay in their lower places because their minds are as weak and soft as their bodies. Total obedience and submission to her husband, “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ thy head, thy sovereign…” But why does a play, a fiction, one often labeled as comedy, cause me to cry? Because the beliefs contained inside Kate’s speech are still present today, still firmly planted in the mainstream. Because my name is Katherine and I’m always being told to simmer down. When I was little, I heard of Kate the shrew, and I couldn’t wait to read the play, to see this fierce young woman raise a ruckus. Then I read the play. Katharina is abused. How comedic. How funny. We all know the common joke:

What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?

Nothing. She’s already been told twice.

~

Years later, just before Thanksgiving in 2018, Becca’s husband shoots her, and then shoots himself. They both die. No one knows what happened. But many speculate. Almost everyone believes that Becca ran her mouth, snapped at her husband, possibly hit him in the head. A woman, a mutual friend says, “You know how Becca could be.”

~

Perhaps, Becca is Eurydice dancing with nymphs. Imagine them all beautiful among the flowers, the sun in their hair, arms reaching out and up to the sky, not a care in the world, that feeling of freedom as wind blows through them, the pollen kicks up dust like swirls of confetti. In another version, a man sees her beauty and chases her, a woman running through fields, fleeing from a man, her feet tapping earth as she runs. In both, a snake bites her, and she dies. Her husband Orpheus descends into hell for her, and woos Hades with his lyre playing. Hades allows Eurydice to follow her husband out of the underworld. Hades warns that Orpheus mustn’t look at her. Almost out of the underworld, the light from the world filtering in up ahead, unable to hear her footsteps, Orpheus worries she is no longer behind him. He turns to look at her, and as his eyes see her, she disappears. Did Hades suck her back in as mere punishment for not following his directions? Or did Hades know that while Eurydice was still a shade, not a fully corporeal form, she wouldn’t be able to withstand his gaze? Perhaps the point is that the male gaze causes women to cease to exist.

Becca is no longer here because of her husband.

~

Or maybe Becca is Medea, full flight in a chariot, the sun god chasing her across the sky.

~

I’m five years old, and I run with a whole pack of kindergarten girls, Medusa, Eurydice, Katharina, Circe, Becca, Kim, girls with ponytails and pigtails, and Velcro tennis shoes, rays of sun hit our faces, small beads of sweat form on our temples, and all of us girls, little goddesses, panting in pursuit of a fifth grade boy. The boys do it to us. The kindergarten boys. They chase me almost daily, and when I cry, I’m told that the boys just like me. So none of us girls understand what’s wrong with our lungs pumping, legs running, little arms reaching out to the older boy.

We’re scolded. We sit in punishment atop the hot asphalt, the heat stings through my jeans. Circe complains, tells them that they will all be sorry. Medusa and Kim hiss at the teachers. Becca and Eurydice ignore everyone and braid each other’s hair. Katharina kicks one of the boys in the shin. Teachers, red-faced, shout, point, and condemn us girls as un-ladylike.

The next day, Timmy chases me, reaches out his leg and trips me, and as I fall, I see the clouds in the sky, hear the babble of the creek behind the playground, almost touch the edges of the stiff tree so close to where I land. No one comes to yell at Timmy, no one comes to tell him not to chase me, not to trip me, not to make me fall face first in dirt and split my lip. After all, boys will be boys.


Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Passages North, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Image Journal, and Hotel Amerika. Her fiction can be found in Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, and Craft, An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.

Categories
2020 Essays

Andrea B.

PETALS

While my body was still pulsing with private pain, you sent me purple flowers. In a translucent fuchsia vase, tinting the water the color of blood, hardly concealing the wounds of the twisted, severed stems. I turned them again and again, there on the edge of my desk, to face the pink daisies instead. But between every daisy and rose, blushing with plump rouged cheeks, hung the lilies, drooping their jowls, bruised with the permanent purple.

*

I have long loathed the murky fusion of red bleeding into blue. But it circulates through me now. Seeps into my stomach, my vessels, my nerves, dyed dark by the violet-blue pill that dissolves down my throat every night in the blackness just before sleep, and stains my fingers—stains the rest of my life—as if with an inky tattoo. A brand seared onto the body, marked as purple, impure.

*

What is the meaning of purple?

*

Someone asked when he saw your flowers. They signify death, he guessed, misinterpreting the purple scarf of royalty hung from the cross at Lent. Which also can symbolize mourning, I later learned. Penitence: an apology.

*

I’m Beyond Sorry, said your card with the bouquet. And I wondered how far it extended, what could be beyond. (I’m sorry a thousand times, you wrote a hundred days later. As if the enormity, the perpetuity of your contrition could not be contained in the thin black lines of the text.) A single letter—an initial in uppercase—opened and closed your note, as if you were too ashamed to sign, or to assign, either of even our first names to this circumstance, this word.

*

Herpes. I say the word now to semi-strangers on second dates, after pale rosés, or lime-green daiquiris, or old fashioneds as golden as the candles on the tables lighting up our smiles. And it suddenly sours the drinks, a drop of purple poison, and spreads to our paralyzed lips, falling as silent and blue as the middle of the night, which this man is now no longer hoping to spend with me.

*

On my last night in the blue sheets of your dark bed, when you tore off my dress and the invisible infection of your skin spread silently to mine, you took the garnishments out of your tumbler of rum in the bar afterward and tossed the tropical purple blossoms, the bendy magenta straw, and the pale paper pinwheel onto the table between us like funeral flowers strewn onto a grave. The way I had tossed away the purple squares of the condoms you always resisted, after you had shown me the tender skin, on the inside of your arm, where the red prick of the tests, you had said, resulted in clean white.

*

Your STD status doesn’t make you “clean” or “dirty,” a post by Planned Parenthood proclaimed, long afterward, bold black text in a blue-and-pink box on my phone. An orgy of opprobrium occurred in the blank white space below. Would rather be on the “clean” side of the spectrum, a woman said. Some other man snarled, as if directly at me, That herpes certainly didn’t come from somewhere clean.

*

I scrub my hands now after I touch the pink petals of my vulva so that I do not transfer the scarlet of its sores to my own lips, eyes, buttocks, thighs. A part of my body has been disconnected from the rest. A flower severed from its stem.

*

Sometimes I fantasize the flower deliveries down at the front desk of my downtown Chicago office building are for me, from you. But you only sent that one delivery. And while the deliveries of the disease will continue repeatedly, unpredictably, like surprise red blooming bouquets, the purple vase remains your final gift—before your final trip, when you left me, despite the diagnosis, to find a new life, a new love, overseas. On your earlier international excursions, you had always brought gifts afterward: a patterned blue coin purse from a market in Israel, the herpes from a bed in Ukraine. And from Croatia, from Portugal and Spain, the gifts were—like our attachment, like your presence here with me—ephemeral: A round of creamy cheese. A pot of lavender-infused honey, the golden liquid tinged with the faintest imagined purple. A block of soap.

*

Now when I wait for the whirr of the automatic soap pump in the office bathroom, I do not meet my colleagues’ eyes in the mirror above the sink. Have I contaminated the faucets, the stalls, even the copy machines? I asked myself the first morning I returned to the cubicles after the initial uprising of the virus on my skin had subsided at home.

*

I don’t want to infect your house, so I won’t see you anymore, I texted my mother, who had throughout my childhood stretched her bladder until her kidneys crystallized rather than risk public restrooms, with their STDs, herpes. The very virus I would now transport into her upstairs powder room, which she would later have to sanitize with sharp blue powered bleach, eradicating the infection she would imagine was still living invisible on the white ceramic slabs.

*

How long can herpes live outside the body, off the skin, I asked the Internet. And in the conflicting statistics on my screen, as I searched for reassurance for my mother, my coworkers, myself, I decided to believe the briefest estimates of only seconds, flashing by like lightning white.

*

How quickly the blue blanket on your thick mattress pad was replaced by the antiseptic paper sheet on the gynecologist’s narrow bed. I see a herpatic lesion, the doctor stated. Clinical. Definitive. Irrevocable. Ending the life I had. Pleasure inevitably punished, per the preachings of puritanical politicians. Sex-positivity subtly negated, despite progressive society’s celebration of free love. It had a price after all: undesirability. I stumbled down from the table and staggered down the hall, behind a tall, muscular couple, likely finishing their first appointment on the way to a new life, its colorful promise outlined in black-and-white in the ultrasound room across from the lab. Where I fell to a bench to await the maroon tube, to test for other punishments—hepatitis, HIV—while they walked out into the city, into the rest of their lives.

*

One in six people, I chanted the mantra to myself, numbering off the pedestrians as I shuffled through the city’s sidewalk crowds. One, two, three, four, five, six: one of these people has genital herpes, I said, quoting the CDC statistics that had darkened my glowing phone on those first black nights afterward. Until I realized I was the one in every six.

*

I make this diagnosis 20 times a week, the gynecologist said gently, gesturing me to the tissues for my purple, swollen nose. But I could not see their faces among friends, acquaintances, fictional characters in film. Who were these secret other sufferers? Don’t tell anyone, my mother instructed, repeatedly, repeating the teachings of society. And so I was alone.

*

People don’t partner anymore anyways, you said, lying in your jeans and jacket in my bed for one final good-bye night after a hundred, a thousand of my begging messages brought you to my side. You had a ten percent chance of finding someone before this, you said. Now it is five. You think in math, in cruel computations. I think in color. And all I could calculate were the dark brown walls of my bedroom, blurry with my tears, and the black walls of my rage.

*

In the most violet, violent night, I reached again toward the white light of my phone, a bright beckoning portal to another world, the underworld, and asked it for the most peaceful of pills to transport me to black nothingness for eternity.

*

Five months afterward, the doctor told me, most patients have come to terms with the diagnosis. The herpes you left me with—a red lesion on my genitals—it will persist. Perhaps I will learn how to endure. And perhaps I will somehow understand how to erase from my psyche the scarlet stigma left on me by society. But your leaving me—it is a purple lesion on my heart. And six months afterward, it has been shown to be without a cure.

*

This is it. This is for life, my mother, when she finally saw me, said, her olive eyes sorrowing, apologizing, the way your flinty green ones never did, your tears like water on a stone. Mine mixed then with the coffee and the rum, as she stood beside me and layered them into a tiramisu as brown as the dying trees in her backyard, as creamy as her kitchen counters and her upstairs bathroom tiles.

*

The bathtub in my first apartment was periwinkle, beneath periwinkle tile. The fixture glued into the ground, unchangeable, necessitating a purple rug, purple curtain, purple towels. I started spurning purple, then, the color of compulsion. I cut it from my wardrobe, from my next home. But now, in my cabinet, lurks that lifetime supply of violet, that pill that gives me no choice but to drink of it, no choice but to think of you. Because it holds back the virus, deep in my nerves, from blooming like deformed flowers on my skin, or shedding like invisible poisoned pollen onto unsuspecting bees that would kiss my bud.

*

Men will still want to have sex with you, you said as you left. Because I was sexy, you said. And one of them did call me beautiful, once, twice, lying naked in the center of his blue-checkered bed. Until he began pulling the covers up, turning over, turning out the light. Too tired, he said. Or too high stress. Or too low testosterone. Leaving untouched each night whatever slinky skirt or lacy lingerie concealed my purple plague.

*

There is a bright blue site of promise, positivity, you texted me, too soon, in those first gray days overcast with pain. A bleak, shadowy corner of the Internet where the colony of companionless contaminated huddle together and keep their curse confined to drink and dinner dates among their own kind. But my commonalities with the men in profile on my screen extended not to interests, education, religion, politics, or even often the city where we lived—but only to our shared disease.

*

Sometimes I forget my disease, my deficiency. I dream of meeting that tall, healthy stranger strolling on the sidewalk, scrolling on the Internet, rolling past me on the train. And then I halt. Remembering he would never want herpes. Would never want me.

*

I smiled to hide the virus lurking in my nerves, to present all the kaleidoscopic colors of my expressions before I would have to reveal the darkness of my disease to the man with the purple pocket square and the gemstone cufflinks, as he reached across the white tablecloth, with its glamorous gathering of goblets and green Pellegrino bottles, and brushed my arm, posed, poised against the stiff leather corner booth in the lunchtime hush of a date at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant. But how could I blurt out such an inelegant word there? Or at high tea at The Peninsula? Where a dark-haired man rose to greet me with a kiss on my cheek, then seated me at another white tablecloth, stacked with three-tiered silver trays, delicate teacups, champagne, cocktails, which he gulped, in a frenzied fever, when he heard the word, then rushed me out to the elevator. And as we descended, he asked, Can I catch it from that kiss on your cheek? Then he left me in the cold to walk home on the black slippery streets, soaking my feet in their open-toed heels until they turned as wet as my cheeks. While in my ear, the wind howled, Leper, leper, leper.

*

It’s as simple as shingles, as chicken pox, one uninfected man reassured me. You’re making too much of it, another said, pleading for more than a kiss in my bed. I hesitated. Perhaps I was. But even with the purple condom foil tearing open, the purple pill foiling the replication of the virus DNA, one caress of skin to skin could still swell his lymph nodes, stab the muscles in his buttocks and his legs, puncture the center of his body—and of his future—with pain. The sensation like the sound of a long, piercing scream.

*

I yelled at you for hours on the phone. Shrieking, staccato shouts. Please relent, you begged. My decrescendo then, to blunt black texts, punctuated the months. Until at last you lamented, I think of you and mostly feel like the worst person ever.

*

He wants absolution, I told a friend. Don’t give it to him, he replied. And for the first time, I heard the word give in forgive. A gift I can send you, like a flower delivery, over the dark blue seas.

*

What color is forgiveness?

*

Perhaps it is the teal green framing the text box of the special messaging program I once would open to write only to you. And its purple alert light, flashing on my phone, would notify me of a responding rectangle, enveloping your texts. But now within that frame, I type no more words, no letters with their black stems, like rotted flowers, to accuse you, to remind you of me. The screen a blank—like a single white rose.

*

I buy myself flowers every so often these days. Pass the garish jumble of ready-made bouquets. The tulips. The fuchsia carnations. The dozen blood-red roses of love that I now may never receive as a delivery. And I select the potted succulent. The fragrant eucalyptus. The olive green of branching leaves.


Andrea B. lives in Chicago. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Witness, Eastern Iowa Review, Entropy Magazine, Atticus Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Categories
2020 Essays

Miah Jeffra

A FICTION MORE REAL

(after Pink Narcissus)

A smooth twink with an enthusiastic butt crawls nude through a technicolor garden. The sky is dark but the world gleams with a glitter-light, the camera gliding over him, as if the lens has fingers. The twink ponders animatronic butterflies, his nipple with a blade of grass, his self. He stares, kisses his mirrored reflection in a Pepto Bismol boudoir. He tries on different uniforms, different personas: matador, biker, emperor, imp. They become his lovers, his neighbors, his mannequins, his art. And at once, they are all him. A world of delirious fantasy, desire, beauty seen through a kaleidoscope.

James Bidgood filmed almost all of Pink Narcissus in his small Chelsea studio over seven years in the sixties. He built the lavish sets himself—crinoline clouds, rivers of lame, paper flowers. He collected flotsam from costume shops, theatre sets and fabric stores, brought them to his flat like a bird to a nest, and fashioned a whole world for this lonely young hustler, played by Bobby Kendall—the soul of Bidgood.

The first network documentary on homosexuality in the United States, aptly titled “The Homosexuals” aired in March, 1967, on CBS Reports, during the middle year of Bidgood’s production. Mike Wallace anchored with his guillotine inflection. The episode featured testimony from psychiatrists, cultural critics, lawyers, woven with footage of a dark gay bar and a sex sting operation. Wallace reports to America, “The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of one-chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits. And even on the streets of the city—the pick-up, the one-night stand, these are characteristics of the homosexual relationship.”

Because Bidgood’s public life consisted of spaces in the dark—bathhouses, porn theatres, silent encounters—perhaps he needed something to be celebrated in bold light. And so, he packed his room with fresnels and gels, mirrors and bulbs, to beam the brightness of his mind, a 300 square foot studio in New York City.

In an old college journal of mine, running up the margins, I scribbled art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime. I don’t remember why I wrote that, and wonder if I was stoned when I did. But it stays with me, and I think of that phrase a lot.

Stanley Siegel, in his book Uncharted Lives, claims, “Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming productive—drawing, writing, creating.” We express with fantasy in spite of an incomprehensible or hostile reality.

I was seven years-old when my mother left home to explore her stolen youth before it entirely disappeared. She was 15 years-old when she married my father, who was merely fresh out of high school, himself. They had to travel to South Carolina for the nuptials, the only state that allowed children to marry. Not long after she birthed my older brother, Chris, and my father enlisted in the Marine Corps, did my mother realize her unhappiness. How could she know my father, when he wasn’t even yet a man? And how could she know herself? Yet, my mother tried for years to make it work, like a child of a broken home would do. In all, she lasted 17. Imagine a woman of 32 who’s already lived a lifetime. She knew there was something more, and needed to find out what it was on her own. The Hawaiian sea breeze whispered this wisdom to her when we’d walk to the shore and stare out at the splice of two-tone blue. I overheard the mutterings myself, and somehow understood what the wind had said, without knowing the exact words.

However, my understanding did not come without pain. Not a sudden wall kind of pain, no. My mother was the center of the world, so when she left the whole middle of my body followed. And this is how you break a child, you know. Step one, take the mother away. I retreated, to more than merely my room, escaping however I could the anger, the fighting between Chris and my father, my hand on my stomach, watching it pass right through. I played records, read my Highlights, stared at the gaps in my bedroom door, and then created, within those eggshell walls, to fill the hole in my belly, a sister: Shenandoah, just like the mountains, the river valley, as sloping and bosomed as the land itself. She had auburn hair that shocked in all directions, a wild bright beauty who traced the cracks of the ceiling with a finger and squinted eye, built forts with bedlinens and books, who kept my secrets. Before sleep, she lying next to me, our foreheads almost touching, I would whisper my biggest secret, “I miss her,” and she would whisper back, “she misses you, too.”

Shenandoah never left my room, somehow content with the cloistered arrangement. And my loneliness, a self of its own, never questioned her presence. And then, when my father announced he was re-stationed to Quantico, Virginia, a night before we flew across the ocean, Shenandoah slipped through my window, turned back slightly, hair still shrouding her face, and ran out into the dark, never to return.

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Wallace further reports, “The dilemma of the homosexual: told by the medical profession he is sick; by the law that he’s a criminal; shunned by employers; rejected by heterosexual society. Incapable of a fulfilling relationship with a woman, or for that matter a man. At the center of his life he remains anonymous. A displaced person. An outsider.”

In high school I told my classmates that I grew up in Tokyo. No, I didn’t just tell them I grew up in Tokyo, I lavished upon them an epic tale that could cross an ocean. Even though our Marine Corps family had moved all over the country, and I had traveled more than most my age, I fabricated an even more exuberant history. My classmates were perceptive enough to know I was different—which inspired in me a new isolation—and were too consumed with their own belonging to complicate matters by including me. I was not legible to them, so I made myself the most extraordinary thing to read, a flashy billboard. I could describe for them Tokyo’s skyline, the neon lights, onigiri vendors perched in front of my residential high-rise, a kaleidoscope of place, though I’d never stepped foot on Honshu. I decorated this history with layered backdrops, vivid stories, images and characters as tactile as fabric, a complete world of my own, and presented to them this cinema, of sorts. I saw it, then, as a gift, somehow, not a deception, and certainly not what it truly was.

I would perform often these fabrications—these deceptions—throughout my youth. Stories of exotic travel, of chance encounters with love, stories of my body, perhaps all desires made manifest, tinged with a rolling language that drew people near. Which desire held me most? Their proximity, or mine?

Art is the conduit between humanity and the sublime.

Towards the end of Pink Narcissus, after a street sequence outside of the twink hustler’s flat, where throngs of vendors hawk butt-plugs and blowjobs, there is a fourth wall crack in the camera lens, and a deep Russian swell in the score, that sobers the delirium. Bidgood suggests the twink’s fabricated world turns tawdry once it leaves the asylum of his room. This room, his mind. We realize how necessary that lens had been, now that it is broken. Man is born beautiful, but everywhere outside his mind is degraded. That is our hostile reality.

Once my yarns of Tokyo were discovered as lies, they lost all their intrinsic beauty, this lustrous imagery cracked. My schoolmates flipped from arms-length awe to anger with a torrent I never escaped. Why they seethed, of course, I shamefully understand. I never called what I was doing art. And without a lens that could be cracked, it is presumed by others to be truth, and truth of a different kind than it is—and was—for me.

Soon I was to fathom my imprudence, and upon so withdrew into art. I opened the room of my imagination wide—the doors, the windows, the closet—with a pen instead of my tongue, and endowed fantasies that could not be confused with lies. And yet, these fictions told only a kind of truth, certainly not what it truly was. You move a vase from one side of the room to the other, and there is a change, a sense, a new reality to the thing.

Shenandoah appears in my dreams often. Her hair spills over my shoulder as we read a book together, or we run along the walls of my room that are probably smaller than I remember. She is not a memory, more a truth than true, imagination made material. A fiction more real than most of my lived reality.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a friend in Chelsea. I discovered that she lived directly below James Bidgood, in the same building where it all happened. I imagined the flotsam floating in every crevice, in every corner of his imagination made material, that small studio above my head. The layered history in my mind’s eye made my elbows tingle. She asked me, “You want to meet him, see the apartment?” I did. I really did. I wanted to meet the man who remained anonymous until only 15 years ago, with this soufflé of a film. I wanted to hold one of the animatronic butterflies, run the lame along my forefinger, and breathe on the very mirror that Bobby Kendall pressed his lips to 50 years before. But even as my heart leapt, I shook my head, slowly, and said to her, “That’s OK.”

I wanted to tell her that some things need to remain one’s fantasy. I wanted to tell her that if I went into that room, the nameless twink and his imaginings might slip out the window and never return.


Miah Jeffra is author of The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry 2020), The Violence Almanac (Black Lawrence 2021), and co-editor, with Arisa White and Monique Mero, of the anthology Home is Where You Queer Your Heart (Foglifter 2020). Awards include the New Millennium Prize, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, Lambda Literary Fellowship, and 2019 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Anthology. Most recent work can be seen in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Los Angeles Press, Wasafiri, The Forge and Interim. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.

Categories
2020 Essays

Erin Slaughter

EVIDENCE OF BURNING

In a movie, this would be the place: The pockmarked road from truck tires tilling thorough bramble. Lavender sprung up like stray hairs among browned-out winter weeds. The moon-carved shutters, half-stolen by vandals, filtering damp, gray-golden light. My sister climbing the gnarled tree in the front yard, paper flowers in her hair, a nose unlike mine, and deep, crescent-moon dimples; half-sister. Best sister.

This house is log-built and monstrous, and like all things I am attracted to, abandoned. My mother tells me it’s the Jane Wyatt estate, built in the 1930’s by an actress who returned from her life in smoky New York to Crossville, Tennessee, to reclaim the land she was born on. Down yonder are the ruins of her grandfather’s home, the home of her youth. My mother brings us here, my sister and me.

Two stories and fourteen rooms, emptied out glorious. Glass windows blown to shards, and wires sprouting from the weathered mortar between cherrywood planks. A gorgeous grand staircase, the banister ripped from rusted nails. The built-in cabinets are still intact, and my sister makes a game of stuffing her spry bones into them, emerging unexpected, with a laugh. The air here does not feel haunted.

***

Earlier in the year, the Crossville Chronicle ran a story with the headline: “Crossville’s Lady of Fame.” In the accompanying picture, an old woman stands by a framed painting of the log mansion. She holds a black-and-white picture of a woman with dark hair pinned under a wool hat: Jane Wyatt, young and alive. The old woman: Ruby Wyatt Davis, her half-sister.

It doesn’t take much to become a “Lady of Fame” in a town as small as Crossville, the place my parents and eleven-year-old sister have newly settled after moving from a town in Texas not much bigger. Texas, the homeland I left quickly, my footprints marking the front yard with ashes on the way out. In places like these, all it takes to be Somebody is to be gone.

The gone-er, the better. Jane went to Nashville, then Kentucky, then New York. I went to Seattle, then Kentucky, then—well, I’ll go somewhere else, probably. Who can say? There’s still time. You get better at being gone the more you do it, and women like Jane and I have a lot of practice.

Jane’s sister remembers Jane’s absent years through fond gifts: letters, one printed with a stamp from Grand Central Station. Silver pieces from her travels to China. Anyway, these things are all lost to time now.

I think of my own sister and a drawing she made in second grade that hangs on the wall in my office. In crayon, three crude sketches of landscapes with the captions “Texas,” “New York City,” and “England,” and underneath, her explanation: My dream is to travel the world because my sister travels and she inspires me to do this. It’s a reminder that there is a reason to keep exploring, keep living wild. That the wandering part of me, though sometimes contentious in my family, is something good.

Being gone was never a choice for me. It was an impulse, a deadly lust for disappearing, a flame tangled into my DNA. Some people feel an obligation to their roots. Jane rerouted the same well-water from her grandfather’s house to flow through the pipes of the log mansion. When my mother assumes their house will be passed on to me when they’re gone, I tell her I would never choose to live in Crossville. The truth—an obvious one based on everything she knows about me—but it upsets her. Maybe I’m not old enough yet. I’ve never lived in New York. I’ve not yet tired of being a ghost, a voice on the telephone, a letter with a stamp from Grand Central Station.

***

Take three crooked staircases to an attic room with a crouched sliver of roof, the windows pouring open. I trace my hands over a charred plank, evidence of a forgotten arson, some teenager’s sour-apple-Smirnoff-Molotov-cocktail. Evidence here, in the shattered glass and weathered floorboards, of a burning.

***

When Jane was in Kentucky she married a man. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him. She must have loved him, but he must have loved drinking, drowning, more; a love unattainable. When I moved to Kentucky, I drove in as the sun was setting orange and pink over rolling hills bordered by rustic wooden fences. I felt my chest swoon bittersweet and mystical as I thought, This would be a beautiful place to fall in love. And I was right. But how to explain that falling in love is about falling in love with everything, the whole of being alive?

Once we name something, we can never see it the same way again. I named him love and he became it. He named me something I wished to be, and I tamed the fire I always was, smoldered only on the inside. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’m trying to say something different now. I’m trying to say that I have always wanted what is unattainable. I was a little girl watching through my bedroom window at night as the pinprick shine of cars disappeared down the highway; I was a teenager wanting blazing bleeding craving so thoroughly it made my core shake and my soul run and hide inside of me for years; here I am now, dousing myself in gasoline and calling it need.

I’m trying to say, I think, that maybe the women I know write with fire under their skin because there is a fire under their skin. Maybe their words were ignited by some man—father or lover—who made them feel the lightness of grief, or tried to drown them in remembering. Or maybe women are born of fire and spend their lives clawing their way back from burning, creating new things to make up for their shame of singeing everything they touch.

How telling it is that women often describe creation, even childbirth, as a kind of obliteration. Love, for me, was a pouring out and reconstructing of self; another obliteration.

Here, I am writing myself out of the record, and perhaps I have always been. This is just another kind of leaving.

***

Jane Wyatt died at age 93, in the decade before I was born. When I search her name, I find only pictures of an actress more famous than her, twenty years her junior. Now, in a small-town newspaper article, her half-sister remembers her. Ruby Wyatt Davis never left Tennessee. She drives reporters down the pockmarked road to the gutted house. She shows them the way.

I can’t say what is better in the end, what is freedom: to leave and be lost to the wind, or to stay and remember. My hope is that my sister gets the choice. Maybe freedom is in the choosing, in believing, even for a second, that nothing is truly unattainable.

***

I could tell you that six months after I touched that swath of land and wrote down these words, I left Kentucky, pried my life from the wilding hills and moved to Nashville, the city that hosted Jane’s first escape. In the first weeks of living there, each time I drove the interstate I nearly wept at the skyline, those downtown buildings feeling like evidence of some achievement, a particular aspirational gone-ness. As I tried not to crash my car, eyes glued to that monument of light, a ghost of the child self who once watched car headlights streak across the horizon like stars fleeing the night dipped its corners momentarily back into my body.

Six months after I explored Crossville’s hidden mansion, before that ghost-self faded into commuter’s monotony, the Wyatt estate burned to the ground in the night.

And what does it mean if there were no charred wooden boards to trace with my fingers as I climbed through the ribcage of a grand place wilting in the woods in Tennessee? If I tell you that house had never before hosted a fire. That it was just forgotten.


Erin Slaughter is editor and co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, New South, Passages North, and elsewhere. Originally from north Texas, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University.

Categories
2020 Essays

Erin Marie Lynch

Not Inside or Outside, but Quietly There

On the third floor of the boy’s house, white picture frames line a long hallway. Each frame holds a photo: the boy, his father, his mother, his sister, his brother. No dust lingers on the frames or glass. The boy’s father hires women to clean their faces; absence of dust signifies wealth, or attention to detail, or both. No nannies appear in the photos, though nannies have looked after the boy his entire life, including me. They sometimes told me, as a compliment, that I seemed like family. Because a simile highlights difference, this phrase created a separation between us. 

As the riddle goes, “what lies neither inside nor outside the house but no house would be complete without it?” A window, of course. A nanny, like a window, completes the family. And, like a window, you can choose to ignore it, focusing instead on what you see through it: sloping lawn behind your house and the fountain, where water comes out of a jug held by a clay cherub. Not inside or outside, but quietly there, the window does invisible labor; you will see no nannies in Keeping up with the Kardashians, not even picking up toys or wiping a child’s nose, not even in the corner of the frame. 

When I was one of the many windows in the boy’s house, my value lay in my glass-like qualities: spotlessness, transparency. This self-effacement began with the agreement I signed not to talk about my experience, an agreement I am breaking right now. Good windows, like good nannies, stay invisible; only the bad windows, scratched or dirty or warped, are noticeable. “Has he been a good boy today?” His father asked me every day, knowing only one answer. 

Insert Image: I am dipping my hair into a bucket of soapy water to
clean the minivan. My hair, dark and thick, covers my face. The car says
“wash me” on the back windshield. I wipe the words away. Dirty water
drips down my neck…

Sometimes, however, in a startling moment, you can’t help but see the window there, being looked through. Or you notice it after the fact, when you close your eyes and a photo negative of the frame imprints against your closed lids. At her death in 2009, the now-lauded photographer Vivian Maier left behind hundreds of thousands of images, negatives, and exposures: street photos, architectural subjects, and lots of self-portraits, striking self-portraits reflected back in a standing floor-length mirror in the window of a pawn shop, in a rear view mirror, in the reflective sheen of a hubcap, in the theft prevention mirror.

One of the most-discussed details of Maier’s life: she worked as a nanny for over forty years. One of the children she nannied later remarked, “I don’t think she liked kids at all really. I think she liked images. When she saw an image she had to capture it. ” Critics can’t figure out 1. How could a nanny also be such an accomplished artist? 2. How could such an accomplished artist choose to nanny, if she didn’t like kids? The idea that a woman would choose to nanny for economic, rather than emotional reasons, confounds those who work outside of the care professions. The window never asked to be a window, but how many of us desire what we later become?

In fact, I always hated the word “nanny, ” partly because it sounds ugly, and partly because it made me a nanny-goat, tits heavy with milk, kept on hand to mother the lambs when the sheep mother rejects her young. The human nanny, likewise, serves as a facsimile parent—”like family. ”My tasks included giving the boy the good night kiss he asked for before bed. I slept at the house often, and I watched him fall asleep, watched him sleep the heavy sleep of a ten-year old, and watched him wake up, a level of attention I have paid no one else and hope to never pay anyone again.

I am typically an observant person, but the quality of my gaze intensified by a job that hinged on watching over, watching out for, looking after, looking at, keeping eyes on. I spent so much time watching the boy that I had little attention left to give to anything else. I underwent a crisis of looking, the way that a word becomes strange when I write it too many times, or my face in the mirror when I stare too long. I spent so much time looking at one thing that my own life became a shadow I walked through. What else did I do during that time? Outside of him, I have few memories.

Insert Image: I am killing my houseplants by lying in bed. They die
slowly, over a long stretch of time, their leaves curling up and away
from the light. Time stretches out long like wet chewing gum. Each
hour seems the length of a whole day. I set a timer to remind me to
water the houseplants and when the timer goes off it sounds like bells.
I roll over to my left side.

At work, I watched the boy. I watched him at pool games, tennis games, soccer practice, soapbox races, the frozen yogurt store, the movie theater. I watched him destroying the rose bushes with a stick in the backyard, tearing up his sister’s drawings, chasing the black lab down the hill. I watched him open the automatic window in the car and yell out of it at people walking past. I watched him bathe. I watched him scream. I knew the micro-expressions in the corners of his eyes, changing from mood to mood, the jut of his jaw right before a tantrum, his teeth up close, his eyes up close, his mouth, his nose. I knew the details of his face better than my own, better than anyone I’ve loved.

It is pleasant to imagine that attention stems from love. Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest form of generosity. ” Or, framed as a leading question in the film Ladybird: “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Certainly, attention links to perceived value; as a child, no one watched me the way I watched the boy. But there are also things I love that I prefer to keep a little uncared for. Not looking—at a partner’s texts, at a friend changing her bra—is a form of trust.

And attention can just as well signal generosity’s opposite, as any woman who has had a stalker knows. I have kept a careful eye on many things that I certainly did not love, the boy among them. Once, he screamed in my face, “Leave me alone! Stop watching me!” I understood his feeling. I cover my bedroom windows with curtains. I delete my search history. I lock my social media accounts. The whole time I worked for the boy’s family, I tried to find the cameras littered throughout the house. I didn’t steal, but would I have, if I hadn’t been afraid of being watched?

Insert Image: I am sitting on the sidewalk, outside the school. School’s
still in session. I drop parts of my sandwich for the pigeon. She looks
straight at me with glossy, shrink-wrapped eyes. She does not eat.

“Constant and permanent visibility, ” to borrow Foucault’s phrasing, leaves us vulnerable. For the boy, I formed one side of the frame that surrounded him. For my part, I felt silently acquiescent, unable to shutter. And I, too, had power, over all of them in that house. I was there from morning till night, weekends, weekdays, in the house, outside the house. I knew more of them, though peripherally, than they ever knew of me. I knew the good, the bad. A window is passive, clear glass, but it can transform when the light dies outside, taking on a reflective quality: the insidious trick of your own reflection partially obscuring what you are trying to look at. Why force a non-disclosure except out of fear of what the window has seen, the fear of seeing yourself in it, as you really are?

But it is a vanity to presume that you are the object of another’s gaze, that they might want to expose you. In one of her many self-portraits, Vivian Maierholds the camera at hip height, looking down as she takes a photograph of her own silhouette in a museum window. She stands on the street; carved across her thighs and waist are the figures of two women inside the museum, contained within and obscuring the outline of her body. In another, a woman is talking on the phone through a window, the outline of Maier’s arms, holding the camera, barely visible in the shadow around the figure. She left behind no images of the children she was paid to watch.

After the boy fell asleep, I sometimes walked through his family’s house. I looked at the products inside the bathroom sink. I read the addresses on unopened envelopes and held them up to the light. I touched the fabrics of the racks of his mother’s designer clothes, took heavy dresses off the hangers, pressed them up against my own body. I snapped a picture of myself in her closet, as big as my bedroom. I still have that reflection of myself in one of the floor-length mirrors of the huge room, alone in the house, as if I owned it, as if I lived there, alone.

Insert Image: I stand alone in front of the door, the lock like a face
with a little nose where the key would go. I turn the deadbolt. It clicks.
Two beams come down the driveway, the night guard’s headlights. I
step back, noiseless.

The boy and I often watched Vine compilations on the little window of my phone before bed. Each video composed a little six-second loop, strung together into 20-minute videos, each individual loop a window into a moment. Each compilation had a name: Vines for when you are laying alone in bed at night. Vines for when you’re insecure and don’t know what for. Vines for when you’re lonely and forget who you are.


Erin Marie Lynch is a poet and multimedia artist. Her writing has appeared in journals such as New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, DIAGRAM, and Bennington Review, while her performance and video work has been featured at a variety of exhibitions and festivals. She is a former Hugo House Fellow and has been the recipient of support from the University of Washington, University of North Texas, and the Bill & Ruth True Foundation. Born and raised in Oregon, she is a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Currently, she is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. 

Categories
2020 Essays

Brenda Venezia

PHOTOGRAPHS OF YOUR TÍAS

ii.

Your tía hates to have her picture taken and she’ll leave the room when the cameras come out, even for family pictures when everyone gets together—well, almost everyone. But she helped raise a lot of the kids in this family, including you. I don’t know if you think about that. She loves her yerbitas and natural remedies, and she grows a lot of her own there at the house. She watches the news and has a running hierarchy of which political commentators are the best and which are garbage. She is the best, pero la mera mera, at making games and toys of out of the stuff people think of as trash. Like these: see this stack of little yogurt containers? She washed and saved these for El Nene—be sure to take these with you when you go, don’t forget—there are only sixteen of them, she said, but it’s, of course, easy to save more. You just have to think of it. Build towers out of them, use them for pouring games—all the kids loved those when they were about his age; send her a picture if he likes them, okay? Don’t forget—and for sorting little objects or snacks, flip them upside down for matching games, for a little two-person tossing game when he’s a older, and the list goes on. A whole database in her head.

In the 90s she was a real cool girl, with her job and her professional outfits and her little red Toyota and her tiny San Diego apartment with a roommate. Her lips and nails painted burgundy and brown, that dark puta red, you see? She loved that. She didn’t care. Her hair stayed permed and dyed auburn, her big earrings and her little ankle boots, all pointy and laced up with the jeans tucked in. She watched In Living Color and Melrose Place and introduced all that R&B stuff to all you nieces and taught you all how to drive out in the fields when she would visit, no matter how young you all were, que loca. She never told us until after an outing like that—it was always a quick trip to get one of you a huge orange cream soda at Casa Burger or to grab something at the market, like she was doing us all a favor by taking a few of the kids with her to get out of the house, you know? But it’s true, she was real good about taking you to the library when you’d visit, do you remember that? But she’d sneak in those driving lessons. She really trusted all you girls, I guess, que Dios la cuida. Maybe it’s herself she trusted. She had been used to making decisions alone.

You know, she’s the youngest, and didn’t have to work in the fields much. She got out of town pretty early. She used to be a banker at a couple of different places—Wells Fargo, I think—but she didn’t talk with all of us about what she’d do at work. Nowadays, she says she doesn’t sleep much and drinks weak Nescafe starting very early in the morning, maybe to save money, but she insists it’s what she likes and rolls her eyes every time we tell her she should just use the Keurig we took over there for them last year. All those plants and trees she has grown over the years at the house where she and your grandma live are really something, even now—she’s good with them: succulents, fruit trees, yerbas, those big agaves and yuccas up by the street. She’ll probably offer to send you home with pieces of them in a ziploc. It’s been getting harder to take care of them; don’t compliment them. It’s true they are still impressive, but she’ll apologize and get a little upset, to be quite honest. It’s like she won’t believe that you really think they look good anymore. You see, these last few months, when your grandma has been in and out of the facility, everyone thought your tía would get a little bit of a break, some time to catch up on things, but it turned out that everyone, including Abuela, also worried about Mom in that place and, as usual, had lots to say about how she is taken care of. So your tía mostly stays at the facility too when Mom is there.

She never did have any kids. Back in the day, everyone teased her about how much she loved Peabo Bryson—do you even know who that is?—but she was real private about her dating life. Of course, these last—is it ten years now? Well, since your grandpa died and your grandma had to move—she takes care of your grandma and the house and has no time for herself, it’s true, she does everything, and we’re all thankful she does all that, of course, and we know it’s hard, of course. Sometimes she complains, and I used to argue with her, try to defend Mom, but now I try to listen, because none of us know what it’s like, and we all criticize and she has no one to talk to, and I’m sure it’s real hard. But sometimes she complains a lot, and I have to tell her I’m sorry, but I have to go. It’s hard to listen to, you know? Everyone else has their kids and their homes and lives farther away and it’s just easiest for her to do this right now. We all do what we can.


Brenda Venezia teaches at Fresno State. She is the director of Fresno Women Read, a member of the Central Valley Women Writers of Color Collective, and a member of the QPOC collective, Fecund Stitch. Her work has appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Collagist, Puerto Del Sol, Luna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere.

Categories
2020 Essays

Renée Mitchell Matsuyama

WEIGHTED PLEASURE

In the weight room, surrounded by swarms of straight, cisgender brodudes in tank tops, I want to be invisible. I wear spandex shorts long enough to cover my scars, and a loose-fitting T-shirt with the sides cut out—giving me the shoulder mobility of a tank top without the self-consciousness of a fitted shirt. Then there’s my black-and-yellow striped knee sleeves and my grey low top Chucks. Last but not least, my headphones. Even if I forget my iPod at home, I wear my headphones. Otherwise some Straight Cisgender Brodude is bound to come up to me and ask me about my tattoos or offer his advice on my bench form.

In the weight room, I wear my most brutal bitchface. I want to be untouchable. Independent. Unfuckwithable. I enjoy feeling superior to all the Straight Cisgender Brodudes grunting and flexing in my periphery. Knowing I can hold my own in a space not meant for me, and that I am as good as—if not better than—everyone else. I may not be able to lift pound for pound as much as the Brodude next to me, but factor in size and weight differences, I’m kicking his ass. Factor in form and technique, I’m lifting circles around the motherfucker. Lifting makes me feel like a badass. The pleasure I get from lifting isn’t just about being strong, it’s also about appearing strong.

*

During sex, I want to be put in my place, told what to do, what not to do. I want to be controlled. Owned. Mastered. At my partner’s mercy. I want to give my body completely to whatever she might choose to do with it. Or to it. The more incompetent and imperfect she makes me feel, the better.

I first realized I might prefer sex that goes beyond your average dirty talk or occasional slap on the ass on a Sunday afternoon around four years ago. Sam and I were one of those kinds of relationships that should have been a one-night stand but somehow ended up lasting several years. The kind of relationship your friends talk about with each other behind your back, always with that vaguely condescending tone of worry. The kind of relationship whose long-overdue ending surprises no one except you. The kind of relationship where one week you’re looking at rings and the next week you’re looking for separate apartments. The kind of relationship that, for me at least, makes for some really good sex.

When Sam and I weren’t fighting, we had a Sunday tradition of going to a local record store on our way home from mass (Sam’s Catholic, and I’m—accommodating). Aside from a standing quest for Christmas albums to add to Sam’s collection, we never had a set agenda for our trips. On days that we couldn’t find anything good on the shelves, we’d hit up the “Mystery Bag” bin—a milk crate by the cash register filled with paper-bag-wrapped clusters of vinyl. Five random records for five dollars. Occasionally you’d get a Cat Stevens B-side or an early Queen album, but usually you were spending five dollars on music you’d only ever listen to when you have friends over and they’re looking through your collection and suddenly start laughing and ask, Oh my god why the fuck do you have a Pat Boone record, and then put it on because it’s too hilarious not to.

That Sunday, the “Mystery Bag” gods must have been feeling mischievous, because they decided to drop a Barry White Greatest Hits record in the stash. We played it immediately. We laughed, saying shit like Ooh girl I’m going to sex you good or Yeah come give daddy some sugar in our best attempts at deep-voiced, 70’s porn voices. I think the making out started as a joke, like haha wouldn’t it be funny to make out to this shit. Then suddenly we were making out for real, but my mind kept wandering over to the record. I was having an increasingly hard time suppressing my laughter. When Sam moved her hand down to go inside me, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Sam, I can’t do this,” I giggled. “We have to turn this off, I can’t focus with this cheesy-ass shit in the background.”

She looked at me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on her face.

“Don’t you FUCKING DARE turn off that record. I don’t care what you have to do to focus, but you’ve got until I get your pants off. I’m fucking you to Barry White, whether you like it or not.”

And with that, she stood up, bent me over the couch, and fucked me to Barry White. Usually, I need a pretty decent amount of lube for penetrative sex (thanks, Prozac), but from the moment she snapped into Dom-mode I was soaked.

*

I basically have two ways of being in relationships: overanalyze the shit out of it until I’ve successfully sabotaged whatever could have been there, or adamantly refuse to acknowledge the glaring signs of dysfunction until—well until never I guess. The endings to those relationships are always instigated by the other person.

The first type leave my friends wondering what happened. You two seemed so good together! These relationships generally last a month or two. Once I start feeling smothered, once I sense that someone is falling in love with me. Once we reach the point where, if we keep going, I won’t be able to leave without breaking her heart. The point where I start to lose any interest in sex because I realize I no longer have to work for it.

The second type can last for years. These relationships are with people who keep me in a constant state of insecurity. What I seem to need most is having to work to obtain my partner’s affection—a dynamic in which I am always all in, but my partner is never quite fully in. My sweet spot, it seems, is someone who has such deep-seated trust issues they crave the kind of attention overload I am prone to giving, yet are too afraid of vulnerability to ever fully commit. But these people tend to be crappy partners. At their best, subpar—at their worst, abusive.

Even if these relationships always make me feel like shit emotionally, I have to give them this—the sex is good. That’s the thing though. The sex is good because I feel like shit.

*

Although I will always have a more productive lift in a near-empty weight room, I enjoy being able to hold my own in a testosterone-glutted, axe-infused gym. I won’t push myself as hard on those days, but I will still leave feeling as satisfied as if I had. Or at least, differently satisfied.

“Hey can I ask you a question?”

I’m at the Y on a Sunday afternoon—the only time the Y’s weight room populace resembles that of an L.A. Fitness instead of a retirement community clubhouse—and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around to see a muscular dude of average height, mid-twenties, wearing sweats and a ratty tank top. He’s vaguely hipster-ish, with shoulder-length dirty-blonde hair and scruffy facial hair that lands somewhere between five-o’clock-shadow and legit beard. My eyebrows raised, I move one of my headphones just enough to indicate that I heard him, but not enough to imply that I actually give a shit about whatever he wants to say to me.

“Why do you arch your back like that when you bench?”

I soften. I sense enough sincerity in his voice that for a split second, I think he’s asking for advice. For once I am actually a little excited about having to interact with a Straight Cisgender Brodude.

“There are a number of reasons for it. For one thing, arching your back puts your chest higher in the air, reducing the distance you have to move the bar. Another benefit is that, if you get into position right, you create tension in your shoulders that—”

“Well actually, I was asking if you are aware of how bad that is for your back.”

I should have seen that coming. Of course this asshole was here to mansplain my technique to me, not ask for my expertise. Yes, Mr. Straight Cisgender Brodude, I get why you would think that it’s bad for your back, but as I was saying, if you get into position right, it’s actually better for your back because—

“Okay, well I’m a personal trainer, and I just wanted to make sure you knew that you could really hurt yourself. Just trying to look out for ya.”

“Oh my god a trainer? No way! You know who else is? My actual trainer. But really, THANK YOU for your help. I can’t believe I’ve wasted so many years studying and perfecting a time-tested technique when I could have just been consulting you this whole time.”

This interaction rattled me. I was so self-conscious the rest of my lift, eventually I had to cut my losses and go home early. It doesn’t matter that I know my form is on point. It doesn’t matter that I have spent years researching and practicing this method of benching. In that moment, the only thing on my mind was the fact that nothing I could have said or done would have changed his perception of me as just some dumb bitch who clearly had no business trying to hang with the big boys in the weight room.

*

I’m still not sure why being fucked to deep-voiced baby-making music flipped the switch for me that Sunday with Sam. It’s not like that was the first time I had experienced Dom/sub sexual dynamics, or the first time someone had tried to tell me what to do during sex. Granted, most of those experiences were from before I came out, when I was still fucking cis dudes. But why does that make a difference for me? Why does the thought of a cis dude calling me a slut and forcing me to suck his cock until I choke make me want to scream and cry and vomit because of how degraded it would make me feel—but that same scenario with a woman or a trans guy makes me horny as fuck, precisely because of how degraded it would make me feel? Why does being condescended to by Straight Cisgender Brodudes in the gym make my skin crawl, but the same behavior from a woman or a trans partner during sex can bring me to orgasm?

*

Andi was the first person after Sam I’d consider a “relationship.” We only dated for three months, but things got intense fast. For the first two months, I thought Andi might be my soulmate. Well, sexual soulmate at least.

I forget exactly how we discovered our symbiotic sexual preferences. I think I texted something sort of submissive-y one day and he was like Oh yeah? Tell me more… But once discovered, it escalated quickly. He didn’t mind my scars—he liked them. He wanted to add more. Sam used to throw away my razor blades whenever she found them. Andi would buy extras to make sure I always had enough.

By this point, exploring kink wasn’t new. What was new was the hitting. The choking. The bruises. All this shit I used to fantasize about someone doing and saying to me—Andi was down with it. Not just down with it, he was into it. Most of the time I didn’t even have to tell him what I wanted him to do; he’d have already thought of it. The first time he backhanded me while we were fucking I had to bust out the safe word—not because I didn’t like it, but because I was so shocked he knew I wanted to be hit without my having mentioned it that I needed a minute to process. From then on though, I trembled with excitement every time I thought he was about to slap the fuck out of me.

During the day, Andi would assure me that this isn’t “who he is,” that he only likes that kind of shit in character. “You know I’ll stop the moment it goes too far, right babe? You know I’d never actually hit you, right?”

At first, I thought I knew. I thought I knew this was just a sexual preference, and not a reflection of his character. I mean, I like to be hit and spit on and told to shut the fuck up you dirty slut before I have to shove my strap-on in your mouth and force you to shut up—and I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with me. So it has to be true that someone can like doing those things and also still be a good person. Right?

Sometimes it would take Andi a few minutes to stop after I invoked the safe word. I’d say it over and over, so he had to have heard me, but I’d tell myself it’s got to be hard to snap out of character all of a sudden like that. Plus, he always had to be at least six shots of Jamo deep before we started fucking, and he’d usually end up taking two or three more during, so I figured that also probably contributed to the occasional lag time. And he was so sweet during the day. He couldn’t have been actually abusive. He just got a little carried away sometimes when he was drunk. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. He was always so contrite when he remembered having done (or I told him that he did) something kind of traumatic to me, it was hard to begrudge him for what he did while drunk. Like the time I was curled up on the floor next to my bed crying while he oscillated between pacing the room, punching the wall, and screaming two inches from my face about how fucking dare I tell our mutual friend about him cheating on me. Sure, he slept with two different women in one weekend because I was out of town and he was worried I might sleep with my ex (I didn’t), so he beat me to it just in case. But that’s his fucking business and I had no fucking right to tell her and what if she tells his fucking sister? He doesn’t need her or the rest of his judgmental family knowing his shit; he already has enough to deal with since coming out to them as trans. Seriously, what the FUCK is wrong with you. Stop fucking crying and covering your face like you think I’m going to hit you. You want me to hit you? You want a real reason to cry? Just say it, just fucking say it and I swear to god I’ll fucking SLAP THE SHIT OUT OF YOU RIGHT NOW.

*

I love the adrenaline rush you get from hitting a heavy set that you weren’t sure you were going to make. It’s a release. But not like an orgasm. Or like crying. It’s not how cutting feels, or like purging after a binge. No, the release of a good lift is more like how it feels when you’ve been stuck for what feels like years on level forty-something of whatever game you’re playing and you’re on your last life and you’ve been on this level forever and those stupid fucking jellybeans or whatever the fuck won’t do what you want them to and you don’t think you’re going to make it, oh shit you’re definitely not going make it, but then FUCK YEAH. Finally!

Or how it feels when you ace an exam you thought you were going to bomb, or get accepted into that top-tier grad program you had no business even applying to but you did it anyway because fuck it why not. The release you get from hitting a heavy set feels like sex and power and accomplishment and pleasure and ego all wrapped into one glorious wave of self-assured satisfaction.

*

I should reexamine my claim about wanting to be invisible in the weight room. It’s not an untrue representation of how I feel, but it’s incomplete. More accurately, I should say this: if the only way for me to be seen in the gym is in the typical way that Straight Cisgender Brodudes see women, then yes, I choose invisibility.

But if it’s possible for me to be seen as untouchable, unattainable—someone you shouldn’t even bother speaking to because you simply don’t stand a chance, because whatever you could possibly say to me will be a complete waste of my time. If I could be seen, not as an object to leer at, but as a subject with strength and agency, an independent human who doesn’t fucking need your help and probably knows more than you anyway—that’s the type of visibility I crave.

*

In a lot of ways, it’s hard to separate the physical, mental, and emotional components of lifting—mental strength enables me to increase my physical strength, which increases my emotional strength, which increases my mental strength, which helps me increase my physical strength…and so on. Likewise, I have trouble drawing the Venn diagram that shows how love, pain, and sex function in my life. It seems that pain and sex have a lot of overlap. Sex and love also clearly share a lot of common space. But what about pain and love? Do they overlap? If so, how much? Can those lines be redrawn?

*

A few weeks after my run-in with Mr. Yeah-But-I’m-A-Personal-Trainer, I was approached between sets by an old guy at the Y. He was in his fifties, wearing a worn-out T-shirt and sweatpants, white tennis shoes, and white gym socks pulled up over the cuff of his pants. He had a scraggly, chin-length hairstyle that seemed intentional and also suggested that he has never been married, or, that if he had been married, it ended a long time ago. Normally, I would not have had my guard up with a guy like him. Old guys at the Y just seem to get it. When they talk to me it’s usually to ask a legitimate question or engage in genuine weight room camaraderie. But I was still reeling off that last encounter, so I went into full-on bitch mode when he spoke.

“Pardon me, Miss?”

“What.”

“Oh, um, I wanted to ask you if you would mind if I took a recording of your bench press?”

“Excuse me?” I jumped to the worst possible conclusions. Was he some kind of weightlifting pervert who gets off on seeing girls lift? Does he have some fucked up fantasy about being overpowered by a woman and wants to record me lifting so he can jack off to it at home? I’m sure my disgust and annoyance seeped through my face.

“Well you see, I’m doing a promotional YouTube series about the Y community here, and I was hoping to include you in it if you’re interested. I’m really impressed by your bench form. You know, I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and I’ve never seen anyone—guy or girl—set up their bench with such precision. It’s clear you really know your stuff.”

I reddened from embarrassment, but his offer was one my ego couldn’t refuse. When I watched the video a few weeks later, I didn’t see any of the anxiety I felt while being recorded. I didn’t see the fear in my chest as I brought the bar down for my third rep, wondering whether I’d be able to push it back up. I didn’t see the self-consciousness that permeated my body, making me instantly regret saying yes. When I saw myself on that video, all I saw was strength. I saw the years of practice that went into pushing my shoulders and arms into position. I saw the balanced focus of intentional breathing as I moved the bar to my chest, paused, and pushed it back upright. I saw confidence in every flexed muscle of my body.

When I saw myself on that video, I saw the woman I hope everyone sees who encounters me at the gym: a woman who has no need for your advice, but will gladly get on her knees and call you Daddy if you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in her bed.


Renée Mitchell Matsuyama is a writer who also works as a student services administrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Originally from California, she has spent significant time in Washington, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. If it weren’t for Midwestern winters, Minneapolis would be her favorite U.S. city. Renée holds degrees in English and Higher Education Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is currently pursuing an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She is a Flash Fiction Contributing Editor at Barren Magazine, and you can find her on social media @MatsuyamaRenee.