Categories
2019 NonFiction

Claire Robbins

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.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Claire Robbins

TWO STARS, BURNING SUN

Shay and I drove North to Muskegeon for Sweatfest. Shay’s burned CD, titled Motivational Mamas in sharpie, played over twice during the drive. We were going to see If He Dies He Dies, Lorelei, and The Nain Rouge. For Shay, it was about the music and also a bassist she had a crush on, a beefy man who played in If He Dies He Dies. For me, it was about drinking rum and coke on the drive up and slam dancing buzzed. It was also about Shay, who let me kiss her when we were drinking and paraded me around like a poorly trained puppy.

Shay sipped her rum and coke slowly. She was the driver and had to keep a little sober for the ride home, but I could drink my brains out all night. We had gone through the McDonalds drive-through for a large coke, half of which Shay dumped out in the parking lot. We left the empty half pint of Captain Morgan’s on the pavement. This was our routine. We might ask the beefy man to buy us more liquor once we got to Sweatfest, or Shay might befriend boys with beer.

I had recently pierced my eyebrow on the night of my eighteenth birthday. Shay had gone along, she had turned eighteen almost a full year before, and had pierced her belly button a few months earlier. Don’t get too many facial piercings, Shay had warned. She didn’t want me to end up like Tackle-Box, someone we knew from going to shows.

You look hardcore, Shay said, taking her eyes from the road for just a beat too long, jerking the steering wheel straight when she finally put her eyes back on the road. I was wearing the usual, a thrift store D.A.R.E. tee-shirt, black jeans cut off at the knee, and a pair of work boots. I glared at Shay.

What do you mean?

Your hair, asshole, it looks sexy. Shay reached over and grabbed a handful of my hair, which sent shivers down my spine. I had thought about cutting my hair, to look less like a girl, but I loved it when people touched my hair.

You look sexy too, babe. Shay was wearing ripped fishnets, and a lacy dress that was sold as lingerie.

Oh these? She said, running the fingers of one hand over her cleavage. These are for Alex.

Alex was the beefy man. Shay was always doing this to me, teasing because she knew I would do anything for her, but if I ever wanted to go farther than kissing, she would tell me that we were just friends, and that I was too good of a friend to lose.

Sweatfest was held in the conference room of a seedy motel. It was a three-day festival, but we were only up for the night because Shay had to work the following day at noon restocking shelves at the grocery store. I was working for a house cleaning company, but didn’t have to go in until Monday. Shay and I had moved into a two-bedroom apartment together as soon as we graduated from high school, while I was still seventeen. My mom didn’t mind, the move just meant I was one less person for her to keep track of.

Shay pulled her Dodge Avenger into the parking lot of the motel. We’re here, we’re here. She took a long pull of the rum and coke; it was just about gone. I felt warm. Love radiated from my body, or maybe it was sex. I couldn’t tell the difference. We opened the car doors and I pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, which Shay had convinced me to start buying and I had given in, even though they were more expensive than the Marlboro reds I used to smoke. I lit Shay’s cigarette, and then my own. The Lucky Strikes did taste good, so good after the rum and coke. I leaned my body against the car, and Shay put her arm around my shoulder. I figured I would hold off kissing her until she got a little more drunk, but I wanted to right then, in the parking lot.

Ready to go in? Shay asked, dropping her cigarette butt onto the asphalt. She picked up her purse from the driver’s seat and watched me take two more drags.

Can I hold your hand? I wasn’t slurring my words yet, I didn’t think, but I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the day, with the anticipation of dancing and drinking the rest of the day. It was strange feeling buzzed in the sunshine, I thought; it was still only mid-afternoon. Shay looked at me.

Don’t get too worked up, Cam, we’ve got the whole night together. But she took my hand, and we walked past boys in mohawks, clustered around the front doors, smoking cigarettes and joints. The boys looked at Shay’s cleavage, they looked at the steel toes on my boots, and I looked at the knives tucked into their pockets and hanging on their beltloops. I wondered if they’d hit me as hard as I wanted once I started dancing.

We walked into the conference room. There were cigarette butts ground into the carpet and empty red cups and beer cans from the night before. A band was setting up on stage, tangled cords crisscrossed, and a thin boy carrying a snare drum almost tripped. Other kids were standing in groups and the excitement was a heavy skin hanging over everyone. Alex stood at one end of the room, with a can of beer and the guys from The Nain Rouge. Shay pointed in their direction just as I spotted them. I wished the music would start.

Alex looks so good in those jeans.

I looked down at my own pants. I look good in my jeans. I tried to thrust my right hip to the side. Shay rolled her eyes at me and walked over to Alex, wrapped her arms around him. When they pulled apart, Alex looked her up and down. Alex was twenty-eight and had a fiancé. Maybe she was there, I hoped. I stood rooted to the carpet until someone put a Ramones CD on, and then I let my hair fall over my face as I shook my head slowly to the music.

Cam’s being an asshole, I told myself in Shay’s voice over and over in my head, until Shay walked back over and pulled me by my hand to where Alex and the guys stood. They all looked at the tangle of un brushed hair partially covering my face, they looked at my boots.

Hey man, The Nain Rouge’s drummer reached out to slap my shoulder.

Cammie, right? Alex asked even though I had spent at least a dozen drunken nights trying to maneuver my body between his and Shay’s bodies. He should have known my name.

Cam, actually, I glared at Alex.

Right, he said too slowly, smiling and shaking his head at Shay. Maybe their plan was to get me so drunk I passed out in a corner. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, they felt like planets orbiting around my torso. I shoved them into my pockets, then pulled out a lighter and my pack of cigarettes.

Can we smoke in here? I asked Shay.

I’m going to, Shay answered, pulling a Lucky Strike out of my pack. I held up the lighter to light the smoke in her mouth, but she moved her head to the side and took the lighter out of my hands, lighting her own cigarette before passing the lighter back to me. I lit my cigarette and let it dangle out of the corner of my mouth for a few puffs, lifting my face up to the fluorescent lights. I shook my hair back so it wouldn’t catch fire.

I met Shay at bible camp, which was the cheapest sleepaway camp my mother could find but Shay’s family really believed. The camp was called HEARTTS, which stood for Heavenly Ever After Retreat To The Savior, an acronym that didn’t make sense even to fifth graders. Nothing about camp made sense to me except for Shay, who at eleven already painted her fingernails black and had breasts. I had not eaten much all summer because I didn’t want to start my period and I didn’t want to grow breasts, a strategy that only worked for so long.

It was an all-girls camp, which I later told myself was the reason Shay had befriended me—I was the closest person to a boy she could find, and she was desperate for a boyfriend. She let me hold her hand underwater during swimming hole time, and share a table with her at mealtimes. I would put a small amount of food on my plate and watch Shay eat her fill. We had chapel before dinner, a two-hour session during which I would pray that god not give me a period. At the end of chapel, the speaker would invite us forward to the front of the room to receive the holy spirit.

Slowly one or two campers would walk up and kneel in the front of the chapel, arms reaching up as if to catch whatever god dumped on them, well, I didn’t want anything god had for me.

The Nain Rouge’s drummer tossed me a can of beer. I caught it, considered it in my hands for a second before cracking the tab and passing the can to Shay. She smiled at me and took a long drink. I looked to the drummer, who tossed another can my way. I opened my beer and poured the sweet liquid into my mouth. The band that had been setting up began their set. I didn’t recognize them, and they weren’t great, but I shook my head slowly to their music.

I felt Shay’s heat radiating next to me. I wanted to grab her hand, lean in towards her body. I wanted to dance slowly with her, but she was looking at Alex, whose fiancé had stayed home from Sweatfest. She had been in a bad mood Alex said, winking at Shay.

The unrecognizable band played out their set and my joints loosened up from another beer. The person I was inside seemed to peer out from under my hair. I felt better drunk, like who I actually was joined up with the sensations of my body. If He Dies He Dies moved their drums onto the stage. The unrecognizable band unplugged their amps.

If He Dies He Dies opened with Feels Like the First Time. The bass shook my spine. The other kids in the room moved closer to the stage and I could see from their energy that it was only a moment before they began pushing. I turned to Shay, thinking that maybe I could kiss her before I moved up closer to the stage. She stood looking up at Alex, his hand moving along the neck of his bass. It was just energy coursing through my body, or alcohol.

I wasn’t angry as I pushed my body closer to the stage and began wheeling my arms. I could become a part of the crowd, which began to circle. The Nain Rouge’s drummer had followed me up and was slamming his shoulders into other dancers, who pushed back with their arms. The only rule in the pit was to lift people back up to their feet if they fell, because falling would be a type of death under the weight of the crowd.

On the last night of camp, I had accepted the pastor’s call to come up to the altar. About half of the campers were already kneeling in front of the room, arms out-stretched, mouthing prayers or repeating the same words over and over in a kind of ecstasy. Halleluiah—halle—halleluiah, they stuttered before the spirit entered them and strange sounds pulled out of their throats.

Shay was on her back, speaking in tongues. I knelt down next to her and tried praying inside my head. Lord, show me the way. Next to me a counselor knelt down, placing her hand on my back, Lord Jesus, heavenly father, pour your blessings on Cammie, fill her body with your spirit. I pushed my fingers into the carpet, creating ten impressions in its surface. The words, her body, ran through my head over and over, and then my face was in the carpet and words were coming out of my mouth. I was scared but I knew, even as the words left my mouth, that I was faking. I knew that god hadn’t entered me, wouldn’t ever enter someone as mixed up and hungry as me. The counselor seemed to know I was faking too, she gave me a stern look before moving on to another camper.

The thing about slam dancing is that once you get into the circle, it’s hard to pull away from the motion. I was so close to the other bodies, their movements propelling me around and around. I kept moving my legs long past the point of exhaustion. And then the set ended and the dancing slowed and I was able to pull back.

I sat against the wall, smoking. Shay slumped down next to me, took the cigarette that I held out to her, even let me light it for her. She exhaled and leaned her head onto my shoulder.

Where’s lover boy? I asked.

He went into the band room.

Are they doing lines?

Yeah, I think. He wouldn’t let me go in with him. Fuck his ass. Shay reached up and moved the tangle of sweaty hair out of my face. Lover boy, she said, giggling. A power coursed through my body, and I grabbed Shay’s hand.

Do you remember camp? I asked.

Yeah, I remember you got the holy spirit.

So did you, Shay.

No, I didn’t, Cam. I just wanted attention. I was faking.

I leaned over and kissed Shay soft on the lips. She pressed into the kiss and pressed into me, whispering, but I couldn’t hear what she said because a wall of music pushed over the room.


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.