reminding flesh what the brain
relinquished, a century in an hourglass, skin a scaffolding
of cells. It’s not how much you suffer, but where.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE A BODY?
Once upon a time, there was a young woman named after an angel. She was long and lithe with delicate features, able to balance without wobbling on the single blade of her skate. Each day after school, Celeste could be seen floating backwards with her leg extended as if through a heavenly ether, or pirouetting like a ballerina several inches above the smooth, white ice. Celeste wanted to skate in the Olympics one day, and she told her parents that this was her solitary dream. Her coaches advised them to take out a loan and send the poised and elegant Celeste to Paris for further training.
Celeste was the older sister, Sabrina the younger. Sabrina had a brilliant mind but an ordinary body. No one knew if Celeste had a brilliant mind or not, since visible beauties have a way of trumping other kinds. Their father began working overtime. Sabrina began studying on her own, as they could no longer afford the tutor for her advanced work in math. And the young and promising Celeste was sent to Paris on a cloud. At home, their mother cooked and cleaned, just as she always had, but now she spent more time speaking of her daughter, The Ice Skater, peppering the walls with pictures of Celeste in her shimmery, sequined best.
In the summer, they all gathered at the airport to welcome her home from a year abroad. These were the old days, when families still stood at the gate and pressed their faces to the glass. They could see her coming up the ramp, or at least it was her teal suitcase rolling behind her. Was this Celeste? Surely it couldn’t be. When she stepped into the light, her mother gasped. She was all flesh now. She had tried to disguise her new body with fabric waterfalls—the loose, wide-legged pants, the soft tunic slipping from her shoulder. The bone of that shoulder no longer pointed skyward like the hanger meant to hold her clothes in place. Even her neck was thick, so the cross she wore at her throat constricted against it—a choker now, no longer a pendant.
Celeste, seeing her mother, began to weep softly. “I’m finished,” she murmured. “It was France. It was perfect. I loved the bakeries, all the fresh bread and cheese . . .”
They stood and cried together a long time while the father and sister looked on, silent and somber. The next morning, the walls of the house were white and spare again, and Celeste’s mother asked her father to please putty the holes where each of the nails had been.
It is easy to forget that Cinderella was once a ragamuffin of a girl, unkempt and unnoticed, doing hard day labor in her stepmother’s house. I always remember her as the princess-to-be, waltzing with Prince Charming in that dazzling blue gown. But when he comes to find her after the ball—in some versions, it is his messenger he sends—the girl is ordinary again: dirt on her face, a plain shift on her body. So ordinary is the Ash Girl in fact that they laugh at the mere suggestion that she of all people should slip her commonplace foot into that fantastical shoe.
And so it is with Annabel Andrews. My mother says, “To think she grew up to be Jodie Foster, the Jodie Foster!” But wasn’t she Jodie Foster even then, at thirteen, with her stringy blond hair and her low alto voice and her braces? I liked the look of her at the coffee shop, in the classroom, out on the hockey field. She had dirt on her face, a plain uniform on her body . . . Maybe I would have liked Cinderella, too—the preteen before the princess—shaking out rugs on the back porch, whistling while she hung a row of white shirts on the line.
The message seems to be that beauty takes time, that you’re always better after than before. I know we’re supposed to like the new Annabel better than the old, sans braces, with curls in her hair and perfectly manicured nails. A denim jumpsuit is just the seventies version of a ballgown after all. But it is also easy to forget that Annabel was her mother when all these changes occurred. Maybe Cinderella was also written by a mom, dedicated to a “tomboy teenaged daughter” in a state of pending reform.
“If we traded bodies,” I ask my mother, “what’s the first thing you would do?”
She laughs a little, then shakes her head. “Oh, Julie, don’t even get me started.”
HOW DOES THE BODY DIFFER FROM A STORY?
Mrs. Sproul was Jennifer’s mother. She had dark hair and dark eyes and dark skin like Jennifer’s, and I liked how you could see the veins winding up through her arms like ropes. When she came to visit us on Bring Your Mother to School Day, she wore a shirt without any sleeves that looked like a blanket you’d drape over the back of a couch. Her head poked through in the middle, and her shiny hair was woven into a single, perfect braid.
“Did you help?” I ask Jennifer.
“No. My mother braids it herself.”
Mrs. Sproul talked about what it meant to be Native American. I was confused because I thought we were all Native Americans unless we were born somewhere else. Then she gave us cooked seaweed for snack, which wasn’t nearly as good the homemade ice cream sandwiches my own mother had made. It was salty, though, and I liked Mrs. Sproul, so I asked for second helpings with extra crackers to conceal the taste.
Then Mrs. Sproul disappears. We don’t see her standing in line with the other mothers, waiting for Jennifer after class. My mother says that Mrs. Sproul is sad because she was going to have a baby, but she lost it. Did she put up pictures on a telephone pole? Had she checked with Audrey at the Lost and Found? But it isn’t like that, my mother says. The baby wasn’t even born yet. The baby wasn’t even fully formed.
How did she know it was there then? How can you lose something you haven’t even had?
My mother says it is like a promise. Her body promised her a baby, but then, for reasons we don’t understand, the promise was broken. Her body reneged, and Mrs. Sproul was betrayed. Just the thought of this—of Mrs. Sproul and her emptiness—flusters me, so my cheeks scorch and my heart floats up in my ears.
I earn a quarter every week as my allowance. I think how this money is promised to me, but what if my father, without explanation, decided to keep it instead? What if he never opened the top bureau drawer or fished out the silver coin from deep in his trouser pocket?
It wouldn’t be any less of a loss, would it, than if I had dropped the quarter myself through one of those grates on a busy, city street?
There is a new show on television called Beverly Hills 90210. My mother believes it is a family show, like Highway to Heaven. My mother is mistaken. We make popcorn and pour Shasta into plastic cups. There is a whiteboard on a tripod left out from Win, Lose, or Draw, which we will use if it becomes necessary to visualize anything.
“From what I’ve read,” my mother says, “this first episode of the new season is going to talk about pregnancy. Your father and I feel that we need to address the subject as well.”
“But you can’t have anymore children,” I say.
“This isn’t about us,” my father replies. “This is about you.”
“You’re about to start seventh grade.” Had he always had such bushy eyebrows, such serious eyes? “I think we all know what that means.”
Brenda has thick, dark hair with blunt-cut bangs and full, pouty lips. She has a twin brother named Brandon, a wealthy boyfriend named Dylan, and she is terrified that she is pregnant. In the end, it turns out that she isn’t pregnant, but she learns a valuable lesson about how dangerous it is to be a girl.
When the episode is over, my mother peers into my face and inquires, “Do you know what it was that Brenda did that made her think she was pregnant?”
I nod my head.
“Can you explain it to us?”
When I don’t respond, my mother reaches for a marker. “Please don’t draw that big cow’s head,” I plead, which is how the diagram of the female reproductive system always looks to me.
“Julie, we need to know that you’re following what we’re trying to teach you here.” My father wipes his mouth and sits up straighter in his chair. “Sex doesn’t just determine what happens to you in the afterlife; it’s about the way your whole future could be destroyed in this life.”
I nod again, wipe my moist hands on the sofa cushions.
“I’ll put it as plain as I know how,” my mother says. “This is you now,” and she draws a stick figure with a big head of permed hair at one end of the whiteboard. Then she draws a line to the other end and puts the same permed stick figure holding hands with a plain stick figure. “This is you twenty years from now, when you’re married.” She adds two small stick figures beside the plain stick figure and me. “You and your husband will have children,” which is another (nicer) way of saying that my husband and I will have sex. I don’t want to think about it, but now I must. I see a penis like a party snake in the middle of the cow’s head diagram in my mind.
“Sometime soon,” my mother says, drawing a downward-facing arrow to an early point on the line, “you will get your period.” I wince as if I have been pierced by that very arrow. “The time between your period and your marriage—” she picks up a red marker now and shades the line furiously from the dot to the plain stick figure—“is the most perilous time of your life.”
“There are going to be temptations,” my father says, but thankfully, he doesn’t contribute anything to my mother’s illustration. “The question is, Julie, what are you going to do with these next twenty years?”
I open my mouth, but it is dry, empty of words and ideas.
“What are you not going to do?” my father prods.
“Sex?” I squeak.
“Good. But say it like you mean it.”
“And with all the time that you’re not having sex,” my mother says, capping her marker at last, “you will be avoiding pregnancy and going to medical school.”
My father smiles at me now, his jaw unclenched. “Think what a success you will be.”
WHAT IS THE BODY IF NOT ALSO A METAPHOR?
We all know Pollyanna had it coming to her. She was cheerful and kind and talked to everyone in her charming English way, but she also questioned authority and broke a series of rules, including Aunt Polly’s curfew and insistence that she stay at home during the Fourth of July picnic.
I knew about corporal punishment, but this was different. No one spanked Pollyanna for sneaking out of the house and attempting to climb down the tree. The situation was worse than that. Pollyanna was punished physically in a way that made it seem like she had punished herself. Maybe God did it—made her fall so she would be lame and have to travel away on a train to get leg surgery. That’s a pretty powerful wake-up call about what can happen if you don’t do as you’re told. Or maybe it wasn’t God, just the writer showing us instead of telling us that you can’t get away with things—that there is no action without consequences.
I wonder if she had been climbing out her window to rescue a kitten or because the house was on fire and there was no other escape—would she have fallen? Somehow I think God (or the writer) would have spared her. But it was her vanity—the fact that she wanted to be seen as the solo in the singing flag—that caused her to lose the use of her legs. Maybe temporarily, or maybe for good.
That was the problem with punishment. It always seemed like a simple hole in the wall, a crack in the plaster of your best intentions. But when you climbed into that hole or were pushed through, you saw there was a whole room behind it, and sometimes this room was drafty and dank, unsettled all the way to its very foundations.
Janine Southerland looked a little like Hayley Mills after she grew up and played the principal on Saved by the Bell. She told me a story once about her affair with a man who drove a black Porsche and was married to another woman.
“I was lonely,” she said, “single and lonely. I knew it was wrong, but I think I kind of liked that it was wrong. Does that make sense?”
We sat in the break room. I ate my sandwich quietly and in a way that made her feel she could tell me anything, even though I was young and a virgin and had only seen Porsches in James Bond movies.
“Anyway, I liked to be seen riding around in that Porsche with him. I felt like the chosen one, even if it was only on selected afternoons. I liked how he would have the men valet-park it when we went to restaurants and hotels, and they would look at me like I was somebody special—his wife maybe.”
She paused to lift her Lean Cuisine out of the microwave.
“But good things—that are really bad things—always come to an end. We were driving on this road with beautiful scenery but a lot of sharp turns, and he was driving too fast, of course, because what’s the point of having a Porsche if you don’t drive too fast? It was summer, so the sunroof was open, and he took a corner so fast that we collided with another car, and I was launched out of the Porsche through the sunroof like a catapult. I don’t know much about physics, but I’m pretty sure it was a one-in-a-million chance. I broke my neck, he went back to his wife, and we never saw each other again.”
“But I thought, if you broke your neck—”
She finishes my sentence for me—“that you died? Automatically? Well, you don’t. Not always. I was in the hospital a long time, and eventually, they made this suit for me that helped to fuse my head back onto my body. I went around looking like a member of a bomb squad. I’d stand in supermarket checkout lines, and everybody would stare at me silently. I didn’t feel human anymore. I wasn’t sure I wanted to survive.”
For my part, I wasn’t sure why Janine was telling me this story. We chewed in silence for a while, and I glanced at her neck a few times, trying to pry behind her collar with my eyes. Then, she was paged to the selling floor, so she stood up (was she always so stiff? why had I never noticed before?) and tossed her lunch in the trash.
“Whatever you do,” Janine said, looking fondly at me, and wistful too, “just remember that no fuck is worth all that.”
IS THE BODY DESTINED TO BE LONELY?
Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Liesl who loved to sneak out of the house after supper and dance in the gazebo. She was in love, or falling in love, with a young man named Rolfe who delivered telegrams to her father. On their own, both were average-looking people, but more interesting than average because they were European. When they danced together, especially inside the gazebo during a lightning-and-thunder storm, they became beautiful, radiant. Their movements were smooth and synchronized. They fit together like a teacup and saucer.
But love is never easy. The summer storm is a metaphor. Someone always has a curfew, or pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, or gets her braces caught in someone else’s hair. Liesl might have fallen the way Pollyanna did, crawling in through the high window, having just kissed a soon-to-be Nazi in the rain. There has to be a consequence for this. But as it is, her dress is stained, and the new governess agrees to keep her secret for her, to lend her a towel and a clean nightgown and even talk with her awhile. The governess is also a nun, which means she must remain neutral in romantic terms, and she must never let a man sweep her off her feet, let alone waltz her to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Except the new governess is also in love, or falling in love, with Liesl’s father, the master of the house who was once a captain in the navy but is now a widower with seven children to raise. Is she more attracted to his power or to his vulnerability? This is hard to say. But then the Baroness arrives from her castle in Vienna, and she is more beautiful than anyone else in the room. Or any room. Her hair is white-gold, and her gown is white-gold, and even the champagne in her glass is white-gold. They will dance, the Captain and the Baroness, and everyone will agree that they look well together. The Captain will also never be a Nazi, which adds more points in his favor.
But then the governess breaks the cardinal rule about nuns dancing, and she blushes in the captain’s masterful arms. There has to be a consequence for this. So she flees back to the abbey, where she makes a silent vow and refuses to come out of her room. This is because she knows, in her innermost heart, that she would throw Jesus over in a second for one night in a gazebo with that man.
Is there a lesson here? Is there a moral?
Maybe: Love’s most familiar form is a triangle. (LIESL + ROLFE + HITLER; THE GOVERNESS + THE CAPTAIN + THE BARONESS; alt. THE GOVERNESS + THE CAPTAIN + THE HOLY SAVIOR.)
Or: The most beautiful one is not always the most satisfied one. (Think of the Baroness, awash in beauty like a night in the rain, slinking off to her castle alone.)
Or: To dance is to enter a hot kiln, to fire the soft pot of the heart into something solid. (That which can only keep or break. That which can never bend.)
Love looks different after World War II and Vietnam and the Cold War. Love looks different in America, too. If you were raised on fairy tales, you might not recognize love at first in the fluorescent American light of the roller rink or the bowling alley. You might not recognize love in the sticky-sweet of the blue raspberry Icee, the stale scent of the snack bar, with its popcorn and its corn dogs and its nachos with extra cheese, American cheese, pumped from a tub shaped like a soap dispenser. Love is a casual excess here, like Good & Plenty at the movies (that bottomless box!), or a bright distraction, like the disco ball that strobes across the skating floor or dangles above the newly waxed lane.
We were learning how to double date. We were learning how to turn love from a triangle into two sets of boxed seats, a booth at the diner where one boy and one girl sit on each side. A mirror image. A microcosm of the larger world of mothers and fathers on park benches at barbecues.
“It just makes sense,” April says from the bathroom stall beside mine. “Everything else comes in pairs. Think about salt and pepper shakers.” She had a point there. “Don’t you see how it’s bound to happen? I mean”—flushing now—“you can’t take love off the table.”
There was no gazebo at the roller rink. We only had a pay phone with a broken cord and a pinball machine that sometimes lit up for no reason. Even if there had been a lightning-and-thunder storm, no one could have heard it above the roar of so many Riedell wheels and the DJ playing Celine Dion at full volume. This was long before she knew her heart would go on, long before any of us did. But how do you cross that gap, like a sidewalk crack, between the last Before and the first After?
Lee takes my sweaty palm in his sweaty palm. It’s “Tale as Old as Time” now, from the new Disney film. The lights are dimmed for a couples’ skate. “Couples only!” the DJ commands, so all the singles have to exit the floor through breaks in the carpeted wall. There is a certain shame in this, a skulking off into shadows, a defeated return to the soda fountain. Lee and I are in the rotation now, the record of love that spins round and round, and that’s when we see them: off in the distance, incandescent, there beside the vending machine with its deep green glow. They are leaning against the wall: Julie Winder with her white-gold hair, Mike Shields with his white-gold hair, their pale bodies pressing into each other, bubbling like champagne they’ve never tasted, their sticky-sweet mouths careening out of control.
Ever just the same, ever a surprise . . . Our fingers part on the curve . . . Ever as before, ever just as sure as the sun will rise . . . “Sorry!” I shout to Lee over my shoulder. “I have to go to the bathroom again.”
WHAT IF SUDDENLY, AFTER A LONG LASPSE IN MEMORY, THE BODY IS REMEMBERED?
Once upon a time, there were two teenaged girls named Deanna and Heidi. They were both only children and had been friends since first grade. Often, they were mistaken for sisters, even though they lacked any physical resemblance. Deanna was tall with bronze skin and brown eyes and strong muscles in her arms from years playing tennis and basketball. Heidi was short with yellow hair and pale skin and a few vexing freckles that made her look younger than she was. Afternoons, it was common to see them walking together through the waterfront neighborhood.
In high school, Deanna had a steady boyfriend, and Heidi went out on dates with a number of eligible boys. Deanna’s mother, Dunja, had been known to remark that her daughter often flirted shamelessly to get something she wanted—a discount at the ice cream shop, a refund without a receipt at the mall. Dunja recounted these episodes with a tone of mock annoyance, as if, beyond her initial outrage that her daughter batted her eyes and swung her hips in pursuit of special treatment, she was also relieved to see such feminine behaviors. “She’s all girl,” Dunja would sigh, “which means she’s nothing but trouble.”
One afternoon, Deanna’s parents returned to a quiet house. They were used to the girls sprawled out on the living room rug, drinking sodas through licorice sticks and laughing at something on television.
“Will you bring me some fried onions for the casserole?” Dunja asked her husband, Ivo. Before he could reply, she recited: “Downstairs, pantry, third shelf on the right.”
Ivo nodded, wanting only to collapse in his recliner chair but knowing better than to say this to Dunja.
In the basement, he noticed the light bulb with the dangling string aglow in the corner of the room. Dunja wouldn’t like that, he thought, and the last thing he needed was one of her lectures on the cost of electricity. He switched off the light. But then, on his way to the pantry, he saw another light beaming from under the laundry room door. He would have to speak to Deanna about this, but privately, so as to protect her from her mother’s temper.
Ivo opened the door. Everything happened like a montage in a movie: a series of swift jump cuts and then the camera’s slow, panoramic sweep as he averted his eyes, twisted his body away. His daughter, Deanna. Her back exposed. Her shirt on the floor. Heidi perched on the washing machine. Her legs wrapped around Deanna’s waist, pulling her in, pulling her close. Nothing accidental about the posture. The deep, fraught kisses. The hands lost in each other’s hair.
At least Joyce has two daughters,” my mother remarks. “I wasn’t so lucky. With you, there is no Plan B.”
When I ask her what she means, she tells me to stop dilly-dallying and pull those nylons over my knees. “It’s a wedding,” she says. “Let’s try to make ourselves presentable, shall we?”
“But what were you saying about Amy and Brenda before?”
“Linda, we’re going to be late,” my father calls from the hall. “Do you have any idea what the traffic is like on that side of town?”
“Give us five minutes,” she snaps. “I still have a little magic to work,” and sets about moussing my hair.
“It seems like I haven’t seen Amy in forever,” I say. “Is she—”
“God only knows,” my mother sighs. “God only knows where she is and what she is doing. But whatever you do, don’t ask Joyce or Ed about her. This is Brenda’s big day, and the last thing they need is a slew of questions from nosy you.”
“So Amy won’t be there? She’s the older sister. I figured she would be the maid of honor.”
“As if any tradition was ever sacred to that girl!” Now my mother is scrunching and furiously picking my hair while studying her own complexion in the vanity mirror.
“I won’t ask any questions of them, but just between you and me—”
“Amy is in a cult! There, I’ve said it. Are you satisfied?”
I shake my head. “What do you mean, ‘a cult’?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. Some Canadian cult—in Manitoba or one of those other godforsaken places. And she is married to a man who is twice her age!”
“Never let on to Joyce that you know. She told me under the strictest confidence. Obviously, understandably, she’s embarrassed.” My mother leans down and whispers dramatically in my ear: “Amy eloped with this man—this Canadian cult leader—almost five years ago now. Can you imagine? What a disgrace! She calls them sometimes, but she won’t come home. Joyce is terrified that she’s going to have his baby, and then she’ll never get away.”
I haven’t seen Amy in years, but I have to admit I’m surprised by her moxie. Moxie—or folly. It is hard to say. I never trust my mother to tell me the whole story.
When we arrive at the church, Joyce intercepts us in the narthex and draws my mother and me into the ladies’ room. “Bill, go find a seat,” my mother instructs, and I watch as he follows the stream of organ music toward the sanctuary.
“I’m a wreck,” Joyce confides as soon as we are out of earshot.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Did Amy—”
“No, it’s Brenda. She’s sick. Can you believe it? She is sick on her wedding day.”
“You have been beset by misfortunes,” my mother concurs.
“And you know, Brenda is our good daughter. She and David have waited all this time. Now she’s gotten on the pill, and they’re all ready for the big night, except she’s sick, and the doctor says there could be some kind of interaction between the antibiotics and her birth control, so he wants them to use a different kind of contraception.” Joyce’s neck strains against her doily collar. “As a precaution.”
I turn my eyes down to the pink tile floor, the grout between the pink tiles, the dirt in the grout between the pink tiles.
“Condoms?” my mother murmurs, in the same tone she uses for phrases like tax audit and devil in disguise.
“Well, David’s not having anything to do with it. They’ve had a big fight, and—who can blame him?—he says to her, ‘I haven’t waited two years to have sex with my wife only to be told I have to wear a rubber.’”
“So, she’ll just risk it? Or will she get involved with a diaphragm and all that business?”
I can’t believe what I am hearing, and my eyes dart up from the floor, gauge the seriousness of their expressions, start to turn away. “She’s sick!” I say, turning back. “What if she doesn’t feel like having sex? Why should she have to?”
Joyce opens her mouth to speak, but no sound comes out, and my mother’s eyebrows furrow deeply, letting me know that I have crossed a line for which there will be consequences. “Julie, this is really no concern of yours. You can’t possibly understand—”
“It isn’t rocket science,” I say. “When I’m sick, I don’t even want to get off the couch. I don’t feel like doing anything, let alone having someone paw all over me, stick his—”
Now Joyce brings her hand to her heart like she is about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Julie! Enough!” my mother barks. “Have some respect. It’s their wedding night, and a man has a right to expect certain things from his wife on their wedding night.”
WHAT IF THE BODY BECOMES ITS OWN ADVERSARY?
At the college dorm, Christmas lights glow year-round—in the parlors, around the doorframes, along the check-in desk where the senior resident assistant is on duty until ten o’clock.
But it is after eleven now, and he has been kissing me in every place we can think of—the park bench, the movie theater, the front seat of the borrowed car, and now the phone booth in the lobby, which is only ever used by girls with calling cards, girls trying to reach family overseas.
“I love phone booths,” I whisper, as he closes the door behind us.
“Why phone booths?”
“Think about Clark Kent.”
“I want to think about you.” He presses his weight against me. He kisses me: my neck, my collarbones.
“The phone booth is a site of transformation,” I insist.
It surprises me how much I like the close quarters, the heat our bodies make in the tight space. He is taller than I am, which is also a relief. It is not often I get to feel smaller than someone.
“Come upstairs with me,” I say.
“Won’t we get in trouble?”
“Becky’s gone for the whole week, and the RA can sleep through anything.”
He nods and follows me up the back stairs, our fingers interlaced, our breath still ragged from using our mouths so much. I love the feeling of being wanted like this, of inciting a verifiable physical response in him. He tells me I have beautiful hands and beautiful lips, two features of my body that I am proud of all on my own, without help from anyone. His compliment tells me he sees me as I see myself, which is more important even than seeing me as I want to be seen.
There are two rooms, the anteroom and the bedroom. I don’t bother turning on the lights. The moon is bright, and the courtyard outside the window is dotted with old-fashioned lampposts and bright blue emergency phones. We make shadows against the wall, kissing our way toward the second threshold. I don’t know what will happen, how far we will go. I am open to anything, everything, my heart a parachute splayed newly soft and wide.
His hands hold to my waist, wet with sweat. I lift them gently to my breasts, only to feel them fall away. We spin on our heels. We are breathless in the half-dark. I lift his hands, and he lowers them, anchored to my hips. When I try the third time, he parts his lips. “I can’t do that,” he says.
“Touch you there.”
“You can,” I say. “It’s okay. I’m giving you permission.”
“It’s not your permission I need,” he replies, and I feel the distance in the lower half of his torso, his body pulling away.
“What do you mean? I want you to.”
“But Jesus,” he says. “Jesus doesn’t.”
So, is it true love?” Becky asks, grinning at me across the cafeteria table.
“Well, it’s the first time for both of you. That can be tricky. No one to take the lead.”
“Oh, I took it, but he didn’t follow.”
“What do you mean?” Her eyes are so blue and full of concern, eyes I could never tire of looking into.
“It turns out that he has boundaries. Apparently, Jesus doesn’t want him to fuck me.”
“Oh my God!” She drops her head to the table with a thud.
“Literally. But it’s not that. It’s more than that. I don’t really care that he won’t touch my breasts. I don’t even know what I like yet. But there’s this whole difference-of-opinion-about-the- nature-of-the-world thing that bothers me.”
“Because you’re not a Christian and he is.” Becky looks at me, her cheeks rosy with atheist empathy.
“I don’t know if I’m not . . . I mean, I was raised to be. I’m just—I’m not that strict about it. I’m—exploring my spiritual options.”
“What did I say to you from the very beginning?”
“I know, I know.”
“Do you think now, maybe, there might be some stock in it? I mean, people have used craftier excuses than Jesus to get out of sex before.” Becky raises her white-gold eyebrows at me suggestively.
“Look. I don’t know about that. I don’t know about—his preferences—whatever. But it’s like, the way my mom described it, there were supposed to be all these boys groping me all the time, feeding me these lines, trying to swindle me out of Christ’s holy treasure—”
“Just to be clear: is that your virginity?”
“Oh, shut up!” I laugh in spite of myself. “But it hasn’t been that way at all. I mean, I haven’t had to peel them off like Band-Aids. My mother always said that women were the keepers of virtue, but every guy I meet makes me seem like I’m the aggressor.”
“I’m late for class,” Becky says. “We’ll have to talk about this tonight. But don’t beat yourself up. Some things are more complicated than they seem. And I still think you might be dealing with a closet case.”
“All right, all right. Duly noted.”
I am walking behind her toward the exit doors: Becky, tall and lean, at least my height, maybe taller, her long, golden hair gleaming against her back. Then, I notice her ID card has fallen to the floor. I stoop to pick it up, call after her. She turns as if in slow motion, hair wrapping around her shoulder, hip jutting out to the side.
“Oh, thanks,” she smiles, but her hands are full: one clasping the tray, the other her mug.
“I could slip it in your back pocket for you,” I offer. It seems so harmless as I say it, just a simple gesture of help for a friend. But then I see the clouds slide across her clear eyes. Her face a painting now, a false mirror.
“That’s OK,” Becky says, pausing, holding me in her sight line. Is it suspicion I see? I can’t be sure. “You can just hand it to me when we get outside.”
WHEN THE BODY CALLS OUT, WHO OR WHAT WILL ANSWER?
At the bowling alley, my father says, “It’s nice to see you,” and I realize he is speaking to me.
“What do you mean, Dad? You see me all the time.”
“Oh, it’s just that we used to spend every weekend together when you were a kid, but now that you’re older, I feel like we’re only passing each other in the halls.”
I smile at him, the parent I take after: quick to sentiment, slow to anger. I fan my hands over the cool air, look down to the end of the lane where the pins are being swiftly reassembled. “Do you want to play again?” I ask.
“Sure. Here,” and he fishes out the bills from his wallet. “Go ahead and get us a couple of sodas, too. In just a few years, it will be a couple of beers.”
At the counter, I tell the man my lane and ask to purchase another game. “And while I’m at it,” I say, “these shoes are a little big. Could I trade them in for a smaller size? Maybe an eight instead of a nine?”
The man chuckles, rubs the stubble under his chin. “Women and their shoe sizes. My wife’s the same way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, she’d rather have them pinching her feet than admit she needs to go up a number.”
“But these really are too loose,” I say. “I can fit my whole thumb in the back of my heel.”
“Sure, sure,” he nods. “A size eight?” Then, appraising me over the counter: “That’s a pretty small shoe for a woman like you.”
“Excuse me?” I look around, half-expecting to see Dom Deluise lurking behind the plastic ferns. Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera! Or maybe I am wishing for my kind, well-meaning father to rush indignantly to my side. Just what exactly you are implying, sir? But who was I kidding? My father was no more likely to come to my defense than I.
“No need to get all hot and bothered about it,” the man sighs, holding the striped size-eights like a grudging peace offering. He winks at me as I take the shoes in my hand, dumbstruck and staring. “I can pretend as well as you can that a big, broad-shouldered gal walks around on a pair of dainty paws.”
Once upon a time, it was autumn in Pike Place. The red and gold trees mingled with the pines. The mountain seemed, once more, to glide across the Sound. Home again to my city of seagulls and salty air, the stout coffee and oversized turtleneck sweaters.
Becky and April and I strolled through the Market together. I browsed a batch of old records, even as I had long since given my record player away. Simon & Garfunkel. I held them up, considered the sincerity in their grainy faces.
“So, have I told you how much I love your new hair?” Becky said.
“It looks amazing on you,” April agreed. “I could never go that short, never in a million years.”
“Oh, no, me neither,” Becky said, “but it really suits her.” They stood united in opinion, admiring.
“Thanks, but stop. You’re embarrassing me.” I looked down at the records again, and when I raised my eyes, I noticed an old man with a pipe in his mouth studying me across a crate of books. He resembled a weathered statue of a fisherman, so my mind cloaked him instantly in a yellow raincoat, the kind with the matching hood.
“Good day,” he acknowledged after a few moments passed. He turned his gaze to my friends, to me, and back again. “I cannot recall,” the man said in a voice raspy with tobacco and age, “when I have seen a more beautiful girl.”
Confused, I touched my own breastbone, lifted my brows.
“Look at her!” he insisted, gesturing toward me. “Those eyes. That face. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!”
JULIE MARIE WADE is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures; Without: Poems; Small Fires: Essays; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems; Tremolo: An Essay; When I Was Straight: Poems; and Catechism: A Love Story. She is a recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives in Dania Beach.