I am 10 when my mother shows me how to shave my legs. We are on vacation in a one-story beach house. My brothers and sisters are watching the Swan Princess on the TV/VHS player we brought from home. My mother takes me into the bathroom. She shuts the door behind us. She shuts out the noise of the TV. I am wearing my bathing suit. She turns on the faucet like she’s running a bath. She tells me that the first time she shaved her legs she did it with her father’s straight razor. She cut up her legs. She had to go to a dance or a date with her legs bleeding. No one showed her. She made it up. So she tells me to sit on the edge of the tub. I put my feet up on the other side of bath. She shakes up a can of shaving cream and sprays it in my palm. I cover my leg, thick in it. I wet the razor’s lips under the water. Starting at my ankles, right where my socks sit, I draw upwards in neat straight lines like I was painting a wall. From ankle to mid-thigh. Careful over the knees. Careful around the ankle bones. Dipping the razor under the water. Cutting away the thick foam. Stripping my legs back to skin. I wash my leg. I run the next one under the water and begin again. Thick foam, ankle to knee. Moving slowly. The memory of my mother’s blood, on her father’s razor, on the bathroom floor, on bundled pieces of toilet paper, on her dress. Moving slowly as I peel back, as I see each thick, rope vein, blue in my ankle, blue up my shinbone. Until my legs are just legs. I wash my hands. I dry my legs with a beach towel. My mother takes the razor and puts it back in a little case. Tomorrow she says, we’ll go to the drug store and get one. You’ve got to do it everyday, she says, or the hairs will grow back, darker, and thicker. My legs are shiny. My legs are smooth like the inside of shells. They want to be touched. Suddenly I have legs that want hands. Suddenly I have legs that are more than the sum of their skin, muscle, bone, polished shell, ocean rock.
Walking up and down all morning, along the line of slick sand, skipping just out of the surf, I feel my legs, I feel my skin, I feel my hips. I look at people. I see them looking back. I had always felt invisible but on the beach that morning I see that I am always seen. I don’t know what to do with it but I know it. I divide things into two categories. Things I like about myself, things that I am glad to have strangers’ eyes fall upon. And things that I hate, things that make me turn up inside out and want to hide. But these two things are all mixed up. The seen and the concealed. The beautiful and the shameful are all part of the one body so for the first time I feel the desire to rip myself up. To tear pieces out, or contort, fold over them. I want to collapse in some parts an expand in others, like and explosion, like gases destroying the air, breaking in and out, finding the weak points of the world, feeding on combustion, bright and violent and unavoidable. I make a list in my head, two columns against each other back to back. The things I hate. The things I love. And I go through my body dividing it between them, like a divorcing house. I give my legs to love, I give my arms to hate. I give my eyes to love, I give my breasts to hate. I give my hair to love, I give my stomach to hate so that I am uneven, I am unbalanced, I am patterned with conflict. Can I be a woman with only legs, hair and eyes? Can I show these things off like a performer, while concealing my arms, my breasts, my stomach? I walk the beach splitting along my own lines of constructions. Wanting to pull out pieces of myself and leave them in the surf. Wanting eyes on the rest of me, like a book wants eyes or a TV screen static for attention.
I don’t let my mother hold my hand at the piercing studio. I look ahead. I hold my own hands in my lap. It’s like a staple going into paper. The pain is quick and bright. A mirror is held up for me. I look at myself. At ten I have the eyes I will always have. My face is round, still a child’s. My hair is straight and long. I have grown out the bangs that my mother used to cut across my forehead. There is a shining green stone at the bottom of each of my ear lobes, on that soft, fuzzy plain. The stones catch the light. My ears are bright pink. They start to pulse. I have to wear the green stone in my ears for weeks until the holes heal. I am supposed to spin the backs in my ears to create scar tissue. I am supposed to soak the holes with rubbing alcohol to keep them clean. My body makes demands. It has a schedule. Like school and summer. I am learning this, this list of demands. The woman hands me a card about caring for my ears. My mother takes me to the jewelry store. We walk the main street of the beach town. We look at ourselves in the sheet glass windows. I see where we line up and where we don’t. What do you like? My mother asks. She wants to buy me my first real pair of earrings, here, on vacation. She wants me to have them, always, as a keepsake. As the start of something. My mother points out things she thinks I’d like. No, no. I say no to all of them. I find at the register a neat list of stones by birth month. A chart, month, stone. I am October. I am opal. Pieces of molten light caught in ancient woods. I am that fire that always finds the light. I find a pair of Australian fire opal earrings. Milky white shot through with purple, with green and red, the colors leaping up at the slightest movement, at the slightest shot of light. Clean, mounted on silver. The opal is shot with its own brilliance, with its own veins of iridescence so that even at midnight, or under thick sheets, or in the deepest part of the forest during a thunderstorm when day becomes night under the canopy, these stones will shine, these stones will catch something and hold that brightness to the edges of my face, like guiding stars.
One night I make dinner. I have helped my mother before. I know all the steps. My siblings sit on the old coach in the rental house and watch The Swan Princess. My Dad reads his book. My mother takes a shower. I put on the apron. I fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil. I cut up garlic. I lay olive oil on the bottom of saucepan and put the garlic in. I toss it around with a wooden spoon. I open up a package of ground beef and put it on the garlic. I mash it up with the wooden spoon until it turns from pink to brown. I put a box of noodles in the boiling water. I spin them around with a pasta fork. I pour the sauce on the beef. I turn the heat down to simmer. I stir the noodles. I count out 6 plates. I count out 6 spoons, 6 forks, and 6 knives. I pour the pasta into a strainer and wash it with water. With the pasta fork I pile pasta on each plate. I put each plate between the settings. It is exactly like my mother would have made. Cheers, my father says, and we raise our glasses, to this lovely dinner Megan has prepared for us. It tastes the same as if my mother made it. I remembered all of the steps. I think of all of things I have learned. All of the dinners I can make. I want to know how to clean and cook, to drive, to pay the TV bill, to find the vacation home on the map. I imagine the table empty. I imagine the house empty. I imagine myself doing these things alone, cooking spaghetti and setting a table for one, in the huge, wonderful silence of all my possible futures. All the steps that get me from here, to there, like a board game, one card, or one move at a time, until this is finally that.
In the heart of the night, in that time I have been told that the witches and black things come to the world. I wake up. In the vacation house with its wood panels. All the wood knots like eyes, watching me. Awake in the cot. My sister deep in her sleep, wrapped in the covers. I lay in my bed, my ears burning. I can feel the backs and the barbs and each piece of the earrings stapled through me. There is a pulse there like there is at my throat or my wrists. It gets hot and painful and then rushes downhill to nothing, and then it rises back up again. I am dizzy, spinning at the bottom of a pool in my sheets, wet with sweat. In my fever I feel like I am going to die. I look at it. I think about it. I hold it as an option. In the spring of that year I had an operation for my asthma. My father told me that I could die, that I could slip past the reaches of the gas that was cupped over my lips and never return. He took me out in the field behind our house. He walked with me. We didn’t look at each other. We looked at the brown field, the dead grasses of early spring. He told me that I was old enough to know that there was that risk. I said goodbye then. I lined up all the things I loved and said goodbye. I lined up all of the dreams I had and said goodbye. But I didn’t die. I was just fine. But I was ready. I had already said goodbye. I look at that in the fever. Those lists, my dog, the woods, my graphic novels, my pocket knives, my siblings, my books, Jamie who I wanted badly to kiss, my friend Sawyer who I wanted badly to kiss, my dream home, my dream car, my dream of myself dreamed grown up, crushing cigarettes under the spike of my heels, climbing a ladder in my library, sitting in my garden as dusk. I didn’t want to wake my parents up. I rode the fever until the morning when my mother, cleaning my ears piercings with a cotton ball touched one of the burning points and I passed out, fainting onto the tile floor and the world fell backwards into a hot, red point.
In the movie my brother and sisters watch all vacation a princess is turned into a swan by a sorcerer as punishment for not loving him, for not being his queen. Her real love is looking for her, traveling the dark woods and one night he sees her through the trees, turning from swan to princess on the flat moonlit sheet of the lake. His confession of love will break her spell, return her wings to arms, her talons to feet. But he is confused by the sorcerer and the swan princess dies. Enraged the prince kills the sorcerer and goes to the princess at the lake, he holds her lifeless body and confesses his love to her and she comes back to him, to life, a woman with legs and breasts, skin and hair. They marry and live in a castle, looking down over the enchanted lake. My sisters watch this movie again and again. This story of a woman who has no choice in anything, in life, in death, in magic or black magic. As a swan she is white as snow. She is able to break the curse of gravity, to rise on the currents of air above everything, above the confines of forest, hall and hovel. Her prince catches just a glimmer of her woman form, at transformation on the water’s surface, her flesh from feather, arms from wings, humbled, walking wet from the lake, her hair pressed down her chest, with only the contained memory of flight. These cycles are broken by one thing, by love. Forming like a hurricane, moving across deserts and oceans, falling on distant coasts, the coast itself existing as it has always existed, a blank line upon the map until it is transformed, until it is lifted by winds and rain. I learn to wait. I learn to be the coast expecting the storm. I hope for it to come to me. I hope for that devastation, for that salvation. I hope to be more than I am, removed from the cycles of the ordinary. I wait to be transformed.