When you are seven, you will learn that a boy chooses dare over truth every time. Let’s play a game, they say, and you run your palms nervously down your key-lime shirt. The fabric sticks to your hands and stretches down—the dense, heavy fabric the early two-thousands were made from. All the boys talk about that one girl, Katrina—so wild she dared someone to lick honey off her giant boobs. Their eyes are jumping with the talk, flaming with a hunger you do not feel. They’ll dare themselves to kiss you. There are no rules to break, and you are your body but your body is not yours.
She says she has never been kissed. She doesn’t count the ones she didn’t want. They meet up in the blacktop lot of DeMeo Park, down the road from the high school. He says that’s where everyone goes. See those people in that black car? he asks. They’re doing it right now. She’s wearing jeans, a zip-up sweatshirt. They’re on the bench seat in the back of his truck. The engine is running. She tries to want this, kissing, but she doesn’t know how. She hasn’t seen any actual, real porn—only a naked blonde on the internet, photographed upright with a thick snake wrapped around her body, in fifth grade, on accident—and no one has described to her to mechanics of fucking, she just knows, the facts inside of her like a parasite. He moves her hand lower, saying, Here. Her eyes are closed so she does not know the relation between here or there. When she opens her eyes, she remembers it’s daytime and fixes her gaze on his face, sees him looking down at himself. Here, he says again like he is offering something to her. She touches but she does not look. When she wants to leave, they find the battery of his truck to be dead, whispering an unforgiving clicking sound. No lights can be roused inside. It would be rude, she thinks, to leave him stranded at the park as the sun dips below the ground, and she doesn’t have any jumper cables, so she waits in the back of his truck while he calls his dad. Without the truck’s air conditioning, the evening heat pulsates all around them, but she keeps her sweatshirt zipped all the way up. His father pulls up beside them in a similar truck, each respective hood exposing its naked instruments. The cables are clamped. She knows his father can tell, maybe even sees a cloud of pity pass through his eyes, the son a penance for the father.
Like the sudden, prickling sensation of a limb buzzing back to life, I have become aware of the full water bottle in the mesh side pouch of my backpack. Here are just a few of many settings in which this would be a refreshing discovery—maybe even a life-saving one:
A. I am isolated and disconnected from a trail in the red danger of Moab, Utah.
B. I have just completed a length jog.
C. I have endured a marathon of sex to find myself parched and in possession of the necessary resources.
But no. I am in the line to go through security at the airport. The line snakes, and as we turn the corner, coming face to face with other travelers, we assess each other. How many bags are you wrangling? How many plastic bins will you require? How complicated will the removal process of your shoes be? Traveling with a laptop? Serious about your business, I see. Because I am nearing the front of the line, and because I am one body in a line of hundreds but wish to remain indistinguishable from the mass, I chug all thirty-two ounces of water in less than thirty seconds.
I need three plastic bins. One for my laptop which must travel through the tunnel alone. One for my shoes, jacket, purse, and belt—an object which involves an oddly intimate removal that somehow manages to incite a brief, warm throb in the deepest region of my abdomen. One bin for my bag of food: two avocados, one almost-empty Himalayan sea salt grinder, two bars of dark chocolate (one opened and half-eaten), and three bags of mint tea. Food is supposed to be kept separate, I know, or the TSA agents will have to dig through your bags to find it. The conveyor belt has stopped moving and I wait until it is my turn to release my belongings under the x-ray vision to be peered into, around, through.
You see every body through your mother’s body. At first, it is all you know—it is unchallengeable, it is inerrant, it is absolute. Mother’s lap is the best place for reading and she pulls you in. Mother’s fingernails are the best for running circles around your upper back. Mother’s pinkies are the best for the shrill whistles that call you in from the front yard, that remind you to clean your mess upstairs, that get everyone to shut the hell up so your father can talk. Mother’s toes are the best for picking things up off of the ground. Mother’s breasts are how breasts should be, Mother’s knees are how knees should be, and everyone else is not wrong, but just is. Mother’s body is not wrong until she tells you it is.
You lie in your mother’s bed and watch her hoist her soft body onto the scale before she gets into the shower. You’ve never seen nipples so stretched. She doesn’t shave anything except for her shins and her armpits. It frustrates you just how much you can see her skin, how much of a texture it has, though you do not yet know why. Your mother is short and squat, but you will one day stretch up like your father. Still, for many years, you will feel weighed down and you will not understand whether she was allowing you to bear witness to her sorrow, or forcing you to help her carry it. By this time, the burden will have become indistinguishable from your own.
She falls asleep on the couch during a movie about demon-possession. Shit her parents never would have let her watch at a house her parents will never know she has been to. It’s the first Friday night of a Santa Rosa October. The few friends have gathered in the living room of a parentless house after the season’s last home football game for a movie night. Credits have long since rolled. The sound of her own sweatshirt being unzipped is what wakes her up. The feeling of a body behind hers, of a finger tracing the circumference of her pink nipple is what makes her hold her breath. From behind, can he feel her heart beat faster? Does her nipple tighten and harden? Is that why he wraps his fingers around her jutting hip bones, digging his nails into the soft valley between her pelvis, and sits her onto himself, making waves with his body? Or does he just think she is asleep and won’t ever know? Like a child pretending to be pulled into unconsciousness so she will be picked up off of the couch and carried up the stairs to her bed, she plays with the regulation of her breath. How does a sleeping person breathe? She has never been awake to hear her own breathing. She imagines being dead, leaving her own body to make it lifeless. Maybe if she could cross the line into death, if there was no breath at all, no beating heart, he would become bored. How long is it before he stretches skyward and leaves for the bathroom to finish himself? She doesn’t open her eyes, but she begs her body against instinct to open itself, to occupy more space on the couch. She waits. Toilet flushes. Light switch slams down. Door opens. He doesn’t come back, but sleeps through the night in the other room. She won’t tell anyone, and he won’t apologize, not even an I’m sorry for whatever you think happened.
“These yours?” the uniformed man asks me.
“I put all my food in a separate bag,” I say, thinking this will warrant some good favor and a speedy search.
“You like chocolate,” he says, holding up the unopened bar first, then the opened one.
“Had to get a head start before the flight,” I say.
He gives a light squeeze to both avocados with gloved hands. “Getting ripe.”
Behind him, I watch people making calculations, heads down and silent, deciding which line to file into as in the grocery store. His hands sift.
“Boulder mint,” he remarks.
“Tea,” I explain.
Clusters of other travelers waiting to have their bags inspected have started to accumulate, and when the uniformed man holds up my salt shaker, gives it a little jiggle to make the rocks tremble against each other, and says, “What’s this?” I understand instantly that I have become distinguished—I have been measured, and the system has found me to be incongruent. The contents of my baggage must be laid out, handled, wiped, declared clean or unclean.
“Touch nothing,” the uniformed man says as I wait, and become aware, all at once, of certain unsavory things in my other bags.
“Anything sharp?” he asks.
“No,” I say, but think of the small orange scissors I use to trim my eyebrows.
“Any large electronics?”
“Just my computer.” He pulls a small, stuffed teddy bear out of my backpack while fishing for my laptop. From my purse, he fingers the tampons. Fucking hell, I think, because then I remember the blood-stained underwear in the inside mesh pocket of my suitcase, currently being handled by another uniformed person. My stuffed animal and my soiled clothes are laid next to each other on a steel table and tested for any suspicious properties.
You hear about the fad diets like meat only, coffee only, pills only, about how your father just doesn’t want her anymore. When you’re home, you lie awake next to your mother, sliding into the dent left by years of your father in their bed, with the heavy comforter weighing you down. The bed is cold. Your mother doesn’t know where your father is—maybe with another woman. If he comes back, she won’t ask. He hasn’t touched her in so long, she says. What if it’s a man? your mother wonders into silence, becoming only a hollow voice, needing this possibility.
Soon, you hide your body, and the fact that you are trying to starve your mother out of yourself underneath baggy clothes. Your mother tells you to get some clothes that fit. Maybe you are trying to starve yourself out of the cage she taught you to live in. She’s told you how, when she was seven, she was picked up in a car by a man with a picture in his hand of a house he needed help finding. When she got in the car, in his other hand was his dick. No pants. He takes her to a field, grass as tall as she is, holding her firmly by the back of her jumper straps. When she escapes, she makes herself small behind a telephone pole, clutching her book bag as he drives up and down the street looking for her. She’s also told you about the man on the bus that reaches his hand down her pants when she is twenty-five. You ask her if she screams. She says she does. You don’t ask how she found her voice. You also don’t ask if your father has ever been a man with the capability to use his hands in these ways. You can see that, despite everything, even despite his disappearance, he does not matter to her the way she matters to herself.
She feels the scars where his shoulders connect to his chest—this boy whose sadness probably once drew his own blood. For one night, they share the bed he built above shelves in his closet. A tiny, oscillating fan whispers into the dense heat between their bodies. When his hands find her, his fingertips graze the notches of her hip bones. She feels them recoil as though electrocuted, his swift absence a jolt, and in the morning, he is gone. It is all one long morning. She walks the neighborhood to keep up with the sun, drinking to submit to night. Eventually, she blacks out before the sun does, dialing his number just before she falls, head slamming down on the green metal block that borders some family’s lawn. His voice never finds her. The next time she sees her mother, her mother asks about the boy, and she tells her mother he has left. Her mother notices how gray she has become, looks her up and down, peering around her bones, hungry and disgusted. Where did you let him touch you? her mother measures.
A uniformed woman is delivering a memorized speech much like Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle, or You have the right to remain silent, only instead, it’s every place on my body the woman is about to touch. All of the sudden, you can’t understand so you keep still. You hear shoulder, inside, neck. She feels dismembered. She must take off her belt again. When asked, I agreed to do it in public, at the end of the security line, on the brink of the gates we will fly from, instead of in private because of walls, because of doors, but where are we safe when there are hands, when there are eyes? “Palms to the sky,” a uniform tells me and I close my eyes. “Oh my fuck,” a girl waiting for her bags to be inspected says. You can’t tell if the girl is mad at you or not as she directs her anger into a restless dance. “It’s just salt,” you think you hear the girl say and you want to scream God, yes. Even with your shirt tucked in, you feel the barrier broken, the uniform’s hands down the waistband of your jeans. “Now the front,” a form says, hands swiping along the underwire of my bra, down my stomach, up, back down again, in. She feels the cupping of her inner thigh and the difference between touching and feeling. Hands through you, hands in her, hands upon me. Let’s play a game. We’re doing it right now. Where did she let him touch her? I’m here, I am closing my eyes, I am faking sleep once again, then shaking myself awake. She cries in between a toilet and the wall; you will cry in the sightless black under many blankets in many beds; I cry in the train from gates A, to B, to C.
Anxiety Mini Essay
I used to hate how my mother saved everything—a tiny ponytail held in place by a pink ribbon from my first hair cut, Halloween costumes, calendars from decades ago. I believed she needed them to prove to herself that she was alive. Why can’t we just hoard the memories instead? I would ask. Wouldn’t it take up so much less space? So young, and I could already breathe back into the world what I didn’t even remember being whispered in my ear, that smaller was better. While my mother tried to shrink herself, the drawers and hall cupboards, armoire and closets became choked. It was exactly proportional. We think we understand our impulses, try to grasp where our anxiety comes from, but we underestimate our body’s ability to store, to keep, to save. I followed my own rules and kept the memories, but it didn’t save me like I thought it would. My throat still closes while I hike on a quiet trail, and I still have to push on my chest to breathe when a trans woman speaks on a podcast about TSA software inbuilt with a gender binary to purposefully discriminate against her. And how she is scared of the airport too. When she speaks, I’m back in those places and I feel all the hands again, because even though her story is different than my story, the energy of my experiences have grown into my muscles and my organs. And somewhere in my blood, braided into what makes me one inside of a family, is the need to be unseen, to become so small that they can’t touch you. I always thought the more I directed my anxiety into fixing my body, the freer I would become. But this year, I learned a new proportion, some mathematical law of being: as my body grows, it becomes easier to give.
Sloane E. Sundström is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her creative nonfiction has been published in LandLocked Magazine (formerly Beecher’s Magazine), Uppercase Magazine, and in The West Wind. She swears she’ll eventually stop writing about families and bodies. Okay, she probably won’t. On Twitter @sloanesundstrom.