On a pale marble fountain in Dubrovnik, I posed. I pretended I too was a stone figure, water gushing from my smooth, full breasts. A focal point in a crowded square of coffee drinkers and nuns, radiating from within. I couldn’t wait for my vision of a woman to emerge. In my grandmother’s wooded garden, I wore my red plaid dress backwards, playing at having a bust, three buttons undone. My collarbones would be something beautiful, I knew.
Like me, my friends rehearsed womanhood. One friend would lead me to her mother’s closet and pull out the silks and laces for us to wear. Another drew a brassiere, stockings and garters on her Barbie doll. Barbie and Ken slept naked. I pressed them together and held them still. I imagined this cool, dry embrace was the path to ecstasy.
The hair jarred me out of this fantasy. I was dreaming in the dusk of a blanket fort, my arm behind my head. Springing from my underarm was crooked, pale brown wire. I felt too old for my t-shirt – painted birds in puffed, bright colours. If I ignored the strands, would they disappear?
My first menstruation came on Easter Sunday. And the next at Christmas. Then again at Easter, Christmas and in some years at high summer. I felt connected to something great, God or otherwise, yet wanted nothing to do with the blood. I wanted only to be an effigy. Now, I tried to will it away. I thought the dry time between bleeding meant I was succeeding.
My father and I hiked up the hill behind our house, past where the fires burned, past the horse stalls, past the fire roads and to the strip mall where I took karate lessons. I felt strong, free, free again. Free as one can only feel in suburban Los Angeles when one realises it is possible to live without a car. I loved my breasts, small, nonetheless there, my strong legs. The way the fabric clung to me, the yellow dust and sweat on my skin. My shadow sliding up the path ahead of me. At the hillcrest, I surveyed the golden land, the ocean spilling into sky blue. I felt at home here and in my skin, growing into the women of the fountains. I felt beautiful, full of life, ready. At the karate studio, my father said to the sensei, ‘She’s growing up fast.’ I felt the man – the man who taught me how to yield a katana, who taught me about breath control, the man who knew how I moved – looking at me with something other than sensei eyes. I felt cold and stood still. When I called my body out from the fountain’s ledge and atop the dry-brushed hill, I never expected an echo.
This is the story as I remember it being told to me. At two in the morning, my sister receives a phone call. She gets up out of bed and leaves my mother’s house. She walks out onto our winter white street, turns left, one block, right, one block and rings a doorbell. Two boys, schoolmates a few years older than she was, buzz her into the apartment building. They rape her, both of them. Our mother can no longer pass their door without silent rage carving canyons through her heart.
I imagine myself at twelve. Heart racing towards Independence. Spying the human flaws and limitations in the parental gods and in the world they created for me. I imagine my sister at twelve, in a new town after our parents divorced, looking out of her window onto the centre of town and wanting more. Seeing on the horizon not just the promise of other cities, but also a mode of being unknown to our parents and to me. I imagine she wanted to dip her toe into the place where the ocean meets the sky, so she took the call. I imagine at some point she may have found comfort in the thought: I came here on my own.
The mistress’s Celtic harp is in the corner, waiting. I am surrounded by tulle, powders, corsets, many corsets. I pick one in peach brocade. It is the only item of clothing I choose for myself. The mistress fits the bones and fabric over a thin silk blouse and a lace skirt, pulls the lacing tight. I imagine I am the frame of her harp, strong and still. Exhale as I tighten, she says, and ties me with silk strings from the harmonic curve to the soundboard. She plucks my strings with her smile of approval and she creates a melody with whispers of mischief. She sends me away, alone, into the bustle of her birthday party. My body is tuned to her joyous song, and everywhere I turn I hear a call. I feel no obligation to reply. Tonight, these are not my strings to pluck, this is not my song.
In London, in the summer, I take a chance with the wind and sky. It is time for the Summer Dress. Eggshell pinwheels swirl against a silken emerald sea. I cover my shoulders, just in case, but revel in bare legs, muscular and smooth.
I daydream in the half-sleep of the morning commute. At first, I don’t notice when he touches me. Morning trains mean mingling with the noises, smells, bodies of others. I only notice it is not the movement of passengers when his fingertips begin to quiver against the seam of my underwear. He faces away from me and sweats, heavily, staining his powder blue shirt at the collar and under the arms. Water runs between the short, stiff, sparse hairs of his dark scalp. One hand holds the bar above him, the other reaches awkwardly, pointedly, towards my pubis. I want the moment to mean nothing to me. Or for this kind of thing to be socially acceptable so I can, instead of swallowing sour anger, congratulate him on choosing to touch me on such a tender and intimate spot. Instead, I move just out of his reach, lost for speech or further action. I understand this reaction is common. I want to shame him, alert the carriage to his transgression. I fear he might react with violence, or worse, follow me off the train and into the lift where it is sometimes empty, even in the morning. I think he might enjoy a touch of public humiliation – because of his flaccid, dripping body, because he avoids eye contact. I have humiliated men like him before, but under mutually beneficial circumstances. I feel bold and focused. When we reach the next stop, I elbow him hard. I do not look back.
Still, by the time I reach the street, I am shaking, crying.
I remember the summer I was lonely, but also alone. When I felt him press himself against my back, I did not pull away, just to see. The idea and feeling of a man was tonic after a summer of loss. I had hushed my body every time it sang, calling for contact. But this day I let the bump and jerk of the train knock him against me as if he were my lover. Don’t look back. Don’t look back. Don’t look back.
The artist crawls towards me across the cement floor of his loft. Charcoal and oil bars spread scattered. Charcoal and oil bars staining his hands.
Let me kiss you.
Let me kiss your stomach.
No, we’re working.
Let me kiss it, just once.
I had fantasised about taking one of the artists I posed for as my lover. He was not the one.
Let me kiss your belly. Your beautiful belly.
I am cold and still and lost for speech or action. I am in his apartment. I can’t lose a day’s pay, not this month. I want him to stop kneeling in front of me, begging. I want to leave, so I take my hands from my stomach.
If I let you kiss my stomach, will you stop?
The room swims with distantly familiar faces from the silver screen. My friend Lonnie asked me to join him, as usual. Working our way through the Christmas party, he is Uncle Lonnie. The children of the distantly familiar faces invite him to their exhibitions, shows, gigs. He promises to go and searches my face to see if I will come too, if he’s not too tired that day.
The night wears on and I am tired. The artist is erratic around the holidays, and I have not slept well. Lonnie keeps telling me, ‘One day, he’ll be looking for you with a candle in the daylight.’ I feel myself listening to him, I hear myself hearing him, but I can’t act. Even the sadness that cancer brought to his eyes and mine isn’t enough to drive home the cold truth of the brief spark of life. And oh, he understands, he knows my bag because he’s had one just like it. But he knows that I am young, and he laughs, ‘Hard head makes for a soft ass.’
We sit at a small checkerboard table, our feet shuffling for space. Lonnie, he leans towards me. I can hear the artist, telling me he told me so. ‘No man can just be friends.’ The bottom of my stomach drops out, but I push the feeling away, certain that this man who I love dearly will not break the contract of our affection. Because I trust him, I let Lonnie kiss me. A dry kiss goodbye.
While the writer is in Israel, my period does not come. For the first time, I think, yes, I would let a child grow. I will let my body churn for another. It is early summer and the tree outside the stark white living room is in full bloom. I sit in the lashings of light on the pale leather watching the blossoms fall, exhilarated.
An apple green winged thing lands on my arm. I watch it crawl between my golden hairs, humming a song of life. Then fear. Inside every living thing, the urge to blossom, to swarm. I flatten my palm over the creature and press down.
I find it in Just Jaeckin’s vision of Roissy, lush with Cerrutti 1881 daywear and 1970’s film grain. In a Helmut Newton blonde and Robert Mapplethorpe’s tulips. I find it in Freud’s fort-da game. A false sense of control that gives real relief. With my eyes closed, trusting in the contract of this interaction.
I need you to take it away from me for an hour, now and again, so I know how I bend. So that when it is not my choice, I will be armed.