Spotlight Excerpt from ‘The In-Between’
This memoir excerpt was written by Ashley Perez in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month Memoir Generator
In this raw, fragmented, and often darkly hilarious collection, Ashley Perez examines how she came to understand, navigate, and fight back against the binaries that both shaped and limited her identity. At fifteen, as her father’s addiction spiraled out of control, she was taken in by a family of friends, but she was left on her own to navigate a world that rarely had her best interests at heart, which led her to question the categories she found herself forced into: straight, queer, Mexican, white, capable, lazy. These essays investigate how she carried herself from childhood to adulthood when she didn’t have the tools or language to understand what she was even questioning in the first place.
The In-Between reflects how Perez’s brain functions: It is made up of a collection of essays, interludes, and remnants that explore identity via race, sexuality, money, family, and other random bits of life.
There is a photo I have of myself at the age of fourteen. It shows me from the back as I am looking over my shoulder. I am wearing oversized black Dickie pants and my friend’s satin red corset. To complete the ensemble, I have elbow length red fishnet arm warmers and one of my early attempts at eyeliner. The eyeliner doesn’t look like it belongs on a high school girl. It looks like it belongs on Jerry Only from the punk band The Misfits. My brown hair reaches past my hips in a mass of split ends.
I look at that photo and try to figure out the girl I was. My shoulders are poking out. Me in the present finds that sexy, but I know the me in the photo found it awkward. My smile is forced. The crescent in my cheek that tries to pass itself off as a dimple is a tell-tale sign I’m faking emotion. At that time, I never smile. The hands on my hip look like an attempt at bad boudoir photography. I hesitate to call them mine. This doesn’t feel like me. The bad oak furniture and shag blue carpeting don’t help the sense that I look like I am trying out for amateur Hustler.
I don’t remember what I did that night, but I remember I fell in love with that red corset. It was my first time with a corset—I had borrowed it from a friend—and it felt like it belonged on my body. I loved the constriction of the boning in the corset top that prevented me from taking deep breaths or from bending my torso. I loved it because it was beautiful, but also for being uncomfortable. The physical discomfort matched the mental discomfort I felt almost everywhere. I appreciated the way it hid the imperfections I felt in my body; it gave me the curves I hadn’t yet developed. I never returned it to my friend.
Three years later and my tiny closet is bulging with clothes I never wear. After losing possession after possession from years of moving, I’ve developed a bit of a hoarding tendency. The closet is packed with clothes donated to me by people who know I wear black and therefore donate any piece of black of clothing ever to cross their path, no matter their condition. I keep them even though I know I’ll never wear them. I keep them because maybe someday I’ll need them.
Every now and then a fit of some combination of organizing fever and a lack of sentiment take over and the closet is the first thing on my rampage list. I throw dresses that are ripped onto the floor. They are soon joined by shirts that no longer fit, a sweater with bleach stains that carries sad memories that I can’t remember but still feel, and other items that I think are nice but are just as terrible as everything else in the closet.
One day, I come across the red corset. It’s shoved on a hanger between a fishnet shirt and a torn lace shirt that I still won’t let go of.
I make the painful decision to get rid of it. Getting rid of it feels like destruction. I didn’t know it then, but this started a cycle where I ruthlessly eviscerate past versions of myself. If I throw it on the growing pile on the floor, a pile that will go into a garbage bag. The garbage bag will stay in the corner for three months until someone finally decides to take it to the thrift store. That is three whole months for me to decide that it can be saved, and it will be rescued from the trash and given new life. I take scissors and cut the corset into choppy pieces of satin fabric. In a moment that now seems like overkill, I light the pieces on fire. I carefully hold the bits of the corset over a tiny trashcan as it burns, dropping it in when the flames singe my fingertips. Walking back is no longer possible.
I received my second corset when I was fifteen, from a friend named Sara. She became one of my most cherished friends at a heavy metal concert where my friend’s band was playing. Sara hated me at first because she said, later, that I reminded her of her boyfriend’s ex.
I went over to Sara’s house to get ready for a backyard show where a metal band would play, where everyone drank Budweiser and Wild Turkey while smoking pot from cored apples and discarded beer cans.
Sara was everything I wanted to be. She was this artsy, pierced, tattooed badass that you didn’t fuck with. She dressed me in a black 80’s tiered taffeta prom bomb that had a huge bow on the butt. She wrapped a fancy black laced corset around my body and handed me a pair of platform black boots to put on. My heart raced when she told me to hold the door frame, set my legs, and take a deep breath. Her knee braced against my butt while she pulled the lace starting from the bottom of the corset to the top. Each successive level came with tighter pulls and more force of her hand into my back. The corset, black stack boots, and my Jerry Only eyeliner made me perfect goth trash. Later she told me she was trying to make me look ridiculous. We have been friends ever since.
Fast forward a few years and I am at a photography studio taking photos to be part of a series where models are to bring an object that they have an emotional connection with. In exchange for being a part of their project, I get some professionally done head shots that I can use when I am asked for a photo to go with stories I occasionally get published. I bring a cameo, a beautiful brooch with a silhouette of a beautiful woman carved in shell, but I am not particularly attached to it. I brought it because it seemed the type of thing I should have an emotional connection to. The photographer is getting visibly frustrated with me. I am too. This seems to happen often. I am still not good at smiling on command.
My hands go to my waist and immediately start to do what I normally do when I am frustrated. I run my hands across my ribs. Underneath my hands is a familiar touch. The satin of my corset brings some comfort and a release to a rising internal panic. This purple and black striped under-bust corset is my third corset and my most treasured because I got it for myself.
The pear shape and restricted breathing are old reliable friends. My fingers go in between the boning channels, synthetic baleen mimicking whale bone. The dips of just fabric in between the channels are where my hands find comfort the most.
The photographer starts taking photos again and with subtle directions, my hands move in minute directions around my corset. I stand, kneel, look over my shoulder, shield my eyes from the light, and turn in every direction possible, but always my eyes are on my corset. He looks happy with me now. He is clicking away. This is the emotional attachment he’d been looking for.