Bodies A Chronology of Touch
“The desire and the wrongness both, inseparable, pulled at me.”
The first time, I imagined I was riding a rollercoaster. I doubt I’d actually been on one before seeing as I was only four, maybe five, and we lived in a tiny town in upstate New York that was lucky to have a Piggly Wiggly nearby let alone an amusement park, but the stomach-drop and stolen breath and steady rhythm as I first accidentally and then purposefully rolled my hips on the mattress felt somehow familiar. I didn’t visualize the coaster, intentionally or otherwise. Didn’t close my eyes and follow the track up and down and upside down. Maybe I conjured up a cloud of fright-happy shrieks and the heat of a summer day to round out the fantasy. I don’t think so, though; even then, I knew I wasn’t much good at make-believe. But I did imagine wind on my face. With my cheek pressed against the pillow, my skin tingled and pinked from cold, rushing air. All that was important was the wind and the rhythm and the surety of rollercoaster bolstering every pure, joyous moment.
I didn’t share my discovery with anyone. I wanted to keep it for myself, like the butterfly wings I hid in a box in my desk at school. I used to wander the playground at recess, scanning the ground for ones that were still intact, that hadn’t been shredded by the soles of tiny sneakers. In my memory, these hunts always happened in winter. I would search for stains of dulled color skimming atop or sinking into the white. When I found one, I’d peel it gently from the ground—solid ground, not snow anymore; snow for the search, earth for the harvest—and resettle it in my box for safe keeping.
Then I lost the wings. Or rather, they were stolen. One day I went into my desk, the old wooden kind with a lid that opened skyward, and my box was gone. All my secreted wings found and taken. I remember the tears, the helplessness, the anger. I don’t remember what I said when someone—the teacher?—asked me what was wrong. But I know I didn’t tell the truth.
Good girls, normal girls didn’t collect the half-rotted and discarded wings of dead butterflies—not even if they had once been beautiful; not even if they still were beautiful in some fragile, inexplicable way. Good girls didn’t cradle these wings like prayers and hide them among pencil shavings and gummy erasers. They didn’t hide things at all. Why hide if you don’t fear getting caught? And why fear getting caught if you aren’t doing anything wrong?
It was a sudden, distressing moment of clarity for me.
It was shame.
The first time with intent, I imagined a scene from The Young and the Restless I’d seen with my Nana. I was eight, maybe nine. I spent all day every summer at her apartment while my parents worked. My little sister must have been there, too, but I can’t picture her with us. It feels like it was only ever Nana and me, eating buttered sourdough toast and cubes of cheddar cheese while we watched our soap. At the start of every summer, she’d fill me in on what I had missed during the school year, but it was easy to get used to the new faces bearing old names, the disappearances of beloved characters, the strangers come to play, the ever-rotating romances. The story moved but never really progressed; it was a lake, its borders rising or receding depending on the weather, but the landscape stayed familiar. I always slipped back into that shifting but stable world without any effort.
The woman in the scene—Phyllis, I think; red hair and maybe a red dress to match—was trying to seduce a man. About him I remember nothing. He was the goal, but he wasn’t the point, not to the character and not to me. She got him drunk, maybe even slipped something extra into his glass. He became sloppy, slurring and stumbling just like my dad every night save Sundays when the liquor stores were closed. Phyllis guided the man to a bed that I remember draped in gauzy fabric, also red. She kissed him, her lips on his and then stuttering over his jaw and neck and chest. It wasn’t graceful. Her body moved stiffly, trying to accommodate his confusion. It wasn’t real, even within the fiction of the show. Soon the man fell asleep, and Phyllis left, frustrated.
At bedtime, I carried the red-red-red of the scene with me. I watched again as Phyllis slinked across the floor, drinks in hand. I slipped in and out of her like in a dream; one moment her body was my own, and the next she was my marionette, smiling for him when I told her to. I knew almost instinctively that she wanted sex and I felt my imaginings should lead there. But I didn’t know what sex was beyond two people, some sort of fusion, and noises that made my stomach clench, not unpleasantly; noises that, when asked, Mom said came from her and Dad wrestling after my sister and I were tucked in our bunk beds for the night.
I replayed Phyllis’s scene over and over, and I pressed the heel of my palm where my skin was hottest. I knew that Phyllis was doing something wrong, which meant I was doing something wrong. To me the wrongness of her approach proved the intensity of her desire. It—the desire and the wrongness both, inseparable as they seemed—pulled at me, insistent, so I stored the memory of her body’s motion and the burn in her eyes somewhere secret, somewhere safe where I could pull it out whenever I wanted my stomach to dip and my skin to flush and my blood to pound all over.
It must have been later when I first heard the word rape. Nine, maybe ten. Mom and I were in the living room, where, years before, I had often lain face-down watching TV while I absently rubbed pleasant circles on the carpet with the small triangle between my hips until one day Mom told me no one wanted to see me wave my butt around. I stilled immediately. I’d never considered what the motion might look like from outside myself, or indeed that anyone else might notice, might care.
We were watching the local nightly news and the anchor said rape. I didn’t ask many questions as a child, wanting everyone to assume I already knew the answers, but I asked Mom what the word meant. “It’s when someone forces you to have sex with them,” she said. This was well before I knew what sex was. We hadn’t had the talk yet (and we never would, incidentally), but she didn’t expand on her simple definition and I, true to form, didn’t ask her to.
That night, I fantasized about being raped. I imagined a man dressed all in black, like a bank robber. He slipped into bed with me—my parents’ bed absent my parents, actually. They slept on a waterbed so the surface rolled gently with the man’s added weight, alerting me to his presence. I stayed perfectly still, ostensibly in fear. In my mind, the man undressed himself, then reached over, covered my mouth with his hand, and undressed me as well. I don’t think I fought. I don’t remember pushing him away or screaming or even asking who he was. I imagined being afraid because I was aware on some level that I should be, but it was hollow-hearted. As I lay half in the bunk beneath my sister and half in my parents’ king-sized waterbed, I mouthed his words along with him—“I’m going to rape you”—and I touched myself.
I never got beyond that point: both of us naked, his confession nestled between us and jostling the fluid mattress with its heft. I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to come next, and I didn’t really need the follow-through. His few words were enough for my body to react. Like Phyllis before him, his need was the thing, and this time that desire was made all the more potent for being directed wholly at me. I imagined my would-be rapist dozens of times, and I never tired of the underlying conceit: a man willing to do anything at all to have me.
I learned what rape actually meant later, thankfully never from experience. It was an accretive process. First I had to learn what sex was. Then came consent, which adults seemed even less comfortable discussing than the nitty-gritty of whose parts go where. And through it all, I had to reckon with the element of Mom’s barebones (yet simultaneously comprehensive) definition that had been most confounding to me: force. What strikes me now is that I didn’t strip the violence from my fantasy. The violence, though admittedly muted in its scope, fueled the fantasy. Just like it had fueled my fascination with Phyllis’s failed seduction—which, of course, was a failed rape attempt.
When I finally understood what I’d spent so many nights imagining as a child, embarrassment at my naivete settled in me and edged asymptotically near to shame. Perhaps the former would have spilled fully over that ever-narrowing gap into the latter sooner, except: the rollercoaster.
I keep coming back to that earliest fantasy. Nothing about it, not even the physical action accompanying it, was sexual. But it wasn’t so different from what came later. What is a rollercoaster if not a lack of physical control? If not the choice to cede that control to another entity—one made of metal and gears and, as a three-or-four year old, probably some measure of magic—to thrill you, to scare you, and ultimately to please you?
I knew I was doing something that ought to be kept secret—not the specific fantasies, but the touching itself. I felt I should be ashamed, but that wasn’t the same thing as actually feeling shame, though the one did, perhaps inevitably, morph into the other. It happened with as startlingly precise and sudden an awareness as the moment I chose not to chase after my stolen butterfly wings. It was another rare time when I asked my mother for a definition; this time: masturbation. “It’s when you touch yourself,” she’d said, and I instinctively knew she meant the kind of touching I’d been doing for a solid decade by that point. Somehow, the coupling of a name to the action finally curdled its sweetness solidly into shame.
I tested the new feeling that night. Sure enough, I finished and found disgust lodged in that low place in my belly, at the fullest, rounded, deepest part where satisfaction had always been before.
No one ever told me to be ashamed. Especially not before the first time, not when I was so very young. But then, no one had to tell me it was wrong to collect butterfly wings either. All they had to do was take them from me, simply make me aware by virtue of their unexplained absence that someone else knew, and I never touched another wing again. When Mom gave me the definition of masturbation, she took away my invisibility, or at least the assumption of it. Before, it was a lie of omission more than a secret. But afterward, I worried endlessly that someone would find out and did everything possible to conceal the truth. I waited until everyone was safely in bed. I made no noise, barely even moved for fear the bed itself would groan and give me away. I worried that someone would be able to smell the guilt on me the next day.
The fear didn’t stop me, but it did drain away the joy. Pleasure came threaded through with a new, tentacled desperation: that I wouldn’t get caught, that I would enjoy myself like before, that I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong at all. If the one face of desperation was desire, then the other was dread. And now that they’d merged, I couldn’t find their edges to pry them apart again. It was so seamless a binding that I wondered if maybe they hadn’t been one all along.
Except: the rollercoaster.
No matter how I twist that memory or angle it into different shafts of light, it remains a brilliant arc of joyous color. The wind is still invigorating, the rise and plummet a contradiction of familiarity and unpredictability. My small self—only just learning the bounds of her body, only just discovering the pleasure of keeping some touch for herself—remains in my mind absent both desire and dread. She is not an aspiration. Not some romantic ideal of childhood or nostalgia for bygone innocence. She is nothing so simple or shallow as that.
She is a memory.
A fleeting, dear moment.
The first fragile wing placed gently into a box.