In 1993 I am leaning against the gray metallic filing cabinet in Mrs. Kurtz’s fourth grade classroom. The maroon carpet is doing nothing to soften my butt from the cement floor below. I don’t remember why my class is sitting in a circle on the ground. It must be for some sort of learning experience. As I readjust my butt to shake away the numb feeling, I get a whiff of some new smell coming from my armpits. It’s an embarrassing smell, one of musky pine trees and dirty clothes. It’s an earthy sort of smell, a smell like I was running around on the playground a bit too long during recess. I wonder if Kristen sitting next to me can smell my odor. I wonder if she’ll tease me for this later at lunch. Or maybe she’ll be jealous. Because, look!–now I have a body that smells. That means deodorant and then bras and then the period and then being a woman. Yes, I smell, and soon I’ll be a woman with an actual woman’s body. And that means something.
Mrs. Kurtz has a woman’s body, and she also has a mullet, and I think it’s cool. Her dirty blonde hair kinks around the square structure of her head. Cut closer to her ears and poofy on top, Mrs. Kurtz’s rectangular hair suits her body well. She is large and stocky, all broad shoulders and square hips. Muscular, solid. Butch if I had known what that meant in 1993.
I am in awe of her sturdy frame. The body is still a newly forming thing for me. I am anticipating growing into a woman’s body, but not because I want hips and lipstick, but because being a woman means being grown, mature. And it is my mind I want to grow. Being a woman means being old enough for homework, for three-ring Trapper Keeper binders bustling with notes for class projects, for plastic neon zippered bags full of red and blue mechanical pencils instead of the childish yellow #2 pencils they hand out on the first day of school. Mechanical pencils, binders, and homework, this is what will define me as a woman. I am not concerned with having a woman’s body yet, as the body is something I have only experienced as a vaguely growing thing. I am aware of my body, but what I have felt expanding is my mind. My mind as I learn new facts and subjects. Growth in my thoughts. Dinosaurs used to rule the earth. Numbers can play with each other to create larger numbers. There are right ways to spell complicated words. A woman knows these things, has this knowledge, and I see the apex of this growth, this becoming a woman, in my female teacher—her smarts pointing to what it means to me to be a woman. Instead of worrying about bras and high heels, I yearn to one day grow into using pens, having a calculator that acts like a small computer, and eventually see a screen full of my words instead of the blinking text on “Oregon Trail” that informs me Billy has died of a snake bite.
This is why I am fascinated with Mrs. Kurtz. She uses a pen, has knowledge about history, math, and books. She is a woman. She is strong and smart. As my butt continues to tingle with numbness, I bend my legs, shift around on my tailbone a bit more, and place my elbows on my knees. I get another whiff of this new odor rising up from the armpits of my bright green t-shirt, and I am reminded that a changing body means a changing mind. The scent is sour and musky. I stop thinking about Mrs. Kurtz and her mullet as I smile again at my new body odor. This becomes a sign of maturity I wasn’t expecting or thinking about. A whiff of something new is coming to me, and now my body is leading the way to a growing mind. With the sour smell, I am on my way towards womanhood. I excitedly wiggle my elbows around to get another whiff, and don’t care if Kristen sitting next to me can smell it. Because here I am, growing. I sense I am becoming something else now. Yes, a woman, perhaps.
In 1995 the taste of pink lingers in my mouth. The sweet flavor of bubblegum ice cream curdles on my tongue, and the hard bubblegum pieces persist in my teeth as fat tear drops plop onto the cement beside my feet. My mother is berating me, her words pushing sternly from pressed lips. I have broken a bracket on my braces, again. It is an event that has happened once a month since the metal bits were first glued to my teeth and rubber banded together five months ago. First, it was hard chocolate chips, the sweet hidden morsels snapping my favorite colored bright green bands loose. Then, the plastic top of a full water bottle held between my teeth—a creative move (I thought) as my hands were full with softball equipment and I needed to somehow carry the bottle. Into my mouth it went. Crack. Shit. The water bottle thunked to the ground. The taste of a plastic mistake frozen in my terrified mouth.
Then more: crisp carrots, sweet apples, a gnawed on yellow #2 pencil as I tried to solve a division problem. And now, the hard sugary squares of actual bubblegum—it was actual bubblegum!–in my satisfying ice cream treat.
The lingering sweet turns metallic, the broken bracket scratching into the flesh of my mouth. A hint of iron seeps into my tongue, taste buds prickle to the swirl of ice cream and metal failure.
I am crying. I am trying not to cry. But it comes. My shame and guilt at having failed, again. Because my growing mouth is something over which I have no control. I throw the rest of the ice cream cone in the trashcan on the street corner as I feel my hands begin to freeze out of fear. Now empty, I cross those shivering hands behind my back. I give in to the tears, surrender to the drips of salty liquid now streaming down my cheeks. The ground becomes a collection plate of my shame.
I slip my upper lip under my teeth, my tongue parting ways as it licks at the tasteless slime shimmering from my nose. I retreat it back into my mouth, the hint of iron growing into a statement. My mind is stuck on my mouth, the focus of an intense conversation. I wish I could make it disappear, could swallow away the blend of sweet hitting metal, the crooked teeth that refuse to move, the thoughts as I can stop thinking about how the act of eating has corrupted me. I am embarrassed by my mouth, now intensely aware of everything that goes into it. I make a decision to never eat again, or at least as little as possible in order to avoid these terrifying situations. I do not care about restricting my growing body, I only want to halt the embarrassing situation of my mouth. My first taste of an eating disorder seeps into my brain, my mouth, my body.
As I slide my tongue over my metal-coated teeth, my stomach sinks as I know what will come next.
The silent drive to the orthodontist office, my mother taking each corner with jerks. The fact of my mouth smothering any casual conversation. The walk of shame from her slightly slammed car door to the heavy dark glass doors. Down the maroon carpeted hallway, and directly to the blue cushioned chair, where I will wait next to my mother’s glare, feet dangling. The florescent lights spotlighting my mistakes.
The assistant opens the door leading into the dreaded line of large procedure chairs in the next room. I slovenly drag my ashamed body across the floor and slouch into a thick cushioned blue chair. I can feel my mother’s glare through the white door, hitting the fragility of my teeth. My body shivers with humiliation as I am leaned back to stare at the poster of fluffy white kittens as the orthodontist says Welcome back, Chelsey. You know the drill. Mouth open, tongue held down, the center of my growing guilt opens wide. I close my eyes against the kittens meant to distract, and mentally escape from my awkwardly forming mouth and my body that now wants to disappear. I try to shrink my body away, to practice not being there. Never again, I think. I will never, ever eat again.
After the green rubber bands are snapped into place, after I return home and skip lunch, then dinner, my mind continues to move into the space of my mouth, my shame. I am incessantly aware of its existence, of the space it takes up in my life. The next morning, starving and dizzy, I chew slowly on a piece of bread. I focus on what I’m putting into my mouth, on each morsel I must chew delicately in order to not break something. My mind continues to be obsessed, as the thought of breaking another bracket makes me nauseous with guilt. I put down the piece of half-eaten toast, my body shamefully aware of the fact that I need to eat in order to grow. I wish it would all just go away. Wish I did not need food, to just swallow my hunger through sips of water in order to simplify and control my mouth, my growling and growing body, my life.
In 1997 shoe laces tickle the bottoms of my thighs as I curl up on top of the mountain of shoes and boots carpeting the base of my closet. When I eventually emerge from the closet, there will be U-shaped imprints from the tops of sneakers and boots bright and red on my legs, arms, and face. I am twelve years old as I lie in the almost dark. The folding doors of my closet are pulled together as tightly as I could manage. Since I can’t pull them all the way shut from the inside, a slant of stuttering violet light pierces my quiet space. It comes from the black light vibrating on the other side of my room. It hums. I am not humming. I am sobbing. Pushing tears and snot out of my face feels like the right thing to do. I am trying to express the dread that has been cracking my sternum lately. There is nothing specifically I can name that started the fissures. But the weight of it has been there, a pressing rage. So I cry. I sob. I let my body speak for the hormones I cannot control.
Perhaps I have also been listening to Hole too much during this awkward pre-teen state of rising anguish. I have made it a habit to sit on my bed and listen to Courtney Love’s shrieks bounce off the walls. There are glow-in-the-dark neon stars illuminating every inch of my white walls. I am dizzy from the glowing jumble of constellations, from the disorganization of my emotions.
My left arm itches from a forming scab of the word “HOLE.” I rubbed this word into my arm with a pencil eraser a few days ago. While it is true that I am a huge fan of the band, I embedded this word into my skin because, again, I did not know what else to do. I feel disquieted by my growing body. The hips as they begin to form, the breasts as they have started to hurt. The burn on my skin enunciates the corporeal howls. My retreat into the closet is at the end of a tiring day. At school, the counselor called me into her office to talk about the HOLE. I wanted to talk about the hole consuming what should be a sunny and happy California pre-teen, but I did not know how. Could not point to how the fact of my body growing against my command has turned my mind off, has swallowed my happiness whole. In her office, my brain turned mute, retreated as my body does now in my closet.
Slouched and sobbing in the closet, I think of how it felt to sit uncharacteristically erect in her office, trying to appear as a body unharmed, a mind unaffected by the numb body, and trying to hide the tears collecting in the corners of each eye. I refused to cry. I sat frozen, attempting to be stoic in this lumbering and growing body. To be unphased by the clumsy swirl of my shifting mind. She asked me why. Why HOLE? Why would you do this to your body?
I had no answer. I offered a shrug. I kept my head down to avoid her questioning eyes. I tucked chin into chest and suddenly became aware of my outfit. I was dressed in a Daffy Duck shirt and bright green cotton shorts. While my jaw did not drop, I inwardly gawked at the absurdity of the cartoon and bright colors as I continued to avoid her Why? I asked myself: Why did I think this was the appropriate outfit to wear when I feel so NOT like bright green cartoons? What the hell was I thinking? I suddenly no longer trusted my mind, and I retreated further into not speaking. She allowed silence to engulf the room until I could come up with a better answer to her Why? than a barely visible shrug. My second defense, a stubborn I don’t know. But I could not find the other words attempting to form in my throat as I was then distracted and baffled. Why would I wear a Daffy Duck shirt? It was absurd. It was white and dingy and I hated cartoons. Its silliness misrepresented the seriousness I felt. Note to self: start wearing black. I berated myself for not darkening and hiding my body to match my darkening and withdrawing mood, my discomfort with the fact of my body, my almost womanly body. Eventually, the counselor gave up and allowed me to leave.
Now, in my closet, I lift myself from the floor, hands bracing the top half of my body against the mess of shoes. I wipe snot from my chin as my body screams in silence, as my lack of comprehension at the situation of my awkwardly growing seventh grade body makes me want to slip away. I mentally yawp at myself, at what will soon be a woman’s body, not knowing where my woman’s mind has gone.
In 2000 my ex-girlfriend is wearing an MIT shirt, the maroon letters printed on the soft gray cotton. My mind is in an uncontrollable state as I am certain the downward jut of the M is turning into a pencil, no, now it is a knife. I see this knife and I know it will soon make a downward jut into my head. I sob and sob and sob, unable to explain this thought. She thinks I am crying about her, about our recent breakup. I am slowly losing my mind as I can feel it slip away, feel it seep out of my hallucinating eyes, my eyes as they are adjusting to an unmedicated bipolar mind.
In 2003 my current girlfriend is wearing bright green flannel pajama pants with penguins on them, little black and white birds smiling from the solid green backdrop. The penguins start to twirl around and dance along the landscape of her legs. I see them do their little dance and I smile and smile and smile, unable to explain this thought, unable to utter that it is not her at which I am smiling, the possibility of grinning about our recent growth of love, but it is a widened smile on my face about the penguins as I hallucinate them tapping out their tango. I can feel my maniacal mind explode with awe at the dancing penguins, as I can feel the lines of rainbow prisms seep out of my hallucinating eyes.
In 2004 my best friend is driving and makes a right turn onto a country road. She does not see the car racing up behind us as we turn. The headlights blast into the back seat in which I am sitting, singing to myself a song with my own made up lyrics, a song about leprechauns that frolic in the bright green fields rolling by the window. A horn blares. I am distracted from my song, become aware of the situation speeding up behind us, and become certain we are hit from behind, that our car crashes into the ditch. I see the car rolling, tumbling into a jumble of crashed metal. In reality, we continue forward, but my unmedicated maniacal mind stays crashed into, believing I have died and I am now a spirit traveling out of my body, my body as my eyes float above it, stagger over the vision of a bloody body, a mess of my dead body. My mind rolls through the events of my body being found, of spirit seeping out of my hallucinating eyes. My mind becomes jangled, uncertain it is living in a body, continuing to grow with this flesh that now feels dead.
In 2002 I am on the top of the highest cliff in Austin, called Mt. Bonnell. It is a rocky cliff where my feet dangle, my skin drifting towards memories of her, the first love. Mt. Bonnell is a deceiving name for this large hill made of rock in Austin, TX, where there are no mountains, but just a high cliff called Mt. Bonnell. My legs swing over the edge of the cliff, and I am simply looking for a reason to not have my feet dangle. There is a need to put them on the ground before I fall down. I look up into a sky full of stars that won’t shine down. I stare into them, and they won’t shine down.
The sound of my sobs swirls with the humid Texas night air. I am thinking of the woman who I wanted to be mine, the woman who was never mine, the woman who now demands I silence my voice to her. I feel hurt, confused, heart-shattered. I quit my summer job so I could write more, so I could spend more time with her at night. She did not like my decision, called me childish for quitting my job. My sobs call out to the lake waves that crash against the docks poking out from each lakeside mansion below the cliff. A part of me drifts down to the silent streets, crashes against the scream of the pampered bright green topiary.
This is the sound of one woman breaking. A heart that is fractured and shattering. First love, a dangerous, fatal, inevitable crash.
I sit and I dangle and I think and I drown into the thrum-thrum of the last time I heard voice. It tickles, hoards the space of my ear.
You don’t deserve for things to get better.
The drum-drum of my silent sobbing, my choked response of nothing.
The sound of my fists now drum-drumming my thighs as I think of that, think of the void that screeched into my ears.
My first crush said this to me. She said it because she didn’t think I would ever make an improvement in my life, specifically in my relationship with my alcoholic father.
But I tried. I tried to flex towards her, bend my body more into her if I could. I grew myself towards her, towards the fact that she was fourteen years older than me, and so forced a maturation of the parts of me I thought she wanted to see flourish. A medicated mind, an exercised body. A pre-med major, a continuously studying brain. I tried to develop into that image of the smart woman, tried to uprise into a woman I thought she could fall in love with. But I fell out of myself, tripped over the temporary plateau where my growing mind had landed. I forced thinking when I should have held assured in my knowledge. I forced myself to grow for her, towards her.
And now I have slunk back into my sobs, my mind receding to a child-like state, scared and vulnerable, the sound of lost love in the tears that plunk on my thighs. A break between us formed as I decided to quit the job in order to pursue my writing. Or, the alternative motive, to have more time to see her to hear her voice speak to me. The conversations we could have drove my body, my decisions. But she thinks I am being irresponsible, that quitting a job to pursue a hobby is beneath me. She thought I was better than that, more mature. But now she sees me as a child who chose the desires of my mind over a possible career. She also thinks I am living off of my dad’s money. I despise him, his alcoholism, his absence in my life. He is a sick man with a sick unmedicated bipolar mind, and I hate him considerably. His unmanaged mood disorder has wrecked havoc on my ears as I cannot tune out his maniacal shrieks.
And yet, I use him. Use him to give me money so I can give into my passion for writing, for her.
My older crush despises my decision and decides to cut me off from her life, decides to silence her voice to me.
This is why I am on a cliff, considering my options. I am lost in sounds, engulfed by the reverberating shouts of the last words she said to me, You don’t deserve for things to get better. The words crash through my ear drums, ricochet down my spine, bounce back up through my ribs, and crack into my heart. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. Thump, ______..
But my heart refuses to seep into silence.
I sit still with it as it still beats. Its steady rhythm begins to steady my sobs, makes me make a move.
On the soundless peak of Mt. Bonnell, I move.
The cliff remains where it is as I rise, jettison to standing. I am still.
Still standing, the stars begin their speech.
And this is what they say: move on. Get over it. Silence her words until you are ready to hear them, to face them, to know that she is wrong. Know that you are growing into yourself, not her.
Enough of your nightly sobs.
Her name continues to catch in my throat, so I write down a poem about it in hopes of tearing it out of me.I reach into my back pocket and fish out my pencil and folded up sheet of paper. I write a poem, the sound of the yellow #2 scratching the page brightens the dark, spotlights the stars that begin to shine.
It is 2012 and I am at a writer’s conference in Chicago. I yearn to pay attention to all of the panels, to learn more about the art of writing, but I am distracted by love, by what a new lover will feel like on my body, by the possibility of finally letting my body expand into desire, by all of my senses feeling fully aroused. What will my body smell like as I come with a new lover? How will my breath sound as I heave out one more orgasm? What will this notion of “woman” as I have grown into her feel like in my body as I taste desire swell in my skin?
I am listening to a panel about how to help students with their writing beyond the space of a workshop, but I am distracted by my body as it wonders about this new sense of touch, about how it will feel on my body. My body becomes the focus of my mind. The sight of my arms dressed in their bright green sleeves, the legs that cross themselves at the knees, and my butt as it smashes its way towards numb in the hard maroon plastic chair all bring my attention to my body, to the sense of having a body. And yet this body keeps getting distracted by the images in my head of a lover’s touch, the language of love as it will spread across my skin. My body is fully present before my eyes, but my eyes roll backwards at thoughts of how this body will soon be caressed. I am too consumed with the body to think about writing, to even think about any kind of thinking. My educated mind falls into my body as it yearns to experience more. I cannot resist but to re-work the panel into my own needs, into my own sense of my body as I can’t stop experiencing it. The panel about workshopping a student’s body of work becomes a session full of metaphors about how we experience each other’s bodies, as in:
I workshop my body. I present to you a rough draft of myself, and turn the rawness of my thoughts onto you. And we will polish and edit, revise the drafts of my skin as we approach the work of this flesh with new meanings, a new sense of interpretation.
I crack open the pages of your spine, rustle through the roots of your verbs. We are newcomers to each other’s bodies. We bring with us what we know, our expectations for something new, revised. Give me the feedback of your touch, and I will learn more about myself.
For a moment, I was thinking about love.
As I pull out my yellow #2 pencil to jot these metaphors down, my thoughts turn towards the ever-pressing self-hatred that at times has ripped a hole in my chest, turn towards that discomfort in a body as it has awkwardly grown into this woman’s body. The growth has felt unsteady at times, unsure that the body is turning into a woman’s body as it should exist. And while I am no longer that pre-teen hiding away from her discomfort in her body while sulking in a closet full of shoes, my thoughts turn back to how I have judged my body as it grew — the teeth as they did not obey, the skin as it itched to be something else, the eyes that did not see reality. The metaphor for revising the skin as it meets a lover’s touch, turns into concerns about how I will relate to my body as it continues to change form.
Here is my body as I present it to you, as I want your hands to revise its malleable form. Give me the feedback of this touch, and I will strikeout the errors, will shape into something that you will want to read.
We will come to my body as a meeting ground in which we will build new drafts of me from the old ideas of my flesh. We will workshop my body, revise the drafts of my skin, polish the rough edges, and challenge myself to read it all differently. I will force the rewrites into something I want to see.
My body distracts my mind from being present in this panel, from learning about new ways to write. My body imprints metaphors onto my skin that search for meaning, for an understanding of its corporeal self.
As I have grown into this woman’s body, discovered the sense of a body growing against my will, I have feared I will never be satisfied with the drafts of my skin, will never submit a version of myself to the world which feels complete. My mind as it has grown with my body continues to be distracted by the sense of having to carry around this body each day. It is a constantly growing vessel that carries the brain as it tries to expand. But the body continuously shifts under the gaze of others’ judgments, of this unsteady mind, of not understanding where this body is headed. Nothing about this flesh is ever final, the work of my skin constantly under revision, constantly finding its sense of being a body, of having a body I can claim.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review, Sleet and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor’s Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt for her essays “BodyHome” and “I Have Been Thinking About,” respectively.She is currently finishing up a collection of essays about finding the concept of home in the body. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.wordpress.com.