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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 14

I was seven or eight when I discovered my father’s stash of Playboys. When I think back, I see them sitting next to the green recliner in the den, but I can’t believe they would’ve been so easy to find. They were probably, instead, in the forbidden cupboard where my mother kept all of her romance novels, the cupboard I raided regularly after I ran out of library books because my voracious brain needed something, anything, to read, and this explains both why I see all great love as involving tragedy and why I knew too much about sex before I was in double digits. I would sneak the magazines up to my room, look at them with a flashlight under the covers. It’s hard to believe I could be sexually excited by them at seven and even as I type this it feels like I am holding my breath and panting at the same time at the memory.

I was caught, of course. Many times. But still I went back to the big-breasted women and their chauffeur uniforms and twosomes and their slow stripteases over a series of pages. After the first time I was caught, at my grandfather Sugrim’s house, me unseen near where my father sat around the table with his brothers, my father told his brothers they’d caught me with the Playboys. My father joked, “It was only for the articles, of course,” and as they laughed, me not understanding the joke, I bloomed into the shame that should have been his.

A shame that has never left me, I should probably admit though I never dare even whisper it out loud. Mine is a body betrayed by its body-ness, by its needs, its wants, the way desire still flares at the sight of a woman’s beautiful breasts or heart-shaped ass, not because I’m a lesbian (I’ve considered it and when I can picture a life not lived alone, it is never with a woman) but because it was a woman’s body that first taught me that ache.

My mother was frightened of desire, too. She told me that some man had said something to her in Mexico when she was sunbathing with a boyfriend and that was the reason I had to keep myself covered up. That was the reason my over-generous ass, my flaring hips were a terror to her. Though now, I am disloyal and I wonder was she protecting me or was she protecting herself from me? Did she think I could only be seen at her expense?

I am looking too for my mother in those women, wanting her to show herself to me not the way those women spread and draped themselves across the pages, but the way mothers spread and drape themselves across their daughters so their daughters know what it is to be loved, to be desired, to be longed for in a way that shows how grief-stricken the mother was to expel the baby from her womb, knowing she could never hold that child as close again. But most mothers would try, wouldn’t they?

That hunger of the body, kindled when I was 7 or the 8, was that other hunger—for mother, for father—made flesh or made bearable or made into something I thought I’d found the glossy answer for. It was shame and guilt made flesh too, a reason to hold onto for why I wasn’t enough, for why I wasn’t seen, for how easy a daughter could become a punchline, for how a father could decide not to throw away his dirty magazines, but to instead throw away the daughter who’d discovered them, for how a mother could punish a daughter for wanting other women and yet stay stubbornly out of reach.

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