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.
…Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all except I was lonely and there Joaquin was 20 feet high on the screen and looking deeply kissable? Maybe it means—though good Christian women who are trying to work on their relationship with God aren’t supposed to feel this way—maybe it means I just need to get laid. Sigh…
Joaquin’s not my usual drug of choice. I’ve gone through a number of crushes over the years starting with Matt Dillon when I was a tween (though I don’t think “tween” was yet a word when I qualified as one). In recent years, it’s been Matthew McConaughey, Christian Kane, Michael Fassbender. I was on a George Clooney kick for about a decade, but that faded a few years ago. I read a few interviews with him where it struck me that he was a man who always needed to be in control of the situation, or at least that’s how it came across in the interview, and his control freakism was a huge turn-off. (What do they say—you dislike in others what you dislike most about yourself?)
What I’d really like to write in this next paragraph is something about how looking at the personalities of the men I choose to crush on has been revelatory to me about what I value and don’t value, at least theoretically, in a man I might actually meet and have a relationship with. But the elephant in the room I rarely talk about is that they are all white. Yes, I think Lenny Kravitz is gorgeous. Ditto for Boris Kodjoe and Idris Elba. But they’re not the ones I’m planning a meet-cute with.
No one wants to be THAT woman–the woman of color who prefers white men. Lord knows I do enough in my life that has made numerous black people over the years tell me I’m not really black. So to point out another piece of evidence you can use to prove that case is not really in my best interest. But while I still hesitate to own this fact out loud (you have no idea how much I want to hit the delete button right now), I have, in fact, thought a lot about why that’s the case.
I don’t consciously think white is right or better or smarter or some magic pill to happiness. (I add “consciously” cause let’s face it, we’ve all bought into the advertising about skin color, weight, height, accent, etc. in one way or the other to some degree even if we’re not conscious of it.) But I really do think that a great deal of my choice for the other is that I’m choosing someone who doesn’t look like my father. Or like my uncles. As if by choosing someone who doesn’t look like them I’m somehow guaranteeing that I won’t get cheated on repeatedly, emotionally abused, devalued. In many ways my uncles are great men (and, to hear his friends tell it, so was my father.) But what I learned from them as a little girl, when they’d forget I was in the room and smart enough to figure out what was going on, what seeped through my skin and right down to the bone as they joked about their affairs and their illegitimate kids, was that men couldn’t be trusted. And since all the men I was around at that time were brown men, since I saw the facts of why men couldn’t be trusted or depended on in nearly every interaction with my father, I internalized that even further as brown men couldn’t be trusted.
I’m not still a kid. The reality is I’ve been asked out by a few brown men recently and I’ve said yes. And some have turned out to be cheaters (what fun to get an e-mail from the angry wife of a man you thought was single!) and some have turned out to be nice men who just decided not to call for a second date. But still in my fantasy life, it’s still the white man I’m yearning for. I’m not sure if I should be concerned by that, or, given what happens in reality, not worry about it. Am I prejudiced against my own people? Does your fantasy life develop out of what you experienced in childhood and to that end should be taken with a grain of salt? What am I supposed to do with all of this evidence that I have a preference for white men? Where am I supposed to put that shame and that guilt? Should I even carry that around with me given that I don’t put that preference into action? Is this even something I need to be grappling with?
(PS You’re on my list of crushes, too. But I thought it would be weird to write that. And yeah, I was right.)
To be continued…
My next book’s a work-in-progress…just like moi.
Temps notwithstanding, spring really has sprung. At least that’s what I’m attributing my cleaning jag too. Clearing out the “junk drawer” of one of my filing cabinets, I’ve come across quite a few treasures: copies of the first NEA Arts magazines I wrote by myself, an interview I did with a food historian for American Spirit, a mini-collection of music poems that must have been the hand-out at a now-forgotten workshop, Maureen Seaton’s reading list from the very first poetry workshop I ever took, the essay I wrote to get into grad school, a profile in the MFA newsletter from my first year in the writing program.
I’ve just finished reading a stack of e-mails I’d printed out from when I was on sick leave from work with pneumonia from December 2005-April 2006. I’m both tickled and alarmed by the fact that even as I sent my boss updates on my clearly deteriorating condition, I continued to also give her updates on all of the work I intended to do while I was on sick leave.. Here’s a sample, from January 2 (which I think was a day or two before I was admitted to Adventist Hospital for a week).
“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow afternoon. my lungs are still full of crap and even walking to the front porch to get my mail makes me out of breath. I’m thinking I won’t be back at work until monday, but I’ll see what the doctor says. Unless the doctor forbids me from leaving bed the rest of the week, I’ll plan to get as much work done at home as possible….”
Did I mention that at this point I’d been diagnosed with walking pneumonia?
I carry around this idea in my head of myself as a slacker. But then I read e-mails like that, or I think back at how frantic I was to get as much work done as possible leading up to my fibroids surgery, and I realize that that particular story I tell about myself isn’t exactly accurate. I mean in one e-mail I tell a colleague I have pneumonia, but “I’m going to try and stop by on Thursday and pick up some newsletter stuff [to work on].”
I feel guilty about time off. I remind myself often that we have an allotment of sick days for a reason. That my lungs are still damaged from my 2006 illness and no one expects me to trudge into work on 100-degree days. No one’s surprised when allergy season comes along and I have to take time off because my asthma’s acting up. I know the whole spiel about taking time off to take care of ourselves so that we don’t end up with something worse. And still, I feel guilty.
I come from a long line of women who can’t sit still. They are always sweeping something or cooking something or washing something. Even when they’re sick or exhausted, chores have to be done. Their lives seem to revolve around action, not thinking. If you’re not actively doing something, then you’re wasting time.
I live a life of the mind. I’m thinking about poems, about PR campaigns and interviews for work, about what I want to tackle next in my ongoing practice of self-improvement. I may look passive, but mentally, emotionally, I’m hard at work. I’ll cook, clean, and wash as much as I need to so I don’t live in a total pit, but I’d rather read a book or watch a good TV show, whatever gets me to a thinking place. Still, though I intellectually know I’m doing something, my DNA keeps telling me something else.
And because I’m already carrying around this guilt that I don’t do enough, when it becomes imperative that I not do anything due to illness, the guilt intensifies. Sigh. While I have learned that I need to relax and take days off and enjoy them, I’m still working on not having to spend those days shushing the chorus of “I shoulds” yelling in my brain.
And now as I’m easing back into full-time work, I have to keep reminding myself that I should, in fact, be “easing” back into it. Sure my outside incision has healed well, but there’s still numerous incisions inside of me that are aggravated every time I bend over, or take a walk, or go up a flight of stairs. I have to remind myself to check in: How do I feel? Am I in pain? Am I tired? I still have another week at home telecommuting. And I’ve promised myself that once I’m commuting to work again, if I’m overly tired at the end of the day, I’ll work out an arrangement for a few weeks so I can continue to telecommute a few days a week until my strength’s back and riding the Metro doesn’t make my insides ache any more. And maybe, just maybe, I won’t feel guilty about it.
Went downstairs to check the mail on my daily walk. Turns out the disco mirror in the foyer is perfect for a selfie.
This morning as I reclined on the blue-and-white couch, my mother sweeping my bedroom, the sun momentarily blaring through the scrim of clouds, I felt acutely the loss of my “real” life. I wanted to be bundled up on my way to the farmer’s market, or puttering from one end of my apartment to the other putting away this and that, or reading the day away because I wanted to not because it’s the only option. i realize this situation is only temporary, but I feel 10 years old again when five or six weeks of waiting for freedom might as well be a lifetime.
I also feel like a bit of a fraud. True there is a very ugly incision running from the top of my pubis, slanting around my belly button to an abrupt end. When I look down at it, I can’t help thinking that it looks a bit like a disappointed butt-crack. Still, even after the Percoset wears off, I can get up from the couch by myself, I can walk the hallway five-ten times a day, and I’m no longer crippled by gas pains that hobbled me in two. I’ve made my breakfast two mornings in a row, and it doesn’t seem right that I’ve asked people to bring me food once a week or come do my laundry. True, I could barely stretch to the top shelf of the shower caddy to reach the hair conditioner this afternoon, and true if something falls on the floor, I either have to sit down or try and do a combination plie with a slight bend to pick it up, and true the physician’s assistant told me that the incision would be weak for at least two weeks and someone else told me a horror story about a woman who ripped open her incision because she was secretly doing housework while her family was asleep.* Still…
I know all the reasons why I still need help. I know that by 9pm I can barely keep my eyes open after a day of mostly lying on the couch. But still, I sometimes find it hard to be okay with people wanting to do for me. It was all fine in the theoretical before I had the surgery, but now that I know I don’t have cancer and everything turned out just fine, I feel less worthy somehow.
You would think we’d need grace only to be willing to give of ourselves, but it turns out we need grace to receive for ourselves as well. And we especially need it, I think, to be willing to accept the kindness of others even when things are not as bad as they could be. Our lives don’t have to be tragedies for us to accept help, to accept love, just being—in whatever state—is more than enough.
*Uhm, we know that would never be me, right?