Listen to this story
Yesterday I learned that the butterfly obliterates itself before being born again. There is one thing: the caterpillar. And there is another: the chrysalis. And then there is a third, which is the butterfly—a monarch or something else with symmetrical wings. But who knows what happens in the chrysalis? For a while, there is only a glittering fluid. Then there is something. Then it has a name.
Not unusual for a woman to always want to be smaller, and a host of possibilities as to why. In this story, I am 13. A friend is starving herself. We all watch her at lunch, and no one says anything about it, because it is already written as if in neon lights. She is a gymnast. She eats only apples, grass-green and hard, bitten down to the quick. She talks about her body constantly. She is strong. Someone notices and thinks I am like her, but I know we’re different. Someone forces an intervention. For me, nothing happens, and I am too young to understand my own mania anyway. The answer is not a disorder of the body but of the spirit.
Not the weight of the body but the fact of the body. Not the shape of the body but the needs of the body. How inconvenient to be made of desire. Even now, want rises up in me like a hot oil. I want so much that it scares me. I don’t know what I’m made of; I wish I did. That I could gut myself like a fish or a fruit.
At 18, something sparks a change in me, and all of a sudden I’m alive and aware of it like an animal. I could spend years interrogating who or what could have possibly twisted the cap off of my need, but why bother when there it is, already, spewing. All of a sudden the night takes on a new significance; it is when things become both real and possible. Daylight seems flat and washed out, like a digital rendering. Uninteresting. I find I feel more myself at night, my pupils huge, a plastic cup of something in my hand and the whole world stretched out like a hallway with endless doors opening into endless futures. I walk down streets I will not recognize in the daytime; wake up in beds too low to the ground and my clothing reeking of smoke. I feel like a meteor, like a forest fire, like something that burns as it moves, and when the boy I lose my virginity to compares me to a bonfire, the moment almost feels like a cliché. In the daylight, a bonfire doesn’t really make sense, he says. It’s just smoke and hot air. But at night it makes perfect sense, all blazing and sparks.
I let his words run through the length of my body, like water descending through sand. I am flattered and hurt. I wanted to be seen, and now I am visible, but only as something wild and loose and unlovable, a flame thrown up in the dark.
Still. I am visible. There is a benefit to burning.
I read about Kristeva’s theory of abjection. It has become in vogue among the feminists to talk about sex using the language of critical theory. Because I am a brown girl fucking, I relate to the term abject so much that I make endless puns about it: Abject permanence. Abject story. Abject of your affection. The puns are sad and funny only to me. I am pretty, but I wish I were prettier. One spring I show up at a boy’s house with a bouquet of roses. My head is half-shaved because my grandmother is dead and I am grieving. Still, he seems to like fucking me. We have sex in his room, in my room, in my living room, in an auditorium in the projector booth, him on his knees, making me come. When I give him head, his Coke-can dick crammed in my mouth, it takes him forever to finish, and a few weeks later, he breaks up with me in an email.
Object permanence is what very small children don’t have. We learn it from being alive in the world. It’s like how you know life continues to go on around you when your eyes are closed, or when someone is so far away that you have no idea what they are doing, but you still hope they’re thinking of you at night.
Nobody ever told me I couldn’t want anything, but I internalized the lesson anyway. It’s not normal to want so much, I think. I’m like a fever on legs. My desire feels unwieldy. I sleep with too many men.
Never the weight of the body but the fact of the body. Never the shape of the body but that the body exists at all, and that it wants, and that it hungers, and that it is unsatisfied. I go on long midnight runs, leaving my apartment with my phone tucked into the waistband of my shorts, running without knowing where I’m going. At night, the streets of New Haven are empty; without my glasses on, the colored lights come together in a blur. I lope up one long residential street, turn in to a neighborhood I don’t recognize, scare myself, run back down. When I get home, I feel nothing. This is no different from fucking someone I hate. What I mean to do is to test my body, to empty it out and see what is left at the bottom.
What else: the taut cord of denial running through me, as though it were a bead on a thread. I count the days as though I were fasting like a saint. This appeals to me, holiness. I like stories about saints and angels and hermits; I have liked them ever since I was a child.
And I keep going out into the night, wanting. Everything seems like a vessel or a flower or both. Everything is a painting or a pop song or a novel. I paint with the colors I have been given. I have tried to be a lover, a mistress, a housewife. But by now I have become resigned to being a dirty girl. This dirtiness is dull and without much texture. It is ordinary: someone saying they can’t imagine bringing me home to his mother, et cetera. I am aware that my body is desirable, but I am not sure if it is lovable. It is like a lotus growing out of mud. Whenever someone gets close to me, I push them away to make sure they don’t have an opportunity to hurt me. Have you ever killed something good for you just to be certain that you’re the reason you can no longer have it? I can’t tell if I love sex because I love sex or because it’s the thing that gives my life meaning. It’s not about pleasure so much as it is about feeling something.
But was there ever another story that I could live in? I only know one narrative. Sometimes I want to feel used, I tell someone in bed. We are tiredly plunging into each other. The old jokes run through my head. Abject permanence. Abject of your affection.
Sometimes I wonder if animals know their purpose or if that’s something only humans have to grapple with. I have wondered how the birds know to fly toward warmth in winter. There is a group of butterflies that each year navigates around a mountain that has long since turned to water. Driving through New Jersey, I see a flock of starlings that expands and contracts like a hive with its own brain. It gives me shivers; my hands tremble on the wheel.
Where does the body move from being abject to comprehensible? Does my body even know its story?
I try being alone in my body, wondering if another story will pick up and take its place.
And then. Here is where I can’t write it seamlessly. I don’t know how it happened, only that it did. But I would like to tell you about love, that it exists, that I have felt it. How hard to let the unruly parts go to sleep once they have tired of running. How badly have I wanted to sabotage the good things, because to hurt is what’s familiar, and I am so used to being abject. When love comes to me, it is a surprise and like a flower. Like something improbably beautiful I have no use for. The flower is planted and turns into a garden. I am afraid that I will kill it. Rain falls, and everything grows. Then we are standing together in the middle of unspeakable perfection, and my mouth is thick with honey.
Sometimes I believe I am writing this from the other side of the garden. Surrounded by hedges and soft grass and the magnolias about to bloom. Then I realize how needy I am, how wild. My wanting seems like its own animal, and I am already an animal. There is — still — the burning. I have learned that it isn’t about extinguishing but controlling the flame.
I think I would like to know what the fluid thinks to itself in the chrysalis. I want to know if it is frightened of what it will become, if it knows that there’s something else after dissolution. I wonder if the caterpillar knows when it cocoons itself that it will experience a kind of dying. If it knows about flying. If it has dreams.