(Editor’s note: This essay contains nude photos)
I ’m in the bathroom of the Airbnb putting on mascara when M, the photographer, arrives. I can hear her talking to J, the man I’m seeing, like they’ve known each other forever, which they have. I can hear the ease in their voices as they murmur to each other, the mention of the names I don’t know, the quick, habitual laughter that only happens between friends. I listen for a minute, my ear to the door. I look at myself in the mirror again, standing in my bra and panties, as if there’s anything I can do now about how I look, as if there’s any chance of getting out of this.
No backing out, I whisper to my reflection. You’re fucking doing this.
I open the door, pop my head out.
Hi, I say. Nice to meet you.
You too, says M. She has an easy smile, one that doesn’t hide her teeth, and she’s dressed in workout clothes. I like her immediately. She looks like the kind of person I’d be friends with, and so I decide I will be. She scans the small basement room, clucking her tongue about the lighting, which is limited to a few bedside lamps. She fiddles with something on her camera and whispers to J, who nods. He has experience with this. He smiles at me, and I smile back. I can’t help myself. M threads the lens onto the camera and looks at me again.
Okay, she says. We’re ready. Time to take your clothes off.
You send me a photo after work. Just a little slice of Miami for you, you say. I make it my Twitter cover photo, the background on my phone. It’s hovering behind my eyes when I close them. I see the coast stretching out endlessly in both directions. I hear the mournful cries of the gulls as they dive for fish, the waves rolling to white noise just beyond the parking lot. The scent of salt is in my nose. Now your arms are around me, your mouth at my ear. I hate the beach, you whisper, and I laugh. But I like you.
I have a hundred photos of you already. You send them to me every morning (you, sunlit) and every night (you, shimmering with water) and when I open that album, it is a sea of skin, it is like putting my finger to a candle flame, and I am wet and weak for you. I put my hand on the phone in my pocket. I can feel them there, the hundred, as if, somehow, by multiplying you, I can make you able to withstand the remarkable weight of my wanting.
For years, this was my routine: get up at seven with the kids. Get a shower. Get everyone dressed. Get them fed, not myself, because there’s never time. Get the diaper bag packed. Get out the door but don’t forget anything, because there’s never time. Get them to school or to my mother’s house. Drive an hour and a half to campus. Teach. Hold office hours. Have meetings. Drive home. Stop at the store, because we always need something. Get the kids. Get dinner ready. Get them to bed. Get a drink and sit for thirty minutes on the couch, but not too long, or I’ll fall asleep. And then the work day really begins: 9 to 2 or 3 a.m., the only uninterrupted time in my day without competing responsibilities. Finally, finally get in bed. Try to sleep. Fail.
For years, this is what I thought it meant to be a wife and mother and student: every day, you’re filled to the brim with tasks, and there is never a break.
My ex-husband told me once that he’d had to learn how to be a father, how to do his fair share of the housework. That it had taken time.
I remember staring at him, gritty-eyed with exhaustion, unshowered, feeling utterly alone. I had to learn too, but I didn’t have time, I thought. All the while, I did the work. All the while, I was waiting.
I take my bra off, my panties. I’ve taken my clothes off in front of people before. But this is different than when someone watches you from the bed as you undress before sex, different than when people look at you like a ticking bomb in the delivery room. J and M are watching me like I’m something in the wild. I can feel their eyes, gentle, calculating, as if they’re trying not to spook me.
It’s March, and we’re in Portland, and the late-afternoon light funnels in through the windows of the basement bedroom in slim golden shafts. When it touches my bare skin, I think of fingers on a rising dough. We should be at an AWP conference panel, listening to someone talk about how to start a lit mag or how to write women’s desire, but instead we’re here, in this bedroom, getting ready to take nude photos of me. Me and M, who I met just today, and J, who I’ve known for months, who I met in person for the first time just three days ago, but who feels like a part of me already.
Why don’t you lay down? M says. J has covered the bed in a red fitted sheet, which he says will set off my skin.
I climb onto the bed. I can feel my breasts sliding off my chest the way breasts do, especially those that have fed children. My stomach is soft and stretched from carrying two kids. My legs, stronger than they’ve ever been because I’m running again, are covered in a thin layer of fat, because I’m 42, and a mother, and a Ph.D. student, and my body has been through hell. For the first time in ages, I feel naked. What the fuck am I doing? I think.
In the dream, we’ve been in the hotel bed for a day. You tell me the story again about the scorpion, about the rapture, about the eucalyptus the bruja heated in a bowl under your bed that cured you. I tell you again about the horse, about the witch I descended from, about the dark, swampy place in my heart where Florida still rests, rotten, unresolvable. I think of the moment, three days from now, when I will have to let you go. As if you can feel the pain rising like heat in my skin, you pull me closer, your mouth in my hair. Nothing’s over while we’re still here, you say.
In the produce section at the grocery store, there’s a small mountain of mangos, which I know you love. I pick one up, put my lips to it. I imagine you, a thousand miles away, putting your lips to one just like it. I think, perhaps, that your piece and my piece were birthed and fruited from the same tree and then different hands plucked and parted them. Now, here in our hands, against our lips, they are together again.
Near the end of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, her protagonist, Ruth realizes that her Aunt Sylvie doesn’t want to lose her. In large part, it’s because her “simple, ordinary presence” is both stabilizing and routine: “this was the measure of our intimacy,” says Ruth, “that she gave almost no thought to me at all.” And yet, Ruth knows that if she were to disappear from Sophie’s life, she would transform into something new: “if she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing.” We know, she says, what would have happened if her mother not dropped her and her sister Lucille off at their grandmother’s house and then driven her car off a bridge. If Mother had come home instead, says Ruth, they wouldn’t have remembered anything special about that day. But because she didn’t, their memories of her are infused with “the hush and solemnity of incipient transfiguration.” The ordinary becomes extraordinary because we anticipate its loss.
I think about this as I sit in therapy with my ex and he tells me I’m divorcing him to get away from the kids.
No, I say. I’m doing this for myself.
Right, he says. And to get away from the kids.
What he doesn’t understand — what I’m not sure he ever will — is that his very accusation assumes my children are the fulcrum of my life. What else, he thinks, could I possibly need to get away from?
But my children are not my fulcrum. They’re the things I carry. The fulcrum is me.
The fulcrum is me.
I’m not trying to escape my kids. I cannot imagine my life without them. I’m simply trying to make their father carry half the load so that I’m not ground into dust, so that I don’t vanish completely. I have no desire to be that kind of extraordinary.
For him, me vanishing seemed an acceptable compromise: if I were a ghost, I would still be there to haunt the place. If I were a ghost, I’d never leave him.
But I did leave, finally. There are a hundred reasons why. The most important, the most precious, is because I need this ordinary body to be extraordinary again: not young, or rich, or thin, or perfect, but mine.
I am 42 years old. I am nearly a doctor. And in 2019, ownership of my body and my time and my life still strikes me as an extraordinary idea.
This is not at all where I expected to be.
I don’t hate being a mother. I love my children fiercely. Being their mom is one of the greatest privileges of my life. But I shouldn’t have to prove that love to anyone. The things I’ve done for them — the pregnancies, the prolonged labors, the two years of breastfeeding, the dozens of nights with them in my arms while they were feverish or vomiting, the therapies, the kisses and hugs, the meals, the routine functioning on four hours of sleep — are all evidence of my love. Few men have done these same things for their children, and yet fewer men still feel compelled to justify their love for their children or time away from them the way I do.
This, too, is true, and I feel like I have to whisper it: I do not love being a mother more than I love being myself.
The mother part cannot come first in this equation. If there is no self, there is no mother. And that self was nearly obliterated by wifehood and motherhood and the work of getting a PhD.
Now I’m getting it back.
Plenty of people will say I’m selfish. But they did not live even a minute of this life. This isn’t anyone’s story to tell but mine. And this is both a love story and a reclamation project.
M handles me gently as a glass vase. She positions my arm behind my head. She folds one leg over the other, angles my chin, smooths my hair against the pillow. She takes pictures.
Here, she says to J, and she gives him a bedside lamp with the shade removed, has him hold it so that the light illuminates my skin.
She climbs onto the bed and stands over me. She puts her camera to her eye. The lens, glassy and black, obscures her face, and I feel exposed, caught, like an animal with its leg in a trap. I can feel goosebumps rising on my bare skin as if it’s been dusted with sand.
In the dark of your bedroom, in the line at the bank, in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, this is what you text me, this is what leaves me shivering:
I want you dripping wet and helpless for me.
You should get used to being wet and wanted, worshipped, teased and taken.
I can’t wait to hear your voice while I’m inside you.
I can’t wait to make you gasp and scream and beg.
It’s late, and we’ve been talking for hours. You’re whispering all the things you’ll do to me, all the things you want me to do to you. I slide two fingers inside and they are you, they are you, they are you, and for a while, your skin is my skin and my skin is yours. Afterwards, I scroll through your texts, and I write the words on my thigh with my still-wet fingers so my skin won’t forget.
From the moment my first child was born, there was no sense of balance, no breathing, no break. I was awash with love for him. I couldn’t stand to be away. And that was good, at first, because I was unemployed, and there was nowhere to go. I spent my days and nights with my son, pumping and nursing in hour and half cycles, largely alone, because my husband had to work, and he had to sleep because he had to work, so the bulk of the care was left to me. When my son was two months old, I started walking the neighborhood with him twice a day because I couldn’t stand to be in the house anymore, and so I walked, sometimes for miles. We watched the sparrows that poured from the retired cotton mills near the house at dawn and dusk. We watched the men who catcalled me from the backs of pickup trucks, carefully, carefully.
I was depressed. Of course I was.
I was a postpartum woman who had lost her job at eight months pregnant, whose labor and delivery had gone nothing like I was told it would, whose newborn had been diagnosed with Down syndrome hours after birth, who was raw and sore from having her stomach ripped open in the operating room, who was exhausted, steeping day after day in the shock of new motherhood.
But depression does not capture the dark, unrelenting emptiness at the heart of those days. It wasn’t my child, who I loved more than anyone on earth, and whose diagnosis I quickly learned was something to be met with research and resources rather than fear. It wasn’t my hormones, not completely. It was the knowledge that my husband at the time was absent.
When he wasn’t at work, he was there in body, most of the time. But he was rarely there in mind or heart. He had made a choice: to help a friend, a coworker, someone who had tried to commit suicide, someone he thought he could save from herself, instead of being there for me.
He insisted he wasn’t sleeping with her. But she was his friend, and she needed him. And he needed to save her because he couldn’t save his father, who had died suddenly in a car accident the year before.
I’m your wife, I screamed at him, over and over again. I need you.
You’re stronger than she is, he told me.
And it was true. I was stronger than her. I still am. But only because I had to be. I had no other choice. At the time, I had no family nearby, no close friends. My son had no one else.
But I also knew this: if my husband continued to take my strength for granted, one day it would collapse.
It wasn’t his intention to erase me. He didn’t want to cause me pain. He was still grieving his father. But people — out of grief, by accident, without meaning to at all — can still cause incalculable damage, and he did, he did. He also never repaired that damage. I think he believes he tried. But what I asked for, he could not do, and so the damage was, instead, put aside, set like a broken dish back on a shelf as if it would repair itself.
But I also knew this: if my husband continued to take my strength for granted, one day it would collapse.
Somehow, by always trying to be the strong one — in the wake of my father-in-law’s death, a fear-filled pregnancy, a job loss, a traumatic childbirth — and by making it through to the other side of all of these things, I had proven myself less deserving of support, not more. The decision to simply move on, which I believe was well-intended, seemed somehow the reward for my resilience. Motherhood itself seemed to be the final evidence of my permanent role as a stoic, a rock: by filling me up with a baby, my husband had carved out a space inside me that was no longer my own. My purpose in life wasn’t to work, or write, or sleep, or seek out support. It was simply to handle things. To mother.
Rufi Thorpe describes this feeling in her essay “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid” as being “profoundly unfree.” Even now, having regained some of my autonomy, I feel that phrase like a dagger at my throat. Thorpe writes about it as being tethered. I felt it like the tip of a blade that, if I ran, would shift from a prick of pain to something that cut me open and bled me dry, something that took my voice away. I didn’t like to think about how it already had.
Tell another mother you feel this way, and she’ll either look at you like you’re a monster, or she’ll shrug. No one says it, but it’s horrible, it’s commonplace. After all, what else can we do? Women — some of whom move their organs and stretch their skin and literally carve out a space inside their bodies for another human being to grow in, others of whom adopt children and, for a period, turn their lives over completely to that child’s care — are told that this is to be expected. Once we have children, that space inside us isn’t ours anymore.
Mothers or not, wives or not, there is the creep of possession into every woman’s life. We all know it. We feel it in the eyes on our tits, the hands on our asses, the words that men whisper at us as we walk by. We feel it when we spread our legs for lovers and for doctors and now, of course, for the government and the church. All of this is far worse for queer women, for trans and nonbinary people, for women of color.
Whether we’re born that way or whether we identify as such, we women aren’t humans. We’re cultural communal property, like a park or a public library. Real estate. It’s no surprise that our leaders have always been landed men. It’s no wonder that our current president is a real estate tycoon whose reputation is for thrusting his shovel into every piece of unmarred earth.
Women don’t warrant the protections of corporations or fetuses because we, after all, aren’t people. We’re spaces to be filled.
M is standing over me, taking pictures, and now I feel as if I’ve been flayed alive, some grotesque animal gutted on a table. And then I see myself in the camera lens: slightly hazy, but the gleam of my skin, the turn of my mouth, the dark of my hair against the pillow makes me think beautiful without meaning to.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see J. His eyes are like the night sky the second before the stars come out. He’s mouthing something.
You’re beautiful, he says. Beautiful.
I remember opening the door to him at my friend’s house just three days before. The way he crossed the threshold in two steps and kissed me, dear God, that kiss, like he’d been waiting his entire life for it. And I knew then, the minute I felt his lips on mine, but I couldn’t say it. I’d felt a glimmer of it when I told him a month before in a DM that I wanted to take him to bed in Portland and he told me that the night wasn’t over until I was done with him. I knew there was a reason I’d waited until I’d asked for a divorce before contacting him.
We started texting all day, spent hours on the phone every night that month before AWP, more than most couples talk in six month’s time. Every time I saw his name on my phone, I felt it. Every time I told him a story or heard him tell one, every time he read a piece of my writing or I his, every time he listened to my problems or fears and told me he believed in me but that we would figure it out together, I felt the awe of a kinship I’d never felt before, the shock of the million little ways our lives aligned. It was clear. It was crazy to think it. It terrified me.
We walked the streets of Portland in a daze for a few hours after that kiss, hand in hand. I could feel every cell of his skin against mine, as if every nerve had risen to the surface, as if every nerve had been set ablaze.
If this is the only thing I get, I thought, just these few days, it will be worth it.
He took me to the Jupiter Hotel. Inside our room, he took my clothes off layer by layer like he was peeling an apple in one long ribbon. He laid me down on the bed and put his mouth on every single inch of my skin and it was as if someone had opened up the roof and poured the entire universe in around me, all of its stars, all of its suns, its planets, hot and bright and shimmering.
We spent the next 24 hours in bed. We stopped to eat just once, slept little. Every time he reached for me, I went to him, because I wanted his skin on mine every second, because I knew it couldn’t last. The few times I left the bed to get a drink or to use the bathroom, he had a gift for me when I returned. Things I’d mentioned I loved in passing. Things he came across and just knew were for me. Things that showed me that he saw the me inside that I had feared had disappeared completely.
I love you, he said, again and again.
Impossible, I thought, again and again. And yet I knew.
I love you, I said.
I mouth it again as M stands over me, taking pictures, and J mouths it in return. I don’t feel naked anymore. I feel powerful. I look into the lens and I imagine I’m staring into J’s eyes as he climbs across the bed towards me. I stretch my body beneath the camera’s eye, and I am pressing my skin into every last fragment of memory in that machine and saying see? See? I am here again, this space is mine, I am taking up every curve and corner of this body, and there is no one in the entire motherfucking world right now who belongs here other than me.
And this, and this:
There is no end to the ways in which you are beautiful.
We’ve spent our whole lives walking toward each other.
I can feel you swimming under every thought I have.
I don’t remember what it’s like not to ache for you.
In the bed at my sister’s house, I let you tie me up. I let you take your time. Your tongue orbits my nipple and I suck in my breath at the pull of it, at the way you map the smattering of freckles, like stars, across the pale galaxy of my breast, at the way each one flames beneath your tongue. Every time your skin meets mine I can feel how far you’ve come across that great expanse to get to me and how soon you’ll drift away again. I let my body record it. Every touch is me, made new. Every touch sparks fire and light where there was none.
It took me seven years to ask for a divorce. Every time I packed a suitcase, I would allow myself to imagine for a moment that I was leaving. But I never did. I could not imagine leaving a person I cared about who was drowning so deeply in his grief. I could not imagine leaving my children. I still can’t. I won’t. What finally made me realize that I had to make another life was the knowledge that every time I packed a suitcase, I would think of the space inside myself that was so packed full of other people’s things that there was no room left for me.
For a long time, I believed the lies: you work through the marriage no matter what. You suck it up. You deal. You do the invisible work because you’re better at it, because you’re a woman and you have the extra space inside in which to keep it all, and men most assuredly do not. The worrying, the lists, all of it is ours because we must keep that hole inside us full: if we aren’t growing babies, we must be keeping house inside ourselves for our children and husbands and churches and jobs and families.
But claiming that biology makes the woman is another societal ruse. It makes the body the battleground and overshadows the psychological warfare that is being waged on women every day. The only real use that the patriarchy has for a woman’s body is as a tool to subdue her mind. Fetuses are a sleight of hand, although very real, very grave ones for women who have no desire to mother.
And yet this biological essentialism widely misses the mark. What makes a woman who she is not the space inside her. It’s not the ability to bleed or grow breasts or create a human. What makes a woman a woman is her remarkable ability to create herself, especially in a society that believes women should give themselves up completely to those around them.
That sacrifice, when it occurs, has dire consequences. In time, like all communal spaces, women get overcrowded. We outgrow our usefulness. And then the cultural pendulum swings the way it always has for women, from fuckable to unfuckable. We become not a space to inhabit but one that’s overgrown, abandoned to tree roots and weeds. The center cannot, will not hold.
What I remember most about leaving that basement bedroom for the airport:
The way he pulled me into his arms for a moment before we left. The way he kissed me so deeply that I felt like our mouths were one.
How dark the room was when we closed the door behind us. How dark, where there once was so much light.
For days afterward, my body remembers. I can feel your hands here, spreading my thighs, your tongue tracing the line between them. I forget in that moment what my body has been before: that blade of grass in a storm, that mirror for men who stared too long, that pale peach of the evening sky across the horizon of the operating table, my belly large and luminous as the dying sun. I remember only that it is the place I live, that it is nerve and pleasure, that it is mine, mine.
For days afterward, each time you text me, the memory replays with a jolt, like the click of a light in a great dark room that you thought empty and finding someone unexpectedly there.
The sky is the color of the lake in that picture you showed me of the camp in the Adirondacks. There, the sliver moon, faint, on its back, just like me when you’re crawling across the bed toward me, just like you when you’re sweating and spent. The tree is your skin, and so is that one, and that. The night descends like your voice around me. I exhale. The cloud in the air takes the shape of you, up from my lung where you put your mouth to every one of my alveoli, helping me learn how to breathe again.
I’d like to tell you more about the history of women and their complicated relationships to their bodies, but there are writers who have already done that more adeptly than I ever could. I’ll point you to work by Samantha Irby, Laura Lippmann, Carmen Maria Machado, Natalie Lima, and many, many more. I’d also like to tell you about the peculiar disdain that much of academia holds for memoir, especially women’s, especially when it pollutes pure, unblemished academic scholarship, but memoir is resilient, the personal persists, and writers like Maggie Nelson and Carla Peterson continue to reclaim the space that the academy has designated for scholarly writing alone.
When I think about leaving that basement room in March, however, the only thing I want to tell you about is the ride to the airport. I remember holding J’s hand, the way his thumb stroked mine soothingly as he drove. I remember kissing him, crying in his arms in front of the airport doors, his whispered promise that he’d see me again, and soon. I remember kissing him one last time and walking away, one of the two hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.
Some would call this foolishness, romanticism. If they read this, most scholars like those who teach in my PhD program will cringe and roll their eyes. But this is my reminder to them, to myself, to society at large, that my body and my mind do not belong to them. I am not a means of production. I resist both the reductivism of motherhood and the academy. Reclaiming my self for sense and emotion and pleasure is a revolutionary act.
In this: Yo te amo tanto, Mèg. Con todo mi corazón.
In this: Tienes la risa mas bella en todo el mundo.
In this: Verdaderamente eres perfecta.
In this: Eres la única para mí.
And yes, yes,
I carry your heart.
I carry it (in) my heart.
But also this: I carry you (in my eyes and in my hands and in the fruit and in my fingers and in my skin and in my dreams and in the earth and in the air and in my breath and in my body) always, I carry you there and I carry you here, I carry you in the stretch of the sentences and in the length of the lines and in the words spilling themselves across this page right now, and now that you’ve read this, I carry you and you carry you and we carry you and you are everywhere.
I live out of a suitcase now. My divorce was just finalized, and until I defend my dissertation and get a full-time job, I’m a nomad. I travel back and forth between my sister’s house and my mom’s, depending on what week I have my children. In different ways than before, I’ve grown used to carrying the world with me.
I also keep another, separate, suitcase packed. It’s the same one I took to AWP in March. I never unpacked it completely after that trip. After Portland, J and I agreed that from here on out, we’re always going to find our way back to each other. Even when I have a house of my own again, for a while I’ll remain a nomad, looking toward the future when we’re together again.
This is a new thing for me, to be loved wholly by a partner, without condition or claim. It is a new thing to be utterly possessed by someone without being their possession.
I know what the whisper network says. I’ve heard the field reports. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not blowing up my life. I’m not burning anything down that wasn’t already in flames. And I am partly to blame for the burning. I’m ashamed of many things I did in my marriage. But I am also the one who finally said enough, we both deserve better. Now, for the first time, I’m building myself up again, piece by piece. But to a society with an unrelenting affinity for marriage no matter the circumstances, my decision most definitely looks like destruction.
The first time I left my children for the night, I sobbed. I was desperate for time to know myself again, but it was horribly painful to be away from them. It was, in fact, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For years, I thought of my children as part of me. I couldn’t imagine ever letting them go.
But they aren’t part of me. There’s a tiny bit of them in me and me in them, but they’re their own people. They belong to no one but themselves.
I used to think the best thing I could do was to provide a good home for them, keep them safe, make sure they would never know fear or pain. But we all know I cannot protect them. In a country where first graders are gunned down in a classroom and politicians do nothing, no place is safe. No place ever will be. The best I can do is to teach them well, and to do that, I still have things to learn myself. So far, I’ve learned that I can’t be a good mother if I’ve lost all sense of home in myself.
This is what I hope to teach my boys: the only real home they’ll ever have is the one inside them. If they do not learn to live there, warm and welcomed, to let people in when they feel comfortable and to lock the door when they don’t, to recognize their flaws and faults as they appear and to do the work to fix them, then they will never be happy, and they will never be free.
I think often about the line that society draws in the sand for women, the one where we eventually cross from communal use to derelict property. Now, in the middle of what I now call my “I don’t give a fuck decade,” I say to hell with that. There is a middle spot after all, the settle point of the pendulum, the fulcrum: it’s a point a bit like Aristotle’s golden mean and Fibonacci’s golden ratio but, unlike those male-centric concepts, it’s less obsessed with the aesthetics of perfection and more with finding the through line. It’s the midpoint between fuckable and unfuckable: unfuckwithable. And at this point in my life, it’s the only thing that I will allow to stake a claim.
I’m not foolish enough to think that means I can’t be hurt. But I will no longer let the damage take up real estate inside of me. I have made a space for myself, and I will do the work to make sure it is inviolate. There are people who will curse me for thinking I have a right to anything other than wifehood and motherhood. But I don’t belong to them. Even sharing this love story and these pictures is my choice. I choose to be vulnerable, because like self-knowledge, this kind of vulnerability is both terrifying and freeing. These pictures, these words, are given on my terms and no one else’s. All of it is consumable, but since I am the one who offers it, I will never be consumed.
I wrote once about how my mind is like a country, my memory a city. There are so many states and structures already inside me, so much work to do yet, that I cannot, will not cede myself completely over to others any more.
This is the gift I’ve given myself: inside me, I have finally built a home. I keep the rooms uncluttered. I maintain the quiet. And I let the light in clean.