I didn’t know him well.
How many women’s stories start that way?
I didn’t know him well. He was older. He was, I and my friends assumed, somewhere between thirty-five and forty. I was nineteen and I wouldn’t have met him were it not for that playwriting class, had I not visited the professor and said what I hoped were impressive things until he relented and allowed me to audit the class.
I didn’t know the man’s name for weeks. I knew him instead by the blank zero in the center of the top of his head, which shone red with cold as he ascended the metal stairs that rang with each step and iced with an almost performative ease. I stood at the top, smoking Camel Lights with one ungloved hands, and we’d stand together sometimes, waiting for the professor and the rest of the class to clang and clamor up, still ringing from voice lessons. We talked about Leonard Cohen, how his voice seemed more beautiful for its ugliness, for the smoke and whiskey veneering each note. We talked about the plays we liked, the spotlights and darknesses, the witches warning Macbeth that no matter what, no act done is ever undone. We didn’t talk about our families, or the landscapes we watched through half-lidded windows as we flew home to them. We didn’t talk about high school mascots or gymnasiums or the rooms we’d found ourselves entering and exiting in all of the years we’d both existed before we stood together on that porch. And perhaps because there was nothing personal between us, I felt it was safe to agree to a date to him. He’d been asking for three months. I wanted to be polite.
I wore the faux-suede coat I’d found on clearance for $15.00, and as we walked our breath made clouds every bit as opaque as smoke. “This coat seemed warm enough back home in Alabama,” I said, half-breathless, and later I wondered if this was the problem, if by walking us into the personal I had walked us through the threshold of a door I might not at that moment have recognized but for which I was entirely to blame. He wrapped his scarf around my neck, pulling it tight then releasing it, laughing at the panic that, I know, popped into my eyes.
I don’t remember what movie we saw. I do remember the darkness, the way his hand crept to my leg, to my thigh, the inside of my thigh, no matter how many times I pushed it away. When he reached for my hand, I relented. We were in a theater full of people. I told myself I was safe.
After the theater emptied itself and it was just him and I and all of the barely-lit sidewalks we had to walk, I began to feel it. A sickness, somewhere in my stomach. We held hands and he waited until we were under a streetlight to kiss me. I tasted the sour of his tongue. I told myself to stop being so afraid. On the stoop in front of my dorm, I stood on my toes to reach his lips for a goodnight kiss. He pushed against me. He pushed my mouth open with his tongue. He asked if he could come in and I felt the sickness again. “I’m just really tired,” I said, “I’m sorry.” Did I even finish speaking before he had covered my mouth with his, before he grabbed a wad of hair and yanked it, hard, then pushed the back of my head until my lips slammed against his, until my teeth cut into my lips? He stuck his tongue in my mouth and I couldn’t breathe so I pushed against his chest. I couldn’t get free. I couldn’t get free and I couldn’t breathe and I pushed until I knew it wasn’t working. I moved my mouth until I felt the top of his tongue with my teeth.
“You little bitch.” He yanked my hair before he let me go and wiped his mouth with one hand. “You little bitch,” he said, but I was on the stoop and thanking God because the door was unlocked, and so by the time he came after me, I’d locked the door behind him. I looked out of the peep hole to see his face, fish-eye lensed, swollen with fury. “You little bitch,” he kept saying. “Let me in.” I ran to my room and passed a housemate, her face posing a question I answered only by saying, “Please don’t let him in. Please.”
I didn’t cry until I’d closed and locked my door. I didn’t cry until I was standing, shaking, inside of my own room, away from his hands and his tongue. “You little bitch.” I stood and shook. I couldn’t remember how to sit down.
Later, I told some friends the story. They listened, eyebrows raised in an unfamiliar way. They tilted their heads to the side.
“I don’t see what was so bad,” one friend said.
“It sounds romantic,” another friend said.
“He just did what he was supposed to do,” the first friend said. “You don’t get how dating works.” I sat. I nodded. I lit a cigarette. I told myself that it was possible that this was true. I was virgin who had her first kiss at eighteen. I never understood what they meant when they talked about sex, especially when they talked about the want or need to get laid. From the time I started puberty, I’d associated my reproductive parts only with extreme pain, with the cold steel of the dozen doctors I’d seen since being diagnosed with severe endometriosis at thirteen. I assumed the way I felt – or rather, didn’t feel – about sex was just another symptom, an extension of disease.
“I guess I should’ve gone with it,” I said. “I guess I didn’t understand.” I stubbed the cigarette against the ash tray then left to take a shower. When I scrubbed my scalp with shampoo, I felt the base of my skull, the ache his touch had left with me.
I didn’t understand.
I spent the year I turned twenty-eight listening to Feist’s The Reminder, which I kept calling The Remainder. I made up for it by calling Feist Leslie Feist.
“Who the hell is Leslie Feist?” a friend asked, and I said, “You know, she did that 1234 song,” and the friend said “Oh, Feist. Just say Feist. Don’t be a dick.” But sometimes I felt as if I wanted to be a dick, like the times I felt aware of my floor as someone’s ceiling and my ceiling as someone else’s floor. I danced and sang anyway. Perhaps I wanted to be heard, and as a woman happily dancing, gladly singing, with so many hopes she had to count them to keep them in order. In truth, time did a dance that turned the walls of my abdomen inside out. My body housed a clock that I could hear, every moment, ticking. It had so many names: endometriosis, adenomyosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, pelvic adhesive disease. Then, my doctor made a new discovery: a tumor made my uterine tissue its home. It wasn’t malignant, just a fibroid, but it was difficult to feel relieved. It was difficult to admit that, too. I just couldn’t count my blessings.
A few days after my diagnosis, I printed out a photograph of (Leslie) Feist with her straight-perfect hair, holding up two fingers with two felt finger puppets: one a fox, one a raccoon. I gave the photograph to my stylist.
“Okay?” she said.
“Ignore the finger-puppets,” I said.
“The puppets aren’t the problem. Your hair will not do this.”
“I just like the shape of it,” I said.
“It’s a great haircut, but her hair is thin and straight and hangs flat, and your hair is thick and is definitely, totally not straight.” She lifted the weight of it then let it half-fall, half-float in rebellion. “See?”
“I just like the idea of it,” I said.
She sighed, but she lifted her scissors. “I hope you have a heavy-duty straightener.” She shook her head, but she made the first cut, as if in recognition that this was more about meaning than anything else.
Where are you on the Kinsey scale?
It’s the question we liked to ask each other, in the hallways of the art high school built to look like a factory, as we ran then sock-slid down the tiled hallway, red as a warning. As a command. Stop.
Where are you on the Kinsey scale? We snuck the question out of books we snuck out of the city library, which we’d mapped in our minds. We knew where to hide to kiss or to cry, where we could stand unseen long enough for half a cigarette, shifting our bodies to shift the smoke into the wind. Where are you on the Kinsey scale? We snuck into school, bent-backed past lit classrooms to the bathroom. We washed the aftertaste of smoke from our fingers, scoured our mouths red with Listerine, with the toothbrushes we used to gag ourselves after lunch. In that building, everything seemed defined by opposing prepositions: on and off, over and under, above and below. In that building, I no longer understood myself in the terms I saw in photographs: long hair. Wide cheeks. New boobs. Where are you on the Kinsey scale? Seven words I kept inside my mouth as I watched my face cave, slimmed by skipped lunches. I sheared my hair into a shape shared with the boys in Algebra class. I wore Oxford cloth shirts and oxblood shoes. I wore a rust-colored sweater vest and grey corduroy pants. I spelled “gray” as “grey” until my teacher’s red ink told me I had one more time and that was it, I’d see an F. In Algebra, I learned that numbers live on an endless line with zero as its middle. Between each number lived an infinity of numbers, an endless series of ways to move toward and away. I learned that the Greeks defined zero as a paradox: how could nothing be something? How could absence be presence? Where are you on the Kinsey scale? For all my asking, I had no idea how to answer when the question turned towards me. At first I said zero, by which I meant nothing, until I found out that wasn’t what zero meant. Then I moved to the middle –a three or a four – imagining the line like a survey, its center a shrug. Neutral. No opinion. Do not care either way.
“It isn’t that I don’t find you sexually attractive,” he said. “It’s that you aren’t sexually attractive. I’m sorry. It’s true. You are many things, but you are not sexy.”
It was a Saturday near the end of the sixth month in which we had often shared beds. I said nothing.
On Monday, I decided to approach the problem academically. I asked myself two questions: 1., what is sexually attractive, and 2., how can I become sexually attractive? A Google search delivered a series of pink images that made my stomach quiver. It wasn’t an excited-quiver but an I-am-going-to-vomit quiver, the same quiver I felt when I found a 1950’s recipe for Jell-O with cubes of ham inside. I asked myself, Why this kind of quivering, the Jell-o ham quivering?
I clicked on a photo of Bettye Page, all leopard and breast and cropped bangs. If she quivered, she was didn’t show it. She seemed empowered beyond nausea, with her lipstick and her whip.
On Tuesday, I shivered in a salon chair, a black drape tied around my neck in a way that, had I been Bettye Page, might’ve been sexy. “Bangs,” I said. “School girl style.” With my index finger, I drew a line barely above my eyebrows, the way villains drew lines across their throats. You’re dead.
Later, I met him for dinner. I’d already had a glass of loosen-up wine. I’d already started and stopped myself from asking, a hundred times: Why is schoolgirl style a sexy style? How long have I carried this idea within me, how did I let it fall so easily out of my lips and then just leave it there, quivering?
“So you got bangs,” he said, plain as a napkin. I knew then. I should’ve left him. But I told myself to hold on. If I found the right doctor, I could find the right cure. I could find some way to be attractive. To feel attraction. I told myself I deserved it, his every single word.
I mixed an effervescent codeine tablet into cold water. I mixed Wild Turkey with Diet Coke. I mixed half a teaspoon of Blonde Lightening Powder with two teaspoons of Blonde Developing Crème. I’d spent all day with the pain I’d spent all week with, the pain I’d walked with, clenching my teeth. I’d had a period for six months straight and tried every pill and herb and prayer my doctors suggested. Black cohosh, yarrow, four Motrin at a time. Primrose and Provera. Lupron shots, heating pads, raspberry leaf tea. I’d traded white wine for whiskey, acetaminophen for hashish. I’d cut holes in my shirts and my jeans. I’d worn safety pins as earrings. I’d whittled my signature down by the letter. I’d become Em. I’d became E. I poured more Wild Turkey into a cup. I added more lightening powder but not more Lightening Crème. I did not perform a strand test for damage, as instructed. Instead, whiskey hid the idea of damage from me. I’d planned to bleach four chunks of my brown hair, wrapped in the foil I’d bought for leftover curry. I’d wrapped my eighth before I heard a friend yell, “Dude, what is up with you?” She’d been knocking for days, she said, but I couldn’t hear over the Radiohead album we’d yelled over for weeks, its car crash of horns and keyboards. I handed her the bottle of Wild Turkey. She chugged. I chugged. My scalp sizzled to the tune of the music, now bell-sweet and silver, Thom Yorke’s falsetto ringing: Release me, release me. I held up the Super Blonde box and pointed to my head. “I’m waiting to see,” I yelled, “if blondes really do have more fun.” My friend raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips and nodded. When I woke the next afternoon, I couldn’t remember. What had happened after the bleach and shampoo, after we left our private music for a club’s thud and bass? I told my friends it must be right, what they say. It must’ve been a night of more fun than a girl should remember, anyway.
“Who gives a kindergarten class gum?” My mother pulled, and not gently, on a fat pink wad of it, settled and stubborn in the nest of my post-playground hair. “And you know you’re not supposed to chew it. You know this happens.” She brought the blades of her scissors together in curt punctuation. I might have been crying. I might have been relieved.
“I thought it was just candy,” I said, and even at four I was unsure: if I said it enough, would it become truth?
It was almost five years after my hysterectomy. It was almost Christmas, the season in which the television shows snow-lit scenes of children tied up like gifts in their scarves, in their joyous amazement of whatever they’re selling – shoes, chicken soup, Jeeps with more safety features than the space shuttle. That’s when it started, almost imperceptibly. A twist in the gut that might otherwise foreshadow the flu, and then the hot embarrassment of my own inability to stop crying, to stop myself from feeling the things I work with constant diligence not to feel.
At a poetry reading, I read about the daughter I imagined so many times that she seemed more real than the fact that she’d never be born. I heard the quaver in my voice. I started to sweat. But I made it to the end, throat burning. Then I held one hand tight in the other, in my lap, listening as a friend spoke about the sublime, those moments of sheer terror and wonder in which we realize our lives are both completely under and out of our control.
After the reading, I stood in line for another glass of wine, telling myself to get it together, for the love of Christ. A woman appeared and wanted to talk and I wanted to be normal, for once, and so I small-talked until she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. She wasn’t there for small talk. She was there for the biggest talk only. So I gestured at the room, its clusters of conversation, its shelves lined with paperbacks. “This. You know. Poetry. Writing. This.”
“Okay,” she said, “but really. What do you want to be when you grow up?” I felt it. The absence within me. The emptiness I imagined I could fill with a child even as my doctors said it’d be difficult, then improbable, then impossible, until I had to make a decision: keep the impossible hope or keep the ability to work, to walk, to buy milk and take out the trash and do the thousand things it takes to support one’s self. I thought of how it felt. To let go. “I just want to be happy,” I said. She shook her head.
“You will never be happy.” The words felt bright, like the wince of pain after squeezing a lemon into a papercut. “You’ll have ups and downs,” she said, “but you’ll never be happy.” She told me there was one thing that made her happy, holding at the end of the tunnel some small but brutally essential hope: her children. “They’re the only thing that makes life worthwhile.” I realized my hair stuck sweat-wet to my scalp. I realized this was more about her than me. So I let her talk, nodding, as I stepped backwards to the wine table. I picked up two glasses. Both were for me.
Later, on my hotel room floor, I ate left-over pizza while the edge of a migraine buzzsawed into my skull. I looked at the carpet and asked it: when will I alone be enough? And then I stopped. It was the wrong question. It wasn’t what I needed to ask, which was When will I see myself as enough?
The last time I dyed my hair, I used the Jolene Cream Bleach meant to bleach the dark stripe of hair that moved in above my lip when my natural estrogen moved out. For months, I’d scrolled through a thousand photos of a thousand heads dyed every imaginable color. It was as if the world awakened into a new and neon future. I wanted to be awakened. I wanted to place myself on the spectrum, somehow.
In the bathroom, I listened to Tori Amos thunder down the piano, trembling between sadness and fury. I put my hair in a ponytail and pulled a thick set of strands from the bottom then coated them in bleach, acrid and gritty. I was thirty-four and I’d learned that zero is far from nothing. It’s the only natural number that may not be positive, but isn’t negative, either. It’s a whole number and a real number and a rational number and a complex number, at once. It’s a presence and an absence. It requires its own rules. I’d learned that the Egyptian symbol for zero translates also as “beautiful.” I’d learned that the word asexual isn’t just for hydras, that it can describe human beings, too. I’d learned that sometimes the reason why you can’t find yourself on a spectrum is because you exist in a place outside of that spectrum. It’s something that Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues had learned long before I’d begun to exist in my body, to walk and talk and look at bodies and think, There’s something I’m missing, something I just can’t see. A zero on the Kinsey scale indicated absolute heterosexuality; a six indicated the same about homosexuality. But there’s a value missing from the scale, a value that Kinsey nonetheless noticed and determined was important enough to note in his reports: X. An absence of attraction.
After my hysterectomy, I hadn’t found the cure I wanted to find. I didn’t suddenly begin to feel attraction. I’d solved the problem of my body and found that, in my case, an X was an X. I’d discovered the absence of attraction was its own presence. I’d discovered, in confusion’s stead, peace.
I washed out the bleach and then carefully, latex-gloved, spread pink dye over the place where color had once been. After I’d washed out the dye, pink remained. I picked up a hand mirror so I could see what others saw when I walked away: a solid sheet of brown. I put my hair in a ponytail and aimed the mirror just so, again. I saw it: a hot little ribbon of pink. A mark of identity entirely self-made, all mine to hide, to secret, to declare.
Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry — House Is An Enigma (Southeast Missouri State University Press), medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press) and Maleficae (GenPop Books) – and four chapbooks. The recipient of a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and Poetry Daily as well as such journals as the Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, New Madrid, TriQuarterly, Conduit,the Indiana Review, Shenandoah, the Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, The Pinch, and Guernica. She currently serves as a Senior Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly.