Once I took a class where sketched cadavers to learn anatomy. We learned all the bones and muscles, drew them, and then sculpted them from white clay on a wire frame. We molded femur, scapula, ribcage, and then overlaid the skeleton with each individual muscle, inscribing striations with delicate tools. I drew nude model after nude model–fat and skinny and old and young, always looking for bone structure and then working to capture the texture of the skin, the exact shape of an eyelid, the shadow cast by a chin. Years later, and I still see bones. If we shake hands, I will look in your eyes while thinking about your finger bones. I will think about how close my bones are to your bones, and how close we all are to being skeletal. If I’m sitting beside you on a bus, I will wonder about the spot where your clavicle connects with your shoulder. I will be aware of your kneecap, the patella. In conversation, I will stare at your face and notice the curl of your eyelashes or the angles and creases of your lips, the planes of your cheeks. I’ve realized that this makes people uncomfortable. If we’ve met, I apologize.
As a kid I was gifted at least three copies of the book Sarah Plain and Tall from friends and relatives. This book is about a woman named Sarah who was a mail order bride. She was plain and tall, a sturdy and reliable woman with a nice personality, who wore calico and bonnets. She was basically and old maid until she was mail-ordered and eventually married a widow farmer with two kids on the Great Plains. It took them some time, but eventually they all grew to love each other. Receiving this book could only have meant a few things. Perhaps since my name was Sarah and I was taller than most of the boys in my class, people therefore also considered me plain. Or perhaps they suspected I was unlikely to find love in the normal way, that I would be a strange old maid until a lonely man mail-ordered me from a wife catalog, so I should be prepared. I faked gladness and gratitude, but was depressed.
“Am I beautiful?” I asked my dad one day in the car when I was maybe ten or twelve, “I need you to tell me honestly.” I thought his opinion, as a man, might be useful. and I now feel terror on behalf of fathers of daughters. He considered this for slightly longer than I would have liked and replied something to the effect of, “Well, you’re attractive,” and did not go on about the nuances of my beauty or my particular attractions.
I too considered this for slightly longer than I should have, and I do think it was the best answer he could have given. It’s a trick question after all. If he’d told me I was beautiful or said it too quickly, he’d have been lying for sure. He’s my dad–he has to say that. Saying no was out of the question. “Attractive” is open-ended and leaves hope for improvement, or for that thing they call “inner beauty.” I quietly came to terms with not being beautiful.
I had what my dad used to call “the big and littles,” which he’d also had as a kid, but no one else has heard of; it isn’t on the Internet. In bed at night when it was too dark to see my body, I lost track of its edges. I felt myself rapidly changing–growing and shrinking, cycling through cartoon-like forms. Sometimes my tongue pressed monstrous and heavy in my mouth. I would close my eyes and see triangles, squares, trapezoids, doing somersaults–fast, and then in slow motion soup. I just had to wait for it to pass. Sometimes still, especially in airplanes, when everything looks so small, I get the feeling that my own hands are gargantuan, reaching down to pick up cars and flick them at the horizon, brushing my fingertips across the treetops that look so soft from above.
Does all that childhood spaghetti explain the noodly feeling in my arms? My guts loop like linguini in the sauce of bodily fluids. Does that gross you out? If I eat more strawberries, will my mouth be a sweeter kiss, or will my skin grow pitted? If I continue with this kale, will I be stalked by a cloud of cabbage moths? Are we only the essence of our last meal, or the sum of all our meals and also the ingested dirt and spider legs? I am a thousand unborn chickens. We herd through the world like cows and ferment from one form into the next.
I could never do a backwards summersault, but was pretty decent at cartwheels and leapfrog. Good at hopscotch but not double-dutch. Honestly excellent at tag, and just ok at kickball. Dodge ball was terror. Marco Polo = easy. Games with hiding and closed eyes were good. I liked uneven bars, not parallel. Balance beam was boring and hard. Lacking patience and a meticulous nature, I failed at building sand castles, but liked to run in and out of the ocean and let sand swallow my ankles. Ballet sequences cut diagonally across the floor propelled me through space and time without walking. A complicated flight of physical punctuation–each sequence a body sentence. Airy child bird-bones. Skipping across tree-bent sidewalks. Learning to shallow dive into chlorinated waters and occasionally winning at handstand contests. But how did I learn to be still? Is that little body buried somewhere inside me?
Throw my heart in a tank of water, and you would see that it does not sink instantly to the bottom. It would float a few inches below the surface, threatening to sink, but never quite dropping. My heart would bob and spin and float in the upper half of the tank. I would call this tank half full. Things float when they are less dense than the surrounding liquid. Therefore my heart is less dense than water. Once I was swimming in the ocean on one of those hot September days when the New England Atlantic is finally tolerable, and I wanted to be still and let the sun soak my back, so I did the dead man’s float–flesh making bones buoyant. The lifeguard on duty was likely not expecting to go rescue a bikinied girl who was floating the way that dead men do, but did so with gusto and was angry to find me alive.
Mom and I talk about skeletons. Her bones are officially brittle or porous or shrinking or whatever it is that osteoporosis does. When she tells me, it is not to say that her bones are turning to dust or she is built of paper straws or that she’s newly afraid of ice and wet bathtubs, or would I please take her arm, but rather that my own bones are at risk. There is danger she tells me. I tell my bones, “shoot, bones, what can we do?” and the adolescent holdout in my grown-up mind shouts MY BONES ARE NOT YOUR BONES at my mom, though of course my bones are her bones. I agree to start weight training and high impact exercise, at last until my joints fail.
Congratulations on being creative. You created the hairs that are growing out of your legs. This is better than your dull drawings of rainbows and daffodils or your new interior decorating strategy. Congratulations on healing your own paper cut, as miraculous as the colors that water makes and the mind-bending ability of plants to germinate out of a rock, transforming from seed-pebble into something soft and tender yet strong enough to withstand hot wind and spring snow and the legs of cats and the mouths of insects. Congratulations on growing your own bones–or rather your collaborative bones, a temporary site-specific installation, a creative experiment initiated by your parents, coded by years and years and years of ancestral copulation, built inside a uterus, your bones which will eventually fossilize or turn to mud. Your blood is more creative than your mindfully fostered intentions. As if creation were a pleasure and not a life force. As if it were a glass of water and not a muddy river. As if creation were happiness and sunshine and bright colors. Night is dark and good. The ocean is dark and good. It’s dark inside the womb. Intestines digest in darkness. Bone marrow collects in the black. You sing from your dark mouth. Closed eyes dream in your dark electrical brain.
Sarah Sheesley is a Detroit based writer with an MFA from the University of New Mexico, where she also served as the nonfiction and managing editor of Blue Mesa Review. Her essays have appeared in Essay Daily, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review and Edible Santa Fe. sarahsheesley.com