You stand in your friend’s dorm room, at the foot of her narrow bed, and watch her adjust the lighting. Nothing fancy, really: one of those tall, tentacled lamps from Ikea. You eye the props on her desk—packages of pink Peeps, body paint, and tubes of glitter—and you tell yourself that you can still say no.
Only you can’t. Though you’re a part of a cohort of college girls who speak of their first Tori Amos concert with the swooning reverence of a first love; girls who joke (somewhat in earnest) about staging an all-female musical version of Oz; girls who wax ecstatic about Frida Kahlo and Judy Chicago and Alice Neel; girls who think your friend’s project—a woman’s body as an Easter basket: a headless assembly of breasts and belly and holiest of holies painted pink and green; Peeps frolicking around aureole and belly button, on glittered genitals—sounds ironic and wry and (that old chestnut) powerful, but demur at modeling for her. This is for her thesis project, and if you back out now, she’ll be capital F-fucked.
You don’t know why you say yes. You never go sleeveless, not even in the summer. You always wear black, even though your mother buys you colored shirts: fuchsias and blues and coral pinks that will “accent your green eyes” and “play off your dark hair.” But feigning beauty just seems cruel.
Your body is all that it has borne: knuckle and blade, leather and taunt. Just shy of your twenty-one, you don’t think of yourself as a woman and you’ve never thought of yourself as a girl. You’ve been—you are—a series of doors slamming shut.
You babble unabashedly as you undress: some nonsense about the weather as you un-hook your bra; bullshit about post-grad plans as you step out of your skirt, your slip. You save your underwear for the end. Only when your panties are off and folded do you feel cold. But it is not a skin-chapping, bone-biting winter cold. It is that dry, stale cold of an over-cranked A.C. All the tiny hairs on your body—the ones you used to shave on your forearms, the ones that ring your navel—rise like sentinels.
You arrange yourself on your friend’s bed, angling your knees together to keep the dirtiest parts of your boot-soles from touching her sheets. Your friends wear flowered flats and flip-flops; they wear peep-toe heels and hiking sandals. You’ve worn those combat boots almost every day since you were thirteen years old. They’ve carried you out of your parents’ house, duffel bag slung over your shoulder. Their limp tongues and loose laces would grin at you when you’d wake on couches, all stiff neck and ticking back.
You call them your “shit kicker” boots. Your father bought them for you over (because of) your mother’s objections. He was so proud of you for wanting such a practical, lasting shoe; nothing too “sweet and flimsy.” And even though you blazed with hatred, wished him dead and plotted to make it so, you wanted him to be proud of you.
Your friend tells you that you can leave your socks on if you’re cold, and her words hold a gentle, gracious plea to take your boots off. But you can’t. Not yet. Cotton is too flimsy against footboard and tile. Your palms were too small to block his fists. Your arm was too soft to shield you from his belt. And if you don’t take off your boots, if you keep those precious inches of rubber soles between you and the floor, you won’t really be naked.
You close your eyes. You’re not ready to look down at yourself, to confront flab and scar. Then your friend begins brushing glitter and paint over parts of you that you’re still too scared to let anyone kiss. Your flesh rolls under the bristles; it’s ticklish and cool.
You take a certain snide delight in how subversive this is: turning this part of you, the most hidden, private part of you, which the magazines still insist should be coiffed and waxed and even exercised, into a child’s holiday gift. Something simple. Delightful. But it is the shock of wet paint on your crotch that makes you laugh.
When you were still very young, and your father’s moods (as your mother will call them) were just barometric swell and not yet thunder, your mother would leave you with her mother at least three, four nights a week. Your grandmother’s apartment was where you first came to hide in closets—but not in fear. Not then. You would put both of your hands into her bone-colored pumps; you would pull her furs off their hangers and kiss the sleeves, if only for the ticklish little zip against your mouth.
Your grandmother would tell you that the women in her family had two sets of eyelashes, just like Elizabeth Taylor. She showed you old movie magazines that have gone starched and yellowed: a woman with hair as thick and dark as your mother’s, with your mother’s plump, pert mouth and large, immaculately-lashed eyes. Only hers were a color that your grandmother said doesn’t usually exist in nature. This was before your mother became the axis you will spend your life tilting against, before the bathroom door opened and you saw her sponging foundation over her jaw. A woman who will pinch her belly and sigh, but will apply ice packs and concealer in silence.
You’d play in your grandmother’s make-up: dollar store eyeshadow and Chanel lipsticks. She’d show how to properly apply them with a Q-tip and some spit. She’d rhapsodize about the ritual of “putting on your face” and “dressing to accentuate.” For a brief, unspoiled moment, there is something powerful, something pleasurable about being—becoming—a woman: something stark and furtive, something fragile and ravenous. Something like lightning.
She would not meet your father’s eyes when he’d come to pick you up. She’d ask him if he wanted some black coffee, her voice a knife-blade run over a stone. You don’t (yet) understand why your grandmother regards your father like a snag in her stocking, like birdshit on her window, like the ex-husband who ran off with her teenage cousin. Not when your father was as broad and assured as any of the men in her magazines. Not when the redness in his eyes was only allergies.
Just as you’d approach the car, his sleek little Z, he’d stop to wipe off your lipstick. He’d sweep the side of his hand across your lips so gingerly; you could hardly feel his touch, only the heat of his skin.
He’d tell you that you don’t need of that girlie crap on your face. You are his bright girl. His pretty girl. Until you disappoint him.
You open your eyes when you hear the shutter click. A marshmallow chick smiles goofily at you from your belly button. Your glittered skin shimmers like the wink of sun over a river. The scars on your stomach are old, almost faded: you never cut very deep when you were fifteen and drunk. Because all you wanted was the quicksilver kiss of the switchblade, nothing more; because you didn’t know who you were if you weren’t being punished.
Your father is a man without faith, who took God and Santa from you before you were even old enough to know what you’d lost. But you do know that Easter is the story of resurrection—a coming back into a body, but not the one that had been battered and spent. You look at the Peeps perched on your right breast. Their beaks touch as if they’re kissing. You give a pearl of a giggle. Maybe this is why you’ve said yes. So there can be some girlishness, some silliness, some joy in having a body. This body.
Your boots are so worn, so loose, that you slip them off along the footboards. Left. Right. They hit the floor with a muted thud. It is the sound of something arctic cracked open and steaming for the first time.
Laura Bogart’s work has been published in Salon, The Rumpus and numerous other publications and she is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently at work on a novel.
–Art by Diana Cretu