“What if our mothers reached across the fancy table, cradled our girlhands, and told us it was up to us to decide when, and if, we felt like women.”
My skin cannot feel her touch.
It was just days before that we sat side by side, smiling at one another, as the island girls wove wide intricate bracelets, as if they were sewing grid-like-fences made of tiny beads onto our skin. My mother’s was blue and white and mine was black and white. We couldn’t remove the bracelets. The idea was you wore them until they broke. A keepsake.
We couldn’t afford a real trip so my mom took me to stay in my great uncle’s shack over the ocean, on a tiny island off Bocas Del Torro, as a celebratory graduating-from-high -school trip. His shower was nothing but a wooden box with slits that revealed colorful fish swimming in my shampoo bubbles below. I think we took eight plane rides in seven days. Some of them on tiny scary helicopters. There were tiny scary water “taxis” that were always on the verge of dumping me and my precious belongings into the huge scary ocean. I walked the island’s circumference every morning. There were no cars. Or pizza. There was clear water and tropical fish and laid-back islanders and soft sand and monkeys and refreshing rain everyday at 3. I was too young and American to appreciate any of it. And to top it all off, I had broken my mother’s heart.
My mother was a loving, affectionate mother with a big delicate heart. She wrote me a song while she was pregnant with me: You are the sweetest little girl, a mom could ever have, you came into my life and made me oh so glad. She scratched my back while singing me to sleep most nights for many years. She put her big delicate heart in my small changing child hands. She was always trying to plan special things for me, to turn every event into a really big deal, and I was always on the verge of clenching too tight. I never knew which of my emotions or life events would turn out to be too much for her. Most things were too much for her, but she really wanted me to feel special. And I did. Until suddenly I didn’t. Until I squeezed a little too hard with my girlhands.
She was a good mother.
I was in second grade when I got off the public school bus and started asking questions about what the birds and the bees did. My mom said we were going to have a special date to talk about it over the weekend. We stopped at Hardee’s on the way. This is a stop we made daily so my mom could get her .59-cent Diet Coke refill in her Moose cup. But I knew that day was special because we also ordered bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits. We drove out to a wooded park that had deer, elk, and bison and hiked a big hill in the hopes of spotting some. There, over biscuits and Diet Coke, I learned the differences between the bucks and the does. The penis enters the vagina and fertilizes an egg the ovary dropped with its sperm, and that fertilized egg grows to be a baby. The sex act itself is a sacred gift from God. A gift He only gives to two people who love each other very much and have decided to honor Him by getting married. You should keep yourself pure, so you can give yourself to your husband as a gift on your wedding night. She smiled wide, as she spoke, and her rugged eyes were sincere. It will hurt, but it is an amazing and wonderful gift He has given us, and we must honor Him with it. Honor Him—oh look, a deer!—as He has honored us with all of this.
What if our mothers didn’t teach us that we became women by any special manipulation or intervention. What if our mothers said you are a woman already. Your lips are beautiful. All of them. Let them speak together and use them as you may. If you may. When you may. How you may. You may. And I will love you anyway.
I got my first period early. We wore dresses and went to a fancy spinning restaurant with glass walls on the top floor of a hotel in the city. My grandmother sent me flowers accompanied by a congratulatory card because my mother had called and told her I had become a woman. She wanted me to feel special, but I didn’t feel any different. All I felt was the tampon, shoved in my girlvagina, causing me discomfort, while I was trying to swim with the other kids at the pool.
What if our mothers told us it wasn’t biological clocks that made us women. What if our mothers reached across the fancy table, cradled our girlhands, and told us it was up to us to decide when, and if, we felt like women. That our bodies were about more than the mechanics that worked on us. What if they told us that how it should feel to be a woman was up to us.
I followed my mother up a grey concrete flight of stairs. Our suitcases banging as we went. Bang, climb, huff. Bang, climb, huff. Was she huffing because she was climbing stairs or was she crying again? I couldn’t tell. A long grey walkway awaited us at the top. Everything was so grey. Even her legs looked grey as I followed them across the dirty concrete. There was so much concrete. Grey hard concrete. When we finally reached the heavy motel room door I fidgeted thinking of something to say, something she might actually respond to, as she struggled with the lock. But any thoughts I had got slammed in the door behind me, I barely making it in, feeling like a stranger sneaking in behind someone who is not willing to hold the door for me.
She hadn’t spoken to me in two days.
Are we going to eat? I blurted out. It’s been all day, I reminded her. Although I shouldn’t have had to as we both had a long day of flights and shuttle rides through a foreign land. This was our last stop before returning to the whiter, softer concrete and purified water of home.
She didn’t respond.
In all of my eighteen years, I hadn’t known her to rage silently. Ever. She had always worn her rage on the outside, used her voice to make me tremble when she was angry. All the ladies in the neighborhood knew it when one of my siblings or I were in trouble.
This was different. When she looked me in the eyes two days prior and asked point blank if I was still a virgin, and I said no, she didn’t rage. There was no yelling. Just her grabbing a floating device and jumping off the side of the boat and into the vast scary ocean. She, a lifelong swimmer, now looking frantic in the water, kicking and punching it to get away from me. Her sobs traveling to me on the deck like a chorus in rhythm with the waves.
I sat with my uncle on the deck of his house boat. To say it was awkward would be an understatement. I had only met him a few times when he came in town around the holidays and took about 20 of us, give or take a date or ex or new cousin, out to dinner. I looked forward to him coming because it wasn’t often we got to go out to dinner, and definitely not to an all you can eat buffet. They would put our large extended family in the back room. But not because they had a reservation on the books for us. There were no books or hosts at the front door. Just yellow plastic and a cash register where you told a kid in a yellow uniform how many people you were paying for to go through the buffet. It was loud and fast and chompy. And we loved it.
I would have given anything right then to be surrounded by safe yellow plastic and loud chompy people. I would have eaten plates and plates of fake yellow cheese piled on things that somewhat resembled meat and mounds of carbohydrates to avoid sitting next to him, nearly a stranger, as my mom bobbed and sobbed in the water. She was making me dizzy. What the hell had I just done.
We were several days into our trip and my uncle took us off the island in his boat. I was lying out on deck in my bikini and she called my name. When I rolled toward her my pierced nipple fell out of my top. Her jaw flopped open. Her tired saggy eyes bugged. She demanded to know why I had pierced my nipple. I had them done the morning I graduated, so I had made it about a whole week without her seeing them. She had taken me to get my tongue pierced, signed her name on the legal guardian line, when I was 16. But this is different. You are different. Only sexual deviants get nipple piercings! Are you even a virgin?! I had taken off my covenant ring. I was not a liar.
I said no.
When we are young, they smile and sing and tell us that the right thing to do will be clear. When we grow, they tell us that our worth is tied up in our bodies. But then, when we use our bodies, they tell us we are worthless and they cry.
But what if our mother’s didn’t cry when we used our sex. What if we could squeeze and squeeze their soft hearts and they would refuse to let us break them. What if they said—we are not unbreakable but you, daughters, are not responsible for holding our hearts. What if they showed us how to care for our bodies when they feel broken. What if they taught us to be unafraid of the possibility of a broken keepsake.
What if, when I asked her if we were going to eat, she took me by the hand, our matching beaded souvenirs hugging our wrists, and took me down to the McDonald’s. We would stare at the menu together, unsure of our usual order since everything was in Spanish. I would say I wanted chicken nuggets and we would have a debate about whether their version, which looked like actual chicken wings in the photo, would have that same familiar taste or if they would taste like the chicken we had been eating on the small island we spent the week on. Like dirt and feathers. Like actual poultry. She would want a Big Mac and search the pictures for a burger smothered in familiar orange sauce. We would decide to get a burger and chicken and split them, that way we would be safe. WE would be safe. I would have been safe. She, her heart, would have been safe. A mom and a daughter sharing familiar food that they now didn’t understand. Safe. The mom talking to the daughter about bodies. Her girl-ish-woman-ish body. Helping her understand. A daughter and her body should be safe with her mother.
What if my body had been safe.
Instead, she let her luggage fall into a heap on the floor between the two single beds of the concrete room. She didn’t even bother to look around. Didn’t make a comment about how small the room was. Didn’t seem to find it odd that it was simply four concrete walls, single beds in two corners, and a shower and toilette in the others. A light on a long chain that made the room a dark piss yellow, as if the room were dehydrated.
She stripped her clothes. She was never shy about her body. She walked our house in see through underwear with black pubes spilling out the leg holes every morning. And afternoon. And sometimes the evenings too. If I had a friend over she might put on an oversized t-shirt. But you could still see her breasts sagging beneath the cotton. Her friend said that they hung off her chest in the shape of Africa, and she lovingly blamed this on us—she had “nursed three babies.” But she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She was proud of her breasts. And she should have been.
I am proud of her.
In the mornings I sometimes reached my hands to the underneaths of my developing teenage boobs to scratch the sleep and sweat away, but as soon as it started to feel good I had a flash of my mother stretching her torso upward over the kitchen table, hands scratching away under her tits, and I cringed and dropped my hands to my side. My boobs would have to learn to wake themselves up. My body was nothing to be proud of. My body wanted to be used for things other than nursing babies. My body had accidentally crushed my mother’s soft heart.
The shower was a concrete cave with just a curtain. She stepped in as if she were taking shelter. The water was barely running before she started in on the sobbing again. I sat on the bed, eyes closed, fidgeting with the thick beaded bracelet that was strangling my wrist as the room filled with sobs and steam. I saw her in her cave, arm raised, elbow cocked, hand on the concrete, head resting against herself just below her wrist. Her wrist that was adorned with a thick beaded bracelet just like mine. The cool water mixing with her fiery tears as if an equilibrium was formulating on her skin. Steam. Ice, hot, salt, pain, boiling over her hair, her breasts, her grey legs, to make steam that would harden like lava
on my skin.
I, a daughter, wearing a bracelet I knew could never stay whole, intact, unbroken, sat like a dead flower amongst the the sobs and steam. It was just days before that we sat side by side, smiling at one another, as the island girls wove wide intricate bracelets, as if they were sewing grid-like-fences made of tiny beads, onto our skin. The keepsake was always going to break.
It has been many years since we sat side by side. When she visits she sits in the back with Blaze. Blaze is four years old and calls me Nia instead of mom. My child and I hangout in coffee shops and drink tea and eat bran muffins. I don’t hide my ceramic body from Blaze, but
I wax my pubes.
I hated breastfeeding and stopped after six months. I ask Blaze’s other parent to use teeth and be rough with my nipples. Harder. So I can FEEL it. Harder. More. Harder and more until.
My skin. Her touch. I can feel it.
Art by Gustav Klimt.