’m thirteen years old when I first press my index finger to the back of my throat. My stomach lurches and I heave, expelling a stream of sour, stinking bile. Some jets through my nostrils, burning my nasal passages. You know the dance.
Most days I sit at the window, watching the other kids play outside. The boys, now ragingly pubescent, chase the girls through sprinklers in the harsh summer sun. The girls flit and flirt, the plumes of their ponytails streaming behind them. They have a level of boldness, and of confidence in their slim, lithe bodies, that I’ll never achieve. They have the delicate, slender legs of herons; I have the strong, full-figured legs of a hippopotamus. They fly from boy to boy, twittering and spreading silly gossip; I shut myself in the sunroom to engage in the super-social hobby of drawing.
But today, I strategically position myself outside on the porch. I want someone to notice; I want someone to invite me into their world. When Tim Harding crosses the court toward my stoop, I sit up, prepping myself for small talk. He strides over the lawn, left hand in his pocket, right hand bearing a bright yellow dandelion.
Hey, he says, flicking his dark fringe out of his sparkling eyes. Would you like a flower?
Yes, I nearly pant.
He tosses the dandelion into the crevice of my sketchbook.
There; an ugly flower for an ugly girl, he says with an ugly smile. Then he adds, I’m sorry – there were no fat flowers.
I stand and snap my sketchbook shut, forever recording the day in a smear of dandelion paint. A scathing retort is on my tongue, but my restive eyes linger on the beautiful girls behind him.
I like dandelions, I lie coolly, hot color rising to my cheeks. He laughs and jogs away.
Later, I creep to the bathroom and ease shut the door.
They’re just human garbage, I think, as I tie back my hair.
Then I do something I hate to do. But it’s okay; I do it to be loved.
It is a behavior that was nurtured into me. As I grew up, my mother’s response to me was to withdraw and deprive me of her presence. My attempts to love were always caustic disappointments, including the day, when I was five, that I fed rice to her canary.
My mother’s shriek rang through the house.
Did you do this? she asked in a high voice, frown lines plunging down her chin, tears carving rivers down her cheeks.
I remembered helping – not hurting – the bird, so I answered truthfully, No.
My mother towered over me like a great grizzly bear. She wanted answers; I wanted it to be over.
I was terrified. Yes! I screamed, I’m sorry! It was me! And I catapulted across the room to wrap myself around her, but she pushed me away by the waist.
Do not speak again, she said.
I’d kill for love, so I obeyed. And that was okay too.
At fifteen, I land my first boyfriend. At first, his gaze makes my heart bang against my breastbone. He provides security like none I’ve ever felt. I ignore my parents, talk on the phone for hours (saying nothing), orchestrate rendezvous with him at school, sneak out of the house to see him. Then he asks me to lift up my shirt.
It seems harmless enough. I hesitate but don’t protest, my fists raising the hem of my sweater to my eyes. He inspects them as if selecting fruit at the grocery store, and I cower behind my hands, my soul too laid bare. I will him to finish quickly so I can hide them, the shameful appendages that enticed his request. I recover myself with slow defiance – when he is done – determined never to do it again. And yet.
At seventeen, my second boyfriend promises I’ll enjoy what he wants to do; that it won’t go too far.
I remain unconvinced.
Don’t you trust me? he asks. His clear green eyes and smooth face make him look like a china-skinned cherub. I’m sure my refusal will cool his preference for me, and I’ll be left alone. Without further coaxing, I nod and avert my eyes. His hungry hand snakes across my jeans and between my thighs.
When it’s finally over, he looks down his nose and kisses my throbbing temple. Anything for you, he seems to say.
Then nothing, a voice inside me growls, do nothing. Why can’t I be that strong little voice?
I’m nineteen when Michael pushes me too far. I’ve consented to hang out in the seclusion of his parents’ basement, and we are nearly halfway through a movie neither of us are watching. I’ve reclined myself across his lap and realize too late that this was a mistake. His hand drifts over the leg of my track shorts and, Please, he sighs, please please.
Dull anger flares within me, Not this time, and I manage to rasp a reply: No, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I remain stupidly motionless, hoping my words alone will reach him. But his voice and hand press onward. My hands lash out, accosting his, but to my horror, a whimper escapes from me.
Just let go, he says, sliding his fingers inside the leg of my shorts.
It’s the moment in a nightmare when you struggle to wake, paralyzed. I have strength to rise, but I don’t know how. And I say, Please, no please, don’t, but by then he’s already found me. And then he’s inside; his fingernail grazing a surface not even a tampon has touched before. I grow limp, like the animal a hunter shot. Then I hug him tightly to hide my face.
Michael is happy, and I guess that makes it okay.
At thirty-five, I finally realize I never did forgive him. I wear the symbol of our love on my finger, but it brings neither security nor freedom.
I stand at the kitchen counter, before a window overlooking rippling hills of grass. I work to dismember a cooked chicken, lopping off drumsticks, ripping apart thighs, severing the wings from the body. I tear the breast meat with a fork in each hand.
When my husband arrives, he wraps his arms tightly around me from behind. A warm glow washes over me and I smile. Then Michael’s head hovers over my shoulder, and his hand fondles my stomach in a gesture I know he finds loving, but I find coercive.
The hair on my neck stands on end; my hands ball into fists. Outside, the sun and shade roll like waves down the field in the far distance. The dandelions, speckling the ground with their unrelenting yellow, wag themselves at me.
The pressure is on; once again, I must make a choice. Lately I have not failed to notice that he returns home from work late. The first option is the choice I have made all my life. But I got myself into this mess. It’s time I got myself out.
I untie the apron from my waist which has never swelled from pregnancy, my hip bones protruding sharply on both sides. I turn to him and feel the strength leave my legs, my heart rise to my throat like vomit.
I push him away gently by the waist, to look him in the eye and finally admit: I am not, nor have I ever been, okay.