“Content warning: This piece engages with emotions surrounding childhood sexual assault. Please take care of yourself.”
A dolphin, decorated with a dot on her forehead, spins in a submerged mirror. Water distorts the reflection, waves of light fluttering a rainbow until the depths absorb the rays. She stops, twists, and flips. There it is, says the scientist. She sees the dot. She knows it is her body.
Close your eyes. Squeeze together your toes, real big, as tight as you can. Hold your breath. And let go. You’re lying next to your whispering mother, desperate and raspy in the winter night. Your unbrushed tongues are sour from dinner. A flea jumps on your leg, and you smack it away. She takes your hands back to your belly, trying to get you to sleep, to surrender to lullabies and a smattering of glow-in-the-dark shapes that drop from the popcorn ceiling, a private falling star for each of your plastic wishes. Breathe in, and out. In and out, she whispers. You take air on command. You inhale her perfume of lavender and Hamburger Helper. Your lungs press against your ribs, the pink flesh of them so weak you feel them flutter and cower in their cage of bones. You think about how thin and fragile your own bones are, how easy it is to bend and snap the ribs of the chicken you cook, and how easy it would be to bend and snap your own. You feel the tightness tie you down, you see the cleaver rise to strike. You try to let the tightness go, but the tightness takes more than just your muscle, more than your lungs, more than your breathing, more than your thought. It locks you down, bending you to its will, felling you to the floor because you, young lady—you are as taut as a violin, as barbed as a fence, and the wires are winding around your chest so that, someday later, they can crack you open under the weight of the things you buried in the hollows of your heart.
Your mother’s legs are purple and kicking you in the night, her arms jerking, her skin splotched with hives. She’s asleep at the wheel, mouthfuls of sweet vanilla yogurt dropping into her chest when her head nods off into nothing. You blow kisses, because lips are fire to skin. She reaches to you, you stroke her hair. Her tissue sinks, bare skin into bare mattress, gray and matted, lines of stitching and bulging veins blurring into one. You poke her tongue; she’s whispering nonsense, parroting cries of Mommy back at you and shouting wishes at the falling plastic stars. It’s psychosomatic, your father explains. Her aches, her pains, it is all in her head. She sleeps her life away in that bed, the air a threatening poison, the sun a stinging bee. Her brain is sick, he tells you, and nothing is really wrong. Isn’t the brain the body, you wonder. Can’t the brain feel pain, you say, but he says no, her pain isn’t real, and suddenly you aren’t real, life isn’t real, it’s all psycho and no somatic. You check your own body, bare on the bathroom floor, cold on blue tile, cold in blue air, cold in blue eyes, running fingertips along a wire of nerves that jump to your touch. Breathe.
The neighbor boy leads you into a glade. You want to play Nintendo, and he wants to play at life. He shoves his hand down the front of your shirt to feel the flat of your chest, your concave sternum, your shapeless breast, still the same color and size as his own. He explores, and shoves his thumbs between your rib cage, to press flesh together in a way that makes you wonder what it will be like to wear a fabric that squishes your body into unnatural aesthetics. You watch from the outside, three feet in the sky, curious about his rapture as he makes you feel him beneath his pants. He reminds you: he has Nintendo, you have feral cats. He tells you he imagines it like his sister’s, spilling over the edge of a camisole, hardening under an oversized band tee, and tells you, Now you are allowed to play with the boys. You think how you’ve let him win, here, and in each Mario match the entire afternoon. You think of Mario bumping his head on gold boxes for coins. You imagine he is the gold box, and you are Mario, as you watch yourself bump your head against his to win the ultimate prize. Your jaw is iron, so you don’t even feel the bruise.
A year later, in your first dance class, you try to remember the sequence, but your calves feel too large for the leotard you’ve shoved into. Left or right, which foot is meant to touch down before the other, what time are you meant to step forward into the stage and then back in the shadows. Your teacher tells you to lift from the thighs, but she doesn’t know you don’t have thighs to lift. She tells you to think to lift your thighs, but you know that is impossible because your thighs dissolved and were replaced by wire, and all your connections are disorganized, and every month you break the same right pinky toe so that it never heals straight again. Your father calls you a klutz. Your teacher tells you to straighten your back, but you cannot feel a spine within you to stand. Mom pulled the invisible string out of your skull so hard that she kept hold while Father took you away. Your teacher doesn’t know that your vertebrae are busy being stretched over the span of the country, that it can’t be straight when it is slung over mountains and rivers and valleys, so she kicks you out of the play, the parade, and finally, the class.
Two years later there is a map of girlhood on your left thigh, smeared with red, angry with scabbing, soothed with oils. Each slice is a trail, a machete-forged path through territory unknown, to discovering a new language, a new identity, on the other side. You are exact and precise in your mapmaking, your blades washed and your wounds tended, the red sap wiped clean and the ends cured like pruned branches of the bonsai you admire on weekends alone. You remember your father’s words, so you feel invincible, the sting forgotten as quickly as it comes, and your anger remains simmering, suspended somewhere between silver and scabbed tones. The brain can’t feel pain, you tell yourself, and bodies absorb it.
A boy drops snot in a girl’s lap by candlelight. It’s okay, you didn’t mean it, your voice whispers, and you see yourself stroke his hair on the thigh he left sticky without your consent. Your heart heaves heavy in your chest, but there is no blood, no bruise, no pain, no proof. He leaves. You float.
Breathe-two-three-four and out-two-three-four. You are sixteen, shuttled to another shoreline. Water slides around you, and then you slide through it, arms rising and splashing in a race towards college dorms. Tighten your toes you remember, so you squish them together into shoes made to run. Relax your jaw, you recall, and your tongue goes slack between the tan lines of thighs. You tighten your resumé, your belt, your calories, your control. Your ankles swell, your eyes bruise, your skin burns in the equator’s shine. You float.
Whore, he calls you, temptress, succubus, slut. He prays to his God, disappearing for days into needy silence, coming back with promises of love and processions of flowers. You grasp at straws of affection, you dig for change in your car, you claw at opportunity of escape. You learn the names of muscles, of quadriceps, of piriformis, of how to recognize a widow-maker. Your brain never stops. Your whole existence lives above your shoulder blades. You feel your thoughts move through your skull, from prefrontal cortex to hypothalamus to cerebellum as he moves his hands over your sternum, your pelvis, your back. He penetrates your heart, then your body, then your bank account, then your sense of self. You float until you crash, and his fist smashes through drywall, and you run, a scared animal, a blind child, a brave girl.
A woman looks at you through glass. She raises her hand to wipe away crusts of sleep from red-rimmed eyes. She sweeps grime off her teeth with stiff bristles of a toothbrush. She rests her hands on her breasts, to feel her heartbeat beneath a rising and falling chest. You feel this rising and falling chest, but you do not feel her.
You never took drugs before, but you chew and swallow your new idea of medicine in a fractal of a world. You hate the sensation, the amplification, the floating limbs, the frightening ghosts of objects in the night. Still, you let yourself fold deeper, until you become an origami of existence. You twist up bed sheets, you suck chicken bones dry, you open doors with no intent on closing. You undo: a wild thing, a night witch, a petty criminal. You bark at yourself in the mirror, you whoop in abandoned streets. You bite your arm until it is red and angry. In the morning, in the clarity of sunshine, two crooked indents tell you some nightmares were real.
You take wire cutters to your life. You sever ties in every direction, ruthless and unwavering, until you are alone, body on cold floor. You sit, blue tile, blue air, blue eyes in a mirror. You put a dot on your forehead. You inspect it, hoping to find someone you like on the other side.
Breathe-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. In a warm room, perspiration rises without exertion, and memory floats to the surface in a filmy dream. You remember running, forest and burning thighs, soft fern on bare feet, the squish of melting snow and mud between tiny toes, and focus on the band of sinew stretching between hip and knee, still taut from fear, still stiff from stillness, still frozen mid-flight from thought. You crack your toes, crooked and yearning for new ground. You remember your hip, and release. Your memory flings forward, and embers fall from your eyes. You dig your fingers into your rib cage, through wire and flesh, down to your lungs, down to your heart, through to the concave girl buried beneath adipose and anger. You hold her. She squirms. You comfort her. She claws. You count the exits. You count your toes. You count your breath. You still feel your legs an hour after class, a new awareness.
Your body unravels before you. Your hair, your waistline, your teeth, your taste—all take new shape. You unravel before yourself: your tears, your anger, your vibrancy peeling backwards, exposed brick behind drywall, painting beneath censored art.
This time barbs dig sharp, blood pooling into your hips, but you have hold. A screaming man spits inches from your eyeballs, a parking ticket comes over your budget, a motorcycle spins into the air in broad daylight. You float, you fall, but this time, you grab onto your arms, you fight back to your being. You stand.
Where did you just go, he asks you, and you slipped, just for a moment, out of body, out of time, out of space, out of the bar, out of the country, out of the planet, out of your mind. You count your painted nails, your exits, the number of sips left in the drink. Caught, you blush. Nowhere, you say, just thinking. This time it can be true. Your body heaves, silver wire spills, naked and reflective at your feet. You are safe here. You relax in a moment, in breath you’ve been counting since birth. You open your body, you touch your thighs, you catch your reflection in the glass. There it is, we say. A rainbow flutters in the light. I see my reflection. I know it is my body.
Katherine Croft has had many lives and had many names. She’s been Lilly, Kate, and Kat. She’s had three last names. She’s studied anthropology and pre-medical science, been an EMT, a massage therapist, a line producer, a creative producer, and a secret writer in all the moments in between.