The Naked Queen
 

The first step in reclaiming my body began a little over a year ago at a Trader Joe’s in the suburban south.

I was thirty-eight and six months into an MS diagnosis. The vision in my left eye still threatened me with darkness and when I dared to peer through it, the world was smudged by a gray, cloudy filter. The tiny store was crowded with hipster parents and cranky toddlers sticky with fruit leather, or sugar from the bakery next door. No matter where you went, you were in the way.

I stood in front of tiered buckets of spray roses and carnations, mums and seeded eucalyptus. I reached for the seedy branches wrapped in plastic. Eucalyptus was my favorite, a simple pleasure, the bend of a stem heavy with buds and leaves reminding me of the soft curve of a shoulder. I closed my left eye, studied the greenery through my right: normal. I closed my right eye and looked through my left: the VSCO preset equivalent of a lesion squatting on an optic nerve. It was a fun, anxiety-ridden game I used to play called Why isn’t it normal yet?! My knees grew numb with fatigue and I leaned against my little red shopping cart.

At 6, I knew something about my body was not allowed.

For months I felt like my body had betrayed me. Like rules, and religion, and gluten-free, grass-fed, non-dairy everything huddled in mean-girl scrutiny and mocked my constant trying to do the right thing. I’d followed all the good girl steps so how the hell did I end up here? I went home, unpacked groceries, dusted off my old DSLR and rescued the tripod from under a pile of dry-clean-only clothes in the back of my closet. I didn’t know what photos I was going to take, but somehow I was going to capture a piece of me that had remained hidden for far too long.

When I was about six years old, I had my own bedroom and a canopy bed with a Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, shams, and canopy my mother had sewn. I was a serious and sensitive child who frightened and cried easily. I didn’t like to be noticed or perceived as misbehaving. In kindergarten I used to pretend to be asleep on my mat during nap time because that’s what nap time was for, and I was a girl who did what was expected.

In my bedroom, I laid among dolls lined on top of the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread. I wasn’t wearing any clothes. I said, “I am the naked queen,” to Rainbow Brite, calm and authoritative, with a smile. I stayed there for a long time (or maybe just a few minutes) on my back and talking. I wish I could remember what I talked about, but I don’t. It was an honest and innocent moment veiled in a thin layer of looming shame. Before I’d gotten undressed, I knew enough to shut my bedroom door and lock it. At 6, I knew something about my body was not allowed.

I looked like I might be naked behind those beautiful sprigs of green and what would that say about me?

At 38, I shut my bedroom door and locked it.

Two bouquets of eucalyptus were laid on the foot of my bed, seeds trailing along the duvet like creative carnage. I took off my shirt and pulled down my bra straps, set the timer on the camera and sat in a wooden chair, gripping those bending branches as leaves spread across my chest. I’m not a photographer or a model and didn’t expect much, yet light from the window found the skin of my shoulder. Branches searched my neck and arms, deliberate. I blinked at the photo in my camera, breathed a little ‘oh!’

For the first time in many years I allowed myself to revel in how much I loved my mouth. I allowed myself to look at my body without thinking too much about it. Without seriousness, and scrutiny, and shame. But I hesitated to post that image on social media because *gasp* my exposed shoulder! My collar bone! I looked like I might be naked behind those beautiful sprigs of green and what would that say about me?

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I posted that photo amid all my sweating and anxiety around doing so because while I was still scarred by my body’s betrayal, I also recognized my betrayal of it. How, in an effort to please and fall in conventional line, I denied sensuality and my body. I denied myself.

The photos I take are more suggestive than explicit, and that is enough for me. Some of the characters I write in prose or stories push sensual boundaries I am still uncomfortable pushing in real life. However, I am uncomfortable because I’ve created my own boundaries and (mostly) no longer care much for the boundaries impressed upon me.

I have little desire to squeeze into anyone else’s box.

One of the female protagonists in my book If I Fell, a young 20-something, says, “I did not think of my body, what it felt like, tasted like. What it was capable of doing, attracting, inducing. How could something so wholly and uniquely mine be so foreign to me?”

I was this girl. A lot of women were. I still pick apart my body, like my soft, stretched mom belly and breasts. I’m insecure about hormonal acne, scarring, and the eyebrows I over plucked in the 90s that have yet to grow all the way back. But I am working to know this body, to love and honor this body, and feel good about doing so.

I am the naked queen after all.  


 
Working 9 to 5

Age 21. New York City.

I remember I sat on the cold, piss-covered tile of the men’s bathroom holding on to a moist rail above my head, recuperating from soreness that heated my neck, my thighs.

Perhaps he had been too rough with me. Perhaps I had not deserved the reckless banging, his heavy, calloused hand at my throat affixing me to the grainy film along the tiled wall as I stood compliant but alarmed. (I’d said ‘affix’ in my mind, confused it, however applicable, with ‘asphyxiation.’ To die engorged with an angry cock and a fake, gold watch ticking impatiently beneath my chin seemed less than honorable.)

We were strangers, all of the men then, strangers, and I expected nothing more, nothing less from them.

He hurried as most men with little regard for the women they pollute do. He held his head down as he fumbled with the tarnished silver buckle of his belt and shoved my legs apart with one bent and jabbing knee. The erratic undoing, unzipping. The upward yank of my ripped t-shirt, one large palm grabbing at the full weight of my breast, mashing the flesh up and back, scissoring the nipple between spread fingers.

The back of my head ached. Knock, knock, knock with the thudding beat from the club outside the bathroom door, where sweaty bodies convulsed and collapsed in rhythmic, intoxicated motion, the mixed allure of indulgence and pain. Each violent surge of his body into mine strengthened his grip on my throat. Fingers pressed deeper, palm pressed deeper. His muscled arm, mass. My throat constricted. Gasp the air. Push it down.

My limp compliance. My balance on one leg, one high-heeled foot. How he enjoyed this! I can see him even now. Look at his grooved brow, creased with concentration. Look at the gutters formed within the rolling folds of his forehead. His bloodless lips pulled tight across stained teeth as he came inside me, nostrils flared with the rushed gusts of completion, a job well done.

Two, maybe three minutes had passed between his solicitation and clean escape, and yet I knew the cowlick in the center of his thinning blond head spun clockwise. The intimacy in this information sent me to a place far from my destructive present. How his mother must have fretted over the cowlick’s prominence. How she must have wet the defiant hairs before a bathroom mirror and combed them flat. Cursed as they sprung back stiff, united, toward the light.

Constant

I am whole with you.
I am whole without you.
I am whole in the in between.

And while i search the answers, 
roll truth on my tongue,
I will store within
these brittle, gray bones
a soft heart.

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Take hold of these hands,
this wound,
this earth,
only tenderness can stroke.
Bring all of yourself,
parched soil and seed,
and we will find
water.
We will find it
and gather light with our fingers,
pluck the burgeoning flowers
from our bones.

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Where is your voice?
Buried beneath conformity,
crushed by please and thank you, 
apologies,
suffocated between the dead
letters of words you do not believe?
Is it silenced in the girlish swing
of skirts and flash of teeth,
the distance between your God and desire?
Is it heavy in your tangled head,
decayed around your finger?
Is it hollow in his incessant gaze
swallowing your mouth?

Your voice, woman. your voice.

What will it take to wake it?
What will it take to light it alive,
an ember between bones,
a raging spark? A riot
hurtling through tissue,
yanking at ribs and flesh,
writhing against the sleepy beat of mediocrity
to break the fuck out.

Farragut North Station | Connecticut and K

We reunite by accident on the street after nearly eight years. You at your end of the sidewalk and me at mine, waiting to stomp to work through the crosswalk in our opposing herds. I see you first. Shout that old nickname and you look up from your phone, nostalgia snatching you in its alluring grip.

The light changes. We meet in the middle of Connecticut Ave, stop face-to-face. Car radios mumble, (NPR), engines groan with impatience. Pedestrians shove on, pissed. The distance between past and present: softer bellies and arms. Fine lines carved by all we hoped for and did not become. Your laugh is the same. You are the same. The smooth scar on your jaw curved like a fishing hook. My fingers dance in my pockets, desperate to run across it, and you point out a cherry blossom tree spreading a blanket of shade across the pavement. “They’re your favorite,” you say. You remember.

The traffic light turns yellow, swings heavy in the breeze. Rushing, rushing. Shoulders bump, elbows bruise. Family? Yes. You? Of course. We will get them together. Your wife and kids, my husband and kids. I agree, it’s a date, though we have set no date, and as your back begins east and mine heads west, out of nowhere I still love you- what is time?