Posts in Essay
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.  


 
Flow

I am standing in front of a 4ft glass phallus that sits on a white, block pedestal in the center of the room.  

I am in a garage or a warehouse in Lawrence, Kansas, somewhere near the Kansas University campus.  It is high-ceilinged and industrial with exposed pipes and reclaimed, paint-splattered wood. Blades spin inside the chrome cages of commercial fans, shoving the thick heat through the sparsely attended event.

Paintings, sculptures, and other creations smother the walls. A dress made from plastic bottles hangs on a vibrant pink backdrop of Indian fabric. A nude woman is drawn lying on her back, breasts jutting into the air like volcanoes. A young man behind me is having his brain waves read by a professor’s invention. A television screen blurs in and out of colorful circles—blue, brown, yellow, purple—measuring degrees of relaxation and anxiety, how close he is to achieving the feeling of being immersed in the now. How close he is to flow.   

Orange is piped from the base of the phallus through its center like a neon urethra. Blue fissures are captured in the shaft. My cousin, a PhD student whom I’m visiting, motions with his glass of wine toward a laminated index card on the pedestal. “Check out the price,” he says.

“$9,000,” I say, and deliver a crass joke worthy of our graduate setting. When he laughs I feel an adolescent sort of satisfaction. My cousin is young, cool, charming and well-liked on a level my inner middle schooler has never reached.

He introduces me to a girl from his cohort. Her brown bangs hang in heavy, sweat-slick clumps over her blue eyes. She talks excitedly about research or clients or practicum. I keep looking at her eyebrows, their impeccable definition. The arches point like teepees, like a clown’s.

“So, what do you do,” she asks and I rattle off something about nonprofits and marketing.  

“And…” My cousin nudges my arm with his bony elbow. He isn’t drunk yet, but almost.

“And what,” I ask.

“She wrote a book!”

“Really!” Her eyebrows jump and dance.  

“Right, yes,” I say, dismissing her interest. I’m convinced my book can only be special if it’s huge, living outside of my laptop, printed and bound on shelves. “I wrote a book. It’s not published or anything yet. It’s just…”

“The book is so good. She’s going to be famous,” my cousin says and I wonder if youth and enthusiasm are in direct proportion to one another.  

A shout and a cackle from the professor interrupt us. “We did it,” she says. “We did it!”  

We turn and see the entire television screen behind us moving in concentric, tie dye shades of purple. The subject in the chair, the brain wave-reading contraption crowning his glistening head, is in flow. The professor claps, does a little dance before running stubby, wrinkled fingers through her gray, gray hair.

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I read an article about Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men’s, Peggy) in New York Magazine in which she claims that being an actor isn’t anything special. She is normal. She goes to bed late, worries about “stupid shit”, and watches Scandal.

At the Golden Globes, she sat at a table with Megan Mullally, Mike Tyson, and Helen Mirren. Being ‘not special,’ and presumably unknown, she introduced herself to Mirren.

Helen Mirren’s reply: “I know who the fuck you are.”

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I am home, sitting on the back patio reading. The rain has mostly passed and the sun blinks in and out of view between the trees. Green summer leaves flit along the branches.   

“Watch,” my daughter says as she grabs her jump rope and trots down the back steps. “I’ve been practicing at school.”

“You have?”

“Yeah,” she giggles as seven-year-old girls do. “You have to watch me, okay? I’m getting good.”

She plants her feet in the wet grass and grips the pink jump rope handles in little fists. When the rope swings over her head to kiss the ground, one foot makes the leap, the other tangles in the rope’s path.

“Wait, let me try again,” she says and collapses her face into concentration before swinging the rope again. One foot leaps, the other foot tangles. “Okay, hold on. You read your book and I’ll tell you when to look at me.”

“Okay,” I say, and begin to read until I hear her.

“I’m doing it!”  

I look up and she’s skipping, one foot after the other over the rope as she moves along the lawn.  

“I’m doing it, mom! Do you see me?”

“Yes, I see you,” I say. “I see you!”

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(This post was written in 2014)