by Rebecca Kallemeyn
The playground word sits in my mouth, a grape candy. I am afraid of my own pleasure the same way I am sometimes afraid of certain colors.
A girl at recess came up to me with dirt on her hands. “This is what your soul looks like without Jesus,” she said.
In second grade a classmate told me about sex. No understanding of the act itself, just hints of the forbidden, of nudity, of private parts I still couldn’t clearly conceive of. I hunted for half-snowed images on TV late at night and found very little.
In fourth grade I taped tiny foam nipples to my Barbie and had Ken seduce her. They were married so it was okay. I didn’t have the nerve to enhance the Ken. I still thought babies were triggered when a man put his mouth on a woman’s ear. I told a neighbor girl this and her mom wouldn’t let me over anymore.
Another mom in the neighborhood showed her daughter and me a red lace teddy. “Look what I bought for your father,” she said, holding it out by its straps so it danced. I couldn’t guess why it didn’t have a bottom.
In sixth grade I made a flipbook of a lady twirling and losing her clothes, and I showed it to some classmates, who eyed it warily.
I think I remember, in church, a silk dress, hanging my arms over the dark wood balcony, dropping my doll to the aisle below. Was it me or was it another girl? I remember the wood of the church as dark and overpolished, the shine on it, the thinly carpeted aisles. The organ was massive. I’d count the elegant pipes during services and imagine them members of a chorus, or chess pieces. I still love cathedrals but those are always white stone and spilled with stained-glass light. Holy. Here the word mausoleum has the right feel, though not meaning. Maybe magisterial, all wooden and shined and creaky. Nouveau Dutch, the rich and dark of Rembrandt.
I listen from the pew and the voice of God bellows from the pulpit, the lights swing as if we’re on a ship at night with waves as high as the building. The bells let out the brassy hour chime. Women are meant to fold this way, so elegant, so thin of grain and so translucent. Frail with fault lines. Here is where you bear children. This is delightful to the Lord. Grow breasts in secret. Your body is the Lord’s. The temple of Christ. It is holy. You must not touch it.
What is under the aisles? Pressed between floor and cloth. I want to cover my head.
In eighth grade I read romances in the library aisles, afraid to sign them out. You already know the woman on these covers—heaving, innocent breasts, flowers between their legs, quivering thighs, rakish but tender men plundering them. This is the woman I thought I could be when I was a wife.
In secret, your joy is your husband’s joy. You will wash his feet with your perfumed hair. But his pleasure is not your pleasure. He is wicked. You must make him whole. You will lead him with your hair trailing behind you. Bewitch no man. The Lord watches over you always. He knows your thoughts in the dark. He knows the pressures you feel and build, he knows the apple you will always eat, your body is not your own, it was bought at a price.
In eighth grade I felt myself with such shame, I thought I had given myself a disease.
I am the lady with the dress flying off. I am the bosomy, taffetad innocent, her gown askew. I am the prostitute, the harlot, the wretch. A flicker of an ankle is enough, in some places, to drive men wild. We imagine boundaries wherever we want them. I feel it there.
Without the gaze the lady is just a woman in her body. Without her clothes she can be dragged to the streets to be stoned. Jesus didn’t let them stone her but it doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve it.
“I’ve never seen anyone do it that way,” he said. “Are you sure you’re doing it right?” Put your mouth on me he said. Are you doing it right. Are you doing it right. Are you doing it right.
Pleasure. Yellow, a firefly maybe, caught. The wings seem right. The feel of lilacs. I am so used to not talking about this, to not being able to say that I want things, that now I am talking about flowers. I am a precious flower, pressed and preserved for the Lord. I am an insect on silver pins.
Here is where I fold myself over my secrets. Here is where I hide. My ugliness, my pleasure. My body is all I have.
Confessing these things still feels dangerous. To want is to be wanton, to abandon.
Wanting corrupts. Each time I want, that still, small voice says pervert, the voice of God still tells me I should be stoned. My body is to be an offering of pain and prayer and wrongdoing, pleasing to the Lord. I should wash in my own sin, wash me in my sin oh Lord and I shall be cleansed. Cover me, shame me, purify me, transform me. I will be a thing made new.
There is a self that can be formed from the murky bottom. Maybe I will be scraped up, dirt under fingernails, and will be rolled into new earth.
IMAGE: Paul Gaugin, Eve (‘The Nightmare’) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.