Under the still waters of my eyes rages a war. But you have to look closely to see it. I’ve spent years perfecting the façade. Smoke and mirrors. An ancient dance passed down through my chromosomes. Swirling scarves conceal my form with swashes of color and arching movement. A dangerous flirting/wrangling with the male gaze that glares intrusively from blue flickering TV screens and screams out from larger than life billboards I speed past on the highway. I’ve had to learn my place in the shadow of sketchy “gentlemen clubs” on the outskirts of town. Cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen while the boys play football outside. Scantily clad women cheering on the sidelines of Cowboys games on Sunday afternoons. The humiliation of raised skirts on the playground or hanging exposed on the monkey bars. Giving “sugar” on the wrinkled cheeks of East Texas friends of the family and told “not to be rude” if I shied away. Legs carefully crossed in church with skirt smoothed flat over my knees and an appeasing smile plastered stiff to my face until it took on the feel of a dried mold I wore whenever I went out. Only in the quiet of my own room did I pry it off and set it gently in the corner to rest.
We inhale these roles in the air we breathe. Learn to swim or drown. Resign ourselves to become docile Disney princesses waiting for their prince to come or devoted to turning their Beasts and frogs into handsome husbands that seemingly hold our fate in their rough hands. In school, we were fed stories of the searing scar of the Scarlet Letter, Dante’s haunting circles of hell, and Voltaire’s woman with one buttock. Taming of the Shrew on the stage in the summer heat and Pretty Woman on the big screen. I swallowed it all down like the cum of my first college crush who shoved my head between his legs while we said goodbye in the dark when what I really wanted to do was bite the damn thing off. Just like I faked being asleep when the hands of my best friend’s dad strayed as he stroked my 12 year old back while putting us to bed during a sleep over. Pretended his heavy breathing was perfectly normal as he cupped my sprouting breasts in his hands. And I dutifully baked him cookies for Christmas convinced we must have something “special” between us.
Luckily there were whispers of another storyline that trickled beneath the surface like a concealed spring slowly eating away at the layers of stone. I discovered The Handmaid’s Tale on a summer reading list, The Color Purple, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I started pushing back against the narrative I’d been written into. I wore baggy pants that hung loose on my curves, shaved my head and stopped shaving my legs. I discovered I had my own secret super power of making myself small and unappealing so I could slip invisibly through the gaze of gawking men on the street. And I celebrated the silence as I strode by undetected.
But the roots of this world sunk deeper than the gaze I carefully avoided. My own storyline still lie tangled, indistinguishable and mangled in the other I had internalized and learned to call my own. One lazy Saturday as I lay pinned under yet another sweating, panting “lover” I heard my own voice whisper conspiratorially in my head “just go numb, it will be over soon.” I recognized it as a mantra I must have been repeating for years but for some reason this time it snagged on something jagged in my mind and tore. I felt my muscles tense, my eyes scanned the room and calculated the distance to the door. I began to fight back. All the years of silence, of quiet acquiescing filled my small frame and wrestled my “good looking boyfriend” off of me. Engaging in a violent tango to the door, I watched his face contort confused as he swore and belittled me. I can still hear the sharp, metallic sound of “Bitch” and “Whore” as he stormed down the stairs of the apartment outside as my neighbors peeked meekly through their windows. I stood there dazed, my victory still tingling under my skin. My lungs expanded at last inside my chest filling in the contours of my body with color, life affirming and sweet.