Body of Mind
It didn’t make sense to me, that dad could love a painting of mom but not love mom.
The portrait was the first thing you saw when you walked into his bedroom—a woman with short black hair, nude, with her weight resting on the windowsill behind her. A few times—whenever I had forgotten the answer—I asked my dad if he had painted it and if the woman was mom. The answer—yes and yes—still confounds me.
I know very well that this is my mom’s body. I have studied her shoulders because her friend Patti told her she had such nice shoulders. I have compared mine to hers, envious of the compliments on their sharpness. I could pick those shoulders out of hundreds, photographs handed to me in a manila folder, an interrogation of joints. This one, I'd say, pointing.
The painting hung there for years, after dad divorced mom, after dad dated Donna who we went to tennis with. After I asked what happened to her and he replied that it just didn’t work out (I knew the truth was more complicated and possibly, sinister). It hung there even after dad remarried.
I knew it was mom’s body. I knew the shape of her breasts and her nipples and her waistline, and the fact that she didn’t shave her pubic hair—when I was little we took showers together (I’m not sure if that is taboo or not but I did not think it was until—). I reached for the water dripping from her and she said No don’t do that. And then I understood that it was unclean. That that was a special area. Mom didn’t take showers with grandma when she was a little girl, she had to figure it all out herself.
I admit, it is sometimes the case that we love an object, but we don't love what the object holds for us. Not like a cup of stale coffee—but like the objects you put in a box after losing a lover. Hidden so as not to incite.
Or like a body. A tube of toothpaste. Used until we think it is empty.
I wonder if we would show more love for each other—and ourselves—if we could recognize each other by the weight on our shoulders instead of the shape and color of our hair. Maybe we would know the strength they own—and then the need for a massage to work out the woes. Maybe we would have better posture. But we can't always be wearing tank tops in order to show off our shoulders (we don't want anyone to know that the weight is crushing).
In the 1920s, my great grandma Lucy Taylor wore a wool coat, down to her ankles. When she was 47, she hung herself in the attic, believing she was empty. A few times—whenever I had forgotten the answer—I asked my mom why she named me after someone who killed herself. But her answer was always that the family loved the Taylor Farm, where everyone used to get together. I knew it was truly her maiden name I was named after, but the connection always felt deeper than that. Dangerous.
I was worried when my good friend Jeremiah moved to Chicago last year when he was 23, the same age his uncle was when—be careful with yourself—
He is named after his uncle, Jeremiah Weinberger, who unlike most people, you can find if you search Google. Jeremiah Weinberger was Jeffrey Dahmer’s fifteenth victim. I’ve had to do all the research myself because my friend doesn’t like to talk or think about it. His mother doesn't either. She has to fight off panic attacks when she think she's just scrolling through Facebook.
It was 1991 when Dahmer and Weinberger met at a gay bar in Chicago, Carol’s Speakeasy. Weinberger asked his friend what he thought of Dahmer and he said he seemed alright, so Weinberger got on a Greyhound and went with Dahmer to Milwaukee. After a few days, Dahmer drugged Weinberger and drilled a hole in his brain, injecting boiling water, hoping to make him into a sex zombie. Like the others, Dahmer cut him up with a chainsaw and put his torso in an acid barrel.
Apparently, Weinberger’s friend who said Dahmer seemed alright killed himself when he found out what happened.
I don’t know what Jeremiah thinks of his name. If he also feels he has something to live up to.
I don’t allow myself to think of it too much.
Like all kids, I wanted to know how mom met dad, so I asked. They met at a bar too—resulting in a different kind of dismemberment, a mental one. Slow, spinning, queasy. But first, they were friends. Dad asked mom’s friend Sandy to dance, but mom thought dad was talking to her and jumped right up.
There’s another story she tells me that plays out like a movie—of when she went to her ex boyfriend’s house to return the key and found him with another woman. Oak leaves fell around her as the ex’s fist bashed into her, and dad, presumably just walking by at the right moment, saved her. My arms move up in defense when I think about it. I become her, arms held out by those strong shoulders.
She tells me she has thick skin, but she bruises easily, spending hours in the garden talking to grandpa’s soul hidden in the plants. She doesn’t see the bruises until later, doesn’t tell me about them until she knows they are disappearing. She doesn’t like to admit to me or herself that her body is not infallible.
There are moments when her body has not felt like it belonged to her.
Felt that it belonged to someone else. Or nobody at all.
This wooden tiger on the side table seems the opposite—fully in control of itself even though it is inanimate. It bares its teeth, roaring across the living room, front legs perched on top of a rock. I know it is art but I sometimes touch it, moving the legs on the hinges to a different position. But, the tiger defies, it won’t allow it. I am afraid of its delicacy. I undo the motions before dad sees.
Mom clenches her jaw so she will not speak. She’s a turkey, my dad says. She knows she is clenching but cannot stop it for fear if she does she will be met with a body that is not hers but controls hers with a voice pounding through her not around her. Science doesn’t matter here.
She has to wear a bite splint to bed now, the clenching has moved into her sleep. The doctor says it will help, but mind is what matters here.
We don’t think our bodies are delicate. But if you close your eyes for long enough your hands will feel a million miles away, detached.
To actually sever is another thing. But how easy it is to lose ourselves, without even knowing it.
My mom called me the other day to tell me that she’d been waiting to tell me something. Moms always do that—wait to break bad news to you so you don’t worry so much.
Tuesday, the day that I asked her if we had any family secrets and she responded probably, was the the day that it happened. That morning, Chelsea drove to her father’s house in West Michigan, Doug Jr’s house, my cousin’s house, to take him to a doctor’s appointment. On the door was a note: “Chelsea, don’t come in.” She called 911 and her grandpa, my mom’s brother, drove right over. They broke in. The important papers were left on the dining room table.
Mom said she was hurting for her brother, for losing a son. “That’s not supposed to be the order of things.” But she wanted me to know that it was Doug Jr’s intent, that he wanted to kill himself. No duh.
I wanted to know how he did it.
But then she went on about how the family was relieved now, spilling out anecdote after anecdote about how Doug Jr had been in and out of jail and lost all his money and wasn’t taking his bipolar medications and was shit-talking her brother on Facebook and had tried to run him over in his truck.
I don’t know how I can be telling you all this because my least favorite part of any show or movie is when things start to go bad. I want to skip over it because it makes me feel bad too. It started when I was young. I hate the part of El Dorado when Miguel and Tulio won’t speak to each other.
I force myself to put the phone back to my ear because it inevitably lands on my shoulder when I don’t want to hear it. She says everybody tried to help Doug Jr, that I shouldn’t feel bad, that it was his intent and she keeps repeating that so I finally say, “Mom, I don’t need to hear this.”
She knows that I have wanted to hurt myself before, but she doesn’t know that I have. Or that every time I have hurt myself I was either with Jeremiah or talking on the phone or texting with him. With: in Williamsburg I leave the show we are at and walk to the water, dig my nails into my right wrist while looking at the New York City skyline. Get catcalled three times on the way back, promise him I’ll never hurt myself again. While texting: he’s not responding and I can’t stop myself any longer so I watch and dig my nails into my left forearm over and over again, under the fluorescent bathroom bulbs. On the phone: I sit on the porch cross-legged and make a fist, painting the rough concrete with my knuckles. In the car: we are having a fight and I can’t get my words out so I slam my right fist against the window. It’s loud, and I am mad at myself but the pain brings my hands back from that place a million miles away, for a moment.
I remember the moment I fell in love with Jeremiah. It was at a dance where everybody was dressed in red. Jeremiah wasn’t there but his dad was. He was standing by the water coolers and I asked him to waltz—he didn’t know who I was. He had the same hands, holding mine. If ever there was a time I felt disembodied, and happy about it, that was it, moving across the dance floor.
In August, sitting in the grass across from Jeremiah, I notice a bird on the edge of the mulch at the base of a nearby baby tree. Its gray feathers are swarmed by flies but it doesn’t move and I am concerned. It hobbles a few feet after a while, to the fallen tree post.
“They’re hurting it.”
“No, it’s just old and it’s hot.”
“It’s gonna die.”
“Yeah, that’s the circle of life.”
But I don’t want to accept it. I move closer and see that it’s still breathing, and grab a stick to shoo the flies.
“That’s not going to help it.”
“But it’s going to die!”
Frustrated, I move away, and I sit with Jeremiah for another thirty minutes. The bird isn’t moving at all now. Jeremiah looks at me, tells me it’s okay to cry, like he always does when I do.
The bird reminds me of Anu. That wasn’t her name in high school, and it caught me off guard last spring when I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post from her in my feed. It’d been a while. Only, Anu didn’t post it, her sister did. There was a picture—Anu was in a wheelchair and the blog post title attached to it read something like “One year later, a story of recovery.”
I felt sick reading—Anu was one of the top students in high school and all this time I figured she was just moving along, destined for med school—but she was a vegetable. A year ago she had surgery, the doctors removed the largest brain tumor they had ever seen.
I think about meeting Anu in middle school, jealous because her breasts seemed almost full grown. I wonder if the cancer cells had developed yet—maybe all those times when I was asked which superpower I would choose, I should’ve said x-ray vision.
A couple weeks ago, walking home, a woman came down the steps as I passed by, asking for the time. I didn’t pull my phone out, but told her it was 8:10am because when I last checked a couple blocks up it was 8:08am. She asks me if there’s a place nearby where she could grab some breakfast, like a restaurant, not a McDonald’s. There’s a place a couple corners up, I tell her. We walk together, because I’m headed in that direction too. She tells me she’s from Montgomery County, outside the city. She slept on the stoop last night—she had a doctor’s appointment but was waiting for a check to get cleared. She lifts up the sleeve of her pink floral jacket—surely not warm enough—and shows me the white bandage stuck to the contrasting skin of her bicep. She had managed to get a shot. And then I see her hand, swollen, I think, but that could just be her hand, with black cherry gashes. I don’t ask how she got “all cut up.” I just say ouch and make that face people make when they say ouch. I hope it was just an accident, but imagine an attack, full of hate. But she could hate herself too, which is almost worse.
I tell her that if she is low on money they will give her a free meal. That’s good she says, she only has a dollar and really wants some hot coffee. I point, here it is, I say, have a good day. I cross the street and think what a stupid thing to say that is, to someone who slept outside with cuts on her hands and has most of the world working against her just because of the genetic makeup of her body and how she chooses to present that body.
I turn back to look at the corner where we parted, hoping to see nothing because that would mean she’s safe inside, but she’s another block north, darting across the street. I feel a bit betrayed, like maybe our talk was just some kind of ruse, but it turns out the cafe didn’t open for another fifteen minutes and I guess she couldn’t wait. I hope she has a good day anyway, I want to believe it is possible.
These are the kind of encounters that make me confront my own existence. The kind that make me think about how everyone I pass is living in the same way, with a mind that is constantly churning out some form of reality. The bodies around me are not shells created for my being.
There is this theory, the Hollow Earth conspiracy theory, which states that Earth is just a shell and at the north and south poles there are entrances to an Inner Earth. But we have the pictures of Earth to prove that these entrances do not exist.
And we have autopsies to prove that bodies are not empty and we can recognize all the structures of the brain and see its cells 100x magnified, but like I said, science doesn’t matter here.
I can believe that my body is empty, even if I don’t want to.