CW: sexual harassment/assault
[Non-Fiction] How to Look Down at Your Body and Accept it is Not Yours
First, you must be young. It will sink in better if you’re young. You must be a girl made of summer, your limbs sapling branches, your face an open moon against the sky. You might be tall for your age, well developed for fifteen, your hips pushing outwards into space, sloping down into your thighs. When people look at you, they see you in shapes: an hourglass, a pear, a figure eight etched into ice.
You should be in a place you believe is safe. Consider a church, in the kitchen, washing coffee cups after the service, the sleeves of your dress shirt rolled up to your elbows. Watch the way the tendons in your forearms flex as you move the sponge over the mug. Note how the water splits in two over the handle.
You will feel nothing when you first see the old man standing there leering, his dirty cup clutched in his hand. He is just another person in the busy kitchen. Feel safe because there are other people there.
When he moves his eyes up and down your body, reading you like text on a page, and says, Oh, now I’m in trouble, press your lips together and smile. Be polite. Don’t forget your manners.
Don’t jump when he drops his mug in the water and the solidity of its existence hits the metal sink. When he edges closer to you, lean away, hope he’ll take the hint. Wonder if anyone else in the kitchen has noticed.
When he asks, Who do you belong to? give your grandmother’s name. She is well liked in town. Consider that he might have more respect for her name than your body.
She’s a very nice lady, the old man will say. Agree with him. Ignore the sweat pooling in your underarms. Focus on the mug in your hand, on the drip stains along the lip.
Don’t be surprised when memories burst like blood vessels. Take a moment to remember this sense of shame. Think about the playground, when the boy who got held back a year made a lewd gesture at your chest, grabbing at the buds underneath the fabric of your t-shirt. Remember wanting to take a shower after he said he liked your big tits. Remember how your grandmother, instead of comforting you, pitched an idea for a witty remark way too late, unusable to you now. You don’t know this yet, but years later you will read about that boy, how he grew up, how he raped his best friend’s cousin in a basement. You will think, how horrible. But you will not be surprised.
When the old man leans in, he will breathe in your ear, his air tickling a strand of your hair against your cheek. Be prepared for this. Look down at your chest, at the swell of your breasts, at the fine lines sketching your figure.
And when the old man whispers, You’re very pretty, laugh. Question whether the laugh is nature or nurture; if it’s a reflex or something you’ve been taught. Laugh, and say thank you, for a lady will say thank you after she receives a compliment.
There are different endings. In one, he turns around and walks away on his own, leaving you quaking at the sink, the dirty water crinkling your fingertips to raisins. In another, he reaches out a hand, gently touches your back before he leaves. Or, you are clever and make an excuse, say your grandmother is waiting for you, apologize, walk away. One of these will happen, and years later you won’t remember which one.
Tell your grandmother what happened on the drive home. Note how the lines around her mouth deepen when you describe the way the old man leaned in as if trying to eliminate the molecular boundaries between your bodies. You might be surprised when she tells you not to repeat that story, tells you that word spreads fast, that his wife might find out and be embarrassed. You should not be surprised. Hold onto this lesson. When you are date raped years later, don’t mention it to your grandmother.
Tell your boyfriend and listen to the way his laughter rattles in his throat like a marble swirling in a tin can. Try to laugh too when he says, That’s hilarious, even though you miss the joke. Don’t act so sensitive when he writes a comedic one-act play about it for his theater class, The Old Man in the Church. Try to be a good sport.
Tell all subsequent partners about this, well into your late twenties. Use their reactions to gauge if they will be good to you; if they see you the way you see yourself. Don’t be surprised if they see you as a body.
Years later, think about the old man. Wonder if he’s dead, or if he’s alive. Think about him lying in a hospital bed surrounded by faceless people who must be his family, his children. Imagine his grandchildren, scattered about the hospital in various states of boredom. See a young boy tearing open a candy bar. See a teenage girl hunched over her phone, her hair hiding her face. Maybe she looks like you used to look.
Look at yourself, naked, in the mirror. Run your fingers over the stretch marks, slide your palm over the full apple of your ass. Note the slope of your breasts. Mark the convex, the concave in your tissue. See yourself as yourself as yourself. Look down at your body. Look.
A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, Jen Corrigan‘s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Seneca Review, Electric Literature, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor and book reviewer for Alternating Current Press. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.