Drawing inspiration from Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body and Other Parties”, this piece entitled “Lists” details experiences navigating love and loneliness while growing up.
The first, a girl. Maybe I am too young to understand such things, but I can trace the butterflies blooming inside me and catch the flames that breed in my belly when she is near. While they package me in dresses and paint my nails pale shades of puckered lips, they will speak to me only of the love found in glass slippers and wilted roses encased in calamity. But, they will never know of the way my cheeks warm when she whispers secrets through cupped hands in my ear. In the afternoons, we play to create the stories the suburbs hide from us, tie our legs together with hair elastics so we can swim with mermaids in blow-up pools, fold debris to construct tents by white picket fences, ride down slick pavement on scooters that turn our feet black and raw. In sleeping bags, she will throw her legs over mine, then tangled together, pull me towards her. My heart will pound. Waves from her sound machine will roll in the silence as she holds me there until we fall asleep. She will confess her love for snot-nose crusted boys who throw rocks at girls for sport on the playground, and I will spend my summers cracking pecans on the pavement and washing her words down with lukewarm Sprite. I will try to forget the taste of root beer flavored lip gloss. I will cry.
The next, a boy. His lips are soft and remind me of someone else’s’. We will kiss lazily in the parking lot after school while our peers whistle from the buses at our backs, and I will hide in his shoulder, pressing my forehead against the strap of his backpack until the bell rings. Sometimes in art, he will sit beside me and knock his knee against mine, share paintbrushes crusted with old acrylics, and hum newly learned sheet music from band class. He will be the first boy that will hear the words “I love you” escape from my mouth, and I will not regret it when they pass. I will learn that girls who do not willingly lift their skirts for the sake of love are easily disposable. But, I will not bear practice to such mistakes yet. Right now, he is my first boyfriend, and I love him.
One girl. Maybe the most beautiful girl I’ll ever know. I will watch her with a curious blossoming hunger and drink her in shamelessly. I am wrecked in her image before she utters a word in my direction, and I will pace all night sipping on luck so that I may string promises together and tease out a laugh. She stands under the fluorescent glow of kitchen lights, her body cinched in red lace, hair falling in waves that leaves me digging my nails into my thighs, crossing X’s into flesh until I have swallowed enough confidence to approach her. I will press her up against a wall and kiss her until I memorize the way her back arches as I trace patterns down her spine. She will be my first, and we will make love in the lethargic heat of summer. With windows open, I will listen to the steady hum of the cicadas until she lifts the covers and pulls me to her so I can taste myself on her lips. She will ruin me because I will love her only on paper and in diaries tucked away behind bookshelves. We exist in the moments of stilted silence wrought heavy with a tension that I don’t know how to break. I am not ashamed of her, but of myself, because I know that in crowds I cannot bring myself to hold her hand. She will eventually find a boyfriend. He is lucky, perhaps he knows this. She and I will go on dates masquerading as friends and confess the things we save for falling stars. I am enamored with leaving our hometown, and the more I speak to such a life, such possibilities, the more I witness the image I saved for her unravel across from me. I will receive an acceptance letter in the mail. I will leave. I will never see her again.
This boy will be my first, and with him, I learn that I was lucky to have been with a girl before. It will hurt, remarkably so, but when he mistakes the noises I make for pleasure, I will say nothing and instead let him hold me fast until he presses fingerprints into my bones. I will wake up with bruised thighs. There will be a lot of blood.
I will meet one boy in the laundry room during my freshman year, one hour left until the dryer chimes its ugly song for me. He will flirt with an air of confidence I will never understand and still I cannot fathom his interest in me but will let him believe I am not bothered by the rumors that circle us in the depths of dark rooms at parties. He will lift me off the ground like in Dirty Dancing, and when I slide down into his arms he will kiss me and I will let him. For a time we will share his dorm room, and sit crossed-legged on stained sheets and talk of the lives we had before one another. He will make me feel safer than most, hold me while I burn tears into his shoulder, brush the hair from my eyes, then tell me I’m beautiful despite the way I’ve decorated my body with dull razors and cigarette burns. I will endure him at his worst, when he is stumbling, slurring, and busy punching holes in walls until his knuckles are bloodied and torn. I will kiss them better and pretend everything is fine, fine, fine. In truth, his anger scares me, explosive and unapologetic, but I will float without purpose back to him, again and again, because these are old habits that I have acquired, like an addict in constant flux. When it ends, I set his gifts aflame in a tray in my backyard. Two years will pass between us without a word. At graduation, I will see him in the crowd, and when we lock eyes, he will nod, then smile something sad. I will think of him often.
There will be others during those years. It will be a mess, but I will grow from them. I will find that my favorite kind of love is often buried in the grotto of a blanket fort, found in cushioned movie theaters, spoken about over Sunday morning coffee, and nestled in trips back home.
Then, a lingering fragment safely tucked away. One boy. Three months before my departure. He is broken, but so am I. I will make him cold eggs and burnt pancakes in the morning. For a while, I hate him because I know we are impossible. I am patient and make careful incisions, cut down through his abdomen in single strokes, disembowel him, and he will do the same. Kissing him feels different than anyone before or after him. I cannot find the words to describe such security, but I imagine enveloped in his tongue there is something close to bliss. We will meet again in Tokyo, and for a moment I am grounded because in this city we will create narratives wrapped in neon lights and bullet trains. At night he will press me against hotel windows, and I will trace the skyscrapers, breathe hot air in O’s into the glass until we are wrecked in each other’s arms. He will treat me better than I deserve, for I am selfish and distracted at the best of times, and have a hard time trusting such the things that make me happy. Perhaps this country is to blame for blinding me in rose-tinted lights that leave my knees buckling beneath me, but when I sit across from him and eat hot pot with his family, I will understand what it is to really love someone. In foreign dialects, I am drawn to him, inevitably so. He will filter himself into stories, and take on forms I have yet to pronounce with certainty. He will be the only boy I will look in the eyes when I climax.
One boy. We will meet within my first month of moving. He wears a blue baseball cap often, tucks his hands balled in fists in his jacket pockets, and frowns when thinking in a way that never fails to make me laugh. We doodle on blank pages in cafes. He teaches me new words and I, him. I meet him at the station near his apartment one evening, my belly full of honeyed pancakes, air crisp with the onset of winter. He will take me to a bookstore and when I ask him why he will tell me that he noticed I read and write often, so he thought I’d enjoy it. I will forget at that moment that it had been so long since someone had really seen me, and this thought will keep me warm on the train ride home. Sometimes I will catch him watching me. I will ignore it. He asks me about my boyfriend, and tells me to call him often. He asks if I’m happy living away from my family. He asks about work, my friends, and teases me in Korean, then ruffles my hair. We go to dinners after work and cafes that hold cold cases of expensive sweets which we fight over and end up choosing two. When he finally confesses, it is raining. The words come out awkwardly and in his
There will be one boy in the peak of summer heat, who I will touch with such aching promises so that the pads of my fingers will needle through the fabric clinging to his skin like thorns. Until my lips are stained in the cherried wine that burns rare and sweet, I will tuck myself inward and wonder how one conducts themselves appropriately in such spaces that require lingering looks and quiet conversation. I will bite back a smile when he watches me and
One girl. We will drink too much together, and I will wake up hungover in her apartment. In the morning, we will watch cartoons. She will become a good friend.
One boy. A wonderful distraction. He will be sweet on me, but I know that I am only his in accessory. I squeeze into skirts, press powder onto my skin, and paint my lips pink like a child until I can recite the script I have been given and perform the actions expected of me like the doll he has so lovingly orchestrated for late night pleasures. He will be pleased with me and I will watch him revel in the way people look at us when we are together like I am a fish caught on his line like he is throwing me in their faces. With him, I am not a person, but a symbol of his selfishness and pride. When he falls asleep I will smoke naked in the bathroom under fluorescent lights, bulb flickering, stretched out on checkered tile, charcoal smeared under my eyes. I will look at myself in the mirror, splash water on my face, and rub at my skin until my vision blurs and everything burns upon touch.
In the winter of my second year away I will begin to make lists in my head. Sometimes I will write them down, most times, I will not. I will immerse myself in cooking, and spend my weekends lying in a towel on my bed devouring stories and memorizing characters presented on the pages of workbooks. I will go with my friends to cafes and wander around cities until my legs ache with exhaustion. I will dance at midnight in my room, burning candles and lighting incense until my skin smells of peppermint, lavender, and sweat. I will think of those who have loved me in my loneliness, and I, them. Some mornings I will sit on the boulders that pepper the shoreline near my home and taste the ocean on my face, hair, and lips. Water laps up, caressing my feet. Somewhere on the horizon, the world held on its spring, winds itself and keeps turning.