Back Curved Like a Swan, Arms Free

New memoir excerpt from Bastard Child of a Renegade Nun by Laura Green

“I can’t believe you have this book in your apartment.”

From where I’m sitting on the floor by the bookshelf I can only see the leaping crest of Tara’s bangs over the couch’s cat-shredded arm.

“Oh my god, it’s porn.”

Is that bad? I can’t tell, which makes me want to grab The New Our Bodies, Ourselves from her hands. Or knock her out. Or stay very still.

Sex is dangerous. Sex is all-you-can-eat at my favorite restaurant and everything’s free but half the food’s poison. I’m starving all the time but I don’t want to be the first to sink a fork in.

I thought I was safe with Tara. I thought she was just as grease-stained and drooling as I am, because a few weeks ago she showed me three condoms and a thick pink rod in her mom’s nightstand. The rod had a turn on switch. It was splayed and nubbed at one end like the nose of the star-nosed mole I saw at the Museum of Science. Tara said I couldn’t touch anything in the drawer because her mom would know, but I think Tara touches that rod.

Is twelve too old to like the Museum of Science? I worry that going there’s something I shouldn’t admit to. Especially going there with my mom. Twelve. Twelve is too old, isn’t it? To kneel by the egg-shaped chick incubator? Hatch, chicks. Hatch before I move on.

Maybe Tara’s never touched the rod. Maybe she would never even think of it.

“It’s, like, a medical book,” I dodge. There are medical things in the book, but – come on, who am I kidding? It has a chapter called “Sexual Pleasure and Enthusiastic Consent.” Enthusiastic.

“It totally tells how to do it.” Tara sounds triumphant. Why? What has she found out? I’m sure it’s worse than I’ve feared. I should run. What should I grab? What should I cover? Her bangs quiver like antennae in a buffeting wind.

It does tell how to do it. The New Our Bodies, Ourselves tells about all different ways to do it. It tells how to do it if you’re in a wheelchair. In one place it even tells about ladies doing it to each other.

“Really?” I try to sound surprised. My spine is prickling. “Gross.” Is it gross that I have this book in my apartment? Is it great? Is this book more dirty than condoms and star-nosed rods? Is it dirty in a worse way? I can’t know from just Tara’s bangs.

One time, weeks ago, I rubbed lotion that smelled like peach-scented plastic on Tara’s puffy breasts. She’s covered in freckles, but not in places the sun’s never touched. Those places were pale white with blue veins. It doesn’t mean she couldn’t turn on me.

And one time we pretended I was Mr. Harrison, our woodworking teacher with whom Tara’s in love. Tara lay under me while I struggled to get my hand so my fingers could reach inside her. I needed to do it without breaking the belly-to-belly sex position I think Mr. Harrison would employ.

She was soft and warm down there; inside she was slick and pillow-y. I didn’t expect it to be so slick, almost pleated. It was different than I am inside, I think. Was it? I was so afraid while it was happening I could only hold on to every third or fourth thought. I wanted to change positions so I could slide my whole finger in, but that’s not how sex works.

After a while Tara said she was going to be Mr. Harrison and we flipped so Mr. Harrison could press herself against my thigh.

We were just practicing, though. It isn’t like I thought that was a real thing. Tara and I aren’t like the homos in The New Our Bodies, Ourselves. Is that what she thought I thought? Was she mad about it? Is she here to get evidence? But she did it too. Will anyone believe me?

“Don’t act like you haven’t read it. You’ve totally read this a million times.”

Of course I have. At least a million, which is why it’s so strange I’ve never seen the little red journal before, just three books over from Our Bodies Ourselves. Its spine is no thicker than my pinkie. It says RECORD in shiny gold letters. There’s a shiny gold box around the word and smaller boxes all up and down the spine. The other books in the bookcase are soft-covers with cracked bindings mashed to just white paper at their corners. This is something different.

“What time does your mom get home?” Tara asks, tipping her head back so I can see her pink forehead and the end of her flat, speckled nose.

“I don’t know, like, five-thirty?” I’ve sunk into matching positions with her. Head against the wall, back against the floor, knees tenting up in front of me. Book balanced against my legs.

“What time is it now?” Tara voice is still sharp, it could be a trick. Her questions could mean anything. What time is it now. What does that mean?

The journal’s cover is slightly bumpy. When I hold it at an angle I can see it’s etched with a pattern that looks like the residue of thousands of tiny bubbles, popped. It’s marbled like an Easter egg. It’s as light as an egg. I crack it open.

The pages are measured out in tightly spaced baby blue lines running horizontally with one pale pink vertical stripe at their left edge. My mother’s handwriting slants along the blue lines in dark blue pen. Neat and even like a lake being blown by a steady breeze.

In the open space at the top before the measuring begins she’s written, June 13, ’75. Three months before I was born.

Here you are, six months old already and I’ve talked with you so many times. When I found out you were with me a warm feeling came over me, which has never left–not even for a moment. It’s like having all my hopes and desires of a lifetime fulfilled.

I close the cover quickly. My heart feels too near my skin. This is from when I was not separate. This is from when I was only imagined. From when everything was still furled tight and I might become a thousand different people. Now so much set and unchangeable. My throat feels stretched, like I’m trying to choke down all the years.

The bend in my neck and the hard knot of time in my esophagus make it hard for blood to get through. I can feel it struggling below my jaw. I can hear it.

“Hey, what time is it now?” Tara corkscrews her body and pushes herself up so her head is propped on the arm of the couch. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing her chin at the journal.

“Nothing. For homework,” I improvise. “Four? Prolly?”

My mom from long before. Here in this book. Talking to me. It’s toppled me so completely I forgot about navigating Tara. I forgot the perils on the couch right in front of me. The thousand different people this moment could turn me into.

“Wanna read it in your room?” She thumps the thick book filled with sex that’s wedged between her chest and the couch. Relief. It washes away the knot. I swallow it. We’ll read the book and practice stuff. It won’t fill all my brain. Worry will still chatter in the background, but it will be a mumble, not a howl.

I lead the way. Another step further from being curled tight and perfect, another step I won’t be able to walk back.

I don’t put the journal on the bookshelf. I take it with me. It was written to me. It’s mine. I close the door to my room, my door. Lock my lock. I have a lock. It feels like just another thing that I’ve made up, but I pinch and twist – I feel it click. The knob won’t turn now. What if my mom comes home early? What if, like God, she’s always watching me? I need to close her out. I need to keep her close.

Under my bed there’s a Converse shoebox where I hide my diary. It’s a gigantic box for the gigantic men’s high-top leather sneakers I make my mom buy me. I like them in a size that exceeds my feet by inches. I’m too tall for my age, I have breasts and hips and my period already, and I hope maybe no one will notice. Maybe no one will see it–me.

They do, of course. Once a boy called me Green Giant. Jolly Green Giant. Do they all call me that? All of them. All of them do, but despite it, I intend to grow. The giant shoes make me trip climbing stairs and I have to take them off to run or to walk on anything but perfectly flat, well swept terrain. My mom thinks it’s weird and hysterical that I want them, but I need them. I need the extra space. There’s more of me, I’m sure of it.

There’s plenty of room in their box for this book. I drop it in. I take out the peach scented lotion.

“The person reading gets a backrub. You read first.” This is one of the ways to start. She lies on a pillow on my rug.

She points at a drawing, “Gross! Who’s that hairy?!” I push up her shirt. She reaches around and arcs like a swimmer, then it’s over her head and off.

“Gross,” I agree. In the twisting my pillow moved. I can see its flowered case between her legs.

“Lips,” she reads in disgust. “Our lips.” She laughs and laughs. I laugh.

We both know this food is poison but we’ve skipped so many meals and you can die from hunger too.

I tug on the waistband of her stirrup pants. She lifts her hips so I can pull them down.

My mom fell asleep before I did.

If I fall asleep while she’s still awake and the house is lighted, while she’s still tending things and taking care of us and moving, then I’m okay. Mostly. But if I’m still awake when she turns out the lights in the living room and kitchen and the only light left is the one by her bed and then if she snaps off even that yellow bit of consciousness–if I’m still awake then–I’m doomed.

Because of the Museum of Science, I know this sort of magic trick. You stand in a doorway and open your arms to the sides like wings. The doorjamb stops them, but you have to keep pressing against it as hard as you can for a slow count of 60. After enough time your arms re-calibrate. They accept this new intense and specific gravity and resign themselves to live under it forever. Then, just when they start to forget the press of the world they came from, you step into the room and your arms fly from your body like snipped balloons. That’s what nighttime is, but instead of my arms it’s my whole being flying away.

Don’t be such a baby, I coach myself, You’re twelve years old. What are you, scared of the dark?

It isn’t the dark. It’s the space.

Where am I? Where are my edges?

I sit up and reach for the wooden dowel folded into the bottom of my shade. I tug it and it springs up, unlatched, from my hand. The pink haze of the streetlight near my room shines in, but weakly. It isn’t enough to pin me in this moment, which is gone already.

I try praying. Dear God, please make me believe in you. If you exist make me believe in you. It instantly makes me feel guilty. If God exists he should be spending time saving babies with no lips and holes in their spines and women trapped in lagoons by scaled and yellow-eyed creatures. I’m just one girl in one moment in endless, sprinting time. One tiny flick of girl. I’m sorry , I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Small and selfish. Pompous. Presumptuous. What kind of God would notice me?

If I get up and walk the ten or twelve steps from my room to my mom’s room I can climb into her bed and that will be enough, but I’m twelve. I swore off sleeping in my mom’s bed when I turned nine and again when I turned ten. Eleven. Don’t be a baby. You just need to stop it. STOP IT. But I can’t. I need something outside of me to make me stop. I hang myself over the edge and pull out my box, slide the lid off and pull out the red journal.

July, 31 1975 Today I’m worried about you. The doctor said you were small for your age. Up until two weeks ago you were big for your age. What happened to you? Aren’t you eating well? Please, please grow big soon.

I will! I do! I’m fine, pregnant mom. I turn out fine. For a second it’s comforting to know how it turns out. Then it’s just horribly sad that it’s always turning.

August 2 Today you had the hiccups! Or at least I think you did. Maybe you were just kicking with rhythm. You’ll have to try out different instruments!

September 1 You’ve been so active lately. I hope you’ll always be this energetic and happy. I have so many things I should be doing but I spend hours just marveling at you. You’re not even born yet and already I can’t concentrate on anything but you.

This is the God I need. Who can make me and carry me and still think that I am the miracle. That I’m reason enough.

But she isn’t a god, and someday there will just be this book. The thought makes hot fear pool in the base on my brain. Or cold – the kind of cold that burns your skin clean off.

October 1st. I’m born. You like to lie in the opposite direction of the fetal position with your back curved like a swan and your arms free. My darling, I hope you’ll find the freedom you seem to want, and that, in some small way, you’ll make this world a freer place to live in.

But I didn’t want to be free.

I wanted to be held.

Laura Green lives in Portland, Oregon. She’s working on a memoir tentatively called Bastard Child of a Renegade Nun (plus half-Mexican and gay). Please contact her if you have an elegant way to work it all into a title.