Part Two: Dysmorphic

Last night, my mother threw my sister a bridal shower in the back yard. Once more, it filled up with loved ones, delicious food, and white Coleman coolers brimming with beer and wine. I made white Sangria, full of chunks of summer fruit and chopped mint from the garden.

Halfway through the night, people began to post pictures from the event on social media, and I had the now-common moment of recognition and reckoning—there I am. There’s my body.

I hate it.

***

Roxane Gay writes in Hunger about her internal bargaining process, the one she has with herself, her body: if I do x, then I can have y. If I have too much y, I’ll do double the amount of x. If I cut out x entirely for the months of September and October, then by November, I will be svelte enough for the holidays that people will see me—me—the real me inside this body that I know is there, because I live with her, daily. My parents will smile upon this newly-minted self. This newly viable commodity.

This was the moment, reading the book, when I thought, for fuck’s sake. We are all Roxane Gay.

I remember the end of my first year of lightweight crew. The season culminates with the National Championship in mid to late-May, depending on the schedule. You have another fallow month of school left, during which you are free to reclaim your time when the final bell rings—go home, go to the beach, the boardwalk, whatever, rather than the daily grind of practice. For a week, I rode around in friend’s cars (I didn’t have a license, yet, at 16) and smoked some pot and ate McDonald’s French fries and goofed off and then, panic set in. It was beach season, shortly—I was working as a beach badge checker, a coveted, appallingly gendered job wherein lucky girls walked the Ventnor beaches in bikinis and short shorts, “checking tags,” the little $10 pins the city charged for the season, to raise revenue for the beach maintenance, the lifeguard salaries. At the time—1996—the lifeguards were almost exclusively male. The checkers were exclusively female. I had a spot as a checker. And I had been eating garbage and having fun without care. My stomach dropped. And I made an internal bargain, the first of many.

I just won’t eat until the summer, I told myself, and felt absolute calm settle over me.

I could do it. I had done it before, for short periods. Not usually intentionally—sometimes I just woke up late and couldn’t have breakfast, and then got a sick stomach, so didn’t want much lunch. And then I’d eat a small dinner. I wasn’t being literal, I suppose, when I made the silent decision not to eat, but I was deciding I wouldn’t eat during the day, since, if I refused dinner, my parents would know something was up. It was May. We were in school until late June. This gave me about thirty days to get skinny, really skinny. I felt a rush of relief so strong, so physical, I blushed.

I weighed 116 pounds.

***

My mother’s family is full of petite, strong women with thick, shapely calves and thighs, round hips, small waists. I grew up hearing them—no, listening to them, it was active, it was a thing I strove to do—decry their bodies. Their bodies were awful, and they did not love them. They were a problem to be solved, but also an unsolvable problem, since genetics, as my father often says, laconically, are tough to beat. Their thighs were the main problem, which they dealt with comically, often smacking their flesh with gusto, proclaiming them “Thunder thighs!” or saying “Getta load-a these gams, fellas,” in the voice of a mock-film noir femme fatale. They were blond, they were funny, they were beautiful and smart and accomplished. They were—are—great mothers, great teachers, good writers. My own mother studied theater, and wanted to act, but married my father, instead, and directed decades worth of middle school plays that were better than most of the college productions I’ve seen.

I say this to point out that, growing up as a young, white, straight woman in America, almost none of this was held up to me as mattering in any way by either the larger world I lived in, or even by my mother and her sisters. What mattered, first and foremost, was the body, and then the face. The face could be pretty—theirs were actually beautiful, my mother and her sisters are exquisitely pretty, even in their 50s and 60s—but if the body was chunky, pudgy, misshapen, fat, the face mattered not. It’s a shame, I often heard family members say—She has such a pretty face. We said it like it was a waste, like it would have been better spent on someone else with toned legs and arms.

***

I can see my body as it was then, at 116 pounds. I remember its curves and flats and problems. I remember there were actual sections I wished I could hack off. I wrote about it, much later, in a poem— an idealized woman is speaking to me in the poem, a woman who changes in the light, who is a missus, who is perfect and beautiful. The woman, in the poem, is onto me—she knows my feminisms are bullshit, that I can say what I want in the day, but inside, in the dark that hides beyond the light of the body, what we show to the world, I am terrified. I collapse upon myself in this terror. I want a new body, one that matches the self I do, reluctantly, like and sometimes admire. I am brave. I am loud, when others are afraid to speak at all. Once, in the middle of the night, I fled a violent relationship to save my son’s life, and my own. Afterwards—for years—I did the hard work to truly survive that relationship’s aftermath, to reclaim my own life.

I think I am still doing that work. As I write this, I can’t see for crying.

The woman in the poem tells me I see you in the shower, how you clutch/your glutted flesh/you’d hack it off, if only—

 

Then, she disappears.

At 116 pounds, my flat belly was a plus, but my hips and thighs were a disaster. I had just finished a full season of elite exercise and dieting to the point where I wouldn’t even drink diet soda (some stupid crew myth about the carbonation interfering with your ability to breathe during a race), and they were as small as they were ever going to be.

Which was not small enough. I had been trained to believe they were gross. A liability, even, since what we were all supposed to be after was the attention of men, and the attention of men belonged to waifs. It was 1996. The most famous model on earth was Kate Moss, who was, by all appearances, half-dead: her face pure, arrogant misery, smudged with exhaustion and hunger—fuck off, she seemed to say with her sleepy, haunted eyes, her pouty, empty mouth. She was wordless, which was to say, she was perfect. A finished thing. Women’s bodies in motion, in the present, in action, were hard to come by, then and now. Then, as now, I had this wild inner life, all poetry and dreams and desire. Activity, incarnate. But when I stared in the mirror, I imagined curves and inches away. I disappeared them. At night, alone, I danced in the dark of my room to Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant’s voice crooning Since I been lovin’ you… I’m about to lose, my weary mind… Ohhhh yeah… I lit candles. I was a virgin, sexually innocent, but not naïve, I wanted to crawl into the speakers and fuck their brains out, men and women both. But in the day, I looked askance at the round bubble of my ass in its cut-offs and blushed in shame, wanted to cry. Sometimes, I did cry. Always, I sucked it up. Got it together. Left the house, went to work, did whatever I needed to do. Disgusted with myself until I entered the world, joined it, and re-entered my self, as opposed to just my body.

 

My sisters, I think, and some of my friends, thought I was vain. I spent a fair amount of time staring into the mirror, the glass of passing shop windows. I remember reading Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” for the first time, how she writes of catching “a glimpse” of herself in a passing shop window. She is filled with cherishing. I’m still waiting for that day. What might have been viewed as vanity was actually, almost all of the time, a deep despair, or disgust. As recently as fall 2014, I stared into the full-length mirror in my living room at the backs of my thighs. I wondered how anyone could love them, which was to say, how anyone could love my body. I imagined Vincent seeing them during sex, during sleep, I imagined myself bent over, naked, a player in a film, passively waiting for his approval. In this imaginary version of our imaginary love-making, he is as disgusted as I am. He passes. He moves away.

Then, I was about 130 pounds. I was 34-years old. I had secured, against all possible odds, a place on the tenure-track, having spent five years as an adjunct. I was the Great White Hope. I had survived, and then, I had thrived.

But fat thighs were fat thighs, and they were gross, and they had to go.

You’d hack it off, if only–

What wouldn’t I give for a saw?

I remember telling Vincent about this moment, about how much it inspired me to lose weight, lose inches. He looked askance at me. You’ve got dumps like a truck, baby! he exclaimed, with real panic. Understand—this is a man who, early in our relationship, said, as we lay side by side in bliss, Your body is absolutely perfect, you’re perfect. I have never been loved more or better. I don’t think it’s possible, really. Vincent, like he says of his sister, loves hard. I think he would kill someone if they really tried to harm me, or our children. But Vincent—walking, talking, loving, hysterically funny, brilliantly smart Vincent—is not the Vincent in my head. He’s not the dark player in my dark story, who hates me, hates me, hates me.

***

For a long time, at 116 pounds, I thought all the truly skinny girls were enthralled with themselves, and pitied me. I thought they loved their bodies, gloried in them, spun giddy circles of joy when they stared into the mirror. I stared at them in their string bikinis and thought, I wish I looked like they did. No, I longed to look like they did, and a longing that expressed itself in petty jealousies.

The irony: I did look like them in a bikini.

The further, more awful irony: they hated their bodies, too.

I vividly recall one young woman from my boat, the envy of everyone, the most beautiful, popular girl in our class, saying, as she shrunk and shrunk until she weighed 101 pounds, I wanna be 99 pounds. Just so I can say I’m in the 90s. She flashed her set of perfect white teeth. I wanted to punch them out of her head.

And not only because she was smaller than me, but because then, as now, I knew this was nuts, that we were possessed by some larger cultural machination that was killing us slowly, from the inside out, that was turning us against one another and against ourselves. Every movie, every glossy magazine ad, every billboard. Every parent, every coach, every teacher told us two totally divergent messages at the same time:

Be strong. Love yourself.

But, being strong means starving yourself until you look like the women on these billboards, and you can only love yourself once you get there, so, have at it, ladies. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

They wanted us to go to college on scholarship, to study and become whatever we wanted. But scholarships also came from athletics, and so, we had to excel at that, and we had to excel at school, and we had to be thin to the point of starvation and misery but we had to smile the whole time. And boys had to love us, and we were outcasts if they didn’t, and it was our fault if they didn’t, because we hadn’t put in the time, we hadn’t done the work. And we were supposed to be virgins, sexually naïve while also being sexy enough to attract those boys, but turn them down if they wanted to fuck us, because if we allowed it, we were sluts.

And if they acted out?
Cheated on us? Fucked other girls? Slandered our names, sometimes publicly, humiliated us in front of our peers? Raped us?

Well, boys will be boys.

When my boatmate who wanted to be in the 90s, who was never really my friend but who made, as I did, a valiant effort to be civil since our personalities were like the motor oil from the launch and the brackish bay water we rowed through each day, saw her boyfriend making out with another girl on the dance floor at the annual Margate Lifeguard Ball—the final straw, the coup de grace of a series of abusive acts—she punched him so hard, she broke his nose.

 

I called her the next day and left her a message, full of laughter and joy. She was my hero. My actual hero. I couldn’t wait to see her and hug her. I remember I called her from the tent of the New Haven Avenue beach, where I was “checking tags.” It was a cloudy, rainy day, with almost no beach-goers. I sat adjacent to a lifeguard, at least ten years my senior, handsome, seemingly benign.

But he asked me to lay next to him, and “scratch my head. You have those perfect, long nails.”

 

I was 17.

And when, almost twenty years later, I sat, nursing my 10-month old son in the dark of my childhood bedroom, having fled his violent father in the middle of the night, staring at my son’s face, latched onto my breast, his eyes wide open, taking in my face, memorizing it, it was not her 101-pound, 17-year old body that returned to me. It was not the moment when she saw me emerge from a dressing room in a prom gown, and said I am so jealous of your small boobs, I would kill for a flat line in a dress with total sincerity, covering her gorgeous, voluminous breasts, at the top of 20-inch waist, which I had coveted for the whole of the time I had known her, and I realized this awful self-effacing, this mental hacking off went both ways. It was her terrifying courage, her outrageous act, her tiny, fierce body erupting in righteous rage, smashing, at least, the bulbous nose of a minute part of the patriarchy, reminding me of my body’s power, as my son’s fist twisted my flesh.

***

I made a new friend, this year, although he is technically someone I’ve known most of my life. We grew up in the same town, but he is a few years older, and moved to California, where he lives with his wife and sons. We “met” through writing—he has a smart blog about politics and philosophy that I admired, so I reached out on social media, where we began an ongoing series of conversation about politics, philosophy, writing, and life. Sometime in the fall, he said that he and his wife would visit in the summer, and we should all have dinner; his wife would love me, and vice-versa.

And so began another series of bargains: I could not meet these two, in all of their perfect physical beauty, in my current state. Vincent is svelte and handsome. He is a few years younger than me. People must wonder why he would even consider being with me. People would look askance at my body, its gross misproportions. People would hate my body, just like I hate my body, and they would be right. Justified, even. I take up too much space. I am gross.

***

Last night, I stared at my body in those pictures, and I couldn’t keep it together. Outside, in the twinkle lit yard, my beautiful, svelte sister and her series of perfectly lovely friends were laughing and drinking and singing along to Beyonce. The night was winding down. I stared at an image of me next to her, literally looking like I was twice her size.

But that’s the thing about dysmorphia. I know this can’t be true, but there it is. It’s true. My eyes do not deceive me. I look like two of her.

In another picture, all three of us, my sisters and I, grin at the camera, and all I can see, instead of the love that glows and flows between us, is my arm, like a fucking ham hock, my sloppy belly in its hip romper.

Vince is on his way home from work, and I am texting him almost frantically, trying not to cry, trying to persuade the children it’s almost time to go. The children: Hank frequently pokes my belly, or kisses it, smackingly. Stella, my stepdaughter, whose mother was absent for almost all of the time I’ve been in her life, and before it, associates the word mother with absence. A beautiful, aching absence. A fairy princess with heaps of glossy black tresses, a perfect face, a skinny, perfect body. Beauty, beauty, beauty. Skinny, skinny, skinny. Her best friend’s mother (a woman I adore) looks, coincidentally, like her own biological mother—a stunner. Killer body. Like Stella’s biological mother, she is almost ten years younger than me, and possesses the time and inclination to be hip and beautiful. Lately, I feel like a hag. Stella has begun to impersonate her best friend’s mother in her speech—if I ask her for something, she says “Kk,” in a clipped tone and tosses her beautiful hair. I said “Wait, what’s that mean?” and she answered, “It’s how cool people say ‘Ok.’” Hank nodded in agreement. Back at home after the party, I can’t stop crying, tears are just pouring out of me, and Vince just hugs me as I babble. My parents will never love me unconditionally, my mother told every person there they looked beautiful except for me, because she doesn’t think I’m beautiful. My mother doesn’t think herself beautiful, which is part of the problem, but the thinner we are, the better she loves us. My father, from a distance, still looks like a guy in his 30s, and just looks away when he has to see me in a bathing suit. He hates my body, too, so it stands to reason I hate my body. Stella, like me as a child, takes notes, actively listens—my body is a problem to be solved, and I am worth nothing. All of my accomplishments, my first-rate teaching, my rising competence and responsibility at a university, my writing, my ability to care for my family emotionally, logistically, financially, means fuck all because I am not thin. She wants that beautiful absence, and I just will never be that woman. I will never be that woman. I will never be that absent woman with her perfect skin and body and hair. Her destruction. I may get fat and I may hate myself but I will love those kids and Vincent and my students and my job and I will write and write and write some more about that and everything else. And someday, maybe, they will see all of that as real love, and as something they want, and want to emulate.

***

I am crying so hard my eyes are blurry and I can tell Vincent is concerned. I strip off my romper and walk from the bathroom to our bedroom in nothing but panties and the corked heels I wore that evening. And then, it happens—transformation. Dysmorphia in action. Without clothes and with heels, I suddenly feel momentarily sexy and in control. I walk toward the bed and stand there, in that fleeting moment, a goddess, a stunner, a beautiful, aching absence of a woman who flees the moment I lay down, inhabiting my real body, trying to find myself.

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Part One: Lightweights

Last weekend, my good friend’s father was hit by a car. He was on his bike; he’s a serious rider, serious about fitness. He works at a gym for a living.

The car was going about 50 miles per hour. My friend’s father was thrown from his bike, and suffered life-threatening injuries. As of this writing, he’s still unconscious, and his survival is touch and go.

Yesterday, this same friend brought her younger son over to my parents’ house, to swim with my children. We discussed her fear; her sorrow; her frustration. Her father’s neurosurgeon is brilliant, but non-committal and quirky in his speech. He will, she said, touch her father’s head, gently—half of his skull has been deliberately removed, and placed in a special freezer, so that his brain may swell: a hemi-craniotomy. The surgeon, who is from Spain and has a thick accent, gently massages her father’s head and says “Is soft, is soft, that’s good, you know? Right?” My friend is a therapist—she’s trained in how to walk others calmly through difficult emotions. Is that good?! Is it?! she wants to yell, since, as a therapist, and not a neurosurgeon, she hasn’t the faintest idea what is “good” in these situations—certainly, nothing seems “good” at the moment: her beloved father facing her, unconscious, with thick stitching literally holding his head together.

But, she doesn’t. She nods, and asks thoughtful questions in a meditative voice.

And so, we talked about doctors, about medicine, about prognoses: the surgeon will not offer any hint as to what he thinks may happen to her father, because, he tells her again and again, Every brain injury is different. He could wake up tomorrow and walk around the room and know everyone, or he could be unconscious indefinitely. My friend says she thought this would frustrate her, but as more time passes, it makes sense: Never underestimate the power of the individual, she said, hugging her long legs to her chest, her eyes red-rimmed and wearier than I have ever seen them—and we have been friends for two and a half decades. Before us, the kids: four, small, unique bodies splashing and squealing in the pool.

***

My friend’s comment about individuals and power reminded me of Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger. I finished it Wednesday night, and I believe it is the definitive book about the condition of being an American woman.

This is an extreme statement. I imagine Gay herself might think it absurd, given that she spends many elegant pages describing a world not designed to fit her body, in prose that gives the reader the harrowed sense of living in a body the size of Gay’s. There are sentences describing the way chair arms bruise human arms when one cannot quite fit inside the chair; sentences about having to be pushed and pulled up onto a low stage without stairs, in front of an audience of swank writers. Shrink! the constructed world yells at the narrator, on every page. Gay is clear throughout that while some people who are heavy make a point to be body positive, to love themselves and their size, and that she very much admires these people, she is not one of them. She does not love her body. Her body is an anomaly.

But no body is anomalous—or, at least, no body should be. While at the same time, all bodies are anomalous, since no one body can truly be compared to another. This is part of the paradox of the book, and part, I would argue, of the condition of American womanhood. I use the word condition deliberately: as Gay’s book and my reaction to it make clear, American women at every size are a problem to be solved.

***

I should state two pertinent facts up front. I am a white, able-bodied woman and I am not morbidly obese. I added the “morbidly” after some consideration for several reasons—one, while most people in my life would roll their eyes if I even described myself as simply “obese,” the BMI chart (which Gay brilliantly takes to task in Hunger) tells a different story. I am five feet tall, and in the past three years, since gaining a stepdaughter and entree into the tenure-track, I have gained approximately 20 pounds. I almost wrote, “Who knows why this happened,” except that I know exactly why—my time became crunched and more crunched. Academia depended on me for more labor and before long, my once-relatively disciplined eating and exercise schedule which kept me svelte and in good physical shape collapsed and I did what a lot of people in my position do: I ate Dunkin’ Donuts bagel sandwiches for breakfast almost every day and drank beer with dinner every night. I munched on salty carbs when I was grading, and I am always grading. I exercised less and less because the time I was once able to devote to exercise is now devoted to working on the three manuscripts rapidly making their way to completion and publication, and I need those book contracts if I want to keep the job that keeps our family in our house.

So, I know why I got fatter. And I know how to get thinner. And if the best indication of future performance is past performance, I probably will get thinner, again. My weight has gone up and down and around the same crap fifteen pounds for most of my adult life. Writing that sentence, I imagine those pounds as something external from my body, alive, but not quite living, a wobbly, passive-aggressive ghost with my mother’s voice: We’d like to go, Emily, they say as they hover on my ass, my belly, my arms—we never wanted to come back in the first place, we wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for YOU.

I understand that this is not a crisis. I don’t binge eat. I don’t starve myself. I don’t purge. I like to move around and I live three blocks from the beach, where I spend many days in the summer walking and jogging and swimming. In other words, the external realities of my woman’s body—what I put into it, how it moves through the world—are relatively normal and healthy. They are not raising alarm bells for anyone in my life, or on the street. Strangers do not stare at me or mock me. Sometimes men still check me out.

Instead, though, there is this. My emotional and psychological relationship with my adult body looks quite a lot like Roxane Gay’s. No, fuck it—exactly like hers.
I want to be clear, again—I am not claiming Roxane Gay’s experience, or claiming to understand what it is to walk through the world like she doesBut reading Gay’s words has been revelatory because, as Gay points out on page 37 of Hunger “the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood” in American culture. And I am an American woman.

I am an American woman who was once an American child, and a skinny one, at that. In fact, most of my early memories ring with nicknames derived from the word “skinny:” Skinny Minny, Skinny Bones. My mother and father wore my thinness like a badge of honor. I was fast and wily and agile and I loved to climb… everything. There is a moment in Hunger when Gay describes seeing photographs of herself before she was gang-raped at age 12; she says it destroys her to see images of herself so young and carefree and strong. I have a memory, from the fifth grade: we were doing the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge. At the time, I did gymnastics at the local Jewish Community Center three days a week. I was getting good– I could tumble, and was learning to tumble on the beam. Our gym teacher asked if I wanted to demonstrate the rope climb, and before I knew it, I had jumped on and scurried to the top in barely a minute. I remember looking down at the students, sitting cross-legged below me, and feeling excited and happy. That only increased when I told my father the story, over dinner, and his eyes glowed with a unique pride that only accompanied our (I have two younger sisters) physical accomplishments.

And it wouldn’t be that much longer before our physical accomplishments would be forever after associated with weight loss. By the time I reached high school, I wanted to row crew, but the only way that was going to happen, at five feet tall, was if I was a “lightweight.” Thus began three years of devoting half the school year to a particularly noxious brand of athletics that combined rigorous training and discipline (people have compared crew to the army; you’re laughing, but now you’re listening to me describe the times– yes, times– that we almost capsized in a February gale, or ran aground and had to bail the shell out by pushing it from the marsh in the north Atlantic in March, or carry it a quarter mile each way from the boathouse to the dock) with a food and exercise obsession that produced more than its fair share of life-threatening eating disorders. I’d like to say our coaches discouraged this, but, mostly male, they egged us on, in both explicit and nefarious ways. My coach, a local firefighter, was fond of calling the tallest girl in our boat, who cut literally every ounce of fat out of her diet so she could squeak below the weight limit of 120 pounds “Big Dog.” When, that same season, my grandfather died and I smothered my unbearable grief with the hoards of food on our dining room table, the scale– which we stepped on in front of hundreds of rowers and coaches and administrators at the famed Schuylkill River’s Boathouse Row– revealed a five pound weight gain, our coach announced “Looks like we got ourselves a new Big Dog.” The vendors at the races hawked a t-shirt with a rotund, pink pig on a sagging scale, blushing with shame, which read “Please Don’t Feed the Lightweights;” we all begged our parents for it, and wore it with some weird version of pride. Our former coxswain, who had gone onto college to study art, showed up at the prestigious Stotesbury Regatta and drew said pig on each of our back right shoulders—matching tattoos. One girl, who rowed in a different boat, a lightweight four, was so ill from bulimia she could no longer “pull her weight.” Rather than getting her help, her coach, (different from Mr. “Big Dog”) forced her to sit in the launch with him while another shell raced her boat—in her place, he threw a sack of tools: wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers. The boat, he wanted to prove, went faster without her in it, and prove it he did. “See,” he said to her, as she shivered next to him in her gray, polycotton hoodie, “you’re nothing. You’re dead weight.”

I began lightweights my sophomore year, after spending my freshman season “bulking up.” There are no weight classes for novice and freshman rowing, so, to make the cut, I lifted tons of heavy weights and ate whatever I wanted. Since I have always had a healthy relationship with food, this didn’t include anything out of the ordinary—my mother cooked wholesome dinners for my family every night of my life. I rowed in the bow pair with my friend, Brigit, who was also on the smaller side, but ran like a deer and was freakishly strong. We were freakishly strong by the end of that season, actually, along with every other girl in the boat. Our coaches were two young women in their late twenties—the only women coaches in the roster—who had both rowed at division one schools, and had originated the sport for women at our high school. They told us wild tales of carrying logs on their shoulders as they ran stadiums in the rain, training toward what ended up as a championship season, winning the Nationals and taking a bronze medal in the Canadian Schoolboy Nationals—everything they described sounded like a scene from Visionquest. We were enchanted, and totally devoted, and I felt like every girl in the boat was my best friend. I could run six miles without getting winded, and leg press 500 pounds. When I got on the scale, and it crept up another pound, I wasn’t happy, I was thrilled. I equated my weight with strength and camaraderie. My best friend from grammar school, who had gone to a different high school, saw me one day and said “Jesus, your calves got so thick,” with horror, and I said “Thank you!” and grinned at her. By the end of the spring, I weighed about 140 pounds, and we had won a silver medal in the Nationals. There is a picture of us from that day, hot and sweating in the May sun, each holding an oar upright. I look—we look—beatific. It was one of the best days of my life.

But there’s another picture, albeit in my head, from the same day, since we weren’t the only boat from our school that medaled in the Nationals that year. During the medal ceremony, I also watched as our reigning lightweight 8 walked up the stairs to the podium with nonchalance that bordered on disdain. These bitches had better things to do, but they’d grace us with their presence for this last. Tall, skinny, and tanned within an inch of their lives, they had a reputation for disordered eating and cruelty. We heard weird rumors about them that sounded like my own personal version of hell: I heard she only ate one piece of steamed broccoli a night for the entire season of medal races; I heard she throws up after every meal; I heard she takes water pills and pees out everything in her body on race day; I heard she fucked the stroke’s boyfriend. None of these young women ever spoke a word to me, even though some of them were the older sisters of my good friends. They passed through practices in a quiet, disciplined swish of spandex and perfectly blown-out hair. They weren’t “natural” lightweights—the prevailing myth is that the category was created for smaller girls to be able to compete on an elite level—they were, instead, tall and strong, and forced to essentially be exercise bulimics who never ate in order to “make weight,” an exotic-sounding phrase involving crowds and scales and a high-stakes moment where you either did or did not weigh 120 pounds or less, which determined whether you could or could not row in the race that day. At the time, there was the further caveat of the “boat average.” Each girl in the boat had to weigh less than 120 pounds, but the average weight of the eight young women couldn’t be more than 115 pounds, or they could not row in the race that day. We heard horror stories about running in trash bags and spitting in cups. We watched the leggy beauties cart their sleek racing shell to the dock and slip it into the water with nary a splash. When I think of them, they are silent, they are beautiful, and they are angry with the anger of the righteous. They outclass me, in my oversized t-shirt and red bandana, my unwaxed eyebrows and messy brown ponytail. I am not in their league. I want nothing to do with them, with any of what being them entails. They terrify me.

But by the time I made it to my sophomore year, I had to join them. The junior varsity competition was fierce, a group of girls who towered over me and came from families with a rich history of rowing. I was not going to make the cut. There was a new lightweight coach, that year that everyone raved about. He saw me working out in the gym one day, and said “You gonna row in the lightweight 8?”

“No, I want to make the JV 8,” I said, huffing and puffing in between upright rows, giving him the side eye. I wanted none of that cut-weight fuckery in my life. I liked food, and I liked keeping it in my stomach after I ate it. I liked not being a heinous meangirl to everyone who possessed a vagina and weighed more than 115 pounds. I was more Angela Chase than Kelly Taylor.

“Yeah, you think so?” he said, and he walked away.
And that was really all it took.

Crew is such a strange, insular sport, possessing its own vocabulary, its own sub-cultures. You think this is bad, please, my senior year we DFL’d in the petite finals, I remember my assistant coach telling me, our freshman year, rolling her eyes, when I cried about coming in fifth at the Stotesbury Regatta. There were only six boats in the finals, but there were hundreds that had rowed in heats to get there. “Petite finals” were row offs for the losers who didn’t make the real finals, which we had.

And—

What’s DFL? I said, wiping my running eyes with the heel of my 15-year old hand beneath the shade of a leafy maple on the banks of Philly’s Schuylkill River, watching packs of beautiful youth move boats on and off of stretchers and trailers, smelling grilled meat in the distance.

Dead Fucking Last, she said, grinning and hugging me.

Petite finals, DFL, ergs, mid-weights, lightweights, riggers, coxswains, stern pair, bow pair; the first 500 meters; the last 500 meters; Nationals, “Stotes.” Ergs don’t float. No technique. My non-crew friends, listening to us at the lunch table, were mystified and would jokingly try to use the language, causing us to erupt into peals of laughter. By sophomore year, my lunches had gone from turkey with mayo to turkey with mustard. I ate fruit instead of chips and drank water by the gallon. I ate Powerbars for breakfast, worrying them down miserably on the bus. I ate dry bagels because cream cheese was an unpardonable sin.

But I did all of this with a purpose—cut weight. Row. Make the lightweight eight. And I did, in fact, do that, for my remaining three years of high school. During that first season, I stuck to a strict diet (or what I thought was a strict diet) only because I understood that the season had a fixed ending, at which point I could return to eating normally, which for me meant occasionally indulging, and not obsessively watching everything that went into my mouth for the taint of fat—it was 1996, and we had not yet, as a culture, moved into the “no carb” zone. We ate “fat-free” desserts from Entenmann’s, dunked our fruit in “fat-free” Cool Whip. I remember our “spaghetti dinners” (the crew tradition of having a high-carb, healthy meal the night before a race so as to have lots of energy for said race) as distinctly hellish experiences. One senior, the only one who had been the boat the previous year with the skinny girl glam squad, regaled us with stories of the preceding year’s dinners where no one ate a bite and everyone watched everyone else like a hawk to make sure no one ate a bite. She infused these tales with nostalgia, a bony Babe Ruth looking back on his salad days. She was not as beautiful or rich or popular as those other girls, and they had gone out of their way to make her know that—more than once, my freshman year, I caught her silently weeping as a result of their meanness. But now that they were gone and she remained, stuck with a boat full of sophomores, some of whom (like me) were distinctly uncool, and uninterested in being freakishly thin, she behaved like Patty Hearst with the SLA, describing their hunger-induced cruelties in loving, privileged tones, reveling in a bygone era.

I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Freshman year, I came for the friendship and stayed for the friendship. The workouts were just a bonus, another way for me to laugh and cry and push and be pushed by eight other girls like me—driven and smart and funny and devoted. Loyal. Some of them are still my friends; I remained close to many of them through college and beyond.

But this lightweight shit was a different story.

Crew became, at that point—and in many ways remained until I graduated—joyless. Hunger will make you miserable, and the point of lightweight rowing seemed to be exactly that—hunger. Starve. Avoid the food you want, or avoid it altogether, but whatever you do, do not indulge your desires, or you will gain, and when you gain, you lose. We lose, really, since if one of us didn’t make weight and couldn’t row, the careful balance struck by endless hours of practice in the freezing fucking cold was thrown and you didn’t stand a chance of winning with some random skinny bitch, probably a freshman, filling the seat. You let down the team. We’d be faster if I wasn’t towing your fat ass around! I heard a stroke yell back to some poor teammate as they rowed back after losing a heat at the Stotes, red-faced and sobbing in the early morning heat, the only other sound the slip and dip of the oars slicing the water. We laughed and laughed. When I think of that, now, the juxtaposition startles me most—rowing is a beautiful activity, literally: a boat that swings together is a marvel of physics and engineering, the culmination of so much unbelievable hard work. I remember passing under the Strawberry Mansion bridge—the dark water, the echoes—hearing laughter in the distance. I remember staring at the mist rising from the marsh at a 5 am practice, imagining those same marshes millions of years ago, a pterodactyl taking flight, writing poems in my head to the rhythm of the oars clicking in the oarlocks, the girl swinging in front of me, back and forth, back and forth. And I remember being miserable. I remember feeling that every minute I spent with these girls was a lie, because whatever strange thing drove them to have this hunger, to want this hunger, did not possess me. I could perform it up to a point, but at the end of the day, I just wanted a fucking chicken cheesesteak and fries, and I wanted to not feel weird about that. In fact, I didn’t want to talk about it at all. I just wanted to eat it, and move the hell along.

I thought I could do exactly that, when the season ended. I thought I had escaped lightweights unscathed. But when, a week after Nationals, I went with a group of girlfriends to get a chicken cheesesteak, I ordered it with low-fat cheese and low-fat mayo. My friend, who was also in the boat, and, I thought, naturally skinny, said, “I thought the whole point of this was to get a freaking chicken cheesesteak!” and I turned to her, meanly, acidly replied, “Well, some of us aren’t as lucky as you.”

And just like that, I was one of them.

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I Dedicate My No Trump Vote

This piece was originally accepted by the blog http://dedicateyournotrumpvote.blogspot.com/ , a project I love, support, and am proud to have been a part of, even peripherally. Unfortunately, they were so overrun with submissions (huzzah!), it’s not going to run, but I wanted it to get out in the world in even a small way. Here it is.

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I started organizing against Donald Trump back in March, 2016, when I created the Facebook page “Atlantic Couty Citizens Against Donald Trump.” Then, I was still in denial he could win the nomination, much less the election, but it already seemed vitally important to speak up.

See, I still live in the town where I grew up—Atlantic City, New Jersey—a place uniquely aware of Trump’s disasters; still, in fact, suffering them.

Back then—March, 2016—a person I grew up with, whose mother and father had both lost their jobs as a result of Trump’s abysmal Atlantic City business deals, responded with dismay at my outspoken condemnation of Trump. I said that Trump was a racist, that I could never support a bigot. That my partner, Vincent, and his daughter, are partly African-American. He responded by sending me a picture of two young, Black kids holding a sign that says “Fuck Donald Trump.” He said, “That’s hatred, that’s racism.” The thing—the problem—is this is a person I like. It’s someone I know. I like his parents. I like his little son. Once, in the sixth grade, we kissed in my parents’ laundry room. He claims to love America—an America that, to me, feels refined, and sold, refined, and sold: a fat, sweet, sick lie like a horsefly about to die.

So, I made this picture of my partner, and myself, grinning up at the camera, newly in love, and captioned it “Fuck Donald Trump For Real.” I thought about the first time we kissed. We were both exclusively single parents of small children. It felt like a new Eden, a new earth, an America I had yet to witness, but hoped existed. I thought about my love for him, his face, his stretched earlobes, his inked, beautifully, brightly scarred body. How I love his daughter. How he loves my son. How I love his liminal spaces: not Black, not quite white, an Atlantic City street kid who comes from nothing, who makes me chicken nugget omelets when I’m sad, teaches our kids how to throw their farts at one another. Who spent his fifteenth year homeless, when his parents lost their house, in an Atlantic City decimated by Donald Trump, a man who has never met a liminal space. Who would build a wall inside one if he did: A monolith splitting the minotaur in half. Who believes this shit, that we’re all one thing, or all the other? Who kisses someone with the intent to own, not open?

I dedicate my no Trump vote to Vincent, at age 15, homeless, freezing, sleeping on the soccer field in March, watched over by no one, back lit by Donald Trump’s name, twenty feet tall in bright red lights, refusing him, and refusing him sleep.

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This Is Not Analogous

Ok, so here we go again, with the same tired, essentially racist, logic-free argument. I recall a blog post that “trended” when Trayvon Martin was shot, that described in hideous detail the carjacking death of a young white woman at the hands of a young black man. “Did this make national news?” it demanded, furiously. “Are you outraged, now?” It said. Naturally, I looked up the case in question, only to discover it was so well-reported at the time it occurred, it has its own Wikipedia page; the perpetrator of the crime was apprehended almost immediately, arrested, charged, tried, and is in prison for life without parole.

So, first of all, it did make national news; secondly, who would read about that and not be outraged? Hopefully, no one. The problem with the blog post is, it fails to mention the pathetically evident comparison– the young woman, the victim? Her murderer is in prison for life. Justice was served. The outrage over Trayvon Martin began when his murderer was quite literally allowed to go free, with no arrest, and no charge, after shooting to death an unarmed minor on his way home to his mother’s home; it continued when said murderer was exonerated, and set free, only to continue to perpetrate violent crime and flagrantly and irresponsibly wield firearms– his most recent charming act was to broadcast photographs of Martin’s lifeless body on the ground on his Twitter account.

Similarly, we see this video of a student attacking a teacher, offered up as a point of outrage, and a counterpoint to the narrative that the attack on the young woman in South Carolina was a.)wrong, and b.)racial in nature, with the subtext of the attached article, and the Tweets/Facebook posts it reproduces being that society only cares when white people–particularly those in official positions of power, like law enforcement– attack black people, or the whole “reverse racism” argument, which is in itself an extension of the nonsensical argument that African-Americans get “special” treatment in this country.

My news feed has two separate stories about this video. One says “Why didn’t this video go viral?” The next says “This video went viral.” Ignoring the absurdities inherent to that, let’s examine the contents of this video, and point out the weak analogy between this and the one of the cop assaulting a young woman in South Carolina. The video below shows a student attacking a teacher. This is terrible. Wretched. Appalling. This is a world I know plenty about. I graduated from an urban high school fraught with violence, lived for years in two major cities, and taught in uptown Atlantic City for three years. I had a student pull a knife on another student in my classroom, and I’ve been verbally assaulted more times than I care to recall by various students. That said, my experiences on the whole in all of these places, with people of all colors and creeds and ages, were extraordinarily wonderful.

This video is not analogous to the video of the cop attacking the young woman in a South Carolina classroom. It does not prove that we somehow need cops “like him” in our schools. I want to be clear about this– I did not say we don’t need any law enforcement, or security, in schools. Our police force at Stockton does a phenomenal job. We are so lucky to have them. And the few times I’ve ever needed security in my classroom, they’ve been awesome, and I’ve been grateful. But the officer in South Carolina violated the ethical code and the official policy of his job. He is not to be viewed as some sort of necessity, or panacea, to scenarios like the one below. He is to be viewed as someone acting entirely outside of the law, while at the same time being invested with it. He is corrupt. The student below is also outside of the law, but he’s just that– a student. A kid who fucks up, big time. He is not an example. He is not an analogy. He is not to be put forth as a reason to keep officers like the one in South Carolina around.

http://www.nj.com/passaic-county/index.ssf/2015/10/video_of_nj_classroom_attack_trends_after_sc_cop_i.html

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Jamaal As Target Ad

Since what ends up as fable so often starts
in a rapture, since my cat performs a Jubilate

Agno as I lay my son to sleep, since Venus
shines hot and distant in the distance of his nightly window,

moving; not twinkling: distant
fireball—ok, understand, I’m using distant

here to mean more than its flat twin lines, I’m wanting it
to discourse on its own, I’m wanting

its echos, its hall of mirrors, I’m wanting it to self-immolate, burn
the motherfucker to the ground, please, please, close the distance

between the rapture and the rapture’s distance: vamoose.

I cannot get the phrase I do so love you
from my head, or into this poem—I do so

love you, I hear, stalking the halls, stacking
the dishes. Woolfian. Circular. Infantile. Assonant.

All those hard Ks stacked. Rapturous. Some
little. Some love. Some language. I do. You do. I do so. Ach.

Do. It’s true: every night, the morning star comes out, and I am
in a rapture over you & you: you two. Tarfia. Jamaal. This single

posted Facebook pic. This clue: he’s perched on a couch, back-lit. Who knew

this couch—any couch!?—could couch such light, could clutch
such plush still life, such luscious thunderclaps, such snapshots, picture

perfect? The camera used to be a crapshoot. Now, we filter out
the crap. We filter in the light you never knew

was there—Vesuvian, this light!—a crater, shocked, a man
preserved, it holds you up, it keeps you in your place, surrounds

your light, sheds light you didn’t know
you had around a chic loft you dreamt up sometime back

in 1995—here, the Turkish rug with braided fringe, the inlay
grins, the white threads gleam, here, the hardwood floor

exalted in its best imitation of a hardwood floor, there
the wainscoting, existing independent of one’s knowledge

of the word wainscoting—all by itself! Just like that! An image
able to survive free of naming, free of language, free and full

with light, light, light in practical danger of becoming a draft
of a poem about Monet’s Water Lilies also from 1995, that someone

Kobe!’d into the wire mesh waste bin that does not appear
in this pic, Insta, edged out, instead, of course, as a matter

of lucidity and hot-white fact, by a shelf of exquisitely chosen,
exquisitely loved books: Tolstoy, Baldwin, Plath. And centered

like math: Jamaal, beloved, be-laughing, be-snapped, we presume
by the woman with the green eyes, the gold ring in her nose.

Distant poets. Distant planets. Pin-up lives. My life—your life—
in all its prose: at least six fat fruit flies going ham on the dried

up bbq sauce on the plate stacked on the five other plates stacked
in the leaky sink in the house I rent in my hometown with the vinyl

siding. And meanwhile, my son sleeps beneath Venus–
and meanwhile, I’m riding the horse of this otherness

out into an open field of glamours I have yet to meet
and meanwhile, Tarfia’s doing the same, as she vacuums

the brand-new paisley print rug from Target with a pleasant, seamless hum.

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In Praise of Clean Panties, My Mother

Who even now might walk
through my front door with my own son
in tow, having kept him
for the night, having schlepped him
to church to praise the small ways
he points at the blood-tipped palms of Christ
and tells her “Jesus lives here, Mom-mom.”
Who even now might interrupt this chain
of thought, continue on the path of interrupted
chains of women linking word to airy word,
taking the much of misty thought
to make the word the thing itself. Oh holy absent
Father, oh Dad who even now drops coats and socks and Coors Light
tops along the halls she cleaned again before the sun
was all the way into the sky, I could ignore this
urge, once more immerse myself in making lines of absence, steeped
in theory, steeped in everything I’ve crammed
into the chains of cells still crammed
between my years, but

this morning ,that poem is a lie. This morning
I have folded 30-something pairs
of splashy, splotchy cotton, tinged with lace
or stamped with Superman’s bright S, the black
of Batman’s calling card, my lover’s daughter’s Monday,
Tuesday, Friday
, her father’s undies, weird
with prints of French fries, scrambled eggs, the folds
belie the cock and ass I love to squeeze
before the children scamper in each blessed, living day.
I fold. I put away. Every other person in the house
relaxes, plays. My mother’s blessings rise
like daily bread, like how I might begin, somehow
to pray: Oh Temporary, Holy Bodies’ detritus, the faded stains
of those I love between my wifely hands– may I fold
another load of crumpled clothes
before I dare to bitch or moan
about my mother, my lover, my children, my life.

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There Is A God I’ve Wanted All My Life

The way you feel describing objective truth.

The way the shadow
of two bald blue branches
on your son’s pale nighttime
wall creak in and out
Like pincers, like rusted tweezers
Like a wishbone, like a horror

Like the dreams when you try to dial
a number, always the misfire
stupid little fuck, like your brain
has fingertips, come on

It’s Disneyworld in 1985: the 3-D glasses
your face is white cardstock
red cellophane, facing a witch’s
black mask coming at you, off
the screen– and who knew something
that wasn’t there could be there and possess
such trajectory; like that dream:

Two teen girls laughing & laughing, you can’t believe
the laughing, you can’t believe your life
went on with you hardly there at all:

It’s like you were objective truth, out there, someone
Was stabbing at you, grabbing at a mask that came for you, empty
Of all matter & resolve; the only reason

to believe in any of this is you believe in none of it at all.

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