I have one foot up, balanced on the soap holder that protrudes from the tile wall above the bathtub like a pouting lip. I am fifteen and blindly dragging my friend Taylor’s mom’s boyfriend’s seven-blade facial razor over the surface of yet untouched places, places on my body that I will never see due to the physiological restrictions of evolution which prioritized upright locomotion over a clear view of my genitals.
But even though they seemed to be of little consequence to the evolutionary process—one foot up, balanced on the soap holder—I know that these fleshy strips of myself which cover the mysterious gaps between public legs and private hidden entrances and exits of my body are very important and also, somehow, imperfect. Alterations are necessary for them to become what they are meant to be. In that sense, I also know that these parts of my body do not exist for me but are already allocated to others.
I couldn’t have told you this in that bathtub at fifteen years old. It felt like instinct at the time, an instinct I think we all have—me, the girls I grew up with, my mother, the women on TV. Yet we lack a name for it. Just as geese know they must find their way south in the winter, I know that I must have a perineum so smooth that it looks like an Easter lily blooming in spring.
When I was caught I said, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, but I didn’t think your mom would notice if I rinsed the razor really well and then dried the bathtub with paper towels. It’s just that I’m seeing Eric tonight, and he said he borrowed his cousin’s jeep and we would be going out to CC Camp , like past the levies. So I just, you know, had to. ” Taylor stood in the doorway serenely eating Cheetos and asked, “You even shave your asshole?” and I was all like, “Well no, not specifically, but you had good shaving cream and I got carried away,” at which point she nodded understandingly.
After she made me swear to pick all the pubes out of the blades, and fed me a Cheeto as a token of forgiveness, she said, “You can never really shave yourself hairless . I mean, maybe Katy Perry’s white ass can. But whatever, we all know it’s rude to look like you didn’t even try.”
I looked down at myself then, berry-scented speckles of white foam dotting my pelvis. Even the seven-blade facial razor could not erase the black nubs that sat a layer below the surface of my skin. I rubbed my hand upwards, and it felt like a cat’s bloated tongue. I was suddenly so sad. What had I done?
The white porcelain bathtub looked like a vast snowy field then. The coarse black hairs, the blood pooling in popped foam—it looked like an immense tragedy built to scale.
It reminded me of that diorama of the Donner Party I made in fourth grade out of a shoe box and cotton balls. Meticulously, I built a tiny scene of people huddled under trees covered by the cotton-ball snow. The bathtub felt more like a model of what happened next. Just moments before, people could have been sitting atop horses’ backs, their well-fed thighs gripping the undulating sheets of muscle covered by musky fur as they flattened their bodies against the beating lungs of their mounts. And then: My hair in the foam looked like the amputated dross of living things left in the snow when the people had run down all their food stores. They must have eaten the horses first, and—
How did they decide? Could they have drawn straws? Did they ask, Whose lives matter the least? I remember the way my teacher explained what a cannibal was, I could hear in his voice that there was something about this act that made these people disgusting, that this act was somehow the ultimate trespass. Murder is terrible, but to use up one person’s body so that someone else will wake up tomorrow with their hunger sated while the devoured ones never had a chance—that is something unthinkable. I became obsessed. I drew pictures. I made that diorama. I had nightmares about being eaten alive. I felt sad and sick when I thought of them. But it wasn’t the cold repulsion that I heard beneath my teacher’s explanation, it was more like a deep empathy for the eaten ones.
When I thought of the Donner Party, I liked to think that it was a discussion, that someone said, No it’s okay, take me. That when the time came, they didn’t try to run because they didn’t need to. This was what they wanted. I like to think that it would be nice if we all got to choose whether or not to surrender our bodies to the appetites of others. I know now that this wasn’t true.
When the winter rains start to soften around April and we begin to call them showers and listen for the goldfinch’s song, my mother cuts Easter lilies from the garden while they are still tightly-wound blooms and puts them on the dinner table in a big glass vase. I think that they are the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, and I watch them obsessively, waiting for them to unfurl. Over the next day or two the glass vase becomes smudged with the oval streaks of my small fingers as I move the vase hour by hour, so that it is always positioned in the champagne light streaming in from the dining room window.
When the flowers finally begin to loosen their grip on themselves, I scramble up onto a chair, stick my nose too deeply inside of them, and sniff the powdery white pollen until I sneeze. I tell my beautiful mother, who stops her frenetic movement around the house to Windex my fingerprints off the vase, that they smell like cold milk and white wax and that they are my number one all-time favorite smell in the whole world. This irks my mother. I see it on the three tiny columns that furrow between her dark, angled eyebrows. Every spring, she insists that Easter lilies don’t have a scent. Every spring, I smudge the vase.
She walks around the table humming and examining the Easter lilies from different angles. She says, “ Ga-goo, silly girl. Easter lilies don’t smell like that. They don’t smell like anything.” She goes on to tell me that I know better, that Easter lilies don’t have a smell, but they have a good story. She’d already gone again, buzzing around the kitchen now, looking for something or cleaning something or looking for something to clean, a beautiful five-foot-tall blur of inky black hair and sequoia-colored skin. She shouts a whole story to me from the kitchen about Easter lilies. She shouts that the Bible says that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Easter lilies were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray the night before his crucifixion. Legend has it that these flowers sprung up where drops of Jesus’ sweat fell as he prayed. My mother pops her head into the doorway of the kitchen and squints into the light at me. I am still sitting at the dining room table, playing with dust mites as they move in and out of the shadows cast long on the table. She says, “ Hoy, are you listening, Palangaa ? This is important.”
For a long time, I didn’t really remember the way the flowers smelled to me. I remembered this story of telling my mother about the scent. And I remembered her story about the Gardens of Gethsemane. And together, layered over each other, these stories replaced the scent of the flowers in my memory. My mother earnestly tried to do away with the lingering miasma of milk and wax for my own good. She was teaching me the ways of the world. I grew up. I accepted my mother’s protection, even as I wondered if I could ever own an experience of the world around me that was not marked by the fingerprints of others.
I’ve never ridden a horse before, but everyone keeps telling me that it will be fine, that Tibetan horses love being ridden. I am twenty years old. I want to believe them, but I know that they are lying.
I am in China on study abroad. It is spring break, and I have decided against all the advice I’ve received from trusted sources that I should travel alone to the Tibetan grasslands in far Western Sichuan. Upon arriving in Chengdu I am told to look for a parking lot full of vans in the Tibetan quarter of the city, to get in one, and to wait for the van to fill up with other passengers. It turns out this process can take hours, sometimes a whole day. I am lucky, and about six hours after stuffing my backpack under my seat in the van, the vehicle is uncomfortably full. After two car accidents, a flat tire, a warning from the only other woman in the van that I should not be traveling alone in this part of the country, and the ascent of mountains more treacherous and sublimely beautiful than is comprehensible, we arrive in the nomad settlement where I agree to go on a trek into the Himalayan Mountains. My Mandarin isn’t quite good enough to catch the part of the trek description that mentioned that it will be on horseback. I tell them that I don’t know how to ride a horse and ask if that might be a bit of a problem when going on a week-long horseback trek at altitudes of nearly 15,000 feet. They tell me that I will be riding a Riwoche horse, a breed native to the region. They tell me that the horses know the land so well I will barely have to hold on. They tell me these horses love long rides. They tell me that these horses are all docile and thoroughly broken.
My horse seems to fit this description to a T, until we make it past the narrow streets of the town and she starts breaking rank. All the other horses are plodding along at a regular pace while my horse begins to gradually—but determinedly—speed up. A mile away from the town, she starts jerking her head from side to side, tossing her black mane. She is cantering now, and I am shouting in the direction of my guides that I am getting scared, that I don’t know what to do. They can’t hear me over the wind, and then my horse whinnies and takes off running as though she had just scaled a prison wall and could see the promised land in the distance.
I lean over crying involuntary tears into this animal’s hair, which is whipping my face dry. I say every Mandarin word I know that means “stop” or “slow down.” When that doesn’t work, I make every clicking or hissing sound I have seen cowboys make in movies. The horse does not notice. If anything, she appears to interpret these actions to mean, “Hey, horse, please run faster and buck me off as soon as you get the chance, okay? Thanks.”
I pull her mane back to reach her ear and shout, “Stop running, please take me back to your owners, I don’t want to go where you’re taking me!” But then, with her mane lifted off of her face, I have, for the first time, a clear view of her huge onyx-colored eye. This shockingly lucid eye is rimmed by long thick lashes and set in sienna hair. It has pulsing ridges where her veins are loudly pumping blood.
As I stare into that horse’s eye, for a split second I remember being caught in the bathtub. It is the kind of remembering that moves beyond haunting and well into possession. I viscerally remember how badly I tried to be delivered from the hair—hair that would not disappear, hair that still sat beneath the surface of my skin, threatening that tomorrow it would once again announce its refusal to be controlled. No matter how I tried to amputate the unacceptable impulse to exist in full embodiment, just exactly as I am, from being readable on my skin, it would always emerge again. I was sacrificing the honesty of my body’s organically-articulated and unceasing demand to exist, so that others could sate themselves on the flesh of my body that I would never even see.
Watching the blood pumping in the veiny ridges around that horse’s eye, working in conjunction with the horse’s whole body and being to deliver her from the logic of her life, I ask myself, where is the horse running and why? Why is this animal running into certain death over endless miles of mountain peaks, with nothing to shelter her from the hail and snow? I feel her beating heart and blood and bones and rippling muscles that have always been used to fulfill the needs of anyone who pays to mount her. I can’t help but to think also of my body and the bodies which were sacrificed to the appetites of others. I remember that the horses were eaten first in that blizzard.
I wonder about how big and strange the world is. I feel the compression of memory that people describe in near-death experiences. I wonder at how impossible it seems that I could go from sitting in a bathtub, incidentally shaving my asshole and feeling like I had no choice about it, to the back of a horse with shining black eyes running in the snow towards some freedom she cannot possibly remember ever having experienced.
No matter how hard I pull on the reins, the horse keeps running blindly into the clean white distance. Blood and muscle thrumming willfully into my thighs, she runs towards what might be her only chance to escape. In captivity, this horse will always be a beautiful, breathing, raven-haired tool for those who straddle her back. This life is a life with limits, and its definitions always already set.
I let go of the reins, pull my feet out of the stirrups and roll indelicately, grub-like, off of the horse’s curved back, just exactly like everyone told me not to. I fall hard into the snow. The horse keeps running, faster now, without my weight to slow her down. As my guides notice this, they whip their horses into a gallop and ride past me to chase down the fleeing animal. As they ride past, I watch the horse leave a longer and longer trail of hoof prints in the snow.
When the horse is inevitably brought back, they tell me it is the fifth time she has done this. I walk the horse away from the herd. She is panting massively and feigning meekness until her next chance. I press my face into her heaving crest and breathe in her warm musk. I don’t know if we ever really have a choice, but some of us will not go quietly.