My bruises developed when I was nine years old. They pooled under my skin like oil spills. They boiled beneath the surface. My veins were hot with an electric current. It was too soon to feel the lecherous sensation of clammy hands pulling cotton past my boney knees, scraped and scratched from falling off my bike. I’d just taught myself how to ride without using the handlebars. I’d taught myself that, like riding a bike, I needed a sense of balance. So I taught myself to run. I pushed away the pavement with the soles of my shoes and I ran until the flames in my eyes swelled like a forest fire. Except no one saw the smoke in every exhale, or the matchsticks I’d kept hidden under my tongue.
My mother warns me, now, at eighteen, about the dangers of my bra showing in public. She says, “leave something to the imagination.” She never once told me that my anatomy was normal. I lived in timid skin stretched over fragile bones.
Eighteen never held my hand when I crossed the street. It raised a middle finger to every scumbag who pursed his lips and launched a two-toned whistle spinning like a bullet in my direction. Blood rushes to my head, and you blame me for the blood rushing to yours. I don’t owe you anything.
So let’s talk about rejection. Call me a cunt. It’s the only part of me you value. Stainless steel spray-painted gold, I am a bitter taste. Call me a bitch. Tell me about how tired you are, how you had a long day at work, and just want a good fuck. Call me a bitch. I’m branding the word “no.”
I felt fourteen in the back of my throat, in curled fingers molded firmly to the shape of my skull. Fourteen was indecency.
My mother only expressed her concern in spurts over the phone to long-distance relatives who would never have the pleasure of meeting the sexist pig who held my hand. “I know this is hard,” they’d say when I broke it off. It wasn’t harder than keeping down bile. It wasn’t harder than the pressure against the zipper of his jeans.
How do you define imprisonment? How do you tell a thirteen-year-old girl that your son can’t handle her exposed shoulders at school? No, we know it’s ninety degrees. But our son’s education is more important than your health.
“Now girls, don’t forget that your body is a temptation. Cover it up.”
“Never walk down the street alone at night, without a buddy.”
“They sell pepper spray as key chains now.”
“When you punch, aim for the neck, stomach, or groin. But don’t hurt them too severely.”
“Remember, with clothes like those, you’re asking for it.”
I swallowed eighteen with a vengeance. I am scarred with fingerprints. Every single identity that treated “no” as a two-letter gunshot have already stuck their fingers in ink and rolled them across my skin. As if being a woman was a crime, and this was my punishment. At nine years old, I never would’ve wished for death. I forget at what age I stopped looking both ways before crossing the street.
You wear a cross around your neck. I wear white knuckles around mine. God gave you the gift of strength. God made me a liability. He gave me an ego that is paper thin, penetrable like a fist to drywall. A fist I caught in the palm of my hand. They never teach us to fight fire with fire, but when it’s all you’re made of, it’s hard to be anything else.
Just because your hand can fold itself to the shape of my waist does not mean it belongs there. I do not belong to you. Permission is not optional. Three drinks down, and I still do not belong to you. I will not go home with you. I do not need you in the same way that the sun never touches the moon.
Think about your mother. Think about your daughter. Think about the same blood and flesh convulsing in an outrage. One day your daughter will be nine years old. One day your daughter will burst into flames.
I am not looking for a place on the throne. I am expecting you to stand up out of it. I will stare at an empty seat all my life if it means I can wear a V-neck to the grocery store and leave with no color in my cheeks. I am not fresh meat. Your hands are not graceful. They are knives delving into already open wounds. I do not appreciate you telling me I am beautiful. That’s something only I need to tell myself.
I am the ocean. I am the sea. Mother, you weren’t there when I fell off my bike. You weren’t there two days later when my shell began to scab but my insides began to bleed. Now my current is too strong, and you’re afraid of drowning. Men will sink their anchors into me, looking for a home in some kind of vast unknown but I will send armies to keep my waters safe. I will start a war.