The last time I belonged there, I straddled the steam hissing off the asphalt with my right foot on the curb at Charlotte Douglas International and my left on the rubber mat of my father’s car.
No. There wasn’t steam. I’m remembering wrong. I want there to be steam rising, I want that sticky Carolina heat to fry the tar of the airport departures drop-off even in the shade, and I wanted so badly for this to be an end.
This is not the end. This is not even the beginning. I don’t know where I should start telling you this story, but sometimes that dotted line in time where we think one story ended, where we left one phase of our lives and moved into a new one, turns out to be the best place to begin. I should know. I have had many new beginnings, but I’ve recently realized that nothing gets left behind.
It was not summer, so there actually was no sticky heat. My most visceral memories from before this dotted line were set outside in the heavy air that condensed full drops on my skin and mixed with my sweat and the smell of grass cuttings, so maybe that’s why I trick myself into seeing this moment in summer. But that isn’t true, there was no sticky heat, and the air was cool, not cold—December in Waxhaw, North Carolina is like spring in New York, except all the grass is dead. Bermuda grass. It doesn’t smell fresh, or like anything, when it’s dead. No matter how much it feels like spring, it lies yellow, hay-like, in the small lawns next to concrete driveways.
My parents lived in a sub development of near-identical houses that were mass produced until the housing market crashed, when they bought it on the cheap. That is, if you would call half a million dollars cheap, which they did because a house that size on Long Island would easily cost four times as much. And wouldn’t you know it, nearly everyone in that neighborhood was from New York. There was a mass exodus it seemed like, fleeing from the dirty, used up, crowded center up North to the clean, evenly spaced, temperate Southeast. They smiled with fresh baked brownies at the door, asking new neighbors not if they were from Long Island, but whether they were from Nassau or Suffolk. Then they spread the news as soon as you shut the door behind them, after they’d invited you to the next get-together down the block. Have you ever heard of this game called bunko? I’m still not sure what it is but I remember the word, and I remember the moms on our street loving it. My stepmom used to go sometimes, bringing a bottle of wine she’d picked up especially for girl’s night from the wine store in the Arboretum shopping center. She’d bring back all the gossip of our neighbors.
Everyone, in all those brand new houses, looking for a new start and finding nothing short of suburban paradise. When she was in a good mood and giving me a chance, she’d let me in on those little secrets as if I were her confidant. Kerry would widen her eyes, shake her head and tell me, in a slightly arrogant but totally bemused tone of voice, how things weren’t actually so perfect at so-and-so’s down the street. I’d be sitting at the kitchen island, where the brown and grey grains of granite were cut into a semi-circular table top. It seems like this would always happen at lunchtime on a Saturday. Maybe my father was at work and that was why she had to see me, talk to me. My legs, in shorts, dangled from the stool, that suede upholstery and the black metal legs and chair back. My bare feet didn’t reach the hardwood floor. I’d widen my eyes to match hers, awestruck. Then she would laugh, and I would. None of these secrets were that extreme, but I felt a kinship there. I fit in those moments.
Usually, though, she’d complain about how the other women were asking her about me, my sexuality, my body, my identity. She wasn’t yelling then; I don’t remember Kerry yelling that often. She used the same tone as she did when she was talking about the details of someone’s life that didn’t belong to her. That relishing. It slipped off her tongue. She was better than. I did not fit. I was the root of her problems, and moving to North Carolina to start over didn’t change anything.
This is just the beginning of the story I am trying to tell, and it is not how I want it to go. As I am looking back, I am discovering that nothing happened the way I want it to, even when I try to change it with words in my mind. It plays back wrong. It doesn’t explain what I am expecting it to. Maybe I’ve forgotten the significant details, or maybe there is nothing there, and Kerry was right: it was always just me that was the problem.
Honestly, I don’t think about this stuff often, or at all. I wish I could tell you I’ve poured it over, sifting through all of those memories and pinpointing—here!—exactly what did it, made me this way, and how. But my life in North Carolina, and before that, is just a blur. Is that memory? There is no lamplight when I try to remember walking down our street, like I did every night with our golden retriever Belle until she died. I do know the route in my body. It’s still there. I can sense the right turn down at the bottom of the driveway, the sidewalk dusty on my feet, and I can hear the runoff creek that ran behind our row of houses when I reached the corner. I feel that grass in the summer when it was alive and stringy on my soles. Belle was sick, so it was hard to pick up after her, it reminded me of vomit, warm and liquid through the film of the plastic grocery bag. I know these memories, they are still inside of me somewhere, but I can’t see them clearly. It’s so dim. When I say that my childhood was spent in fog, I am not using a metaphor. I’m trying to find a way to tell you that there was a cloud around my head. In front of my eyes. That sometimes it was hard to breathe.
I don’t know if that is just how memory works, or if it’s me. Maybe my mind is particularly unreliable in that it remembers things differently than how they were, or it deliberately blurs them out. I stood so many times in that kitchen with my mouth slightly open, hardly blinking, breathing only shallow breaths as if I could disappear, while I was called a liar. A thief. An sneaksleazefagfreakanimal. I’m laughing at it now, but could all of that be true? I know the posture, and the face my parents told me always meant I was lying. The blood draining out of me. Standing for hours. I called it yelling, but Kerry never yelled. Where was my father? I can’t see him, or feel him, or hear him. When she was done, I couldn’t move so I’d stay there with my arms stiff at my sides. She’d look at me and say, again in that tone, that she didn’t know why I was still standing there. Then she would send me away to my room, or start over again. That yelling that was not yelling. Why didn’t I say anything back? Why couldn’t I move? Where was I, if I was not inside of my body?
I don’t ever think about these memories and I’m not sure I know how. All I know is that I want to find them again and feel them. I need to tell them to myself out loud for the first time. I want to know myself, from the beginning.
I am saying this out loud because I need to for myself, but I am writing this in words for you. I am afraid of the past, but the past is always present. I carry it with me. We all do. In our bodies. It’s not fair of me to let you love me unless you know, and I want you to know. I know, I know I’m being dramatic again, but a lot of this is going to be. Get used to it bud. I just want to be honest.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been hiding from my body. The biggest myth is that people can move away and start over. The hardest truth is that everything that has ever happened, big or small, stays with you. Imperceptibly, it’s stored as tissue, fat, muscle, sinew. The energy is embedded in you. In all of us. Our lives don’t change us instantly, but we can’t leave them behind. My whole life so far has been movement, but nothing has helped me escape it. All these movements add up to become my identity. I am who I am.
I haven’t lived inside my body for years. Every interaction I’ve had, I’ve lifted myself out of. Dissociated, ignored, forgotten—whatever word I want to use, it’s not the right one. I’ve searched and searched. There is no word for it outside the language of my body. That’s why it’s so hard for me to tell you why I love you, but the closest I can get is this: I hadn’t lived inside my body for years, I hadn’t shown everything to anybody all at once, and I hadn’t wanted to—until I met you.
For as long as I remember, I’ve been oblivious. I ignored myself both when I was sore, in pain, and broken, and when I was light, ecstatic, and strong. I was out of touch with everything I felt, and didn’t trust my own senses. My consciousness floated in that fog above my head. I was always moving, or vibrating when I tried to be still. But now, with you, I want to take the time to sit. Can you sit here with me? Hold my hand. Let’s look at each part of me, slowly examining. Massaging. Expanding inside. Rediscovering what is hidden there. I’m not strong enough to do this alone.
Every laugh leaves a line behind the eyes. Every trauma buries itself in skin. All stories are manifested in our flesh. If you examine a body closely, you will see every story that it holds. Break it open. Touch it, run your hands along my every curve, bump and ragged flap.
I want to give this, my body, myself, to you. To share it. I want you to know me so that I can know you, too. Can we share each other’s bodies, as much as we possibly can? I’m not attracted to your physicality, but your humanity—can I kiss your scars, and caress your blemishes? Can you kiss and caress mine?
The last time I belonged there, I straddled the cool air. My right foot on the curb at Charlotte Douglas International and my left on the rubber mat of my father’s car.
No, no. I’m misremembering it again. If it happened like that, then my dad would have been dropping me off. That’s not what happened. He was bringing me to the airport. It was December 27th, two days after Christmas. I had ruined it. I had ruined Christmas again. I was always ruining things. I’d tried to tell the truth, but I was lying. My father said that he believed me. The window glass of the passenger seat in the green Explorer, my chest heaving uncontrollably. I couldn’t breath, the skin around my eyes was swollen and wet. I thought the world was ending. This was it, it had to be. Something was ending. Kerry said I’d have to buy my own plane ticket back to New York, but I didn’t have any money. Dad said he believed me, but— I don’t remember what else he said. He came into the airport with me. The last time that I belonged there.
I’m sorry, “the last time I belonged there”—such a beautiful sentiment, but I made it up. I do have quite the flare for the dramatic, especially with words. Have you noticed yet? I can’t help it, I’m a poet! You can laugh. I want you to. I always do. It’s more dramatic that way. Like with this one: “I never belonged.” Ha. See, so dramatic!
But that one’s true. That belonging, an arm nestled into its socket, the click of a hip meeting its torso, was just another one of my wantings. I always felt like a dislocated shoulder, or one too-short leg. Out of time, out of place, and alone.
The memory breaks down. I can’t remember, or won’t. There is a pressure in my head, in my sinuses and brainstem. Neck veins pulsing. I can feel my heart beating, strong, so that it takes up extra space in my chest. There is no room for my lungs. I begin gasping for air. I can’t breath. Pulsing, pulsing. That pressure. Damp behind the eyes behind the ears seeping. My fingers are tingling. My heart behind my ribs. I want this to stop, but I can’t. Remember. I exhale something important through my nostrils. I want to be on the ground. My heart in my stomach, squeezing. Seeping. Bleeding. That pressure. I need to be on the ground. My breaths become more shallow. I exhale steam out of my nostrils. I can’t see or hear anything around me, or inside me anymore. I am not in this body. I am not in this body. I am heat, I am smoke, I am fog.
I have only tried to tell my life story once. Remember? The night before we said goodbye that first time, when you went back to work and I took you to Cherry Street for breakfast. In my apartment at 2 a.m., we were still talking and I gave you some pieces. It’s okay if you don’t remember. What I was saying didn’t make any sense because I didn’t have words. I found that the pieces didn’t fit the air outside of my mouth and between us, that my brain could not connect them for another person. The next time I tried, at St. John’s the night of the blackout, you shook your head and said that you’re sorry, that my stories just don’t exist in the world. We tried to finish the forty questions to fall in love from Modern Love, but it took too long. You said that if I told my stories, you would listen. The world would. The air between our faces, behind my ears, and inside my tear ducts thickened. I’ll give you the pieces that I can, one at a time.
But words, here, are meaningless. There is only my body, that language. I can’t tell you what exactly happened, but I can go back to it. Feel each memory. There may not always be words, and when there are they won’t explain anything. They seep out of my pores into a wave of heat. Can you see it? Touch me through it. I am still here.
I do not have many memories of being physically abused, but I jump to those whenever I try to explain my body. It makes it easier to understand. It becomes a symbol of everything I can’t describe.
I don’t remember exactly what happened before, or after. I remember being pushed, and falling. I was in my bedroom. My head hit the wall hard enough to leave a dent below the window. My stepmother is the one who struck me, but I don’t know how. Was it a slap, that tingle on the cheek? Or did she raise her fists above her head and rain down on me?
I was lying on the carpet so that the grains of it pressed into the back of my head and reached towards my neck. The light was on, which was unusual. Usually I wasn’t allowed to have the light on, or the shades up. I was not stiff, my arms were loose, but I couldn’t move. But I must have, I was no longer near the window. I could move, but I didn’t. I didn’t get up. Again, where was my father? He was there when it happened, but he left. I think this was the same day he punched my sister in the eye, and made her tell everyone at school she did it to herself with a car door. He left the room as if he hadn’t seen.
The fog, the fog. My head hurt in a red waves from the crown down to my chin. I lay between the bed and the door. The yellow light above filled my vision, and the ceiling was white. I faded in and out, away from the scene and back into it. I didn’t feel any emotion, just a dull empty.
This is the only time I remember being physically abused, but it is the only story I think people easily understand, so I tell it. The story for me is not in the concrete elements, the wall or the floor. It is in the light, the damp haze inside my body. The sense of hovering above, and not feeling anything at all. That story, of course, is not just of that day but of my whole life.
Since I was in high school, my favorite poem has been “Altruism” by Molly Peacock. To endure the endless walk through the self, knowing through a bond that has no basis, for ourselves is all we know, is altruism: not giving, but coming to know that someone is there from the wavy vision of the self’s heat. I know I’m asking a lot from you and that this will be difficult to read. There is almost no reason why you would want to. I know I cannot live your life, and you cannot live mine. But I see the fire rising out of you, and I want to breathe in that heat of you. To know you. My smoke is black, can you see it? The charred edges of the air. They are so blurred. I know it looks bad, but help me show you where my fire comes from. Will you know me? Can we show each other our bodies, our smoke? I’m told after that, love becomes a decision.
I love to sleep with my head on your back, between your shoulder blades. You have so many moles that I run my fingers over. I squeeze and ask you if you feel it. You do, and it hurts you when I pinch too hard. I laugh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I hurt you, and if that made me laugh. Laughter is my reaction to pain. Something in my brain crossed the wires between pleasure and fear. I know you have a scar somewhere, but I keep having to ask you where and how you got it. I want to know your scars, but I don’t even know my own. This is me looking straight at them, finally, and telling you about them.
I’m ready to inhabit myself. I’m done pretending that a body can live through anything, that it only needs to climb up to still be whole. I’m done pretending that bodies do not break their bones, that an audible snap is false and a visible crack is hallucination. A body will get up but it will not heal without scars.
My skin. My scars. My bones. When you look at me you see them. My eyes, ears, lips. The cowlicks in my hair. Teeth when I smile back at you, the bottom one that is slightly turned. The bump on my right hip. All of my tattoos, even the ones I normally keep hidden. Birthmarks. My ankles and wrists.
I’m doing this for myself so that I can be whole. It’s been so long since I’ve lived inside my body. I’m doing this for myself because I need to, in order to move forward. You asked me if this would be painful, and I told you yes. But I told you that I had to, in order to heal. To grow.
This is the first time I’ve ever wanted to share my whole self with someone. I don’t know if you will put your arms around me for longer than a moment, but thank you for being here now. Thank you for relighting my fire, for coaxing me back into my body. So as much as I am writing this for me, I am writing it for you as well. This is a love letter. It’s written under my skin. Let this be our homecoming. This is a history of my body.
For the last time, I left the cool air behind the automatic doors of Charlotte Douglas International airport. Even though it was December it felt like spring, but all the grass in my parent’s neighborhood was dead. It was not a new beginning, even though I wanted it to be. I didn’t hear the doors whirring as they closed behind me. I didn’t hear anyone talking, or the sounds of luggage wheels squealing against the linoleum, or any of the announcements that might have been made in the background. I’m adding those details now, later. In this memory, the only sound I could hear was a hum all around me. The air felt thick even though it was not humid. There was no sticky heat, no straddling over it, no moving from one phase of life to the other. There was just that fog. My father waited in line with me and bought my plane ticket, but only because he wanted me to leave.
As much as I have wanted this scene in the airport to be one of those dotted lines, an ending of time before and a beginning of time after, it wasn’t. There is no time. No memory marks any point in history, just a spot on a body.
I was searching for a way to start telling you this story, but I realize now that I can’t. I can’t start telling you, and I will never be able to stop. There’s no timeline, no plot. There are no motivations or reasons why anything happened or didn’t. I can’t explain anything to you. All I can do is take off all my clothes, look into your eyes, and simmer.
Can you see that heat? Can you see? Touch me. Breathe. I cross my fingers.
Joe Nasta is a queer writer and mariner who splits his time between Seattle, New York, and the ocean. Joe has studied with Brooklyn Poets, Winter Tangerine, and Corporeal Writing. Their work has been featured by Brooklyn Poets The Bridge, Running Wild Press, and Yes Poetry. They edit a zine of unconventional art and writing from the PNW and beyond at stonepacificzine.com and can be found on Instagram and Twitter @roflcoptermcgee.