October 24, 2019
You know that lonely feeling, the one where your heart hurts so bad it feels like it ruptured? Like in those National Geographic photos depicting the cracked, parched desert earth, or the ones showing the tectonic plates split open? I just dropped Ben off at his second Halloween dance. When I pulled up beside the gym and he saw his friends outside under the monkey bars, he jumped out of the car before I had come to a complete stop, even though I’ve told him countless times about how dangerous that is. I waved to him out the driver side window, but he didn’t wave back. I drove around the parking lot for a minute, navigating around all the traffic, thinking maybe I’d stop somewhere and put my hazards on, run into the school to say a proper goodbye. But the rational part of my brain kicked in, so I drove away and made a left onto Rainbow Road (remember I live on a tiny hippie island). I turned on the radio, which happened to be playing Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which depresses me even on the best of days.
“It’s been seven hours and fifteen days, since you took your love away,” I cried along with Sinéad.
When I got home, the house was dark, and the dog didn’t even get off the couch to greet me. I thought to myself, Marissa would get this. She would understand.
If you were here, we’d have parked with a bag of popcorn, some sodas and just watched the scene unfold as if we were at a drive-in movie. I just can’t believe my son is at a seventh-grade dance. You should have seen the girls. Wow. So many of them in short dresses or miniskirts, lots of black lace, vampy, witchy and cat eyed, high heels and make up. I never looked or dressed like that even though I secretly wanted to feel both desire and desired. Instead I wore my dad’s striped brown pajamas, painted days old stubble below my nose, on my cheeks and chin, and went as a homeless man for at least three Halloweens in a row. Ben decided not to dress up. Although he did bring a foam sword and a black ski mask to put on “later” he said, as part of his “ninja costume.” He wore: a sweaty red t-shirt, grey gym shorts and brown hiking boots with blue and red polka-dotted socks hiked up to his calves. I tried to convince him to change into pants but nope. At least he put on deodorant. Recently he told me he only applies deodorant Monday to Thursday because that’s when he goes to school. (Tiny hippie island means there’s no school on Fridays.) Thank goodness it’s Thursday so no one at the dance will pass out from him lifting his arms in the air.
Were dances as painful for you as they were for me? I remember in seventh grade we had dance cards to fill out. I cleared my throat from all the nerves and went around asking some boys to sign my card. The extra nerdy guys filled up most of my card. Then I asked TJ, the most popular boy. When he wrote his name down on my card it made my heart thump extra hard.
The problem was I didn’t know how to dance. I had been having such anxiety over my lack of moves that in my desperation I asked the most popular girl, Julie Peterson, for help. She nodded with sympathy as I explained my situation and told me to meet her in the bathroom at lunch. I thought it would just be us but Julie had invited most of the girls from our class. I knew she wasn’t trying to make fun of me since Julie Peterson was, in fact, surprisingly nice, which made her all the more annoying. In the middle of the school bathroom, which smelled like a mix of pee, industrial cleaner and wet dog, Julie Peterson made me her dance partner. She led me by the shoulders into the center of a circle of girls until I stood directly across from her. Then she tilted her head to the left, her shoulders and rib cage followed, then her hips, her left foot and right. It was a fascinating dance, like watching a Sidewinder snake slither its way through the desert, only Julie’s snake dance was performed upright instead of on the ground. There on the toothpaste-blue, cracked, tiled bathroom floor Julie wriggled, completely uninhibited, her body curving into an S, her small feet in bright white Keds stepping side to side. I stared at her movements reflected through the chipped frameless mirrors and listened to the rusty faucets drip their slow drips, the girls mesmerized, staring, open-mouthed. When Julie grabbed my hand and shouted, “C’mon!” my body sprang into action. Soon I was winding my way into S-shaped patterns, the rest of the girls followed, our bodies twisting like upright snakes in the middle of the bathroom.
I never did get to dance with TJ that night because he was too busy dancing with Julie Peterson. I didn’t dance with anyone because I was still too scared even with the new snake dance. Instead I hid by the wall with the wood ladders and the rope swing, my heart suspended low like the moon.
The eighth grade dance felt different, like there was more pressure to move my body with actual humans, and that made me even more nervous. It wasn’t that “The Sidewinder” as I now called Julie Peterson’s dance, was difficult to perform. I was more worried about being in eighth grade because kids had graduated from hand holding to ramming their tongues down each other’s throats, heavy petting, and all the rest that came with that, whatever that was, I didn’t want to know about. Not yet.
The gym was dark, the lights were flashing, and the music was decibels too loud. I stood there blinking, my body vibrating, until I could see enough to maneuver over to my group of friends. There was a rumour the punch hadn’t been spiked because of the scowling faced teacher-chaperones patrolling. But it didn’t matter because most kids brought their own flasks anyway. By flasks I mean they filled empty soda bottles up with a swampy mixture of hard alcohol stolen from their parents’ liquor cabinets.
I had carefully chosen a clean green t-shirt with a pocket, the nicer one out of the five almost identical green t-shirts that I owned, and with my studded pink carnation earrings, I felt like I had made an effort, like I was edging toward cool. Except that my hands were clammy, and I was close to throwing up.
When C&C Music Factory’s, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” burst through the gym, Nick Crosby came sauntering over. Well more like he was propelled in my general direction by Patrick Davis, a tall lanky kid who’s dad was a priest and who wore a puffy jacket for most of the year, which he’d unzip to flash the chocolate bars he pickpocketed from the corner store across the street from school.
Nick had fiery red-hair, freckles covering his whole face and he walked like he had a pole shoved up his ass. I kind of liked him. At least I was curious about him. My friends were all dancing and so when Patrick pushed Nick toward me, I was filled with a mixture of relief and dread.
“You wanna dance?” asked Nick, staring at the floor.
“Okay,” I mumbled back.
Then he shuffled his feet and I angled my head to the left, Julie Peterson Sidewinder style, and although I didn’t break a sweat dancing to C&C, we were definitely moving. After a few more fast songs, Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road” started playing and my breath caught in my throat. We both looked at each other for what felt like a very long millisecond because it was a slow song and that meant touching. Somehow, we figured it out; his hands on my waist and my arms on his shoulders. I looked over his right shoulder while he stared over my left and I focused hard on the white walls behind him. He smelled like cinnamon and sour milk. I could feel the heat of his hands through my green t-shirt. We moved back and forth methodically, both rigid and straight, the way Frankenstein might have danced to a slow song. When the song ended, we looked at each other and Nick leaned in and his lips met mine, quick and wet. I blinked, ran into the gym bathroom and stayed there for a very long time, my heart pounding hard against my chest. Only when I could breathe normally and deemed it safe to leave the bathroom, did I exit out of the hallway door, steered clear of the gym, climbed on the blue banister and slid down a bunch of times waiting for my mom to come and rescue me.
Ben called me from the school office and said the dance was stupid. That it was just a bunch of eighth graders pressing their bodies together in the gym. He said the music was so loud it made his ears bleed. He said instead of dancing he ran around the school and played tag with the boys. He said he shouldn’t have gone. That he wished he had stayed home. I don’t know why but it made me feel better to hear him say that. Like the mother in me wasn’t ready, just like the son in him wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to let him go but I did anyway. Because that’s my job, right? A constant push pull. Of holding close and letting go. No wonder parenting is so fucking hard. Now he’s reading an Archie comic on the couch. I’m going to end this letter to you and go in for a snuggle, rest my head in the folds of his neck while he still lets me nuzzle him.
I love you lots.
November 22, 2019
It’s morning here, but super early. The sky is still pitch black, and I’m in my office—a tiny white wainscoted room on the enclosed back porch of my house. I actually fell in love with the house for this room. I knew it would be mine—it even has a tiny window. I wake up most mornings at 5am and make my coffee and sit in this room with a space heater on (at least in the cold months) and I write. Or read. Or do tarot. Sometimes I end up wasting this time scrolling through the internet—those are my least favorite mornings. This morning, though, I knew I would write to you.
School dances. It’s funny how something that used to be so big in my life could shrink to the point where I almost forgot about them? Reading your letter opened it all up, though. The hope and desire and anxiety. The confusion and the sweat and the strobe lights and the loud music. I really only went to school dances in middle school. At my high school, we only had prom and I think once or twice we had a dance in the fall. But it was a very small high school, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so our dances were not very fun. Middle school, though. It feels like my entire social life revolved around the dances. We seemed to have them every couple of months. There was the first one of the year: the back to school dance or homecoming or whatever they called it. One year we had it outside, on the tennis courts. I was in seventh grade and I remember wearing a giant purple BUM Equipment zip-up hoodie over my bodysuit and jeans because I was so self-conscious about how soft my stomach was. Actually, I’m still self-conscious about that, and my stomach is a lot softer now than it was then.
There’s a picture on my desk of me at fourteen. It’s not framed or anything—I found it when I was looking for something else and it made me smile. I’m at camp, which for me was in Pescadero, California, about 2 hours south of San Francisco. I went twice a year: President’s Day weekend and a week in August. In the picture, I’m standing in my dad’s old jeans. I can tell because he used to throw them out when he ripped the knees, and I would adopt them. I’d rolled my shirt up in the front, twisting it into a tail that I tucked into my bra line. My soft, pale belly is covered in paint, which must be why my shirt is rolled this way. I didn’t walk around like that usually. But this was camp; I was as brave as I ever got at camp. We must have done some kind of exercise or project where we painted on each other, because my belly and my neck and my face are all covered in strange little drawings, like bad tattoos.
We had a dance at camp, too. On the last night, always. Those dances were so different because I didn’t feel as much anxiety. Back at school, I was the talented smart friend of the popular girls. I was popular-adjacent, which wasn’t a bad place to be, socially. It spared me most of the taunting because everyone wanted to be friends with my friends. But it also made me feel invisible. I was the girl that boys would talk to in order to find out if they had a shot with my friends, the girls that every boy liked: Ashley, Katie, and Paige. Annoyingly, just like Julie Peterson, Ashley, Katie and Paige were all really nice people, so I couldn’t even dislike them. They weren’t mean to anyone, even the dorks. But they definitely had a sense of their own status, and never dated anyone whose popularity was in question. Instead, I’d be the one left to explain to Jason and Ryan and Miles that Ashley, Katie and Paige thought they were great, but they didn’t feel like that about them.
It was an odd social power, being their emotional bouncer. It meant I was on the inside, but also, nobody ever asked me about me. It was always about them. I had a lot of crushes on boys in my school, but none of them ever liked me back. I recall having one “boyfriend” in middle school who was my age. He was sort of popular-adjacent, too. People thought we would make a cute couple, but honestly, I don’t think either one of us liked each other as much as we liked the idea of going out with someone, finally. It lasted a week. After him, I really only was interested in older boys. I used to daydream about them taking me to their high school dances. Not one of them ever did (I guess because I was a twelve year old girl) but it didn’t stop them from promising me they would call, they would take me out, they would care about me.
My last school dance was my senior prom. I was freshly eighteen, and I brought this coworker of mine from Starbucks as my date. His name was Chris. He was so cute, I had a crush on him for at least a year before that. He was in his first year at City College of San Francisco, and maybe nineteen or twenty? He went to the gym a lot; I’ll never forget the way his body was sculpted, the way his collarbones crested above his shoulders and his shoulders flexed above his biceps. He was like nobody I had ever touched before, and I was absolutely willing to do anything to touch him. It took me a year of very solid flirting to get him to show interest, but eventually he did and we ended up at my senior prom together. He was a great date. Afterward, we came back to my house and fell asleep in my trundle bed, but not before he spent 45 minutes going down on me. It was both one of the sweetest things that happened in my high school bedroom, and one of the most awkward. I had no idea what to do with myself, and he was so happy, and so eager, and so tireless. I don’t think I orgasmed from oral sex until I was in my thirties, in all honesty. It was too hard for me to relax and stop overthinking and I wasn’t comfortable with all that attention (which is weird because I really love attention).
Now, dancing is something I crave about every four months or so. I start to get antsy if I haven’t been in a while. Matt thinks it’s funny—I just get that itch and it has to be scratched for sure. I went just last weekend with a bunch of friends. It felt so good to sweat and move and be . . . rhythmic. I think when I was younger, I worried so much about how I looked when I danced, and if I was doing it right, I never really spent time in my body, feeling myself move. And now, I care so much less about how I look or if anyone is looking at all. I just want to be in my body as it drips sweat and my heart pounds and everything gets loud and blurry and fantastic and I feel like I’m all the way alive. I think as a child I got that feeling, maybe, where I was unselfconscious and free and sweaty and all the way in my body. But somewhere between ten and eleven, I started to view myself the way other people did; to see my body as a thing that should be presented rather than lived in and felt. Then at some point that I can’t put my finger on, that self-consciousness began to recede. It’s not that I don’t ever feel it, but it’s less than it used to be. I hope that it keeps shrinking. I would like to imagine that by the time I’m fifty, I will give absolutely zero fucks about what I look like, and will only care about my own opinion. Maybe that’s ambitious, but wouldn’t it be nice?
The sun is coming up now. The sky is turning peach and pink and gray. It’s a cold morning, winter is almost here. Hazel will certainly be up soon, and I’ll be making her lunch and packing my bag for work and shuffling out the door. This body that moved through girlhood and into all of those school dances will move out to the car, and into my office, and behind my desk. That girl who wanted so badly to be seen, and who couldn’t handle being looked at for too long. She’s in me, all through me. She is me. She sends you all of her love.
Marissa Korbel is a critically-acclaimed essayist and managing editor of The Rumpus. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, The Manifest Station, and in Burn It Down (2019), an anthology on women’s rage. Marissa works as a public interest attorney. She tweets @likethchampagne.
Claire Sicherman is the author of Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press, 2018). Her publications include: The Rumpus, The Sea to Sky Review, and Sustenance (2017), an anthology on food. She facilitates writing workshops and retreats on Salt Spring Island and in other communities in the Pacific Northwest. https://www.clairesicherman.com/
Claire and Marissa are good friends and occasionally good mothers. Body Secrets is a book-length project in epistolary form that excavates adolescence and its meaning for the two women as they approach middle age. By examining these painful, tender, and formative experiences, they turn their nostalgia into fuel for the changes they face now.