Fifteen. Bombs Over Baghdad is blasting from a speaker as he returns to the party and re-zips his sagging jeans for his brothers in arms to see. And Bombs Over Baghdad blares louder now; he walks with the swagger of a victor. His fist pumps the air and a filterless cigarette hangs limply from his thin, wet lips. Handed a bottle of Jack, he grabs its neck and drinks it dry. Bottle tossed to the bonfire, he delights in the sound of its destruction. Bombs Over Baghdad strums through my body like an enemy anthem as dark, glassy streams trickle to the dirt, dancing softly down my legs in savage red silence. I sterilize all thought with Smirnoff and find a shield amid the rubble of my pride. With eyes cold as ice, I watch his ritual of maleness through the ardor of the flames.
Fifteen when I first learn the threat of friendly fire, when Bombs Over Baghdad left their ruins behind. But the warfare lasts long after violence ends, long after the flesh wounds heal. Faint scars mock their making; hope atrophies beneath. And when the party ends, the fire dies and darkness falls like a stone. That old song cries the first cut is the deepest, but I learn that it was really was just a scratch. The next cut slices me open, rips across the seams and handicaps my future self in ways I still can’t fully understand. For years I am walking wounded; confidence a casualty of war. And the third? Well, the third cut severs the nerve and I no longer feel anything at all. Body one fibrous mass of tissue, no longer sensitive to touch or trauma.
A few months later, still fifteen, and I care so much about everything that I pretend not to care about anything. I don’t try hard to do much more than will away my want to be a good girl. I maintain my manners but forgo my homework. There are more piercings and less patience. And I have no interest in going to the prom but I lose a bet (or was it a game of pool?) and somehow I have a ticket and somewhere I conceal a smile. I decide to go alone, denying male hormones their hunger, that hope hijacked by expectation. I decide against becoming someone else’s happy ending.
I agree to let my father take me dress shopping and find one that is suitably unprom-like. It is turquoise at the bottom and gold at the top and there is some beading and it’s kind of complicated but not too contrived. This is the first time I wear a dress that skims the floor as I walk, and I even steal a twirl in the dressing room mirror before arresting my enthusiasm with a glare. And when I draw back the curtain the sales girl pours saccharin praise along my sheepish silhouette and christens it a “very sexy number.” I feel my father’s heart begin to bruise and it’s hours before I can look him in the eye again. But I let him buy the dress. And on the way home I tell him I wish he hadn’t come, to lend my shame some justice it is yet to earn.
The day comes around and I am filled with dread and darkness but I do my hair and line my eyes and highlight my cheekbones and match my brow ring to my nose ring to my lip ring to my dress. Just briefly, I concede to my reflection, that I look quite pretty, before the thought is purged and its void hollows to collect every drop of doubt that falls. At the pre-prom party I drink champagne, or maybe its Prosecco, and it smooths the jagged clatter of the room. And it’s champagne after all, so I find another bottle and my glass is never empty. I smile, only just, for a photograph that will appear in a drawer years later when I will wonder if my eyes were really quite so big, if my brow was quite so taut. And I’ll remember what it was to be wide-eyed. Because, slowly, time forgets us. Light paints our faces carefully and fades thoughtlessly, leaving only scars behind.
Soon we’ll all pile into a stretch Hummer because it is still the early naughties and MTV still informs our taste and unheeded privilege still extends our reach. The ride is soundtracked by Ja Rule and Nas and maybe some vintage Biggie, and I smoke Lucky Strikes and drink Courvoisier because, well, because I can. We arrive at the hotel which will play host to our prom. It overlooks a castle but I don’t believe in fairytales. I watch them all go waltzing in; two by two, two by two. My thoughts start to race, or maybe the world starts to slow. And it all gets a bit depressing as I see the principal beaming in a nice Sunday frock and the math teacher who used to be an opera singer visibly innervate at the sight of youth en masse. He drops his gaze and straightens his tie, and shyly defers to the untrammeled force of teenage vanity and our febrile virility.
The dance floor populates and because I don’t dance, I find myself alone. My shyness wears a mask of apathy. My coolness reads ice queen but my body is simply frozen with fear. I feel my cheeks redden as older boys throw smiles my way, and I don’t know how to catch them, so they fall into my empty glass. Because I need something to do, I approach the bar and decide to try on this dress I have on. And because it really is a “very sexy number” and it matches my hardware and I look quite pretty and my eyes are wide but their edge is sharp enough to pique his interest, the bartender fuels my quiet rebellion all night long. A pipeline of vodka sweetly disguised as a Diet Coke; a line of credit sweetly disguised as a gift. But the view from the stage door is now a bit more interesting. The performance adopts a vaguely satirical spin from this vantage. Eventually the lights get bright and the music abruptly dies. The queen has her crown and the king has a glimmer in his eye that will catch up with me in a few years, but for now it’s time to smoke a spliff in the stretch Hummer and let the boys admire how tightly I can roll.
Duty now served, the night can really begin at the house of a friend who I will come to remember as a gentle giant and who, in years to follow, becomes my informal bodyguard. This will lead me to wonder if he knew how that night ended, but I never ask. The “very sexy number” goes into a bag and the trackies come out and I am handed a bottle of Stella and swallow sweet relief. The jagged clatter of this room dulls, and my friends polish it with rolling papers. There is another bonfire outside, because there can be no smoke without fire, and the music vacillates from glam rock to indie, hip hop to Britpop.
I remember a staircase, and I remember feeling tired. A heavy baseline starts echoing in my skull. But isn’t that Oasis? And there is no heavy baseline. The thud is just my head against a baseboard; rapid rhythm. I feel cold tiles beneath my skin. I take too long to realize. My eyes take too long to open. My voice takes too long to say stop. But he does stop. And I am still lying on a cold bathroom floor when he looks blankly from the threshold and tosses me my clothes, like rubbish to a heap. I hear laughter as he descends the stairs. And how quickly I go from too drunk to stand up to too sober to sleep. So I draw my knees into my chest, and smoke another cigarette, and hum along to Wonderwall, and try not to wonder about anything at all.
On Monday I pass him in the hallway and say nothing, and tell no-one, because I don’t want to be the girl that cried, well, the girl that cried. But this boy goes on to become a banker. The first, an artist. I doubt that either man sees trace blood beneath his nails at night. And because my mind can’t make monsters of the faces of my friends, it disfigures my reflection instead. I adopt a policy of devaluing myself in order to lower the premiums due. A bargain isn’t worth stealing. And Canal Street counterfeit learns not to expect the same protections as Chanel. Alcohol streamlines the process of unbecoming, but over the years its effects wear. I revolt steadily against the prettiness conferred upon me by nature. I come to see it not as a prize but a debt to be repaid. And quite the opposite of making the most of my features, I learn not only to play them down but to will myself into a state of physical disrepair.
There are many reasons that I shrink. But I soon become the smallest person in every room I enter. I cut off my hair. I take off my heels. I strip myself from my frame and replace her with penance. I wear my asceticism like an unholy habit. As my body becomes barbed, my bones pierce every male gaze with accusation of forensic pathology. I shrink until men are disgusted by my sight. Until my elbows are sharp and my skeleton is hollow and my womb is rendered useless. I am both old woman and small child. I am invisible, but not quite small enough.
Years pass as hollow as an empty pill bottle. I recognize that I have become a visual of absence and, quite suddenly, I get hungry. I begin to soften, calcified edges melt. And half a lifetime later, the mask starts to slip. I pack a bag and go. Spain, Portugal, France, east-coast beaches and wild-west deserts, all before chasing the sun to Mexico. I teach myself not to feel loneliness, but I’m always acutely aware that I’m alone. Traveling brings frequent reminders of the inconveniences being alone. Of lifting heavy things. Of reading foreign maps. Of always having to be the one who asks the questions. Of not having anyone to scream at when the time is ripe. And I learn the time is often ripe when traveling to places where the air is alive with mosquitoes and gazes are deadened by resentment and exhaustion. Where heat sits too closely and whispers filth. Where sugar skulls cast verdicts from every shelf. Everything suddenly tastes too sweet. And sweetness forecasts decay.
I’m thirty-one. It’s an ambush on foreign soil. There is no moral fog of friendly fire. The attack is vicious and violent and unprovoked. It is both hyperreal and nightmare. It slashes old wounds clean open, leaves my body limp and shaken. And though this time there are no clear fault lines drawing blame back upon myself, I still wonder if my dropped guard announced itself on the way down, if I am wearing my nascent womanhood like a scarlet letter or a green light. I wonder if I’ve simply become too soft, because the nerve isn’t really severed; it’s really still quite raw. But years of undue punishment have worn my hair-shirt threadbare, and I let it fall away. I decide there is no shame in drenching bare skin with sunlight; in welcoming a breeze between my limbs. I decide that shame might shelter under self-flagellation, but wounds need air to heal.
I decide write my story. I send it to a literary magazine that champions women’s empowerment. It gives celebrated platform to righteous anger and the fresh new voices of a fresh new feminism. Twelve weeks later I am thanked for my bravery. I am told they have run a lot of rape essays recently—“due to the current climate.” I am told they are only looking at pieces with an element of intersectionality- “more layered.” I am told my story is too generic, by my own team’s angry mob. Our collective primal screams have become the noise over which other people debate body politics and shifting sexual paradigms, autonomy and affirmative consent. Silenced by a hashtag, made ordinary by the ubiquity of performative outrage. What were whispers, once hushed, are now the songs of last year’s summer; at once recognized and unsung.
So I’ll carry my story right where it began: in the flesh of my limbs, in the softness and the scars, etched onto my person, in my own words, by my own hand. And in the flesh of my body is the weight of my words. And in the flesh of my body I am shameless.