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The Way He Moves
In the months before I turned eighteen, I started having dreams of my body giving out. Not in private, and not in small ways, but in one sweeping, violent malfunction. It often began out of nowhere, and when I became aware of being trapped in too docile a dream, it triggered a panic in the deepest part of my gut, activated only by things like hitting a drop on a rollercoaster, or visiting the campus of what you thought was your dream college and feeling your future ripped from beneath you, or being held for thirteen uninterrupted minutes by your best friend because a boy you thought you could’ve loved tried to kill himself.
In these dreams, I was surrounded by my entire family- a rare occasion as we were all spread across the country, divided by religion and severed marriages- and I would feel nothing more than a tickle in my throat. As I tried to cough and cure myself, the itch would spread to my mouth, then my face and body until I felt as though I was engulfed in flames. My skin would blare a deep crimson, and I’d cry out in shrill agony. Keeling over in pain, I’d begin to vomit at the intensity and frequency in which you begin to fear you’ll run out of fluids and suddenly you’ll feel any number of your organs at the base of your tongue. My family would scream and cry and call out for me, but their voices felt distant and muddled as though I was underwater, and none managed to move from their places to touch me. My heart would race and drench my skin in a salty layer of sweat, which clung to my skin and stung to add to the inferno. Tears and blood and snot and every unholy fluid evacuated from every opening in an almost cartoonish spray until I felt and looked like a shell, a deflated balloon, a loose-fitting costume of flesh.
I woke up from these dreams watermarked by my own silent tears, and would come to in a reserved sort of shock and upset. Swinging my legs over the side of my bed, I’d lightly run my hands across every limb and feel the same familiar imperfections and abrasions I’d had prior to my self-destruction. The same stretch marks behind my shoulders that once a freshman had mistaken for love scratches from another man, which had made him uncomfortable, the same scar on my index finger from when I drove a bike spoke into it, the same mosquito bite on my face I so luckily received after finally clearing my face of acne. The first time the dream happened, I poured myself a glass of pink lemonade and cried, but not from how traumatic the dream was, but that I was so disappointed to still have the body I thought I’d left behind.
My only real fits of teenage anxiety were triggered by it- a feeling of forced ownership of a living and breathing thing that I felt so incapable of taking care of on my own. The skin and bones that hung on me in an unflattering and uncomfortable way led me into a tumultuous relationship with the mirror- it began as simple examination of the shape of my being. Fifteen and thinking a lot about my sexuality and place in the world, I would have private viewing sessions of the parts of me that strangers could know. I’d rotate my arms, wrists, and ankles around their pivots, feeling very alive and very confused. On good days, I appreciated the masculine potential of my body- the way my shoulders were gradually becoming broader, how imposing my chest could be despite not being as tight as I wanted it, the jawline that a boy once told me was “really turning him on” while we were watching a movie about Alzheimer’s. As I grew into the skin I was in, I felt mostly well informed and loving toward it. I toyed at the loose bits of myself, stretching out the pale elastic on my forearms and thighs and the ever-problematic love handles that made T-shirt shopping difficult for me, but this generally kept me motivated and honest about my body. There was room for improvement, but nothing to be upset about. The bad times were a different story.
At my lowest points, I’d be modeling an outfit before the painfully neutral glass pane before me, and would suddenly feel the burning itch that would later visit me in my sleep- I needed to feel nothingness or I was certain I would die. I stripped off every bit of fabric imposing itself on me one by one, throwing it violently onto the floor in a fit of rage directed at the clothes themselves for daring to attack me for my weight, my friends who ate like just as much of an asshole as I did but saw no consequences in the mirror, and myself for being totally incapable of portion control.
Stark nakedness sometimes proved to not be enough however, and I found myself in the shower, shaving off every last bit of body hair I had been so curious about and even fond of in the same mirror the day before. Deranged and thoughtless, I angrily ripped a single-blade razor across my body, strip by strip, leaving behind little pores of blood wherever I went. I’d slide down into the basin of the bathtub, letting the showerhead drizzle cold water onto my stomach in contrast to the hot, angry tears I felt on my face. There was no more delicate stretching and pulling to be bothered with- I gripped the fat on my thighs, which seemed to be contributing about six hundred pounds each, and pulled as hard as I could, in an attempt to break free of the body I felt so trapped in. I convinced myself that I was the only person on Earth who hadn’t realized that there was another layer you could remove to feel truly free, to feel a moment of separation from guilt and shame and responsibility.
But of course, I was wrong, and instead of feeling an unbridled openness and a cool breeze on the fibers of my pectoral muscles, I felt embarrassed and lost and in pain as I removed my short, sharp nails from my sides, my heart breaking at the realization that I couldn’t rip just a teeny bit off.
I’d get out of the tub, praying that the level of hair I’d rid myself of wouldn’t screw up the plumbing- the absolute last thing my mother needed- dry off and return to the mirror, taking in the new creature I’d sculpted with the dollar store blade. I remember being unable to stop running my fingers across my freshly shaven legs. I was excited by the introduction of a brand new sensation- an instantly accessible, foreign smoothness, which, according to a dark-haired and drunk boy who got to feel the results firsthand, felt “like the back of a stingray.”
I absorbed the sum of my parts in the mirror, which again gave me a view of a body- a stranger’s body, maybe- but not like a whole person, and definitely not like myself. An unknowable something in a parallel world that changed every time I looked.
I came to learn that this was not how everyone else saw the mirror. Other people did not see fat or rashes that weren’t there, and other people definitely didn’t feel like they needed to shave the small of their back every time they looked into it. I truly didn’t know my issues were not common until I watched my now best friend get ready before the first party we went to together- his interaction with the mirror was no more than fifteen seconds and concluded with a clicking sound and two finger guns, while mine often lasted upwards of fifteen minutes and usually wrapped up with violent flattening motions on my chest and sides, like trying to get a cowlick to stay put, and an angry handful of potato chips down my throat.
Which is not to say that I was overweight by any means. The scale and most every health website I slaved away on in the darkest hours of night had little to reveal other than the fact that I was average- I wasn’t running in the same league as the stick-thin white boys I chose to surround myself with, but I wasn’t on the brink of obesity or diabetes or any other early onset slow killers. In my moments of deep research on the intricacies of my body standards, I often wished I was the poster child for American morbidity, so I could at least come to some terms of acceptance with my C-cup man tits and thigh meat enough to feed a third world country for a day or two. But instead I was trapped on the brink of physical success- just a little less movement on my chest and my back when I walked, just another waist size down to fit the expensive gay pleather pants I was eyeing at Zara. I was five feet and eleven inches and I weighed exactly one hundred and seventy pounds before I entered my senior year, but I told people I weighed one hundred and sixty-nine because the way one hundred and sixty-anything felt on my tongue felt the same as taking off your socks in bed right before you fall asleep, or getting to shower in your own house after being on vacation for a week- like relief.
And also because some mornings, before I ate anything, I really did weigh a hundred and sixty nine.
With my weight, along with most everything in my life in those months before the Most Important Decisions I’d made in my life thus far were before me, I felt myself in close contact with a threshold- the threshold that was adulthood. A new and daunting layer of responsibility, an intoxicating view of freedom- choices and tasks that would shape the person I wanted to become.
I began telling myself that if I could break one threshold- the 170-pound threshold- then I could break any. I could major in creative writing despite the voices of my family in my ear telling me I would never have a fountain in front of my house (the universal symbol for “I made it in America,” as I once told my parents at age twelve). I could respect myself enough to stay away from the boy who made me question every part of me that I thought I knew when he came out of inpatient care, fresh-faced, asking if I wanted to grab a soft pretzel and an Icee because he knew it was our favorite combo. I could pull myself out of the grave I didn’t know I’d been digging for my own average, relatively healthy, infrequently happy body.
A moment that stuck with me as I Shawshanked away at the wall keeping me from my fully realized adult self was in the midst of a shared hangover between myself and the host of the party the night before. As my brain filed away stray memories, both to retell (I won at beer pong for the first time ever, and all I had to do was play with golf balls!) and to repress (My ass is sore and I could not tell you why!), I shoveled down Italian ice and ibuprofen as my panicked hostess revealed all she could remember.
“Eric said something really funny about you before he left.”
My attention was caught and I spared a small breath in between spoonfuls of freezing sugary goodness to choke out a muffled “Hunh?” Eric was a quietly intimidating gay man who always arrived shrouded in a cloud of trendy city college hipsters- whenever he drank, he was always smoking on the back porch and talking about the absurdity of the universe. When I drank, I wanted to read everyone’s corny T-shirts and laugh way too loud at the puns, and ramble about how much I loved the mere idea of communal snack bowls, or how the monthly fee for my gym membership outweighed the amount of times I’d actually been to the gym. Needless to say, we didn’t exactly run in the same circles.
“While you were asleep, he was talking about you and the way you were dancing alone last night.”
This triggered a hot flash of embarrassment. I remembered the song I insisted on blasting through the basement- “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey. In my most drunken moments, I forced innocent bystanders to listen to whatever I could muster up as representative of my enlightened taste, ripping out whatever EDM was streaming through the AUX cord and ruining everyone’s night with some French house music, 90’s semi-punk or full-length albums by drag queens. Through some pauses and laughs, the story continued.
“He was saying that the way you danced made him think that like… you’d seen enough people dance before that you had a general idea of what dancing was supposed to be, but you couldn’t really figure out how to do it yourself.”
I stopped stuffing my face. I didn’t dance at parties so much as flail my arms violently, or throw myself to the ground for a brief, improvised floor routine. But to someone like Eric, I imagine this was the gold standard at cool, experimental warehouse parties.
“He said something like, the way he moves makes it hard to tell if he is a good dancer or a good imitator.”
I, as I often do in public, responded with a fake and cartoony rage.
“Well you can tell Eric that I didn’t ask,” flipping a beautiful head of long and luscious hair that I did not have, and examining my nails that reflected a flood of glitter onto the pavement.
Later on, though, I thought about this stray observation and realized that this person who I thought was faking his own way through philosophy classes and obligatory pot smoking had pinned down my essential nature- the fact that I’d only ever known how to imitate my role models. And Eric saw right through me- I panicked at the thought that maybe everybody did. I couldn’t become an adult because I didn’t know how to get to the core of who I actually was- under the ten extra pounds, the effete affectation I put on my voice so I didn’t have to have an actual personality around new people, the “sorry this probably sucks” I tacked onto every public display of what I was proud of in private. I became a sum of the people I admired, and avoided getting to the person who made me move the way people saw that I could.
“If it makes you feel any better, he said he liked that you didn’t mind having to dance alone.”
Tonight, I rotate my arms, wrists, and ankles and feel very alive and very confused. I feel the pressure and intensity at the threshold still, but I’m finally looking forward to what’s on the other side. The gravity that sat on my life in a thick smog feels a little less oppressive. In the mirror, parts of me shake and fold as I present myself before it, stretching my arms to the left and right, watching the body that’s gotten in the way so many times before, working uninhibited before me- ligaments and tendons shifting and pulling tightly, the cut I mysteriously acquired above my heart the night before present and warping my view. The way the mysterious something in the glass moves is fluid, and at one with my future. It isn’t perfect, but it’s mine to change.