When we met, he said he loved this body, which had given life twice over. And I was proud of my powerful legs and taut biceps, for carrying my son on one hip, for strong fibers breaking down and building up again from the repetition. Muscles for balancing, for climbing and descending stairs, hips that jutted out like my grandmother’s, a back that swayed a little, a body that moved in and out of mirrors with equal ease.
Well, it was clear it had given life. Which I liked hearing, at first, my body and I being in a peaceful arrangement, though my body wasn’t quite like the others he’d known, which were different kinds of women’s bodies, specifically those that hadn’t given life. In this way, I began to notice, slowly at first, the places where my body had expanded and shrunk, in the miraculous ways bodies do, the way the skin rippled and lay differently in those same places, and in that way, seemingly less miraculously than before. And this realization carved a little space, the tiniest separation between my body and self.
He didn’t like how my red velvet pants fit me. He knew high-waisted was in, but he liked what he liked. Only some parts did he like, the waist, not the legs. There were queens and kings among my body parts, a hierarchy of them, pitted now against the others, a monarchy out of what had once been an egalitarian community of parts. He wondered aloud about what I would fix on my body if I could—which meant, I gathered, correcting what wasn’t right.
And between my body and me, in that tiny gap of space, he inserted himself, until I too noticed the shape of my leg muscles and the skin on my belly and waist, its texture, one I was increasingly unsure of, as I touched the places my skin had stretched, the way you rub a fabric together between your fingers.
During our time together, I became more conscious of my own years on earth and their limits. And although his years, like any human’s, were also limited, it seemed to me he was allowed to age, while I was meant to defy the forces of nature and time, like an immortal being, my sole power being to erase the noticeable fact that I had spent more than three decades in the world. And the little space carved between my body and self grew, until I became estranged from my corporeal self, and sometimes I wished she would go for a walk far away and leave me alone, so I could float through life as before, unaware of her shortcomings. But during that time with him, my body still hewed closely to his, my hand tracing the tattoo on his bicep, a frantic coming together of warmth and skin, an attempt to fill with two bodies that growing gap between my own body and self.
In the end, I could not see the spot where he’d permanently marked his arm with ink, although I could remember tracing it with my fingertips a hundred times, the yellows and blues of the design, twisted and faded from the years. But it was wintertime, and he wore long sleeves.
His body, in a hospital, was marked off by a curtain—a body that had endured gunfire in Iraq and gone home to a quieter existence of graduate school, whiskey and cigarettes, McDonalds and Taco Bell, and cup after cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and had grown tired too early and quit.
He’d told me before sometimes it hurt to walk, to bend over and put on a sock, his hip hurt, his back got tired. I was so wrong about his being allowed to age. He did not even reach forty. His chest felt the same through his clothes, neither warm, not yet cold, perfectly still, the way he looked sleeping on his back, and the crook of his arm that still might have fit me.
His chest and stomach curved outward, still holding in whatever he’d taken in that morning, probably a coffee, something small to eat, or perhaps not yet. He had stopped the smoking though and was proud of that, and he was trying to make peace with his own body after so long of being at war with bodies.
As the body that had served and carried him in its short tour lay perfectly still, I recalled the feeling of being inside those arms, and the first sense of possibility upon pressing up against that body, near a subway stop in late fall, two pairs of lips connecting, one hand just inside the flap of his fleece-lined leather coat, over a heart that beat underneath my fingers. I consider my own warm body and marvel especially at those places with stretches and dimples that mark the miraculous passage of time. The grateful, stretching ache of each new morning. I marvel at how my muscles slack and then rebuild stronger than before, strong enough still to carry each of my growing children in my arms. And how well it is stitching back together with myself, my body, which also carries me.
© Lauren D. Woods
[This piece was a finalist for the 2022 Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition and was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy]