This excerpt was first published May 20, 2021. We’re-posting it to celebrate the release of the paperback version.
I used to watch Mom on TV, would pull the videos out of the back of the cupboard while I was home sick as a teenager, they were in green VHS sleeves, in the way back. I don’t know where they are now and it doesn’t matter because nobody has a VCR. A blonde man and woman sat forward in heavy floral chairs. They chatted, glanced at the camera from the foreground of a pastel painting of Sacramento, the woman’s shoulder pads blotting out the American River. The woman turned to face the camera, she said Marie.
A craft-scene backdrop slapped onto the screen. A blue wall. The camera panned to Mom behind a brown table filled with scraps of things, paper. She was perfect and ’80s, had giant red glasses. She blinked at the camera, held up a cutout of my image that she’d made into a lampshade. I was adorable as a lampshade, was four or something years old.
In the photo Mom was holding, I wore overalls and a pink baseball cap. My hands were in my pockets. I looked a little pissed.
She was saying something about my dad, said Dad, flatly, and I was surprised to hear it. She showed the audience how to make a calendar for kids to understand visitation when their parents were divorced, she moved the cutout of me to Monday, Wednesday. I never saw Dad like she was talking about, we didn’t have a schedule and we didn’t live close. She talked about me and explained decoupage, her hair was clipped behind her head, glasses leaning off her nose, beautiful. She made perfect sense.
When the show was live, I’d watch it from a car seat in the living room, I was four, the shadow of a palm tree moving across the floor. I rocked in the car seat with my arms crossed. There was nothing in the room, just foam-green carpet and a bucket of paint at the entry to the kitchen, white paint that smelled empty. I don’t know why there was only a car seat.
All those times that Mom’s face was center on TV, I waited for her wave. I’d watch her voice, her body, projecting, moving onto its toes. She’d hold her elbow up and smile at the studio audience. I’d wave back. Music would come on, synth-y music about Sacramento, the crush of light in the living room would make the screen too white, her face and her waving would careen off into an advertisement, leave the echo of her voice in the room like paint.
I’d push myself out of the car seat, pad into the kitchen, tip a chair onto its back two legs and drag it toward the refrigerator. I always used the same chair, the one with the loose cushion, tan and wrinkled. I’d hoist myself onto the seat, always an inch or two too short to be eye level with the top, would open the freezer and lodge my foot between the interior racks, and use that fulcrum to pull my pacifier off the fridge, the blue one, the one with the elephant on the tip. They stuck it up there so I’d stop sucking on it. I’d stand on the chair totally triumphant, shove it into my mouth with both hands, smile behind it.
When I was an infant, I’d put my mouth around Mom’s actual nipple and my face would fill with snot. A red, pimply ring would grow where my mouth was. I gave Mom mastitis, was allergic to her milk. I was allergic to formula, too, to everything, I coughed.
My younger brothers drank her up, when she’d come into the house, they’d feel her breasts arriving. They’d shriek and run toward her legs. I’d hang back. Her smell would rush at me anyway. Light would shift in the house, Mom’s voice flickered against the clicking on of lamps. Here’s the etymology:
Mammary is a word that’s likely derived from a natural sound in baby talk, perhaps imitative of the sound made while sucking—ma. The ache of wanting is enormous. I drank off the plug like a drunk. I’m not ashamed.
Mama is from 1707; mum is from 1823; mummy in this sense is from 1839; mommy, 1844; momma, 1852; and mom, 1867.
And mastectomy, or the surgical removal of a breast, is from 1909, from the Greek mastos, like masticate, burn. It’s like “the splitting of rocks or gems,” from cleavage—“the cutting along a fissure line.”
I’m thinking about giving an account of myself.
“The stories do not capture the body to which they refer. Even the history of this body is not fully narratable,” Judith Butler writes. “Any effort to ‘give an account of oneself’ will have to fail in order to approach being true.”
Here’s a clear failure: there’s always an urgency around my portrait.
When I had boobs, the dudes I’d get naked with would say, “Wow, so ethnic.” I had one guy who’d call them my “Nat Geo boobs.” They’d rub their finger across my areola when they said it. It was fucked up and I was proud, too, because everyone told me they came from my grandmother’s body. I cut them off years ago now. I don’t read the same anymore. In the process, my nipples got spotty, brown and pink, and I shake my shoulders. They’re gone into this kind of skin confetti that I don’t understand, chewing gum nipples, my friend says, wrinkled and weird. I shut a door.
Now I am not passing. My attempt to write this history falters. Are body parts passed down? Grammy always wants to hand me the negatives of things: she doesn’t want me to have kids, she doesn’t want me to cook, she tries to toss me a kind of freedom she never had. My maternal line is wives and widows that cleaned banks at night. Grammy wanted to be a cruise ship stewardess and travel, she got married instead. Her inability to retire grates on her—I’m never able to stop cooking lunch for your grandpa, fifty years of lunches and not one day off, she always says and she means every meal every day.
I love this woman for throwing me into deep water. She wants to hoist me up every once in a while and look. My heritage is her hopefulness and the complexity of a body that looks, in parts, like hers.
The last time I visited, Grammy called me to her bedside, she was sitting on the edge of her bed about to take a nap, and she asked me to hand her a plastic CVS bag on the floor—I got you this, she said, rummaging through it. She pulled out a black box with a clear plastic cover, a facial hair remover called Flawless. I don’t even know how it does the removing, says it has a built-in LED light: “discreet.” There’s a full moon on the cover and it boasts an “18-karat gold plated” head. The video on their website says it uses German-engineered technology to fit a hair remover inside a lipstick container. You can use it when “unwanted hairs pop up out of nowhere,” the video says. At the end, there’s footage of somebody carefully rubbing the lipstick container in circles on a blown-up, peach-colored balloon in a demonstration of gentleness. It honestly looks fun. I didn’t want to use it on my face—my toes, maybe, but my chin hairs have been growing forever and I like letting them.
I said thanks, but I like to touch my chin hairs when I think and she laughed and was like, Okay, whatever, like you’re so funny. She tugged a second Flawless out of the bag, Got one for myself, too, she said, because she was trying to help.
This is the question of my body and my story about it: Is it just mine? I imagine that these hairs or these boobs are exclusively mine somehow, that the scars or the hairs are unique to me, and it’s not true. The only thing I’m doing any different from my grandmother is leaving the hairs there, it’s the opposite with the boobs. I could just remove the hairs like I did the boobs, or Grammy and I could together.
I notice a crashing in my chest, the slap of belonging, it’s a rocking that dislodges all the time—I want to relate to the clicking in my joints, and the skipping record of my person. I want to relate to it like sounds of people smoking cigarettes on the corner, a lighter flicking on and off, noise like birds, maybe.
I don’t particularly like how I look, but this doesn’t constitute anything. My thighs meet in a way I find totally objectionable, like a heart with the point as my ankles, though I am satisfied with myself sometimes, and know what beauty feels like when it crosses me, subtle, like folding a quilt.
Really, I can’t explain myself without making a mess.
Butler goes on to suggest that we’ve always already failed at giving this account of ourselves in part because we didn’t ask for the language we use (the one or several that we’ve had to shuffle ourselves into) or the condition of being addressed in that language, and so we’re already lacking control from the start.
Similarly, no one asked for the framework of male and female or the aggregate of gender that we’re funneled through. I wonder all the time how much of my identity is influenced by woman-ness or attempts at woman-ness and the way it was passed to me. We’re all handed a responsibility. Here’s gender: “woman” as a category is fraught, and entire groups have been denied access. “Could we, in fact, release the category of woman from its fixity and white normativity?” writes Saidiya V. Hartman about “the name ‘woman’” and what it “designate[s],” in Scenes of Subjection.
I’m interested in what genderqueer Korean American artist and writer Johanna Hedva suggests in their writing on womanhood and disability. Hedva expands the meaning of “woman” to include all oppressed peoples (“the un-cared for, the secondary, the oppressed, the non-, the un-, the less-than”) because as it stands, the term doesn’t suffice. In their article “Sick Woman Theory,” published in Mask Magazine, Hedva writes that “the identity of ‘woman’ has erased and excluded many (especially women of color and trans and genderfluid people).”
The photo accompanying the article shows a gathered-up Hedva in a flowing red dress, black lipstick, black beads, pill bottles billowing out from underneath one arm. In Hedva’s alternate use of the word, woman functions as “a strategic, all-encompassing embrace.”
Hedva lets the word, like any word, move around. Woman doesn’t mean a body.
You know, I was going through my things the other day and I found a photo of you that looked just like Ingrid Bergman, my grandma said a few visits ago. She shook her head. I had to look at it twice, you looked just like Ingrid Bergman.
You’re biased, I said, I’m just symmetrical.
She laughed, hung her elbows off the end of the bed. She looked down at the carpet, moved it with her toe.
I was staying in this room that is really a closet-sized space attached to hers. Every night before bed, she’d change into a nightgown then come into my room, lean against my bed, hang her arms off the frame. She would chat with me before I went to sleep.
I’m thirty-three. This is still routine. I knotted the covers over the emptiness in my chest and smiled, afraid that she’d try to tuck me in and brush the lack in my clinging sleep T-shirt, wonder where my boobs went. I haven’t told her and it’s been almost ten years.
As a kid, I’d play with the bigness of her biceps, fascinated by how it swung. I’d hug her and fall into her cleavage, called her Boobers. She called me Boobettes as soon as mine grew. This was our bond. No one else in the family had her eyes and no one else had her boobs, I don’t know why anyone thought it was appropriate to make this a topic of conversation, but it regularly was. I’d curl my shoulders in to make them less of a thing. I only brought my shoulders back around Grammy, all proud.
At the end of my bed, Grammy looked like everything about me, older. I loved her there, pinching my toes, talking to me like she used to when I lived with her, first as an infant for a few years, and then again for three years starting from the time I was eight. She adjusted my quilt. There were cars braking and moving outside, a line of summer cars headed to hotels. The room smelled like baby powder and warm vacuum, clean carpet. Night was always lit by her snores. I readied for her breath.
I was wondering, Grammy said, looking up at me. Have you ever wondered… I mean, do you think you’re like this because your mom likes your brothers more?
My feet tightened. She looked at me with our eyes, a thudding green, everyone else’s are brown or blue. In there was so much worry, a wealth of earnest worry as she hung her arms over the end of the bed. She’d been frustrated with me about stereotypical things, she didn’t like that I wore baggy clothes or wanted a men’s scarf once as a gift. She’s not all that femme-presenting herself, so my sense was that whatever she’d been told to do, she was telling me too. We had a tradition of dissecting our family’s relationships, she and I spent so much time alone over the years and we’d process. Grammy asking about my brothers was a gesture like checking the engine, she’d stuck the metal rod in the oil and pulled it out, was looking at the level aloud with me. She tightened her mouth when she was done looking and nodded. This is how I took it: your mom fucked up and that fuckup made you you.
I took a breath. She said, I don’t know why I asked. Don’t worry about it, it’s time for bed.
I won’t be able to sleep, I figured.
Her arm swished as she pinched my toe. I love you, she said, walking toward the door. She paused with her hand on it, looked back at me.
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