Arms, Legs, Fingers
She says dumb shit like that out of her mouth. Her mouth is wet. She calls me Rose.
When she’s not speaking her mouth makes a straight line and her eyes make a parallel one, only the lines of her eyes are broken by her nose. When she’s about to speak the dark slits between her eyelids widen and the lines of her mouth multiply, radiating out from a middle point drawn in so tight that her lips telescope into her body. They quiver there until there is enough speech to break the seal, then they curl around it, pink and glistening. When they are fully outstretched her lips protrude several inches from her face and begin to peel back towards her nose and jaw, revealing a dark circle lined with teeth—then she throws back her head and her eyes turn back into two lines.
She has three sons. The youngest, Sammy, is too small to count. He’s like an egg, only really steady if you rest him on his bottom, but then his arms and legs unfurl and he’s off chasing after something. His hair is so light it’s almost transparent: blonde head, blonde eyebrows, blonde hair all over his pale skin. Next is Ryan—he’s ok. In the sun his hair glows like a flame, but he gets mad when I call him Red. Mostly, he gets excited when Paul and I pay any attention to him, but he says he’s mad. Paul is the oldest. His hair is dark like mine.
It’s the first really hot day of summer and Paul and I run through the alley to his backyard. The slip and slide is already set up, but Ryan is nowhere to be seen—there is only Sammy sitting on the grass waving his arms around.
“Ryan?” Paul calls as we walk into the kitchen from the back.
“Right here!” Ryan is drinking a tall glass of pink liquid.
“You shouldn’t leave Sammy out there by himself.”
“I just came inside to get a drink. Anyway, Mom is home.”
Paul grabs the drink out of Ryan’s hand and finishes it, “Well come on then!”
We all peel our shirts off and go outside, Ryan shoving Paul and me shoving Ryan.
The yard is pretty level, so we take turns running for momentum and then jumping to slide across the yellow plastic on our bellies. Soon we’re all on the slide together, pushing and pulling each other back and forth. Even Sammy, delighted that everyone is in the same place, crawls onto the slide and scoots around.
I hear the backdoor slam and guess she has come outside, but she doesn’t say anything. The sun is so bright, the yellow of the slide is all I see. Paul begins to drag Sammy by his arms so I grab Ryan by the feet. He lets me drag him for a bit but then quickly brings his knees to his chest and I fall down.
We all stop and I scramble upright. Everyone’s looking at me, so I shrug and walk to the backdoor.
“Come inside,” she says.
In the kitchen my wet shorts drip onto the floor. She picks my t-shirt off the back of a chair and holds it out to me.
“Rose, the boys are getting older—so are you. A girl doesn’t take her shirt off with the boys. Put this on and don’t let them see your chest anymore.”
I take my t-shirt and go to the bathroom to change; really I just want to get away from her mouth. In the bathroom I pull my dry shirt on and stand with my jean shorts heavy and wet. The shirt sticks to my chest and I pull it off. There is a window in the bathroom that faces the backyard, it’s open and lets in a breeze. I draw the blinds up a few inches, just enough to see to outside.
She has pulled a lawn chair to the front of the slip and slide; now there is no way to run onto it. Ryan is letting Sammy try and chase him around the yard but Paul stares at his mother. I run my hand over my chest, which doesn’t look any different than theirs, and my cheeks burn.
“Where is Rosalyn?”
“I don’t know, maybe she went home.”
Paul comes into the kitchen and I hold my breath, but Ryan follows him with Sammy and soon I hear the sound of the TV turn on in the living room. The sun shifts in the backyard, casting shadows over the slip and slide, and my jeans grow cold on my thighs.
The line of her mouth has grown slack; I’ve never seen an opening there unless she’s making words or expelling them. She seems so close; I can hear her begin to snore. I open the bathroom door and tiptoe outside.
The water is off now and the slip and slide has grown dry. I walk to the far end and sit down, watching her across the yellow runway. The plastic feels cold now that the sun is behind the trees. I run my hand across its surface and find a large bump; funny we didn’t feel this when we were sliding. I peel back the plastic and pull out a rock with a sharp side; I run the tip across the bright yellow. It makes a line that immediately disappears so I do it again—hard and fast—and I make a tear. I pull the tear apart with my fingers and then crawl under the slip and slide, lining the hole up with my mouth. The grass is wet under my back and the slip and slide sticky. I push my lips through the plastic and move my mouth around like I’m speaking, like I’m her.
The slip and slide begins to move, bringing the hole sliding across my body. I reach down and catch it with my fingers just as it passes beyond my belly, and use my other arm to pull my head out from under the plastic. She has the end of the slip and slide between her teeth. Her eyes are open as wide as her mouth once was, and they are staring right at me. Her head rears back and I feel a tug. I pull back on the hole with both my hands and it rips wider.
I quickly duck under the plastic and stick my head through the hole. My body faces away from her and I begin to walk in that direction. The plastic pulls my neck back but I thrust forward and the slip and slide gives and I’m running with it behind me like a cape.
Once in the alley I slow down and let the yellow plastic fall onto my back. Smoothing the front across my chest I lift my head high and walk with careful steps all the way home.
One long wall of the yoga studio was made up of a row of 4’ x 8’ foot mirrors crossed by a ballet bar, the other a sprawling storage rack made out of PVC tubes. Several of the tubes had slipped from their joiners, skewing the rack and leaving exercise balls rolling along the floor. The yoga teacher paced in front of the class, her reflection moving across each of her students in the mirror.
“In plank pose roll your shoulders back and tilt your pelvic bowl forward to take the curve out of the small of your back. You should be in one straight line from the crown of your head to your heel. Now the only thing that is going to move is your arms as you lower halfway down. Not yet, not yet—stay in in plank pose. I want you to imagine your favorite animal.”
Lily pictured a unicorn. She didn’t have any particular connection to unicorns, she didn’t have an affinity with any animals really—that was what prompted her to choose an imaginary one. It wasn’t the unicorn’s positive attributes that attracted her, innocence or untamed magic, but rather its most glaring negative quality—it isn’t.
“This animal is underneath your torso. Now, as you lower from plank pose into vinyasa, try not to crush your favorite animal.”
Lily bent her arms. The tiny unicorn waited expectantly underneath her torso.
The last year of elementary school Lily’s best friend moved away and she spent all of her time with Jamie, a neighborhood girl who was a year older. Jamie was not as smart as Lily but she was already in middle school and looked for every opportunity to test Lily. Sometimes Jamie’s tests were obvious.
When Lily was following her up the steps of the basement, Jamie abruptly stopped and blocked her way. “What’s 5 times 23?” she said.
“One hundred and fifteen.”
“What’s thirteen times twelve?”
Lily answered each time as quickly as she could and when she didn’t know the answer, she made it up. That Lily might lie seemed never to have occurred to Jamie, who was first annoyed and then amazed at her friend’s ability to do multiplication in her head. Forgetting that her questions had been intended to humiliate Lily, Jamie went to get her mom to show off Lily’s trick. Jamie’s mom also seemed not to notice when Lily made up an answer.
Other times, the tests were more ambiguous. Neither girl was allowed to walk to the park without an adult, but after Jamie turned twelve she thought her parents would change their mind and one day she told Lily to wait on the front lawn while she asked. When Jamie came out she asked Lily to guess what her parents had said. Lily couldn’t read her friend’s expression. First she guessed no, then yes, then no again as Jamie remained inscrutable. She told Lily they had said yes, but that they couldn’t leave just yet, then she admitted that they had said no, before trying again to convince Lily they had said yes.
The afternoon light began to fade and Lily knew they couldn’t go to the park now but still Jamie insisted they would. Lily felt foolish for having ever having believed her.
Jamie was developing breasts and spent so much time looking through the bras in a JCPenney’s catalogue that her mom began to make jokes about it. She talked about boys at school and wanted to practice with Lily for when they had boyfriends. She tried to make Lily pretend to be the boy, but Lily didn’t know how and finally Jamie grew impatient and said she would be the boy.
They were in Jamie’s parent’s room with the drapes closed; the sunlight made bright pink shapes when it showed through the heavy tan fabric, but the light exhausted itself there, leaving the rest of the room dim and dusty. Jamie took Lily’s shirt off on in the big, adult bed. She ran her hand along Lily’s chest. “It’s so flat,” she said. Lily didn’t know what to say. Jamie was quiet for a while and then seemed to come to a solution that satisfied her, “I’m a serial killer and I cut off your breasts in a fit of passion.”
She put her hand over Lily ’s mouth and began to kiss the back of her hand. Lily felt a warm throbbing where her breasts had been. At first this was exciting and she wished Jamie would touch her chest again, then she began to feel that the hand over her mouth was smothering her and wished Jamie would move. Not only could she not feel Jamie’s lips soon she couldn’t feel her own. She imagined Jamie’s hand sinking into her head without resistance, landing on the pillow underneath and severing her spinal column.
“As you lower, keep your chin slightly tucked to keep the back of your neck long,” said the yoga teacher.
Lily lowered herself until her elbows grazed her ribs. Suddenly, she was pierced through the chest by the unicorn’s horn. Its point seemed to drive into a knot in her very core. Her shoulder blades released from her back, letting her arms slide out and roll along the floor with the exercise balls. The weight of her torso dropping seemed to loosen her legs; now the space between her pelvis and thighs was infinite, swallowing the whole room. Her head shattered and everything went black. Only the unicorn remained, prancing though the vast space of the unknown.
The suburban bathroom was two rooms really, one for the sink and one for the toilet and shower. It was the first time I had ever been inside of a suburban home. We were keeping the vodka and orange juice by the sink because this bathroom was off of Tom’s bedroom and, although his parents were not opposed to a couple freshmen on spring break having a few drinks, this way we didn’t have to disturb them by continually walking by their bedroom to the kitchen. But as the drinking sped up the making of drinks slowed down till finally it seemed easier to drink sitting on the bathroom floor. Tom was trying to convince me of something and, while I had lost the subject of the dispute, I still had a hold of its form and so I continued to disagree. Then Tom called me a bitch.
He laughed, but it was a laugh without sociality—somehow like the laugh you would make if no one else were there. Bitch. The word wasn’t surprising but the laugh was—its exclusivity felt perilous. The bathroom was bright white, but Tom’s face hung in front of me and then slid away, reappeared all sweat and pores and then dissolved again into the black of my closing lids and the hard, white light of the room. Bitch, bitch, bitch—he was cracking himself up. I no longer recognized even the form of the conversation now—except that I did. So often when getting catcalled the first address comes as a term of endearment, “Hey babe… sweetie, sweetness, sweet thing,” but if ignored or rebutted it almost always turns to, “bitch.” Violence underlay the first address, so why be surprised when the names changed?
Tom had told me that I was the only woman he really respected. I understood, as I had when other men said the same thing to me, that this meant that I had acquired some power, some small capacity to do violence and receive love, but also that I would always be a contradiction as liable to be disgusting as desirable. I started to laugh too. If my laugh was only an imitation, it got us off the floor.
We got into Tom’s bed with our clothes on. I took the pillow next to his head and pulled it toward the other end of the bed so we could sleep head to feet. Tom’s giggling quieted into sleepy gurgling, but still it seemed to course through his body, jerking his limbs around. I realized before we both passed out that he was trying to kick my head.
“A Democratic senator on this committee publicly referred to me as evil. Think about that word…” Kavanaugh’s response to Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault was disturbing largely because of its familiarity, but I did have this one revelation: Kavanaugh was not used to being called names. His outrage was complete because he had never been addressed as something that he did not understand himself to be. The errors of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations were factual only because they were also existential: “because she says this, you call me this, and that is impossible,” was the essence of Kavanaugh’s spittle-certified testimony. A familiarity with being called names is one way to arrive spontaneously at the philosophical notion that being and appearance are not one, but this arrival has always been foreclosed to the law and its attendants.
“I now pronounce you man and wife,” is the quintessential example of a performative utterance: a speech act in which the description and the doing are simultaneous. When the civilian’s performative utterances are contested—sentences that begin, “I promise, I bet, I bequeath”—it is the law that comes in to decide if the performance took, if the name has an ontological hold. The judge marries the law to truth over and over again, but truth is like a drunken bride making out with her maid of honor in the porta-potty behind the rented tent and then retching pieces of cake onto the dance floor. The rhetorical habit of calling something illegal as a way of saying it is wrong is either a willful denial of the state of the couple or—more cynically—a demonstration that truth is only being at the barrel of a gun named appearance. When you’re empire, you can afford to acknowledge that your actions create reality.
Faced with such gleefully idiotic or knowingly tautological guard dogs of the symbolic, the hysteric asks, “Why am I this name you gave me?” For psychoanalysis, real change is always a changing of discourses, making the attraction of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing the possibility that the master might become the hysteric. And yet it is precisely because the law manages eruptions of being by reinforcing appearance with violence that the police can manifest the most excessive displays of emotionality imaginable and still maintain their right to name. It’s easy to make the master red in the face, make the judge have a tantrum, or the cop shoot a gun—harder to make any officer of the law dance on the grave of their mutilated nomenclature. At the end of day, we’re still the criminals.
“Psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is—” Freud writes, “that would be a task it could scarcely perform—but sets about enquiring how she comes into being.” Despite being the notoriously phallocentric father of psychoanalysis, Freud’s insistence that such a situation—how woman came to be—constitutes the grounds of a question unanswerable by any biological imperative remains radical. But psychoanalysis, with its persistently backwards gaze, makes a rather poor hermeneutic for a break with woman… or any form. “What comes into being after woman,” has largely been the purview of science fiction.
Octavia Butler begins with Lilith, the mother of the end of humanity.Dawn, the first in Butler’s Xenogenesistrilogy, opens with Lilith waking up on an alien spaceship 250 years after having survived a nuclear war. The aliens, named Oankali, have chosen her to initiate their breeding program. The Oankali describe their need for interspecies breeding as akin to people’s need to breath: they must take in the new in order to live. The Oankali also offer interbreeding as a means of solving what they see as humanity’s fatal flaw: a combination of intelligence and hierarchical tendencies.
The Oankali’s gamble, that for both species to survive they must reproduce themselves as not-themselves, is perhaps fiction only its details. Nothing is as queer as nature. 97 percent of bird species, so the scientists tell us, have lost their penises. Take chickens—they have genes capable of forming a penis, but on the ninth day of development they rest. These genes are complete in every way, what halts their growth is a programmed cell death similar to that which causes the formation of human fingers in the embryo—cells in the undifferentiated lump that is the fetal hand commit mass suicide in order to carve out the space between each finger. One theory of this evolutionary development is that birds with vaginas selected mates with smaller penises to control for rape and over time this bred the penis out of existence—sexual selection as a glacial castration, or it is the essence of being to change. If being is not a constant than appearance is not merely a frivolous wrapping: aesthetic choices reconfigure matter; names can kill.
Recently we learned that the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX. According to the leaked memo: “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth. The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex.” Reading this, one might imagine the birth certificate was something found dangling from the umbilical cord or fished out of the afterbirth. Bodies reproduce an infinite array of bodies; the task of dividing these bodies into categories through naming is not an immutable biological act but a historical process. The master gives a name and then forgets he has done so in order to become a fascist because fascism is merely this, the attempt to destroy the multiplicity of beings through the violent enforcement of limited set of names. Legal/illegal, man/woman, sweetie/bitch, democracy/terrorism: all binaries that maintain their negative counterpart as the very condition of their own sovereignty. With such a dictionary liberal norms substitute paternalistic tolerance for fascistic repression and do no more than the nihilist impulse to build a float from all the bad names we’ve been called and ride it in circles in the bathtub—arguably less.
In science fiction moral dilemmas often surround questions about the essential nature of humanity; from this it follows that the motivating anxiety of many of it characters is the preservation of the human race. But if there is a god—and this according another Octavia Butler heroine, Lauren Oya Olamina—surely it is change. If the aliens come I will rush to the front of their breeding line, tossing my humanity behind me like an expired metrocard. We might begin laughing in imitation, a repetition with a parodic difference, but let’s not stop till our laugh reaches such a pitch that it blows out the windows. Crawl out onto the street, find truth and hold back her hair while she pukes. Seize the means of production and make names that explode into multiplicities rather than reify into binaries, produce bodies with tentacles, tentacles with orifices. I want an alien baby and no other