I’d love to tell you how it feels.
When it’s riding you out to the sky, and your whole body is huddled in a point, and then it rockets away from you on waves. I guess something about the ocean says it best. The smell. The origin there. Conceived and then burst into a billion cells. I mean we have all been intimate with the deepest creative experience: we’ve all been born.
I think people who are lost, that’s what they’re most let from. And sex. Well that is one of the simplest and most thrilling ways to get it back again.
- Summer Brenner, from “Let Me Tell You How It Feels,” in The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self (David Steinberg, ed.)
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This morning was quick-ish, riding hard on the water and images not from a book, not from my own imagining, but a story you told me.
A story you told me… do you remember?
Do you know what that means?
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Twenty years ago, in 1992, I was a college sophomore in New Hampshire. I lived in a single room in a small dorm, right down the road from the co-ed fraternity where I would come out later that summer, maybe in a month or less. Twenty years ago this month, I still was a straight girl, dating a musician who also lived in my dorm. He had been to my home in Omaha, had met the abuser I called stepfather, did not understand why I cried so much, did not understand why I broke up with him and then begged him to come back to me. He wrote melancholy songs. Twenty years ago, the only “sexual” stories that got whispered to me, I mean the only fantasies offered directly into my ears when I was supposed to be getting off to them, were given by my stepfather, over the phone, during calls he made during breaks between his patients, or when he was home alone. (How do I use the word give, like it was a generosity, a kindness? I use the words of my experience — the violence was like that. Tender. Acquiesced to, ostensibly requested.)
It was my stepfather who first encouraged me to write about sex, but that came a year later.
When I went away to school, the way he continued to hold on to his control was via the tether of the phone. He kept me on the phone for hours, interrogating me about whatever psychological issue he’d decided I was suffering from and needed processing, conversations my sister and mother often also had to be present for, all of them sitting around the speaker phone down in the basement office or in the living room, me wrapping the white, twenty-foot cord around my arm, while I sat on my straight-backed wooden desk chair, looking out at the small clearing between my building and the Shabazz house.
And then, when my mother and sister were not present, he called and used a different voice. He wanted to come for me, or wanted me to come for him. And he already knew, didn’t he already know, that I would be able to actually come for him — even over that distance, even from 1500 miles away, even without his body directly presenting its threat, he knew I wouldn’t fake it. I was that adapted to his control. I was that interested in being worthy of escape, worthy of release. I believed him when he said that eventually he would stop and let me go (it would be another year and a half before I understood that he would never let me go willingly, that I would have to chew through the meat of my family and step out, clean bone, empty, orphaned, ready to be taken down for the audacity of wanting to determine my own body’s trajectory).
He gave me his fantasies, pushed them at me, wanted them to make me come. I learned to close my ears; the only way I could come during these instances of violence were when I shut out all external input — which, of course, was only mostly possible: still the words of vaguely non-consensual-but-ultimately-desired sex with minors, still the feeling of the vibrator on me, still the sound of his breath. I would shove into my own fantasy, get away from what he was doing in my ears — and the times that he came, alone, he called “quickies,” and it was my job to pretend like those turned me on.
I learned to hate the phone. I did not share my true fantasies. When I asked for those of others, I mostly wanted the power of knowing something intimate about them. I certainly never wanted anyone to talk to me over the phone about their fantasies while I fucked myself. It almost never happened.
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Twenty years ago I looked into a future that had no shape, and sex rode the place of distance — masturbation was both an attempt to give myself a little pleasure, and a pure rehearsal of trauma. Twenty years ago, I had no certainty about not getting away, because I could not see a future for myself at all.
Today I am stretching a ghost hand back to that girl, offering her a bold promise of embodiment. Today I am promising her it gets better, even though first it will get much much worse. Today I am holding her hand the way she, in a month and a half, will hold the hand of another woman during sex with a group of friends, the way that she, later, will hold the hand of a family member. Today I am cupping her sallow cheeks in my two hands: It isn’t just about getting free, Jen — it’s much much more than either of us could imagine. It’s about finally getting to fill out the long breadth of our skin. It’s about getting to tell the truth about what we want and pursue it. It’s about getting to welcome the sound of someone else’s desires and not being held captive or manipulated by those. It’s about home, Jen. You will get home. It will be harder than anything you can imagine now. But you will get home. And home will be this body that you are so desperate to escape from.
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If it feels right, let the sun on your body today, in your eyes, let the sun caress the soft skin of the ones still living on the insides of your bones, the ones in you that you protect by your very existence. Come just as you are. See you again tomorrow.