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My Body to You
By Elizabeth Searle
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 1993 Elizabeth Searle
All rights reserved.
My Body to You
* * *
Above me, a boy is trying to guess my sex. He hangs from a metal bar by his long arms, his body suspended at a slant over mine. As the train jolts into motion, my head almost bumps his crotch. Maybe my new and bristling crewcut singes his zipper. He smells of subway: secondhand smoke, smothered winter sweat, year-old urine. The subhuman way, you call it. Eyes low, I scoot back on the plastic seat, my high-laced hightops pressing the shuddery rubber floor, firm as a surfer's bare feet on a board. Between my ankles, I grip my swollen overnight bag. I feel his eyes dart over my torso, lighting on three triangle points of interest. My oversized brown leather jacket—your jacket—is zipped; my jeans are baggy. My face is downcast. Nothing gives me away.
"We go-oh—" a drunk-sounding little kid calls out helpfully, his or her voice rising above the whine of the rails.
Metal shrieks. Loose face flesh jiggles. The train rocks and we rock with it. The hanging boy's body sways, long and loosely jointed. Under my zipped jacket, my breasts bounce. Can he see? My head feels bare, no more soft curtain of hair to hide behind. I raise only my eyes, only an inch.
A zipper glints between vertical lips of denim. As the boy shifts his weight, a diamond-shaped flash of white cotton shows. Surrender flag. Does he know it's open? Boldly, sizing up Another Would-Be Assailant, I follow his long legs. Usually I face bellies, not crotches. Usually I don't raise my eyes. Girls can't; bold boys can. This one has your sort of body: all bone and muscle, lean as a whippet. No visible jiggles. His bony knee twitches, rhythmically. Coursing With Hormones, you say, when you eye boys his age. His shiny fake leather jacket is held together with a bewildering array of buckles and zippers, shiny too. His collar is zipped, turned up à la James Dean.
Rebel Without a Brain, you'd murmur. And even here—underground, where it's dangerous—I give a full-lipped dare of a smile. Rebel flicks his eyes down to me, then quickly back up to the metal bar he grips. An elevator stranger staring at floor numbers. His Adam's apple bobs. A boy. Who thinks I'm another boy, coming on to him?
My hidden nipples prickle. Something to report to you, I decide, and we all lean left. Metal gives its plaintive subway shriek. Underneath the train's cradle motion, we feel in the fleshy parts of our bodies the jagged galloping rhythm of wheels clacking on track. Rebel's zipper vibrates delicately.
In bars, Man Ray or Monster's or Hot Bods or Crisis Cafe, you snuck shy, sly stares below the belt. Crotch watching. Only watching, you—Sister Kin, the Flying Nun—swore. I sat in the dark with you and fifty-odd men, 50 percent of them dressed as women.
We—the sub-human strangers and I—straighten again like blown candle flames. I blink, the white cotton diamond blurring. Rebel has stiffened both legs, standing at attention as if my smile had been a soldierly salute. Is this how boy flirts with boy? Wheels clack down the track, panting faster. I want, you know, to know. And what better time to find out than today, our wedding eve?
"We hee-ere!" the drunk kid screeches, matching the shrill pitch of the brakes.
As a TWA employee—a steward among stewardesses—you and your spouse are both entitled to fly for free. Wherever, whenever. All we have to do is get married. Officially. This is an official proposal, you told me over long distance, right after I told you I was giving up on men. But Birdy, you exclaimed in breathless imitation of a woman's voice, maybe mine, So am I!
Really? I grip my denim knees, tensing my hands so my boyish knuckles stand out.
At the last abruptly shuddering swerve, Rebel gives an Elvis Presley thrust. His jutting hipbones frame my forehead. What part of me might brush what part of him if I dare move? Tremulously, he holds his body in limbo-dancer pose. Underground etiquette.
My body pitches forward as the train straightens. A jolt. Real Sugar and Twice the Caffeine! I pull back fast, my whole head electrified. His cowboy cry was harsh, his crotch shockingly soft, a springy mushroom pillow. Just barely butted. Family jewels, your silken mother taught you to call your own, as if they were shiny and gemhard and indestructible. My scalp tingles. Fine hairs quiver on the bared back of my neck.
Swans, you murmured one night, in high school. We were watching To Have and Have Not on your mother's white leather couch. We never kissed, not then and not later. Swans, you repeated, rubbing your neck against mine, slow and hard. My neck felt long, curved, warm, then warmer. Your Adam's apple filled the hollow of my throat as if I'd swallowed it whole. This must be, your breath cooled my skin, how swans neck.
"Sorry," I mumble as the train brakes tighten their bite. And I raise my eyes to give Rebel a steely unapologetic Fellow-Teenage-Boy stare. Going too far, you might say, approvingly. My hardened lashes scratch my finest skin. Mascara. My one mistake.
His eyes—brown, but blank as blue—aren't quite centered over his nose. His train-shaken face is city white, speckled by purple. James Dean, with acne. I bend all the way forward, my head nearly centered between his black denim knees, my braless breasts swaying in your jacket. Do Family Jewels hang as soft and tender as breasts? A question no one on earth can answer.
Grabbing my overstuffed bag and tucking my chin to my collarbone, I spring up, jill-in-the-box. Swing your partner, doe-see-doe. I duck under the black leather bridge of his arms. Free, I tell myself as we bump hips. Both bony. We sway. My stop skids into view in murky underground light.
"Sor-ry man," Rebel mumbles under the climactic subway screech, deepening his voice to give both words the same sarcastic emphasis. I hug my stuffed bag and push past a flatfooted woman holding a sci-fi paperback close over her face. Caves of Steel. Metal scrapes metal, a chorus of high-pitched dog whistles, each straining to hit the same note.
Round the world, you've promised me, your voice as close to serious as you ever come. London, Cairo, Copenhagen, Tokyo.
En el caso de emergencia, a sign above the door starts to say, and Rebel elbows aside the oblivious Caves of Steel dweller, slips behind me. At the final jolt of the halt, he presses me against my overnight bag, his jacket crackling. I clench my ass muscles the way I do when, after a day of temp service typing in nylons and high heels, I feel a businessman press me in the crush of rush hour. My ass trembles, firm as any boy's. The scratched Plexiglas doors vibrate through my bag, trying to open. If you stood behind me now, would you think I was a boy? Would you feel—as I do for once, one moment—turned on?
I make a fist. In the past year, I've met a number of perfectly nice men. You know. My first Would-Be Affair lasted three weeks; my last, three months. A pattern that's begun to resemble the Morse code's international signal for distress.
I rap Plexiglas. On the other side, dumb waiting faces stare up. Smoky boy's breath fills my ear. If you're ever trapped in a locked car with some maniac clawing at the windows, Mother told me years ago, give the horn three short, three long, three short. SOS.
* * *
Blood love, you told me last night.
I blink, snow still studding my tarry lashes like tinsel. Snow explodes in the pale daytime headlights of the bus. Airport shuffle bus, you call it. I huddle up front, near the driver. Upholstery soaks in sound, no subhuman clangs or clatter. I feel but can't hear my stomach growl. One day empty. The bus rocks more gently than the train, trying to lull me. I sit straight, on alert. Freshly chopped hair must have fresh nerve endings, like cat whiskers. Through my hair, I feel Rebel behind me, straining to see me. He'd waited patiently for the bus, standing apart from the rest of us. He alone carried no bag. Sometimes on buses or subway trains, you spot certain men, strangers but for one night, and you whisper to me, Oh good, he's still alive.
"Buried," a balding old woman across the aisle mutters, a voice from underground. I smooth my damp bristly hair, what little's left. Mia Farrow, you exclaimed by phone last night when I told you I'd finally cut it. Mia Farrow, Rosemary's Baby, right? Was I right?
Always, I'd answered, picturing you stretched out under silky sheets. Your long hair falling over your bare shoulders like a black silk cape. Your eyes making black slashes in your white face. Kin Hwan. You say I am but really you're the one, the beauty.
I turn to my window, its green-tinted snowfall, and wonder if your bachelor party has started yet. Just a few old acquaintances, you'd told me. Where, I'd asked you, changing the subject. Where were we going for a honeymoon? Paris? Madrid? You hesitated; a Jolt soda can clanked your receiver. First, you said, you had to get off FL to NY, the Palm Bitch Run. Then, before we'd be granted license to marry, there was one more thing we had to do. Even if we didn't have to, you were going to. Tomorrow, before city hall. What? I'd asked, breathless like you. Another clank. Blood, love, you'd mumbled.
I lean left with the groaning curve of the bus, my eyes squeezed shut. And I mouth my favorite word to myself, to calm myself. Whip. My lips purse into a kiss shape. Pet. Whippet, whippet. She disappeared, you remember. The day you appeared. I slump back in my seat, not caring if Rebel sees. Weak already, so early in my fast.
Poor Panda. Mother named her for the black markings on her elegant white snout. The name didn't fit any more than a sleek leaping greyhound fits a fat lumbering bus. This one isn't even a Greyhound. It bumps along in fits and starts, stuck in slush-bound traffic. Whippets make greyhounds look slow. Whippets share the greyhound shape, you know, but they're smaller, more compact. A perfect miniature horse, disguised as a dog.
Panda loved to run and I loved to watch her. Mother and Stepdad #2 and I lived in South Carolina then, across the street from that vast, rolling golf course. Down the street from you. Summer daytimes, I sat in our front yard, peeling busted golf balls like eggs and fingering the tightly wound tangle of rubber band inside. One long rubber band, the color of muddy pee. How'd it get so dirty, in there?
Behind the trash bin, Panda clinked her chains, pacing. Head low, like a horse. Miles down Route 2, cars would rumble. Panda's ears would prick; her ribs would stand at attention. She'd yip—a poodle sound, unworthy of her—and I'd rush to the trash, grab hold of her chain, yell no no no into the roar of the approaching car. Links bit my palms; links dug into Panda's slender, desperately strained neck, all tendons and bones. Her tensed-up hindquarters quivered. The chain twisted and trembled.
Summer twilights, Stepdad #2 got home at six, after closing up the golf course. Then and only then, he'd release Panda for her nightly run. Off like a shot. I sucked in my breath and watched, not even minding Stepdad's hand on my shoulder, holding me in place. Not that I—anyone—could run like Panda.
Whippet, whippet, I whisper again, a warm upward rush of air in my throat. Bus rumble absorbs the name, her real name.
Whippet made the golf course wild. Her hoofed feet never touched the ground, like a soaring Greyhound Bus greyhound, only real. Her body became a white blur in the twilight. I'd strain my eyes to watch Whippet fly over greens that weren't, for this space of time, meticulously manicured greens but hills, valleys. Down my back Stepdad's hand would travel, slowly and lightly. Up over the swells of ground Whippet would swoop. At the golf course border, she'd skid in the short grass, her hoofed paws digging into turf. She'd turn heel, take aim, take off in the opposite direction. Pacing still, poor Panda.
Green glass vibrates. Under my half-zipped jacket, my breasts bounce as they do when I try to jog. That same pain. Across the aisle, the buried woman dozes. Her skull shows, clear and firm compared to her lumpy profile. Her jowls jiggle as if she's shaking her head. But it's the bus that's shaking her head, shaking all our loose flesh. Breasts, jowls, jewels.
TO AIRPORT, a giant green sign says, and a ramp rises up. The bus bumps, a bump we barely feel in our padded seats. Dentist seats, our bodies numbed. Can movement be muffled like sound? Above TO AIRPORT, a real airplane—startlingly huge—climbs air.
How come she comes back? I asked Stepdad, whose hand had stopped at the small of my back. I felt myself stiffen, though his touch was light. His hand rested there—no, anything but 'rested.' A long, long-fingered southern boy's hand. Only his fingertips touched me.
She's gotta eat, Sweets.
How come? I wondered, as Panda rasped and panted and choked down hard nuggets of dog food. Her dark eyes bulged, too big for her skull. A bird's skull, narrowing to a point. Even as she ate, her body remained graceful, shaped like a slender yet buxom superwoman. No soft flesh: only thin efficient hips overbalanced by a rib cage spacious enough to hold her largest parts. Her heart, her lungs.
I stand when everybody else stands. The bus exhales. Reaching for my bag, I swallow green-tinted air. Laughing gas. For years now, you've refused to take what your friends call, simply, The Test. Positive, negative. You didn't want to know, you said. Promised. I draw a deep steadying breath. The buried woman stays sunk in her seat. From above, her head looks bald as any man's.
My long neck rises to hold my head high as I start down the sky-ceilinged stretch of terminal. My crewcut bristles in the indoor chill. My bag bumps my legs. Blood, love, blood. My ankles scissor back and forth, my feet in my new hightops fast and soundless, no longer hobbled by heels. Fly for free, fly for free. Cautiously, I dart one glance over my shoulder. Not far behind me, a dark head bobs among the other heads. Its oily hair gleams. I turn back too fast to tell for sure. He has, I remind myself, no bag. And I pick up speed, wanting all at once, though I'm an hour early, to run.
Whippet. That was my one clear thought the summer I turned fourteen. I'd run away with her, run like her. The hot afternoon I first met you, Mother was out in a new man's car, her dirty white Mustang parked in the driveway. I paced beside it, on guard. Stepdad was due home anytime. We'd never been alone in the house together before, he and I, only in his car. Driving lessons. I'd steer us out to the red clay back roads, stop the car when and where he told me to. His rusted Vega. Did I hear it already, rumbling up Route 2? My rubber thongs flapped against my bare feet like wings in frantic flight. My long driveway shadow stretched out even longer as I crouched, as I fumbled with the knotted mass of Panda's chains, Mother's forbidden keys jangling.
Halfway down the terminal, I spot an arrow. I follow it, grateful for the blue and white picture, feeling too weak to read. I drop my bag with a muffled thud beside me, people rushing forward behind me. Six phones stand bolted together in two rows of three, back to back. I stare at the square, chipped push-tone dial. Some numbers have worn off. I try to remember the number I know by heart.
Somehow—how could be charted only later, by you, by a map of scratches and bruises—I'd gathered Panda up in my arms. A panic-stricken whippet, a force of nature. She whipped her body back and forth like a fish in a net, all muscle and bone and motion. She fought me the way I'd imagined fighting him. Her nails scraped my throat and tore my T-shirt and nearly clipped the nipples of my new breasts.
Somehow, forcing her front paws together and letting her back legs churn, I thrust Whippet through the open Mustang door, scrambled in behind her. In the front seat of Stepdad's Vega, I'd stared and stared at the mute steering-wheel horn, trying to remember what Mother told me about the Morse code. Two long, two short? Frantically, Panda scratched the window pane, her ears pricking up. Did she hear his not-so-distant engine? Mother's key turned between my bloody fingertips; my feet found the gas.
We roared down Route 2 at a crazy tilt, wheels sinking into a shallow red clay ditch. Late sun blinded me. Above the engine, Panda gave high screeching yips. My grip on the wheel tightened, my hands slippery wet. Where were we going? I'd glimpsed you before, of course, out in your yard, alone and quiet like me, and maybe that's why I swung into the first driveway past the golf course entrance, nearly crashing into the scrolled wrought-iron legs of your mother's carport. My first clear look: Kin Hwan, age fourteen, rushing outside to defend his mother's house.
I fumbled for the gearshift, bumped the headlights. Your face lit up, white as a Kabuki dancer's. Your spiky black hair exploded out around your head, ahead of its time, stiff with spray. When, frequently, your glamorous Chinese mother was out of town on business, you wore her robes. Before me, no one had ever seen you in silk.
Excerpted from My Body to You by Elizabeth Searle. Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth Searle. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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