My teammates’ hands reach for a touch, their fingers wiggling like sea anemones in my periphery. In the car ride home, my father teaches me the word charisma.
Creative Nonfiction by Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz
I pay $3.48 for a cup of coffee every morning. I do not feel bad about the cost. It is the quietest part of my day, and the coffee is so strong that sometimes I feel like I’m floating above the pages of my notebook, peering down, as if I’ve left my body. Today there is a perfectly preserved lipstick stain on the rim of my mug. I ask the barista for another.
I am reminded of the summer when I am eleven. My gymnastics teammate Vanessa invites me and two of her school friends to her family’s house on Cape Cod. I use my spending money to buy Starburst and lipstick that smells like Starburst. It is the first makeup I have ever owned, and I will hide it from my mom when I go home. At night Vanessa and I try to fall asleep in splits to improve our flexibility. I give up after an hour. It is the first time my joints feel old. Vanessa’s friend Lissie bullies me all weekend. She shoves a fistful of sand down my bathing suit. I rinse it out of my crotch in the hot, sticky beach bathroom. It is the first time I notice how many folds a vagina has.
When I am a toddler, I eat sand—from the beach, from the sandbox, from the craters where it collects in the driveway. I can still see myself bringing fistfuls to my mouth. It satisfies a deep urge. In a high school psychology class, I will learn about pica, a psychological disorder characterized by an appetite for non-nutritive substances, possibly caused by mineral deficiencies. I will start to wonder when my father started putting the family on a diet. The sand comes out in my poop. I still remember what it feels like.
When I am thirty, I sometimes go days without pooping. My kitchen cabinet is filled with digestive aids—Benefiber, psyllium husk, Miralax, activated charcoal, magnesium. Nothing works. The top half of my body feels like it is not my own. WebMD doesn’t list being a closeted lesbian as a cause of chronic constipation.
I don’t realize that my uncle is gay until I am in my twenties. All I know is that he has a best friend named Ted and a lot of problems—alcoholism, unemployment, missing teeth. When I am in college Uncle Mark wins $70,000 on a scratch ticket. Unable to believe his good fortune, he and Ted vacate their lives and buy a house in Florida and go broke again.
My mother believes that our family is blessed with good luck in randomized contests—lotteries, raffles, cake walks. My mother wins a drawing for a catered backyard clambake just in time for my sister’s sixteenth birthday. Sucking lobster meat from claws, running through the lawn, mingling with teenagers, golden Indian summer rays speckling the grass. It all feels magical, like I’m watching a cherished, sepia-toned home video. My father wins a witch puppet at a school auction. Reaching hands into its plush gloves makes the witch’s hooked nose come alive so convincingly that my heart races when my father reaches for it. This is one of the only ways he is able to get through to me—disembodied, ducking behind the witch’s wiry locks, reaching toward me menacingly.
When I am three years old, my father carries me through a haunted house at the local elementary school despite my protests. The man getting his leg fake-sawn off reminds me of the Tin Man, and I laugh. I can handle this. But when we reach the witch stirring a cauldron of body parts, my soul leaves my body. I win a costume prize in the three-year-old category. I am an eagle. My mother constructed a beautiful beaked mask out of paper, glued grey felt feathers to my hooded sweatshirt. In a daze, I accept the prize: a booklet of McDonald’s coupons.
I am ten, and clutching a first place team trophy at the top of a plywood podium. My teammates’ hands reach for a touch, their fingers wiggling like sea anemones in my periphery. In the car ride home, my father teaches me the word charisma. You know why your teammates backed away and let you claim that trophy? Because you have charisma. I reject his assessment. He must be describing a different me. Years later I learn that the word reentered common modern usage to describe JFK’s presence.
My mother tells me where she was on the day of JFK’s assassination. We are watching The 60s, a TV miniseries starring Julia Stiles. I don’t quite believe that my mother can remember such granular details of a distant event until 9/11 happens a few years later. I am in biology class when we are summoned over the PA to the gymnasium. The superintendent reads the headline from a shaking sheet of printer paper. Students scatter and stagger back to their third period classes. I stay behind. Lee, the boy I just dumped, comes up from behind and sits with me on the wooden bleachers, but one row down. Are you scared? he asks. I say no, because I’m not, because I haven’t seen the footage yet. Because my father hasn’t yet recognized Muhamed Atta’s face as his seatmate between Boston and Dallas a few months earlier. Atta spends most of the flight wandering the aisles. A brief brush with terrorism.
In 2013, I live a few doors down from the Boston Marathon bombers. On the morning of April 19, I am awoken by a text from my sister: a photograph of my street covered in caution tape. I am groggy and don’t understand how I could be sleeping in a crime scene. My instinct is to duck below the windows and crawl to the shelter of my living room. Moments later an FBI agent knocks on my door. We need you to evacuate. I ask her how fast. She shrugs. Three minutes. Later I will watch CNN footage of myself leaving my apartment. I look calm, focused. I am carrying a tote bag of essentials: granola bars, books, and the New York Times. I look like a confident woman, not like myself. Friends text me to tell me that I made the news. I seek refuge at my sister’s house. We take a walk before the lockdown is lifted so that I can buy a toothbrush. We watch Dzhokhar’s capture on a TV in the corner market.
I think of all of my late-night shopping runs. Richdale when I forget to bring my toothbrush to a sleepover. CVS, in a cold sweat, for Pepto Bismol, before I realize that I’m allergic to mushrooms. 7-Eleven for condoms, the boy holding his hand possessively on my knee as we drive the five minutes from his house and back. In the morning I will drive myself to Rite Aid to buy Plan B because I don’t trust him or the condoms.
When I am five, I find a library book about sex in the children’s non-fiction stacks. I sneak away to page through it every time we visit, on the ready to cover it with a book about sea otters or chimpanzees if my mother approaches. At home I sneak into my sister’s bedroom to page through What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls. I closely study the illustrations of a woman’s changing form, arranged like the evolving man diagram but full frontal. I place my finger on the slightly taller but still narrow-hipped and flat-chested one—that is where I want to stop.
Every winter I attend a gymnastics meet where I can watch some of the girls I once coached, though they are starting to go off to college now. They were pre-middle school then, all long limbs bound together by rippling abs, legs like sure-footed foals. Now their quads have more substance, less tone, and their body language speaks of adolescent uncertainty. I feel sad for them, for the passage of time. I want to tell them, do not mourn your optimized gymnastics size, do not look back. But I’m sure that they feel it, that disconnect when they see new components of their bodies shake as they practice leaps in front of the mirror.
Through most of my childhood, I play a game in the upstairs bathroom, where the medicine cabinet is composed of three hinged panels of mirror. Folding open the two outer mirrors and sticking my face inside: that is the game. My face is reflected ad infinitum around me, like I am a giant head fraternizing with similar heads in a glamorous glass ballroom. I stay until I don’t recognize my own face, until my body doesn’t feel like mine, and I cackle in delight until I spook myself and come back.
I always come back to my body, willingly or not. I close the pages of my notebook, and the floor rises to meet me. I run my thumb over the dried mahogany drips that now stain the rim of my mug. I tip it back once more, but only the essence of coffee remains. I do not feel bad about being back. I pay $3.48 for a cup of coffee every morning so that I can visit these, these moments when soul leaves body. They are how I will remember myself when I’m gone.
Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. She is a librarian at Cambridge Public Library, where she leads a reading group and a creative writing workshop. Before pursuing her MLIS, she worked as a Spanish teacher, a gymnastics coach, and a bookseller. You can find her on Twitter @ohhsusannah.