- Speak, Body
Where does the language of a body begin?
My first trip to the United States, when I was four, was the first time I became aware of the interrelatedness of bodies; how bodies can speak to one another, how they can impose.
On the TWA flight from Lisbon to San Francisco, the flight attendant told me with a smile that she would throw me out of the airplane if I didn’t get off my mother’s lap and buckle my seat belt in my own seat. I looked to my mother’s face and saw her smile, too—that nervous, white smile, her eyes so bright and beautiful. She was my home, so I did as I was told.
One night, at my aunt and uncle’s house in northern California, the adults struggled to dress me. They wanted me to wear pants and I wanted a dress. I ran away from them; my father caught me and spanked me—it didn’t hurt, and I fought on. Then my aunt picked up the yellow rotary phone on the wall and announced that if I did not put on my pants she would call the police to arrest me. And I did as I was told.
Another detail from that trip: lying in bed between my mother and my aunt—the two women I would come to call “my mothers.” I was flanked by their soft bodies under heavy wool blankets and between their pilled flannel nightgowns. We were on the foldout couch that would one day become my bed, and I was drinking warm milk in a ridged glass bottle. They talked about what I did to my dolls. They found it odd for a child my age. They spoke about [End Page 133] me openly, as if I didn’t understand their language. I did. And the low tones in their voices told me that there was something wrong in my play, in my joy of making bodies come together. Their whispers told me that knowledge and command of a body were to be kept hidden.
Bodies were a quiet and uncomfortable topic for my mothers. The summer I was nine and hurtling towards ten, I was visiting my aunt again in the United States, as I had every summer since I was seven. One day, she walked in on me playing “house” with a boy, the son of family friends.
It was his idea that he play the husband and I play the wife. We stood between the bed and the dresser as he told me how it would go. Although I understood his English fairly well, I couldn’t verbalize the discomfort I felt at his proposal.
The husband is on top because everyone knows the man is always on top, he explained. I hated his buck teeth.
I stood, looking at my friend, uncertain of what I should do—the lesson of accommodation already embedded. For a moment, he too looked uncertain, but then he pulled me down to the floor with him. I lay back on the pistachio-green carpet, and he got on top of me. He was quite a bit shorter, so in order to reach my face to kiss me, he dug the toes of his tennis shoes into the top of my feet. I grabbed at my shorts to make my body as rigid as possible. Perhaps if I made myself as stiff as a rock he would realize the whole thing wasn’t fun at all. Then he began rocking back and forth on top of me, gaining momentum from toeing at the carpet and at my ankles—like some kind of blind, eager newborn creature.
My aunt walked in, stood at our feet for a moment, then walked out.
She waited until bedtime. She did not talk about what the boy and I had been doing. She did not mention my body or even his. She didn’t talk about the boy at all.
She sat on the bed next to me. “Here is what I dreamed for you.” She spoke slowly, her voice low and controlled as though...