Counting Bodies

By

I’ve been watching too many episodes of a now-canceled show, Crossing Jordan, about a medical examiner who is thin in a scrawny kind of way I haven’t been in years, the scrawny way I was for one year almost exactly, the year of nineteen. Twenty-five now, I float in the hot tub at night after swimming precisely twelve laps (a little over half a mile). I hold just enough air in my chest to keep from sinking while the jets push me in an uneven circle. I can see, on the wooden siding planks of the building next to the hot tub, glittering vertical trails left by snails. At some point it seems like every crime-show detective discovers a person in a hot tub. If I had to pick, I’d pick the Crossing Jordan characters to discover my body; the show doesn’t glamorize the dead the way other shows do.

I’m a connoisseur of crime dramas, but they all disappoint me eventually. They show their racist or sexist or sensationalist underbellies. I keep watching them, though, like I’m hoping for a fictional world where no one actually dies, where we just tell clever jokes over our adjacent desks and the sexual tension between our favorite detectives is palpable but never dangerous, the way that sexual tension always actually is. Where everyone goes home with the person who wants them back. Where the detectives can’t get the bad guy because there are none. A fictional world where the police aren’t prejudiced or insensitive, where there are no victims for the police to shame or disbelieve.

I loved Law & Order SVU—syndicated, always on when I needed it, until I couldn’t stand anymore the taste of the stranger-rape myth. Too, I have loved NCIS, until its racist, Islamophobic story lines became too much. The bad guy is always a terrorist, always brown. For several years, I fell asleep to police procedurals on my glowing laptop: Rookie Blue, Monk, The Finder, Southland, The Wire, White Collar, Castle, Cold Case, Dexter, Bones, The Mentalist. I watched Criminal Minds, the show about FBI profilers, mostly for the gorgeously severe Emily, until it gave me nightmares.

Even before I quit watching Criminal Minds though, I turned it off partway through if all the victims were women. I knew what was coming. Their thin, silent bodies written over with violence but modestly draped. The unseen “rape kit” procedure that will tell us what we already know. The camera dwells on her hands, her cold feet, her beautiful, tragic face. The detectives are almost always angry the way that good fathers are angry when they hear that their daughters have been raped, as if their anger is the only righteous thing left in a desolate world.

criminal mindsI have, like every other American, compulsively read and watched the stories of rape, twisted sexual desire, and captivity that dominate the news every year or so. This kind of sensational sexual violence is a glamour, a smokescreen. I know there are wounds that don’t make the headlines, that might not even rise to the surface of the skin. But they are. They exist. They keep existing even when no one makes a Lifetime movie about them. What it means to live in the body of a woman is to live with a more constant, a more mundane kind of violence.

The bodies they find in hot tubs aren’t pretty. If I were the body in the water, it would gently cook me. The idea of my body after I die isn’t a particularly sacred idea, but I would rather it wasn’t cooked. I fought for this body. I fought to keep this body after I decided I could live in it. More girls than not had eating disorders in the suburban town where I grew up, and who was I to be the odd one out? So I have wrestled to accept those infinite fifteen pounds that, in my head, stand between me and beauty. The nightly swims in my twelve-dollar Walmart bikini are a dare to myself: look at that belly, see how my thighs move in the water, there is no hiding. This is the kind of violence a woman gives to herself.

***

It would be easy to be numb to the bodies on the crime shows. For a while, I even masturbate while they play in the background. Not that I am masturbating to the shows; they are a distraction during the hours while I touch myself, and it is hours; I turn my face away from the screen while I come. The body dictates how long this lasts, the hours I spend fucking myself. There’s no harnessing or curbing it. As I come, I think of women with long, bright red hair laughing and then when it is over, I turn back to the women on the TV. I come every few minutes for hours until everything is drenched and I cannot wash the smell from my fingers.

My friend Kayla is a cognitive-science student on the East Coast, and while she is home for the summer we lie on our backs on the grass, talking about the embodied mind thesis. Most of it goes over my head, but what I understand is this: some scientists believe that the mind is shaped by the body; they are not two warring or separate factions. I imagine how my brain might be different if I were short instead of tall, black instead of white, a man instead of a woman. There are people who don’t agree with this theory of how the mind and body interact, but I’m a poet and not overly concerned with their arguments. What I know is that form and content shape each other. The particular body you live in; the particular mind within that body.

Kayla uses the word “embodiment.” To me, that word means the pouring of a self into a body as if the body were a jar—but as the self is poured in, the self becomes the shape of the jar, or perhaps it becomes the jar itself. In embodiment theory, there is no such thing as disembodied experience. What happens in our minds happens in our bodies and what happens in our bodies happens in our minds.

***

The year of nineteen, of weighing the right weight, I racked up over twenty sexual partners. If I had had a bed frame that year instead of a futon mattress on the floor, it would have had notches. “Call me your fuck toy,” I told the men. “Make me your dolly.”

What I meant when I said, “Make me your dolly” was I wanted them to fuck me as if I wasn’t there. As if I were disembodied. As if I were just a body. As if I were an object for their pleasure. It wasn’t “fucking my brains out”—they were fucking me as if I had no brains to begin with.

***

When the headlines read 3 women discovered in house after 10 years, woman’s body found, rape suspected, kidnapped, sexual slave, I feel sick. I feel sick when I read the rape statistics that do not make the headlines, too. The sickness I feel is lodged in my stomach, but it branches out in dark tendrils up my throat and against the insides of my temples. The sickness carries a kind of fear. Many days, it seems like to be a woman in the world is to be afraid.

hottubEven walking to the hot tub in the dark, in my nice suburban apartment complex, I’m afraid. I bring my head up from the water every minute or so to look around, make sure no one is watching. I don’t go at the same time every night, because. Because every crime drama has shown me that having a schedule is how stalkers know to find you.

The violences that women fear and the violences that women carry are violences of objectification, of involuntary disembodiment. The transformation of a human into a thing. There is a transformer, but there is no transformed: no matter how many violences we give to a woman, she does not turn into an object.

The year of nineteen, I took one of the men to a hot tub in an apartment complex near my college. We were both drunk, and I stripped off all my clothes and we made out. He pushed my front against the wall of the hot tub and pressed his body against my back. I didn’t want to have sex without a condom but he put himself inside me little by little. Every Monday for months after, I went to his room in his frat house and had sex without a condom because since I’d done it once, what was the harm in doing it again?

I don’t call this rape because to call that lightning down on this would mean to illuminate the tens of other nights I was too drunk to say yes. The nights I did not remember there was such a word as no. Those nights are beyond counting. What I’m trying to say is that what happened to my body happened to me, and there is no forgetting or separating it.

***

Over and over, what turns me off about the crime dramas is the way that a body is an object. Over and over, the body is a woman’s body. Her body speaks in evidence: fingernail scrapings, semen traces, errant skin cells, a stray hair, defensive wounds. The woman is an object that only becomes important when she is dead.

***

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p.e. lives and writes in Northern California. Her poetry can be found in Ninth Letter, The Journal, and Birdfeast, among others. More from this author →