My Body, My Machine


While I was out running this morning, I passed two men on the path. I run a six-mile route routinely, out and back on a paved trail that winds twelve miles through the woods behind my house, and I often see the same people each day, the same people who wave and nod hello though I’ll never know their names. It is a trail that makes me feel safe enough to wear earbuds when I run. It is a trail that makes me feel safe enough to let down my guard and look only for bluebirds and cardinals and the occasional shy deer. But when I passed these men I could hear them yelling at me, even above the sound of my earphones. They were not saying hello. Whatever they were saying, it was not friendly. My body went rigid when I knew I’d have to pass them again, on my way back home.

When I spotted them ahead, on my way back, there was no one else around.  I slowed my pace, considered running back the way I’d come.  Then I saw a biker far behind them.  So I ran.  I ran fast.  I ran as fast as my body would let me, so I would pass the men at the exact time that the biker did, so I would never be alone with them in a long stretch of otherwise empty woods.

They yelled at me anyway.  I ignored them.  I don’t know what they were saying.  I know it was some combination of lewdness and denigration.  I just kept running, away from them, far enough around a bend and up where I could see a few other bikers and walkers until I could finally slow my pace, a pace that slowed long before my lungs finally relaxed.

I am a runner.  I have been running for years.  I run not only for my health, and not only because it feels as natural to me as breathing.  I run so I can inhabit my own body.  I run so that in moments like these, when my lack of power in this world becomes more violently apparent, I can feel the strength of my own body, enough to ignore provocations, enough to know alone that I could destroy both of those men if I wanted.

In some corner of my mind, I know this isn’t true. I know that no matter how much weight I can bench press, no matter how hard my muscles get, no matter how much of a machine my body becomes, it will never be enough.

But it is something still, to feel my every fiber in my body coalesce. It is something to feel them gather in defense before a threat, to feel for one moment that I am more powerful than the world will ever know.

Because the world doesn’t know. Why should it? I realize over and over again, in so many different situations, that I live in a world that isn’t mine. A world that wasn’t built for me. I live in a world where there are threats, big and small. Threats that rear themselves when I least expect it, when I think I can at last relax. Threats that I must selectively ignore or they will consume me, whether I am on a path and two men remind me that there is nowhere, anywhere, that is safe, or whether I am inside the benign walls of a bank or a doctor’s office, assuming that I am receiving the same service as everyone else until a single question quietly explodes the room.

My husband and I talk. I am aware that doctors and bankers ask him, What do you do? I am aware that they ask me, Do you work? I am aware that yes isn’t enough, that part-time will be the next question. I don’t have a problem with part-time work or not working. I have a problem with assumptions, the ones that are made as soon as I walk into a room.

Last fall I went to the bank to open a new account. I met with a man who sat back in his office chair and asked me these same questions, and when I’d finally convinced him that I could open an account – even though he had my existing accounts and full-time employment information open on his computer – he leaned forward and laughed and asked, Sweetie, do you know what you’re doing?  Something animal in me took over, the split decision to get up and leave immediately. I walked out of the bank. I drove home in a capsule of silence, the radio off. I was shaking with anger. The bank branch called me that afternoon but I never answered the phone. That man was later fired. I then met with a new man, one who was much friendlier, but who still asked me why I didn’t take my husband’s name and whether that hurt his feelings, and whether I worked outside the home even though, again, my employment information was wide open on his computer for both of us to see.

My body sat with me in that bank. My body reminded me that even though this man perceived a small child of a woman, I perceived something else.

My body reminds of who I am constantly. It reminds me that I am here. A few weeks ago my husband and I went to a minor-league baseball game, and we got to talking with one of the stadium attendants. It was over 100 degrees outside and I stood with a sweating beer while this man told my husband about the last road trip he took in a sweltering heat wave, down to St. Louis for a Cardinals game even though it was 105 degrees outside. This man shared the knowing conspiracy of a ballgame with my husband, why such a trip would reign important beyond heat. Though I tried not to count, the attendant never looked at me once. I know heat.  I know road trips. I also grew up in St. Louis with the Cardinals on my television every night, saw more games each year than I can rightly count, and have traveled back to Busch Stadium each year for at least one game every season, including 100 degree days. But baseball is for men. In that conversation, I was invisible to this man. As invisible as I become in countless other conversations about politics and current events, about fantasy football teams – which, it is still believed, my husband secretly manages for me – and about philosophy or film history or the time signature of a piece of music.

My body is a secret. My body is my shield. My body reminds me that even in moments when I am blindsided by how easily I am ignored, meant to only stand by instead of engage, my muscles are working beneath the surface. They are silent and hard, a sleeping giant when my neighbor shouts another joke across our shared yard but only to my husband, this time about how men make money only for women to spend it. They brace me against thoughtless comments. They replace the void that being unexpectedly shut out of a conversation leaves. They remind me that I am stronger than the world will ever make me feel.

But my body can betray me. It can deceive me, and it can confuse me. I don’t know how to be inside of my body comfortably unless I know it as a muscle. I don’t know how to own my body as attractive. I don’t know how to be attractive because it is what is expected of me as a woman, and I have worked so hard to reverse every other expectation of my gender.

I don’t know how to wear a dress and be the person I want to be inside of it. I don’t know how to wear a dress and not be taken immediately for an object, something pretty. I can wear dresses. I like them.  I wish I could reappropriate them more easily as my own. But I feel most like myself in jeans and a hoodie, clothes that obscure my femininity, as if femininity were a bad thing – but the world tells me that it is. In this world, I am more myself in clothing that obscures my body entirely so that only I can know it.

I see the sadness in this. I feel it when I can look at myself in the mirror sometimes and see that my body is not only armor, but actually lovely and striking in its curvature and its capabilities. I feel this when my husband grazes his hand over my thigh and tells me playfully that I have nice legs, and I only want to tell him, But don’t you know what they’re for?

I want my body to be more than armor. More than function. I want to think of it as something beautiful for beauty’s sake, built for pleasure and appeal and loveliness. I want to wear dresses without fear of what I will become to the world by wearing them, since wearing jeans and t-shirts and an old pair of Keds can’t obscure any better that I am a woman, in the end. I want to be able to hold my hands against my stomach and feel the wall of muscle beneath them and think of something beyond protecting myself, beyond reminding myself that I am really here.

But it is hard. It is hard when I go out for a morning run and there are two men suddenly blocking my path.

It is hard to choose between being one of two objects, a target or a machine.

And so my body is a machine, undisclosed to the world. A machine that offers me power, for myself alone, even if no one knows it exists.

Anne Valente is the author of two novels, The Desert Sky Before Us (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2019) and Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016), as well as the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014). Her fiction appears in One Story, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and the Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult and the Washington Post. More from this author →