There was the butterfly knife. The idea of it, not the thing in reality—sleek, wicked-edged, the same kind of knife you once asked to borrow because you were walking home alone and you wanted to be the most dangerous thing out there. How he leaned in and said, “That’s the thing: if it got that intense, the knife would come out,” and you thought of the bite marks you treasured and wondered what kind of person could be comfortable saying that. He had already once lit a cigarette, cupping the flame so close to your face you thought your hair would catch fire. And you still kissed him.
But that’s what it was like, and it made sense then, your youth so shiny and wet like a temporary tattoo on the back of your neck. If you said yes enough, something would come from nothing, and all of a sudden you were so cool! And then you could say no. And there was power in that. Look at you sitting with your slim and lovely ankle propped on your knee, your eyes two fat strokes of liquid liner, jet black. It was such a surprise when you turned out pretty, because no one saw it coming except your mother, who still pulls your hair to the point of tears when she brushes it and doesn’t always tell the truth. Who just wants you to marry a nice man, a scientist. Who once knelt in front of you begging, “Please, please, just take it out, be my daughter again, take it out,” pressing her face against the carpet, crying, praying. This when you were newly eighteen, when your septum was pierced and you clung to that little horseshoe of stainless steel like a totem because it was your ticket to a desirable inexplicably hot yeah cool new you, baby. You promised you would take it out. You didn’t. It rode around inside you for years. Beast with a shiny snout.
You let boys press you up against brick walls and kiss you. You let them call you names, you liked some of the names, you liked being called a good girl, bad girl, you didn’t like being called exotic for reasons you weren’t yet able to articulate, you knelt in libraries and sucked dick. Because you were good at it, you kept doing it. It was something that made your heart beat fast and had an end point, like stealing, or reading a poem.
You kept breaking your own heart. You kept breaking your mother’s heart. When you thought about all the times you made her cry, you wanted to cry too, but you didn’t manage it, filling to the brim with that sick guilt. Your brother accused you of being cold. You stayed up that night, thinking, Am I cold? Am I unfeeling? A few years later, you lay in bed worrying about being lovable. You didn’t feel lovable. You didn’t feel lovable because you weren’t a white girl and you weren’t sure if there was even a space for girls like you, who looked like you, who fucked like you. There was someone in bed with you and he kissed your neck, and you fell asleep and woke up and he kissed your neck, and you were overcome with revulsion and then horror at your own revulsion, and you lay there, so still, your hair covering your face. You worried you weren’t letting yourself be loved. You worried it might never happen. That all this time, you were building a castle in the sky.
Meanwhile everyone was dying. It felt like everyone was dying. Every winter you felt like you were dying, too, and each spring there was another funeral that put the chill back into the briskness of March and April, and sometimes they were so young, as young as you were then, or younger even, and you cried and you cried and you cried not entirely out of sadness but out of fear. Because you were already so certain of your tininess in the world. You were not so narcissistic you couldn’t imagine a world without yourself in it, but your consciousness could not imagine itself gone. Even the womb theory—you weren’t sad that you didn’t exist before you were born!—doesn’t convince you, because you know you came into this world equal parts agony and love, the firstborn, the prodigal daughter, and so many generations came riding on your shoulders, your hair so long that if you lean down it touches the floor.
All that hope. All that hope inside you. So American, that the family tree might taper down to a fine, tiny point. So trembling with the possibility of “we came here for you.” You were terrified of failing. When your grandmother died one April, you stopped sleeping and shaved half your head. You had mailed a postcard to your grandparents’ house addressed to both of them, but it arrived too late and the memory of it haunts you still. You had to be something.
The knife or the idea of it scared you as it thrilled you, which was the reason you did most things. All the things you let men do to you. All the things you thought were okay because no one had ever said they weren’t. Because you didn’t know what love was, only what it was supposed to be. Because you already knew you liked being marked. That you wanted to remember. That you needed evidence. You the daughter of a woman who still recalls each item she brought with her across the Pacific. Daughter of a man who came with even less, with nothing. How they hung their dreams on you. How acutely you felt the weight of them.
You needed evidence. You needed people to tell you they loved you. Men fell into this easily. You liked to watch them come. If they were quiet you tried to make them squirm at the sight of you, crack the aching silence, you needed it. You needed that tangible. You needed to feel like you were there, present, in control, not drowning. That the knife could harm you but you were there next to it, power over it, not even you, just your body and the ghostly brain of you, when had you ever had that kind of power before? When had anyone looked at you with eyes so huge and dark before?
And in that quest for evidence, you let yourself become vulnerable again and again. You thought if you just stripped bare enough, someone would finally understand you. You wanted a story to fit into, and so you wrote for girls who looked like you, who had olive skin and angular eyes that they extended with winged liner. You let yourself be touched. You sliced ginger thin as paper and made tea of it for men who would leave you. You slept on different beds in different cities. When your heart seemed especially close to breaking you slept on the floor. You tried to give more than you took, but in exchange, you never learned how to ask for help. You wanted to love something so hard it would consume you. You didn’t know yet that you had to love yourself first. You had to work to get there. You had to work to find it.
On the heels of the last funeral, you flew to San Francisco to see someone you thought you were in love with, wearing the pair of white sneakers you bought at the beginning of the summer you were twenty years old. The whole time your stomach was somewhere in your throat and refused to come down. You sat at the top of Dolores Park and looked at the sky in its quivering blue and felt so permeable and poetic you thought your aching heart would burst. You drank wine and sat in the sun, and on Valencia Street you bought an air plant for a man who had already left you, who had forgotten you while you thought you were still being found. Tillandsia. It doesn’t need soil, only air and water. It’s a plant made for the desert, a plant made for leaving. You didn’t know any of this. You didn’t know. Already then you were sanding the surface of your self down for him, for anyone. Trying to make yourself so smooth and lovable.
You took the train from the Mission all the way to San Jose and the promise of that love or something like it made your breath skip at every stop, every redwood, every palm, you hung around like a teenager, anxious not to miss a thing. Your heart was unfurling like a flag. If you were naked enough, someone would love you. Maybe if you just kept on giving. Maybe that would be enough. Moving in a straight line down through the country you felt like a vector of pure want. Describing a path that would come to haunt you, the pilgrimage you made, the pilgrimages you would always make.
As you arrived in the city, the world seemed glimmering and nervous. In your head, you played the reel of the film you’d already made of your arrival again and again. You imagined it clear as a bell—how he would pick you up from the train station in his car, the one you’d spent so many afternoons running errands in, how you would lean across the gearshift and kiss him. You were certain that was how it would go, you couldn’t imagine anything else, but instead you walked a mile and found yourself standing in an apartment lobby waiting for nobody to come. And when you finally asked if he loved you, he said no. And when you tried to sleep that night, you were kept up by ghosts. And you realized so very quickly how little you had meant to anyone. And you realized so very quickly the dangers of traveling for love or what you thought it was.
And there you were, curled up in a ball on the balcony of a tall, horrifying apartment building in San Jose, dry heaving. And you picked yourself up and threw your cigarette butts into the pool six stories below, you always thought your art needed a California period; here it was and you did your worst. You didn’t sleep, but at seven you got up and left. And you flew home. And you kept making the same mistakes, but every time you made them you knew what you were making, and every time you changed a little, and every time you learned what it meant to be a girl like you. And the sky changed colors and you cut your hair. And you rode monsters in the dark. And you killed your own demons, and you nurtured some.
So you never knew, but you had to make it. You woke up wondering if you were allowed to be happy, you reminded yourself, yes, but it still felt like a gift. You were so undeserving. Eventually it felt okay. Eventually you let it. That’s not to say this is over. That the things that attract you will ever stop burning you. That you won’t carry dreams and expectations and the orders you have tasked yourself with, the beacon you have insisted on setting aflame and carrying, so bright, a light so incandescent you can’t believe that there is anything at all to block it.
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