Lacuna (n.): a blank or missing portion of a manuscript, from Latin lacuna “hole, pit,” figuratively “a gap, void, want,” diminutive of lacus “pond, lake; hollow, opening.
I was in love with the Khalili sisters. There were three of them: Rebecca, the oldest; Noa, the middle child; and Laleh, the baby. Rebecca was probably eight or nine years older than me, and Laleh was maybe three years older than me. Noa somewhere in the middle. Their mother was best friends with my grandmother. My grandparents and the Khalilis spent summers together in South Lake Tahoe. Although there was a twenty-year age gap between the couples, they liked the same things: food and gambling and boating and sunshine. My grandparents also had three girls, all adults by then. Their oldest was my mother.
I saw the Kahlilis every summer for at least a decade, starting when I was old enough to form memories, and lasting until I was in middle school. They splashed in the icy water with me at the beach. They sat with me on the bow of my grandparents’ boat. They laughed at my antics and encouraged my precocity. They were my beautiful almost-cousins, and their mother was as sweet to me as if I were her own grandchild. After long days of summertime activities, we all came back to the same modest condo complex, where my grandparents owned a three bedroom second-story apartment, and the Khalilis owned a similar layout on the ground floor. Those summer evenings are all endless bowls of guacamole and a barbecue full of chicken smoking in the courtyard. The color palette is forest green and maroon, the shades of my grandparents’ velour-covered furniture and thick carpet. Those nights smell like vodka gimlets (for the adults) and cream soda (for the girls) and sound like a casino floor: the clank of slot machines and the hustle of bodies through the walkways to the restaurants only. Not allowed to linger.
The Khalili sisters are eternal teenagers in my mind. They are always young and beautiful and sitting on plastic loungers by the apartment complex pool. I lay on my belly on the cement deck between them, swimsuit leaking water, stamping the shape of my body on the ground. The wet of me evaporates in the sun. They smell like coconut oil sunscreen. Rebecca’s and Laleh’s skin is honey brown. Noa, the redhead, can’t tan, and her skin is milk-flecked with oatmeal. She sits under an umbrella sometimes, or wears a big hat. They are the most beautiful things I have ever seen with their long hair and their flat bellies and their hips and their thighs and their breasts and their bikinis.
I still hadn’t encountered myself as a teenager, and didn’t know what it felt like to embody desire. I knew what desire meant, and maybe what it was supposed to look like: a magic pull between people, unexplainable, potent, unescapable. I knew that someday, if I was lucky, someone would desire me. I had no idea how that would feel: to be wanted. To be pulled. To have someone compete for my attention like a reward.
I went after the Khalilis’ attention directly, shamelessly. When I remember them now, I feel something like an apology. It’ s almost as though I’ve become a wolfish old man lusting after these teenage girls. I died when they let me shower with them, sit in their room, watch them dress, fix their hair, smell them, see them, breathe them in, touch them, play near them, play with them. At the time, I wouldn’t have called it lust. I would have called it love, maybe even something like family.
We played cards all the time. Five card draw poker, twenty-one, slap jack, crazy eights, hearts, and a game my grandma taught us called golf. Sometimes they would play memory with me, where we tried to find matches in a grid of little cardboard squares with pictures.
Memory was my best game.
But my favorite game was something we called the tie-up game. I don’t remember who started it, or why. But we played the game often, over a period of years, and once we’d created it, I asked to play every time.
It went like this: find a kitchen chair. The best kind have the backs with slats or bars, not a solid piece. Place the victim in the chair. Tie their hands. Tie their legs. Tie their body in every conceivable way you can think of with every kind of tie-able thing. We’d use belts and scarves and jump ropes, whatever we could find laying around. Blindfold the victim, and leave them there.
They only get out if they can get themselves out.
I grew up in a tiny rural town. My parents were quite liberal, my mother in particular. She believed that the naked human body was natural, and that sex was nothing to be ashamed of. Or at least that’s what she told me. Sex is a part of life; there is nothing to be ashamed of in sex. She meant penis-vagina intercourse. It was the only thing that was ever labeled “sex” in my house. I remember once, in elementary school, I seeing an episode of a talk show where they mentioned “oral sex.” I was utterly confused about what that could mean, and decided that it must be like oral reports, which we gave at school. I couldn’t imagine any other thing that it could be.
I was steeped in traditional values, even if my family wasn’t particularly conservative. It was the 1980s.
My grandparents lived in San Francisco; my mother was born and raised there. When they weren’t visiting us at the lake, we often visited them in the city. I knew from an early age that there was such a thing as gay men, and that they had their own neighborhood full of rainbows and Judy Garland posters: The Castro. I suppose at some point, I reasoned out that if two men could be together, two women could also. But I don’t remember ever hearing the word lesbian until I was in middle school, and then only as an insult.
My mother’s middle sister, my aunt, dated and lived with a woman for years. They came to family celebrations and stayed with us for overnight visits. I knew they were together. But nobody said lesbian, and to this day, I don’t think of my aunt as queer. (I’ve never asked if she thinks of herself that way, either.) That my aunt had a girlfriend was just a fact without a word.
A little lake in the landscape of language.
How do you write an absence? A blank? How do you note a thing without language for it? Without a concept? How do you point at emptiness and capture its meaning?
In If Not, Winter, Anne Carson offers one answer. In her 2002 translation of Sappho, Carson used brackets and blank space to hold the emptiness surrounding the fragments. Carson’s translation is just one of hundreds of translations of the same fragments of Sappho’s poetry. Sappho lived before the birth of Socrates and Aristotle, before there was a written Iliad or Odyssey. Classicists theorize that she may have been illiterate, that her poems were recitations that accompanied music played on a lyre. Lyrics, written down later. What we know about Sappho for sure is a pithy handful compared to what we have filled in.
That is my instinct when there is a gap or a hole or a blank. Like a cultural Mad Libs: fill it in, fill it in. I feel an anxiety to name things, to sort and classify. Whatever it is, blank spaces are both imaginal portals and terrifying voids. My mind pushes me to name it, to flood it with meaning, to explain, to hypothesize, anything to claim the absence.
In If Not, Winter, Carson explains, “Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”
Carson gave the absences as much meaning as the words.
I don’t remember learning the concept of gender before my freshman year of college. In a theater studies class, we read Judith Butler’s “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Shortly after, I went to see a play where a female actor was cast as a character originally scripted male. One of the wonderful things about college was the synchronicity of concepts that would happen occasionally, almost as if they were acts of God. I had just read how gender was a series of actions repeated to create the illusion of man or woman. I was an actor; performativity made perfect sense to me. I performed everything all the time, even if I wouldn’t admit it. I did it consciously and unconsciously, but I always felt like I was “doing” the roles of girl, teenager, daughter, best friend, sister, and granddaughter.
Sitting in the dark of that blackbox theater at NYU, I watched this woman perform as a man. She moved like a man and said lines that were written for a man to deliver. The character fell in love with the frilly female lead. When they kissed on stage, something electric pulsed in me. After the performance, I ran out of the theater and back to my dorm and sat in the courtyard smoking terrible menthol cigarettes, brooding.
What was that?
What did it mean about me?
Fragment 31 (excerpted from If Not, Winter):
fire is racing under skin
In 2017, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett published a book called How Emotions Are Made. A neuroscientist and psychologist, Dr. Barrett says that emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed or recognized. They are concepts built by us, over time. They are socially constructed ideas that we plaster over experiences. From the beginning, our parents teach us what to call objects: ball, tree, dog. According to Dr. Barrett, they also teach us how to label emotions: sad, hurt, joy. What we perceive as intrinsic feelings that we have no control over are actually just our brain’s best guess at what concept applies to a situation. There is no universal experience of any emotion at all. We simply guess that other people feel things the way we do, or project our concepts onto them.
If nobody tells you what to call a feeling, your emotions have a gap.
What does it mean to fill a gap in meaning-making, in narrative, in a life, in a form?
For thousands of years, poets have filled in the spaces between Sappho’s fragments. They have taken her lines and added text. They have imagined a context, created a biography from the thin scraps of fact that exist.
Where in my life are the holes? The silences? The lacunae waiting to be filled with meaning, or never filled and left void?
It occurs to me that there is something feminine about this experience. The way that people feel entitled to project their versions of things onto you, to fill you with their meaning. The way that your life becomes important through other people’s stories about it. Then again, I’m not even sure I know what feminine means anymore. The concept is riddled with holes and mysteries.
A child I’m close with has been identifying as “neither” a boy or a girl. It’s forced me to look at what those boxes mean to me, what that child is saying. What is a boy? What is a girl? What does it mean to be neither? I’m not interested in telling the child the answer (unless they ask me for one). I’m interested in telling myself. What does it mean to be a girl? How much of girl is a decision I made? How much of girl is the collection of characteristics pushed into our bodies by society? How much of girl is performance? How much of it a blank space for us to write ourselves?
It’s an exercise in madness to ask who I might have been or what I might have chosen for myself if I were given better language. There is always the problem of words and what they signify, the gap between the word “girl” and the picture in your head, and the picture in my head, and the fact of a body in the world. Words can never really capture meaning. Derrida called this différance. Even so, sometimes life hands you a lens, and when you look through it, things that were blurry come into focus. That’s what it was like for me.
Or, as my friend Katharine Coldiron offered: linguistic empowerment.
Picture me: ten years old. I sit in the chair but I can barely contain myself. They tie me with belts and scarves and jump ropes. They cover my eyes. They whisper and giggle and finally, they leave me. I do make it out, eventually. I don’t remember ever not making it out. I beg them to do it again.
Or: Noa is in the chair. I wind a jump rope around her thick red hair. I tie it to the chair. I wrap a scarf around her head, and put it in her mouth like a gag. I belt her creamy thighs together and cinch the latch on the underside of the chair. She can’t move. She’s stuck. She belongs to me. I blindfold her and turn off the lights, but I don’t run away. I sit nearby and watch as she struggles and moves in the chair. I delight in the noises she makes, the helplessness of her with no hands and no eyes. She makes me dizzy. Thirsty. I have to run when she works the blindfold off. I can’t let her see me.
Later, I shove a pillow between my legs. Everything burns in my body, and then my low belly explodes like a starfire. I am a comet. I am a supernova. I am throbbing. I pull my fist out from under the pillow and press my hand against my face. I don’t have words for what I feel. I can barely catch my breath.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
As I adjust to my new role of managing editor, I will be taking a break from The Thread, at least as a monthly gig. I hope to still publish here when inspiration strikes. – mk
The Thread is a literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Leigh Hopkins. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.