A Girl-Body Filled with Animals
On sunny days I take to the woods. A drape of pine branches and a muddy stream so demure it dries up in the summer leaks by. Here is a flat part of the stream bed. Here is a rock, large and dry to hold my coat, my phone, the things as I shed. The winter sky biting at me sharp blue, the sun perched high. In the light my skin turns pink and I know the heat will rise when I start to move, from that deep place I have come to dislodge so I can roll the embers from the wounds, let the fire radiate and ripple out beneath my flesh.
I keep my mask elasticked around my wrist. The woods are quiet and the path is wide, but to leave it out of reach makes me anxious. And I am here, above all else, to chase down the anxiety that is rattling in my bones now, marrow deep. In my ear, the music comes. I give thanks each time I start for this miracle of technology. If we cannot be together then at least we have this magic, to summon a lifetime of vibrations. The song you bopped to as a toddler, spun around by your parents. The ballad that roared as you took your first kiss. The lament that shook the speakers at your grandmother’s graveside. Any music in your mind, there at a swipe. Rushing your thoughts away, sweeping you clean.
I fire up a song and my body goes to work. Which means my eyes close and my arms raise, probably, and my chin rises up to the sky or tucks in. Either way I’m moving, dancing now. Riding the current that is here, even in the lonely woods, of so many bodies toiling on earth. Straining up against gravity, breaking free from the downward pull of this hard world’s churning decay. We are all so lonely now. My heart is so big as it fuels me, my mind gone to nothing but lightning rocketing my legs, my hips, my snapping neck and arms. I hook into the music and I shake. I toss. I roll. I dance and dance until the meat of me starts to falter and ache. The ether of me flexes, gathering strength.
I start dancing on my lunch breaks. Which is a misnomer, these days, when you are fortunate to work remotely. Work has been flattened to pixels on a screen, voices scratching out from a box. When the year finally changed and we shifted from the reckoning of 2020 to the weary purgatory of 2021 something old inside me split open its eye. I am a woman in the middle part of her life, but I am still also just a girl-body filled with animals. Animals that are tired and want only to feed, lick their pelts clean, and sleep. Animals that are soft pets, yearning to be held. Animals that are fanged and fierce, ready to stomp the ground.
Me and my animals traipse the paths that wind the woods around the house I’m occupying back home in North Carolina. When the virus came last March, after fifteen years in New York City, the animal in me that stays devoted to the pack ran swiftly down south to be near my family. Where I am now, still. Zooming, cooking, scrolling. Scrolling, watching, reading. Fretting, crying, scrolling. There was a year of stillness before I hatched back to some kind of life. Before the animals of my body awoke, stretched out and growled enough.
It’s the afternoon and I’m out here by the stream. I push the tiny pods in and music tunnels through my ears. The wave catches in my back to my shoulder, down to my wrist and sputters out my hand. My arms pump, then roll. I wind then I drop, and bounce up because I have caught it. I am where I want to be, living in the swell. The vibration of the music fuses with the frequency of my insides, stirred up finally to this new shake and verve. Then I really move. Spinning on the creek bed while mud churns up to dirty my boots. Sometimes others pass on the trail above and I close my eyes, let whoever stare all they want. Let me be seen in my flailing joy. What looks vulnerable to some I know to be my greatest power.
The first time I felt the urgency to dance was the summer before my body, and then my life, changed. I was eleven years old and on the brink of middle school. My sister and I had always taken dance lessons, so there had always been recitals: terrible ordeals of spandex, fringe, and makeup that crawled on my face. I practiced relentlessly in the playroom, checked my form in the mirrored walls installed when we moved in. I recorded music videos from MTV and mimicked, rewound. When I wasn’t moving my body I danced in my mind: running the steps at night when I laid in my bed, when I spaced out during church service, when I stared out the window of our station wagon at the livestock flecking the fields that ran out in every direction. Some nights I popped popcorn, herded my family into the playroom, and made them watch me perform. There was nothing in the world I had ever needed to do quite like dance.
It was that time in my life just after elementary school, before I was thrust forward into the terrible years of girlhood. I began to bleed each month, to register pangs in my torso and sternum that grew warm and took me. I felt out of control at the hot thrill of growing, being alive. When I danced I could command it, make language with my body from the stirrings that evaded me. In a world yearning to crush girls I found a way to feel powerful.
Nearly a year has gone by and we are all feeling desperate. What of togetherness, what of connection. What of your sleeping, dormant joy. The people I love are colors on a screen and sound in my ears but I hold them all, keep them purring in the folds of my weary heart. The name of the game now is vitality. In these days of stillness, will you remember to move? Do you know how to keep yourself alive?
My father is sick. It is not a new thing. Cancer was in his blood and marrow the year before COVID so we have been in the valley, beholding the shadow of his death for two years. There has been chemo and remission, hospital stays of several months at a time. Recurrence when cancer creeps back into the biopsies, and despair. More chemo, more remission. More recurrence. Exhaustion. At the darkest edges, grief.
In the pandemic he keeps getting snatched away. It’s a new kind of violence. My mother stands at the mouth of the hospital while they wheel him deeper into the dark belly of this whale. Before the virus we could surround him and hold each other. We could think of weddings and parties, celebrations that called for dance. We could congregate and shake together, witness each other moving through life’s triumphs and ruin. That was back when the future could still be fathomed.
In Texas, my father’s doctors urge him to move but he prefers to sit still. In North Carolina, I shake out my dormant limbs and stretch. I have been sedentary for nearly a year, my yoga practice gone on to hell. Now my body needs to move, so I feed it choreography from dance tutorial videos found online. I dance in the halls, in my bedroom, in the long baths I take every night. I keep dancing in the woods, churning steady on the paths. Over FaceTime my father idles in his hospital bed, the light from his screen making his room brutal and bright.
Dance was a gift that always served me, but the power I found in it betrayed me sometimes, too. When I was older, in the strobing lights of clubs and house parties where I got pinned in the boring, desperate grind of a young man’s groin gone rigid against me. Then there were the times I let it burn and engulf me. If dancing was my firestarter, alcohol was an accelerant that always left me scorched. I spun out into darkness in sticky piano bars, rowdy weddings, atop shattered glass bottles that sliced me on dance floors I left smeared with my blood.
I’ve tried to move through life just as I please. My power is evident when I dance: not just in how I ride a beat but how other people sway or hold still, showing whether they’re terrified of their own vulnerability. In a woman such a feat is threatening enough; in a girl it must have been downright fearsome.
For now, I keep moving. In the halls of my house and in the woods I stretch my hands to mournful songs that blast my ears. I roll my hips to happy songs that pump my blood. I wind my whole self to songs that call in a great longing for the life the pandemic has vanished. I reach hard because when I am not reaching I am crumpling, still. While the days stretch and contract, long and short at once. Scrolling. Crying. Emailing. Eating. Reading. Scrolling. Checking. Obsessing. Deactivating, then returning. Sharing. Posting. Trying. Liking. Weeping. Scrolling.
We get news from the hospital: there will be another transplant. We did this dance of modern medicine a year prior, back when hope was a brighter, more present angel. That time my whole family crowded his hospital room bearing cake and balloons. Sang and clapped while salvation dripped into his vein. Buzzed with wishes for this hard ordeal to be long gone. This time there will be no one but my mother, crying over FaceTime, the rest of us in separate corners bearing our own exquisite pain. We have been told the odds of a second transplant working and they are slim as a whisker. Back home I will put on his favorite music, contort my body into new poses, and cry.
The week of the procedure, I call my father and we speak of the weather. I tell him it’s relentless lately, the sky gone miserable and gray.
“It’s the prettiest time of the year in the woods though,” he says and at once I remember. My father does not dance but he hikes. The purple wildflowers he loves will bloom soon, their little blossoms spreading in the gentle thaw of early spring. “The hepatica,” he reminds me of their name. I think of all the photos he’s sent me through the years of these indigo buds, pushing up, opening. Delighting my father as he moved in his own way through the trees. From his hospital bed he talks to me about salvation. How I can’t let the crush of those who shamed me as a girl keep me from the joy of the world.
When the sun is out I return to the path. Follow it until I find the best clearing, which some artist has made beautiful with sculptures. There are monkeys and lions, zebras and birds. Dozens of human faces rendered in clay hang above and watch me from the pines. My best friend says my dancing is a vital act and I guess that’s right. My longings find their shapes when I move and this feels like a way to imagine a future. Connect and survive. My muscles cramp and I tumble, I falter, I spill. I think of the world that’s lost and the one yet to come. I think of nothing. I dance. The songs that kindle me spark in my ears and in my purple shirt, I wind. No sign of the hepatica yet but there is me. Reaching and spinning, rooting and bouncing. Wild as I open while life stirs all around me and the creek gushes hard down below.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.