on tenderness & teeth

BY EVA JOHNSON

The entrance to the garden: a wrought-iron gate. Inside: trees that look like lime trees, but made for this climate. Above: a red-tile roof, stretched like a sunburn across bone. He said it reminded him of Spain, but he’s never been to Spain.
We would always arrive separately. Sometimes, I would get there before him and I’d sit on the stone steps. He always purposely settled somewhere on the opposite end from where I sat. He’d be completely still, wait for me to come to him. Mostly he talked, telling me about his parents, his ex-girlfriend, the girl he was in love with. He moved around the garden like a hunter. Like a boy swimming in a hunter’s skin until he was one with it.

***

A girl in my poetry class wrote about bodies. In one of her poems, she had two lines that struck me with their complete emptiness, not empty in the sense of being devoid of meaning, but empty like fed up, like anger pricked in salt & sugar. So I wrote them down and held them close to me.

How do you remove a body?

bruises like small talk

***

How do you remove a body?
I remember the details I divulged to this man – how he toothed them out of me – and I thought it was fine because of the leaves, the way they lit with sun as though held against whale fat. I wasn’t thinking about bow & arrow, I wasn’t thinking about Boy Scout knives, I was thinking about the brass bird, I was thinking about stringing words together, I was thinking about the red tomatoes waiting at home, the saucepan, my best friend dancing. I was chewing on a poem & hoping I’d spit it out whole. I was tenderness without the teeth.

***

Whenever I think of that girl, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s essay, “Notes from a Trip to Russia,” in which she talks about her connection with an Eskimo woman she met at a conference:
“At dinner [she] kept telling me how beautiful I was, and how it was not only my beauty that she would carry with her always but my words, and that we should share our joys as well as our sorrows, and someday our children would be able to speak freely with each other. She made toast after toast to women and to their strength. All of this was through our interpreters.
The sense of meeting someone kindred in the mouth of a foreign place nested in my flesh. It kept me going. Still does. Little stumps of wax. Little red birds. ”

***

It was so gradual. The crushing. He was always telling me to flatten, to quiet, to still. And look, I tried to grind my bones to a halt, I really did. It was never enough. Always trackfire & mouth jammed up in ‘sorry.’

***

Slowly, the politics of conquering revealed themselves to me. He wanted me at his house every day. His room, its sterile quality – his books, their intellectual haughtiness – his music that never dripped its wonder but only clawed at every prey-shaped thing. I could never understand why he hated beauty so much, hated love & genuine feeling, hated softness & hated me.
He said I was cute with my small bones & small feelings that darted like bright colored fish. He said it was funny when I tried to push him away, when I got mad. “Little flare-up.” Like I was a faulty gaslight, blue & blue & gone.

***

How do you remove a body?
Everybody has a seam, an undoing, some fraught bloom, some crawlspace. Draw & quarter it. Sprinkle salt along its border. Like a butcher, aiming to slice off the parts he touched, I dressed myself in a grid. I stopped wearing color and turned my face away from the earth.

***

He spooled long stories of how sinful I was. He tried to flatten me down to the bare bone, no culture, no anything. No one knew. In the shower, he covered my face with his hand. The tile, wall of sea glass. I thought about my mother, chopping vegetables at the counter, rice in a pot on the stove, Jeff Buckley playing on the radio, his voice honey enough to coax a girl from her cage.

***

By my window at home, there is an avocado tree. Planted from a pit by my father, it originated in Colorado in 1973. I learned blue, yellow, green from the photos he took on that trip. The tree doesn’t fruit, but the leaves are thick like untamed hair, and the roots are strong. I used to bury my nose in the dirt to approximate the smell of the sun.

He locked me in his room. His fists roamed the walls outside. He pinched my stomach like a magician conjuring dimes. Tracery of scarabs like manufactured stretch marks. Then I was left to ride the subway home, dingy with fingerprints, my face clawed into shame. Each night was a ritual: run the bath hot. Wait till scarification forgets itself. Boil disease from the skin, draw the blood like a witch doctor. Repeat.

***

How do you remove a body?

Stifle the best parts of yourself to no music.

***

In the garden I learned butterfly & muscle. I left behind the bowl of milk, the supple organ, the fragments of a poem. I left a girl, unwritten.

***

Bruises like small talk.

If this is small talk, what makes a scream?

Is murder necessary for that satisfaction?

***

No small-talk for these bruises. Only yowl, the scalp cracking its yolk, his threat whisked into the porcelain of my dreams.

***

I think my body might be roadkill./ When I look in the mirror, sometimes I see someone who’s asking for it, who wants to die./ How do you get to the pit? You can’t extract it without breaking the skin./ I mean, I can’t change what I’m built on./ Sometimes I punch my thighs & call myself dumb because I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of mattering in the scheme of my life./ Sometimes I think I am a revolutionary.

***

I put on a dress like a wasp nest. I ate a handful of dried apricots, full on the mouth. And then I walked into the world. In a drowsy way, of bridging what I had never intended to leave in the first place. the small orange sun between two trees. It happened. It happened. Alright. Just take me home.

***

crass & tugging thing, a dancing body. I want to hold things again, I want the hands of a sculptor. I want to grow things. imagine!! gush of hands in the earth. the tender of it, this muck. maybe I’ll move beyond this space, like it was never real to begin with. I’ll be a farmer. I’ll write tiny baby poems that ping with light.

***

How do I love as much as I say I do? –Tarfia Faizullah, Seam

On the last day of the poetry class, I told the girl that her writing had comforted me. Comforted might seem an odd word, but it is so rare to find someone who speaks in the same space of pain. These dialects, half inherited and half synthesized through necessity–they are the most beautiful and sacred thing I can think of. Because I’m realizing that survival is beautiful.

***

“heart in the mouth” is such a truthful turn of phrase. I think I could worship women artists forever. I think I could bless my body but also wreck it. Nothing is fading, everything is growing. poems for flood & burning houses. moonflower rising from the grate of knocked-out teeth.

***

Sometimes I am afraid I am made for bad things. Sometimes I state my badness as fact. But no. I’m nothing watered down. I’m not evil for this set of bones I’ve been given.

In the garden, the hunter’s gold clings, a pool of grease on the girl’s scalp. But the light touches her anyway.

Eva Johnson is a student from New York. Photography by Rebecca Heilweil.

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