Our Bodies Don’t Belong to Us: On Living with Trauma
How do you live in the present when your body is a map of the past?
It starts, always, like this: I am in bed with my partner and she is touching me. Maybe the hour is late and the large bay windows behind our bed are black except for the bright white glow of the luminous moon, which sheens our faces with light. Or, maybe it is late on a weekend morning and our cat mews hungrily from the foot of the bed while the flame under the coffee maker goes unlit. But she is touching me, her wide strong hands I love so much casting over my body like she is conjuring something, and I am closing my eyes and letting myself be tugged into desire.
At first, the world goes only a little bit shaky. At first it is even confusing: Is what I am feeling the slippage into pleasure, the softening of sensation, and the sweet coax of want? Or is it the cold rumbling of terror? There is still a chance then, a chance that I will not go under into the memory. I notice the precipice I am approaching. I grip her shoulders, as though by holding on to her I can hold onto myself. I open my eyes and watch her hands. Or maybe I jolt upright and flip her, hoping she sees my movement as urgency, as simple desire, and if she sees that it will be true. I touch her, because in touching her I can make her solid. In my head I say her name. I find my voice and ask her to say mine—and she does.
But if I have had to ask her for that, it is already too late.
I was a teenager in the 90s, and the girls I stared at in class—darting my glance away before they could notice—wore flannel shirts and lipstick a color between a wine-stain and a bruise. I stared at the gap the shirts left over their breasts and I didn’t have a word for why. I felt marked, I knew. Back then I couldn’t say why. There were too many markings.
At night I’d wait, shivering on the porch of my parents’ gray Victorian house, for my boyfriend to pick me up. He lived across the bridge from our New Jersey suburb, in an immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was older than I was by a little more than the usual few years, and seemed tough to me, in his heavy leather jacket and Soviet-era combat boots, his face dark with stubble. The boots and the attitude he’d come by honestly. A few years before, his family had fled the Ukraine for reasons I never really understood, and his arms were pockmarked with burns from where he’d put out cigarettes, and fine, white-lace scars where he’d traced the flat blade of a pocketknife over his skin. He knew about darknesses, and that made me trust him. He was careful with mine.
“I felt marked, I knew. Back then I couldn’t say why. There were too many markings.”
He drove us out to the highway lookout on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, from which we could see Manhattan, its millions of lights. He’d switch off the headlights and suddenly those lights were all there were, twinkling in the dark. Along the edge of the river’s coastline, the air was cool and sharp. The wind’s slap and sharp rocky drop-off to black made us suddenly alert, the night instantly feeling more real than the day. How quiet the world really was, if you paid attention. In the cool air I could feel him behind me. Then his arms came around my waist, pulling me back into his chest.
While he held me I watched the lights. How many lives they represented. How many possible existences. I want to say that it was his life back in the Ukraine I thought of then, that I wondered what had made him put the cigarettes out on his arms. But I didn’t. The world I lived in as a teenager—that old gray house where my grandfather had touched me; the high school where I’d carried the secret inside me like a stone—that world was already half-gone to me, already a little ghost-like. I knew I’d leave it. That was all I thought of back then, and everything in that world—even him—I experienced as something I would leave. Looking out at the stars, leaving was what I thought of. The lights before me, the lives, seemed like turns on a roulette wheel. What would the future hold?
He gripped my wrists with his hands, then suddenly spread his arms wide, opening mine like a puppet’s. He swept my arms together and then apart again. Through me, he beckoned the world. Then he held my arms open like that, my body locked straight ahead, so all I could see were the lights of the city like stars. “One day,” he said, “all this will be yours.”
What comes next, there’s no use in me writing in anything but present tense. It never leaves present tense.
We go back to his car, and the smell of cigarettes envelops us. A comforting smell, the smell of him. There, we explore the trip wires in my body. We make my terror our game.
He leans over the gearshift, bringing his face close to mine. We kiss, his lips musky with ash. He brings his hands to my chest and undoes first one button, then two, three. I am passive, I am serious, and watchful. We don’t laugh. We scarcely speak. We are partners in this expedition, and what we are exploring is me. He places his hand on my chest. His hand is cold, but that’s not why I flinch. He sees me flinch and waits. Then I nod. He slides his thumb across my skin and hooks it into the cup of my bra, uncovering my breast. Then he touches the raised red scar still scored into the fold underneath it, from a surgery when I was a baby.
My breath runs cold then. Panic comes strong. There is some memory of my grandfather in the scar, though even years later I still don’t know what, only that I cannot bear to have it touched. I begin to shake and gasp; perhaps I even begin to cry, though I cannot feel the tears come out of me, only that my cheeks are suddenly wet.
I must have touched him in those nights in the car, the moon heralding the largeness of the universe above us, the carpet on the car holding bits of cigarette ash and crumbs from sandwiches below. But that’s not what I remember. What I remember are my gasps. When he heard them he’d lift his hand off me and rub his palms together. Then I’d feel the new warmth of his hand, flat across my chest, then his voice. “Breathe. You’re okay. Breathe.”
Then he’d move his hand lower. We’d do it all again.
“How do you live in the present when your body is a map of the past?”
We were so young then. So cocky, I think now. Alright, so my body was a topographical map, so there were memories written into its hills and valleys. We’d make it conquered land, then. We’d chart every nook and valley, like the light of sunrise crawling over the land, tugging it into vision. Nothing would be darkness anymore. Nothing unknown.
I still thought, then, that the problem was knowledge.
How do you live in the present when your body is a map of the past?
For a time, when I was younger, I tried to wither away the past. A logical conclusion: if I had less body, there would be less past. No more the problem of flesh, of fleshiness, the problem of what flash contained. I don’t have the bony places I made then on my body anymore—they have been blanketed with the layer of flesh I once feared, I have grown over myself like a soft dusting of snow—except for my hip bone. The way my body is built, my hip is always a little canted forward into a blade.
Now when I am lying back in bed just right, and the blade pops up, it is like being returned to that girl I was as she stood naked in front of the mirror in her dorm room. She counted her ribs. She twisted to see, in the mirror, the knobbed progression of her back. Such wonderment she felt then—because though she was bone, though she’d tried so hard to be bone, there was still a patch of fat under the sag of her ass. There was still a pocket of flesh on the underside of her upper arm. She could starve and starve and she could not starve herself all away. I know how trapped she felt, then, her body clinging to this life—but also, how proud.
How stubborn the body was, its drive to be be be.
But even now there is the problem of knowledge. Consider this: When a lover—any lover, it never mattered how long I’d known her, and it does not matter now that for years I have known my partner to be unfailingly gentle—places a hand lovingly on the back of my neck, it is still, possibly, okay. I feel my body separate into a place where the husk I am is me but the rest of me is watching.
Then, perhaps, the tips of her fingers curve. (Why? I don’t know why. But people do this without thinking, trust me.) Then I am nothing but the watching, every cell in me focused acutely on the tips of fingers.
It is a strange kind of beauty, this intense singular attention. In that instant I know her fingers more intimately than I have ever known anything. They hold such packed power, and I watch them, and wait. Either they will straighten and slacken.
Or the fingers themselves will curve.
If her fingers curve around the back of my neck—just to cup, just to gently cradle—I will hate her. Instantly. My body will stiffen, and she will sense it and move away (“What’s wrong, baby?”) but I will hate her for days. I will have silently separated into the person she knows and the person who hates her, and I will go about my life as the person who hates her, wearing the clothes and the body of the person who does not.
This, I tell you, is my greatest flaw in love. That I am two people, who wear the skin of one.
“That’s an evolutionary response,” my partner says. She is a scientist and thinks in these terms. We are lying together in our bed on a lazy weekend morning, the mattress from my old apartment placed atop the box-spring from hers. A bed made from the two of us. A little her, a little me. Sometimes we talk about how someday we will make a family this way: A child that carries her genetics. A child that carries mine.
But now I have been telling her about a time once, when I used to live alone with a big floppy dog, I walked into the kitchen with the dog and a mouse was sitting squat on the center of the kitchen floor. The dog bounded up to the mouse and dropped its chest to the tile, its rump in the air. A puppy play stance. The dog wasn’t a predator. Its whole life I never saw it kill anything. It never even growled unless I was threatened. It only wanted to play. Now it waited.
But the mouse didn’t run. It stood perfectly still, even its little nose having halted its quivering. I was surprised, and the dog was surprised, and the mouse, I thought, must be in shock. The three of us stayed like that for a few minutes. Then I went and got a piece of cardboard and scooped up the rigid little mouse, carried it to the front door, and plopped it out onto the sidewalk. It didn’t move, though later, when I opened the door again, it was gone.
“Trauma does this. It etches time into the body.”
No longer morning now, but night, and we are in bed again. She is kissing at my sides, moving her lips down my arm and across my hip. I know she wants—she expects—that I’ll turn and kiss her. But I am lying on my back and I cannot make my arms move from my sides. The memories don’t claim me as often, now that we live together and I have grown to trust her. They don’t come every day, or even every week. Once five months passed. But I have spent the day writing about the past, and to write I have had to remember, and now my body is confused. I realize this, and—in compromise, in apology—while she kisses me I make an encouraging murmur. I try to soften the rod of my body, make it compliant. She sighs, frustrated. She thinks I’m angry with her. Fair enough; we fought earlier, a small squabble. But I don’t feel any anger towards her. I want to be close to her. I just don’t feel anything right now.
“Remember the mouse?” I say.
“The past isn’t over,” wrote Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” Trauma does this. It etches time into the body.
Yet even as I write this, I feel the embrace my partner gave me this morning. At times, when I walk through my day, and my mind slips from the street where I walk, I feel my partner’s hands cast over me. She is across town at her desk—and I feel loved. When I am tired or sad, I heat a hot water bottle and place on at the center of my chest—and there is my old boyfriend’s hand, the gentle pressure of it and the warmth as he says, “Breathe.” Sometimes my palm aches, and I know it is an ache for the warm hum of my old dog’s body, when she’d toss herself down onto her back, her tail still wagging madly, and I’d sit down cross-legged and rub the warm spotted skin of her belly. Or on a summer day, when I feel the cool alchemic slip of a soft-serve ice cream as it meets the heat of my tongue and melts, and the hard sun shines hot above me—and I am suddenly a small child again, and none of this has happened, the pain or the love.
All of this is still to come. There are places on my body now that hold space for memories I can’t know yet, can’t imagine.
Our bodies don’t belong to us. They belong to the selves we used to be. They hold space for who we will become. But maybe it’s not trauma that does this, not exactly. But living.