by Laura R. Becherer
Cicadas sing in the sweltering heat of August, the air heavy and still even after sunset. You wait until your little brothers have used the bathroom and been sent to bed, then draw a cool bath of your own while your parents turn on the 9 o’clock news.
You turn off the overhead light and take a scented candle out of your robe pocket. It balances in the soap dish dip of the bathtub and casts a glow more favourable to your skin than the harshness of florescent bulbs. Candlelight allows you to look more critically at your face in the mirror – the shadows hollow out your eyes and the flame warms your cheeks. You look for new shapes in the contours of your skin – how can one’s own face look so unfamiliar and different every time its inspected? Like a fortune-teller scanning a crystal ball.
You drop your terrycloth robe to the floor and step into the bath. The cool water raises goosebumps on your legs and arms. Leaning back, you dip your long hair into the water and swill the chilliness onto your scalp. It tingles.
Relaxing against the porcelain tub, you examine your feet as they peep out of the water. The candlelight and the depth of the tub distort your toes – they look longer, now shorter, as you wiggle them above and below the surface. Next you examine your legs – too pale, maybe, and not thin enough to match the thigh gaps in your Seventeen magazine. Tummy – rounded, pale. Does everyone’s belly button look this strange?
Wide hips, dimpled bottom. Longer-than-average arms, long-fingered hands. Breasts – one smaller than the other. Hair – long and blonde, too fine.
This is the ritualistic inspection that takes place in the bathrooms of teenaged girls all the world over. But, you reflect tonight, there always seems to be a missing element. Each zit and dimple and mole and fat roll and stray hair and chipped nail and uneven eyebrow are accounted for in scrutinizing detail, but there is a blankness between your legs. It’s like a black hole, an unknowable region, the space that no good girl talks or even thinks about. Is there a verse in the Bible where Jesus says, “Good Girls: Thou Shalt Not Look at Thy Vagina?” Your grandmother probably thinks so, although she’d never say the word ‘vagina’.
What is the polite term for it? Vajayjay? That seems silly. Cunt? That’s the bad one that boys write on bathroom walls. Pussy? That’s what boys call each other in the hallways and on the baseball field. Is there a word for it? It seems as unnamable as it is untouchable. Experimentally, you poke at the patch of hair that covers The Unknown like a protective blanket. Lightning doesn’t strike you, but before you can go farther your mother calls for you to hurry up and get to bed.
In bed that night, however, you can’t sleep. Even your short nightgown seems cloying, and you kick at your blankets with restlessness. The moon shines full through the thick air and brightens your room almost like daylight. There’s a magical quality to a moonlit Southern night, and the crickets and cicadas call to you from the night-shadowed grassy lawns. At last you sit up, brushing your sweat-soaked bangs away from your forehead. You listen hard. No sounds – everyone must be asleep.
You walk barefoot to the back porch, making no more sound than a whisper, and slip easily out through the screen door. The grass is dew-soaked and soft; it cools you, and you begin to walk down to the pond.
The moon lights your skin in a way that even the candlelight on the bathtub could not; you seem to shimmer in your white nightgown. A breeze kicks up through the humid air, and your hair dances.
Run, now, as fast as you can. You’re far away from the house, and you can laugh aloud. Leap a little, twirl, there’s no one to see you. Find the pond, clear and cold and fresh even in all this heat. Lily pads dot the surface, and here the frogs add their song to the chorus of cicada and cricket. An owl hoots, the branches of nearby poplars are reflected in the surface of the pond, as is the moon itself. Strip off that shift, look at your white skin in the moonlight. Somehow the moon illuminates a perfection in yourself that neither artificial light nor flame can reveal. Nothing is too fat or lumpy now, and there’s a freedom in this summer air. Dip in your feet first, then run and leap into the depths. The cold is a shock, and you plunge to the muddy bottom before breaking through the surface with a spray of water droplets that glitter like stars as they arc through the air.
Floating on your back, out here in the open air, you feel less reluctant. Here you can explore that unnamable patch, the black hole, the unknown.
You won’t go back in until you know her intimately, until you can discover
This piece about body positivity stemmed from reading sections on marriage and sexuality in the book ‘The Model Wife’ (Rana Randall), about expectations for women in the 19th century. I thought there were interesting parallels between expectations between women then and attitudes about female ‘purity’ and sexuality that still exist in our cultures today. I tried to capture one experience in a young woman’s sexual awakening. It’s set in the southern United States, and reading 19c texts at GWL, I was struck by the similarity between some of the lessons young girls were taught then and the messages they are still taught in contemporary conservative settings in the U.S.
Laura R. Becherer writes primarily about women’s issues and always from women’s perspectives. Laura’s research interests focus mainly on feminism with an especial interest in fairy tales, folklore, and magical realism. Her work includes an experimental personal essay about rape, to be published in the summer edition of ‘Atlas and Alice’.