Body Braille by Dorothy Rice

Lamp shade by bed with miniblinds light on

You undress in the walk-in closet, stripping down to boxers. As you pass by the foot of the bed, I peek over the top of my glasses, taking in your muscled thighs and calves, lean arms and tanned biceps. You climb into bed, plump your three pillows, pick up your phone and begin to scroll, chuckling from time to time, chin bouncing on your chest.

I don’t ask what’s so damn funny. Nor do you tell me.

You set your phone down on the bedside table and pull the covers up to your chin. You scoot closer, your body a curved crescent beneath our blue and white quilt.

“I’m fussy,” you say, burrowing deeper and pulling your knees up so they graze my side.

I could snap off my light, set my book down and snuggle beside you. We could cuddle, whisper in the dark, perhaps even make love. I can’t remember when the last time was.

“Poor baby,” I say, attention fixed on the page in my book.

My lone bedside light casts a yellowy circle. The house beyond our bedroom is still and dark. Our entitled black cat snores huskily at my feet. The geriatric poodle-mutt we adopted fifteen years ago snoozes in a basket at the foot of the bed. He’s no longer able to jump up and join us on the parental raft. The grandfather clock in the living room chimes the half hour. The words on the page fuzz. Your breath shifts in rhythm, grows deeper, less self-aware. Twenty minutes. Thirty. A snuffled snore. I set the book and my reading glasses down and click off the bedside light.

I need to pee, again.

I blame the pregnancies, the weight of three babies bearing down, weakening the gaskets, the sphincter muscles designed to hold things in and let them out. I leak when I dance, jump, laugh, and cough. Anything more percussive—retching, sprinting, sneezing fit—and I do more than leak. I know what the doctor would advise. Drop fifty pounds, exercise that flabby pelvic floor.

When my sister bought me a mug that says, “Don’t make me laugh, I’ll wet my pants.” you said, “God, that’s perfect.” Your bladder is still able to go the distance. Of course it is.I slide from bed and feel my way to the bathroom. Settled on the toilet seat, flannel pajama bottoms a fuzzy puddle around my feet, I heft my gut and cradle it with both hands; they butt up against the puckered scars from two C-sections. The fat roll comes right up to the tight, scarified tissue and stops, hanging over the cliff.

 

Like all mothers, I have my birth stories. My eldest arrived six weeks early, after I slipped on the popcorn slick floor while cleaning the movie theater where I worked, and hit my tailbone, hard. I had my first, planned, caesarean with my older daughter, second child. Ten years later the youngest came. The obstetrician assured us she was small and recommended a vaginal delivery, despite the prior C-section and my age.

Labor at 44 was a bitch. After the final push, I collapsed, only dimly aware as the doctor passed our damp newborn to a waiting nurse who in turn tossed her to you. Before I thought to ask why they were treating our baby like a football, the ceiling began to slide. I was being pushed down the corridor so fast the wheels rattled on the linoleum. The doctor jogged alongside the bed. She held my head up and pressed vials of yellow liquid to my lips.

“Chug it,” she said. “Now another. We’ve got to get you into surgery.”

My uterus had burst during delivery. Along with the baby, blood gushed onto the doctor’s front and soaked her booties.

Now that child is away at college.

Whenever we’re reminded of her birth, you pale as if you’re experiencing it all over again.

Blood. Panic. Fear.

 

My fingers graze the scant tendrils that fleck my pudgy pubic mound, a pale triangle diminished by the press of thighs and belly. It’s nearly hairless now, the once coarse thicket of dark hair rubbed off by years of chafing against restrictive clothing. There is a buffed sweetness to my beleaguered crotch, or so it seems in the dim lit bathroom. As if my body were reverting to girlhood, the maturation process moving in reverse now that the procreative imperative has been realized.

I stifle a laugh.

The notion of innocence regained, of coming full circle, is appealing, a rationale for my relative chastity. There are others. My body embarrasses me. It doesn’t look, or feel, the way it once did, the way I wish it still did.

 

I’ve been dieting for over forty years, since gaining that first freshman twenty. I’ve counted calories, points and grams of carbs, fat, fiber and protein. I’ve popped pills, fasted, cleansed and eaten nothing but cabbage soup. Sometimes I succeeded in losing enough weight that people noticed and said nice things. Enough that I had a valid reason to shop for new clothes and didn’t cringe at my reflection in the dressing room mirrors. Yet no matter the number on the scale, it was never enough.

Nor did it last.

Like so many women, dissatisfaction with the size and shape of my body has been a constant, a tedious subplot to whatever else is going on in my life. I’ve spent my entire adult life binging or dieting, fluctuating ten, twenty, forty pounds. Months of dogged effort to reach that magic number. Only to put it back on, and then some. I could compile a retrospective slide show: me expanding, then contracting. Cheekbones defined then obscured. Musculature appearing then disappearing. Outfits that nip in at the waist, reveal arms and legs, designer jeans, followed by muumuus and elastic waist bands.

And now my metabolism creeps. I doubt my ability and desire to ride the weight rollercoaster again. Perhaps it’s time to give up the fight, to own my body as it is. Time to relax already. Then there are my perennially slender sisters, a constant reminder that I could, and arguably should, take better care of myself. And you, who seem to lose weight at the same rate as I gain it. Perhaps if you caressed my tummy rolls and dimpled thighs. Kissed the scars. Stroked the staple marks. Maybe then I could be content with who I’ve become. Maybe.

I snort.

Likely I’d push you away.

I have long suspected you love me “anyway.” Even though I’m not slim. Even though I don’t have big tits, though at fifty-pounds overweight, they’re almost as big as when I was nursing. Even though I’m not the sort of woman you ever dreamed of ending up with. Not that I know what kind of woman that is. Only that she couldn’t be me.

I suspect your love is habitual. That you love me because you love me. It’s become a given, rather than a conscious choice.

My mother used to say that men are creatures of habit. I imagine this is true of most people. I feel like a habit. Part of me still believes there must be some higher, truer, kind of love, the inspiration for centuries of stories and songs immortalizing star-crossed lovers whose devotion doesn’t fade, sink with the ship, or end with death. I wonder if I would be capable of recognizing love like that, if I could accept it, believe in it, if it ever found me.

Maybe there is no happily-ever-after. Only lives like ours, that have their flashes and gullies, that feel one way on the inside and appear another from the outside. My sisters gush about how devoted you are, how fortunate I am to have you. I’m never sure if they see something I don’t or if I’m the one who can’t see what’s in front of me.

 

After my last pregnancy, the veins in my inner thighs bulged. I’d run my fingertips across the rippled surface and collapse the tunnels with a fingertip, feeling my pulse there.

“You should feel this,” I once said, reaching for your hand.

“I’m good,” you said, shivering as if you’d been struck by a sudden chill wind.

“But it feels so cool.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

I remember how it used to be. Learning a new lover’s body. Each blemish and healed wound a story, an invitation to share a piece of private history, to deepen that sense of acceptance, of belonging. Discovering your ragged appendectomy scar. A childhood burn that left a hairless, angry swath on your torso. The deep clefts in your earlobes. The balls of lint that collect in your belly button and that you used to save for me.

In the twenty-five plus years since we met, you’ve changed too. Your chest hair now a soft gray blanket. Knobby lumps on your calves — your own network of swollen veins. We have become more modest with one another. An erosion of daily intimacies, an increase in inhibitions. Closed bathroom doors. Dressing in the privacy of the walk-in closet.

Perhaps you feel the changes as much as I do. Yet you’re still tall and fit. I envy your muscled legs, your metabolism. Last year, you jittered off twenty pounds in a month, without intending to. The doctor said it was thyroiditis, which passed. But the weight stayed off.

Men. Husbands. You.

 

When I creep back to bed, you are further onto my side than before. Hands in prayer beneath your cheek, six-foot four frame in a fetal curl. Lost to sleep, your breath is a soft putter. Yet you rouse the instant my body dents the mattress. I wonder how long I was gone, cogitating on the toilet, and if you were lying in wait all the while, only feigning sleep, wondering what the hell I was doing in there. I sometimes suspect you’re an even better actor than I am.

You raise up on one elbow, a wobbly shadow hovering beside me.

“Where are you? I can’t find you. Ah, there you are,” you say, planting the ritual goodnight kiss on my mouth.

No matter how long I stay up after you turn out your light, you wake for that measly kiss. The rituals of which a marriage is made. Maybe that’s what my sisters are talking about when they say you’re devoted to me. Why is it so hard to see it that way?

“Good night. Hope you sleep well. Love you,” you say.

“Love you too,” I say. “Good night.”

We settle back onto our respective pillows, gather the covers closer. There are none of the signs that the goodnight kiss is a prelude to anything else. Those signals are familiar too, though far less frequent. The kiss becomes something more, ever so subtly so. An arm draped over my side. A tentative nibble at my lower lip. A shifting closer, entering one another’s space.

There was only the soft pressure of the kiss, the murmured niceties, before we assumed our positions, our breath audible, tangible as puffs of smoke in the dark. As your breath evens out, relief becomes regret and loneliness, a sense of loss and longing that is almost unbearable. It would have been so easy to extend the kiss, to be the one to drape my arm over your side. Now it’s too late.

 

I can’t sleep. My thoughts tug me places I don’t want to go. With my second husband, as we neared the end, I stopped playing my part. No perfunctory goodbye kiss as I left for work. No equally perfunctory goodnight peck. No “how was work?” These gestures had become incongruous, lies I couldn’t sustain. My second husband was not a good person, at least not with me. You are. My feelings for you, and about us, are more complex. I don’t think you judge me for letting myself go nearly so much as I do. I’m not sure you see ME at all. I am wife, mother, companion. The shape I take seems irrelevant. I am invisible.

“Look around,” you say, when I ask if I look alright. “You look better than most women your age.”

Which does not have the reassuring effect I imagine you intend it to.

Better than most. Not bad for your age.

A friend once told me. “If you’re not having sex, you’re headed for divorce. He’s getting it somewhere else.” I wondered why she’d chosen to share that morsel of magazine rack wisdom with me. What she knew, or suspected, I didn’t ask.

I stare into the night. Eyes wide and dry. The outline of your body a mountain range under the comforter, a hump for hips and shoulders. Perhaps you’re faking sleep too. Perhaps you saw the glint of my eyes in the scant moonlight. I lay my hand on the cool sheet beside you, fingers splayed, reaching. Close enough that I could touch you. Close enough that your breath tickles my fingertips.

I want to be held, to feel your arms around me, to touch the smooth skin on your biceps, that one muscled spot where no hair grows. A body I know well and yet not at all. I don’t move any closer. I can’t. I haven’t. Not in a long time. It feels so fraught, so risky. The longer the dry spells last, the harder it becomes to breach the divide.

A cringing sea anemone, I retract my hand, pull in my arms, my feelings. I count from one to ten, willing my mind to shut down for the night. Worried my shifts and turns under the covers and my noisy thoughts will wake you, I slip from bed and creep to the couch in the front room. With a plop and the scratch of toenails on wood flooring, the animals join me.

I am a coward. A thief in the night. Stealing from myself.

I stretch out on the couch, close my eyes, slide my hands beneath my robe. Splayed fingers rise and fall with my breath. Flat on my back, the mound of extra flesh around my middle is evenly distributed, smooth and pliable, warm as cooling bread. My scars not a ditch or gutter, but a seam. A lifetime at my fingertips. Belly. Breasts. Hips and thighs. No festering wounds or throbbing joints. No failing or missing parts. A steady heartbeat and strong lungs.

Better than most. Not bad for my age.

I’ve spent a lifetime lamenting what I’m not.

I imagine lots of people feel this way, especially those of a certain age, past any number where we can pretend this business of being alive isn’t more than half over. We’ve fixated on these idealized images of how we hope to look, what we think we should be and have and achieve.

Mine is not a body I ever aspired to. This version of me never starred in my fantasies. Yet it’s the body I’ve earned. Home to my heart and mind, guardian of my hopes and dreams, mother of my children.

Wrapped in night’s embrace, safe within the cocoon of a sleeping home, my furry friends, and you, I exhale and release the lament. Despite its flaws and the markers of time’s passing—also because of them—I am grateful for this body.

 

I wake when you open the front door. With the morning paper tucked beneath your arm, you cross the room and sit on the coffee table, facing me, knees grazing my robe. Pale sunlight streams through the front shutters. The cat yowls to be fed. You lean across the distance between us for the day’s first kiss. The rituals of which a marriage, a life, are made.

 

Meet the Contributor

Dorothy riceDorothy Rice is the author of Gray Is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance (Otis Books, June 2019) and The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir (Shanti Arts, 2015). After raising five children and retiring from a career in environmental protection, Rice earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert, at 60. Her essays and stories have been widely published in journals and magazines. Find her at dorothyriceauthor.com and @dorothyrowena.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/mstrnate 2

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