When Our Bodies

Jaclyn Watterson


The year we lived between the floorboards was the year we saw Mom's breasts for the first time. We had been.

Another year, we worried about our pee, and spent hours on the toilet. Willing it all out before bed. Pee did not come, and time and verbs will slide between sheets, up a hallway, away to school. And we'd wake in our bed, scared to move and scared of the hallway, but most scared of drowning there, from within.

Finally scarier still were our own breasts, not still at all but growing like disks of cancer. We were the only girl, and the rest of you were boys—penises unfairly always present.

Formula fed.

We were. And seeing Mom's breasts was an accident of sneaking. All before Hank, Sylvia, and Shirley Silver.

We saved frogs. We did it like this: in a tank in a bedroom we keep the frogs from water for many days, and then we ladle it onto their smalled, cracked bodies. They grow again like slow-motion popcorn, shape-changing. The ladle was a stainless steel spoon.

We killed a turtle. Accidentally. Once we fed her tomato and then pretended to think she had her period or a miscarriage—the seeds stand in for turtles that would never be. Dead eggs. The turtle was alive then, but after we forgot to make her up, and then she is dead because we forgot to feed her too. She liked lettuce more than carrots.

Scary movies make us touch clitorises. Our own or not our own. Only penises call this lack. We go camping, and we feel like white people. We are white people camping just like white people. We spot a bald eagle and someone throws up.

The house contained nipples for all of us, but now mine were swelling. And where were you? It was the year we lived between the floorboards. Where were you?

There also was the problem of Ruby Jones, Ruby Jones quiet and polite. Her nipples were not swelling. She had not caught cancer, she did not have a penis, all she had was good.

There are a lot of kinds of frogs, and we don't know about any of them. Our parents say, What. Frogs are frogs. We bring a guinea pig home to die. We choose it because it's the quietest one. It's so quiet because it's dying. Later we see frogs on TV, raping other frogs. Like ducks, or men.

Mom's breasts, I worried, could be cut off. But when I told my brother, he said, She keeps them secret. No one will cut them off. I asked if someone might take my nipples, pointing as they were now, but you said they'd take your penis first.

Ruby Jones said later, I can't believe you talk to your brother that way.

So I start talking to the nipples, who didn't seem to judge though they were intent on growing. I said, I don't want you. The nipples seemed long, and they didn't say anything, but I thought I saw them crying.

Of course I didn't. My nipples were strong.

Ruby Jones, still flat-nippled, showed me her pubic hair. I brushed it with my mom's brush, but when I told my brother he didn't laugh. He said, You're so rude. Ruby Jones didn't have pubic hair yet, so this was harder than it is.

My mom, with her big, secret breasts. My mom who does not look for us between the floorboards. My mom who would not have happy hour with Ruby Jones's mom. Ruby Jones's mom who saw me and said, By spring you'll have cleavage.

My nipples said, You'll never have cleavage. I crept from between my floorboards and took Mom's bra. It is too large, and I was scared, thinking of my cancerous nipples filling the whole thing. Cleavage could not be worth it.

We had leapt from the back of the couch, pretending to be white people sky-diving. But we are just white kids jumping off the back of a couch in a white neighborhood. And then my nipples start to tingle or bleed, stay behind or jump ahead. I quit jumping and my nipples and my brother go on without me. I didn't know how to pronounce brassiere, wasn't ready to wear one.

Between the floorboards, I stopped wearing a shirt. I let my nipples hang out with everyone else, and they kept getting bigger. Soon I had breasts.

My breasts had big nipples and my nipples liked to feel—a little breeze or the tickle of the floorboards. And I liked to feel the nipples, surrounded by a fat that quivered.

My brother said, It's getting weird, hanging out with your nipples.

Ruby Jones said, I wish I could use a straw to blow mine up.

I said, Ruby, do you want to feel mine? Maybe it will help.

Ruby Jones kissed my nipples.

My brother kissed my nipples.

My nipples kept getting bigger. They were fat. They were my favorite part of my body.

I stopped worrying about cancer and cleavage. I loved my fat nipples. Ruby Jones loved my fat nipples. My brother loved my fat nipples. They were so fat.

We stopped living between the floorboards. By then we were vegan: people who are white, we thought, should not eat flesh. My brother went to a new school, and I began to keep my breasts secret. Ruby Jones didn't use a straw as far as I know, but her breasts grew. My brother kissed her nipples even though they weren't as fat as mine.

We save frogs. We take them from the muddy stream and put them in the water jug in the fridge. No one drank them. Dead in the cold like that, they were like tumors we can pretend to share. We listen to bluegrass music, shaking our frogs and tumors like we're dancing, and we have no idea what year it was.

I started keeping my breasts secret. I lived between the window and the wall, and laid carpet down in my room. I met Chris Forney. We rubbed our bodies on the carpet. I licked Chris Forney's nipples. He blew on mine.

My mom asked me if we were using protection. I said, I keep my breasts secret. My mom said, let me see them.

My mom licked my nipples.

Chris Forney licked my nipples.

My brother and Ruby Jones came in, and they licked my nipples. My nipples kept getting fatter. I wanted everyone to lick them.

My brother started to nibble. Ruby Jones started to nibble. Chris Forney started to nibble. Even Mom started to nibble.

Now I have no nipples left.

Another year what I was afraid of was the soft skin under my fingernails. What if the nails should fall off and expose ten little vaginas, ready to be fucked? To say nothing of my toes. That year I lived like smoke at the ceiling, and discovered my other brother, younger.

We were in the womb together, once. Twins. But I grew stronger and flattened you. And then, eight years later, you grew back. Inside Mom. I was fourteen and undressed in front of you, and you wore stripes. We were twins, left-handed. And you were such a baby, even your nipples were fat.

High school? Breathing was hard. But we left the oxygen tanks between the window and the wall—they were heavy and expensive. We did not have the grades to get to Posterity, and were stalled. Spanish and English teachers alike say I do not understand tense, yet they do not know about living between the floorboards. I tried Latin, but that conjugation makes no more sense to my breath.

We wiped our noses with paper tissues, and mud came away. On the risers where we practiced standing and singing, there was a lot of dust, and we breathed it in. I meet Shirley and Hank Silver, who were not interested in being white. Shirley Silver ate the mud. Hank Silver put it on his body and calls himself Sylvia. We had left the oxygen tanks.

Sex had been clandestine, whispered about in basements. Accomplished only between a boy and his girl. But on the risers, we talked sex a lot. It was accomplished with great frequency, between many boys and a great number of girls and several other people, often in unsafe automobiles.

Hank Silver was not enjoying high school. Hank Silver is not my brother, who went to private school with Ruby Jones. Hank Silver is not my other brother, who lives between the floorboards now. My mom didn't look between floorboards. My mom said private school was for people who got grades. I hooked up with Hank and Shirley Silver. We are public.

We saved frogs. We found them in a barrel of oil behind the garage, and we filled a kiddy pool instead, transferred every last slicked but breathing frog. We give them fresh hose water, place them in the sun. And by morning they are all belly up dead, and shrinking.

Shirley Silver didn't like history or health. She said the climate here suited us. But for the dust, she was right. Breathing was hard, but the oxygen tanks were heavy. We left them and we got canned meat in the cafeteria. We were no longer vegan. Chris Forney? He got work-study and slopped the meat on our styrofoam plates. We inhaled the meat and made our way to the risers to practice graduating. We arrived in the morning and Hank Silver said, Call me Sylvia. Shirley Silver and I obliged, like we always do.

We guzzle milk after school and have sex in unsafe automobiles.

Shirley Silver eats mud like it's pie. She is full of clichés and more. By the time I made it to the risers, I longed for the days we spent lugging oxygen tanks on wheels like Hoovers. Saving frogs. To be so able. Of course Posterity is not about surprises, but I have expectations, as I'm sure Ruby Jones does, as I imagine my brother does.

The guidance counselor said I was so obliging because my mom, with her big, secret breasts, had succumbed to the difficulty of breathing. That was also why Shirley and Hank Silver hooked me, the counselor said. The counselor was not a doctor. She asked me what I had to say for myself. What? Unlike a frog, I cannot breathe through my skin. Like some frogs', my skin is white. I have another brother, though I have lost my nipples.

On the risers, Shirley and Sylvia Silver left me puking candy and vodka. Breathing even harder through the vomit, but what's worse is there won't be anyone to photograph my body when I am dead. My dad and me, we waked Mom. Then my dad disappeared, as men are wont to do, as my brothers did later. By and By, everyone looked like my dad, who looked like my brother. I never had sex with him.

For graduation, the Silver girls get a pet guinea pig; they get a lot of money too. Sylvia and Shirley Silver afford surgery to ease their breathing or shrink their penises or swell their breasts, and they gloat and gain weight, but I wheeze and look in the bottom windows of their raised ranch. They watch soft-core at night, while their parents do drinks or fellatio or arguments. We are stalled, in love, seventeen. This could be worse, like when Chris Forney kept blowing after my nipples were gone.

Always when my brothers or my mom or dad came home, I was there. Never I was in bed with someone else. I hope they will remember kindness like that. Breathing, after all, is hard.

Ruby Jones was not my sister. We watched scary movies, and we were going to be veterinarians. Fat as my nipples grew, her breasts were petite. And then she went to private school. I never even pretended Shirley Silver was my sister, and when she becomes pregnant, she screens my calls until they stop. Once I planned to breathe and wheeze with great difficulty if she should answer, but I didn't get the chance.

No one hit me.

We had been.

Hank Silver did not like my brothers, and Sylvia Silver told me about the vaginas under my nails. Everything is something else, but brushing my hair, I feel a lump nestled to my skull. A rock—a tick—a tumor—it was white. We had saved frogs. We had been formula fed. We hated it when our bodies were not the same body. It makes breathing so much harder.