Go inside me, next to the stack of shoulds, under the manuals on How to Be a Girl/Teen/Woman. Push aside the blue blanket of shame, and burrow through my metaphor to my tissue. Made of cells, cells that contain atoms, atoms that contain electrons contain quarks, like a series of nesting dolls. My flesh is their container.
The idea that each of us is a unique, unmuddled bundle of the same cell repeating is a myth. Especially those of us who have been ejaculated into, carried babies, or both. We carry the traces of those who created us, and those who wanted to create us, in places we will never see.
When I read that women carry the microchimera of the fetuses they conceive, and also, of every man whose sperm has been inside them, I blister with rage. Is there nowhere in my body that has not been colonized? Do male microchimera get credit for every logical thought I have, for every time I’ve built a piece of IKEA furniture correctly, for my ambition? Have infinite particles of maleness made me what I am, just as they always claimed?
Age seven. According to my teachers, I am reading at a fifth grade level. The next year, ninth grade level, and sometime after that I fall off the top edge of their reading comprehension charts. I set out to the library, devouring books in the fiction section. Even the Danielle Steele, the librarians whisper to my mother. They say I should turn my appetite to the classics, but I am not interested in scruffy orphan boys, or haunted governesses. I am interested in sex, and Danielle Steele writes a lot of it.
There is a gap between what I want to know, and what the world wants me to know.
From my collarbones to my ankles, my hair to my toes, linger the ghosts of the wants of every man I’ve ever loved. His favorite parts next to his favorite parts; an exquisite corpse of desires.
The mythological Pygmalion was a sculptor who didn’t care for mortal women at all. Instead, he fell in love with his ivory girl -- a statue he’d made. He prayed to the goddess Aphrodite to make the statue real, and his prayer was answered.
I have wondered about her, the living ivory girl. How did she lift her head under the weight of his want? How did she become a woman of her own making, and not just the projection of his want? How do any of us survive the process of becoming, when the whole crush of expectation pushes us flat?
But I know the answer. I live the answer. I survive in the lines of the answer: we do it by saying yes, holding everything they hand to us, forgetting to look beyond the horizon of hims. We become the vessel: round, red, shallow in parts, built steady, holding fast.
Age nine. I watch the movie, Splash, where a beautiful mermaid falls for an average human man. Because she’s not from the land, the gorgeous mermaid has no understanding of society, sexuality, or norms. The man seems like a hottie genius to her, and she appreciates things about him that human women do not. This dynamic, where a beautiful, woman falls for an average man, whose averageness is not apparent to her only because of her inexperience, sticks inside me. I just recently learned it has a name: Born Sexy Yesterday.
Age twelve. My mother, in the kitchen, spatula in hand, says that the reason boys in my grade don’t ask me out is probably because I was intimidating. She specifically uses the word smart. This is the first time I think of intellect as a factor in attractiveness.
That same year, in the summer, my hair starts to turn from childhood blonde into something darker. I begin to dye it, hanging on to the only thing I have going for me aside from my boobs. Sometimes I force myself to stare like I don’t understand when I’m called on in class, a tiny wrinkle between my eyebrows, a perfectly soft, quizzical tip of my head. I inhabit the fabled dumb blonde for a while. I let men explain things to me. I project myself as an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with their knowledge. I make myself the punchline of every dumb blonde joke I hear. I even begin to tell them. Boys like that.
Age seventeen, in AP English. I am silently competing with a boy named Jesse, who is considered the smartest person in the class. I might be considered the smartest girl. I am trying to close the gap between girl and person. Jesse is good at dominating the discussions, but I am good at writing.
Somewhere before my senior year of high school, I loosen my grip on the blonde thing. Not yet ready to claim my full intellect, but hiding my aptitudes is impossible in a tiny high school with a principal who likes to shout our standardized test scores at us in the halls. I still dye my hair, but I had also learned how sexy smart could be. That helped, even though I was still hinged on sexy.
In AP English, our assignments are reading and responses, but turning in journal pages or poems get us extra credit. I write page after page of poetry, and my extra credit blooms. I feel like I am getting away with something. There is a gap between reading, taking in the visions of authors, their patois, their stylistics, and writing my own voice out. At first, everything I write sounds like an amalgam of everything I’ve read. But gradually, and with practice, I find my own.
Our teacher says if we are serious about literature, we should read James Joyce, so I check out Ulysses, and force myself to take in page after page of his words running like rabbits into the next and into the next and burrowing down into that long soliloquy by Mollie Bloom, where she describes for pages all the things men did to her body and why she always said Yes. She agrees that men aren’t responsible for themselves.
In an interview, James Joyce said “Yes” was “the female word” because it was all acquiescence, the end of resistance. He thought of women as one big yes. His book exhausts me. I am not interested in Joyce. I am interested in Sexton and Plath, but I read Joyce.
“. . . as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
I am tired of being a yes girl.
Marissa's featured column Backbone is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. More of her work can be found in The Rumpus, The Manifest Station, Nailed Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, and The Establishment, among others. Her essay, "No, Lolita," was named one of Entropy Magazine's Best Online Articles & Essays of 2016. Her poetry has been anthologized in Only Light Can Do That (PEN/ The Rattling Wall 2016) and Things I Have to Tell You (Candlewick, 1998). Marissa is currently writing a collection of lyric essays and revising an experimental memoir. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler.