M. E. Perkins
The Things That Resonate
Setting: All-Around 1
The summer before the Olympics (thank God)
WEST WYCOMBE PARK, UK — In the rainy part of England, there’s a “grotto” you can stop inside for a moment, at the bottom of a small hill just below the garden’s Temple of Venus. Walls spread like legs from the goddess’s “parlor,” heralding the hidden alcove where she receives and entertains the visitors—the ones frisking over the curving hills or swathing their bodies around the pillars. It’s a whitewashed relic symbolic of the universal scar (i.e. she’s an outie), and these people, they plaster their biggest You Wish You Were Me! smiles all over it, with a raunchy “CHEESE!” to boot.
This grotto, it’s exactly what you think it is—grotesque 2 . The man who built the West Wycombe estate, Sir Francis Dashwood, was a modern guy. Landscaping was the garden variety chichi of the eighteenth century, but Dashwood broke the ceiling, took it beyond, leaped with progress; he excavated the Hellfire Caves, where he and his cadre spent many a bacchanalian night.
“But how can someone be reborn?” Nicodemus asked Jesus (John 3:1-21). And yet here I stand, my fingers spread on the walls of this tiny cave, the muck of cockroaches 3 and secrets slick against my palm. This grotto, it’s not a part of the Hellfire Caves. It may have witnessed Dashwood and his hellbent party sprinting for the lake, dressed up in vines and whoops. But there’s only room for two in here, a man and his mother, someone and his shadow, a self and a second self.
A week or so earlier
STANAGE EDGE, UK — I heard about the West Wycombe garden from my study abroad professor Dr. Lesser, #1 World Expert on Gardens, Queer Poetry, and Romantic British Literature4. We were three weeks and an official theme song5 into our program when we took a trip to the moors to re-imagine Jane Eyre’s plight. Over the two-hour trek, I kept to the back to chat with Dr. Lesser6.
Maybe it was the grainy wilderness, in need of something bolder than just gravestone rocks and high-stepping grass; maybe it was the embodiment of Jane’s flight from what she knew; maybe it was our unfiltered conversation and plain curiosity—for whatever reason, there was one question that popped out before I could stop it:
“So, when did you become aware you were a lesbian?” 7
Setting: A Reflection 8 Not more than 25 years ago, surely
ANONYMOUS FARM — When Dr Lesser was younger, she dated boys. While she might not have ever got caught up in the drama of asking a guy to a dance 9 , she’d let a few hold her hand at the movies. But after spending a weekend on a farm with her best friend, that all changed.
One day it started to storm, she told me, and they’d been outside feeding the horses. The barn was the closest refuge, so she and her friend took cover while the storm kept up its barrage for several hours. It was during this deluge when she realized that she was in love with this girl, and that she’d probably been in love since the day they first became friends.
The rest she left up to my imagination, although she did say it was like the switch of a light, like she’d been trying to mirror someone else’s actions, when the real mirror had always been at her back. She’d only needed to catch a glimpse of movement over her shoulder, of her moving, and with one pivot, she was in control of what she saw. She could do anything.
Sometimes I imagine they were hiding in a real barn, red like the sleepy poppies that populated the frontier. The barns pioneered an organic color then, with walls coated in linseed oil and rust—a mixture that protected the wood from fungal decay and increased insulation in the winter. To purposefully paint a barn red in those days would’ve been a vulgar extravagance.
When she mentioned the boys she’d dated in the past, it sounded like they were some sort of vulgar extravagance, like the love holiday we’re obligated to perpetuate, implicitly and explicitly. But that weekend made it all plain. With rain coating barn walls in warm, familiar friendship, protected from the outside and any of its cold, rotten condemnation, my professor understood herself at a new volume. She’d never known the real width and length and depth of her heart, of all this space for someone like her friend to fill. It was renascent love, natural as a blush, found in a haystack world.
Setting: The Unexpressed
NOWHERE — “Hey, let’s talk about these things,” said my mother, my father, someone, anyone10.
Setting: (Un)Readable Bodies
Shortly after I got braces
THE SUMMER CAMP OFF MUDDY POND ROAD — It was a month-long camp, which was the most time I’d spent away from my parents at that age. I learned to swim The Airplane and throw pottery and play badminton, but ultimately I was shy of my new independence and hid in a hammock most of the time, reading books from the Animorphs series. Everyone was an outsider to me—especially one girl: Claire.
Hair that just crowned her ears, clothes without discrimination of chest or curves, glasses that magnified an intelligence without puberty—this was Claire. To me though, she was a he. I read her body as boy, often instantly even though we were at an all-girls camp. I couldn’t reconcile the gangly limbs with giggly laughter; I parked my perspective at the short hair-cut and baggy clothes.
Intuitively, I think I knew something was wrong with the way I saw her. This became explicit when, in a conversation with a counselor, I referred to Claire as a he. “She. You meant, ‘She went down to the lake,’” my counselor said. I could’ve felt like it was Claire’s fault for not dressing in a way that fit my expectations, but instead I felt ashamed on my part. I wanted to read her body (and subconsciously all bodies) in the right way, which meant grappling with what “right” meant—at twelve years old.
I became fascinated. There was something taboo about the concept, like someone told me to draw a rainbow but I’d only been given two colors to use. Coloring was kindergarten stuff, which made this dilemma seem simple and thus forbidden to ask about. Did I miss class the day they talked about other colors? It was like a new knowledge of reality, and I was curious what it meant. I was also afraid. What if I’d been transgressing protocol all this time and someone had only just now stopped to tell me about the social spinach in my teeth? It felt like I was the outsider now, in body and thought.
With nobody to ask, and three states away from home and everything I knew—my only course of action seemed to be a transgression of allowable behavior. I needed to color with both pencils.
The camp showers were outside, placed on a wooden scaffold with the heads hanging above each tin partition. Trees fireworked for the sky, leaving shadow and stillness in their wake, interrupted occasionally by girlish chatter. It was a sun-sticky day, and Claire happened to be showering in the stall next to me. These were old stalls, riddled with stains and chinks by years of rapid-fire, crank-driven bullets of water. They weren’t very big openings, but still I pressed my cheek to the ridged metal, aligning eye to I with this tiny hole in my universe.
I discovered everybody is an outsider—an idea we try to get around with constructs. I didn’t have words for why Claire intrigued me so much then, but now I know that I arrived at camp with apparent rigid constructs of gender. Girls look like this, boys look like that. I saw people in terms of an ancient binary code that Claire shattered before my eyes. When I tried to re-construct the pieces back together, I couldn’t; all the 1s and 0s were made with the same glass. What seemed like part of a zero would be a piece of a one that I’d stretch into a circle. In a naïve and literal way, I discovered (and broke) the fourth wall of empathy.
In the effort to immediately identify and categorize, our constructs can cut off empathy and diversity. Instead of focusing on how to label Claire, I wish I would’ve sought to understand her and appreciate her uniqueness. I wish I would’ve found out what her favorite activities were and if she liked to play badminton or swim “The Airplane” stroke. I wish I’d shown her the neat little flipbook in the bottom right-hand corner in each Animorph book, where if you thumbed through the pages from front to back, you could see the narrator morph into the featured animal of that story.
I wish I’d been her friend.
“Outsider” does not have to be stigmatic; it can promise a bounty of potential, like two flip books thumbed through in a shuffle of overlapping pages.
n/a NOWHERE — “You know you can tell me if anyone ever says or tries to do something that makes you uncomfortable, right? If an older kid from the neighborhood tells you to close your eyes while he unzips his pants—come to me. You can trust me. I wouldn’t be mad. I would never be upset,” said. . . . . . 11
A long, long time ago
ATHENS, ANCIENT GREECE — If you untether your mind from this reality and your experiences, you might be able to understand the man in the cave below — unaware of Pluto and Charon’s orbital staring contest, or the Wikipedia game of following link after link until you inevitably end up at Philosophy, or the coyotes that devoured half of a local mechanic’s 40 cat population, or the white coat scientists and black coat preachers, or the waiter that brought you rice with your burger when you said “fries” definitely “fries,” or the house that was so tiny the family had to eat in shifts, or the uncle that wanted to get in every snapshot, or bald tires, or the butterflies that taste with their feet, or the box of 76 trombone paper clips12—who’s only ever known a wall and its shadows.
But when he emerges?
Unable to recover data (time/date)
THE WEIRD PART OF AUSTIN —
“Kaci’s not coming? Just you and me?”
“Crap. It’s almost midnight, and I just made this drink.”
“That was disgusting. I hate chugging.”
“I think you can see my underwear in this dress.”
“Nah. Too far. Let’s see, if I can just maybe—if I aim for the balcony—ha! Look, it just barely made it on to the porch. Imagine someone glancing up and seeing underwear just hanging there.”
“Gah, where’s are all the damn cabs? What if—hey, what if we asked that Big Bites delivery guy to take us—hey—hey!! Ha, just kidding.”
“Chupacabra first? I’m down. But let’s end up at Aquarium by the end. You’ll be the one on the bar with me tonight—nope, nope, no backing out!”
“Yeah, look. He said he’s at a strip club,
and I told him I’d be more than happy to take all my clothes off for him. And look what he said back. Jerk, right? I’m basically serving myself up—no, yeah, please, you text him. I don’t even know you, ha, but you’d still say something better. I always say stupid stuff.”
“The random strangers you meet in bathrooms. It doesn’t get better than that. Screw him, though. I need another shot.”
“Shakespeare’s? Never mind, the line is shorter at Cheers.”
“Oops, sorry. These heels were a bad idea. Don’t let me break an ankle.”
"Blowjob shot! Let’s do it! Do you want—no—okay, I’ll sit on the bar, and you can take it. Yeah, you take it from between my legs. Have you not done these before? With me and Kaci?”
“He still hasn’t texted back. Asshole.”
“Tequila? Takin’ this shit to the next level. Too bad we’re wearing skank dresses. Otherwise… body shots!”
“I just wanna dance. Yeah, let’s go to Blind Pig.”
“Nope. Still nothing. Fuck him. I’m gonna find someone who appreciates this.”
“Wait—my friend—did you see the other girl I was with? She said she was going to the bathroom. I can’t find her. No, look, I’ve got all her cards, so I need to find her. .”
“Your face. It’s not unattractive.”
“Can we—would you mind waiting a moment? I need to find her. I don’t know how she’s going to get home without her stuff.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Fuck these heels. Sorry. Can you—“
“My toe’s bleeding. Fuck. It’s bleeding a lot. No, I’m fine.”
“Sorry, I’m drunk. Yeah, can I—I need to hold onto you.”
“Sorry. I keep doing that. I’m drunk. I just need to make sure your face isn’t unattractive. I’m drunk.”
“This is your car? Nice. I like it. I don’t know anything about cars.”
“What? You don’t have a condom?”
“Yeah, no, I’m good. I literally got tested literally two weeks ago. Clean.”
“I’m really good at this.”
“Do you want to come inside?”
“Wait. Stop. Stop. Fuck, where’s my hearing aid? Stop. Shit. We’ve gotta find it. They’re $3,000 apiece. What? Yeah. Maybe it fell down the side of your seat, when I—I—I’ll check the floorboard. What?”
“Yeah, I’ve got all my stuff. Thanks for the ride. Goodnight.”
“I’m not this girl.
I’m not this girl.
I’m not this girl.
I’m not this girl.
I’m not this girl.
I’m not this girl.
Setting: The Prospect
A longer, long time ago
THE ADULLAM CAVE, JUDEA — The spider would’ve been an acrobat. Those guys in the circus with the rotten smiles and greased lives—they seem so free. Day after day, after the collective sitting and settling and searching the oily bag of peanuts, after the elephant’s wobbled through a few tricks, the high-fliers come out. These guys, they could’ve worked at NASA for the way they’ve tamed gravity. They know the bend, the pull, the tuck, the unfurl, the catch—they understand that all of these must come out of the corner of gravity’s eye. The spider would’ve been good at that. It would’ve had no qualms about climbing to the high, starting platform. It would’ve loved the bold sweep, like the women who draw their eyeliner along the bottom edge. It would’ve been good at catching its fellow partners, with fingers webbing around forearms.
But thank God spiders don’t fly.
Thank God this spider made this old, old cave his home. And when he felt the gentle wind, a nudge, he began to spin his wild web, a silent symphony of strings winding through pizzicatos, sul tastos, and vibratos, spiraling into a sparkling crescendo, the grand ‘ole Happily Ever After, complete with marriages and the punishment of evil, after men have come home from the war, lives lost for silk like this web, for the dress it becomes, the slutty red trap sliding smiles across the bar, so soft, so very soft. And then, the spider sighs. It is finished.
There are ten eyes in this dark cave, two that blink and eight that don’t. There’s also a sound coming from the bright gap. It’s sharp, like swords outside their sheaths, and getting sharper, like a king’s steely stare, before it’s there, completely focused in the cave’s open frame. Dust kicks up as boots impact the ground, and the king peers inside, hand shielding defiant eyebrows. He searches the shadows for the shepherd boy that slew a giant with nothing but a rock, the boy that became a young man with a destiny to replace him as king. But the king doesn’t see ten eyes. He sees a perfect, unbroken web. And so, the weaponry moves on.
Maybe the spider watches all this. Maybe it pivots to study the young man, hiding in the dark and breathing again now. Maybe the spider wonders what’s keeping the man here when he could bunk with clowns, break bread with the malformed, and, for the barest blink, fly with arms reaching, trapeze left behind.
With eight eyes to see it all—the searching king, the intricate web, the fall or the catch—maybe the spider leaned forward and whispered, what are you afraid of?14
Setting: “. . . . . . . . . . . . . . ”
“. . . .”
“. . . . . . . .” —
“It’s okay if you make a mistake—I’ll always love you,” said. . . . . .15
Setting: (Auto) Assault
*By this point, I should’ve known better*
OUTSIDE THE HOTEL, VIRGINIA —
“Hey, hey! Sorry it took me so long. Traffic was awful.”
“Well how was last night? I can’t believe how much beer we drank.16
“Did you have fun? I’m sore. I think it was the mechanical bull.”
“I liked him. He seemed like a pretty cool guy.”
“I hope you’re not one of those women who hate themselves afterwards.”
12:30pm Spring M/W
EDP 363 HUMAN SEXUALITY, UT AUSTIN — Overview of the course(s):
“Human sexuality and loving relationships will be taught from a psychological perspective with attention to the physiological, emotional, developmental17, and relationship dimensions of sexuality. Course goals are to present factual information and to promote scholarly examination of social 18, personal and ethical factors in sexual expression. We operate under the assumption that sex and relationships are appropriate and important topics of study, and that our understanding19 will be enhanced by reading about, thinking about, and discussing many aspects of human sexuality. Virtually everyone will feel some self-consciousness and discomfort with some of the subject matter, but this usually20 improves fairly quickly. However, if you do not share our belief that it is appropriate and worthwhile to study and discuss sexual issues in the context of the university classroom, this course is probably not for you."
There used to be only one course in my life—the everyday education I received since I was little. But with this class, I have been emancipated. According to a class reading, “we don’t touch our vulvas at the table” is what someone else tells their little girl. “We don’t” is what I was told. All the childhood “shames"—the secret truths and dares that were whispered behind closed doors; the childhood games that always appointed me as the Prince; the curiosity about what our dog was always trying to do with the neighbor’s little terrier—it was just normal behavior. The things I heard though, the trials I’ve been through since then—they’ve been righted in this rehearing, in all the class discussions from “demon rods” (evil penises) to “alphabet soup” (LGBTQQPA(H), BDSM). I’d been in a class that only teaches, but this was a curriculum of learning.
And that was just the ripple crowning the tsunami. This change from one course to another was as revolutionary as Bluetooth hearing aids. At last, I could tune through all the noise of the world to recognize what I should’ve learned then and what I needed to know now.
Now, I recognize how Dr. Lesser’s understanding of love opened my senses beyond the taboos and spectrums I’d been taught to see. In some ways, a conservative juvenescence can be more conducive than other upbringings for appreciating progressive opinions. For these kids, it’s not just a small jump to the Come on, it’s the twenty-first century type of free thinking. It’s a tooth-and-nail evolution from the assessment that “bodies are made for only one way of reproduction” to the idea If bodies were meant to fit a certain natural definition, my hearing loss would be unnatural. I would be unnatural. It’s as if I’d been mirroring other people’s ideas of love, and all it took was one pivot to see a Love I could be reconciled with, one that accounted for all shapes and sizes.
And now, I recognize that bodies shouldn’t be read in just one way—something I sometimes still struggle with, even with my own body. When I stand in front of a mirror, I catch myself wrestling with a checklist: Long, non-frizzy hair? Check. Contoured makeup? Check. Trendy blazer? Check. All these things for the constructed idea of beauty. But the moments I’ve felt most beautiful involved frizz-full curly hair, no makeup, and novelty donut socks. In other words, with a construct, my body doesn’t seem to belong to me; without them, I’m myself. I’m free. That’s what Claire taught me. Skin is just skin. It’s a cover we can’t judge without knowing the kinetic story beneath.
I also recognize now that there are other things—the unexpressed and omitted, the regression and auto-assault—that will always resonate, body and soul. A conversation that began with “I have something to tell you” and “Please don’t tell me you’re a lesbian”—and it’s not unreasonable, with Broadway show tickets for friends’ birthdays, jealousy over a neglected mani-pedi invitation, and preferences for the smart, funny, and pretty, I basically date my friends, and suffer many a lesbian joke for it, but so what? If it were true, would my name be on the over-my-dead-body list with tattoos, motorcycles, and signing petitions?— it echoes, faintly, but I’m the conductor. I’m in control of the song now.
The thing is, you have to contend with the cave before you can emerge. You have to grapple with the prospective nonsense—the prologues and origins and sources, the trusty instincts, the theories trusted, the things you tell yourself (learned and unacknowledged), the jokes and judgment, the whispering blame and uncomfortable looks, the hoarded wishes and discernible connotations, the impressions and perceptions and explanations, and skeletons deep down with the awareness and knowledge and fear. It’s a cage match, and you’re up against your second self—the internal other generated by the people and the constructs they create. This world is not something you can change.
But you can change the setting you use. You can declare an independence, shouting from temple tops I recognize my body. I recognize this skin. I recognize me.
An even longer, long time ago
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - “But how can someone be reborn? Surely they cannot reenter their mother’s womb.”
Perhaps the teacher ran his hands through his hair, long and mammalian, his fingers hauling up his mind from the deep sleep he’d been in moments ago. Then, maybe he turned to the question, to the man, this spiritual leader, crouched nearby.
And possibly, as the teacher’s eyes lifted to the glittery heavens, the spiritual leader wondered at how dark and quiet it seemed, with only slow-burning coals to see by. The wind had pronounced the fire deceased long ago, but a breeze remained at the edges, plucking at the leaves and waiting to see if the bright, dead sparks would become enlightened again.
“Here’s the crisis:”
The light’s here. It’s not going to be here in a week, it’s not marching in on the Tuesday after next. It’s landed, and it’s not going to stop rolling in, whether you’re on the beach wondering if the waves ever take a break from their ebb and flow, or at home watching your oatmeal in the microwave rise like the grudge. It won’t ever stop crashing on and cracking in, even as eyes perspire from the earth, the homo sapiens leaning into ledges but not too far, keeping to their precious darkness, their hate carried in cartridges.
No solicitors allowed, the bullets scream. Get off our shores.
They don’t want to see how worn their favorite teddy bear is; they don’t want to know about the microscopic germs flying from a lid-up flush and now coating their toothbrush; they don’t want to acknowledge that the #5 Chick-fil-a combo and a meaningless quickie are just fleeting moments, not memories.
But I’m here to bring the boys, the girls, all the people home21.
WEST WYCOMBE PARK, UK (continued) — Strike a pose, I hear. My friend stands a few paces out in the gap between the high, thigh walls surrounded by green green green. She holds up her camera and calls, Hurry up. It’s a three-mile walk back to the bus, and the clouds were sagging like they were going to refresh this persistently fresh countryside once more.
I pivot in the tiny cave, slightly bending at the knees and bringing a finger to my lip in the universal shhh sign. I imagined the caption would be clever, like Keep it secret, keep it safe. This girl, she hasn’t learned yet. Her world still caves in on her, but that’s okay. The cave is her primordial home, the same one we all carry with us as we search for truth.
So when she leaves the little grotto, grabbing the camera from her friend to see, oh good, you can’t tell I don’t have any makeup on, it’s just a step—one of a thousand and a thousand more, stepping into the sun.
1: The prologues you need: We might not have hover boards like Marty McFly yet, but the future is closer than you think. Trust me—my new hearing aids are proof. I can hear things I’ve never heard before, listen to conversations on a higher level, understand the world from a completely different perspective—all with a quick setting selection. Click a button and “Restaurant” shuts up the kid two tables away. “Music-TV” gives someone like Beethoven the ability to compose beyond the spectrum, and Professor X has clearly been using the “All-Around” channel this entire time.
It’s selective hearing, upgraded and repackaged in a whole new way.
2: The origins to recognize: Like many stigmas, this affiliation is a historical accident. In the late 15th century, a group of Italians got the heebie-jeebies after stumbling across underground remains dating back to the reign of Roman emperor Nero. The depictions on the walls were an unnatural kaleidoscope of animals, humans, and strange plants—thus, the translation “weird cave.”
3: The triggering sources: “All of us have secrets in our lives. We’re keepers or kept from, players or played. Secrets and cockroaches—that’s what will be left at the end of it all.” —Maggie Stiefvater.
4: The perceptions created: This is a personal opinion.
5: The explanations you find: “Teach Me How to Dougie”
6: The things you don’t like to acknowledge: It was partly jealousy. Lately, the other girls had spent more time with her than me.
7: The impressions you pick up: That may have been the question I asked, although I’m sure I was even less tactful than “become aware.” Still, we’d been talking about the secret innuendos at West Wycombe, and she’d asked me about the origins of my hearing loss; I was under the impression we were at a point of confiding in each other—an eye for an eye, a bodily question for a bodily question.
I was still attuned to the Old Testament view.
8: The connotations to discern: sending back or throwing back; a likeness; a display, indication, or evidence; cogitation; an assessment, belief, conclusion, or feeling.
9: The skeletons in the closet: It was an actual handwritten “Yay or Nay?” invitation to the Soccer Ball, given to one of the most popular guys in school.
10: The wishes you hoard: If we’d talked more when I was younger, maybe I would’ve understood the “things” better.
11: The instincts you trust: I thought he was a friend. I thought it was a game.
12: The theories you form: There’s so much noise in the world, yet we’re as deaf as Plato’s underground man. We need to emerge, tuned to knowledge and listening for truth.
But what if noise is all there is to find?
13: The awareness below: You’ve never known absolute blackness until you’ve been in a cave when they’ve turned all the lights off.
14: The fears you are forced to accept: The known always appears in black and white, like a painful exposure written up in the local paper.
15: The things you tell yourself: Even if, or when, these words are spoken, we can’t account for every scenario.
16: The whispering blame: She was trying to be a good friend—picking me up from his hotel, asking me about the one-nighter, even employing the counseling strategies from her PSYC studies—but there was only one thing I could focus on: If you’d spent the day at a beer festival and the night at a honky-tonk, if you’d been drinking for ten straight hours, if the total loss of inhibition was all on you—does that mean it’s possible to date rape yourself?
17: The judgment you feel: Even as I clutched my stomach, I smiled up at my sister and said, Nice punch. That was a baby-killer. She walked away, unable to dignify me with words anymore, not after my announcement that I’d checked in the V-card. What I really wanted to say was You’ve never hit me before. Why now? Why this?
18: The jokes you hear: The best one they came up with was Hey you must really enjoy that phone sex, huh? No wonder you’ve got hearing AIDS.
19: The things you learn: She took the newborn kitten from my arms. He was removed from his momma cat before he was weaned, my mother said. He thinks you’re his momma now, she’d told me. Kitty kisses, she’d called them. But there were other whispers too. Your first hickey came from a cat, freak.
20: The looks that make you uncomfortable: My mother towered over me and my bag, barely unpacked from spending New Year’s at my boyfriend’s house. That’s what whores do, she said. I watched her hands, wondering if they’d strike.
21: The knowledge underneath: This is all just part of the greater mission to discover truth and reality—to live in the light.