Girl Lit Nine: 'Leave the Bodies Be' by Ashley C. Ford
A piece of creative nonfiction today from Ashley C. Ford. As with everything I’ve read by her – writing, posts on her blog, lengthy discussions on The Female Gaze (to which we both contribute) – when I read this, I couldn’t take my eyes of the page. Read right to the end, a light burning behind the eyes. So I invite you to do the same.
Leave The Bodies Be
“Mama is going to knock the water out of your eyes if she sees this.”
My brother’s tight shoulders fell at the sight of me. He sat, knees to chin, folded into the corner of my closet. Thick drops of fear-induced sweat gathered at his temple and right above his top lip. The muscles in his arms struggled against the cheap and supple fabric holding the sleeves of my flower child Halloween costume together. Boogie’s well-built jaw harassed the seamless curves of the garment’s round neckline. There was never enough space for his overtly masculine body among the threads of my fragile wardrobe. At one point, I thought of buying him his own dresses. I quickly changed my mind. If he was sick, like Mama said, I didn’t want to be any part of what made him sicker.
“Get up. No one else is home.”
Unruffling himself from the floor, Boogie struck his head on the exposed light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He had been trying to “woman-up” even more than usual today. He’d filled water balloons with the tapioca pudding we got from the food bank, but refused to eat. Mama said we were picky for poor kids, but he and I just never really liked what we didn’t like. There wasn’t any changing it either. We had this thing about lanes and staying in them. When we liked our lanes, we rode them until the wheels fell off or we found a better lane. Boogie found his better lane, but every one seemed highly invested in derailing his car.
Anyway, the pudding balloons became tits mashed between my brother’s solid chest and my crushed velvet costume. They weren’t as good as mine, and even at fourteen, I knew I had good ones. His didn’t bounce like mine, weren’t tear-dropped like mine, and didn’t stay put when he got naked. He adjusted them as he stood. I opened the closet door wider for him to exit.
“Mama doesn’t get home until 4:30.”
He began undressing too quickly to be careful.
“Hey man, be careful with that. Slowly.”
“Help me get it off, then.”
The waist was caught at his shoulders. I slipped my fingers between the cloth and his skin, carefully tugged it over his head, unsure which fragile thing I was protecting. The pudding tits fell to the floor.
He stood there, in the middle of my room, wearing white Hanes and purple tights. There are men who would have broken the bodies they had to look like him. Tall, effortlessly muscled, and defined where it mattered. He hated his body as fiercely as I loved mine.
When I was twelve, and my body was just getting grown, Boogie caught me admiring myself in the bathroom mirror. I didn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed. I smiled at him in the mirror, asked him if I was starting to look like Mama. He glared at me and walked away. Every night for the next week, he stood on the other side of my bedroom door and whispered to me how fat I was. I would lie in bed and cry, unsure what made my brother, my best friend, hate me so bad. Later that year he explained that while my body got soft and feminine, his got hard and mannish. He felt left behind, felt like I was doing it on purpose. He told me from under his bed, crying into the carpet. I reached under the frame, held his hand, and fell asleep on the ground beside him.
Now, I rolled the wrinkle-free fabric my costume was made of into a ball and threw it into my hamper. Boogie draped himself alongside my pink and purple comforter, stroking the imitation embroidery with his skyscraping fingers.
This time of day was his. The coach wasn’t asking when he was going to try-out, the teacher wasn’t asking what he was thinking about instead of her lecture, Mama wasn’t asking why he didn’t have a girlfriend; all A’s; or why he couldn’t be more like me. Something we were all wondering for very different reasons.
“Ashley, doesn’t have to stay after school for no damn tutoring, so why do you?”
“Ashley, could probably hook you up with some of those cute girls she hangs out with. “
“Where the hell is my eyeliner?!”
Mama seemed to love asking questions she already knew the answers to. She found everything that had gone missing in Boogie’s room. The eyeliner, heels, silk scarf she wore to church: breadcrumbs my brother left behind. She followed their lead, refusing to pick them up along the way. Maybe she thought if she didn’t touch them, they weren’t real.
My brother curled up closer to himself in the corner of the bed. His brow furrowed, his eyes shadowed, knowing his time in the day was done. This is when it was better to be quiet. All he ever really needed from me was my quiet. When he starts to cry, like he does sometimes, it’s harder to be quiet. It’s always harder.
I leaned in close, gathered his shoulders in my hands. He was getting closer to broken every day and I didn’t really know how to help him. I didn’t feel like enough. I needed to talk, to say what he needed to hear. What did he need to hear?
“I wish I was as pretty as you. I love you.” I tried to make him hear me, to believe what I said. I wondered if he sat up at night choosing between being sick or feeling hurt every other way. When he was mind-sick with the need to look like me, he glowed. I liked his glow more than his sad. I thought I’d buy him a dress if it got more glow out of him. He sat up, rolling the tights off his hips. He spoke to me over his shoulder.
“Go talk to Mama. I think she’s home.”
I heard the garage door opening. I knew I needed to stall her just a bit longer. I walked to the door, but turned back to him. Boogie had gotten off the bed and was making his way beneath it, still too big to comfortably fit in such small spaces. I shut the door and stepped back into the room. I laid on the ground beside the bed. I reached for his hand.