That for years you did not come not once not ever unless you were sleeping; you woke up sometimes with the ocean filling a blue hollow at the crest of your legs–rolling whitecaps and seabirds above.
That you were ashamed you were made of wet straw that wouldn’t cinder so you faked it with your lovers every time.
That you believed admitting the truth would be like in the movies when someone says they’re scared of the basement and their friend tells them Don’t be silly and that’s the moment the shadows become monsters become real.
That you were afraid it was because you damaged yourself down there somehow when you were younger rubbing late under the covers with Tiger Balm and then later everyone could tell you were ruined so the women looked at you with pity and the men were polite steamer ships, toothy smiles like handkerchiefs waving from the decks as they pulled away.
That no one could love a broken thing. Broken things gather dust in the attic until they’re moved to the rubbish bin. Hence knowing with each new beloved: Once you see who I really am, you’ll leave.
That one time with Tom, in your best days, you were close: sliding over like grasping sand on a cliff’s edge and you wanted to let go and fall. He could tell you were frightened so he said You know I would never hurt you and that’s where things started ending because you knew even though he didn’t think he was lying, he was wrong.
That maybe the problem started because of what happened in the basement when you were little, but you can’t really remember it that well. Just mildew smell and how rough a shag carpet was against your face.
And afterwards you knew your body was a betrayal, physical proof of your failure to be good, so for years you lulled yourself asleep imagining your own vivisection, how you would lift away skin, yellow fat, and every slick organ until you were white bones only which are dry and clean.
That, as an adolescent, you carved yourself into a wooden shape of a woman, an iron maiden who hinged to show metal spikes that rend anyone who ventures near. That you lived as in a museum: on a stand in a glass box seen from all angles, but rarely touched.
That in your twenties you thought the problems of the body are of the body, not the mind so you unfurled in furnace rooms of yoga and twirled upside down in aerial silks and trained at gyms styled like bootcamps where men yelled until you could lift barbells overhead heavier than the children you wanted, but never had. Lab technicians in gowns white as paper napkins drew your blood to test your hormones and what a fucking disappointment it was every time they said you were fine.
That loneliness became your skin so when you navigated sidewalks or stood crushed against other people in the subway, you looked around and thought I’m the only one here who’s not even really human.
That then you decided I’m an academic; if I apply myself diligently, I can fix this. So you bought books, and put signs on your apartment walls saying I deserve to be happy and I deserve to be deeply loved, and you studied your vulva in the mirror and tried to think of it as a flower and as a special animal, and you petted it and told lovers what you thought they should do to you, and all the time you felt distant as if your body was Paris and you were sipping coffee in a roadside dinner somewhere in America.
That your life wasn’t a grand love story where the right man saved you or, because you found someone good who needed you, you spontaneously healed yourself. You didn’t fix it by buying the right product or rebuilding yourself into something television-ready and culturally approved.
Instead you had to lurk in the corridors of your past, saying You’re safe now; there’s nothing wrong with you and then practice saying the same to yourself as an adult and you had to learn to touch yourself like science and like art. And then finally when it clicked and you unfolded and were ocean and confetti, realizing, I’m not transformed; this was just a room inside whose door I didn’t know how to open before.
Printed with permission from Kate Angus, copyrighted by Kate Angus @ 2014. This piece, winner of the Spring 2014 Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction, originally appeared in Issue No. 16 of the Los Angeles Review.