Photo by Brit c/o nappy.co
Missy Elliott was scooping ocean froth into her jowls at the water’s edge as I watched the waves rolling in from the dry beach. She was my favorite bull dog, maybe the best dog I ever owned. I loved her more than anyone, probably more than I ever loved Anthony.
He had gotten her for me when she was just a puppy, and we had watched her slide around on the kitchen linoleum, her puppy nails clacking wherever she went to announce her presence. She had been a gregarious puppy, pouncing into my lap whenever I called her name. Anthony and I had been a couple for one year when he brought her to me. Four months prior he had told me he loved me by asking the chef at our favorite pizza spot to spell it out with pepperoni. It was romantic and sweet and cheesy, and I had told him I loved him back and we spent the rest of the date ogling at each other and scooping hot melted cheese into each other’s mouths. Gross, I know.
Eight months, I had told him on our first date. I only need eight months to figure out if I’m going to stay with a person: four to get to know them and four to figure out if I still like ‘em. He had glanced up at me over his coffee, with milk and no sugar, and smiled. That damn charming smile of his. When we made it to the one-year mark he bought me a puppy as if to say, ‘now we’re committed.’
It has been four months since we broke up. I do not love him anymore, but I love the puppy he gave me. She has grown up since then, has developed an affinity for napping under the kitchen table while I eat dinner alone. I watch her trot along the water’s edge with her too-short legs, greeting couples on weekend strolls and stomping through children’s sand castles.
She’s a friendly dog, not shy or wary of humans. Always quick to offer a shake of her nub butt. Social. It’s a personality trait she got from Anthony. He was the one who was on first name basis with the ladies who bagged his groceries. He could get a Lyft driver to confide in him, could tease a person’s long-forgotten life dream of traveling to Morocco out of them just in the short amount of time he spent sitting in the passenger seat. He could strike up a conversation with someone sitting next to him on a plane and they would become lifelong email pen pals. That was him.
I, on the other hand, won the Best Resting-Bitch-Face award from my sorority sisters in college, and I’m proud of it. You don’t get as far as I have in life by being chummy, that’s for damn sure. It’s not my job to make people feel comfortable or welcomed. I make a living by collecting money from the clients my advertising firm works with, and I’m damn good at it because I’m clear and firm. I can look people in the eye and let them know that the consequences to their unwillingness to fulfill contracts are real. Very fucking real.
“We’re well-balanced,” Anthony told me once. “You’re the tough, outer shell that I always needed and I’m the soft, gooshy inside that you never knew you wanted.” I rolled my eyes. “Like a chocolate cream egg,” he said, kissing my forehead. We had been walking the Embarcadero with my hand tucked affectionately into his coat pocket.
I had believed this at the time, was even a willing participant in the fantasy romance that he was creating for us. I had thought that was what I wanted, to be one half of a “balanced” relationship. But no. What I really wanted – right now – was for that man in a rolled down wet suit surfing the ocean to climb on top of me. I shielded the sun from my eyes to get a better look. He had arms like a Greek sculpture.
Maybe it was the sex. Anthony was the first man (and only, so far) to make me orgasm. Hard. I had faked so many by the time I met him I wasn’t sure I could ever have one with another person in the room, I was convinced that my G-spot was people-shy. The first time Anthony and I were ever naked together I realized I wasn’t going to have to direct him on where to put his mouth, how to kiss my neck properly, how to rub my clit, and it was such a relief. We were naked in each other’s presence every chance we got after that. God, I miss his body. I miss his sex. I try not to think about it.
I slipped my sandals off and dug my toes into the sand with one eye still on the Greek god. I crouched down to scoop some into my hand and watch it fall from beneath my fingers. When I was young, my sister Sandra had taught me how to make sand bowls, making a dip with your thumb and then pouring the right amount of water so that the sand binds and sticks only in that scooped out area. Then you carve the wet sand bowl out of the dry sand by tracing around the edge. It was a careful process, and my makeshift sand bowls always seemed to split down the middle when I got impatient and tried to force the separation between wet and dry too quickly. Sandra was always so much better at it, and she would hold the finished bowls up in her gentle hands like they were precious, ancient artifacts she had just dug from the ground. They were beautiful and delicate and useless, those bowls.
I rolled up the cuffs of my jeans, considering whether to join Missy Elliott at the edge of the water. Maybe the sun-kissed surfer would notice me if I got my ass off my beach towel and frolicked in the water. And then, maybe, he would slide out of the water, whisk his hand through his hair, flash his white teeth at me with his hip bones aimed in my direction, looking sultry and tantalizing, inspiring the confidence I needed to convince him to press his body against mine. I know my life isn’t a rom-com, but a girl can dream. I got flustered just thinking about him, so I rolled my pant cuffs back down and flipped over onto my stomach.
“Sometimes you have to meet people where they are at,” my boss had told me last week. He had pulled me into his office to discuss my “approachability,” whatever the fuck that was supposed to mean.
“Natalia, some of your coworkers have expressed some concern,” he said. I sat across from him with my legs crossed at the knee. “About your ability to work in teams. Here at XY, we try to act as a family to each other, to support each other. Some of your coworkers feel a general lack of support coming from you.” He smiled. It’s a guerito thing, I think, to smile at people at inappropriate times. They are trying to disarm you, always expecting you to return their smiles like you’re supposed to be some kind of damn reflecting mirror or something.
When my boss finished talking, I leaned towards him. “Thank you for sharing this with me, I’ll see what I can do to address these concerns. But, for the record, my coworkers are not my family. I will treat them respectfully and professionally, like I always have. Like coworkers.” His eyes widened from where he sat in his leather chair behind the excessively large mahogany desk.
It was the same look of surprise I had gotten from Anthony’s mother the one-and-only time I met his parents. They had invited us to dinner, insisting that it was time they meet Anthony’s girlfriend.
“So, Natalia where are you from? No, no, I mean, where is your family from? California? Well how long has your family been here?”
I put my fork down beside my plate and wiped my hands on the napkin on my lap. “Well, my dad’s family is from Mexico. My mom’s is from Central America. But both sides of my family have been here for a few generations. Where is your family from?”
“Oh, we’re New Englanders. Originally from Massachusetts.”
“Of course,” Anthony’s dad chuckled. He was almost more handsome than his son, with his broad shoulders and crow’s feet. He had the body of a fifty-year-old man who had lived well, hadn’t spent the better half of his life stooped over rows of tomato plants with the sun beating down on his shoulders. “How could you tell?”
I shrugged and reached for the stem of my wine glass.
“But where are you really from?” I asked. The two of them looked at each other in surprise. Anthony nudged my ankle with his foot as I took a long sip of wine. “Surely your families came from somewhere before they ended up in Massachusetts.”
“Uh, well, we’re just,” Anthony’s mother stuttered, “We’re just, you know, white. Once Europeans come to the states, we just get all mixed up, you know…A little bit of this and a little bit of that.” She laughed nervously. I rested my chin in my hand and smiled.
Anthony’s dad leaned in, a piece of salmon skewered at the end of his fork. “She’s really a feisty one, isn’t she son?” The family laughed like he had just said something particularly witty and original. I did not join.
That evening I sat with my arms folded across my chest as Anthony drove us home from his parent’s house. “I resent being referred to as ‘feisty,’” I told him. “It’s what white people say about me when they don’t take me seriously. It’s the same way they describe pets or zoo animals.”
“Babe. Baby. Come on,” he said. He placed his hand on my knee reassuringly, “I take you seriously, they took you seriously. I promise you. They just weren’t used to…they weren’t used to having that conversation.”
I continued to pout.
I stared out the passenger side window as he took an exit from the freeway that I didn’t recognize. “What are you doing?” I asked him. He took a left turn, towards an empty gas station whose dingy fluorescence was the only light for miles. He drove up the road, passing the station. He kept going until he found the spot that seemed to be the darkest. He pulled over into the gravel and killed the engine. I was convinced that this was the part of our romance where I find out he was a serial killer and end up running for my life through open fields. But then Anthony leaned over and kissed me. He reached his hand up under my skirt and I clasped my hands around his neck. He lifted me into his lap so easily. I am small, but he made me so aware of this fact, that I was compact. I took up so little space, was made up of a minimal amount of atoms.
We had sex there on the side of the road, our hot breath filling the car to maximum capacity. It felt significant then, the way he pulled at my bottom lip, gripped my hip bones tightly. We broke up later that week.
My pussy ached now, thinking about this. It had been four months. Four months without pressing my chest up against someone else’s, feeling the rise and fall of someone else’s breath. My apartment had become an empty, cold space that Missy Elliott and I were barely big enough to fill.
“Yo, is this your dog?” I flipped over to catch the last seconds of Missy squatting at the edge of the water taking a glorious dump. Sexy surfer was waving his arms at me and pointing at her. Whelp, there goes any far-fetched chance I may have had with him. I tried to act casual as I scooped it up. She greeted me happily, tongue hanging loose from her mouth. We trotted back to my beach towel and she flopped onto the sand, panting. I rubbed her wrinkled forehead and took a deep breath. I needed to breath.
“Yoga tomorrow,” I told Missy. She looked at me with her wide eyes and smacked her lips together.
The yoga studio was a large, square carpeted room covered in wall-to-wall mirrors. The smell of sour sweat filled my nostrils when I walked in. I glanced over the room and decided on a spot near the middle behind a man with a California brown bear tattoo stenciled across his chiseled back. I dropped my rubber mat with a thud and set up my station, trying to be subtle while I eyed his shoulder blades. I had seen him here before. Of course I had noticed him, how could I not? His jawline was perfect, the edge not too sharp or too dull. The skin of his arms looked smooth and shining over the ripple of toned muscles. I wanted it. I wanted all of it.
The teacher flicked the lights on to signal the beginning of class. As she coached us through breathing exercises and stretches, the room began to heat up. I struggled to keep my focus on myself, my own limbs and muscles, my forehead chakra, but bear-tattoo was distracting. His body was so much sturdier than mine. I watched his thigh muscles pull taught as he lunged left, then right. I watched his calves twitch to keep balance, his fingers stretched towards the mirrors lining the walls. The beads of sweat collected along his collarbone and trickled down his bare chest. My own sweat was collecting on my shoulders and dripping down between my boobs. How I wanted to swap sweat with him.
“Don’t forget to breathe,” The yoga teacher announced loudly. “Annnd change position.”
The room shifted; the students in the class lowered themselves to the ground, everyone lying on their backs, feet pointed in the same direction. Such well-trained yogis.
There was a release of tension as we laid there watching the ceiling fans spin. Moans of exertion escaped people’s lips, and I held my breath, listening for someone else’s pulse. Gulping, sighing, breathing. This is what I came for, the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of other people’s bodies. My own had become boring. Redundant. Pathetic.
“Stillness, find your stillness.”
I needed the exertion. I needed the vulnerability of people gathered in a room together, almost naked, sweating. I needed sex. My whole body ached like it was suffering from four months of frostbite. It felt neglected.
“And quick breaths out! Exhale!”
Hoosh hoosh hoosh. I was trying to synchronize my breathing with bear-tattoo like it was the first step to making a connection with him. I imagined us synchronizing more than that: our mealtimes, our blinks, our pulses, our event calendars. Anthony and I had synced our event calendars.
There was fluid leaking from my eyes, strange clear fluid, and the hoosh hoosh of my diaphragm was aching, and I was clutching at my waist and I saw the saltwater springing from my eyes in the mirror as the pores of my body contracted, clenching onto memories that I did not want, would have to bury somewhere beneath the sand with all the other strange, precious artifacts that couldn’t be washed away with tears…there they were. The tears. The sorrow had found me and cracked me open. Tears that I did not want. So useless. I was supposed to be experiencing a peaceful savasana to top off my yoga practice and here I was crying. I couldn’t stand it.
I hadn’t cried when I told Anthony that he had to leave. He had looked at me with those big brown eyes, the ones that always seemed to be studying me, trying to understand. Aye Natalia, Sandra had exclaimed when I told her we had broken up, Why? He was a good one. But that was just it, wasn’t it? I wasn’t ready for a good one. I had gotten myself this far on my own, I never needed anyone before him. Because once he started to whisper those words to me – I love you – they were laced with expectation; he would want to hear them back. That’s the thing with people, they can’t just give and give without expecting something in return. I couldn’t do that for him. I couldn’t return his love. There was a numbness in my own fingertips. He was a man. I couldn’t give a man anything other than a task, an assignment. Love me. And now I’m crying in yoga class. I stopped the breathing exercise to wipe my eyes with the towel, trying to hide my face. So pathetic.
All I wanted was to be touched.
But who would touch me?
Missy Elliott laid next to me in bed that night as I scrolled through the contacts listed in my phone. I had realized in my recent desperation that many of the names in my phone were men I had never been on casual-texting level with. Some of them were married now, some of them had been married when I met them. Some of them had moved away or gone to jail. Some had fallen into mild-to-severe cocaine addictions or joined the PeaceCorps. My list of potential booty call options wasn’t too promising.
Alex? Nope. Angel? Nope. Diego? Definitely not. Isaiah? Hell no. Someone’s number was saved in my phone under the title “Guy I Met Last Night.” Not my classiest moment. I deleted the contact.
I could hear the low rumble of Missy’s airways as she started to drift into sleep beside me. I had thought it would be easier, finding someone to touch me. It’s not like my list of requirements is that extensive: good hands, a reasonable face, not too stupid or broke or racist, someone who can bring me to orgasm better than I can do myself.
That was the tricky part. I stopped scrolling through my contacts and tapped on the Tinder icon on my phone. I found myself staring at a semi-blurry photo of a guy in a dress shirt with his arm around an older woman who, I assumed, was his mother. Ugh, no. No mom photos. Swipe left.
Benjamin, 35. Picture of wind-blown hair at the beach. Too cliché, swipe left.
Aaryn, 29. Spells his name weird. Swipe left.
Geno, 33. Cute. Ugh, no. No posing next to muscle cars. Too douche-y, swipe left.
I finally gave up my hunt and texted Sandra.
Hey hermana, drinks after work tomorrow?
I wish, Julio and I are going to Ikea to pick out a kitchen table.
Ikea is tacky.
That’s what I told him! But you know, $$$
How about drinks Friday?
How about you meet me for lunch tomorrow and we get mimosas. Not too early to start sipping, right?
On a work day? Que borracha!
I know. Friday for sure though.
I turned my phone off. Sandra was my baby sister, but she had always posessed an old soul. I was only mildly annoyed that she seemed to have found a fulfilling life partner and was living happily ever after in two-bedroom apartment in the city. Most of the time I was happy for her. I was also well aware of the fact that she would probably bail on me by the time Friday rolled around. I patted Missy Elliott’s rear and she let out a heavy sigh-snort. I was never going to be touched by a human person again. I was going to die alone in bed curled up with my dog. I would lay there rotting, flies buzzing around my eyes for days because no one would think to check on me or call me or bring me a slice of pie. Completely alone. It was inevitable.
Just then Missy Elliott let out a roaring fart, which ended my wallowing.
“Jesus, Missy!” I pulled the covers up over my face to filter the air entering my sinus cavity and slumped down into bed. She was warm and drooling next to my legs. She hardly seemed to notice the social faux pas she had just committed, farting in another woman’s company.
I curled my toes underneath her for warmth, but all I wanted was for someone to be curled up around me acting as big spoon, someone’s chest to be pressed up against my back, arms flung over my waist, legs tangled between my own, hot breath on the back of my neck. I thought about calling Anthony, texting him, begging him for…what exactly? To come lay next to me? Hold me? Slip his tongue down my throat and bite my cheeks?
Beg him for another chance? That would be funny considering I was the one who called it off. No. I would never do that. It would be cruel. Weak. Manipulative. Plus, I don’t beg. For anything.
And he was nice. Too nice. He would probably indulge me. He wouldn’t block my number, he told me so. So fucking nice. Nice and boring. So fucking boring. Boring with his pinball obsession. Boring in the way he wore his glasses right on the bridge of his nose, not higher or lower. Boring in the way he flossed his teeth every single day – I mean who the fuck does that? Boring in the way he drank Budlight, could barbecue the hell out of some steak, always checked my car tires before I went on long trips. So boring, and way too fucking nice. The way he would go down on me at least once a week like he was on some kind of schedule. How he could make me cum in four, five minutes tops. How fucking boring is that?
It made me sick. That’s why I broke things off with him. I just wanted him to yell at me. To tell me sometimes when I was being irrational and self-indulgent. Ugh, the way he smiled at me all the time like I was some kind of glorious trophy he had won in a poker game. Gross.
Missy Elliott rolled onto her side, jamming her elbow into my shin. “Damn it, Missy! Scoot over!” I tried to push her towards the other side of the bed, but she was too heavy. “It’s a big bed, you don’t have to sleep on top of me!”
She didn’t budge, and I couldn’t move her. She was a little overweight. Anthony liked to refer to her as ‘sturdy’ but I say she’s fat. This is because she will eat anything she can find on the floor. Anthony had hidden a chocolate cream egg in my jacket pocket one time, assuming I would find it and be surprised. Missy Elliott found it first. She got so sick off that damn chocolate cream egg we had to take her to the vet to get her stomach pumped. I yelled at Anthony for that, told him to stop trying to be so damn romantic all the time, it would get people killed.
I was never going to be touched again. I scooched down further beneath the sheets and decided, before drifting off to sleep, that I was going to schedule an appointment with May later in the week.
May was my masseuse, but she was so much more than that. She was full service: confidante, spiritual therapist, sister-friend, and beauty specialist.
“You look tired honey,” she said as the salon door jingled behind me. I sat down in one of the chairs in the waiting room.
“Oh, I thought I was hiding it well,” I said. I didn’t tell her that I was up to two rounds of self-service orgasms every night before I could even begin to feel tired. Even then, I sometimes still couldn’t fall asleep.
“It’s the break up, huh?”
“It’s okay, honey, it happens to the best of us. Can I bring you some tea? Water?”
I shook my head.
She nodded and ducked back to where I couldn’t see her. She was cute. She had long dark hair down to her lower back and I wondered what it would be like having hair that long. How did she wash it? Eat with it? Have sex with it? Wouldn’t it get in the way?
When she called me into the back room, she stepped out so I could strip down naked. I laid on my stomach under the sheets, my face framed in the halo-shaped massage pillow. I could see May’s tiny feet as she re-entered the room, reeking of essential oils.
She was so pretty. So petite. But her hands were like magic. She pressed her thumbs into my neck, working her way down the muscles lining my spine. It was her hands. They were spectacular. The way she slid them over the ridges of my back, smoothing out the tension along my spine. So attentive. So firm.
“You have so much tension here.” She was pressing her palms into the dip of my lower back.
“Is it painful?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice muffled by the massage pillow.
“A lot of women experience lower back pain. It’s a vulnerable part of our bodies, next to our womb. It’s where we keep a lot of our essence, a lot of emotions are stored here.” She passed her palms swiftly over these areas as if clearing away all the emotional debris that was held there. “It’s also the root chakra, the one that governs money and security. All of that stored right here.” She guided her hands across the fleshy parts of my waist, squeezing and pulling and pushing gently. I fought the tears as she pushed her way into my vulnerable areas.
I wanted to ask her so many things as she worked her way through my shoulders, pressing on the sinews of my muscles. I wanted to ask her where she had learned to use her hands like this. She worked her way down to my elbows, my forearms, my wrists, my palms. Where did she learn to be so attentive, to seek out pressure points and wrestle with them until they had dissipated? How had she learned to listen to another person’s body? She pressed the heels of her palms into my hips, applied pressure to the back of my thighs. I wanted to ask her if she ever felt like people only wanted her for her hands. I wanted to ask if she ever felt like other parts of her body weren’t getting enough attention. I wanted to tell her she was lovely, that her dark hair and her dark eyes were beautiful and had anyone ever told her that? She squeezed the tendons that buffered my knee cap and slid her hands along my calves. I wanted her to lay down next to me, I wanted to feel the heat of her body, run my fingers through her hair. I wanted to ask her if she had ever slept with a woman, and then she would ask me if I had ever slept with a woman and we would both say no, this would be our first time.
But I wouldn’t. She was my friend, this woman with magic hands. I wanted to tell her that she would probably be great at making sand bowls, scooping them from the ground like they were precious things, never rushing the process. I wanted to tell her how my eyes had sprung tears on me this week – a surprise leak, a breach of emotion. I wanted to tell her that I felt empty most days, that I wish she could fill me, but that I understood that she was a woman, and how hard it is for a woman to pour herself out like that. I wanted to tell her…I didn’t know what I wanted to tell her. That I wanted to be touched, to be felt. And now here she was touching me, feeling me more deeply than most men I had ever slept with. I needed her and her hands as they were. Unscathed, untouched, unadulterated by me.
I needed to be seen. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t feisty, I was invisible. That most of the time people looked past me like I was just a small collection of atoms, of little significance. That Anthony had seen me, he had understood, until he hadn’t. My walls had been too high. He had been unwilling to climb. I had been unwilling to break them down, plank by splintered plank. I didn’t have the patience to show him. I wondered if May had ever been in love like that. A crazy love, the kind that makes you feel secure and vulnerable all at the same time, like wading out into the ocean and then suddenly realizing you couldn’t feel the floor beneath your feet and you don’t know how to swim.
She probably felt like this, too. Like she was invisible to most people. Like men were tumultuous, like they chewed on your heart until it was pulpy and fermented and vile. She probably had lower back pain, and she probably craved for human touch, also. She probably had vulnerabilities. She probably cried about things, maybe when she watched The Notebook or listened to Lemonade all the way through. I realized then that I had never known what made Anthony cry. I had never asked him where he hurt. I had never cared to ask. He was a man. Men didn’t share things like this, men didn’t feel things like a woman – unless, maybe, they did. Maybe he had.
I watched May’s feet dance around the massage pillow as she covered my back in a hot, moist towel. She set her hand on the small of my back and crouched down to whisper into my ear, that the massage, this brief, physical respite, was over.
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