by Martha Krausz
The blue beads of my twelve-year-old spine press against the porcelain, a rosary without a disciple. My thighs, one—I’m certain—bigger than the other, are blanketed by lanugo. Little pearls of oxygen glitter at the end of each hair in the warm water, holding little breaths.
The bathroom door squeaks, just enough so a dark lock of my mother’s hair and a slice of her hazel eye shine through. She smiles. But it’s more like her lips are pressing against each other, trying to hold something slippery there.
“They say if you think loving thoughts to yourself in the tub, you can alter the water molecules.” She scans for movement, for a sound. I say nothing.
Eventually, she turns around.
She leaves the door ajar, just in case I pass out from the heat. Though I’m not sure what a body, already submerged, sounds like as it passes from there-ness to not-there-ness.
When I hear her footsteps change from the soft thud of rug to the hard squeak of kitchen wood, I return to the underpass of my thighs. I check to see if the right one is still straight where the other dips; if it still splays out into a thick V, where the left curves in like a C, as if already barreled around a horse’s girth.
The difference is miniscule, I’m told—a natural asymmetry between dominant and nondominant sides. But I don’t see it that way. My legs are words that should say each other backwards, palindromes. Sisters you shouldn’t be able to tell apart. But I can. The word of my body is saying itself wrong.
A white washcloth, wadded beneath my tailbone to stop the bruising, sways in the warm reef of me. When I get out, the blood rushes in anyway. Bruises fight for territory like pens for the page, an ellipsis dotting down my vertebrae. Silence trying to say something, stillness trying to move someone.
. . .
A fuzzier version of me stretches over the sun-cracked field. She walks with the heft of a gingerbread woman unpeeling from a pan, or the clumsy drag of a paper doll along a desk.
A woman standing by the water bowls lowers her visor-hand, shaded by my passing. I traipse along the deer path, steering my darkness in a new direction, calling my dog to follow. Instead of the bright streak of my White Shepherd, though, a Great Dane gallops over. His front and back rock like a wooden horse, his dark coat reflects the light like tin.
I stick an arm out to slow the ropes of slobber, then succumb. I squat in the grass, the white flag of my downturned face counting the tiny green fingers that reach up through the dirt.
. . .
In autumn, summer-rays lower along the earth's axis to an oblique angle, causing shadows to stretch. By October and November, a teacup chihuahua walks alongside a Russian wolf; the oak tree out back spreads a ballroom rug of dappled lace around its single foot.
This fall at the dog park, where my shadow seemed to loom largest, I began sniffing for metaphors. I’d read the daffodils' yellow post-it notes about possibility; I’d followed the fox’s prints into my own winter den to rest; in fall, I let go with the trees, some years even changing with them. But this growing darkness to the side and beneath me, over which I had absolutely no power—what was the poem there? What was nature trying to get me to see or do?
In Carl Gustav Jung’s “Shadow Work,” he posited his theory about the confrontation and integration of the darkened, denied aspects of the self. The “psychic shadow,” Jung theorizes, forms in direct opposition to the conscious identity—it’s what is commonly called an alter-ego, the “Hyde” to our “Jekyll.” In her book, Meeting The Shadow, Jung-analyst Connie Zweig states, “It is typical for all human beings that as they develop a conscious personality there will also be its dark companion, the shadow”. The conscious and rejected parts of a personality--the ego and shadow--grow together, fraternal siblings in the womb of selfhood.
The makeup of these inner twins can largely depend on the communities that parented them. If the rational and tangible was valued over the fairydust of feelings in your family, packed into your shadow might be emotional vulnerability; if art was balked at and the sciences esteemed at your school, you might’ve exiled your creative side to the shadow, clinging consciously to your business or engineering degree; if nourishment and unhurried enjoyment was conveyed as bad or guilt-worthy by a role model, you could end up in a bathtub battling anorexia as a teen.
Shadow-forming is a familial negotiation, not a personal statement. We all form in relation to, and in the negative space of those who raise us. In other words, the psychological shadows we form are situational and transactional, not isolated and performative.
Yet, while this is true for everyone, not everyone is doing the same sort of negotiating inside the shadow-factory of family life. Certain members of a family end up brokering different deals.
Inside a family, Zweig reminds us that one child will often end up taking on the collective shadow of the whole family. She is usually the more sensitive child, aware of the unconscious emotional currents surging in her household. She acts out the behaviors that the rest have, by demonstration, disallowed. She often inherits the role of “black sheep” or misfit, retreating to darkness, insecure and secretive (Zweig, Meeting the Shadow 74).
Once upon a time, she was me.
. . .
My mom and twin sister, Dorian, clip furiously ahead. I have the thought that their lithe torsos and narrow hips are built for walking past me. Their brunette hair becomes reins, pulling along the blonde, bobbing trot of my ponytail.
Martha, Come on!
When we get to the cafe, I savor my cookie, enjoying how something hard can turn soft without changing what it is. In the doorway, the discarded half of Dorian’s biscotti stares from the waste bin with almond eyes and a flat chocolate smile. That something that was ours moments ago is now nobody’s terrifies me. I feel responsible; it wasn’t my cookie to eat, it was mine to save.
Back home, I nestle onto my forearms with my plastic horses: a roan mare in a perpetual trot, and a palomino foal, head bent to an invisible pasture. I pretend the blue and green patterns of the rug are rivers for them to drink, grasses for them to graze. Not much happens, but that’s what I want. I luxuriate in a single brush between mother and foal, in languageless love.
In the next room, Dorian and her playdate coo to their baby dolls, each on a strict sleep-schedule. When it’s time for dinner, Dorian’s the one who calls for me, who'll come looking for me, caring for me, knowing I'm lost in another world.
. . .
Growing up, I carried the sensitive, smell-the-flowers shadow of my fast-moving pack. I concerted with imaginary creatures in another time-zone on the family-room floor. Meanwhile, my mom and sister built a mini mother-daughter civilization with glowing transport systems, trains never late. It’s not until I hit puberty that I try to catch that train, that I run to catch up.
. . .
Three prepubescent girls scoot to the far end of the tub, eyeing the dark lines sprouting between my thighs, as if they’re death sentences assembling in wiry cursive.
Dorian laughs with them.
This must be how a dog feels when it wets its bed, I think. My body is saying things I don’t want, don’t mean.
I get out with soap from the tub still in my hair.
In front of the mirror, I declare my body a small hill. Each critical thought is a sentinel on guard against an invading womanhood, against my thighs, against my hair, against whatever it is that makes me different. From my sister. From them.
I give the orders now.
Martha, come on.
. . .
At the sight of the stain on my underwear, my heart drops into the basin. My eyes float up like dead things, tracing the wooden cabinets of the sink. I want to be sucked into the sewage. I’m only eleven for Christ’s sake.
As I walk up the stairs, a cold and heavy ache I don’t yet know to call shame, pulses through me.
No one can know.
My body becomes a stranger, something to address in second person.
You have to fix this.
. . .
The outermost circle is a fiery gold, guarding a dark, square interior. As I move to the silent sound of my counting, I trace the fire of the mandala for an opening, a gap, a break in the pattern. But beyond each iris of flames is only another, and another.
I scan for a security camera on the restroom wall. Good, only fire sprinklers. Louder than the clamor of stacked plates and shouts between waiters outside the door, an alarm of self-preservation sounds inside. You’re losing control! Don’t! But the warning is but a short gasp, swallowed then silenced by the rise and fall of my body’s desperate rhythm.
I finish fifty and look down to see the results. The toned muscle ripples in both legs. But when I sit down to pee, the right one still refuses. I regard it with the urgency a mother might to quiet her crying baby when hiding from an intruder. Whatever it takes. I’m trying to save us.
At the sink, before I leave, I kneel into twenty lunges, only on the right side. I usually do fifty, but I can practically hear Dorian who, after waiting for a few minutes for me to eat out of a primordial habit of sharing, sighs and stiffens. “Whatever, . . . I’m eating.” I see the rolling of her eyes, the reddening of her neck, abandonment masquerading as anger. She combs her fork through the blonde hair of the Pad Thai and begins without me, again.
It doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters.
The voice is not mine, and it is.
If there is a God, I wonder if he saw me. Falling again and again into this lopsided proskynesis; prostrate, in many a bathroom. I wonder if God saw my body speaking in tongues. And if he did, why he stayed as silent as the sweat that dripped from my chin to the tiles.
When I leave the restroom of the Thai restaurant, I forget to wash my hands. My body knows only that a ritual has been completed, and doesn’t pause to consider which one.
. . .
At first, my Mom hopes or pretends I’m fine, “Maybe horses will help. She loved that camp.”
She schedules a physical check-up to be sure. I weigh in at ninety-two pounds, one pound lighter than last week, but nothing dire. The physician, a beak nose and bulging eyes, gives my mom the greenlight, and me a firm slap on the back--how you might hit a school pony stuck on roadside grass. Not yet, not yet!
Mom delivers me to the sleepaway horse-camp I’d loved the year before.
But when I get there, the flowing-maned magic of my childhood, whipped by obsession, has morphed. Each glistening bay has been drafted into the war against myself. Their arched necks and flaring nostrils neigh in unison: Martha, come on!
Four hours a day, I hug their bellies like they’re exercise balls, crank the curry-comb even after dust-clouds settle. While the other campers bond on breaks with elaborate handshakes, I bind my body into unnatural shapes in the port-a-potty by the tack room, trying not to breathe too hard. Now, when I squat and lunge, I count backwards rather than forwards. Zero has become a wall to lean on, nothingness a safer place to be headed than abundance, possibility, plenty.
A counselor stops me at the salad bar one afternoon. “Are you eating enough? I’m starting to worry about you!” He says it in a flirtatious voice. As if the fist of tuna and small tower of cucumbers on my plate are a skimpy outfit inviting commentary.
“Yeah! I’m fine.”
Nobody asks anything after that. Not until it rains one afternoon and my pony spooks at the wind-roiled trees and careens towards the fence. Not until they see me crumpling into the mini lakes that hoof-prints make, lips puffed around my last upright breath, as if holding in bubbles, or a bunch of big words.
I’m sent to the nurse’s office for a bath. They forget to take out the scale.
The voice that is mine and also not mine gives a slow, approving nod. Like my male professors will in four years when they read my paper on Bishop and Frost.
Well done. Now, do it again.
. . .
A black-and-white photograph of Dorian and me greets the guests: Mazel Tov Sarah veh Rachael! By the end of the night, everyone will write in glitter-gold Sharpie around my sunken eyes, in the gap of my thighs—“Mazel Tov,” “You’re awesome!” Even though I’d missed most of 7th grade.
Dorian’s plucked off the dance floor like a ripe plum. While the DJ is doing his best to auction me off, cousins and classmates stare at my hollow cheekbones, the turquoise dress hanging off the wire-hanger of my collarbones.
The DJ is about to dance with me himself when a transfer student with olive skin and without a mother shoots his arm up like a roadside balloon. “I’ll dance with her!” He says it like he’s been mustering the words since morning. Maybe he secretly loved me. Or maybe he was in love with being brave.
Either way, he hoists himself onto the black stage, places his clammy hands onto my seashell hips and shuffles me around as if he and I were trying to pass each other on a street. His name is Oliver, the same as the goffin cockatoo we recently gave away because it’s just too much with Martha. I loved him. But I didn’t cry as he rattled down the road, doing to his cage what hands do to windows.
Up close, Oliver-the-boy’s hair crests and rises in a gel wave. Like Oliver-the-bird’s when he was feeling happy or afraid. Up close, joy and courage feel the same.
. . .
With the help of a therapist, nutritionist, and a present mother, I lost this battle against myself. Horses became horses again; food became poems to recite slowly. My right thigh is still slightly bigger than my left, but it’s my body’s slant rhyme, beautiful because of the difference.
About the Author
Martha is a poet, essayist & writing coach born and living in Northern California. She studied literature at Hampshire College, and earned her master’s degree in the same field at Mills College. Her work has recently been published in Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine, The Wild Roof Journal and Written Tales’ book, 'Renewal.' Virginia Woolf, Vivian Gornick and Cheryl Strayed are a few of the authors that now hover in her brain when she puts language to page.