by | Jul 22, 2022

I don’t dance, but I did with him that night. The air hung heavy and hot around our heads, and little gnats glanced off our skin like pinpricks. Unwelcome, but no real blood drawn. Chatter and clinks from other people’s night floated out into the fading evening. The patio floorboards creaked below us as we swayed together. Out here, the house looked gaunt, its paint pale and lifeless against the blue of twilight.

Is this alright, he asked when his tongue slipped into my mouth, warm and wet. A nice guy. My father had told me those were hard to find, so I didn’t mind when his hand eventually found its way under my shirt. It left a trail of goosebumps as it slid up and down my spine. They’ll only want one thing, my father had warned me, solemn and sly. I didn’t yet know what he meant. I was three months shy of my seventh birthday.

Our bodies twisted under the shadows of a waning moon. It was like a wrestling match, with a little less violence and a lot more ambiguity. He had me on reach and strength, though, with my size, I could be small and slippery if needed. I was usually hard to get a grip on, but even now his fingers were bruising the small of my back. We sparred on. A gnat landed on my neck, tickling the skin beneath my sweat and his saliva. When he pulled my hips against his own, I felt a sharp sting on my throat. I slapped at myself instinctively, and when I pulled my hand back, I found the pulp of a bloated mosquito smeared across my fingertips. Are you alright, he asked, leaning away just slightly, one hand still clasping the nape of my neck. At first, he didn’t understand what I showed him in my palm, his concern was groggy. He took me back into his arms. Oh, he was just hungry. He laughed when he nibbled my ear, little bite marks like braille along my softest body parts. My own blood, mixed with insect intestines, streaked across his hair as my fingers tangled through his curls. The bite on my neck was swelling, and he was too.

On my 12th birthday, my father had told me about all the boys I’d meet as a young woman. The ones who were only after one thing. There were men, and then there were nice boys. When he left the room to get the cake, my mother leaned close and whispered in my ear. Don’t trust the nice guys, her cheek grazed against my own, your father was once one. The candles on my cake seemed to burn extra hot. And when I sucked the frosting off of them, a bit of warm wax coated the tip of my tongue.

Don’t trust the nice guys, her cheek grazed against my own, your father was once one.

He bit at my bottom lip, and when I gasped, his tongue pushed further into my throat. I felt he wanted to consume me whole and raw. My mouth filled with the taste of him, there was no room left for my voice. My hand jumped to my throat again, the bump itched and stung, but he caught my wrist. It’ll only make it worse if you scratch it. The heat of his breath burned my cheek. My pulse thumped against his palm.

My birthday crept into the early morning after. The cake still on the countertop — mangled and growing stale — I lied in bed and recited bedtime stories to myself so as not to hear the screaming down the hall. My voice broke when I heard the thump of my father’s fist against the plaster. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember how fairy tales were supposed to end. I shivered and fell asleep. Thirty days later, I began bleeding between my legs. Horrified, I doubled over in the bathroom, clutching at myself to try and stem the flow. Deep red blood coiled itself around my shaking fingers. Warm and viscous, it dripped to the floor, splattering recklessly like spilled pomegranate seeds.

Are you okay, he asked, but it struck me then that my reply was of little consequence to him. It didn’t matter that my voice had been caught somewhere in the tangles of my throat. The little grunt that escaped my lips was permission enough. My zipper must have been cold against his fingers, warm with friction. The sense of falling, briefly, like a hypnic jerk, curled through me somewhere in my lower belly. While he grunted softly, rhythmically, I ran my tongue along the edges of my teeth and tried to remember what I tasted like before him. I liked the sharp ones, the canines.

When I was 13, I practiced my snarl in the mirror, curling my lip to reveal uneven teeth clenched tight. They looked like bones poking through, a harsh white against the glistening red of my mouth. I imagined I could inspire enough fear that those men-who-only-wanted-one-thing would leave me alone.

Now, I could only taste his bitterness atop my tongue. I probed about his mouth, searching for some sense of myself, but it was all too muddled now. I couldn’t locate my own shape amid the mess of limbs and flesh, he even sucked in my breath the moment I let it out. The seconds dragged on, and my feet grew tired.

 My mother left me before I turned 15. I had been proud of her, in my own way. I could handle my father like she never could. When I couldn’t sleep, which was most nights, I imagined her coming back to me. I’d wake up to her petting my forehead, feeling for a fever. She’d whisper that she’d found a better place. We’d go there together. Every morning I woke up in a cold light, blue like a bruise, alone in the stillness.

A digital drawing of a girl in yellow dress swallowing a bee

Body Dysmorphia, Vevina-Anne Swanson

Deep red blood coiled itself around my shaking fingers. Warm and viscous, it dripped to the floor, splattering recklessly like spilled pomegranate seeds.

He collapsed against me, depleted. With one hand, I held his head, his face buried into my neck. With the other, I swatted away the swarming bugs.

When I imagine my father, I imagine his body slumped over the steering wheel, blood pooling around the brake pedal. Something rotten and desperate hovering in his labored breaths. I squeezed his limp hand, once, before I left him in the hospital bed. My fingers smelled like his stale cigarette smoke.

Six inches between us, a dense silence suspended in the gap, we leaned back against the patio railing. Absentminded, I picked at its flaking white paint, peeling it back to reveal decaying wood. Are you alright, I asked. He watched me gently finger the rot, the sight of the wood all soft and spoilt seemed to disgust him. I wondered if he could taste me in his mouth, if I had a taste of my own. Our breaths slowed from gasping heaves to sighs to timid little rhythms too quiet to keep in time with one another.

When I imagine my mother, all I can see are shadows. Sometimes I feel dark, too.

That night, alone in my home, I stood in front of the smudges on the bathroom mirror and read the history of him on my body. Purplegreen bruises on my breasts. Teeth marks on my ears. A ring of red blossomed out from the bite on my throat. My fingers traced the countless little wounds, my body’s impermanence transcribed into hundreds of tiny ridges and valleys. I reached between my legs praying I’d find blood there too, the cleansing kind that could erase the evidence of him from my flesh. When I drew my hand back up, there was nothing but blue veins and a splinter in my fingertip.

nat eastman

nat eastman

Publab Fellow 2022

nat eastman, an LA native, is a writer and zine maker. She graduated summa cum laude from UCLA, where she developed a passion for digital and print publishing as Assistant Section Editor of FEM—the campus’ feminist news magazine. Through the pandemic, nat managed renowned indie bookstore Book Soup, interned at Red Hen Press, and, in her spare time, tutored high school Latin. Nat is currently writing a short story collection of weird fiction and busy co-parenting two tiny kittens.