It was five months after my husband and I separated that I remembered my body. It was not that my body reminded me of sex — all the sex we’d had together, months of trying to get pregnant or the corporeal delight sex can be — but that sex is a celebration of life. I couldn’t celebrate. In the space of six months, half the men in my family had passed away and my husband left. My body would not let me participate in anything related to creation.
Returning to my body happened this way — I looked out my window, spied my handsome neighbor walking up to his apartment and remembered that I was a sexual being. I was sitting at my desk writing that sunny, spring day in Los Angeles, when I paused, trying to find the right word, and gazing out the glass, my eyes fell on something else, a need I hadn’t realized sought expression. My handsome neighbor — who passed me countless times when I was bent over, plucking leaves from the basil plant in my backyard, or snipping a few rose stems for a bouquet — had always struck me as good-looking. He was never disheveled or rushed, always impeccably dressed in a button-down shirt and cardigan, Buddy Holly-style black-rimmed glasses, and thick silver-and-black hair combed into a pompadour, obviously secured there with so much product it yielded to few forces of nature. I’d seen him coming and going for two years now, but this was the first time I asked myself: Is he single? Maybe it was also the birds’ spring chirping and the thought of coupling that lured me there, reminding me of my body and rawest nature, my sexuality.
They say that our experiences are imprinted on our bodies at the cellular level. When our skin cells regenerate every seven years, we’re materially different people after the process. Perhaps when I looked out my window at my handsome neighbor, I had just become someone new. Our skin cells’ ability to morph us reminded me of something similar that happened when I was 25 years old. After I broke up with my boyfriend, my naked body looked different to me. I had considered this man my first real, adult love. The only way to describe our love is that once, while hiking in Yosemite, I said to him that the trees, the river and Half Dome dominating the valley were more staggering and lovely than ever. “That’s because you’re in love,” he said. It was obvious. Love reminds you that you’re a part of the cycle of life.
When that love went away, I thought I’d die. I mistook heartbreak as an eminent physical threat. I hadn’t yet seen how, and how often, the body survives when the spirit doesn’t. That would take time. The first thing that happened after our breakup was that I couldn’t look at myself naked. It was like the map of memories to a love that no longer existed. If I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror while stepping into the shower, I doubled over like there was an anchor in my stomach drawing the rest of my body in. It wasn’t that the male gaze owned my sexuality or that my ex-boyfriend dictated my identity; I just could not look at my nakedness without referencing him. And if I could, the body I saw was not the one I knew.
In the bathroom’s full-length mirror, I didn’t recognize my thin figure, hunched beside the claw-foot tub, waiting for the water to get hot. I covered my breasts with my hands, unable to acknowledge those objects of pleasure, which now seemed useless to me or anyone else. As soon as the water ran warm, I stepped in and quickly closed the curtain behind me. When soaping up, I avoided washing between my legs. I didn’t want to touch my body, especially there.
I was startled to realize that not only had I worn our love on my skin, I had considered our relationship, our love, a third party. It was like the love itself was a person with a soul and that soul no longer existed, like in a death, where one day the person is walking around and then, whoop, they’re gobbled up and gone forever. My body and my ex-boyfriend were still around, but the thing that couldn’t be seen was unmistakably absent. Like with some people who’ve sustained a major brain injury, afterward their personalities change drastically so that they’re basically different people though they look the same. It prompted me to wonder: Is who we are, our likes and loves and quirks and tendencies, only a function of our brains? I thought about my love this way. It went from a thing seemingly of matter, existing between two physical forms, to a thing of ideas.
At the time, I had not known much about death. My father’s mother had died when I was a little kid. I had an earlier boyfriend whose brother, Sparrow, died by suicide. It happened while we were dating and we broke up soon after. He got a macabre memorial tattoo of a bird lying upside down with x’s for eyes. I could not begin to imagine the pain he experienced, the grief of death. Still, I knew sudden absence and felt my heartbreak as if it were one.
The separation from my husband, Frank, did not hit me this way. If anything, it felt like a return to whom I’d forgotten I was, because so much of my identity for the past couple of years was tied up in being a wife. The main similarity between my divorce and those past break-ups was estrangement from my body, like my facade had broken off and sunk into the deepest part of the sea. Maybe because you can only lose your innocence once, splitting up with my husband was a different kind of mourning. The life that would not be. A part of me knew it was for the best, but the other saw the life I wanted with him and our future children, amputated. It was what I could not give myself, the male component that enables creation.
This was magnified by the slew of peculiar misfortune in the months before my husband and I split. My mother’s brother, who suffered from a degenerative neurological disease for decades, died four weeks after receiving a cancer diagnosis unrelated to his brain. Most shocking to us was that what took him was not what we had spent years preparing for. A few months later, my paternal grandfather passed away in his sleep. My family grieved the loss of our patriarch, but my husband and I were still married and though our relationship was shaky, we were still actively trying to have children. I silently vowed to help replenish the family stock. But not more than three months later, I found myself pounding on the neighbor’s door where my now-estranged husband was couch-surfing.
With our dog beside me, I cried, “My uncle’s dead. My uncle’s dead.” He took me inside and said, “Sophie, he’s been dead.”
“I know,” I said. “My other uncle.”
My dad’s brother was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way from his cabin in Northern California to my parents’ house. My mother called that morning to tell me. An hour later, I got in my car, headed to Orange County to join my family. But I couldn’t bear the sadness I’d meet there. As I sat in traffic, crying uncontrollably, I called Frank. I kept saying, “But why do people have to suffer?”
His near-silence on the other end of the line I thought was meant to suggest that there is no good reason.
One of the things that you experience during a mourning period is powerlessness. Loss and bafflement are conditions played out on you like being caught outside in a storm, hence the term, “shitstorm.” Or, as my sister referred to those months, “The shit parade rained on with more shit.” But sexuality, when I remembered it, was a source to conjure and wield to appease the hunger those losses created, a surreptitious force.
So it happened one day, after five months in the shitstorm, that I looked out the window of my home office as my handsome neighbor walked by and noticed that his window was half open.
Immediately, I sent him a text inviting him over for a drink. He wrote back, “I’m in Portland for a job until Friday. I hope this isn’t the one and only invitation.”
I got a charge from this rupture in what had been the dull surface of grief. I knew what I wanted and it wasn’t so far away. That longing was a happy sort of irritant. It was a dangerous feeling.
When Friday night came, he was held up at work and wouldn’t be at my house until 11 p.m. I drank a martini, put out a plate of olives and wondered what I’d do when he got there. I strummed my guitar and waited. He knocked lightly as if to acknowledge it was too late to be stopping by the home of a woman he knew little about except that she had lived there with her husband months before and now she lived there alone. I let him in and put a record on. To play music for a strange man was exhilarating, a chance to cultivate a new me and try that persona out for an audience.
After we drank our martinis, he invited me to his house for a glass of mescal. He lived less than 20 feet behind my house. After only a little while sitting next to each other on his couch, he kissed me. Within minutes, he unhooked my bra and tried to remove my shirt. I held him nervously at bay. He picked me up; I playfully tried to squirm out of his arms as he carried me to the kitchen table and peeled my pants off, throwing them aside with my underwear tangled up in one of the legs. Giggling, I leaped to the couch where he lifted me up again and took me to his bedroom. This time, I relaxed against him, letting myself be carried.
The next morning, I couldn’t sleep. I found his sweet-smelling, sleeping body beside mine and pulled myself on top. After that, I realized I could not sleep beside him, that I would want him again and again, that even his soft skin stirred me, so I asked him to walk me home. As soon as I shut the door behind me, I regretted it. I wanted more of him. I wanted to go back, for it to be nighttime again so we could reenact the previous night’s game where I was both subject and spectator to my own desire.
A therapist once asked if I would consider attending a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting. It shocked me. Weren’t love and sex natural cravings, things a person needs? She explained, yes, they’re as vital to our lives as food. But like overeating, when love and sex are used compulsively, not to satisfy a need but to
escape a problem, you’re misusing them. Years later, I ended up attending a couple of these meetings, not at the therapist’s advice, but because I suspected that when I dated men, it was to escape or avoid a part of myself I didn’t want to think about. It was the part that feared I was unlovable.
It turns out that addictions are in many ways all the same. People who go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous might also attend Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Addiction is what you turn to when you feel out of control. The substance or behavior your fear latches onto is arbitrary; rather, it’s panoramic. A milder example is the on-again, off-again relationship I’ve had with smoking, how I pick it up again because I long not to be myself, but the thing being smoked.
Shortly after the first encounter with my handsome neighbor, I flew to New York to attend a friend’s wedding in the Poconos. I was uncomfortable there for many reasons — that I was without a date, that weddings reminded me of my own just two-and-a-half years earlier and that I couldn’t muster the presence to attach myself to the celebration. I checked my phone constantly to see if my handsome neighbor had texted. I fell into sullen bouts during the festivities. I cried behind sunglasses without sound or the energy to better hide my emotional state. Mostly, I brooded over the circumstances of my own life. Though my handsome neighbor and I were in text contact, his responses were short and infrequent. Had I been given the chance at a new life just to waste the opportunity? I got stuck in a paralyzed cyclical thinking pattern with one branch of sorrow morphing into another. I worried about missing out, absences that were like sinkholes hidden all around me and the illusion of stable surfaces. I worried about death. I thought of my family, who seemed the unwitting representatives of all that is unfair in the distribution of loss and suffering.
In my head, I revisited the morning after our first night together. I’d worried that I had ruined the possibility for a serious relationship by sleeping with him right away. But after I left his house that morning, a text from him followed.
“Can I take you on a real date sometime?” it read.
“Sure,” I wrote.
Before he had the chance to arrange it, I was tipsy one night and asked him if he wanted to meet up. I wanted both sex and dates with him, but having been married, I forgot that in courtship those are separate things, events that build on each other. The inadvertent subtext of my message was: I’m not the kind of woman you need bother taking out on a date.
Before the wedding weekend was over, feeling distraught and rejected, I asked my friends why he was pulling away. I had only just liberated my sexuality and already it was coming back to punish me. Must I fuck myself? But I knew the answer. I already had. A person tires of being wanted; rather, no one with only a superficial interest in you likes to be needed.
I called my sister.
“I guess my neighbor is over getting laid,” I said.
“Sophie, you have to stop using sex as a way of making men like you,” she said.
“That’s not what I’m doing. I’m intoxicated by his smell. I just want his body,” I said.
I could hear the frustration in her voice. “Do you want to go back to the way you were before you got married? Why do you make men reject you?” she said. Hearing this, I felt stark shame.
It was true, this tendency of sleeping with men right away, using that to draw them in, then demanding more from them than they wanted to give. I’d even slept with my husband on our first date. It wasn’t even a real date. We met at a poetry reading, then went to a bar afterward. We drank too much, stumbled down the street toward my car when I stopped and said, “Don’t you live around here?” It goes against all the rules of dating that my husband still wanted to see me after that. I never learned how to play the game and I suppose I didn’t want to.
“But Dad told me to put my pole back in the water,” I told her.
“You did and it was really courageous,” she said. “Now it’s time to take it back out for a while.”
I remembered the serenity prayer the sex and love addicts recite at the meetings I’d attended. Surrendering to a higher power was something I could not imagine. What is God when you are alone in yourself, as if there is no universe to feel a part of, only stuck in a body abused by either chaos or rapture?
Driving from the Poconos back to New York City with my friend Lainya, I chain-smoked at every pit stop. I told her that when I sit in my office to write, I’ll look out the window and think of my handsome neighbor instead. I will hear my texts sound on his phone from his apartment and observe the silence of mine. “There is a reason the universe literally put this temptation in your backyard. You sacrificed a lot for that office in your house; are you going to hand it over to your neighbor and wonder what he’s doing?”
When my husband moved out, I closed the door to what had been his office and didn’t open it again for months. Finally, I channeled my outrage that for two years I didn’t have my own space to write. I moved the furniture around, put down a rug and hung a picture. My new printer, which had sat in a box as part of the landscape, finally got plugged in.
“Do you have any kind of spirituality?” Lainya asked.
“I don’t even know what that means,” I said. “I don’t believe in God.”
I once thought that the universe was whole and connected, that no one thing was alone and that the way each element influenced others was a type of godliness. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to believe that.
Back in my mid-20s when I was interested in the origins of consciousness and the soul, I sought out texts, including neuroscience and philosophy books, to help explain this relationship. I also attended a lecture by the renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran about neuroplasticity and phantom limb syndrome, the latter for which he had discovered a ground-breaking treatment. In one of his articles, he explains how phantom limb syndrome allows us to explore “intersensory effects and the manner in which the brain constructs and updates a ‘body image’ throughout life.” The therapy Ramachandran invented to treat those tortured by the presence of a limb no longer there, one they feel itching or aching, is to use a hand mirror to observe the remaining, intact limb. The mirror is positioned in a way so that the reflection of the present limb appears to be the missing one. If it itches, the patient scratches the stand-in limb while watching it in the mirror’s reflection. This visually tricks the part of the brain sending the signal to that leg, informing the brain that the nagging sensation is satisfied, so no need to keep sending the signal.
The success of Ramachandran’s treatment means that how we see ourselves impacts how we understand and feel ourselves. It is like looking at a painting and knowing that the painter controls the perspective. And it is that perspective to which you ascribe meaning.
About a year after I first texted my handsome neighbor, I started writing about our affair. In between, I’d done some flirting through online dating apps and had real-life dates that didn’t go anywhere. Of course, the original story with my neighbor and me was over shortly after it began, and dead by the time I came back from New York.
Before I could let it go completely, I’d invited him over one afternoon for a glass of wine. I hoped the booze would relax him, that he might see me as he had initially, attractive and perplexing. But then he made one jarring comment to me, destroying my attempt at coy flirtation.
“When you really are ready to date, you should get to know the guy first before you decide to sleep with him,” he said.
How obnoxious, I thought. Hadn’t he benefited from my post-divorce sexual experimenting?
This unsolicited advice suggested two things: First, that he wasn’t going to fall in love with me, ever. Whether I wanted him to or not, whether our affinity went beyond the corporeal, I never got the chance to find out. What I liked about our affair, and what I like most at the beginning of every affair, is the potential for something more: for love. Second, his advice meant that in sleeping with him before I knew what I wanted from it, I had somehow diminished the value of being by squeezing it into the capsule of my body. Sex wasn’t even fun anymore, at least not the last few episodes I’d had with him. I’d reduced my attempt to celebrate life into a boring old compulsion.
There is something in me that I can’t get away from, so I become it. It is a monster that always wants more. My body gives it sentience. I do it with sex, I do it with love, I do it with everything I find precious and also hate. I did it with my neighbor, and do it still sometimes with smoking, alcohol or sex, until the form it occupies vanishes and it’s just me and my obsession. Why do we open ourselves back up to a compulsion we once conquered, to then ultimately let it conquer us? Because when you want something, what you really want is more of it.
In writing about my handsome neighbor, I somehow drew myself back into his alluring orbit. Or maybe it was because I wanted to take control over what had happened, write myself back into the story to change the ending. I texted him again, asking if he wanted to come over for a drink, again. This time it only took one glass of
mescal. I enjoyed everything about him that night without wondering if I could love him. I couldn’t. The end had already played out. I left his house the next morning and forgot
about him until a week later when we met in a dream.
For a long time, I’ve dually despised and admired a single, dominant characteristic of dreams, that they feel more real to me than real life. In dreams, we are immediate, intuitive, what we’ve always known but can’t access. In the dream with my handsome neighbor, I was so completely for him and him for me that I didn’t want to wake up and disturb the feeling where longing and belonging are magically paired.
When I ran into him in the driveway the next afternoon, I wanted to say: Remember me from the dream? This is all bullshit, you walking to the mailbox, getting your mail. It lacks the multifold truth we uncovered last night. Remember how we made a pact to endure the eternal now and find each other in the beyond? Then we will know happiness.
I did not say this, however. I just smiled, waved and kept my little dream treasure to myself.
Dreams exclude the tedium you must survive in waking life, of loving no one. Dreaming is of the beyond, of love and time unordered. It’s of the paintings and novels you believe you authored in another realm. It hurts to wake. It is hard to remember all those other lives in the morning.
The way I remembered my body as a sexual thing, really, that I remembered myself at all, is largely a result of time. The passing of months worked like the hand mirror therapy for phantom limb syndrome, of looking at what I’d been — once a granddaughter, a niece, a wife and a lover — and assuring myself, those too are me. I observed myself in the mirror like I was stepping naked into the shower. I walked toward my image, let that image change, then held the new one in my gaze.
I try to be careful about the things I do, especially with my physical self, to feel in control or strategically out of control. When I’m down, I want to pick myself up like those a lacy leaf that has almost turned back into earth and dip myself in gold to preserve it. To achieve this effect, I channel what I imagine a caring (or overbearing) father would want to say to his young daughter’s suitor, “Tell me now, what are your intentions with this precious bounty that I love and guard as if it were my own?”
Like the dream, I did not ever tell my neighbor about any of this. His part was minimal in it all, anyway. I continued writing this essay after my infatuation with him wore off. Finishing this story, I’m struck now by how much looking out the window of my life is like being in a museum, how we are in all that we observe. And it is no coincidence that when we make art about the human condition, of being affected and unprotected, it is often depicted by nudity.
While Italian Renaissance painters exposed little skin, they were masters of using perspective in their work. The Madonna no longer held a baby Jesus that resembled a tiny adult, but was proportioned like an actual baby with a big head and fat arms, legs and feet. Landscapes were rendered differently, too. Instead of a scene being jumbled with bodies and buildings, geometry led the eye to a point in the center. What was far away appeared so. What was up close held the viewer’s gaze.
The body is a space that can be reimagined, repainted, just like skin cells reconstituting themselves to serve their next purpose. When you look for the focal point of your life, you might see that the main figure contains a chink in its form. Zoom in closer and find a tunnel that opens to an immense black universe, where there is no distinction between you, who you thought was you and the attendance of all beings. Contrasted by the big blackness, you see what unsuitable units of measurement you were trying to apply. You forget the point of view, your body as the main figure and yourself all together.
Sophie Sills is a poet and writer. She earned an MFA from Mills College and teaches creative writing at National University. Sills also is the author of a book of poetry, Elemental Perceptions: A Panorama (BlazeVOX Books). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Elimae, Cricket Online Review, The Poetry, Jacket2, Manor House Quarterly, Artillery Magazine and other journals. Her essay, “Stuck with a Nerd,” was published in a Bridgepoint Education Creative Writing textbook. “The Way Back to My Body” is her first personal essay published in a literary magazine. She lives in Los Angeles.
Featured image: “Tides” by Clare Celeste Börsch