"When I was seventeen years old I discovered my vagina…"
Under a Coat of Red
I lean towards the mirror, painting my lips with bright red lipstick, blotting carefully, watchful of my own reflection as I attempt to fashion a face that looks like a woman’s, not a girls. I like the thrill of lipstick, and mascara, and anything that makes me feel as if I were one of those women who stir inside, who are rooted in the physical nature of their own selves. When I’m done I pat my lips with a tissue and stare at myself. I look at the woman in the mirror and I am almost fooled by my own reflection. I am drawn to the red lips I see, they way they glare out of my face provocatively; they way they make that woman on the other side seem powerful and aware of herself in the most basic way. Standing on the other side I wonder if her red lips can turn me on, can find that secret switch and flick it. Red is the color of passion. I do not know passion in that physical way, I know passion in a theoretical way, the fire in my mind instead of my body that devours me with its insatiable curiosity to know and see. Red is the forbidden color, the color of Christmas, the color of audacity, the color of sex, and on my lips is it is a flagrant testimony, the melting, bleeding hope that I can nurture a little droplet of redness inside me into a full-grown flush.
To be a woman is to be sensual, to feel the furious workings of one’s body, the ups and downs and ins and outs, to be aware of one’s sway and swish. As a woman I should be rooted in my physical self, as a mother I should connect to the movements of my body and all it endures. Instead I float outside, I am aware only of my reflection, the skin and dimple of it. While giving birth I was conveniently numbed by drugs, and also by my own disconnection from my body, spared from any real rocking pain. When I was jolted out of my anesthesia for a brief moment by the sudden swoop of my son slipping out of my body and the cavern of my stomach collapsing, that moment of plunging into my body and its ability to feel intense physical sensations only lasted an instant before it slipped from my grasp like the slick head of a newborn child. It took me six months until I was able to look at my son and acknowledge that he had emerged from the silent depths in me, that I had nourished him and formed him and discharged him from myself in that sudden gush that had both frightened and thrilled me.
Growing up in the Hasidic community of Satmar deprived me of the process involved in becoming a woman, the mapping of the changes that occur in one’s body, the ability to mark them and celebrate them and contemplate what they mean for the future. Instead I went from a little girl in a little girl’s body to a little girl in a woman’s body overnight, and I don’t know my own flesh, my own juice, my own thrash. My body doesn’t belong to me.
When I was seventeen years old I discovered my vagina, but I never discovered my sexuality. How can I know if I am gay or straight when I do not feel like a sexual being at all? I don’t feel a lack, because I don’t really know what I’m missing, and I may never find out. However, I am angry that I wasn’t given a choice in the matter. I resent my sexuality being stolen from me. I wear red lipstick to project the image of the woman who’s got it, that air, that breath, that shuddering movement through one’s limbs that speaks of sensation in its entirety, the butterflies in one’s stomach, the racing heartbeat, the sudden heat in ones cheeks, the trembling of fingers, the aching shortness of breath. All this that people speak of when they speak of passion, all this I know only on paper, only on image. So I paint red on a canvas of white and passion is etched and marked into my face like two red petals blossoming out of my throat.
Even as I write this, I stumble over the sexual references, the scientific words for body parts that are as much our own as our hearts, our livers, and our kidneys. I still experience a very real and unsettling discomfort when I even have to think these words, when I must spell or pronounce them in my mind, or when I hear other people discussing sex casually. The stream of my thoughts cannot flow freely; they bump over and around the topic of sex as if it were a rock jutting out of a creek. If I cannot talk about sex, or think about sex, how can my body be expected to submit to sex? The mind and the body are united despite all our efforts to separate them, and if the mind revolts, so does the body. To overcome the numbness in my body, the deadness in my nerves, I must first overcome the deviations in my mind, the detours my brain takes around sex. I must begin to think about my sexuality and what it means, to confront it head on, face to face, without shame, without anger, with the mind of a woman who wants to know and who isn’t afraid to find out.
I replace the cap on the tube of forbidden red lipstick and pucker up at my reflection. I love that bright pop of red and all that it signifies. I know I fool many who see me with my mouth, my voice, my confidence. I fool myself. Only when I come home at night and wipe it off do I look in the mirror and see the unadorned little girl in me who glares resentfully, who does not want to be a woman, who is determined to keep her body clean. I must put that girl to rest.