I’m a few steps behind my grandmother, trailing her small upright frame on the Rhode Island shore. The few others on this stretch of beach appear speck-like, under the sharp-edged pit of sun. Soon, the same length of landscape will be heavily dotted with bodies. This is my grandmother’s daily walk. The wind whips the dune grass as well as our faces. The tide is out, but on its way back to being formidable, the shadow of night no longer heavy.
My ten-year-old girl body might as well be my grandmother’s shadow, the way I follow her, similar to baby sandpipers running behind their elders on stilted legs, following a wave line that pulls back and forth like lips over teeth. The sandpipers peck at spineless mollusks, which momentarily reveal themselves when the water recedes. If the invertebrates are not readily plucked by industrious beaks, they burrow back down, while small cooing bubbles rise up. I invent stories of waves being hungry, their undulation and roar an oversized tongue moving from hard to soft palate.
I’m looking for rocks. Black, shiny and smooth ones are my favorite. Smaller than my palms. I dig them out of cool gritty sand with my fingers and wipe them dry with the sleeve of my sweatshirt before dropping them into a plastic pail. Grains of sand embed under my nails. Not all rocks unearth themselves equally. The scent of dead crab comes and goes with the warmth of sun weaving around the wind.
I’d like to believe I was content then. In my body and with myself. That’s what I remember. At what age does a girl realize she’s a custodial body? Her freedom and worth controlled by external forces just like the tide is determined by the gravitational pull of the moon, or is this an over-simplification for explaining how things tip one way or another?
After opening my yoga studio, I begin yet another round of therapy. I find myself in her office because my eating is once again out of control. I feel unrelenting shame that I can’t control my appetite. I’m tipping in a way that scares me. In my mind, it’s a public tipping, in front of a hundred or so students practicing yoga at my studio each week. I believe they’re witnessing my body expand, spill beyond the boundaries of my clothing. No one ever says anything about my recent weight gain, but I’m convinced they see it. I’m all cleavage and belly, popping out of clothes that no longer contain me. I begin to only wear black.
“When did you start to think of yourself as bad?” she asks. My therapist wears a brightly-colored skirt. She always wears bright colors and skirts. She pushes back her black hair to reveal sterling silver earrings that glint on her ears.
I tell her I was a fuck-up as a teen and young adult. Fuck-up is my word choice. I like how the F needs to be pushed forward to the front of my mouth. I could just have easily said Freak or Failure.
“Where is that teen girl now?” She asks.
“What do you mean?” My cheeks grow hot. I’m not sure I can trust this therapist with colorful skirts and shiny earrings.
“If you close your eyes and call on her, where is she?”
I don’t want to picture what I looked like.
But I do it, close my eyes, feeling silly.
“Take a deep breath.” she says. As I slow myself and deepen my inhale, my diaphragm moves down, causing my belly to gently balloon out. When I exhale, my diaphragm lifts up, causing my belly to pull in.
Waves rise and fall without effort. Me too. I see her. Myself, before I’m a full-on teen. I'm twelve. A sturdy thing. Fair-skinned and slightly chunky. Breasts beginning to do more than bud. Soft mounds. Light nipples. Her hands are fists. Her naked body suspends above the ocean floor. Her short brown hair lifts away from her scalp and she is berry-lipped, young and beautiful, as only the young are, floating, and she is floating and drifting. Strips of seaweed and bracken wrap around her limbs. I can’t see her face, but she’s been there a while, crumpled yet not distressed. Rubbed down smooth by salt laden currents.
“She’s at the bottom,” I say.
“What does she want?” the therapist asks. Smiling. A wide grin. I don’t know how to interpret this. Is my therapist’s smile for her or me?
“I don’t know.” I’m starting to be done with this line of questioning. My bullshit meter goes on high alert. This is all pretend. Even suffering. Maybe that’s not real either. I should just go on a diet and stick with it. But then there’s this question. This one question that can only be directed to me: Did I purposely relegate my twelve-year-old self? Did I ban her from existing? Is she the one with the insatiable appetite? Is she bad or a fuck-up? She doesn’t look like any of those things to me. She looks more like she’s waiting. Holding her breath. I realize I’m holding my breath too. Conflicted. Not sure what’s true and what’s being invented to appease this therapist. The image of me as a twelve-year-old girl underwater disappears as quickly as it came, replaced by a black and cold ocean floor and the absence of light.
The next summer I catch an eel off a Rhode Island bridge on a morning devoid of sun. Something grabs my line. Whatever’s on the other end is a fighter. A man with a cigar in his mouth is next to me. He leans his ten-foot rig against the cement bridge.
“You’ve got something.” He takes the cigar out of his mouth. Taps the ash on the bridge railing with his chubby fingers. He moves in closer.
A large eel makes its way out of the water, attached to my pole, bending and arching towards the surface. My child hands are losing grip.
“Shit, you’ve got an eel there, girlie.” He spits over the bridge, “Let me get this.”
I have no problem handing over my rod. The eel writhes and thrashes, making obscene shapes. There’s still twenty more feet to bring the eel up and over the bridge. If the man with the cigar wasn’t here, I’d fling the thing back into the outgoing tide. I get dizzy looking down. The water is moving fast. I’d chuck my fishing pole, too.
The eel is horrifying. As a granddaughter to a fisherman, I’ve seen hundreds of fish reeled out from under the blue-green surface, mostly bass, blues, and flukes, but never an eel pulled up and out into the light of day.
The man with the cigar plunks the eel into my bucket. It’s still. Under the water, its size magnifies. A layer of slime coats its black body with a silvery-white underside. The eel jumps, makes a splash sound. My girl body jumps.
“Eels make good eating,” he says. Cigar smoke circles his balding head.
The idea of eating one makes a wave in my stomach.
“These things don’t die unless you cover them with salt. “
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I say.
There’s the earthy smell of tide and brine and wild roses and a three-foot eel clamoring in my bucket.
The eel begins to ribbon around the insides of the pail. No way I’m picking the bucket up and bringing it back to the trailer.
Does it know it’s captured?
My grandmother and I, we like each other’s company. She takes me to her trailer almost every weekend. My two younger brothers and sister are left behind with my parents. I’m not sure if they were invited, or if it was only me who was allowed to go. I work hard to be no bother. I get small and quiet as I ride in the backseat of my grandparent’s station-wagon, watching familiar farms pass by. When we get to the small city of Norwich, the roads become narrow and houses topple over one another. Suddenly they disappear, replaced by industrial buildings and small shops. My favorite is the one with the sign 1,000 DOLLS! My grandmother doesn’t drive. My one-armed grandfather does. His other arm was lost in a machine shop when he was eighteen. In the back of his Ford Fairmont station wagon, we have a routine. Once we get within a half mile of the ocean, I roll down the windows. There’s a field of tall dune grass alongside the road. The other side contains docked single-engine boats, bouncing in the water, including the boat of my grandfather.
My grandfather exaggerates a sniff. “Smell the salt air,” he says.
I pretend to inhale huge gulps of fresh air.
When I exhale, breath escapes from my lips. My grandmother says nothing. Yet, there’s a rare smile.
One late afternoon, the grown-ups, mostly fishermen and wives, with faces and skin wrinkled and roasted from years of sun, gather in a circle of folding chairs on the cement patio off my grandparent’s trailer. Last time the patio was being laid, my grandmother let me carve my full name in the wet cement. I added a lavish heart to show how I believed that love lasts forever. Gus is playing his accordion and most of the women have a high-ball in their hands. Their glasses are amber colored. The men drink Schlitz beer from cans. A breeze comes off the ocean and the seagulls are moving in closer, hoping to score some food. That day the fishing was good, and the grill is turned on. I’m shucking corn into a brown paper grocery bag.
This is when the two blond and freckled-face nieces of Gus appear.
“Can we sing for you?” they ask. One of them has a guitar in her hand. They are new to the trailer park. Visiting Gus for a couple of days. The twins are the same age as me, twelve. In double time, their sun-kissed tresses fall down past their shoulders, and the few days they have spent in the sun makes their cheeks glow a light pinkish brown. I’m aware, and not for the first time, that I’m plain looking. My body is thick, and my hair is brown and cut short in the current Dorothy Hamill style. Who knew I ‘d have multiple cowlicks making my hair stick up? As far as talents go, I don’t have any.
“It’s getting close to dinner time,” my grandmother says. “It’s time for me to be tending the stove.”
All the old people take the hint and begin to stand up from their chairs and put their empty glasses and Schlitz beer cans on the picnic table. The twins walk out with Gus. I know my grandmother said it was time to go because she didn’t want those two cute girls to get all the attention. After all, they were just passing through.
“Here.” She takes the shucked corn from me and hands me some stale bread ends.
“Go feed the seagulls. They’re begging.”
I start a new school in the fall, which has rules like the hem of my newly purchased denim skirt can’t be shorter than my fingertips. Under the authority and scrutiny of a stranger, I hang my arms like limp strands of seaweed next to my sides. Damp heat clings to the roots of my already awkward hair. I'm back in Connecticut and far from the smell of salt in the air and sand sticking to my bare feet. It’s Indian summer. Go and change, says the teacher. I can no longer look her in the eyes, but could yesterday. The same fall I learn about Roe V. Wade, and that bodies, especially female bodies, are public policy. Meanwhile, in crowded school hallways, boys rub their hardness up against me and direct their breath to steam my ears and cheeks. When I move away, they either laugh or act like nothing happened.
There’s the day I get my period at school. I'm new to the whole period thing, so I get caught without a pad, and bleed the red of ocean begonias on the bone colored Formica seat, the one attached to the metal desk. I never knew you could bleed so much, and how am I ever going to stand up again? I write Fuck You with a number two pencil on my desktop and draw the most detailed vines and petals around the words. The F in fuck smudges. I wait until everyone leaves the room, so no one finds me soaking up my own vital fluids with a dry paper towel.
My grandmother’s job is cleaning fish. She’s the only woman in the trailer park who does this. All the other men clean their own. My grandfather catches them but can’t clean them, not with only one arm.
She takes me with her, even though I’m thirteen and no longer a young girl who can’t be left alone. I don’t mind. We walk across the hot and pebbled parking lot, half filled with cars of people visiting our beach for the day. We weave our way through the cars until we get to the jetty. Huge rocks make up the sides, containing the moving water. Sometimes it flows out. Other times it flows in. It’s never still. The rocks are boulder size, some flat so you can easily step on them. Others pointed with sharp edges. Many have big cracks between them, and I hold my breath jumping the dark crevices. I used to imagine rats would rise up and eat me.
There’s a set of concrete stairs with a four-by-four-foot landing built within the rocks. The stairs lead all the way down to the water. During low tide, seaweed and barnacles cling to the bottom stairs. When I carefully ease my way down to the bottom step, I see big black crabs walking sideways, over one another.
My grandmother uses the same knife each time. It’s twelve inches long and thin with a jagged edge and a bone-colored handle. She slides it out of a light brown leather case.
Her thick-veined hands work fast. She cleans each fish, one by one, the same way. First, she uses the blunt side of the knife to scale the fish. With just the right amount of pressure, the scales scrape onto a newspaper and collect in a pile of shimmer. I like watching the gutting of the belly the most. She makes an incision around the tale of the fish and moves the knife back and forth on the underside of its soft belly until she gets close to its head. She sticks her hand inside the open cavity and pulls out the entrails. Blood and other fluids stain the newspaper, making it oddly opaque.
I ask for the job of disposing the heads, scales, and innards into the water, dipping the empty bucket into the ocean. Taking as much water into the bucket as I can, I dump the water over the stairs sending what is left behind of the stray fish guts and silvery scales back into the dark moving ocean. There’s just enough light to watch the crabs fight over what is rightfully theirs.
My grandmother doesn’t talk much and has no patience to teach me how to clean fish or hold a knife. When it comes to gutting, I’m only allowed to watch. It’s unlikely I will marry a man with one arm while pregnant with another man’s baby. I won’t know this story until she has been dead many years. Watching my grandmother clean fish never feels like enough. I want more of her, want to know this ritual in my body. I’m antsy remaining an observer. Still, I’m mesmerized by her expert use of the bone-handled knife, the scraped off scales and the fighting blue-black crabs. My mother says my grandmother cleans away her feelings. The year I bleed on my desk and learn about abortion laws, I also learn the word taciturn; a person reserved in speech. In my mind, I expand the description to include a woman who only speaks when necessary, who knows the value of letting some things fall dead to the bottom in a non-dramatic and methodical way.
Most people are ordinary. If I can touch my toes with my forehead, lay my torso on my thighs, then maybe then, I will have moments of being something more. These moments are the ones that transcend you, beyond your own mundane skin.
“Stop thrashing in the pose,” the yoga teacher says, the one with a single long braid, resembling an eel, running down her back. We are in a long holding of a seated forward fold. It takes everything I have not to force my body to go deeper. To accept where I am.
“There’s a difference between creating micro-movements in your body for ease and thrashing. Some of you are thrashers.”
She smiles like she’s just amused herself with her own observations.
I become the teenage girl who can’t wait to slip away from adults. This includes my grandparents. My grandfather is behind the closed bathroom door. With his one hand, he pounds on the lacquered wood. “You’re taking too long to get ready,” he says. “You’re selfish,” he says. His voice stern. Full of judgement. The trailer is small, so my grandmother must be near him, behind the door too. She’s silent. Maybe she doesn’t agree with him. I don’t know, but I feel the tension, which makes me slow down my primping even more. Defiant. In front of the tiny mirror with a mascara wand in my hand, I put on a second coat, as meticulous as my grandmother scrapes away fish scales. I want my lashes to be thick when I go across the street to the arcade. I plump my lips and practice making faces in the mirror. When I look at myself, I want to see what others see.
The arcade’s jukebox plays songs like ZZ Top’s Tush or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. The lyrics of men pulse through my body and I am excited by the possibility of being seen. I put quarters in the cigarette machine and pull the handle to get a pack of Marlboros. The pack thumps when it lands on the flap at the bottom. Someone passes around a fifth of Peppermint Schnapps and I feel an immediate warmth in my belly. The owner of the arcade looks away. He lets us underage kids smoke, drink, fight and make-out. There’s usually a drug deal or two. Nothing intense, a dime-bag of weed or some mushrooms. Often, I drink too much. When I get back to the trailer, I try to be as quiet as possible, not to wake my grandparents. I know they will be able to smell the booze on my breath. After pushing open the small metal-framed and rusted window above my bed, I lay my body down. I feel the nearby waves crash in one direction while my body spins in the other.
When I enter the arcade this time, I tell myself I won’t lose control and get drunk. To prevent this, I eat a large order of fries out of a red and white striped box. There’s this boy from Westerly who’s five years older than me. I know he has a girlfriend, but he doesn’t tell her he’s here. This boy is lean and wears cowboy boots and a grin. In the beginning of the night he teaches me the secret of winning at Pac-Man. He holds the highest score. My hand guides the knobbed handle on the electronic route where he just showed me how to devour all the dots. Later, I will put his warm hands under my bra while we lie down on the cool night sand. We will be low. The wind blowing above our bodies. The tide thrumming. There is always a moon. When his hands want more, I let him. I want more, too. I’m fifteen years old and want to know something besides the ordinary.
At nineteen, although less frequent, I still like to go with my grandmother when she cleans fish. In my mind, I’m no longer a defiant teen. My grandmother was married at nineteen. I think I’m old enough to be married, too. I imagine what it would be like. I notice her hands have changed. They are smaller, more fragile, and darkened by brown age-spots as they work the knife. The breach-way is the same, pink beach roses bloom against jetty rocks, and the ocean still moves with great swiftness.
“He’s bad,” my grandmother says. “He doesn’t care about you,” referring to Les, my newest boyfriend. I fantasize about marrying Les. He works full time as a mechanic and drives a red and black Corvette. I know she liked my previous boyfriend better, but I had broken up with him to be with Les.
“You should leave him,"
Earlier that week, she witnessed us fighting. He called me a bitch through bared teeth and didn't care that my grandmother was within earshot.
She looks straight at me.
“I’m not going to do that.” The water moves out to sea, and I feel her disappointment. I turn my back on her and the fish guts and glimmering scales. Instead, I look out to the vast stretch of ocean. Clouds hang low and touch the outline of Block Island, miles away. I hear her knife return to the fish body and scrape against scales. Waves crash beyond us.
I walk back to the trailer alone.
It’s the closest we’ve come to an argument.
What I don’t tell my grandmother is I don’t care that he’s bad. I already knew this when I started dating him. It’s what makes me want him. All I want to do is fuck him. No foreplay. Just being near him is enough to put my skin on fire, make me wet between my legs. I walk around in a constantly aroused state.
I also don’t tell her how we fuck in his dark bedroom, where the shades are always drawn. In this underworld, we devour each other's hard-shelled bodies. One day, on hands and knees, reaching under his bed for my discarded clothing, I come across a stack of photos, home-made and untouched, black and white. With their crotches and mouths wide open, most of the girls are plain looking, or even ugly. Some are hard and bony, others are fleshy-rolled and fat. Some are tied up with black leather straps. Others have large bruises on their thighs and asses. On all fours, with a stiff shag rug indenting my knees, I find myself holding my breath. I feel like I’m tethered to fishing line, but all I really want to do is thrash my body in this confined space. Back out sideways. I can’t look away. I’ve never seen photographs of female bodies that weren’t altered or airbrushed. Careful to put the photos back exactly the way I found them, I wonder if this is what it feels like to pray.
After I reach the trailer, wind comes off the ocean, fast and without remorse. This will be the first time I stay angry at my grandmother, even though I know she’s right about Les. He doesn’t care about me. I’m just another girl to fuck until I become too much. Too needy. Too real. The truth is, I’m not sure he means anything more than that to me either. All I know is that for now I want to consume him.
I don’t know it, but this will be the last time I go with my grandmother to watch her clean fish. It won’t be boyfriends, but college and summer jobs that will keep me away. A couple of trailers over, a flag is fluttering so hard it sounds like it might break off its pole and fly into the air. Chimes bang against one another. Their sound both melodic and frenzied. I turn around, and there she is, my grandmother, petite and proud. Walking back to the trailer. She stops in the middle of the parking lot. I don’t know if she sees me. She puts down the plastic bucket filled with cleaned fish. Their scales and guts long gone to the bottom, food in the dark belly of the black-blue crabs. From a pocket, she takes out a heel of bread. She rips the bread into pieces. I watch her raise up her arms, and with her weathered and skilled hands, she throws the bits of bread into the air. Seagulls take no time to come down and carry the bread away.
The therapist and I are doing regular talk therapy now. No more guided meditations where she asks me to conjure up images of my younger self. We stopped those sessions months ago, after I told her they weren’t working. If I was to be more honest, I would tell her they pushed me. I wonder if she can see my discomfort.
Can she see my thrashing?
I’m hungry for more. But for what? I don’t know. Instead I try to restrain myself. Don’t eat the ice cream, cheese and crackers, chips, and nuts. Don’t get up from your life to go eat something. If I could, I would tie my hands together with leather straps. Rock my body back and forth on the floor.
“Don’t do it.” I want to scream at myself.
But I never do listen. I get up anyways.
My hands reach for the food. I need to bite down, chew, swallow and destroy.
What I really want is to wield the bone-colored knife in my hands. Let it move side to side. Cutting underneath fins and eventually slitting the unsuspecting soft underside of belly, spilling blood and entrails onto the jetty stairs. I never held my grandmother’s knife. She never offered. But I feel like I have. Like I’ve pulled it out of its leather case. Touched its tip with the same sensitivity I would run my fingers over fish scales and palms over hidden photographs. Like it’s second nature and belongs in the heat of my hand. I want to send those scraped-off scales down to the bottom, where a hungry and abandoned girl lies dormant. I want to turn her head to the side and use my own fingers to gently pry open her bright red lips. I want to feed her these shimmering scraps.
Anne Falkowski began writing for yoga related blogs and magazines but felt limited by the expectation of neatly tied up and redemptive endings. Her more recent essays can be found in The Coachella Review, Pithead Chapel, Entropy, and Change-Seven. Her memoir, Namaste Fat Girl, was completed in 2018 and she is currently at work on a novel about how girls go missing in the real world and within their own selves. Besides writing, she has taught yoga for over 20 years and lives in CT with her partner, their three amazing children, three dogs, and two cats.