Written in spring 2013
My toes are hairy; fine enough hairs on the four little toes to go unnoticed but the big toes betray my Hispanic roots more than any other feature. In Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides defines the “Hair Belt” across Eurasia but he forgot to jump oceans and include us bestial Latino folk, swarthy, unibrowed, hairy-toed Latin lovers that we may be. The paint on my toenails is chipping, half off, bright blue at the moment until I make the time to sit down with nail polish remover and balled-up bits of toilet paper to separate each little piggy. The paint job tends toward the neon end of the palette, and it’s never well-done — on interior finishes I can be maddeningly precise but hand me a makeup brush and I might as well have Parkinson’s. My arches are dropped and my feet have been a source of pain since I could walk but lately I have a new pride in them too, for an orthopedic flip-flop tan so absurdly well-developed my feet may well have been grafted together from skins of my mongrel background, Cuban bronze intercut with German-Irish pale.
Do I have cankles? I can never tell; it seems to depend on the viewing angle, or the style of shoe, or the cut of pants. I broke my left ankle my sophomore year of college, racing into a friend’s dorm room to hide an anatomy-class fake cat skeleton in her bed. God did not approve of my pranksterism and smoted me, or maybe I just have bad balance, but I turned a corner and the thing shattered. It bothered me for years until I finally did some damn physical therapy and it’s reserved real estate for a tattoo now, a standing microphone which is next on my to-tat list. My shins can flex with muscle and my calves can bulge with it but as they taper towards the knee it’s all overlain with fat, though I never shave often enough for my legs to be aesthetically appealing anyway — who has room in her schedule for such constant maintenance? I’ve got better things to do with my life; the entire series of “Cougar Town” isn’t going to re-watch itself. My hair is coarse and dark and my legs are pale and there’s usually some kind of bugbites involved as well — I am nectar to fleas, shrugged off by human males but irresistible to insects — plus the odd assortment of bruises and scratches that come along with drinking and carpentry (never together; my limbs may be imperfect but I like having the complete set). I wear shorts anyway, year-round, because that’s why I moved to California in the first place.
Above the knees I don’t get laid often enough to shave with any regularity and besides the hair helps cover the shame of my thighs, chunky, cellulite-riddled, stretchmark-addled. My legs are stubby (all of me is stubby) and the detritus of so many In-N-Out burgers shows all too clearly, even if I do order them protein-style. On my inner right thigh is my most colorful inking, a red chili pepper winking ironically near the juncture of my legs: I am a spicy Latina. I was pantsless in front of a friend and a stranger for an hour while the latter laid the colors into my skin and though there was a moment of panic when I first dropped trou (they will see the worst of my flab) the event was surprisingly comfortable, really; I’m friends with the tattoo artist on Facebook now, which is more than I can say for most gentlemen who spend any length of time working that general region. My left inner thigh reflects back a long skinny scar, memory of a high school birthday party where an intense capture-the-flag chase scene ended with me lacerated by a furnace’s protruding metal flange. (I paid the chasee back the next year, bruising her kidney during a particularly vicious game of foosball.) The scar is thin and gleaming ivory, easy to miss amidst the creeping, rambunctious pubic hairs that spill beyond my bikini line; I know there are strict maintenance standards now (or so I hear) but I’m too poor to get professionally waxed and have not yet mastered a razor around the knee in fifteen-plus years, and some things just aren’t worth risking — I’ve never celebrated my genitals in the fashion of the Vagina Monologues and between gut-busting menstrual cramps and regular urinary tract infections the whole thing can sometimes seem more hassle than it’s worth, but my vagina has proved its use in other ways, so I’d rather leave it furred and intact than tempt fate. I’d probably hate my ass if I could see it easily but as it is I don’t think much about it except when it earns me the kind of compliments that only come because I live in East Oakland, and there is a different kind of ideal figure here.
My belly is pooched and droopy — I went to the emergency room recently, with abdominal pain so intense and long-lasting that I thought I might have a burst appendix, and I would have liked to flirt with the cute jokey resident but he started off by palpating my flabby, gluten-intolerant stomach, and there was really nowhere to go from there (except to discover that I didn’t have appendicitis anyway, just severe gas) — but cures for this adipose are harder to come by. I used to swear by crunches, five hundred a day at the end of my freshman year of college (my anorexic phase), but now my back is a wreck and I must work my core carefully. My back held up for years under the duress of piggyback rides and stair-falls and construction work but in October of 2011 it gave out in the bed of a pickup truck, a tarp half-a-ton full of wet dirt in hand, and it’s never been the same since, spasming under even the mildest of exertions. I used to be a beast, to savor the fatigue of a long effort, but now I fear I’ve become just some functionally useless fat chick. The pain runs along my spine to the base of my ribcage and above it lives not relief but constant soreness, consequence not of spectacular muscle failure but of everyday pressures; I’ve traveled to four continents with my trusty backpack and it’s with me always day-to-day, a lesson of my transient personal history: keep what you need close at hand. The weight of the backpack earns cheap jokes from coworkers (no it’s not filled with rocks) and strains my shoulder blades — I should have my dowager’s hump by forty, if the permaknot at the top of my spine can be trusted, just above the infinity sign etched on my back. It was my first tattoo, standing shirtless at a parlor in Dallas, wondering how well the needles might sting, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I like to think it distracts from my backne.
There are hairs on my breasts — I thought for some years of my adolescence that I was a shameful mutant but in time I learned that it’s quite common, though uncommonly discussed; that the much-adored breasts of Renaissance art and of Playboy share a certain artifice beyond inflation, the fiction of rose-tipped, pristine skin, uninterrupted by something so unseemly as a follicle. But the common ancestor we humans share with apes was almost certainly one hairy motherfucker, and hirsute boobs are a real thing. I have another tattoo above my left breast, sitting atop my heart, the cursive letters dbh flowing from a fountain pen. It was my twenty-seventh birthday present to myself, nine months after my little cousin David Berosky Hopkins died, another young man made statistic. We’d spent a lot of time together learning finish construction from my father, one or both of us working at his side during endless home renovation projects, but when the time comes for me to buy my own fixer-upper I will have to work alone.
I have not always been kind to my own flesh, but I am trying to be gentler now.
When I was sixteen years old I spent a summer at Carnegie-Mellon University, taking calculus and physics courses, and there my studies were inconvenienced by a strange diagnosis: afolliculitis, or a bacterial infection of the hair follicle. Probably my razor touched something in the dorm showers, the medical center staff said, and I was forbidden from shaving or using deodorant for one week while the antibiotics did their work. I don’t think I was born with the impulse to do comedy but there is a certain point wherein one must come face-to-face with one’s own inherent ridiculousness, and for me that moment was when the doctor told me I had an armpit disease.
But from the cesspools of my underarms spring my most glorious feature, arms less toned than Michelle Obama’s but no less magnificent for their achievements. My right forearm is significantly larger than my left although the difference is not so freakish as it once was; at the peak of my work with Habitat for Humanity, five days a week of swinging a hammer and raising beams and hefting fifty-pound buckets of nails (two at a time, by years’ end) — back then my right forearm was a beautiful monstrosity, bulging and jaw-droppingly capable. Sometimes when there’s no one around to high-five I take out my old framing hammer and swing it at nothing, just to feel the completion in the arc of my arm, just to feel complete. On my right wrist is my lone easily-visible tattoo, a tiny outline of a hammer to remind me of my own strength — my Habitattoo, I like to say, although I got it months later and hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles. My left arm has little to offer except symmetry and a place to hang a watch (I’ve got a bitchin’ watch-tan), but then, it’s tough to compete with a hammer-arm.
I have the stubby unpainted fingers of a small child and the thick squat neck of a linebacker, my shoulders always creeping towards my ears with tension and momentum until I notice and force them into relaxation. I have a birthmark on my neck that looks like a hickey, covered with hair usually, just like the tattoo behind my left ear; a light bulb, the old incandescent style, memento of a road trip to New Orleans. A light bulb because I’m a thinker, in case the thick glasses and the constantly furrowed brow (I’m not yet thirty, but the lines are already starting to show) are not evidence enough that this whole body is really just casing and vehicle for the blob inside my skull, hyperactive and impossible to turn off when my physical self demands a pep talk even to get out of bed. I like my face well enough, pretty sometimes, other times sweaty and set; my hair has grown finer with age but in spite of six years of red dye (I wanted to be Agent Scully when I was in high school) I’ve come to terms with the dark brown color. The scalp underneath is nicely shaped, too, a fact discovered my freshman year of college when I shaved it all off for a bet; one hundred and fifty dollars, and the first thing I did with my riches was buy a hat. At Christmas I came home with a crop of dark fuzz and my mother, auburn-accustomed, couldn’t accept that this was my lot in life: “God made you wrong,” she told me, not unkind.
I never thought myself so graceless until I began telling jokes in public, and in the dark with a microphone in hand I felt confident in what I’d written and confident in my vocal delivery and completely confused about what to do with my body; this was stand-up, and I just stood there. I tried to take a dance class at the local community college to fix it but the instinct and muscle memory I rely on to, say, drunkenly punch my male friends abandoned me altogether and I was as awkward in the classroom as I am in the clubs. I know physical surety amid scaffolding and roof trusses, driving nails bent and left by volunteers, and alone in my house with music blasting (or sometimes in a particularly empty grocery store aisle) I can bust moves with impunity — but the moment a gaze is fixed upon my gyrations then it all falls apart.
On the rare occasions when I am really feeling down I take the BART across the bay, to the Daly City station, and I stand on the platform and look across the street to the houses I helped build, with sweat and effort and the brute force of this imperfect body. They are homes today, foundations and frames and finish now joyful and sorrowful and occupied, and I always feel better for the trip.
Postscript: I don’t live in East Oakland anymore, and can’t just hop the BART to look at my handiwork when I’m down; I also never got that microphone tattoo (instead, a Foo Fighters quote on my arms). But effort and attention has restored my back to much of its functionality — a fact I genuinely do not know how to celebrate without relying on ableism (suggestions welcome) — and this imperfect body has accompanied me on three more years’ worth of adventures. I think I appreciate it even more now than I did then, cellulite and all.