All photos by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta, elisaghs.com
We met at a coffee shop/a concert/behind the house/in a field/on our bikes/during a show/on the beach/in a bar/in the street/at a hotel/in the library/in class/at a birthday party/at a rally/at a funeral/on a bus/when we performed together/when we danced together/when he gave me a bite of his breakfast/when she walked into my room accident/when we were stealing beers/when I was pulling something out of the trash/in the yard/in the bathroom/in church/at a diner/in a bookstore/online/while laying in the grass/while eating in the park/in a mall/at my parent’s office/on a roadtrip/while having a cigarette/on stage/on a farm/at the airport/while camping/while swimming/in bed/on a mountain/through a friend/through a letter/through a look given and received. He asked me out/I asked her out. There was an edge to it, and I am not sure if I could describe this as a spark, or a nervousness, or a tension, but it was there, sharp and palpable. We went to the beach and walked to the edge of the mountain and found a dirt pile to sit on and eat our sandwiches. We went out for sushi and I thought about making a dirty joke about the pink of the tuna but didn't as he ordered his tacos. He started kissing me on the train all of a sudden and when I looked up the other people in the coffee shop were looking at us. In the movie he put his arm around me right away, but afterwards she never asked me what I thought about the poetry reading. She asked me a lot of questions and I felt bad at how quickly I had lost the energy to ask him anything. We walked in that purposefully slow way when no one wants to make anyone feel left behind or impose a sense of rushing onto the date. We walked quickly because both of us lived in the city once and I thought this would be something we had in common. We sat by the fountain and I flipped a coin in before he showed up with his Dad’s powder-blue car. We went hiking and I never told him I don’t really like bowling because I wasn’t expecting a second date. On the third date I cooked her dinner and started to plan how I would get out of spending the night. He worked quickly to get my clothes off and made a point to announce that he was hard. When I was touching her she didn’t say anything and eventually rolled over. In the morning I hugged him goodbye and she got out of bed to offer me coffee. I said I had to go. The date itself usually feels like a work of theater, and I become the actress called in for the role. Breaking the script becomes my meditation. At the point when the question of sex comes onto the table, I usually avoid it or coax myself into it, wondering where is the source of my resistance and which voice suggesting a course of action is the voice of truth. She left a glove at my house, but didn’t come back for it. Two months later, I found a letter he sent me under a stack of bills.
I am girl. I am girl? I am girl. My friend sits a head taller than me, his arm over my shoulder. We are riding on the train. I’m looking at the places where my nail polish chipped and he asks me, “Is it hard being a girl?” I say, “I don’t know what it means to be a girl.” He nods at my nails, “I mean doing things like that.” The clarification falls on a sallow place inside me, a place where I put ideas that I don’t want to take root in the world. I say, “It’s hard having people assume that’s what being a girl is.”
My first friend in life was a very slight little boy whose mother met my mother in a pre-natal exercise class. I followed him around like a bodyguard. When other kids would try to take away his shovels and buckets, I would push them down. Boys and girls alike used to go with me everywhere, holding on to the ends of a white fur coat that became my trademark. My body grew and so did my awareness of it. When I was eight I saw the paunch in my stomach in a full-length mirror and cried to my mother that I was fat. I learned how to use the Internet and sent emails to psychics asking if it was possible I was something more amalgamous than human--an alien, a fairy. I remember my mother finding these emails and asking with concern what they were about. I couldn’t explain it then, but I think I had discovered what other people mean when they think “girl”.
In high school, I opted for choir class. It was a class of all women and I was easily the most difficult to like. I would goad the other girls on intellectual topics, hoping to show them how smart I was, prove my stern logic and strong opinions as a redeeming qualities. One morning I’d started to discuss a book on feminism, to the boredom of the others. “You know,” said one girl (who I recall had this gorgeous, long hair which she flipped gracefully over her shoulder as she spoke), “I’m all for feminism, but I think too many women are taking to a point that they aren’t even feminine anymore!” The other women all said, “hmm,” together in general agreement, glancing at me, waiting for my rebuttal. I looked between all of them and went silently back to my notebook, unable to voice how wrong I felt—stuffed into my stiff school uniform, stowed away like a strange animal inside their circle.
She sewed together tea bags to go over our eyes. I peered through the amber stains out at the audience, cradling a toaster as if it were my child. We were a tangle of female bodies, all shapes and sizes wearing only black tights and a half-mask of silk tea bags. The piece had been rehearsed in a small second-floor apartment. I had never been so aware of my breasts as I was on that chilly night, surrounded by other half-naked women. We all chose an object. Most of them were appliances: a food processor, a handheld blender, a rice cooker, an electric tea kettle. The concept was to give these objects a role- lover, baby, attacker-and then to become the object in the end. For the finale, we all joined together as a single machine, bringing our imitations into a cohesive whole. The performance took place in a basement lit by candles and white Christmas lights. I couldn’t feel the cold in the air because of the adrenaline. The lights switched on and off, signaling us into each part of the piece. We moved into synthesis. The glow of skin under soft yellow light, arms and legs making stiff and precise motions; a contrast to the softness of those bodies. Swaying as a collective machine, I realized it was one of the first moments I had felt so immersed in a group of women; it was also the first time I recognized my body as a spectacle. I was welcomed into a group of women to perform with them. Brought into their fold, I felt an acceptance of myself that emerged as a response to their acceptance. But up there before the audience, the act of distancing was instantaneous. It wasn’t about me, or my experience of my body at all. My body became everything the audience felt about naked women--breasts, skin. Those feelings became interwoven with the piece; were, in fact, the elements that completed the effect. I still don’t know what to make of this.
Our second breakup. In my mind, I am always wearing the same pair of black work overalls at this time in my life. For someone to hate you, truly, they must be close enough to feel something strongly about you. We got close and so it was possible for him to hate me. “Why don’t you want to be with me anymore?” I cried, he glared. “Because,” he snapped, “you want to be a dirty punk. And I don’t find that very attractive.” My voice came out, whittled thin like a bubble of glass: “You think I’m dirty?” In the months to follow I came to hate my own style. To the back of the closet with my piles of pockets and the thick and protective hug of denim. I wore colorful waves of silk, second hand rabbit furs, bright red lipstick and dark round sunglasses. I told myself I was opening up to my femininity. The truth? I had found a new kind of armor. I created a girl, quilted together from the world of images I had seen or received and placed her over myself, hiding behind her like a child who imagines they hear thunder in the distance.
She has large breasts, the skin between them puckering gently above her sweater when she leans forward. “Ooh, Annie,” she said, “You are lookin’ great. You’re so skinny!” It is the first thing most of my relatives say to me, the women in particular. It is their way of telling me, “We can tell you are doing well.” Still, I felt a little bitter at the compliment, like losing weight is my only noticeable accomplishment. The truth was, though, I was doing well. I’d settled in New York City and made a full life for myself. I was performing often, had two jobs and lived in a decent and affordable apartment. As I usually do during my visits home, I took a long walk among the yellow pines and the southern oaks, breathing in the sea that travelled in the wind. In the past few years, details have emerged among my relatives about our women of generations past, whose freedom was disposed of by their husbands, or by the state, or both. Women who had nervous breakdowns and ended up in psych wards; women who even showed the beginning signs of nervousness and ended up in psych wards. There is a hospital not far away where my great-great-grandmother died alone. There are documents tucked in an archive somewhere on great-aunts stating their supposed instability. These women gave birth to my grandmother and my mother and my aunts and my uncles who gave birth to my cousins and all of them congratulate me on how skinny I've become. I was doing well. Still, I carried this nagging feeling that I was only getting by, tending to details: pleasant days, uneventful afternoons, paychecks, coffee at an overpriced cafe, periods of sadness, a repetitive mantra that I will exercise more, drink more water, do yoga everyday and this will be better for me, reminders that I needed to leave for work early, get the good dog food from the better pet store. I thought on those women, and felt this must be a time to determine my own depth, how to best explode my own joy onto the world. I looked up at a huge oak tree, with a twisted trunk covered in knots and the deep green leaves shining in the yellow light of early autumn, the moss lifting so gently in the wind like specters passing through. I felt these women inside me, and I still do. I owe them a spectacular life, for all the living they might not have been able to do, for the effort and the sacrifice of making me.
I had walked the streets of Brooklyn for unknown numbers of minutes and hours to deliver myself back here to this place on the floor, afraid that she wanted me and afraid that she didn’t. During one of these sojourns, I thought to myself, “How will I know I’m pretty if I don’t ever have a boyfriend?”, and simultaneously felt filled with disgust that I had thought such a thing. Everything came to the surface between us: spirals of old tension shaking in our muscles, visions of sheets we had known, a deeper awareness of the wavering line between ourselves and the world, buckets of old tears stored away somewhere. We learned how to make love a bit clumsily, laughing and crying, on a series of messy beds. We sat on the floor of my apartment, crying as always. I grasped her hands and told her, “I needed this,” and she looked at me with her eyes full of words that don’t exist out loud. I had defined so much of being a woman by the desires of men. Here was a woman, beautiful to me with her changing style and her vetiver and butter smell. And she wanted me.
I am a woman. A woman? A woman. Yet I still don’t know what this means. It begins to feel like an intuitive label, or perhaps a political one, rather than any kind of verifiable fact. How does one begin to define “feminine” and “masculine” when it starts to become clear these distinctions were made somewhere far away from you, carried in the current of collective thought, but do not emanate from somewhere inside? What is a woman? What is a man? I ask the questions, though I expect no clear response. It was not always like this for me, often picturing myself as the women I have seen, placing myself within that imaginary context. To remove myself from this context is, I believe, the key to my freedom. Which door this key will open is a decision I now know I will have to make myself.
I needed a husband and masturbation was a sin. Masturbation would make sex with my eventual husband less interesting, said the woman at my confirmation training. The training took place in the one story warehouse building across the street from church, where people who were too late to make it into the church building on sundays could go and watch the service on a widescreen TV. I went looking for a husband and I asked God not to watch me while I masturbated. I knew even from a young age that waiting until marriage was unlikely, and yet I lost my virginity well after all of my friends. I didn’t really believe that a woman needed a husband in this day and age, but I didn’t believe my music teacher when she claimed to be “divorced and never looking back!” There was a husband in my mind. The place I had made for him always there, gaping open and getting flabby from lack of use. I was holding a candle for someone. I watched the candle flicker in the back of the RV where I lost it. Cherry popped at last. This man was nowhere near the husband I thought I needed. I kept masturbating. There were candles sitting in a circle on the floor at the full moon ceremony. On the paper we committed to the fire I wrote a prayer: Help me let him go. The husband I thought I needed. The savior who wasn’t coming because I didn’t need saving. I burned a candle and thought of you. You weren’t ready for me yet, and I thought I was the savior you needed. You didn’t need saving. I burned a candle from far away and prayed for you to always be able to save yourself. I saved it up for the moment he got home. My legs a sea of lace, and nothing underneath. I thought I could see God in the geometric patterns in a poster on his wall. I’m watching your eyes when you come into the room. I imagine I might move you with the force of god in me. I think I do.
All of the photographs featured in this piece were taken by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta. Elisa Garcia de la Huerta was born 1983 in Santiago, Chile and is an interdisciplinary artist and holistic Ayurveda practitioner. To learn more about her and her work, please visit her website here.