Latency Period: Bellies

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, February 27th, 2017

"...the stories we each hold in our joints and flesh..."

Daniel Edler Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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Belly

I’m not sure just where this belly came from. The one right here, where I used to be, the old skin and bones me. This belly. The one right above the hem of my jeans, straining a bit against what used to be a good fit. This strange new thing. I think it began to grow a few months before the election, but lord knows I’ve been stress-eating since then. I’m not used to this belly. It is so quite new a thing. It protrudes. It swells. When I eat a big meal, it seems to grow even more. I hold it in my hands and wonder at it.

When I look down in the shower, there it is, like a new landscape emerging after some tectonic shift. I don’t know how to feel about this belly. Sometimes I hate it. Other times I cradle it. I stood in front of the mirror yesterday, naked, turning side to side. Running my hands over my body, a body that I have, to my own astonishment, and through great difficulty, learned to find attractive. But I didn’t know what to do with this belly. I sucked it in, held it washboard flat, then let out my breath, and my belly with it. Settling back into this new shape.

I have a belly now.

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When I was little, the other boys in the gym locker room took to calling me toothpick.  I’m not sure who started it, but it caught on. Little boys don’t think. The politics of the locker room unspool with an unkind momentum built on laughter and poise. There is little thought to consequence.

I was already confused about my body. My father had strange ideas about masculinity; he thought himself some sort of manly bear, but moved through life ignorant of, or ignoring, his own delicate femininity. He wanted me to stand broad-shouldered and strong and howl at the moon with him, but I was more comfortable in the tender recesses of my imagination than the hard cut of my shoulder blades.

The locker room was a threatening place. Skin and muscle and penis and confusing hierarchies. I was more than skinny, I was rail-thin; you could count my ribs. And when they called me toothpick, the word carried on snickers and laughs, it wrote itself into my body, into my bones. You could feel it etched on my ribcage if you pushed hard enough with your fingers. This body. This skeleton and its ridicule.

I hated this skinny body.

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During the Siege of Leningrad in World War Two, in a city running out of food and without any hope of escape, my great grandmother starved herself so that her four daughters would have enough to eat. They made ends meet by scraping wallpaper glue from the tenement walls and turning it into soup. They would add leather belts to the broth for flavoring. By the time they escaped, two and a half years later, my great-grandmother’s belly was completely distended from malnourishment, swollen as if pregnant with a fifth daughter.

The family eventually boarded a boat for a perilous crossing on Lake Ladoga, while German fighters strafed and bombed. Other boats exploded into splinters of wood and chunks of charred luggage, but theirs made it through. My great grandmother and her daughters all survived. When the war ended, they still lived in poverty, still knew hunger, but her belly returned to its normal shape and size.

Eventually, though, she died of stomach cancer.

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For the longest time, after high school, after college, I barely had any lovers. Romance and sex were, for me, things that existed mostly in the mind. I pined but didn’t pursue. I spent years and years abandoning my body, hardening my consciousness into a homunculus who built a fortress in my skull, feeding my imagination while taking poor care of the body that carried it around.

I was afraid of sex.

I was afraid of what it meant to touch another human being.

What it meant to be touched.

This ugly, unlovable skeleton, poking through my skin.

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My grandmother has a belly of iron. Her doctors think she is a walking marvel, how at 97 years young, she lives with cholesterol and blood pressure numbers that would make any medical professional blanche, but still eats whatever she wants. That is, in fact, one of her strategies for survival. The oldest of the four daughters, she must remember the Siege more clearly than any of her sisters could, though she never speaks of it. Her stomach must hold desperate starvation like a muscle memory. Grandma is always cooking. Frying her sacred pancakes in cheap vegetable oil, eating meat and dairy with abandon. Her stomach never flinches.

Two summers ago, my mother was in the hospital to undergo an operation to remove a tumor growing off the lining of her lung. Grandma came and visited the hospital with her walker, her eyes bursting with old life. The surgery was very dangerous, and the doctors had warned us there was a chance my mother might not survive. My uncle and sisters and I headed out to lunch and wanted to give the two of them, my mother and grandmother, some time alone. We asked Grandma what she wanted for lunch, what we could bring back for her. She thought a moment, then spoke.

Two hot dogs. With ketchup.

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Sex-positive. What a revelation. I was twenty-eight, and I’d begun to whisper to friends I could trust about the lust that ran through my blood. The burning desires that I had squelched for years and years. Dreams of bodies of all kinds, not just the breasts and thighs of women but the jaws and cocks of men. My lover took me to the sex toy shop. She went with me and I bought a toy and over time that toy and my fingers found their rhythm in the tightness of my ass. And it was like a re-centering. Like the homunculus was summoned out of his fortress.

Hey! screamed my body. I’m still here.

We were like two halves of a self, separated far across a field from one another. My mind, my body. And pleasure was the turn of the key that brought us not just closer together, but that helped me look at my body through new eyes. This skinny body. This bony hip, yes, but.

I lay in bed more often, then. Absorbing myself, my contours, just drifting my fingertips across the country of my skin.

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My mother survived her tumor surgery, but after just a few days home recuperating, she had to be rushed back to the hospital. She experienced a rare occurrence: volvulus, a medical event in which a section of her lower intestine quite literally twisted itself into a knot. Her belly swelled unnaturally: my sisters and I stood in the emergency room at two in the morning staring at the mound of it as the doctors medicated her and hatched a plan.

She’d had digestive issues for years at that point. Her whole digestive system always seemed to be in a state of revolt, turning against her at every junction. Many of her favorite foods caused her unimaginable discomfort and had to be cut from her diet completely. And now, here we were, just past a major chest surgery and she would need to have her intestines stapled to the inside of her abdomen.

I wonder if our family’s good and bad bellies alternate generations.

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Everything changed the night the dancer took me home with him. I had been frightened of this for so long, frightened that going home with a man, this hidden wish of mine, would mean that I would have to change everything about my life, that it would mean I was gay, and I would have to find new ways of defining a self I had just begun to really understand.

And everything did change, but not in ways that I could have foreseen. Rolling in his sheets, twining our bodies together, I found a passion I had hidden away from myself. The way he worshipped my body, which liberated me to glory in its beauty. This body was capable of so much. Its skinniness wasn’t a curse but a boon, not because skinny was good, but just because it was who I was, and I was stunning. Riding him, running my fingers through my hair, every thrust unlocking me further. Men, women, in between and beyond, I wanted them all. I wanted to know them. And I wanted for them to know me.

Not just my mind, but my body. My beautiful, beautiful body.

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In 2006, my mother traveled to Russia for the first time since she had left the Soviet Union thirty-two years prior. When she asked if I wanted anything as a souvenir, I told her there was just one thing: a magnificent matryoshka. A nesting doll.

She brought home the biggest matryoshka I’d ever seen. Fourteen individual women stacking neatly one into the next, with red babushka kerchiefs cowled around their heads, purple down the rest of their bodies, and explosions of red and yellow flowers and green leaves covering their chests and their bellies.

I unpacked them, one by one, setting them right beside one another so that I had a sense of sweeping changes, the flux of time, just passing my eyes along their diminishing forms. More and more, small details jumped out at me from the handsomely painted wood. The largest doll had hints of wrinkles around the corners of her eyes, and as the dolls got smaller, their faces got smoother and smoother, younger and younger. The bouquet of flowers on the largest doll was smaller on the next doll down, then smaller, then smaller, until the flowers closed up into buds, and the buds shrunk, down to the tiniest of the dolls. She was no larger than the last joint of my pinky finger, smaller even, and she was just a little babe in a red onesie.

As I moved from apartment to apartment, the dolls came with me. I never left them all packed away inside their matriarch, but rather let them all out to breathe. They were like a stress toy for my eyes: sweeping one way and then another, small to big and huge to tiny. Exhalations and inhalations. Their changing faces. Their changing bellies. The flowers that grew in their bodies.

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I’m not just my mother’s son, tied to the mothers before her. My lineage isn’t as neat and organized as a matryoshka. There’s my father, too. And I do remember his belly. Though we haven’t seen each other in a decade, I remember it. I remember his belly and the story it tells.

When I think of my father, it’s often this image that surfaces: We’re in a nice hotel room in some far-flung corner of the world, after a long day of museums, perhaps, or he’s been having one of his seminars where he’s had me working, selling his books at the back of the room. Now it’s nighttime and he sips whiskey while walking around the hotel room in a t-shirt. A t-shirt, and nothing else.

His strange torpedo cock hangs out from the hem, beneath a crinkly and verdant black bush. He swings it around proudly, free and easy. The t-shirt he wears is tight, and faded, and it rises as he walks, so that his belly slips out more and more. He yawns and stretches, his penis thrust outwards, just announcing itself to the world, which in this case is the hotel room, which means me. He grins at me as he steps his foot up on a bed, baring and glorying in his everything, and takes a swig of his whiskey. He scratches his belly. We are men, he seems to think to himself, and this is what it’s all about.

That’s another reason I start to build the fortress.

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The other night my lover came over. We tumbled and twisted and fucked, sloughing off the political sediment of the week and swimming in each other’s bodies instead, each other’s muscles, each other’s skin, the stories we each hold in our joints and flesh. It’s been strange, to get tangled with lovers in this new shape. This belly.  I worried for a time that I would have to learn all over again. Learn to love this being, this body. Maybe it would take another thirty years.

And there is a newness here to navigate, but it’s okay. It’s like the doll I was has been cracked in half and a new form has sprung forth to take its place. The same, but different. Beautiful in new ways. Whatever I am, my belly is too.

My lover and I, we lay spent.

They said, while tracing their fingers over my skin: I like your body.

I smiled, whispered thank you.

And I thought, me too.

Me, too.

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Header image courtesy of Karsten Fatur. To view her Photography Feature, go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.