Image: David Hockeny Pool I, 1978-80
You became a woman at eight years old. You don’t get your period until much later, but at eight years old, you are confronted with the uncomfortable realization that your female body is the object of desire of the straight male species. It is in an instant that this happens, though there is an epilogue of warnings and disclaimers, a constant refining of what is meant to be kept under wraps, slowly, you are being covered up, cautioned, and taught how to behave.
Before eight, you are just a little blob, a cloud floating around, twisting and shapeshifting into every possible mold. A sweet little bouncy cloud. You are unaware of the way your body folds and fits into clothes and spaces. Paying no mind to the crevices, bends, and appendages that make up your small body. Day to day, your limbs sprawl open, and you are bubbling out of yourself, spilling out onto the floor. For years you’re sharing bathtubs and beds, running naked through the grass, and being sprayed with sprinklers. You are invisible, like air, a transparent being floating through time and space without any awareness of the way the shape of you lands in the eyes of others.
All of a sudden, there’s this moment in which you appear. It is like your body has hit a wall, and you realize you’re solid, opaque, and with this solidifying of self come names, private parts, and things you’re not old enough to know about, even though they’re circling you like a comet. For a while, you are solid, but it seems as though only your family can see you. Your mother tells you you’re pretty. That you have to wear clothes around the house now. And you’re too old to take baths with your boy cousin. You must put some clothes on, close the door to the bathroom, and keep your private parts private.
When you’re eight, you go to Palm Springs with your family. It’s a new tradition to go to the desert for Thanksgiving with strangers. This is the second year. Your uncle’s idea. It’s a two-hour drive, longer with traffic. Your mom describes putting you in the car as pulling teeth. You don’t want to go.
Before this new tradition, you spent Thanksgiving at your best friend’s house. A house hot with love and the smell of crescent rolls. An overflow of laughter and food. You peek in the kitchen. Her mother shoos you out. Someone is always doing the dishes. Someone is asking where their child is. Someone is hovering over the artichoke dip. Everything is warm and yellow. Voices like soft cushions in every room.
There, you sneak up to your best friend’s older sister’s room, the neighbor is playing the keyboard. The girls are talking about crushes. They are painting their nails. Her sister tells you to get out. You close the door to your best friend’s room. You play dress up with her Bratz dolls. You play Britney Spears on her pink Hello Kitty boombox. Someone is yelling from the bottom of the stairs, “It’s time for dinner.”
In Palm Springs, you enter a banquet hall full of strangers, all grown-ups. Older than your mother. There is a buffet, and the turkey is dry. The room is cold in temperature and color. Everything is baby blue and white. You swirl the peas around your plate. You are grossed out by the surrounding mouths chewing. Your cousin is making a joke with his food. He is whining with boredom. Your uncle tells him to settle down.
The only redeeming factor is the hotel pool. It is an expansive resort with multiple pools and a Jacuzzi. There is a water slide. You and your cousin are allowed to spend all day alone by the pool. You feel more grown-up than ever. Your parents check in every half an hour or so, but in the in-between moments, you are in charge because your cousin is a year younger and a troublemaker.
You go on the water slide, and every time, you have to adjust your tankini, pulling it down over the breasts you don’t have, the ones that won’t keep it from riding up. Eventually, You get tired of the water slide, the wedgies, the tankini adjustments, and waiting in line. You convince your cousin to play Marco Polo, even though it’s not as fun with only two people, and your cousin keeps cheating by getting out of the water. You say he has to be Marco now.
There are two boys at the pool with you. They are brothers. You can tell by the way they speak to each other. One seems your age or older. The other seems younger. They inch their way into your space until you notice them. Eventually, they ask to play Marco Polo with you and your cousin. Or maybe your cousin asks them. The game is much more fun with more people. The younger one is Marco. You’re a very good swimmer and never get caught. The older brother keeps getting out of the pool and doing cannonballs in. You find this obnoxious. Your cousin follows his lead. You ignore that they’re cheating.
The brothers continue to pester each other, teasing and whispering things you can’t quite hear. You ignore them and keep playing the game. You can tell they’re getting bored, and you are too. After a while, the older one says their parents had rented one of the pool cabanas.
“Do you want to see it?”
You and your cousin think this is cool, but you are hesitant because you’re supposed to stay where your parents can easily find you.
You say yes anyway.
You climb out of the pool and follow them into another section of the pool area. You arrive at the tented cabana. The curtain is drawn, but there’s no one inside. There are two lounge chairs and a few pool accessories. They invite you inside. The brothers are giggling, and the one your age or older corners you between the lounge chairs.
“My brother wants to have sex with you.”
You’re not sure if you heard him correctly. You’re not sure if he knows what he is saying. You are not sure you know what he meant by saying it. You’re not sure if there were multiple definitions for the word sex. Your face is hot, and your entire chest feels like a balloon that’s being blown up with too much air. You’re afraid it’s going to pop.
At eight years old, you have a very rough sketch of an outline of what sex could be. Your education of it was unsolicited and from a boy in your class who had casually explained it to you by the swing set one day. He whispered in your ear and told you not to tell anyone. This made you nauseous for a week.
Before the cabana, it was never an action you thought would apply to you. You had spent a long time trying to forget the definition you had been told, and now it included you.
The Boys are staring at you now. The brothers are giggling. Your cousin is giggling.
Your body feels different. Solid. Heavy. Made of cement.
Without a word, you turn and walk out of the cabana. You keep walking, and you don’t stop.
You don’t check to see if your cousin is behind you. You don’t gather your things. In bare feet and your orange tankini, you walk over the lawn, past a small pond, through the hotel, down the hallway, and straight into your mother’s arms.
“Are you done at the pool? Where are your things? Where is your cousin?”
You shrug and say he didn’t want to come back with you. You are scolded for leaving him alone. Your aunt leaves immediately to find him. You say you feel sick and melt into your mother. Your mother agrees that you feel warm.
You don’t go back to the pool again.
You don’t go back to Palm Springs again.
You try not to think about what happened for years.
You wonder if there’s a way out of it.
Out of a body that feels dangerous to have.
Nico is a multi-disciplinary bipoc artist and writer. IG: @nicoshea_