I’ve never been good at writing about the senses. It’s my literary achilles’ heel: I write worlds within a vacuum.
I didn’t notice this habit until a writing professor in college pointed it out. I had written a full story using only one of the five senses. Sight. There was no sound, or taste, or touch, or smell to fill the cracks of the universe I had manifested. The rest of the students in my workshop were equally surprised.
See, when you write fiction, it’s supposed to go a little something like this: a dark room that you illuminate with conductor’s hands. Characters that enter from stage left and take their positions. And then: a stranger standing next to you with eyes shut, asking you to explain the room until it lights up from behind their eyelids, as clear as if they were seeing through your own eyes, as if they created it with their own hands.
But the way I write goes a little something like this: the illumination of a room, the characters that enter, and then: I begin to string together pretty little phrases about what is happening in this filled room, and I never once glance over to see if the other pair of eyes are open or shut. I gesture so wildly that you don’t even realize the scene we’re standing in is paper-thin, black and white, a silent movie. It’s amazing what you can miss when you’re busy reading mountains of words, so gorgeous and orderly, lined up one after another.
[Watch me run circles around you with my clever linguistic concoctions and my astute observations, like a magic trick: poof.]
And so it is with this. When I pick the word up in my hands, I feel comfortable with it, with saying it and describing it. I am a proud school girl-my pleated skirt has no wrinkles, my hair is pulled cleanly from my face-and I stand with perfect posture as I recite to you:
“Feminism is equality of the sexes.”
If you want, I could give you sentences filled with three and four-syllable synonyms for it. I could tell you the historical significance of it, the cultural context, the literary resonance of it. I could wax poetic about the celebrities who have come out in favor of it, about the rise of the #squad and the symbolism of the latest Girls episode.
But if you were to ask me what feminism looks like, I would pause.
Then I would tell you that it makes me think of the color red.
[But I’m lying, of course. What I really see are the lines that pull tight around my mother’s mouth whenever I use the word in conversation, the slow pursing of the lips that convey a hybrid of anxiety, disappointment and annoyance; I watch her face reflect the innate concern that feminism will make her daughter radical (has it?), and angry (hasn’t it?), and that I will end up alone, which is the worst possible fate, worse than murder and homelessness because it’s a choice, don’t you see?
It took a few times for me to notice this look of hers, because I always thought the bad F-word was “fuck”.
…Give it a moment, let that image pass…now I see the collections of seconds that I spend staring at my body in the mirror in my room, pivoting and angling, wishing I looked like the girl in the porn video. Then I feel immediately guilty for knowing what the girl in the porn video looks like at all.]
If you were to inquire as to what it smells like, I would reply with something like, “Flowers.”
[But my mind would wander to the rank city air that I breathe in each night I walk home from a bar, turning to check behind me every few steps. The alleyways are filled with last week’s trash, and I turn my walk into a trot, because there are certain places where you can be raped and receive pity, and there are other places where you can be raped and it’s your fault, and standing-near-an-alley belongs in the latter category.]
[Do you see how I did that right there? How I talked about rape without using any of my senses?]
If you were to beg me to tell you what it sounds like, I would send you a soundbite of Hillary Clinton giving a speech declaring her candidacy for President.
[What I would never send you are the hundreds of internet pages dedicated to how unprofessional her voice is, with no mention to her political platform. I wouldn’t quote the part about how her speaking manner comes off as whiny and combative and rude and uninformed all at once. I wouldn’t explain to you what an uptick is, or vocal fry, and I wouldn’t point out that female radio hosts are regularly fired for not sounding as smart as men. I wouldn’t say that I hate the sound of my voice because it’s too low, but that I expend energy every day making sure it’s not nasally either.]
Ask me what feminism tastes like, and I’ll give some pithy remark like equality.
[But vodka will fill my mouth before I close it. The slow burn from my throat down to my stomach, all of those nights I spent alone in my room, gulping down fear masked for courage as I waited for a man to text me that he was outside. Then mint, two sticks of gum, so that when he kissed me he would never know that I took three long pulls from a handle before he came over, each time convincing myself anew that it would be fun to have sex with him.]
Don’t ask me what it feels like. I won’t answer.
[I’ll never tell you about an inky needle splitting open the soft lambskin of my wrist, a tickle that was suddenly white flame, as I handed over crisp twenties to a woman with a shaved head. Nor will you ever know that while she wiped beads of blood away with a professional hand, I clenched my fingers into a fist and the flames erupted into euphoria that there was now a part of my body he wouldn’t recognize.]
If you were to ask me to give you an example of feminism, I would tell you about the time I got a tattoo just for myself.
[It was the only way I could have the last word.]
I tend to have a nasty habit of keeping my f-words in vacuums, but no one seems to mind.