The woman’s brown one-piece swimsuit is cut low in the back, exposing a tattoo of two thick black lines starting at her hairline, traveling down along either side of her spine, between the two dimples inside her hips, and disappearing below the suit. She walks past us, along the perimeter of the pool, stopping to drag her toe along the surface of the water. Her hair is pulled into a severe bun, and a thick gold hoop hangs in each ear.
My eyes stay trained on the black lines of her tattoo. My right hand goes to the place between my shoulders, just below the tie of my yellow bikini top, where I can feel the protrusions of my own vertebrae and where, if I push hard enough, I can send a jolt of pain along the nerve down my shoulder blade, the sensation disappearing under my arm. I imagine this woman on the tattoo artist’s brown leather table, the prick of his needle traveling along this place on her body where the nerves emerge, where there is no fat to cushion the ink weaving its way in and out, where a misplaced injection could send black dye into the fluid that surrounds her only direct pathway for her brain’s messages to get to her body.
From where I sit on the steps of the resort’s full-sized pool, the water comes up to my belly button but barely reaches the top of PJ’s long, muscular legs. The water is warmer than I’d like it to be, and murkier too.
“What are you thinking about, babe?” he asks.
“Nothing.” I shake my head, continuing to stare out across the pool. I am thinking of the tattoo my friends and I promised to get after graduation, the three initials on our butts, CLT, in a place that could not be seen, with plenty of fat so it won’t hurt. The gesture feels silly in contrast to this woman’s act of anatomical defiance, her decision to choose the riskiest and most powerful part of the body to pierce.
A three-year-old with dinosaur-green arm-floaties yelps anxiously. His mother beckons him to let go of the wall and swim toward her, but he is not persuaded, instead clinging to the side of the pool, his eyes wide and scared.
“Why? What are you thinking about?” I say to PJ.
“Me? I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in that head of yours, Carter.” He puts his hand on my head and buries my face in his shoulder. He smells like sweat and chlorine.
I laugh and pull away, pushing the wet hair out of my face. My muscles are pleasantly limp after a day of sipping beer and alternating between the lukewarm water and a reclining chair. I feel close to PJ, closer than we’ve been in months. But my jaw still aches from a night of gritting my teeth, wondering if today will be the day I get the news I’ve been dreading. “You really want to know?” I say. The sun is behind him, and I squint trying to look at him.
“I’m thinking about…” I pause, deciding whether or not to say it. Then, quickly: “how I want to hook up with a girl.”
I have never said these words out loud before. I hear myself say them, and a stir of excitement runs through my chest and down to the part of me submerged by the water.
He is silent. The boy in the arm-floaties giggles as he smacks the top of the water with his chubby hands.
I was thinking about it, at exactly that moment. But why did I say it? Do I want to taunt him? Do I want his attention? Or do I say it because it’s the third time I’ve thought about it today?
My heart rate surges. My eyes dart around to see who else has heard. No one.
He keeps his head forward, toward the other vacationers in the pool, but he looks at me out of the corner of his eye, trying to read my face. “Yeah?” he says.
I shrug. “You said you wanted to know.” I have to put effort into keeping my shoulders down, my lips smirking instead of trembling.
He leans back, putting his elbows on the higher step. “No, it’s hot.” The side of his mouth twists up. “I wanna watch.” But under the water he squeezes my leg, and his nails feel desperate.
I splash water at him. “Shut up, you.” I’m mad, though it comes out playful. Now that I have his attention, I realize, I don’t want to share this fantasy. It belongs to me.
“What would this girl look like?” he says, still leaning back, striking his most impressive, I-am-a-confident-guy pose. But his hand is still on my thigh, slippery yet firm.
I shrug again, lifting the wet strands of hair off my neck, tilting my head away from him. “I dunno. Someone…” I smile, looking down at the water, trying to imagine this fantasy girl. But all I see is his hand on my thigh, squeezing tight, and no woman comes to mind. “I dunno. She’d be hot, though,” I blurt out.
He laughs, letting go of my leg. “Mmm…okay, Carter, I could see that.” He cocks his chin upward, pretending to ponder it, and the muscles in his jaw twitch, as if the quickening of my pulse and the surge in my body have been transferred through the water to him. “You’ve always had a bit of a dyke-y side,” he says, more to himself than to me.
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, right,” I say, pretending I’m mad. But when he says it, I imagine he’s referring to my edge, my I’m-not-going-to-do-it-because-I’m-supposed-to side.
PJ transferred to Cornell during my sophomore year; he was new to the swim team, while I’d already been on the diving team for a year. I remember standing on the board that loomed sixteen feet above the water, wearing a maroon one-piece suit, my hair pulled tightly into a bun at the nape of my neck. I took a step toward the edge and looked out as I always did at the people below. That’s when I saw him, chin craned upward, eyes on me, his gaze so unapologetic that I thought maybe I’d met him before and forgotten. I felt an urge to wrap my arms around myself, to scream, Whatever you’ve taken from me, give it back! And yet, at the same time, I felt more alive, more real then I had before, the edges of my skin buzzing from his attention. I wanted him to keep watching, keep looking at me like that, because he could see something there that I could not.
Later, he said he was drawn to the girl who would stand at the edge of the board for a full minute before every dive, not caring that everyone was waiting for her to make the leap, just smiling, enjoying the suspense of it, leaving my coach biting her nails by the side of the pool.
But even though I was smiling, each and every time, in that long minute before I jumped, every muscle in my body was tense, and my toes grasped the board below me. Would this be the time that I actually did it? The instant after I pushed off, after my feet left the scratchy surface of the board, right before I pulled my legs in and twisted them into formation, I had the choice to let go, not to shape the fall, to let gravity become stronger than my ability to control it. I could gain speed, hurtle downward, not knowing how much it would hurt or how deep I’d sink down after I smacked the water’s surface.
Except I never did it—I always pulled my legs in, arched my spine, and lined my arms up just as I’d been taught. I never lost control. I never got hurt.
“What about at this pool? Any chick you’d be into here?” PJ asks, making a one-eighty scan of the pool.
I laugh and look around, exaggerating my head movements. He is egging me on, upping the ante, and I allow it. Yet I know that this game is not like the diving board. I won’t actually dive off the edge, now or at any other time. Still, I allow myself to look.
There are two umbrellas covering a row of high-school girls. Four of them squeeze onto two chairs, laughing at something on one girl’s cell phone. They giggle, sitting so close to each other. The one at the center, the leader, sits back on her heels, the tassels on her crop-top dangling above her midriff. She swings a chunk of hair over her shoulder, chomps on her gum, and points to something on the screen.
A couple have taken the next chair: the woman, with a short pixie cut and orange swim-suit, sitting in between the man’s legs. He rubs sunscreen on her back, moving his hand in circles, her butt pressed up against his pelvis. They both have the sticky-gooey look of two people newly in love, two people melting into one another. Two people who’d like to do way more than rub each other’s backs. She is clearly not available for this fantasy.
Directly across the pool from us is the woman in the brown suit. She sits in a white chair with thick blue pillows, her feet up on the table, covered by an umbrella. I notice now that she’s in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, with a magazine flipped open across her legs, chewing the end of her pen while studying the page. Her hair is a shade darker than mine, nearly black—it’s wet and shiny, released from the bun and twisted into a long coil over her shoulder. Her brown suit is cut high along the side, exposing the outline of her hip, and further down along her thigh is a wide birthmark. It’s a darker brown at the edges, with a curved looping perimeter that looks similar to the cytoplasm of cells I peered at through a microscope in Introductory Biology.
Because this is a game, the way I look at her is different from how I usually look at women. Usually I size them up, do a side-by-side comparison, and decide whether they make me feel better about myself or worse. If they are wearing something I like, I think If I were wearing that outfit instead of this one, would I feel better about myself right now? But this time, I allow myself to look at her the way men must. I look at her, and I want something. I allow myself to feel the heat coming off her skin and the dampness of her hair between my fingers. I imagine the way her voice sounds and what those furrowed lines on her brow reveal.
I smile. I try to look away but I cannot. And I wrinkle my nose, remembering the way the bartender looked at me yesterday as I stood in line, rubbing at the mango juice staining my white tank top. I worked hard at the stain, worrying that it would show up in the photos I wanted to take of me and PJ before dinner. When I looked up, the bartender was watching me as he whisked something behind the counter, his wrist spinning fast. His button-down shirt was open in the front, his chest full of wiry black hair, his scalp closely shaven. He sucked in saliva through the gaps in his teeth. I don’t know how long he’d been watching me desperately dab at the orange spot over my breast. The worst part was that, when he smiled at me, the side of his lip turning up, I smiled back, reflexively, before I even knew what I was doing, my face converting into an expression of permission. Then I hoisted my top up, hunched my shoulders in around my chest, and walked up to buy a drink from the man attached to the wiry chest hair.
I don’t want to do that to her, make her body a part of my fantasy. And yet I can’t stop.
PJ nudges me. “Try not to stare,” he teases, “it’s not polite.”
“Oh, hush,” I say, slapping him on the arm, my attention shifting back to him.
“So that girl, huh?” He studies her now, then adds after a moment, “Good choice.”
His body is still, eyes focused on her, lips coming together to make a thin line. He’s making the same assessment I just did. It is her he wants in this moment, not me. The thought makes me crazy. I want to grab him and shove his head under water, do anything to disrupt that gaze.
“Stop!” My arms spring upward, and I bring them down beside me, smacking the water as they land. I clench my thighs under the water and squeeze my toes into the rough cement of the pool step. “I don’t want to play this game anymore!”
“Baby, baby, baby,” he says, looking away from her. Even though he’s turned back toward me, I can tell he’s still thinking about her. About her breasts that are a size bigger than mine, about the choker that makes her neck look even longer. He’s wondering why she’s alone, whether she has someone back at her room, waiting for her.
“PJ! What are you even looking at?” He’s staring at a spot just over my head.
He leans towards me. “You, baby, I’m looking at you.”
“Don’t lie.” I scoot away and lift myself up, so that my butt is on the warm pavement at the side of the pool and my feet dangle into the water. This way I can look down on him.
“You’re the only girl I want,” he says, coming closer, grabbing at my ankle.
I kick him away and pull my legs into my chest. I want to say, What about that girl you kissed two months ago? I don’t say it. I don’t want his remorse. I want to harm. “Don’t give me that bullshit,” I say. “Don’t tell me you’re looking at me when I know you’re not.”
“Well, apparently you check out girls too…” He dips his hand in the pool and flicks warm droplets at me, pretending that he hasn’t realized I’m mad.
“That wasn’t… That is not the same.” I look back at the girl on the other end of the pool. She looks up at me and smiles. It’s a friendly smile that says, I too have fought with my boyfriend on vacation. I look back at him. “This is a joke to you, isn’t it?”
“What’s a joke?” he says, as if he’s genuinely trying to understand. He looks back at the woman in brown, then back at me, and his voice gets quieter. “You’re jealous of her?” He reaches for me, pinches my toe. “Don’t be jealous. You’re hotter than her.”
I look at him for a moment, perplexed, wondering how he thinks this is what I want to hear. And then I’m angry that it still feels good to hear him say it, that I’m hotter.
This vacation is supposed to be free of fighting. One whole week in Mexico, away from Cornell, away from our friends, away from the girl he kissed. The girl with the floppy ponytail, scrunchie on her wrist, Converse sneakers untied. She wasn’t even hot, he told me, I don’t know why I did it.
I feel my hands clench into fists and bang them on the hot pavement. I’m losing this fight, and I hate it. “It’s not about that,” I sputter. “I’m not jealous!” It’s just that I didn’t think you would kiss her. I keep that part to myself because I don’t want to be the girl who can’t let go, who keeps holding on until the past destroys her. “It just feels…I dunno… It’s just cruel.” Cruel to look at her after what he did to me. My teeth mash together.
He grimaces when I say the word cruel, brings his thumb to his mouth and chews on the end of it. Now he knows what this is about.
“Carter, babe, don’t be mad at me.” He slips into a baby voice. “I don’t want anyone but you.” He drops his chin, and his shoulders collapse, showing me he’s surrendered.
But I don’t just want to win, I want revenge. He has to know that he’s wrong to do this to me, that I’m not the crazy one here. And the only way I know how to win is to withdraw. Without looking at him, I stand up. I walk toward our lounge chairs, wishing that my thighs don’t rub together in my angry march. How can he not see that things aren’t the same, that every girl he looks at I imagine is that earlier girl, dressed up for the stupid eighties party, standing on her tiptoes so she can reach his lips—the girl who confirmed what I have always suspected, that I can’t hold any man’s attention indefinitely, even PJ’s, that eventually I will run out of ways to intrigue him.
He doesn’t call my name as I expect him to. He doesn’t follow me. I imagine him watching my back as I walk away, past the high-school girls. They’ve taken down the umbrella and pushed the straps on their bikinis down over their shoulders to maximize their sun exposure. They share two sets of earbuds and stare as I walk by, then whisper something to each other. Are they talking about me? Does everyone at this pool know we’re fighting? Carter, I scold myself, they’re in high school. Why do you care?
The couple next to them is asleep. The man is curled on his side with one leg thrown over the woman, his toes rubbing the arch of her foot, their arms interlaced around one another. It makes me want to vomit.
I pass the woman in the blue chair. She is confident in her solitude, this woman who is full of mystery to us. PJ has never seen her cry, never seen her take on and off ten outfits because they all make her feel too short, too exposed, too covered. Her breath must smell good in the morning; her legs must always be smoothly shaven. Just once, I want to possess the confidence she projects in this moment. I want to be alone and not lonely. She lifts her arms above her head, stretching, and I see that her underarms are lined with black spiky hair, hair that I would never let grow under mine. Somehow I am envious of this too, the unselfconsciousness of her armpits, the rebellion once again.
I take one of the blue towels on our chairs and wrap it around my shoulders, hugging myself. Then I fall into the chair. The sun is bright, too bright. I squint, feeling for my phone and clicking at the red and white icon of my email. Will today be the day? The day I finally get the news?
I went into medicine because I wanted to know everything I could about the ingenious and fragile human body. Four years into my training, I stepped away from it all to see what art could teach me about the body that science could not. I am queer and have my own coming-out story, but I wanted to tell a fictional one that captured the experience of looking but not seeing what has been right in front of you all along.
Twenty-three-year-old Carter has a plan for her life—go to medical school, marry her college boyfriend, become a surgeon like her mother, and eventually take over her parents’ clinical research lab. When she is rejected from twenty medical schools, she winds up in a figure-drawing class where she draws the human body instead of dissecting it. It is here that she must face the one thing she has most tried to hide from: she is attracted to the womanly shapes she draws. When she falls for someone unexpected, it puts her directly at odds with her parents’ scientific world that she has been groomed to take over.
After I got the idea for this story, I signed up for a figure-drawing class. I wanted to put my protagonist in a setting where she had no choice but to depict the very thing she was most frightened of facing. This novel addresses one woman’s discovery of the human body—through both the medical and the artistic lens. It is about how she frees herself from what she’s been taught to want and discovers what she can’t live without. At its core, it is an uplifting story that challenges us to face what we most hope to suppress, but also to consider the ripples we create in the lives of those we love through the process of our own reinvention.
Lila Mae Flavin is a fourth-year medical student at the Tufts School of Medicine and plans to specialize in adult psychiatry. In the spring of 2017, she took one year away from medicine to wake up each morning and write until it was time to begin her day job as a research assistant. On weekends, she attended classes at the GrubStreet Writing Center in Boston to learn the craft of writing. Now back in medical school, Lila continues to wake up early to get forty minutes of editing in before reporting to the hospital. She is currently working on her third draft of This Will End. Lila lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her partner, their overly anxious twelve-pound chihuahua, and far too many houseplants.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018