have somehow always known just how to dive into myself, hands together, right under left. Sneaking down my torso until my arms were fully extended, squished between my body and the mattress. Always on my belly. Head lost in a pillow. My palm pressing tiny circles over my pajamas, hand flat, hips eventually participating.
Growing up, the only variations were contexts. On that plush blue carpet we used to have in the living room, for instance, craning my neck so I could keep watching Barney as I worked myself into a tizzy.
At the Winters’ house, under the new baby’s crib, the whole time making eye contact with Phoebe the feline. (I had crawled under there to pet the cat, but then I got distracted. Isn’t there a pun in there?)
During my first sleepover, unable to sleep. What felt like hours of totally not getting tired before I gave in and did it as quietly as pre-pubsecently possible on the floor beside sleeping twins… in the same bed as my sister… in the bathroom of a hotel while traveling with my dad… hiding in a walk-in closet when the blender or vacuum got too loud for me to handle, and doing it to make myself feel better.
I didn’t know it was sexual then. Was it sexual then? I didn’t know if the feeling was coming from my crotch or my hands. My elbows? Could have been my toes, even — I was convinced my toes had something to do with it all because they were always just the teeniest bit sore afterward. All I knew was it felt good. It felt fucking good before fucking was an adverb in my vocabulary much less a verb in my world.
I sure as heck didn’t fantasize or anything — it would be a decade before I could even think about the act of kissing without burrowing my head in the couch in disgust. Instead, I would think about my day or that move I pulled at little league practice, or I’d sing one line of a song over and over in my head.
I may not have known what it was, but I always knew what it was called. Mommy told me: it was called “touching my bottom.”
I knew what it was called, and I knew that it was very, very bad.
I remember my mom walking in on me, time and again, and the panic, and the guilt, and how quickly her startle would turn to disappointment. I remember freezing every muscle when the cracking door let light flood in on me; choking off my breath, playing dead under the covers, hoping she wouldn’t notice. I wasn’t always fast enough, though. Early on we would pray together when that happened. I’d clasp my hands together until they tingled and whisper along with her “blood of Jesus, blood of Jesus, hallelujah blood of Jesus pour over us and protect us from sin!”
We were Christians — strong Christians — the sort that gathered in a cinder block basement. The sort of Christians who thrive on speaking in tongues and convulsing on stage; who addressed frightening gory nightmares by praying for “Jesus’s blood to cover us from head to toe” and then wondered why I have frightening gory nightmares.
I tried to stop, oh my gosh, I tried to stop, every single night. At first, I’d just lay that way without doing anything. And then I’d allow myself one little press, saying just this and nothing more… and then failing. 4-year-old, 5-year-old, 9-year-old me promising, to myself, to God, maybe even to The Devil: this is the last time. And the last time and the last time and the last time. I promise, no more.
Instead of thinking about whatever book was featured in Reading Rainbow or the peas I had to eat with dinner, I thought exclusively about the exact locations of every other human in the house; thought only about the sound of the garage door opening or how the light streaming under my door would flicker with footsteps. I thought about moving as little as possible while still getting the job done, and choking off every possibility of emitting noise.
It was only very rarely, only when it just wasn’t working and I really needed it to, that I would slip my hands beneath my underwear. The flesh there was sticky and shiny and gross. Mom once said she could recognize the smell on me, so I’d always sneak into the bathroom immediately after. I’d flush the toilet even though I didn’t use it and wash my hands for over a minute. I’d tiptoe back and hope my mom thought I did just have to go pee.
My grandfather used to have a snoring problem, but only when he was lying on his back. He was a clever man, a man of legend to child-me, so when medications, nasal strips, and breathing exercises didn’t work he made something that did, and my mother adapted this same clever system for my little problem. I started sleeping with it before kindergarten, and don’t remember how long before she told me I didn’t have to.
I remember a babysitter named Heather. “I have a secret,” I said one night when mommy was at church. “Do you want to know my secret?” She didn’t, really.
“You can tell me if you want, but you don’t have to.” I told her for ten minutes how I wanted to tell her, but didn’t really want to, except that I really did want to, wavering back and forth dramatically. “Seriously,” she laughed, “you don’t have to tell me anything!”
I did tell her my secret, my mother’s clever system. I showed her. It was a strip of pantyhose, one of those cheap ones that comes in a little plastic egg. Suspended in the center of the beige fabric was a tennis ball. “I tie it around my waist like this,” I showed her, positioning the ball over my belly button. “And it makes me not like lying on my tummy.” I leaned closer to her ear and whispered, “So I don’t touch my bottom.”
That was the last time Heather babysat me.
I remember mom explaining to me why it wasn’t good, why it was so very important that I stop myself, and the message stuck like baloney on a glass table. She was leaning in my doorway, illuminated by the yellow light of the hallway. Touching my bottom, I learn, is bad spiritually. It exposes a very dangerous access point, allows for sin to take hold. It was somehow related to that girl who watched The Exorcism against parents’ advice and actually got possessed; it opens me up for evil spirits to get into my body.
We have to protect ourselves from demons.
There never was a last time. Touching my bottom lasted through puberty, kept happening into adulthood, and, probably happened last night. My dedication to my own pleasure proved stronger than my dedication to a god who would let evil spirits enter my soul through my cunt. To a god who would love me less for loving a woman, not to mention for loving myself.
When I started trying to share my sexuality with partners, however, my body would shut down as though mom just opened my bedroom door. My mind would detach and circle through the grossness and the shame and that same old fear that I might be heard.
I’d been hiding my sexuality for so long, under layers of guilt heavier than down comforters, that reclaiming myself has taken more than a realization. It’s taken hard work and lots of therapy. Ridiculously painful, slow-sludging effort to unpack, to discuss, to analyze. All just to realize that I’m not alone and I’m not broken. To finally embrace what’s been a part of me since before memory.
It was while we were playing Scrabble, when I was a college student home for Christmas break, that I finally gathered the courage to bring it up to my mother. The serious stuff always came up during games of Scrabble. When I came out to my mom it was over a seventeen point score of “hummus.”
“May I say something?” I asked, fiddling with my excessive vowel tiles. Her posture improved.
“Do you remember all you used to say about ‘touching my bottom’? The panty-hose thing, that it invited evil spirits, all that stuff…?” She stopped moving. “That really hurt. I mean, it’s affected my sexuality, my body image… I feel like I’m just now starting to recover from it.”
She looked at me. My mother, my cute, innocent, lovely little mother, looked like she might cry. I don’t remember when her interventions ended, but they did stop. At some point she even started laughing along to vulgar humor in movies; at another point, she started treating my partner like family. She still went to church, to scream at the devil and sing praises unto the Lord, but she knew by then not to tell me about any of it.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I took in her eyes, the wrinkles around her mouth. I didn’t know how much of it she still believed.
I knew she was sorry. I also knew this wouldn’t stop her from praying for me every night.
But then again, I don’t think I would want her to.
I remember this other time, blurry in my memory now just like it was blurry through my tears then. Caught again, mom sitting on my bed. She was comforting me, but not touching my back like she would if I were sick or something. “Every once in a while,” she said, “I can’t stop myself, and I touch my bottom, too. I just, I pray to Jesus about it and try better after that.”
I suppose she was trying to make me feel better, but all I felt was disgust, aimed suddenly in her direction.
I wish I could share with her now how far from evil our pleasure can be. I wish I could replace her fear and repulsion at witnessing a small body experiencing supposedly adult-only sensations. Something so awesome shouldn’t be so taboo.
Awesome. And not just “awesome” in the contemporary ubiquitous slang sense, but as it shows up in the bible itself: Worthy of awe. Miraculous. Divine. It could be a celebration, or a sharing of joy — maybe even with some form of god. Appreciating and honoring the masturbatory gifts he has granted us few, lucky girls who just know how? It’s worship.