Like: Intimacy in Late Stage Capitalism
Once, you found a skin tag on the part of your flesh that is not exactly a sex organ, but would be illegal for someone to touch unless you said it was okay. And you are generally a reasonable woman, clean and pretty and diligently acceptable, but you couldn’t help feeling like everything was broken when you found that growth.
You decided, contrary to everything WebMD told you, that you definitely had genital warts and/or herpes. In that moment, you felt you had failed at your lifelong mission to be an immaculate and functional ladywoman. And you knew that this mission was a scam from the get-go because there is no winning when the goal is a kind of perfection within an economic and political system that depends on your continued inadequacy, but privately you were still hell-bent on avoiding failure, even in this deeply rigged game. Your apparent deficiency was crushing. In order to sublimate this intolerable level of grief, you began a nightly ritual, browsing dating websites for twenty-somethings with herpes, crying as you clicked through profile photos that stared out at you in false cheer—black and white images of a man with a hip facial hair configuration laughing with a dog on a beach like, “We can still have fun!” You tried to imagine what your life would be like if you were to build up a world around this man with his dog on a beach and you fell asleep hoping that we could, indeed, still have fun.
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You checked his profile everyday for updates and you began to obsessively write poems wherein you tried to describe dudleya leaves. When you showed them to your writerfriends, your writerfriends told you that these poems were opaque.
They did not share your fascination with the amphibious flora. They did not understand the dudleya’s allure. You felt that the dudleya were so deeply strange here on California’s neat and orderly coast. And you felt something sorrowful and kindred in their strangeness. And you also felt that poets had not given any of this its due diligence. These poems would be groundbreaking, you thought, if you could just find the right words to make readers understand.
So you tried to describe the plant’s leaves, but the word “leaves” was already wrong. The dudleya elude mundane description. These zaftik flora, these juicy interlopers, these corpulent extraterrestrials that extrude improbably from cliffed coastlines, you wrote. These not-leaves are described by botanists as fleshy glabrous petals, but they look more like a brilliant schema of alien growths out of a green rosebud center. And through your writing process you discovered that the thing about growths is that they scare the shit out of you.
You realized that there is something so ultimately petrifying about having a surface that will not cooperate. As an aspiring ladywoman and as an aspiring writer, you are acutely aware that the contemporary market for both of these identities requires a diligently controlled surface that is intelligible and consumable. But the horrifying part, the truly tragic horrifying part, is that one day you could fall asleep as a smoothly puckered product and wake up dudleyed and alone on a sandbank.
So, in an effort to cope with this troubling development, you went to yoga. You told your yoga instructor that something horrible had happened in your life and that you would never be okay again. And, no, you would rather not talk about it.
You cried coy in the front row of the mirrored yoga studio from the beginning to the end of the class. You could tell by the way that your yoga teacher pushed down on your hips in downward dog to release the tension in your lower back. And you could tell by the way she walked silently up behind you and gently pulled your head away from your shoulders in corpse pose. In these small motions, she communicated to you a tacit pity. You could tell that she thought someone you loved had died.
And you felt rightful then.
You felt like you deserved her sympathy.
Because a growth, especially a growth on your flesh down there, is surely an uncontrollable disturbance and a kind of microcosmic entropy. It is a craggy outgrowth of the internal chaos which always lurks beneath the surface, threatening to compromise this whole fucking being-a-sexually-and-socially-valid-ladywoman project you’ve been working so hard on since forever. People go down there knowing what they’re looking for. And here, in late capitalism’s disperse and infinitely recyclable onslaught of images of what the body (especially this most intimate of quadrants) should be in order to meet our standards of quality assurance, a failure of this magnitude is intolerable. You must not fail down there, as it is the most explicit currency on your body; it is that which must not be given away. They have to work for it. Like they work for a car, or to pay a mortgage, or something.
A growth on this flesh that is your last bargaining chip compromises the whole exchange. It is, after all, the last flesh a consumer encounters before possibility collapses and the story of yet another passing hand gets pressed into the wet plaster craft of young adult sex stories. Sex stories which, long after your remaining parent is dead, you will paint with shimmering golden tempera paint, fully aware of the juvenile timbre of that endeavor. But now you’ll call it kitschy. And you will tell your friends at brunch that you had an epiphany in your Bikram yoga class, wherein you finally realized that you have to be your own parent.
And you will hang these golden handprints on your mantle just because that’s what you do as you get older. You just start painting shit gold. And you start living in homes with mantles. And you start putting your gold-painted shit on the mantles, because your only remaining parent (your mom, probably) is probably dead, and now you’re starting to think about maybe having kids with probably a white man, like your mom did. For the betterment of the race, she said. But none of that is possible with a growth.
A growth would leave you alone forever.
A growth is the reason that you are unacceptable. Brownness is a growth, so you stay out of the sun and say oh, my mom was born in the Philippines, but really we’re Chinese and Greek and Spanish, just like you were taught to say. And fat is a growth, and sad is a growth, and you cannot have a growth, you cannot be ill in the mind and see spiny ocean plants called dudleya sprouting from your arms in tiny bulbs when you get anxious in class. You cannot jiggle or sweat or cry. The skin must run on smooth and preferably hairless and dry. Except where it must be wet, but there are products for that in the Family Planning aisle at your local drugstore.
And the skin must be these things until its purpose culminates in a consumer’s whooping groan and then their far away calm—while you lay there awake, eyes fixed on the darkness of a bedroom with someone whose name makes you feel nothing anymore, except a casual passing interest in whomever they’re fucking now.
But you don’t even mean to write about sex with people you don’t love, or even really like at all. It just kind of happens when you try to write about things that matter to you, like dudleya and your life. Because it’s kind of grim and quiet really, the whole experience of sex with strangers whom you happen to know very well, and the whole experience of trying to write about things you care about. In both instances, you are tasked with making yourself known at a distance.
Or maybe you have a kind of under-researched synesthesia, only instead of, like, tasting marshmallows when you listen to Patsy Cline, maybe it’s like for every memory that is bright and poignant and elegant, you also have a matching and simultaneous memory of accidentally stepping in a still-warm pizza box while traversing gross manboy dwelling debris so as to climb into yet another manboy’s twin-sized bed that only has a fleece blanket for a sheet.
And, instead of remembering the nuances of beauty and sorrow in the last sunset walk you took with a person that you really loved and who loved you back just months before he died in a tragic accidental opiate overdose, you remember rubbing your big toe and index toe together in that twin-sized bed in visceral detail. And you know that the death you just disclosed would probably be too shocking to recount in a single sentence like this ten years ago, but is not so shocking now, because everyone you know knows someone who has died this way, and so what more than that sentence really needs to be said? And so, when you are crying about a mistakenly self-diagnosed case of a common STI in yoga class, of course, you are also simultaneously crying because someone you loved has died too young. These experiences at the intersection of skin, failure, and grief are somehow flattened and compacted in the emotional wilderness of being both a human and an American here in late-stage capitalism wherein lasting intimacy is made to seem impossible if you are somehow defective or ill-equipped in mind or body. The catch, of course, is that we are all made to believe that we are, in so many ways, defective and ill-equipped. So, yes, we will accept scraps of sexual connection in lieu, or perhaps in search of the intimacy we are made to believe we can not possibly deserve.
And instead of remembering all that, you remember concentrating on the pleasant lubricated slipping of the pizza-greased toes. While the whole time this person is breathing in your face and asking you questions like, mmm you’re so wet for me? and you’re all like mmmhm. While you hope that the tone of your voice is convincing enough to at least speed up the whole process.
You also spend about three minutes wishing that texting was an acceptable thing to do with your hands while he is doing his little thrust and occasional breast squeeze things, so that you wouldn’t have to bother with the tedious rhythmic exhalations, and you could just text him that oh yes, he is doing great. And speaking of texting, the horrible part, the truly tragic horrible part, is that you texted him whatcha doin? in the first place. So really what did you expect? What were you allowed to expect?
But honestly, you don’t mean to write about this stuff all the time.
Like, you already get it. We are all just lonely aching specks of dust who have taken up arms against each other and we only pause the chaos to breathe someone else’s milky breath and for just one moment forget how lonely it is to be alive.
You get it.
But, you want to write about dudleya. You want to write about things that grow out of the dirt and exist in clusters that are simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. You want to write stories that do not turn away from the murk of our condition, while also leaving ample room for the possibility of grace. You want to write about things like when a man that you loved and who really loved you back, a man whom you loved the way only a teenager who was raised reading Shakespeare can love, laid with you in your daybed in your mother’s home.
And you were sitting on his stomach, and you had impulsive Girl Interrupted we’re-only-this-young-once bangs hanging over your forehead, and you were staring down at him and you asked him to let you lick his eyeball and he said yes.
You want to write about that.
About how you swear you could taste the whiteness of his eyeball with the tip of your tongue and how it was the closest you’ll ever feel to anyone. And how he just laid there with his trusting chin pointed up and took deep breaths to try and hold still the laughter that was shaking his chest and how your hair hung over his face and he exhaled and you did it. You licked it.
SARAH PANLIBUTON BARNES was once a high school runaway, a Filipina beauty queen, a sword dancer, and an accidental Mandarin translator on the Tibetan plateau. Now, she is a MFA candidate in Creative Writing (Non Fiction) and an archivist pursuing a a simultaneous Masters in Library Sciences at the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared in a book published by the Sad Asian Girls Club, in Panay News, and in Catapult.