Exposure

by Lauren Iarussi

She stood there—a sterile, white lab coat clutching her clipboard, pursing her lips and toying with her pen. I stood there in a scratchy, white bathrobe—arms crossed as a rather ineffective shield between me and her. She studied the clipboard for quite a while. I saw her eyebrows kind of crunch together at one point. She finally looked up over the top of her black-rimmed glasses, and we just stood there face-to-face—like some old western movie. I stared at her. She stared at me.

“Drop the bathrobe and hold your arms out to your side. When I tell you, turn around.”

It was one of those moments in my life when I would have been perfectly content with the earth opening beneath my feet and swallowing me whole. Complete blackness would have been preferred to that stark, fluorescent whiteness. Exposure. That’s the word. I was an over-exposed photograph—the kind that hurts your eyes and blurs the picture, except that every detail was on display for her observation. Robotically, I dropped the robe and held out my arms. My chest tightened and my throat constricted. The oxygen seemed to leave the room. I don’t think anyone had seen me that naked since—well, since then. Between her intermittent staring and scribbling of notes, I caught a subtle, yet undisguisable, grimace. She was…disgusted? Disturbed? I didn’t know. What I did know was that I never wanted to be seen naked again—not after that day.

So there I stood, trying to psychoanalyze myself. I tried to remember a time when my body wasn’t a source of angst—when it was purely just a house for my soul. I traced my steps back through my life, my mind drifting to a memory of my mom taking me to a water park. It was a bright summer day, but it was a warm, enjoyable kind of bright—not the sickening bright-white of that god-forsaken room. I was wearing a pink bathing suit and waiting for my turn to go down the slide when a boy approached me, stopped, and stared at me. His eyes examined my body like he was trying to reach some kind of conclusion. Then he said, “Your thighs are fat,” and ran away. And then I looked down at my thighs and examined my own appearance for the very first time. They are? I thought. Looking around at the other girls, I spotted one with skinny legs. I guess they’re supposed to look like hers.

“Turn around,” Lab Coat said. I did.

Columna 2 by Annae de Font Reaulx

Columna 2 by Annae de Font Reaulx

My mind drifted again, which happened often, and for which I was often scolded—Jane’s head is always in the clouds…Hello…Earth to Jane. Pay attention! People got annoyed with me on a good day and pissed at me on a bad day. I couldn’t really help it, though. I didn’t know I had spaced out until I was already gone. And so I was gone—gone from the starch room and the scrutinizing eyes of Lab Coat. I was back at home sitting at the dining table with my step-dad. My real dad wasn’t around. My mom and I loved to bake together and we had made peanut butter balls. So I sat there eating a peanut butter ball and he said, “Don’t eat too many, or people will start calling you Thunder Thighs. You’ll be walking down the sidewalk, and instead of calling you Jane, they’ll call you Thunder Thighs.” He laughed. I didn’t. My mom came in the room, but she didn’t say anything about his joking. She never did.

Lab Coat said I could put my clothes back on. She might have said it twice. I’d never been more relieved to pull a baggy t-shirt over my head.

The next few days consisted of meeting all the other crazies and attending a bunch of group therapy sessions where people talked about their crappy lives. Blonde Pretty talked about sex a lot. She wasn’t allowed to have her tongue ring in, so she broke off one of the teeth from a red comb and stuck it in there so the hole wouldn’t close up. She was always toying with it and looking seductively at the boys, who appreciated the entertainment. Creep leered at the girls and made crude remarks. Blonde Pretty was flattered by his comments. I just wished he would stop looking at me. Then there was the girl who wore sweatshirts to hide the tapestry of scars on her forearms, and the guy who constantly muttered to himself that people were coming to get him. He dragged his mattress into the hallway at night, refusing to sleep in his room because he was convinced that there were demons in there. I began to wonder if he saw reality and we were the blind ones.

My roommate was a big, black girl who had a three-year-old son. She’d been in there for a couple months, and she didn’t seem to miss her kid, but then things aren’t always what they seem. Initially, I was afraid of her. It’s not that I was racist; it’s just that the big black girls on my bus route had always called me a cunt and threatened to beat me up. She turned out to be cool, though. When Creep snuck into our room at midnight (the Scrubs weren’t very observant) and asked me for sex, I wasn’t sure what to do. I must’ve spaced out, but she told him to get lost, and he did. He quit making his comments after that. She turned out to be sort of an everyday hero.

One day we were allowed to go outside, which meant that we left our floor and took the elevator downstairs. We had to walk through the adult corridor to get outside, which had a chilling effect that made my stomach feel hollow and twisted. Men and women stood like zombies, staring vacantly, drooling, or talking to people who didn’t exist. I wondered if this was my future—if this was the result of pain left unchecked to wreak havoc on the mind—if this was the result of psychoanalyzing your memories but never being able to put the puzzle pieces together. Next time we were allowed to go outside I asked if I could stay in my room, and they said I could.

I looked out the window of my room, glad to be alone. My family had delivered a bouquet of flowers, which sat wilting on the table next to me. I recognized my mom’s handwriting on the card. We’re praying for you. I figured she must have been relieved to have a break from me. At least when I was in there, she didn’t have to worry about locking up the scissors and the razors. She didn’t have to worry about me running away, and she didn’t have to stay up all night with the cops, sobbing because she didn’t know if I was still alive. I knew I gave her hell. I knew I had made her life miserable over those past few months. I didn’t know what to do with the monster inside of me or why it was even there. I half-expected that if I were to vomit, it would fly up through my esophagus and land in the toilet, squealing and writhing.

Later that day I had my first one-on-one meeting with a psychologist. She was a plump, gray-haired lady who dressed monochromatically and spoke to me kind of like the government workers at the post office talk to people—like monotone robots that are sick of dealing with people all day and just want you out of their face. She just sat there with her clipboard and her glasses. I swore they hid behind those things. Put the damn clipboard down and face me like a man. That would’ve been cool to say, I thought—even cooler if she were actually a man, but whatever. She asked me about my symptoms and why I was in the hospital. Shouldn’t they already know this stuff? Shouldn’t it be written somewhere on the other side of that stupid clipboard? She asked me if I was sexually active.

“No. Well…not now.”

“When were you last sexually active?”

“Well…when I was eight. But I don’t know if you count that.”

“Eight years old?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me about that.”

I hadn’t told anyone ever, except one of my friends one time. We were sitting on the Metro bus on the way to the mall and I looked up at one of the ads. It read: VIRGIN. My friend asked me if I was a virgin. No, are you? I don’t remember what she said. I just remember how weird it felt to say it out loud. I read an article in YM Magazine one time about a girl who lost her virginity, and when she told her mom, she practically disowned her and wouldn’t talk to her. It was cool to brag to your friends about losing your virginity. It was dangerous to tell your parents.

“Jane, can you tell me about that?” She repeated herself.

“Um…what do you want to know?”

“Who had sex with you?”

“Some boys in the neighborhood.”

“Did they force you?”

“No.”

“Were they older than you?”

“One of them was.”

She kept going and going with the questions. They were invasive and awkward. I felt naked. It felt like I was standing in front of Lab Coat again and my throat was closing up. For some reason, I was crying. I wasn’t even sure when I had started crying. I just suddenly realized I was—tears just streaming down my face right there in front of Plump Clipboard. I told her things that had been shoved down and locked away for the past six years. Maybe those were the things that kept feeding that monster in my stomach that was now scratching, trying to claw its way out from the inside.

I told her everything. My friend, Matt, was my age, but he had a friend who was older. His name was James and he even had a little mustache. He told me he liked me and he thought I was cute. One day I knew James would be coming over to Matt’s house again. I went to my closet and changed my outfit; I picked out a baseball cap and some pink, polka-dotted leggings, and wondered if he would think my thighs looked fat.

Later, I was in Matt’s basement with James and another boy. He didn’t say anything about my thighs, but he grabbed my hat and threw it across the room because he said it looked stupid. Matt’s parents thought we went down there to play—and we did. We played House. James and the other boys took turns being the daddy and I was the mommy. First, James taught me how to French kiss. He told me he loved me, and I was in love with him. Then he showed me his privates. He had hair down there, which Matt thought was cool and I thought was kind of gross. He took off my clothes and taught the younger boys how to touch me and they practiced on me. None of them said my thighs were fat. Every time James came over, I got excited because I got to see the boy who loved me.

I didn’t see James again until the sixth grade. He was a few grades above me. I saw him in the halls, but he didn’t recognize me. I asked Matt to give him a note asking him to be my boyfriend again, but he ignored me.

“Did he ever penetrate you?” Plump Clipboard asked. The Question slithered up my spine, around my neck, and into my ears. It nested in my mind and made its permanent home.

“I don’t think so,” I heard myself say.

Her clipboard was on her lap now.

“Honey, you didn’t have sex. You didn’t lose your virginity. You were molested. You were a victim of abuse.”

I stared at her, slowly letting her words sink in. I’d heard the word molested before but I’d never thought of it in relation to myself. Molesting was something old, creepy guys did to little girls—like the old pervert who asked my friend to give him a hand job when she was four years old. James wasn’t an old man, and he didn’t force me. I did it willingly. I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I craved his touch, which made me all the more revolting.

“He manipulated you, and he might be doing it to other girls. Would you like to press charges against him?” she asked.

“Press charges? Like, see him in a courtroom and all that?”

“Yes.”

“No way,” I said. I couldn’t stand exposed in front of a room full of people and tell them all the nauseating things I had just told her—all the things I had done without even being forced. It would be a courtroom full of fluorescent lights and Lab Coats, staring, probing…judging. For the first time, I wished he had forced and beaten me—then I could truly believe I was a victim and I wasn’t just a dirty little child-whore.

Slowly, I began to understand how that writhing monster within me was conceived. The psychologist explained a lot of stuff. My dad wasn’t around; I sought male attention, blah, blah, blah. Somehow all of that had resulted in me standing over the bathtub one day taking a razor to my thighs—one slash for everything I had ever done wrong and for every boy who’d ever dumped me or told me I was ugly or pretty and watching the blood trickle down the drain. And before I knew it I was at the White Hospital being examined by Lab Coat, who documented every cut and scar on that damn clipboard. I was so sick of seeing the back side of those clipboards.

They called my parents to come to the hospital. I had to tell them. Mom cried and my step-dad said he wanted to kill those boys. I finished my freshman year of high school at home with a tutor and then went to live with my real dad for a year, which turned out to be a bit of a flop, but at least I was out of the White Hospital. I read in the newspaper that Creep raped a girl after I’d left. I wondered if it was Blonde Pretty.

I turned thirty this year, and I’m still learning how to love myself. I found a man who loves me—for real—and I don’t know how to explain to him why I’d rather hide than be seen, or why sometimes when he looks at me my chest tightens, my throat constricts, and the oxygen seems to leave the room. Yes, I feel pain sometimes, but at least I still feel. At least I’m not in the adult corridor, a drooling, vacant, shell.  I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.

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