“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” ~Pablo Neruda
It was mid-July in New York City. The subway was crowded, and my aunt and I were squeezed together. No air and the stuffy, awful smell of the crowded subway car. I was wearing my favorite lilac-colored tank top and white shorts. My legs were tanned from the California sunshine, boogie boarding in the ocean, Santa Monica beaches, Hawaiian Tropics suntanning oil, and the scent of coconut. I wore a necklace of pop beads in cherry red. My lips were slick with Bonne Bell “Dr. Pepper” lip gloss, my hair long and brown and blonde from the sun. Men were sitting across from me, in suits, carrying briefcases. Summer, 1983. I had just turned thirteen.
My breasts were swelling like the buds of camellias that show their pale pink petals through the green bud. My arms, long, and legs, long, hair sun-streaked to the middle of my back, blonde feathers nearly platinum. My eyes alive and sparkling, newly opened and poured into my irises, pop bottle of Coca Cola color, fizzing along the city, watching all the men come in and out of the subway. My thighs were sticking to the hard plastic of the seat, sweat and humidity. My thighs, untouched by men’s hands. My thighs, the soft skin of a girl of thirteen. My eyes full of carbonated dreams, of Monet’s pond, of light in the trees, of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. My eyes that slurried along the sidewalks of Manhattan, looking for something, listening to the buildings, taxis, shop signs and restaurant signs, the many sounds and smells of New York City in the summertime.
“Stop it,” nudges my beautiful aunt. Her elbow dug into my side. She is an opera singer, a Tosca, dark brown hair, musky eyes, and olive skin. She looks like a Flamenco dancer, a Spanish beauty, Italian diva. She looks beautiful even though she wears little makeup and never flaunts her looks. She has the same last name as I do, my mother’s sister, the great beauty. She sings Puccini arias, lives in a 5th story walk up in the West 80′s. We take the subway from my art school.
“Stop what?” I ask. She glares at me through the side of her eyes, magnetic slits of feminine knowledge, only a sliver is revealed.
“You know what.”
I pause, uncertain. My belly drops inside like a pendulum falling from the cogs and rhythms of the inner workings, and, with the face of a clock, I ask again, “Stop what?” But, time continues, and I’m not stopping. I was staring at the man across from me in the subway, giving him a sly smile, a Mona Lisa smile. My lips were barely turned upwards with their glossy pout. My eyes, my Coca Cola bubbling eyes, eyes that through generations told fortunes and tales, weaving a magic on their very own, whispering little stories into the man across from me, tempting him to find out what legends the women in my family have created with their tanned gypsy arms, bangles of gold and silver, glimmering and jingling with the sounds of laughter, what the women in my family have done with men like him. I smiled, a long and slippery smile, as my mouth has never tasted a man like him. My mouth had not yet opened to the kiss of a man.
I had written poetry with a calligraphy pen in the apartment while my aunt practiced her Puccini Vissi d’arte and sang as Floria Tosca. We had Zabar’s croissants in white wax paper bags, hard salami, and slices of cheese. My beautiful aunt watched me write and told me there are men in this city who would steal me away. Not to stare at men like that. How I looked at that man on the subway, it was dangerous. She told me she knew I was growing up, and I needed to learn that my body was so beautiful that men would take me and so I had to learn how to walk as if I were in a hurry, look down on the sidewalk, walk fast. My beautiful aunt gave me Rilke’s writings to read and books full of Pablo Neruda’s poetry.
“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” ~Pablo Neruda
I learned how boys liked to feel my body, put their hungry and curious fingers under my skirt, pulling aside my cotton panties, searching for the softest part of my female body, my yearning and budding body, so alive with the hum of cicadas in the August evening. It was summertime along the Mississippi River. The kudzu wrapped around the trees and the musk of cotton oil hung heavy. I was a girl of thirteen.
We moved from sunny California to the Deep South along the winding river that rambled down to the Delta, the mouth of the Gulf. She was a river that I knew well, and I was much like her, wanton and restless, muddy. I had boys touch me and felt their hot breath on my neck, their young pink tongues exploring my ear. Kissing me, in the back of cars in the skating rink parking lot.
My girlfriend showed me how to go ridin’ and cruise with the boys in their daddy’s cars. Oldsmobiles with velour interiors, music on the radio. We ate nachos covered in plastic orange cheese, salty tortilla chips on our fingers. We licked the tips of them and got into the car with the two boys, older, almost eighteen. We made out in the back seat, the boy I liked named after his daddy. He was sweet and Southern, syrupy vowels and tongue running down my neck like the river’s trail. He wrote me love letters and dedicated slow songs at the roller rink. We skated together in the dim light, Luther Vandross love songs and to Heatwave’s Always and Forever.
“…like the breasts of the young girl, so young before the immensity of what is to come.” ~Marguerite Duras
Soon I moved to Memphis and that older boy drove through cotton fields to my home, wrote me love letters, played vinyls on my record player, dedicating songs while kissing me on the couch. Our mouths searched for the shape of each other’s, and his hands traveled along my shoulders and arms and down along my jeans until he discovered how to unbutton and unzip while caressing. Soon we were sneaking off into the car, telling my mother we were going to get some ice cream. Back seat kisses and the radio. Smell of oily night in the South. The heat was thick with steamed up car windows. His hands were underneath my bra, down my panties. Sticky with longing, his pants stayed on. His hardness I never knew, but his fingers were wet with my almost ripe desire.
“I hunger for your sleek laugh and your hands the color of a furious harvest. I want to eat the sunbeams flaring in your beauty.” ~ Pablo Neruda
Santa Monica Beach, 1984. I wore a white bikini and nothing else but flip flops and pink toenail polish. I was lean and tan, walking the boardwalk, going to visit an Israeli boy of nineteen that worked in the market. He came out as I stood before the window.
The sun was high and the sand was still in between my toes. I was swimming in the ocean, hair tangled like seaweed, scent of wakame and salt. He wrapped his arms boldly around my waist, pulling me close, kissing me on the mouth. My aunt, my beautiful aunt, walked behind me. She was watching me kiss the Israeli boy. She herself, with so many lovers, so many men that would do anything for my beautiful auntie, she herself knew what she could not stop. She could not stop me from kissing boys on the boardwalk, wearing only a small amount of fabric strung together. I was smiling, happy. He was holding my hand, and, forgetting my aunt was with me, I ran with him, down to the sand. We walked to the water, kissed hungrily, tasted each other’s mouths like tasting open papayas in the sun, with the juice of pleasure on our lips, we laughed and kissed. It was a moment of girlhood into womanhood. You could smell my blossoming with your eyes.
“Very early in my life it was too late.” ~ Marguerite Duras
So I let him climb through my window. Scent of gardenia coming from the garden. Crickets and night, warm summer air. June, 1984. I was fourteen. His body is heavy upon mine. He presses into me, and I gasp, clutching his hips. My sex is as soft as fruit, you can’t force it to ripen, he’s almost inside of me, it’s too much. He whispers, “Is it hurting you?” but it’s not pain I’m feeling, just aching, the opening of my body. And I learned to open and offer my body, for lips to taste without hesitation, without pause, just an erect and warm penis sliding inside of me for the first time. I was free. I felt my body realize its true essence that night into dawn and after a hot bath in the early morning light. My body felt different, lighter. It was a woman’s body.
I wore my hair in the same style, but it looked changed. There was something in my eyes that changed, too. The light in them was green-gold and held shadows and stories. The way I looked at men with a sideways smile was something too late to change. It could not be undone. What my aunt saw in my eyes, in the sway of my young hips, was something she knew would come. It would end my childhood and begin my story, and whatever she was afraid of in that change was tidal and dark, something sinewy-like and briny, something mysterious and powerful, something altogether inevitable. Our gypsy smiles and flashing eyes came across the ocean from lands where our ancestors rode horses, drank smoky black tea leaves soaked in boiling water, told lies and stole things that were precious and sold things for more than they were worth. We came from tents and sang out with our hearts. Our hearts that were bigger than the sky and full of tears, hearts of women that drank to laugh at the men that loved them. Hearts of women like me, what we don’t say is the loudest song of our souls.
With a heart of a gypsy, I smile at the men as I walk upon the stage, naked. Slow, slow, hip, hip. Heel, sway, heel, sway. Wearing my smile, giving the men surrounding the stage the glance I gave as a girl on the New York City subway.