My body used to be a cage.
I used to claw and worm and wriggle and starve myself to fit through its bars.
Because the real me was trapped inside. Desperate. Aching. Lonely. Fearful.
I was angry that my huge, bright spirit had to be contained within such a simple, limited form—and I didn’t accept these limitations, so I fought them.
I fought them for years. I fought with everyone around me too—it was their fault after all; their fault that I was too big to belong.
Because not all of us can be small and tiny and delicate, even though society wants women like this. No, some women are bossy and domineering and crude and loud and hilarious and, by default, manly.
And men are expected to be big and bright—actually, men are held within cages when they aren’t big enough—but I was a woman, and I was supposed to play the part. And so I did.
I threw away my careful, mother-packed brown sack lunches in the ugly, grey trash bins in the junior high cafeteria. Or I kept them on the top shelf of my locker until I had a week or two’s worth of rotted lunches and pitched them all at once, somewhere quickly and quietly.
And I needed to be quiet.
Not loud. Not boisterous. Certainly not unstoppable.
So I stopped myself first. (Which gave me a fictitiously dangerous semblance of control.)
I—so out of control, however—would be sent to the school nurse’s office to lie on the cold, hard “bed” with horribly low-count sheets because I was too emaciated to have the energy to sit through class; nearly passing out (so out of control was I).
I went from a cheerful, silly, large girl to a frightened, tiny mouse—not a person at all, much less a girl growing into a lady.
But I was never physically large. Sure, I was chubby enough to be picked on by peers. I loved food enough to not understand the children who got up from the white Formica tables to throw away their mother’s deserts.
I read my mother’s hand-written I love you notes every day; stashed inside those careful brown sacked lunches. I collected the Suzy’s Zoo stickers—inside too—within a photo album, behind clear cellophane.
And I felt loved. But I knew I was too big for people besides my loving mom.
Because I saw the pretty, polished things that I was supposed to be.
I already knew movie starlets with sweet, low voices and coquettish, comely charms.
I knew that I wasn’t a girl, because girls were supposed to be nothing like me.
But then I grew angry. I became livid. Because I was a woman. Suddenly and overnight. The starvation didn’t stop my breasts—entirely. It didn’t stop my hips from widening and my heart from expanding in its need for love that was different than my mother’s.
I hated the boys I went to school with because they were allowed to be big and brash and happy. They were encouraged. They didn’t have to shrivel up and whither in order to fit within another’s deplorable pleas to be better than you when they really weren’t.
So I shouted. I screamed. I grew. And I grew. And I breathed fire breath. Until I met him.
He saw me on the front porch and around him—from that first instance of awareness—I knew, once more, that I was not a man, but a woman with girth.
Around him I was huge—and he let me be. Because he, too, was big enough to not have to squash me underneath his own smallness.
So he slipped me the key, between the bars that had contained me for many, many years. I gingerly opened the door and I wouldn’t come out. He waited patiently on the other side, sticking his hand in to hold my tiny, gaunt one.
He would occasionally crawl inside my bed, and bury himself underneath my coarse, starched covers; sleeping on that cold, hard “bed” with me, so that I might not have to sleep alone anymore.
And he lured me out—with the prospect that I didn’t have to be invisible anymore. He could see me—and that was enough.
We walked through the high school hallways together and I, for awhile, was his muted shadow; the one he laughed with and played with and fed, but that others couldn’t see.
His firm, young man’s hands were electric paddles that restarted my flatlining chest.
His lips were Snow White’s kiss—only I would never have to be a Snow White.
I would never have to be fair and cute. Or quiet. Or tiny. Ever again.
My body used to be my cage. Until I outgrew it.
I held onto that cage for sometime. I would peer inside and want to visit it again and again, for stays of different lengths. Of course, I had to be darling Alice and eat the right things in order to fit back through that tiny door.
But every time, I would hear a knock on the hollow metaled bars and finally one day I couldn’t fit back through the door anymore. No matter how hard I tried—because I didn’t want to anymore. Because I wasn’t angry anymore. And I wasn’t sad either.
No, I was, for the first time, able to understand that being caged wasn’t my place. I didn’t belong there. I never had.
I’d been used. I’d been wronged. I’d been treated reprehensibly—by myself.
And, yes, he’d given me the key to seeing myself through the eyes of love, but I couldn’t live behind his glasses. (He wears a different prescription.)
Instead, I had to accept my limitations. I had to accept that I might never have 20/20 vision. I had to become okay with my largeness. I had to own, in short, my voice. If I didn’t, who would?
He left me. Several times, he left me.
He couldn’t keep crawling into my bed. The sheets scratched his tender skin, and my caged heart—so perfectly quiet; so perfectly cold—froze him.
And he realized he couldn’t free me; that all he could do was be locked up with me—and he didn’t want to live inside of a cage.
Because he was too big and he knew it.
He left, but he came back, for stays of different lengths.
We didn’t know it then, yet inside of that jail cell we had become chained together, and we would throw the keys at each other so hard that we had scars, but, no matter what, we would still wind up chained.
My body is a cage I’ll be locked in forever, until my death.
My body is not my cage, though—it’s my home.
As it turns out, all I needed were some softer sheets, a few mirrors and permission from my jailer to visit the grounds from time to time.
I’m my own jailer; I’m my own master, too.
And, like him, I was too big to fit inside the one that society had placed me, after I was swaddled in pink and handed to my mother.
So I threw it away. (Honestly, I burned it—and I tattooed a blue phoenix on the body that rose from those once-jailed ashes.)
And then he and I were handed a pretty, tiny bundle—wrapped up in pink; while I kept these pink sheets for her, I painted her walls blue.
(Oh and I’m handing you the key. And when you get out, promise me to burn your cage and give this key to the next caged girl, until we are all standing together amongst the burning smell of metal, big loud and free.)
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: courtesy of the author