R.A. Santos is a Filipina-American artist based out of New York City. Her writing and photography have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Kartika Review, Rio Grande Review, and Cleaver Magazine. R.A’s work explores notions of place and impermanence. She currently works in public affairs with a larger focus on art and activism.
Body in Hands
1. You met him on the street, at fourteen. It was daylight and you were passing around cheap vodka mixed with Sprite in a Poland Spring bottle. Marlene was the one who knew him from a math class; she’d texted because the two of you were bored and he lived close. She offered you a Camel and you took it. He watched as you exhaled, and you felt the hot spotlight of his gaze. The feeling of a man’s eyes on you was a paradox of craving and detesting something all at once. It made you want to hide in your skin.
But he was not a man. He was a skinny, ninth grade boy. And when he said, I love the smell of cigarette smoke, you didn’t notice that his voice cracked, because those were the first words he had spoken to you and not your friend.
People walking on the street stared at the horrific picture of the three of you. Children smoking and drinking in broad daylight. You introduced yourself, and he said, I’m Sam. He watched as you exhaled and you passed him the water bottle.
In a strange way, Sam made you feel comfortable, even in those moments between meeting and knowing. The space between you is fear and love. And even years later, you will be close, but sometimes still exist in silence, like people who were just introduced. He will still sit in your cloud of smoke, breathing in your toxins, never complaining about the closed windows or the graying walls. Still be there just because you asked.
You remember your mother told you once that there are some people who meet and they barely have to speak. They don’t need to think. It happens that fast. It’s like nature, or physics, or a sunny sky after a rainy week. They meet and they never stop meeting. As if they’ve known each other for longer than they’ve lived.
2. Sam knows nothing about you at home and everything about you at school. He knows how much you hate math, and how much you like to take pictures. He knows that you do homework in your free periods and that you are friends with all the security guards because you stay in the library every day until they lock up.
He is like everyone else in that he gets this look on his face when you speak Tagalog on the phone to your mother. He becomes mystified, in awe. Tries not to make it noticeable, but concentrates extra hard on the floor so that he can listen without looking. Hard consonants spin him into a spell.
He sees your body like the rest of them do, too. Your bra size is that much more exaggerated in his mind, your boobs bigger than even the most voluptuous of your classmates. Your waist is somehow smaller than other girls’ waists. Hair that much longer. Lips fuller. Sometimes, at school, you wonder if people really see you or if they just see some old World War II trope. Everyone says your skin is dark but when you compare it to theirs, it looks more similar than different. The New York winter ravages it into the same dry patches. Skyscrapers block the sun from your pores the same as they block it from everyone else’s.
3. Sam holds onto his Jewishness like a lifeline. You never really discuss anything too personal, but it is in the way you categorize your lives that you start to know each other. He speaks about his religion in facts: Purim, Passover, Bar Mitzvahs, Seders. You tell him about Confirmation and Communion, how many beads are on a rosary, and together you count how many invisible lines make up the Sign of the Cross.
4. It was in the way he wanted to know your opinion. It was when he asked for a drawing from your notebook. How he went to your first exhibit at the art school. His face when you talked to other boys. His face when you talked to him. The time when something came up but his phone died, so the next day he told you, I waited for two hours. It was in the four years that you saw each other every day but he never stopped looking. In the way his friends called you exotic and mysterious, but he always said smart and distant.
5. You hate the idea that we could be together, he told you when you were sixteen. This moment you will remember forever. I don’t know what you’re talking about. His breath was the whole contents of an Old English 40 oz. and his temper was carbonated. You know what I’m saying.
One of your friends stumbled over and dragged you away. I’m stealing her! She’s mine! They handed you another beer and tugged at your hands until you were dancing, but you could feel his eyes on your back. Later, when the last song had run its course, you tried to find him to take the train home like always but he’d already left.
6. It was always at night when it would happen and it was always while you were asleep. The only way you knew was, when you’d open your eyes and a figure snuck out the door. Your room was so dark sometimes you felt blind.
7. One day he starts sitting at the opposite end of the room. He has been talking to a girl with wavy hair and long eyelashes. She is nothing at all like you. She is calm and laid back. Likes comic books and is good at science. Her family has cartons of Parliaments that they share, because they smoke openly in their house.
He begins leaving class for ten minutes at a time and coming back with a goofy smile on his face. In the library, they do crosswords together, hunched over the table looking for words they don’t actually care about finding. Someone tells you that they went on a date. Another person says they saw them at the movies. He stops answering your texts, and when you hear her whisper to her friend, Sam asked me out, you feel your whole teenage universe come crashing down. It’s in that moment that everything you ever wanted becomes so clear and then so far. This is how you know.
8. He disappears, gradually, from the parties. Spends time with her indoors. Every Friday and Saturday, you find yourself dressing with the idea in your head: I wonder if he’ll be there? And even if he never is, you repeat this cycle every seven days.
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
I wonder if he’ll be there?
9. In May, the letters come in. Everything becomes about tuition. For some people, the story of school is about serendipity: I felt at home as soon as I stepped on campus. For others, it is about bills: Where can I get the most money?
Everyone has their dream place, but few get in and few can pay. Really, when a decision like this comes around, it is not a question of want and more a question of ability. Financial aid is announced and you go one place. Most people from your school go to the state university. I don’t really have a choice, he tells you. But then he leaves something out. One day you walk into the college counselor’s office, and there is Ana, putting a deposit into an envelope with a familiar address. Suddenly, you feel like you’re watching your whole life ending with one lick of a stamp.
10. At graduation, he says the first thing he’s said to you in months, which is, I wish she and I were going to different places.
And you say the last thing you’ll say to him for months, which is, But you aren’t.
11. Everyone puts up pictures in their dorm rooms, but you wish you could put up your memories. In a perfect world, you would pin that first cloud of smoke with a thumbtack. Your bulletin board would have all the words he’s said to you. Pushpins would anchor knowing grins across classrooms. Blue tacks would connect the walls around you to the sound of two people laughing at once.
12. College has you on the computer constantly. You start taking photography classes and when you’re not looking through a lens, you are looking at a screen. You spend your time editing, manipulating, saturating, animating. Making life into something else. On late nights, you log into instant-messager, hoping for some old friend to be awake and willing to procrastinate alongside you. It becomes clear that his name is always there. That username – a mess of adolescent humor and misspellings – constantly plastered in the space of the screen that Adobe does not fill. It is there every day – popping up at night and staying until the morning. You cannot hear Sam or see Sam but you watch, nonetheless, until Sam becomes just a name, or a word. A screen. A conversation that does not get started. You wonder if he is also looking at his computer and watching for your word to become a message. If somewhere in upstate New York he is also waiting with tunnel vision.
Those minutes on those nights are seas of anxiety. Names on lists glare back like pennies in a tourist wishing well. The minutes are the quietest galaxies where nothing is said and everything is hoped. They make you wonder: where are the words in silence?
13. It happens at night in the middle of a heat wave. You are home for the summer after college and he shows up at Marlene’s apartment. You and some friends have been drinking wine from the bottle all night and lamenting the lack of air conditioning. When he knocks on the door, he finds you gulping down Riesling that still has the price sticker on it. You have not seen each other in at least a year, but when your eyes meet it becomes the most uncontrollable reaction. Mouths turn up into wide smiles. Shoulders relax. I missed you.
The heat wraps around the room like a wool blanket. He takes out rolling papers and makes you cigarette after cigarette. Ana smokes, he explains. Yes, you say. You remember. She doesn’t like to buy them, he says. So I just sort of picked it up.
The night unfolds like a pre-pubescent crush. You sit closer and closer to one another until finally you are both on the couch. A few people have left, but neither of you pays attention and eventually his arm finds its way behind your back. It’s high school all over again. No more computer screens, no blinking cursors waiting for an instantaneous response. Just the two of you, talking. Staring.
Marlene yawns and pulls you and him over to the mattress on the floor. You all lie down and the two of you are awkward at first, but then you find a place between his shoulder and his forearm and it feels too safe to leave. It is not long before Marlene gets bored of the bed and wanders into another room, where the last guest is packing a bowl.
You take the final drag of your cigarette before stubbing it out. This is the closest proximity you’ve ever been to him. It is the line in desire between fantasy and reality. The wine has you drunk, but you start to get nervous thinking about all the times you’ve dreamed of this and all the time he has, too. His body is as bony as it was when you first met him. You are about to comment on this, but then he says, In high school, I liked you. It is an avalanche of upset. You cannot find your words. It becomes ping pong game of secrets:
You were so hard to get close to
I was afraid
It made me hate you
I made a mistake
You are so beautiful
__________ __________ __________
I wish I had known
I wish you had too
It’s too late now
Sometimes, I wonder if it had been you and not her.
I wish we were still kids.
He touches your waist and asks. but doesn’t wait for a response. He kisses you, and in an instant it’s a thousand thoughts spinning out of control inside your head. You are still lying down and his body is on yours. If he were a flavor, he’d be sweet. You have a preteen reaction to his lips: shock, confusion, awe, but most of all, self-consciousness. Panic. The two of you have always been so in tune and it’s been a year but he still knows your feelings when you say, I don’t know what I’m doing. And you still know his feelings when he says, I can’t do this.
15. All it ever takes is a pause, and when that happens, everything is retracted. If the night is in motion, you are the finger that presses Rewind.
Limbs between limbs and
Lips on lips
His hand on your face
Can I kiss you?
In one second, you reverse. Your hand on his chest and your breath on his neck. He gets up a million times and lies back down again. Don’t leave. Tries to kiss you and you pull away. You avoid his eyes, but stare into his shirt. Please stay. You want to be in this place forever.
I feel like I don’t know you at all, he says.
Sometimes it’s like talking to a stranger.
Tell me something,
16. Your body can tell the story of all the things he doesn’t know.
Your feet could say the places they’ve walked. The hallways they’ve wandered. Dirt roads on trips back home. Churches and seminaries. Chapels and convents. The cold linoleum tile of a sterile outpatient ward. How one anti-depressant made all the blood rush to your toes. How another made you feel like you were walking on clouds.
Your thighs speak to the one time, when you were younger, when your dad was still drunk every day. Your thighs know the kaleidoscopic web of burst blood vessels that decorated your legs. Continental-sized bruises coloring your limbs blue, yellow, purple. The place where the other end of the belt hit and the metal latch dug into the muscle so that when you tried to walk away, you limped. The next day was the first time your dad went sober, and your mother slept with her arms wrapped around you for three weeks.
Your wrists still have the shadows of middle school. Soft, pink lines where scar removal cream failed. It would be the story of pocketed XACT-O knives from the art supply closet. The sting of your mother’s tears as they fell into open wounds.
The torso holds memories of skin on bone. An upper body that looked like a harp, every rib a string to be plucked. Anyone who got close enough could hear the symphony of an empty stomach. The rumbling of gas and air as you digested vacant space. Your concave gut singing the song of six years spent chewing gum. Of losing vision when you stood. Hair falling out. Stripping naked every morning on a scale full of hope. Sometimes, your heart might say, the sound of speeding up whenever Sam was close.
But your breasts could tell the most. They are oversized and full, perfectly formed in acute post-puberty. Even now he looks at them, like they all did in high school, but if he really saw them he’d find tiny white stretch marks that trace lines along the undersides of each breast. They are like rings on a tree trunk: they tell you about years. This one is 2001 and you’re twelve, and your chest inflates too quickly for your skin, so as they grow, they leave marks. This one is 2002 and the tissue swells, overflows until you cage them in underwire. Men stare at you on the street, calling, Nice tits. Shouting, I’ll show you what a real man feels like. This one is 2003 and your uncle lives with you. The lines are a young body in old hands. They are the things you can’t say.
17. The next week becomes a series of messages written but not sent. It is a full Drafts folder and an empty Inbox.
On Tuesday you write, I was too drunk. And on Wednesday you try, Can we talk? At dinner with your parents on Thursday, you type under the table, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Friday night, Marlene invites you to the bar where she works. There might be a job opening up and you’ve been looking for extra hours. It’s a cigar joint right next to that famous steakhouse in Williamsburg, so it’s not difficult to imagine their clientele. The tips are unbelievable, Marlene told you. All I have to do is light their cigars and laugh at their shitty jokes. Wear heels and put on some makeup. The one time you’d worked as a hostess, you got fired because you refused to flirt. That’s dumb, you told your boss. That’s the job, she told you.
The bar is not very big and you show up wearing both heels and makeup. You have a sheer nude shirt on and it contrasts against your skin, which is so yellow in the winter but so brown as soon as the sun comes out. Marlene told you to wear the black skirt, so that is what you have on, and while you walk from the train to the subway you hear the anonymous echoes of men’s thoughts escaping their mouths.
Chinita, you are so fine.
Hey Baby, I like how you look.
I could watch you all day long.
Mami, I wanna know your body.
Come on. Give me a smile.
Marlene greets you the way she greets the businessmen who filter out of the restaurant and into the bar. She grins and runs a hand through her hair. Good evening, welcome to Velvet. A tall, handsome man comes up behind her. He has evenly-tanned skin and a shaved head. No more than forty, you think. Maybe forty-one. He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and his upper body is sculpted with the dedication of an obsessive vanity. You know him already. He is Marlene’s boss, Phillip. You like Phillip because he played along when you said, I’m twenty-three, I promise, and he let you drink for free since, Marlene’s his girl.
So, you down for the job? he asks. His eyes scan up and down your body, lids lifting and falling as he goes from head to waist to hips to soles. You’d be great. I could train you after we close.
18. After hours, the bar is quiet and small. You sit on a stool and he shows you how to light a cigar. Use the tallest flame, he explains. Rotate it like this.
Together you go through a bottle of red wine as you go over time sheets. You’re better than Marlene, he says. She’s the best hostess, but that’s all she is. You are something else. It is not very clear what he means by this, but with recent events, you take it as a compliment. He invites you to his apartment upstairs for a cigar, and then a joint. Smoke with him and talk to him. Think, this will be good. Think, a job will distract me.
When you look down to stub out the cigar, he takes your face in his hands and kisses you. I’m nineteen, you say. That’s fine, he says. You take a
second to pause and consider it, and even though that’s not what you came for, you realize, like a little girl, that this is an opportunity. Okay, just for practice. The fortyyear-old man looks at you and laughs. What the fuck? So you say, I don’t have a lot of experience, as if that is a logical argument.
But even if you are a prude who’s been lost in her own fantasies, the first time you realize the way a kiss can escalate is always a shock. It starts with you thinking, I’m going to practice making out, and it becomes your legs on either side of him. Heart rates go up and each breath becomes a gulp. Phillip carries you up the stairs and onto his bed. It is very dark in the room. He starts at your feet and moves his hand up your thighs. Kisses your stomach, then your ribs. He pins your wrists above your head. Unbuttons your shirt. Unclasps your bra. With both hands, he touches your breasts.
Your body can tell the story of all the things Sam doesn’t know.
Being naked like this is a disorienting experience. It’s like being an adult but feeling like a kid. Phillip is the farthest thing from a boy; he is a man, and now the story has become an old body in young hands.
When he spreads your legs, you let him. But as soon as he touches you, your nerve endings die. You go numb. Cold. It’s like something switched. As if you are floating somewhere above yourself. You’ve heard about this kind of thing happening, but you didn’t know it would be so literal.
There is no feeling, but there is movement. At that moment, he is the most alive person you have ever seen. There is a tangible difference between you. He keeps looking at you but you look away. He is here and you are somewhere else. Finally, you say, I’m tired, and move to the edge. On your side now, you feel his arms around your waist. Hear his voice in your ear, Goodnight, Yana. Soft strands of chest hair against your back. His breath on your neck. You want to cry and when it seems like he’s fallen asleep, you crawl out of Phillip’s bed and cover your body with blankets. At four in the morning, you sit on the floor of a man’s room, and you write a note to a boy.
19. Years later, in college, you stand at the back of the crowd for an event led by a women’s group. It has been months since you’ve even thought about Sam. Messages were, as always, never sent. Words never spoken. And when you returned to school, you decided, chance missed. Sam still wrote to you now and then. Told you things about him and Ana. You talked about your work, the photo thesis you’d been planning. I’m glad you kept up with it, he said. I remember your stuff from school.
By now, you have met someone else and it has been the greatest revelation because, in some way, you never thought it would be possible. He is the first person to make you think, maybe that wasn’t it, and his words and his thoughts consume you like the strongest gust of wind. The first night you spent together, he pointed to the black-and-white blow-up on your wall and smiled when he said, That’s my favorite picture.
When he looked at you, he saw your eyes before anything else. In the morning, you didn’t even realize that it was your first morning with anyone. Sunlight from the window washed your bodies in honesty and every piece of you that was ever shrouded in darkness or quiet or creams was suddenly there, but you kissed him with closed eyes and you couldn’t see the light, all you could do was feel it.
And yet, six months later and here you are again. Behind a sea of people with him at least one hundred bodies away from you, standing at the front, holding the hand of a girl whom, after a moment of silence, takes the stage to say the words that many other girls before her have said this night. The event takes place in the dark, and the only ones speaking are the women at the podium, so that the rest of you stand to listen in a hush, faces lit by candles. It is beautiful, really. It is tasteful, really.
When you lost your voice was when you lost your nerves, the second you were touched but not looked at. You were in bed with him and it happened again, just like you remembered it did with Phillip, just like it did with Sam. The next day, your voice box was empty, and sitting in class with him became an out-of-body experience of looking at your hands shaking, legs jerking, hairs standing up and pores brimming over with a cold, nervous sweat. It became painful to watch yourself, and he said the same things that Sam did. He said, communication and closeness. Why won’t you talk to me and Say something. Say anything.
His new girlfriend is standing at the podium and her voice is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard. She is amplified by the supersonic power of the microphone before her, and she says the words, keeps saying the words, that you can never seem to say.
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ ,
they go on forever
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ .
as if she’s said them before and she’ll say them again
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _______________________________________ _____________ ! _____________ _____________
and you listen in the quietest galaxy of a crowd in tears
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ ?
you watch as he goes up to hold her when she starts to cry, too
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________, _____________ _____________ _____________
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ .
my body can tell the story of all the things She will always know
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ _____________ _____________ _____________
____________ _____________ _____________ _____________ __________________________ _____________ , _____________ _____________ _____________ .
where are the words in silence