The Vocabulary of Space Travel
The Vocabulary of Space Travel
A PRIDE MONTH Creative Nonfiction Piece by Mary Liza Hartong
My mother didn’t know the word for sex. She had two expressions to convey the idea of it—“doin’ the big nasty” and “tryin’ to start a family”—and even these she rarely spoke aloud, as if their utterance alone could knock up one of her daughters.
Naturally, we grew up in a household devoid of the talk. The embarrassed shrug was the closest we got to sexual education. I’m not sure if this was because we were a Southern family, a modest family, or a repressed family. All I know is that my mother and I only had one conversation on the topic before I left for college and it was only slightly more informative than the shrug.
It was a Sunday afternoon. We were making flocks and flocks of shepherd’s pies, one for us and a dozen others for elderly relatives with names like Uncle Bubba and ailments like peripheral neuropathy. Apronned backs turned away from each other, my mother asked me if I’d like to get on birth control.
“I asked your sisters before they went to college. Corinne said yes and Graham said she was flattered, but no. How about you?”
“I guess,” I replied.
Corinne, the cutest of us, always had boyfriends. Hoodied young men who played lacrosse and got decent grades were constantly dropping her off at night. As long as they didn’t linger too long in the driveway they were allowed to keep picking her up and dropping her off. Nobody worried too much about the in between.
Graham, on the converse, had never had a boyfriend, nor really seemed to want one. She managed two sports teams and spent the rest of her time hunched over jigsaw puzzles that she’d start in the thoroughfares of our home despite everyone’s protests. I can still remember stepping over a half-completed rendition of the Statue of Liberty on my way to the pantry and thinking, “Why here?”
I was much younger than the pair of them and had thus far found boys too daft and too freckled to touch. My mother worried when I stopped wanting to ask them to dances—her “no date, no dress” rule stung enough to encourage reform—but she never suspected anything out of the ordinary. So, as she mashed the potatoes and I attended to the peas and carrots, she assumed that eventually I would need to prevent pregnancy and that, having navigated the topic, our conversation was over.
“I was wondering,” I paused to corral my words, “How do you know when you want to?”
Our backs were still turned, so I don’t know if she bristled or just kept stirring. She’s the kind of woman who can stir through just about anything.
“Well, you might be dating someone.”
“And you might feel…urges.”
“And you’d have to decide whether to follow those urges.”
“Do what you prefer. Don’t be a fool, but do what you prefer.”
This wasn’t helpful to me in the least, but I knew I was too embarrassed to broach the topic with anyone else in the family. Graham could tell me about puzzles but not how parts fit. Corinne would worry I’d grown up too fast. And I’ve yet to meet a girl who wants to talk to her father about these types of things.
Orientation came and went. By mistake I signed up for a senior seminar on the texts of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. Only now, as a full-grown lesbian, can I appreciate the beauty of my nineteen-year-old self sitting through lectures about queer theory while still believing I liked the stocky, side-burned rugby player across the table. One afternoon he caught me in the hallway.
“Mary Liza, right?”
“Do you have a copy of To the Lighthouse?”
Of course, I did. It was due for class on Monday and, nervous rabbit reader that I am, I’d finished it a week in advance.
“Why do you ask?”
“Could I borrow it over the weekend?”
“You’re the best,” he said, one hand resting like a question on my sweatered shoulder.
“Don’t dog ear it,” I yelled after him as he disappeared into the stairwell.
I knew, even in my unsexed state, that he was not leading me to the lighthouse but to the bedroom.
He never returned the book.
“Just so we’re clear, I’m never going to see your penis,” I said from underneath him. We’d been seeing each other for a few weeks, trading kisses in his dorm room, and I felt, from the pressure in his khakis, that it was time to break the news.
“I don’t want to see it.”
“You don’t want to see it?”
“I’d rather not.”
The real answer was that my sister once showed me a picture of a penis on the computer and I mistook it for a rocket ship, which not only scarred me for life but also dashed any hopes of being an astronaut. I cannot ride out of earth’s atmosphere in a giant penis, you understand. I just can’t.
“Okay,” he said, “no problem,” but I could always tell he wanted me to be more interested in it because after that he started peppering our conversations with quips like, “You look so pretty in that dress you’re making me hard. Here, feel!”
I’d cough up polite, but muffled, "no thank yous" as though I were a homeowner declining the advances of a Jehovah’s Witness at her door. I knew my excuses had a shelf life.
“Do you want to take your shirt off?” he asked one night.
As I peeled the pink turtleneck off of my body I felt like I was peeling off a layer of my skin, too.
“I’m not a floozy,” I said.
Leave it to the English major to use the word floozy in a sexual situation.
Then why did I feel like one?
I don’t know why I stayed there. What I do remember is how I gradually lost clothes until I was only wearing my socks and he was still fully clothed due to my penis embargo. I watched as he touched me, as he checked his phone, as he logged onto Facebook, as he touched me again. Around two in the morning he told me he was going to hang out with some friends who were visiting. Who visits at two in the morning? I wanted to ask.
“You can stay here and wait for me,” he said.
Suddenly, I wanted so much more clothing on than just my socks. I wanted little mice to dress me, like in Cinderella, and I wanted the fairy godmother to make the clock strike noon, yesterday, so that I wouldn’t be there.
Make me in class, I begged the invisible mice. Make me in trouble, in hell, in Ohio, anywhere but here.
He saluted me as he left like I was some kind of goddamn general, like he was off to war to do something heroic, pulling kids with polio out of the way so the building would fall on him instead, some kind of shit like that.
I immediately put my bra back on, then everything else. Clad in the enormous, festive, sheep patterned sweater my mother had brought back for me from Ireland when I was little, the one my best friend had told me looked “manish,” on my broad shoulders but that I thought made me look tough, I began to leave the room. Naturally, I looked around for something to destroy. A girl has a right to destroy, you know. My knowledge of his deepest hopes and fears was limited—all part of him making sure I didn’t get too attached as we silly girls are wont to do—so I just had to guess what would hurt him the most. After a moment of contemplation, I stole three packs of fruit gummies from his forty-six pack, kicked over a can of Coke that was sitting next to his bed, and made my way out into the near freezing weather of two a.m.
I’m ashamed to say that wasn’t even the end.
“You look so hot in that dress. Come here.”
He said this a few days later as he was breaking up with me. He didn’t think he was really cut out for relationships. He needed to study for his LSAT’s. He didn’t deserve me. Even then, when he was poised to go out later that night and stick his rocket ship in somebody else, miles past me and all my penile fears, he still wanted me to be interested in the extraterrestrial object in his pants. He pulled me onto his lap, told me I smelled, and I quote, “delicious,” and attempted to guide my hand to his penis one last time.
“If I smell delicious, why do you want to break up with me?” I asked.
“If you’re straight, why don’t you want to touch my penis?” he said.
His question haunted me for years. Eventually, I begrudgingly said yes to glimpsing a penis, only because its owner had already taken it out of his jeans and was gesturing to it so enthusiastically that he might as well have been a puppeteer at a children’s theater. It looked remarkably like an alien, which got me to thinking: why does all male genitalia have to recall space travel?
“Take me to your leader,” I joked.
“What?” the penis wielder responded.
If he was a puppeteer, I was the arthritic member of a church hand bell troupe, a fact made clear to me when he asked if I might be left-handed.
"I played basketball with my left hand, if that counts. I haven’t played in years, though. Probably couldn’t even make a free throw at this point.”
“Cool,” he said, but we both knew that it was not cool, that he had wasted his time, and that if he’d just tapped another girl on the shoulder his rocket ship might be half way to Mars by now. He pulled up the covers.
“I’m gonna get some sleep,” he said.
I glanced out the window. It was raining.
“Should I…can I stay?” I asked.
He turned his eyes to the window and let out an almost unperceivable groan.
It was a consolation prize; the efforts of my weak right wrist had earned me the pleasure of sleeping over. And while spooning couldn’t really make up for the horror of the alien invasion, at least it was warm.
The next morning, I woke up before him.
“Do you want to go on a picnic?” I asked.
He did not. He wanted to go to the woodshop and finish a canoe paddle he had been working on. In other words, that rocket ship had sailed.
I had two near identical encounters with other men. Penises sprung on me like rogue Jack-in-the-boxes, disappointed young men, and a few hours of cuddling as payment for my attempts. The last penis I ever saw belonged to a guy in my poetry class. As he bid me adieu he made one thing painfully clear: I was not to write any poems about him. Not only that, but I was not to sleep over. Waving goodbye from his warm, second story window, he sent me packing into the February snow. Flakes caught my hatless hair. Shoe prints guided me down the sidewalk. Each lamplight I passed seemed like a fellow scorned woman. Honey, they said, you don’t have to do this anymore. Go home, get some sleep, and put these boys out of your mind. So, I did. I stopped dating, started running, and never saw another penis again.
My mother still asked about boys.
“Meet anybody cute in your classes?” she’d say over the phone, or “I ran into so-and-so’s father at the grocery store. He broke up with that awful girlfriend of his. You two should touch base!”
I didn’t want to touch anything of so-and-so’s, because after years of confusion, it finally dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t just disinterested in penises, but in the people attached to them.
"You don’t have to date men. You can date women. Or nobody at all."
These words were never spoken aloud to me. Not by a guidance counselor, not by a friend, and not by my mother. They would have been helpful, but sometimes you do not get help with these kinds of things. At a certain point—twenty-two years into life—I had to say them to myself. First the tiniest whisper in the back of my head, then louder, more emphatically, until they spilled out and reached everyone else. I don’t have to date men. In fact, I won’t. I will date women.
I wish I could have told my mother about the first time I slept with a woman. How respectful it was. How exciting. How enthusiastically I flung the blouse from my body. How we stayed in bed until nearly eleven the next morning, just talking and cuddling. I wish I could have described the sheer surprise of wanting to be there, but I feared we didn’t have the words. As a lesbian, I wasn’t “tryna start a family.” I didn’t consider this act “doin’ the big nasty.” My mother and I had never spoken of sex in positive terms, terms that got at the fun of it, the sweetness, the vulnerability.
I had never said, “Don’t you just love it when someone pulls back for a moment to smile at you like you’re the most precious thing in the world?”
She had never said, “Yes, that’s wonderful.”
We hadn’t giggled about our sexual misadventures over popcorn and ice cream. Hadn’t winked at each other when cute girls walked by our table at a restaurant. But eventually I did talk to her about sex, cautiously at first, then more and more. She told me her mother had never spoken to her about it either, only warned her that other women would steal her man, not to trust them, to put up with everything, to grin and bear it. She told me about being roofied in college, how she never knew what happened to her after she drank that red drink and didn’t try to find out. When we finally broke that intergenerational silence, there were so many words to be said, so much time to make up for. It occurred to me that perhaps my mother and I were more alike than I thought, that we had both wanted for the guidance, the vocabulary that might have delivered us safely into the arms of someone who loved us.