Mouth: An Essay
By Jan Edwards Hemming
Jan Edwards Hemming holds an MFA in Poetry from NYU and a BA in English from LSU. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Los Angeles Review of Books Blog, and elsewhere, and her poems "Bird" and "Oven" were each nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She teaches creative writing in New Orleans, where she lives with her wife and four cats.
You are sixteen and it’s late summer and you’re with the girl who is your friend but also maybe more. Her mother hasn’t died yet and so she’s still happy, still yours for a little while. Your mom still lets you have sleepovers and go to the movies without suspecting anything is wrong. You, however, know something is wrong because people use words like “bull dyke” and “fucking faggot” to describe people who do the kinds of things you do with her: touch each other’s faces in the dark, trace lips and brows with fingers, sneak sniffs of perfume from her soft neck, feel the uncontrollable urge to lay your cheek against her smooth brown shoulder or slip her bikini bottom below her tan line and touch your tongue to where the skin is white.
You are with her in Gadzooks (do you remember that store?) when the feeling strikes. You know, that feeling when your ears fill and buzz and your face gets hot. You need to move worse than you’ve ever needed to move but your limbs have suddenly grown rooted to the floor. You are walking out of the store, in fact; you have purchased a t-shirt from a band with a dead singer and are considering holding the girl’s hand because there is explicit merchandise in this story and it makes you feel brave. But then he is there, outside the store. Your boyfriend. No, ex. Recent. You see his close-cut hair and full lips over by the fountain. His long fingers slip into his pockets; there is his hemp necklace; there are his white teeth.
Now you do grab her hand but not because you are brave. Your mouth hinges open, just slightly. Words have formed but are sucked inside the wet sand of your brain. You mouth his name and point with your eyes and turn back into the store, folding yourself on the grey carpet beneath the crowded clothing racks and dim fluorescent lights, trying hard to breathe past the lump of salt that seems to be filling your throat. Your heart pounds the ocean into your ears. It laps and breaks and you stay where you are, legs sinking deeper into the surf. But you are also elsewhere: in the cause of the feeling, in the moment where something went to shit. (You don’t know it yet but you are having a panic attack. You won’t have a word for this until you are much older and in therapy and finally prescribed medication for this thing that happens to you.)
The boy has a pretty face but you’re scared of it, not the way you’re scared to hold the girl’s hand but in a way that fills your whole chest with hysterical dread. Because you are no longer on the floor of this kitschy store but in the corner of a friend’s bedroom, your shoulder knocking against her open armoire. You are backing up from the bed and you are naked and saying please no. His right hand pulls back in a fist. He’s never hit you but he really looks like he will. He is speaking in a low voice, softly but with venom. He is calling you a fucking cock tease. He is calling you a slut. He is smiling a little and that might be the scariest thing. He is telling you that you owe him this because he just made you cum with his mouth. But you had your wisdom teeth out two days ago and he knows that you can hardly fit a fork in your mouth. Yesterday the mashed potatoes you were trying to eat smeared on your lips and he wiped them gently away with a finger. You’re wondering now if he was thinking then about shoving himself into you, hinging you open. You tongue the holes behind your back teeth. They feel dirty and exposed. You wish you were at least wearing your bathing suit. You say please once more, just in case. You watch his hand fall in slow motion. You flinch but he’s only reaching down to untie his swim trunks. With the other hand he pushes your head down as he pulls you forward. You are crying. You are nodding. You are on your knees. He is in your mouth and your jaw screams.
On either floor, you are trying to tell yourself it wasn’t all bad. You wanted to kiss him. You had been swimming and in the house the air conditioner was cold on your wet skin and your nipples were hard and you will never forget the first time you felt a tongue between your legs. You were on painkillers and felt like you were floating.
You wonder how long he has wanted to hurt you, and now it is bad again.
Before that moment anything having to do with sex felt fun. You have read the Kama Sutra with your friends in Books a Million. You have taken Cosmo quizzes and dreamed of desire. You have even given a blowjob before and felt courageous and adult. You liked the control you had, the way your mouth was a kind of power totem. From this point on, though, something will be different.
She asks if you are okay and you rise from the floor. Is he gone? you ask. She nods and squeezes your hand.
After you break up with him he stalks you. His friends make AIM accounts and send you horrible messages, or he does. You will never know who really said these things.
But you print the pages and take them to your father. He, a lawyer, says, “In a court of law they’ll say you provoked him.” Later, a friend will see the boy drive past your house, up and down your street, in the night. Much later, he will leave a note on the back of a receipt from the town where he lives on your car, which you don’t drive anymore. It says, “I’m watching you.” Your mother sends you a photo of the note and you would know his writing anywhere. Now, your younger sister sleeps in your old room. Now, she drives this car. This time, your father can do something. He buys blackout shades for the windows.
It’s been almost twenty years and the feeling still comes. When you hear “Anna Begins,” when you see a red Taurus, sometimes even when you think of summer, wet swimsuits on the floor, margarita ice crunching, lime wedges between teeth. Maybe then your mouth waters a bit, just like it does right before you throw up.
He loved your mouth. You did provoke him. You pulled down his pants. You swallowed. You are a whore. It is your fault.
And then sometimes you wonder if it just had been her mouth between your legs would you have ever been in this situation at all.
He sends you Facebook friend requests and tries to follow your Instagram account. Each time you are sixteen again. Each time you are painfully aware of your mouth.
She lives in Texas and you have not kept in touch. She wore Abercrombie 8. It smelled soft like the beach and you wanted to drown in her.
The smells you remember from him are shitty weed and sour cum. You picked a fleck of pot from your tongue. You wiped your cheek.