When I was a kid we had this cupboard under the stairs. It was completely empty even though my mother often complained about the perpetual clutter of the house. There was a metal string hanging from a lightbulb that I’m positive never changed. My sister used to suggest the family utilize the cupboard; I would promptly change topics. They never seemed to grasp that the emptiness was anything but. In fact it was the one place I felt filled up, complete, un-hollow. In the empty spaces of the house, I could be anyone. There were no preconceived expectations, rules, or guidelines. To sit in the darkness, the nothingness, was to be held up by something greater than everything on the outside put together.
I was cautious to not use the cupboard at hallway-high-traffic times, thus it was off limits after school before dinner, and for the hour thereafter. To ensure my sister and brother never caught on, I would enter when all were above it. Safe in their rooms, as they expected me to be. I would sneak down the upstairs hall, tip toe the twenty stairs, and turn the cupboard’s door knob with heed. And then contrary to each action before, I would thrust the door open as fast as possible, in an attempt to by pass the loud creak it often sung out. Each night it was the same: after brushing my teeth I’d crawl into bed fully jammied up and even under the covers, I’d feel cold. It wasn’t a temperature sensation, but this heaviness on my body, like I couldn’t exhale or relax. In my bed, the weight of the covers felt constricting. A reminder of all the things I was suppose to be, who I wasn’t, and the abiding notion that I was an outsider.
Upon entering the cupboard I’d de-robe, pull my shirt up and off, and let my pants fall to the ground. I’d nudge them to the side with my toes, sit in the middle of the space, and before laying back on the hard wood floor I’d reach up and pull on the string, enveloping my naked body in darkness. Finally I’d exhale as my skin sunk into the floor. The cold, when covered, dissipated and here I was warmed by the feeling of the brisk floor on my back, holding up my head and ankles. I’d love my chaotic wavy hair, my bushy eye brows, my tiny wrists, my long toes, and the hair on my arms which left me wearing long sleeves on hot days. The dark and empty space was a return to comfort, a putting down of any shame, judgments, or uncertainty I’d spend the day wrestling with.
I would lay there for a few hours, falling in and out of sleep, recharging whatever the day took away from me. I remember most days were filled with a sucking in. I’d try not to breath too loud in the cafeteria line, I’d try to suck my hunger in so it didn’t growl in class, I’d shrug my shoulders at my locker, in hopes of disappearing from the hall, wishing I could just crawl inside. School was never safe. And the moments when I thought it was, someone would make a joke in my direction, or the teacher would force me to speak when I didn’t have an answer. Every space was filled with rules, should’s, and people I’d never be. Most girls were already pretty, their awkward stage a year behind them. Not me. My whole body was one big mess of blundering fails. I wasn’t ready for a bra, my skin was uneven, my eye brows had a mind of their own, and my waves were bigger than Maverick’s. How could someone so small feel like they took up too much space? Invisibility was a distant dream, and being seen a precarious nightmare.
But in the cupboard. None of it mattered. I liked myself in there. I laughed, and would feel my hairs prickle against the hard wood, and instead of recoil, I’d feel pride. It was in the emptiness that I could be unapologetically me. I would imagine taking it out of the door with me, and in those moments, it seemed anything was possible…
I remember the first time a boy kissed me. His name was Tyler, and he had two moms. We were both called freaks. The kiss kind of sucked too. His lips were far wetter than I imagined.
I remember the first time I had sex. His name was Alex, he had one mom, one dad, and two sisters. It was my idea, in fact I decided weeks before he would be the one. But even with grand plans, execution can fail. It was nothing like the movies. And while his appendage changed the landscape of my body once and for all, my own words and actions imprinted an irreversible lesson. It was the first time, while naked, I pretended. It was nothing like the cupboard. Though we were naked and sunk into darkness, the emptiness disappeared. I couldn’t be anyone. I couldn’t even be myself. Suddenly I had to be what was expected. I had to pretend it was what I had hoped. Or else. And this or else wasn’t physical danger, but mental caging. If I said anything different, he might make fun of me. If I did anything different it might last longer. I found voices calling out in pleasure I wasn’t experiencing. And it seemed like the only choice I had. Because that’s what suppose to happen right?
Was there something wrong with me? When I reached down and felt myself alone, my body came alive. With Alex, it felt dead. Life paused, and I became someone else. An inauthentic voice in a dark upstairs bedroom, further from the cupboard than I’d ever traversed. How does one find themselves further from any other human possible, when one of them is inside her? Was it always like this? Was it his fault? I knew it wasn’t. It was always our fault. Or else why would we be perpetually apologizing?
I remember the first time I said sorry when I didn’t actually mean it. My brother had come home early from camp, sent home for starting a fire in his sleeper cabin. I was in the backyard playing with dolls, and imagining I was their mother. There I was minding my motherly business, when he stormed through the French doors, and yelled my name. I threw my hand up, letting him know I was far too busy, you can’t imagine the demands of motherhood. Ignoring the gesture he ran over to me, took out his match book, and pretended to light the foot of Sally Mae. WELL, being that Sally was a doll I had no choice but to protect her from such pain. I rushed over to him and snatched her from his claws. In he ran calling for my mother, (if he called for dad, he would have been admonished for being a “cry baby”). Out came my mother, who demanded that I apologize to him.
I can taste the way the ‘I’m sorry’ sat in my mouth, an uninvited guest who wasn’t welcome. I stared at my brother in anger, knowing full well that nothing about our interaction was apologetic worthy. It was the first time I was subjected to a forced apology.
LET HIM KNOW I AM SORRY?! It came as a blow. A hit that was felt for years to come. It wasn’t until I was in college that I even remembered this interaction. And when it came before my eyes, my body reacted dramatically: I immediately threw up. I had been apologizing for over twenty years, for things I felt no remorse for. How many men had I dodged on the street because they weren’t willing to budge or change their direction, that I then apologized for? How many times had I pushed a man off me, “sorry I need a break”? How often had I written, “sorry I was busy” or “sorry I was ______”, when I absolutely wasn’t? How frequently had I whispered, spoken, and offered an apology I knew I didn’t mean? That was unnecessary nonetheless.
I had gone from a beautiful naked empty hideout under the stairs, where my body was held in celebration and wonder, to a fraudulent insincere submissive who took up too much space, and was expected to take blame for that which was blame-less. As a young adult I had all but forgotten the cupboard. Having my own dorm room, and then one’s own apartment, I found new spaces of freedom and safety. It wasn’t until I was sleeping with a man I thought I loved, that I recalled the cool hard floor, and the suspension from reality, the place where I was Queen, where the darkness sat upon and covered my body like a crown.
His name was James. And for twenty months I tousled his beautiful brown hair, gazed into his hazel eyes, and celebrated his many freckles. I thought this was “it.” A phrase that always pissed me off. Deducing love and passion into a shit-small pronoun? But as all seasons come and go, the spring and heat in our step faded into darker days, and even colder nights. It became harder and harder to locate myself. And even more impossible to love her. We did what he wanted, ate what he craved, watched what he suggested. Where my voice might have once butted in, it now only reverberated in my head. The fear of losing him left me at a crossroads: him or me? In service of keeping him happy, I let my needs and desires morph into his own. Where once I was a girl who snuck downstairs to celebrate her body and finally feel acceptance, now I snuck around his apartment, fully clothed, desperately trying not to wake him before his alarm went off.
I had traded self love for loathing, and instead of feeling like an insider I remained on the outskirts. My ideas and needs didn’t belong, and the worst part was, I allowed this. I said nothing when he climbed on top of me and wanted to have sex even when I didn’t, I responded with silence when he yelled at me for buying the wrong toilet paper, I never chimed in when he suggested doing something I detested. I had lost everything the cupboard gave me, and for what? To not be alone? To be with someone else? Where darkness and lack of clothing had led me to myself, it now pushed her even further away. Laying on the cool maroon sheets as he undulated on top of me, calling out words and moans of pleasure I didn’t mean, I never felt further from myself.
It was on a Tuesday night I was reminded of the metal string that hung from the bulb in my safe haven. How had I strayed so far from the naked body and girl who celebrated the wood floor and her physical form? How had I forgotten the magic felt when I allowed myself to take up all the empty space and fill it with myself? Who was the man who was making it hard to breath, as he pushed all his weight onto mine? And why in god’s name was I pretending to enjoy it?
As I lay underneath him, writhing in mental pain, I felt lost. It seemed easier to let him continue, then push him away and say how I felt. I didn’t even know how to get him off of me without apologizing for it. And that left me paralyzed. I was afraid to do what I needed without apologizing. The anger that brought up had me grip the sheets below for stability. Suddenly all the unmeant sorry’s filled my brain, and my palms and under-knees began to sweat. For how much longer would I allow my subservient self to take over? Who made her boss, and could I dethrone her?
Unfortunately that night didn’t end in some grand gesture of my pushing him away, I let him finish in service of “not dealing with the drama” and cried myself to sleep. The next morning I woke hours before my alarm, packed a bag and jumped in my car. I knew the one place I had to go to find the girl I’d lost among the numerous apologies. Turning my phone off in service of ignoring the calls and texts that would soon be abounding, I gripped the wheel and forced myself to choose her. The worst part was, it felt agonizing. There was no Gloria Gaynor belting “I Will Survive”, nor was there an eruption of power and force. I sat meager in the drivers seat, wondering where I misplaced the gas pedal for MY life.
Hours on the open road gave me enough distance to exhale. I knew I was capable of all this, but the idea of crawling back into bed, or making James dinner was enticing. Who the fuck was I that was so willing to give herself up for him? For this guy who made me feel more alone with him than I ever had in solitude? Staying to the right of the yellow chopped lines, I weaved in and out of memories of college dorms, misogynistic bosses, and crowded public spaces. I could remember acute details of others, and of locations, but when I tried to imagine how I looked, or what I felt, it became blurry. I had faded so deep into the walls of society, one couldn’t tell where their stitches ended and mine began. This quilt of everyone else’s needs drowned out my own. And as I sat here in the present, it was hard to not imagine myself as this tiny child, again crouched underneath covers feeling the weight of the world constricting around her. It was hard to believe that with everything I had studied, and everything I was convinced I was, I had lost myself among the sorry’s and infinite me too moments.
I turned into the driveway and felt my saliva disappear. Parched, I pulled up the e-break and opened my door. It had been six plus years since I had parked here, let alone seen this house. I immediately felt tiny, as the shadows from the upstairs windows fell against my skin, and the attic floor towered over me as I walked up to the door. The doorbell fixture was changed, though I couldn’t remember what it had once been. Having never used it before, I knocked, but I quickly realized that was weird too–– I had never knocked at my own house. Waiting for an answer, I took a step back. How was this going to go? What were they likely to say? And would they even let me in?
A minute passed. Anxious to get inside, I knocked again, and tried the doorbell which let out a drastic chime as if I was standing in front of the gates of a castle or monastery. I noticed some movement, and caught the tail end of a shadow leaving the living room and heading this way. The man who opened the door was unrecognizable.
“Hello,” he said, confused.
“Hi.” I took a moment of silence after offering the pleasantry. How was this going to sound?
“… can I help you?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry to bother you, but— DAMNIT. Ugh sorry. No! Fuck okay one second” I took a deep breath. “Hi. You don’t know me but I used to live here, my parents sold this house about seven years ago, my name is Kate.”
“Hi Kate,” he said as he reached out his hand and shook mine.
“I hope this isn’t too much to ask, but could I come in for a second and take a look around?”
He looked behind him and up the stairs, as if he was looking for the answer, before weaving back around, shrugging his shoulders and nodding his head. “My wife would kill me if she knew I was letting you in with it looking like this, but she’s grocery shopping.”
“Thanks.” As he motioned for me to enter, I crossed the threshold and immediately felt nostalgic. As he headed toward the kitchen, I took a few steps in that direction and changed my mind.
“Sir?” I asked. “This might sound odd, but I actually just came to see one thing.” I turned in the other direction and reached out for the door knob under the stairs. Closing my eyes as I turned it, I was ecstatic when I heard the loud squeak— nothing had changed. When I opened my eyes however, I saw how wrong I was. The cupboard was filled to the brim with knick knacks and boxes.
Moment of truth.
I swung my heels back around and saw that he was right behind me. “Look, today is kind of a big deal. In fact it might be the day I get my life back on track. And I realize this might sound crazy, but may I empty this? I swear I will put everything back the way I found it, but it’s imperative that I spend some time in this cupboard.”
He eyed me with skepticism and intrigue. “Screw it, after you take it all out you can just leave it here, it’s about time we went through all this crap.”
Twenty minutes later the cupboard was far from empty, though it had nothing left inside of it. George, the home owner, was outside mowing the lawn. And I was alone as I pulled the door behind me. I clicked the lock, eased off my shoes and socks, and let my dress straps fall to my shoulders as I shimmied out of it and kicked it to the side. The metal string hadn’t changed, though the lightbulb was one of those new energy saving kinds. I put my tailbone right beneath the string, and as I started to sit back, I pulled on it. My body was enveloped in darkness. This is the place, I thought. As I pushed my hair aside and rested my head in the palm of my hands I couldn’t help but smile. Here she was.
“Hi,” I whispered.