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Say It With Your Chest photo

“You have two boobs and there are seven days in a week. Why do you need so many freaking bras?!” my mother says to me, scooping them in armfuls from my dresser drawer to the floor. 

I am leaving the country again, maybe moving this time, and she is helping me pack up my belongings in plastic storage tubs that she picked up from Dollar General on the drive down. Suddenly, my Pittsburgh apartment seems too cramped for the two of us. How can that be, when it’s held two people who loved each other before? That memory bumps up against the present like a stranger’s shoulder on a busy summer street.  I file it away, not sure where to put it.

We’ve been dissecting everything within the four walls of my bedroom for hours now, and have piles of clothes growing into small mountains on the floor. Ones I need for my travels. Ones to pack away. Ones to get rid of. An adult woman, it feels strange to see my delicates move in and out of my mother’s hands, but she swiftly takes charge. And I let her. That woman could pack the state of Texas into the back of her sedan. She ruffles through them: The padded ones, Bombshell by Victoria’s Secret, how I loved the fullness of what I didn’t have. I don’t wear them anymore, but they were expensive. Adorned with gemstones and satin, how sexy they looked tucked fresh into those white drawers at the mall. There were threads of desire down to the very clasps. The sports bras that held my sweat in tiny pools like a gift. How often I’d go for runs in the late evenings, just trying to shrink myself, or wishing I could take off from this earth. The ones faded from too much wash and wear but too comfortable to part with, the ones with matching black lace panties that I wore on weekends out to the dim, smoke-filled dive bars I was drawn to, chasing silver tequila and things I still haven’t found. Racerback style and halter top, cream ones with delicate pink bows that felt too little-girl, strapless for dresses I’d wear to weddings, the ones where the underwire poked through into my skin. I untwist the tangled straps, Too many, she says again, and try to unhook my mouth.

How many things to hold a chest? It depends on what the chest holds.


The first time? I should remember but I don’t. Blame it on memory, some things leave your mind because maybe they need to. But I remember the last time. And the times in between. The middle-aged man with a stack of folders on his lap, sitting across from me on the 71D headed for downtown. The type of grey morning that makes you feel so tired of the steel city. How he stared at me, the corners of his mustached mouth quivering, how the folders shifted and I saw the top of his khaki pants unbuckled, the back and forth rhythm of his arm inside of them. Who do you tell? Your stunned feet deliver you to your office, late. You pour coffee. You stare at a screen. Days go by and you’re still baptized in disbelief. Why didn’t you say something, then? I remember the man that followed me down Fifth Ave., into the department store. The racks of this season’s blouses closing in on me. Where does fear live when it sleeps in the body? From chest to throat, it moves. And I’ll never forget the man that trapped me in a room after a friend’s wedding, his body blocking the only door. I remember my fear-drenched hands, how small and useless they were, curled into a helpless question mark. All the threats of silence. I don’t have to summon these memories to the surface because I’m drowned in the lake they live in. But if I write about the men in all these memories, does that mean they live forever? 


I could write about the men I’ve loved— their naked backs, valley of shoulder blades tattooed with my touch, free thundering and wild. The calendar that kept us was so young, it makes these days feel sore. What happened to me in their memory? Does my name wrap gold around their tongue, am I sunk into their backyard, what has their mind anchored me to? What do they remember— bare ankles or broken promises, strands of hair on the floor beds of their truck, the air my voice took up in a room? It was always the notion that pulled them in. Nothing good enough could be saved, just stitched together. Which makes me think mostly of my scars, how they probably couldn’t map their way back to them. If they ever knew them in the dark, anyway. This is where I say I forgive you, and goodbye not to them but to myself, and where I need to say it with my chest. The black summer nights shimmering in heat, blood that shocked us both. I need to let her go.


My parents gave me the middle name Rose. One of the most common middle names in the English language. People say roses are lovely, like those silk petals- think romance. But I think apologies. Anniversaries. Think thorns. Think the dead woman you’re named after that you never met. Think thank god it wasn’t Agnus. Think far down the clothesline, family tree branches. All the ways to trace what nurtured you. Think me between two people. Think you between two people. Think the color red. Pinks, whites, gardens aplenty. Think fragrance and sex and a little water. Think true love because you can’t not think it. Think again of the thorns. Think of blooms so beautiful it makes you want to lie down. Think how quickly those same flowers die. Think of the million little ways to be cut open. Every time it happens, your shade of red shocks you. So I think, Let the lovers put out their fresh bouquets. Preserve yourself. 


Three years of running later, and one night I find it— not a way to fly, but the closest to leaving. Unconscious on the white tile of the bathroom floor, breath gone from my body. Chest compressions like knocking on the door, begging it to open back up to the world. And I do. With my name neatly printed on a hospital bracelet, mom making a home in the waiting room full of stiff brown chairs and People magazines. Probably pacing, praying. Me, naked except a hospital gown open like a full bloomed flower on the operating table, getting a device implanted to control my heartbeat. Left side of torso, right atrium. Wires to send signals, lead me to heal at home. I don’t remember coming back to my apartment, but I remember my mother’s hands helping to bathe me, wash my hair in the kitchen sink. How I couldn’t stop thinking of metaphor, doctors “cutting into my warm bread of a body / serving the scar sunny-side up,” I later wrote. The blood dried, the incision site turned an ugly yellow, and eventually only a small pink slice in my chest was left. Forget about healing, though. I cursed that stranger sleeping under my skin, how it complicated my senses, left me dizzy. It marked me. Now, I couldn’t hide from the wounds I’d come from.


At first, antidepressants for breakfast helped ease those grey mornings and rise despite the empty side of the bed. It was medicine. The body, automatic. But what nobody can explain is how the dosage doesn’t matter, nothing will make you feel like yourself again if you can’t unearth the past you from present form. I was a prisoner in this strange new body, in a dream I couldn’t wake up from. Late for work almost every day because sleep clawed at my ankles, refused to let go. Everything felt heavy somehow, so slow. So I did everything I could to speed it up, to feel electric. What did I care of warnings? I traveled even more, just to not think about death three times a day. I drank again, to feel alive even if it was buzzing in the pain.

It came down to a hotel room nobody knew the name of, my cell phone turned off. So sure in what I wanted, that it’s hard to speak of even now.

But I came back. And the next day, the bottle took my shamed face in its hand, saying, It can still be beautiful. But not everything beautiful belongs here.

So I just stopped taking the pills.


When I get home, back to this one bedroom I’ve bled, cried, and danced in, I google what it means if you see a dead bird.

I’m not superstitious, but I’ve seen at least five on my walk this evening. Their soft feathers splayed on asphalt, their once plump chests flattened. I’ve seen them for months: on sidewalks, in alleys I take shortcuts down. In the bike lane on my street. It was hard at first not to think of my dead grandfather. Of my last love. Of my youth. Of my mother’s test results.

The Internet tells me: While it can mean a physical death has occurred, finding a dead bird is a symbol of a fresh start from an end and not simply an end.

I exhale slowly. I think of all the ends that have added up to this moment, leaving this city and this apartment where I’ve made and framed so many memories. The bright and hard things I’ve kept in my chest, or trunk, my head a shoebox of thoughts. There’s no more dirt to cover up what I now have given myself permission to name, no more vines tying me here. Soon I will love something enough to help it grow, not just bury it. Maybe, it might even be myself.

image: Adrienne Celt