Almost

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Almost by Colleen O'ConnorI’ve been wearing black boots and black dresses without tights underneath. The boots hit just below my knees and my dress just above, leaving about four to five inches of my knee and leg exposed, stark and pale against the blacks of the fabrics. It reminds me of the knee-highs I wore with my uniform skirt in high school. Our dress code was an odd mix of strict rules and a lax allowance of, what I considered at the time, personal expression: We had to wear the uniform brand, starched oxford shirts, stiff and scratchy no matter how many times I washed them, but we were allowed to wear any legwear we wanted, and so in the fall and spring I often wore knee-highs with my clunky Dr. Martens Mary Janes and my blue and green plaid skirt.

I was aware of the image, the cliché of the Catholic schoolgirl in a plaid skirt and knee-highs, even at the time. I was pulled over once for rolling a stop sign in that very outfit. The male officer, probably somewhere in his 40s, winked at me as he sternly issued his warning, his hands clutching the front of his belt in that here-is-my-power sort of stance. I grinned and promised to do better next time, the gritty fabric of my plaid skirt grating against my thighs as I let it ride up a little, then a little more, the stark white of my leg exposed and sticking to the black leather seat.

This “boots and dress with no tights” thing isn’t quite like that. I’m no longer 17, no longer so skinny and young, so seemingly untouched. Though my high school uniform-clad self wasn’t quite like that either. I was never really the untouched, curious girl that cop might have assumed me to be. What he wanted me to be. He probably didn’t realize that I would have fucked him right there in the front seat of my dad’s car. That I wasn’t lifting the hem of my skirt just to get out of the ticket, but as an invitation. He could have taken me up on it, reached his arm through the open window and brushed his hand against my thigh, moving it inward, moving it up. He could have gotten in next to me and said nothing. I would have known what to do and I would have done it, and I wouldn’t have even asked for his name.

My two best friends in high school were significantly more attractive than me. One was tall and had long, straight brown hair that fell in that effortlessly messy sort of way. She would brush it off her shoulders and it would hang down her long, straight back and it always looked perfect. I was obsessed with her hair. Years later, she chopped it all off herself and dyed it this strange orange color and I felt so saddened by it I could barely look at her.

My other best friend was short and adorable. Her blue eyes practically jumped out from behind her thick lashes and she was always put together. I used to borrow her clothes and she would dress me up and put makeup on me like a doll and while I maybe looked better, it was never quite right—a sort of fun house mirror image that dipped a bit into the uncanny valley.

I watched them both very closely and tried to note the ways in which I was so different from them. What was it about myself that I couldn’t get quite right? What was it they had that I so obviously lacked, that made my hair so stringy, either stick straight or too frizzy, that made my eyes seem to sink back into my face, consumed by my cheeks and forehead? I tried to borrow from them, to practice and study, but it never quite worked.

Even my interaction with that cop was borrowed from my short, adorable friend. She was often pulled over for speeding, often in her uniform, and she got out of the ticket nearly every time. I’m sure I thought of her when I was pulled over that day, channeling her seemingly effortless ability to charm her way out of precarious situations, and I almost got it right—up until the moment I started pulling up my skirt, inching it up more and more as subtly as I could. Until the moment I decided that, if he tried anything, I’d acquiesce. When I decided that I wanted him to try something. I wanted him to get in the car and I just wanted him. I wanted to go too far.

Once, when we were in junior high, that same short, adorable friend told me that I was totally going to be the first one of us to have sex. She said this after I spent an afternoon with a classmate and gave him a hastily delivered hand job. She knew that I planned on doing it, that it was the very reason we rode our bikes to his parents’ house over a mile away. I remember how surprised and almost giddy she was that I was going to go through with it, that he asked me to do it in the first place. I talked to him on the phone the night before and he just outright asked me, so we made a plan for the next day. She came with me to his house and waited downstairs, or maybe outside, while I spent about thirty minutes with him. She had what seemed like thousands of questions after, questions I coyly—maybe even smugly—dismissed, reveling in the fact that I was the more experienced one of us and bragging. But my even stronger point of pride—the thing I didn’t tell her—was that the hand job got old quickly, so I stopped and, without any discussion, gave him a blow job.

Am I bragging now? I’m actually quite embarrassed by this point of pride, this gratuitous outpouring of my sexual history and my over-identification with it. I can’t seem to get to the bottom of it—why I feel so compelled to go over every detail, why I feel there’s anything even particularly noteworthy about it, why I’m wrought with both shame and pride. I feel split in half. In conversation, I embarrass easily and I blush a lot. Alone, I’m baffled by my own desire, overcome with it and miserable. It’s this thing that I can’t shake, this shape I want to cut off myself like a paper silhouette.

At least three different men have told me that I have sex like a man. This suggestion might come (though I’m not totally sure) from the fact that I don’t want to dwell on it afterward. That I usually want to go right to sleep or grab the nearest taxi and go home, that I don’t want to talk about it, that I tend to come and run. I move in, get what I seem to want and get out, and those actions seem to match that male cliché: Sex is a conquest. But desire is more complicated than that. That breathless payoff is rewarding, but it’s not all I’m after.

And now I’m hesitating, teetering on the moment of admission. When we’re on the brink of a confession the air thickens, no matter how monumental the confession is or isn’t. Secrets are strange in that way. The things we keep hidden fester and expand, no matter how small they might be, no matter how un-extraordinary. I often refuse to admit things to myself, let alone anyone else. I force them down until I get to the point where the suppression is too exhausting, the pressure becomes too much, and then the utterance: I use sex to feel better about myself, to feel anything about myself at all other than the sagging weight of inadequacy.

I hate admitting it, even though I’m not alone in it. This is not an incredibly novel way to feel. Sex has always empowered me and created, however briefly, a renewed sense of self-worth. And after, when it’s over and the clothes are back on, I can’t be bothered or distracted because I’m tasked with keeping that worthiness stuffed inside myself, pressing against my insides. This isn’t “having sex like a man,” whatever that means. It isn’t fucking until I come and then leaving to avoid intimacy. I’m removed because I have to concentrate, to make sure that sense of self-worth doesn’t rush out, that it doesn’t knock me back with the momentum of its fleeing. I want it to last. I want it to leak out slowly, the way air hisses out of a pinpricked balloon.

But it never lasts and it’s mortifying. The feeling fades and I’m left right back where I started, defeated. It’s never going to be enough. I’m never going to be enough. I get so close, and then it leaves quickly enough to stun me, but slowly enough I can still see its outline as it fades away, reminding me of everything I lack.

The woman I share an office with is significantly more attractive than me. She is incredibly put together and her clothes are very expensive, a fact that baffles me as we have similar jobs at the same organization and probably don’t have incredibly different salaries. A few weeks ago, she came to work wearing a gray skirt and knee-high black leather boots with no tights underneath. I thought it looked very nice—the way the smooth skin of her knees and a bit of her thighs popped through. I thought I’d try it myself, so I waited a week to avoid looking like I was overtly copying her (which of course I was, borrowing from her and imitating), polished up my boots, and wore the outfit to work.

It was comfortable, surprisingly, even if I had to pull up my socks a few times. As I walked to the train at the end of the day, I caught a glimpse of myself in a window I passed and I saw the stark contrast of my knees and thighs against the black fabric. It looked odd—a fun house version of the knee-highs and uniform skirt I wore in high school. Something was off. I initially blamed my knees, which are strange. I think they must have extra bones—they’re rounded and bulbous and have always been that way, even when I was very thin. They’re simply bigger than most knees and the fact that they stuck out that way, pale against the dark boots and skirt, made them seem even larger, even more bloated. As I took another look at myself in a storefront window, I noticed how my skirt was riding up in the back, the front hanging a bit longer. Everything was askew—the hem, the perpetually swollen knees popping out, the way my boots wrinkled at the ankle—and I looked disheveled, like I had taken someone else’s good idea and butchered the execution.

As I continued my walk to the train, I started avoiding those window reflections altogether in an effort to stop picking apart all the ways the outfit was failing, and my body underneath it. I looked straight ahead as I walked and I focused on the sidewalk traffic. When I finally got on the subway and the train doors started to close I noticed a man, probably in his early twenties, staring at me from the platform. It felt good to be looked at. I have no real clue why he was looking—I was standing right in front of him in the crowded subway car, packed between two large men in suits who towered over me. Maybe that sight was what drew him in. I like to think I must have looked tiny between them, a thought I rarely have these days. He most likely couldn’t see the strange, stark white of my knees and thighs poking out between my dress and boots, a fact I felt grateful for. And as the train started to pull away I tried to keep my eyes locked with his, tried to keep his attention as his shape started to fade in the distance, slowly at first, then faster, until the train went into its dark tunnel and all I could see was my own reflection in the glass, standing almost motionless between those two towering men, feeling worse than I had before I noticed him.

Photo used under CC.

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About Author

Colleen O'Connor received her MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. She is the author of the chapbooks The Pretty Thing to Do (Dancing Girl Press 2016) and Conversations with Orson (Essay Press 2017). She lives in Chicago where she is the Managing Editor of the feminist press Switchback Books.

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