Mar 15 ● BY C. Meaker
Reading her name conjures buckeyes in knuckles held to mouths back in that office where I tried to catch who I was as if I could inhale it from her. Her name explosive: a tongue up mon into the tongue down i concluding with the sharp ca.
She forces you to use your whole mouth. Reading her name. Reading it again. Typing out additional plosives to a friend—
Monica heart attack
—analyzing it with the doubt of former students who hoped that she had lied to us, and maybe we all suffered poor reading comprehension.
Send. Forward. Reply.
Her name opened, repeated, and propelled onward; everyone mouthing the same thing.
Deglutition. A term I learned as an adolescent with a speech impediment and small mouth who didn’t know where to place my tongue so I kept pushing it against my teeth, and like rocks by the shore, they were unable to weather that onslaught indefinitely. A mouth must be trained, a tongue must be tamed.
For several months before I hit puberty — well before I knew Monica — I sat in front of a speech therapist who asked me to eat Pop-Tarts and chew with my mouth open while she analyzed my technique. Tongue up, she’d remind me, use your whole mouth that’s it good girl. Her eyes never stopped watching my tongue — its placement, its inappropriate flick against my front teeth, its refusal to help me gulp water or words — I’d often choke.
Deglutition, the act of swallowing.
For four years I would sit in Monica’s office, and joke about being unable to swallow, about a gag reflex, about how I knew I was queer because of these things and we would unwrap hard candies and suck and laugh and blush. But then she’d ask, how will you write about it?
I first read Carole Maso because of Monica. Like many undergraduates, I had enough information about writing to be dangerous, but not enough yet to be useful. As a teacher of undergraduates now, I understand that faraway on-the-verge pain without the skills to articulate anything other than frustration at the act itself. As if it’s a war, as if it’s winnable, as if it has markers of victory, a singular climax, a precipice from which to jump, a clear before and after.
Monica dropped Maso’s American Woman in the Chinese Hat in my lap. From her personal library. Never lend books to students unless you’re ready to say goodbye. But Monica extended that trust in her special selections, her volumes with pencil checkmarks running up and down each page, well-loved copies. I looked at the white spine with its crease marks — open close open again — and I read.
I let a boy fuck me for the first time a year before reading Carole Maso. For homework. For the experiential learning. I would say years later that a different writing teacher — a pervy bird with a red vest — told me that I must fuck a boy if I was to write about straight sex compellingly. That’s true and not true. He implied. He insinuated. And I analyzed and made meaning, the way we teach students to read between the lines. He liked my writing, you see, but not wholly. He held something back. No one writes attraction, longing for someone, the sexiness of a body and eyes that find all the places like you do, he said.
Attraction is something I can write. Lust is something I can write. Sex, well, the bird’s definition of sex, the execution of that definition in an accurate and lingering way, in the way I could write about hands finding the dips in hip bones and fingers touching the sensitive hollow of the clavicle — that was not penned by a sexual person who had experienced a hard dick in a wet hole. But he knew things I did not. He’d learned from Vonnegut.
Monica and I discussed American Woman in the Chinese Hat for weeks while I wrote a queer love story — my first. I brought in pages and she’d point to passages of Maso’s to show me how sentences carve, engrave bodies like paragraphs. And each time, with my pages she’d show me the slices
say less say less
and with pencil checkmarks
yes like this
Monica held my words while I discovered, while I failed, failed again, sharpening too much in places that needed softening, worrying softening could never incise. She held them so she could give them back, as I unlearned the cruelty of combat.
When writing wasn’t a war, cuts didn’t feel like sacrifices made on battlefields, a series of hard choices. Instead, they highlighted the possibilities in interpretation, in the breath of the comma that hovered between my protagonist’s thighs and her instinct to inch it closer.
The boy I fucked, his name meant Order, and that should have been my first clue. Order liked the lights off. He liked to get stoned before and after and sometimes during. He chided when I coughed from inhaling, when I said it made me sleepy, when I insisted I felt lethargic, not inspired or aroused.
just hold it
just like that
it’ll help with your writing I bet
He liked that I was a secret. That I was ashamed of being outed as someone who fucked men, even if I could joke that I was just doing my homework. The secret made it easier to keep our bodies unlit, to curl my tongue under, holding it in.
The dental arch, that’s where your tongue is meant to rest. Not down, but up — poised and ready. As I swallowed Pop-Tarts and practiced my tongue exercises in front of the speech therapist, I realized how many placements in my mouth must be misaligned, how linguodental shifts already marked decay from overuse — scars on muscle and dents on enamel — from shouting or smiling or talking. Do you have trouble speaking in class? the speech therapist asked, always with an eye at the back of my throat, at my unsuitable mouth.
It was inappropriate to laugh because laughing caused choking and I wasn’t learning how to swallow for free. Adolescence already confirmed my differences in other ways. I, for instance, knew I was fat and dykey and bossy and that I talked too much, because these were the frequent points of comparison discussed by my classmates. But now, there was something else, something only this adult could see.
Not everyone spoke too fast for their tongue, so fast that the tongue might not know where to repose, so fast that the tongue might actually need a relaxing vacation, but could not find purchase without being confronted with teeth.
She was nice. The speech therapist. You can do things here you can’t do anywhere else, she said, here you can chew with your mouth open.
In Monica’s office, I’d ask her to attend theater shows I directed or designed. I was an unfaithful writing major, easily wooed by the shine of three-dimensional storytelling. Though I did not write for theater then, I did tell stories there and I wanted her approval of my second passion, of my infidelity. She granted it. Not then. Not entirely. But eventually. In a letter she wrote to me years later, she talked about my queer love story and our time together, and Carole Maso. She admitted how jealous she was of sharing, but how necessary she knew those affairs in theater had been for my education.
She did not attend the show Order directed and I designed, which meant I did not tell her about him then. About how during tech he called me artless, my design dumb, while we worked through every moment until he approved, alone, everyone dismissed but me
Don’t be mad you just did it wrong
before asking how wet I was, fucking me under the stage so the ghost light could not illuminate my face. I didn’t tell anyone that. Not until I could make it funny.
In my queer love story, I struggled with sentiment, a term that still elicits eyerolls. This, more than anything, is why I think Monica gifted Carole Maso. I told her how sentiment felt elusive, gross, feminine.
Ah. There it is. That was the problem. I could only discuss sentiment as a foreign object that needed dispelling so I can make room for more serious emotions. For penetrative emotions.
To need. To want. To romanticize. To believe you have something no one else does and that’s a good thing. And someone should tell you and you should let them and in that allowing we build space for something new that can only be achieved through, what’s the word?
a terrible term if you need a speech therapist. It’s hard to push lip and tongue around it without tripping.
I was determined to prove myself to Order. That while my design had been lacking, I had things to offer. I would take his cock in my mouth and show him that I could be good at real sex. Mostly, I hoped in my proving that the lights could stay on, that he’d see me in full, like my female lovers, and express desire for the body I possessed instead of imagining my body wasn’t there. Surely, a blowjob would earn that.
It’s a simple act, but one I had not learned in the discomfort of early years, because I was so assuredly interested in curves and slicks and too-short hair and had spent my youth delightfully exploring those tangents, dropping to my knees only to beg forgiveness for desire. The pressure surrounding skillful suction paired with the application of consistent moisture and — enthusiasm that’s what the websites said — squeezed me into a womanly outfit of poised cleavage and a size too-small jeans that I quickly stretched out. My determination to perform well could not overcome my shortcomings with femininity or transform my body to match. This was a self-imposed pressure, obviously, but one I wanted to conquer with the weaponry of the ill-equipped, but research-inclined of the mid-aughts: a general web search with hetero porn terms.
But I have a small mouth, you see, and my tongue doesn’t know where to sit. And at nineteen, whose ego can withstand criticism before a tongue even reaches the head.
why do you keep kissing it just go down all the way
But perhaps that’s uncharitable to him. Too much of present-day me infecting the past.
Order knew things I did not, like how Western women had nothing to complain about because equal pay is just not the same as other injustices, and no one was gonna take away Roe. I agreed, of course, with a smile cutting across my face as he groped my vagina and asked how he compared to my previous lovers. I lied, I’m sure, but if I knew it was a lie, I’m not.
Perhaps it is uncharitable, but so are a great many omissions and fatalities.
Jeannette Winterson, a writer I found years before Maso, said, “wallowing is sex for depressives” an anecdote I use to shame my sadness for sad sake, or when I catch myself crying from losing a former teacher I hadn’t spoken to in three years, or when I’m surrounded by friends who will ask too many supportive questions and shine a light on things I wish to remain dark. As an enthusiastic lover of sex with a masochistic attraction to depression, I am no stranger to the art of wallowing.
And it is an art, to be sure. Not penetrative, but yielding.
My speech therapist watched my mouth, which, in turn, made it okay to watch hers. She’d show me the proper way to form words, the shape I should aspire to create, the position of my tongue. She was clinical and I was too young to understand multiple meanings. I was not too young to understand why I liked watching her mouth — the southern twang in her question, the thin lower vermilion border, the well-defined cupid’s bow of the upper lip, and the pronounced dip of the philtrum — as if anatomists didn’t understand what they were doing when they labeled our parts.
Labial. Labiodental. Labialization. All pertain to lips, and how they round, or purse, or allow themselves to interact with teeth. I, apparently, used too much lip, which scared Order because it meant my teeth were near, and being toothless is preferred.
As someone who now marks my adulthood by celebrating mundane tasks completed—folded laundry fresh from the dryer; high-five—I would not now stay. I would not now stay for the clunky apologies that followed, whispered without eye contact in the dark while I burrowed deep under dirty sheets.
But I was nineteen and I was a bad lesbian and bad at sex and bad at blowjobs because of my tiny mouth with an unfortunate tongue, and I believed him when he said those things were helpful criticisms.
I didn’t, yet, schedule regular phone calls with friends, or confess feelings to them without worrying. I didn’t know things; I hadn’t worked with Vonnegut.
Sentiment was not coming easy and Monica could not figure out why this one term caused such angst in my story that had unearthed so many sentences wrestling with the complicated relationship of two women who wanted so, and yet, found words falter. We examined these moments and what was missing: something clear, unrestrained, an emotion of some sort that’s deeper than—
—Order and I continued fucking for a few months. Being bad at sex didn’t stop us, because of course not. We continued a friendship for years, actually. But in that way that I sometimes share funny stories from childhood and realize when my audience reacts with horror that maybe the story wasn’t funny after all, I eventually recognized the shape of this thing between him and me.
I wish I could have told Monica then a funny story about why I find connection hard, one at which she might have screwed her face and argued against; a clear reasoning for why sentiment scared me, scarred me, made me question the motives of friends for too many years. But some things, as she tried to teach me, just weren’t funny. Sometimes they were—
—I think I cried in her office, but I’m not sure. We cried so much in that office, or at least Monica did. Twelve years older, Monica wasn’t afraid to cry. I, on the other hand, would often interrupt our sessions with lighter re-framings on situations to avoid it. I want to say I cried. Regardless, I know I confessed to queer inadequacy. I disclosed Order.
I was a fraud. A fraud to lesbianism. Fraudulent to my desires. I had failed the bird’s assignment at fucking, at learning what real sex could do for my writing; my knowledge gaps yawning wide. I was not queer enough to write this story, and I had no business writing queer sex or any sex, for that matter. And I still didn’t know how to swallow. And could she ever forgive me? Would Carole Maso?
I like to imagine that she laughed, then. But I don’t remember if she did. She might have. She probably offered another hard candy while posing new poetics on emotions’ complicated web, and how the bird shouldn’t have told me to fuck a boy in the first place, and Order shouldn’t have done a lot of things. But a laugh is better, isn’t it? Cathartic. The necessary release needed from self-imposed nonsense it takes too many years to shake; a break from the intense weight of Order’s shape then, and the one I now feel at Monica’s absence.
Let’s say we laughed. Let’s say, less. Say less.
In the laugh that I imagine we share across time, this fissure of being then, where she is, and now, when she is not, I know I let go of something — that need to define, that fear of sentiment, of winning this war — and something now, too, as I read her name, releases; something I can’t quite, isn’t so, just about, almost; but is there, beyond the skills of my impeded tongue’s articulation.
In the final moments of my queer love story, the two women stand one behind the other in the kitchen. The story is obsessed with words, you see, the need to have lines of distinction and a lineage for them to come into being. The women thumb a word they will not say to the other in the puzzle section of the newspaper, a word that ostensibly means love, but a word that I would not use in the story itself for fear of being categorized, boxed, and defined, perhaps even a lineage recognized from Maso to Monica to me. A dumb worry of youth, so desperate not to be seen when all Monica did was see.
But grief is the watchword now, or has always been, and this, I suppose, is my wallow.
Monica was with me when I was between. Not quite adult, but technically so. Between artforms, one of which I believed I would need to pick solely as my own to be any good at either. Between definitions of sexuality and desire and gender.
That split, that between, those binaries of my late adolescence I have since shed, Monica guided me through. She dropped buckeyes instead of breadcrumbs as I dawdled behind, hoping one day to catch up to where she’d be waiting, perhaps in the next decade after I’d accomplished a little bit more, taught more, had more to say. Greedy still to impress the woman who taught me not to worry about being impressive, a lesson I still refuse to learn.
Reading her name, displaced to that between, between the last time I saw her—
—telling me stories about her current students and how they still don’t know, but how in that not knowing they can find something if they don’t rush to the cliff where they can win a war no one’s fighting—
—and when I saw her name; binary ignited between living and dead; space between memory and action; a rekindled desire to be seen and unseen, lights on and off; where Monica now resides.
I think of the letter she wrote to me years earlier. Of the prurient delight I took in describing my speech therapist’s mouth before using it in my queer love story. Of our over-wrought performances of Carole Maso’s American Woman in the Chinese Hat in her office, surrounded by buckeyes we had picked up on our walks, and then gripped in our hands as we read, obsessed with every line.
Monica Monica, darlin’ Monica. Without choking, I can now swallow and smile at the same time.