There’s a circle of—girls? women?—sitting on the floor in this unremarkable beige room, like they’re going to play a sleepover sort of party game. Which they are, it turns out. I think at least one has been styled in pigtails, leans across the circle to kiss one of her giggling friends on the mouth.
I’m not there. I think we might’ve been sitting on my tiny twin bed with the shitty inherited mattress, his laptop set between us to watch this—this, my boyfriend assures me, isn’t like the rest of that gross, exploitative stuff. It’s amateur and everyone’s having fun and wants to be there.
For my part, I’m not really sure if I’m into:
- Porn, generally;
- Girls (that’ll be a mystery for years yet);
- The general framing. Like, where’s the arc? The motivation? The history?
Nothing particularly salacious has happened by the time I hazard that I’m not sure if it’s really doing anything for me, and that I might like to do something else.
It nags, though, even though my boyfriend humors me in finding something else to do. Maybe I should make more of an effort? He just wants me to be more comfortable in my own skin, feel more comfortable naked, getting adventurous.
He wants me to love my body.
I’ve never been good at exercise I had to go out of my way for, or to keep myself honest about it. So one of my roommates and I make a pact to go to Zumba classes around the corner a few times a week, where we largely-dorky college town-dwelling women rock out with Pitbull and our impressively cool Brazilian-American instructor, who actually manages to make it look like a real dance.
My boyfriend, who has moved back home a half hour away, starts spending more and more time camped out on our couch in his boxers.
I buy neon-colored cross-training shoes and start building a workout wardrobe that isn’t just old t-shirts, and start looking forward to it, go as often as I can.
I’m not entirely sure what I’d rather be doing instead, but it’s probably most things that aren’t watching my boyfriend scroll through nude body positivity tumblr.
I used to think I just wasn’t that interested in sex until it became clear to me that there were at least some things I liked about it—which I did tell him, my very first. He will, to my regret, never fucking forget it, and considers it some badge of pride that be brings up more than once that he “got me to like sex.”
Maybe that’s why he keeps trying to be helpful. I just keep getting mildly irritable.
He means well. Every time I get snippy, he looks like a kicked puppy, and I can sort of zone out, anyway. Nod, smile. I’m a peacekeeper by nature, and sometimes to care about people, you support the things they’re invested in. It’s not as if it’s hurting anything.
He just wants me to love my body.
One of my roommates starts talking about training for a 5K, and I realize I miss running a lot. I’d been the girls’ cross-country captain two years running in high school with three varsity letters—credentials that gathered dust in college while I was too busy crying about algorithms.
My strength likes more in dedication than talent. I add three days a week running to my three days a week Zumba, start waking up on time, feel like the first green shoots of spring breaking through dirt.
Once or twice my boyfriend comes along when he’s visiting, antsy at being left alone in the apartment. I speed ahead and meet him back at the start of the loop, grinning and already stretched.
I used to cry a lot in college. The curriculum I picked was punishingly hard for someone shy with next to no study skills or time management, and it was a crapshoot whether you’d get a professor who was sympathetic or a professor who’d really rather be doing research.
He was there for me, then, and I think—well, it’s a hard time for him. I can at least be here for him, now.
The thing is, he remembers that, too—he keeps track of what he’s done for people, in general. Maybe he’s not sure about believing in God, but he believes that what he puts out into the world will return to him. Good karma, you know?
So when he comes over, he brings a box full of alcohol the three of us won’t drink for drinking games none of us have time for or interest in playing; gets gifts no one asked for; tries (and fails) to get me and my best friend/roommate to compete with sexually-charged favors for video game items he has extras of.
He never remembers on his own to get me flowers but won’t forget that the birthday part I organized for him was a mild disappointment—for which he keeps suggesting the reparations of my organizing a threesome for him with one of my friends. Like the roommate of mine he definitely has a crush on.
He’s just trying to keep things fun, I guess. I’m just not having any.
I finish my 5K training program with the race still a ways away, and start running to the soundtrack of a radio play about a zombie apocalypse. I like pretending to be Runner Five; like feeling like I’m both outrunning something behind and running toward something that matters ahead.
I’m running more on my own, too, when it suits my schedule better; somehow I end up fastest out of everyone I know training for the same race. Of course I’m not really competitive-fast—I’ve just never been built that way—but something in my body has remembered what it’s like to just be able to go.
I’m standing in my shared bedroom, talking to the roommate I share it with about—nothing in particular, probably. If it was anything specific, the memory of it clatters away like the place settings on a table being yanked off along with the tablecloth when my boyfriend wanders behind me and unsnaps my bra.
I also snap. I’m tired and have asked him not to do that repeatedly in private and I don’t know why suddenly it’s no longer just annoying but actively upsetting, furious and tearful and unable to explain myself.
So I stalk off to sit in the living room in the dark, curled up in the single plush armchair, trying not to cry and failing. I’m angry but also inexplicably sad—sad at the idea a part of me has put forward that now you have to break up with him.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t like sudden change. It makes me nervous, unsettled, tense in a way that’s hard to pin down. But on the other hand—
On the other hand, maybe it’s only sudden in the way that when clouds finally break after rolling in all day, you’re still caught by surprise.
In the end, he apologizes, and I apologize for getting so snippy, too. I don’t quite mean it. I wonder if he does.
The race I signed up for draws nearer. Listening to the beat of my footfalls against the pavement, I start to feel like I can see the finish line of something come into view.
There’s this time we went to a Chinese restaurant near his hometown together that sticks in my head. Nothing fancy—a no-frills shopping center storefront place with maybe six small tables and an expansive menu. He told me he and his dad knew it was authentic because the customers were almost all Asian.
And I thought—
Well, first of all, authentic to what, because if it’s supposed to be Mandarin it ought to have more fish, but this authentic Chinese-American right here fucking loves some cream cheese wontons.
And he tells me his porn is authentic, and I think—
Who are these people? How do they feel about each other? Who the hell wears high pigtails over the age of ten in this decade?
And maybe, you could say the naked form is authentic. Nothing obscured, honest. But I think—
Far from me to say that only agony can be authentic. I can’t stand that attitude either. But joy can be a performance. And authenticity can be showing up for your own goddamn life every morning: tired, complaining, unbeautiful, and being glad you’re there regardless.
And sometimes it looks like this:
Sweaty, gross, up-since-six exhausted, covered in every color of paint powder, not even in a way that mixes prettily. Achy, hungry, knowing that tomorrow things are going to change—
But knowing that even walking alone, I have two legs that will carry me across the finish line.
C. Zhanchi Ho (she/her) writes code for a day job and writes everything else during every other waking hour. She lives in the north shore suburbs of Chicago with her wife and very soft cat. czhanchi @ twitter