“Penning the Nasty / Creed” – Non-fiction by Lora Rivera

The Broken Column - Frida Kahlo, 1944
The Broken Column – Frida Kahlo, 1944

From our Summer 2016 issue“Penning the Nasty / Creed” is Lora Rivera‘s fascinating non-fiction exploration of sexuality, spirituality, pain, and the therapeutic power of writing. 

{ X }

I AM ON MY KNEES at the table’s end, pen poised over fresh notebook paper. On the first floor below, the air is a warm muddle of voices in amiable chatter. A woman’s jazz alto sashays alongside the human hubbub and the mechanical din of barware clink and clatter, and at the door feet clomp in from the cold to shuffle up to the bar beneath the loft where we are learning to write about sex.

It is a seven-week course and I am reliving seven years of married sex I can only barely remember. Let me tell you what that feels like—to relive something you’ve dissociated from: Step one. Put your finger up to your eye. Hopefully you have a nice long fingernail there. Do you? Good. Don’t blink. Now, touch your eye with your fingernail. Push hard.

I expect you did not follow my instructions. Now on to step two. You must relive that moment of pushing in with your fingernail until you feel the convex mucus lining of your eye give way. Do this now. Relive clapping your hand over your face. Hear it, how you cried out. Feel again the sharp spurt of pain. Relive it, goddammit. Feel it. Why won’t you? Why can’t you?

We are in the middle of a silent exercise, the seven of us, instructor and five students and me: a circle of scratching pens around the long table where our beers sweat on paper coasters. Write about a list of wounds. What does it mean to be disassembled by love? By sex? I have put nothing on my page.

I leave the night class boozy, with a mouth yeasty sweet from two scotch ales and a desperate cup of pretzels. I sob hard on the way home. The welcome green lights blur.

That night, I dream of an old woman undressing. She removes each article of clothing until she’s naked, and then goes on to remove the modesty from her body that had clothed her; the fear, too; and the telltale signs of other people’s cultures and words. She is sexual and wild. And then I dream again of the red, muscly thing inside me, and of vomiting it up and pulling it out of my stomach from my mouth, length upon length of it dropping in wet, loose coils to the floor.

I have not published a single story, essay or poem that is not rife with sex. It is always there, between the words, lurking at the edges and unsightly frayed corners of things. I attend these classes to understand the puzzle of it and in hopes of taming it or caging it; at the end of seven weeks, I will know enough, be strong enough, to will it only come when called.

Do you think me foolish?

The loft’s wood floor bruises my knees, but for the fifth consecutive class, I choose not to move to one of the available seats around the long table. The white board pen scritches and scratches. They are talking about their first time. How prepared were you? And about their primary school sex ed. Did you know that in Pima County sex ed is opt-in only? That means that kids don’t get sex ed unless they tell their parents about it and their parents send them back to school with a signed release. I don’t remember when I lost my virginity. In a vehicle? In a house? On the beach? All these places I remember kissing and fondling. But sex? My thumb worries at the empty crease along the base of my left ring finger. When it’s my turn I tell them I attended a Christian school. I made yearly purity pledges. There was no such thing as sex education. There was an almost-first kiss outside the school bus in seventh grade, but I stopped him, hand on his chest, pulses racing. You’re distracting me from Jesus. I think we shouldn’t be friends. I didn’t tell them I never learned the word masturbation until college. Long after I was married. Long after I’d first had sex.

This night I dream of the open highway and of the long dirt road under a moonless night sky. I dream of the sign just south of the cattle guard that reads Active Drug and Human Smuggling Area… Visitors May Encounter Armed Criminals and Smuggling Vehicles Travelling at High Rates of Speed… The sound of the car stopping. We’d driven over 700 miles. I told him I was tired.

In the dream there is the engine heat, the burning hood of his car on my bare cheeks. The way my panties caught around my knees. The sound of seams popping. How it hurt.

Even now, four years later, I’m only wet after the first spurt of pain.

Put your fingernail against your eye. Don’t blink.

I write something this time, during the penultimate class. The words shake out like broken toys from a discarded sack. But there is story here, I tell myself, gratefully scribbling after such a long dry spell. Story, in the girl leaning against the door as he leaves. Story, as she stands in the bathroom, begging at the mirror: Something, please, anything that doesn’t hurt. Story, in the air that hangs cold and tinged with their sour after-odors. Naked now, she says to her reflection, “I am good.” Her thighs are still wet. Dutifully, she wipes up the cum, tissues away her own unsatisfied desire, her wish to say no unheard. “I am good,” she murmurs, and hugs her stomach hard. “I am good.” She does not recognize herself in the mirror. Who is this girl? Pathetic, small. Her throat aches. “I am good. I am good. Please. I am. I am good. Please.” The girl stares back. Sometime later, there is no reflection of a girl in the mirror. She is awake in her bed, staring at the popcorn kernels of paint on her ceiling, tear stains tracking into her ears, crusting there. Leaden, she flops an arm over to her nightstand, opens the drawer, pulls out a vibrator, and fucks herself to sleep.

The acoustic guitar solo fades out with a plaintive rallentando. Our instructor invites us to share what we’ve written. We put down our pens and enter a static moment of silence. A voice breaks through the wait. We listen. This is a good place for listening. I shift from my knees to the floor, feeling smaller.

We were asked to draft an overtly pornographic retelling of a certain excerpt of women’s fiction. We had not been instructed to write a first-person narrative vignette.

They all share. All five of them. Usually, it’s only two or three of us who pipe up. They look at me.

Accompanied by high ABVs and desire—not sexual desire, but a related and embarrassing longing to connect, to be heard and accepted—I nod and begin to read off the red-penned scribbles in my notebook. Some words are hard to decipher. Some are hard to enunciate. I feel the private shame of them, released into the world. Who is this girl? What right do you have to expose yourself in this way? It’s indecent. To speak of things that must, for everyone’s sake, be kept hidden. And who will want it, this indulgent oversharing? Your pain is not so significant.

Two weeks later, I consider not attending the last class. There’s been a holiday between sessions to dampen the blaze of my discomfort. Turkey and cranberry sauce and red wine and Brussels sprouts all deep fried and earthy. Three days of hard rock climbing to temper the trembling in my body, to ground it. My period’s come and gone. Was it only Saturday that I took my boyfriend to an independent sex toy store? We bought a black dildo and fingered the slippery lubes. And then, there was the night I wrote a poem. The first thing I’ve been proud of for almost four years.

Is there something to all this? How many times must we be broken open?

The road is mostly empty. In the weeknight lull between holidays, the town and the neighborhood bar settle back into a comfortable mundanity. I don’t drink tonight. I want to be sober. I want to wait until the end of class and then do something that feels like a panic attack. I want to ask the instructor—a woman my own age, a woman I look up to who’s also been a victim of sexual violence, someone I’m honored to learn from, cowed by, inspired by—I want to ask her if she will mentor the writer in me.

Perhaps it is this focus that brings down my guard. Instead of the floor, I commandeer one of the empty couch seats. I listen to the others as they read. I look at their faces and hands and shoulders and lips. I see them not just as classmates, partners, rivals, but as sexual beings driven by the myriad desires that daily, nightly, have their way with these humans’ bodies, minds, and hearts. That ancient force indomitable, and each of us grappling with it.

And then the night is over, and we all blink at each other in a confused sort of way because it does not feel over, there’s no closure, and so the instructor gives us one last exercise. Optional, for those who want to remain cradled in this safe place a little while longer.

I order a pint.

I lift my pen and watch them writing, hair fallen over eyes, cleavage exposed by hunched shoulders, determined jawlines hard or softly thoughtful, cheekbones blushed by beer, by the winter warmth of the loft. I look at my hand and think of the ways this hand has touched me. I think of the fists it has clenched into. In anger, in pleasure, in fear. Oh, this body of yours, or mine, tell us who we are, who we were, who we can be. I have been told and told to be silent, and have become the bad smell, crouched, huddled, bomb-shelter hidden, my parts not whole, stowed and storied; and only in that capacity—polished and perfect—art!—will I let you see me. This me. Who is this girl? Don’t blink, because now I want you to know. This is my desire—see it?—This slipping, fickle, virulent, wild, wonderful want of mine. Should I protect myself from it? Should I protect you?

As a child, on Sundays I recited a creed. I believed in things larger than myself. I grew older. I married, I made myself base, I murdered my spirit. I wept.

In the loft, I write.

{ X }

 I believe in my body, a whole and holy temple, as right and as perfect as yours;
and in this coming together, us two, three, more—gathered—divinity in our midst…

{ X }

Some months later, I wander through the city. My sunglasses block out the molten late-afternoon sun. It has been a bad day, in the way it seems that only an artist’s or toddler’s day can go without warning or apparent impetus from one moment of joy and flow to that particular world-is-imploding-inside-me despair that leaves one paralyzed and stricken, seeking refuge from one’s own mind. She did not choose to mentor me, our writing class instructor; or, perhaps, I failed to choose her. When we meet by chance, we nod to each other in the neighborhood bar where she works or in the climbing gym, the air choked with chalk dust, the walls wrapped by sinuous bodies, back muscles extending their naked wings.

I said once, “Congrats on your fellowship,” making small talk, jealous and proud. “Where in South America again?”

She said, without much ado, “I’m so glad you’re writing.”

I’m not, though. At least, not in any way I’ve ever done before. And perhaps this is why I’ve not pursued her mentorship.

Behind the old theatre is a weird wonderland of broken architecture: desiccated fountain installations; abandoned, giant picture frames standing empty; the odd statue. I’m not content in looking. I have to crawl up on the fountains’ greenish boulders, walk through the framed doorways as if through portals, touch the private elbows and fingertips of the statues.

It is indeed, I think, a toddler’s exercise. A learning-with-one’s-body. In these involuntary acts of entering and of being entered—and in undertakings more deliberate like in having an IUD inserted or in getting an ultrasound—I can feel in my skin that there is something I’ve forgotten, something that hurts to not remember. Or, more accurately, there is something I am un-remembering. It’s about sex, about my body and about its long-ago invasion and appropriation. This wordless hurt is winding itself into words. Into all of my stories, essays, and poems. Maybe I knew it before. From the class, I’ve learned that it’s also okay.

I am out on Stone now and standing at the doors of the cathedral. A text message from my boyfriend buzzes in my palm: I’m here and I love you. I tuck my phone away. If he were here and if I could touch him, if I could press into his body as I so often do—brain on hiatus, self-editor on sabbatical—if I could mold myself into his skin, take him into me, smell his woodsy sweat, the sourberry-salt taste of him, would I believe in his love? Why are there so many parts of me, each so out of sync?

Write a list of wounds.

I enter the church.

What does it mean to be disassembled by sex?

The oiled wood pews gleam in the soft glow of kaleidoscopic sunlight. I inhale the rich silence of a place I remember well. Parishioners whisper and cross themselves, bowing as they pass the center of the transept. Believers . . . What do I believe in anymore? I seem drawn to that confluence, the center of the cross-shaped building where the sun spills full and warm. I soak in the light, feeling the words thrumming softly, thumbing through memories I cannot, processing them for me.

I’m grateful.

I reach out and touch the slick wooden pew-back, wondering from what tree in what forest it was carved, over what land mass or ocean it was carried. I am writing in a way that is like this touch—a strange dog’s nose to an outstretched hand. Searching, inquisitive. Can you remember the way you first began to walk? Bumbling, determined? It is this way, too, that I’ve begun to have sex again. These moments elongate into whole worlds, passing in a blink of an eye.

So, here is the last step. Go ahead and blink. Close your eyes and reach out—and let each touch, each word, be an unlearning.

{ X }


I believe in my body, a whole and holy temple, as right and as perfect as yours;
and in this coming together, us two, three, more—gathered—divinity in our midst.
I believe in the great Teacher, this seat of flesh and bone,
all our curves and colored angles, our dips and hollows, holes
and bumps and pumping muscles, beating hearts, beckoning eyes and bludgeoned
senses of self worth. Body, whole or sickly, still an ever-present help
in time of need, you are our one salvation;
deliver us from shame by which reins the world
has driven us mad until now.
I believe in the community of openness,
in the forgiveness of shared passion and hurt,
in the resurrection of hope in our complete likeness of being.
Honor each other, honor yourselves,
and let not one hair on your holy head
be taken for granted.
Now and forever.

{ X }

LoraRiveraPic1Post-MFA, LORA RIVERA worked as a literary agent’s assistant, children’s biographer, e-learning developer, and crepe maker. She likes: rocks and climbing on them, words and chewing on them, people and connecting to them, and ferns because they are old and slow to evolve and so must be very wise. Find her online: Twitter at @lroseriver; Instagram at @lora.r.rivera. Or check out her other works at https://clippings.me/lroseriver.

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