We wear all our experiences on our bodies. The body keeps a peculiar memory. The muscles and joints hold an imprint of what we subject it to. A record or an echo of each occurrence.
Soreness in the calves, or the hip socket slightly irritated after wearing heavy winter boots in the snow all day. A shoulder groove or a hip pop that encourages your mum to sign you up for dance classes. Shame or agitation from a dance teacher that would smack your knees to get you to straighten them. We all carry tension, unresolved trauma, or the feeling of coming short of what others expect us to be. A lot of therapy will focus on trying to trace and chase this tension through your body, not unlike what you do with a scared cat that needs to be coaxed into settling down.
If you take a nondescript New York train car, there will be a handful of sucked in stomachs, fixed stiff eyeballs and high-pressed shoulders screaming “don’t get in my personal space.” The first time my ex-boyfriend kissed me properly in broad daylight was at LaGuardia airport the day I arrived in the city, a day before starting college. The panic ran through me faster than the awareness that his were the lips I’d chosen to kiss over and over again. The panic that my homophobic country instills in young bodies, embodied in nervous glances, a tight chest, and hunched shoulders.
After that first kiss in the last buttery golden hours of the day, we hurried excited to our hotel room, had a nap, and went out for a walk and dinner in SoHo. How novel and normal that felt, parading this handsome man by my wrist, two hands wrapped around each other’s negative spaces - a solipsism of flesh and bones. Palms warm with joy.
I’m reminded of this as I’m speeding through the Paris subway. The derelict station blurs, and in the corner of my eye I see a couple holding hands. I catch a glimpse at their idle walk just as my train enters the tunnel. It’s a partial, inevitably stolen look. He looks at her with a coy smile, young and buff in a tank top. For a second, I am on that platform in Paris, at LaGuardia, on the streets of SoHo.
Would I hold hands with my ex-boyfriend in Paris? Or just in New York or Fire Island? Or the good parts of Oslo, helpfully pointed out by a boy on a date: “This area is where I would hold hands. That area is where I wouldn’t hold hands,” the pace of our walk picking up and our shoulders recruiting that dreaded, familiar stiffness of muscle memory.
When it comes to queer visibility, everyday physical acts quickly become games of Russian roulette. Every such act is a gross estimate of your safety, a walking, talking geographic, demographic and psychological equation of what will or won’t expose you to danger. So you just fall back on the experiences of your body. It might not be what you want, but at least you can wear them as your own.
(Fire Island feels like an awfully long way to go to hold hands)
Illustration: Gustav Steenkamp @art_by_gustav_henri