Issue #71, Let's Talk About Sex
The Rib Joint
The Rib Joint
JULIA KOETS was the winner of the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award for her book The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays (2019). She is a visiting assistant professor of nonfiction at the University of South Florida. More at: juliakoets.com and @juliakoets.
An octopus protects itself by hiding in plain sight. Lacking either an internal or external skeleton, and with thousands of pigment-changing cells just below the surface of its skin, in disguise, it can change not only its color but also its texture and shape. An octopus can blend in with almost anything: rough head of coral, spiny polyp cluster, tunicate-ridden side of a sunken ship.
As two University of California–Berkeley biologists discovered, one species of octopus disguises itself by wrapping its six arms around its body and walking backwards on its two legs. Another octopus “coils its two front arms and raises them in a pose that somewhat resembles algae.” Without a rib cage to protect its three hearts, one particular species known as the “mimic octopus” can shapeshift into a sea snake, flounder, or lionfish.
I disguised myself for years. I hid in plain sight. In college, my best friend, Kate,* and I slept together in a small twin bed, as if inside a jar—it didn’t seem possible that we could both fit so comfortably. We locked the door to her bedroom, as if sealing a lid, making sure no one could get inside.
Unlike the octopus, curiously able to open and escape a sealed container, I could not imagine such openness. I could not imagine coming out. Not in the South. Not at nineteen.
• • •
Kate and I met during the first week of college. The afternoon of the first day of classes, I sat nervously in a small classroom, waiting for the math professor to arrive. I smiled when Kate walked past me and chose the seat behind mine. I noticed how pretty she was—her shoulder-length blonde hair, her long neck, her peacock-green eyes.
Maybe we went to lunch after class that day, or maybe we studied for the first test together later that week, or maybe we ran into each other in a dorm hallway. The truth is, I can’t remember exactly where it happened, but it wasn’t long before Kate and I were always together, joined at the hip.
• • •
To escape our small Southern college town, Kate and I drove. We left our quiet campus late at night in the blue 1990 Oldsmobile sedan I had inherited from my grandmother. Some nights, we didn’t pass a single car on the road. All that seemed to exist out there was pine trees.
Our college had fewer than 1,300 students, and almost everyone lived in the dorms and ate their meals in the one cafeteria on campus. I looked forward to the nights in the car with Kate, when everyone we knew was several tiny towns away. We could have been driving nowhere, and some nights we did drive nowhere—we just drove until we turned around. The car was one of the only places where Kate and I could talk without anyone else hearing; what we said seemed safe inside my midnight blue sedan. Our thin bodies relaxed into the blue cloth seats. Kate propped her bare feet on the blue dashboard, her toes pressed against the windshield. I wrapped my hands around the blue steering wheel and adjusted the blue radio dial to find a good song. We both complained that only country songs came on within a thirty-mile radius of our school.
One night, I told Kate about how I had kissed my best friend in middle school. “It’s not that strange,” she said as I concentrated on the dimly lit road. “Lots of girls have crushes on their best friend. I don’t think it means you’re a lesbian.” I was relieved. I also wondered whether Kate meant that I shouldn’t worry about the ambiguity surrounding our own friendship. I wondered if she felt the ambiguity between us, too. Kate moved closer to the blue center console and rested her head against my shoulder. “I’m getting tired,” she said.
I imagined driving through thousands more towns just like that, with her head on my shoulder and some country song on the radio. Every store would be closed. Every field would be empty. Every house would be dark.
• • •
On Valentine’s Day, a boy invited Kate and me—both of us—to be his dates. Maybe he couldn’t decide between us, or maybe he couldn’t imagine us apart.
When we got ready that night, Kate helped me put on makeup, leaned in close to line my eyes black, to brush on mascara. “Relax your mouth,” she said, as she drew on red lipstick. She bit her bottom lip as she concentrated on my face. She folded a tissue in half and handed it to me. “Now, do this,” she told me, pressing her lips together—making a popping noise when she opened them—to show me how to blot.
Posing for a photograph later in the night, Kate and I stood in front of a taxidermied bison on display at the front of the restaurant. In the next photo, our date smiled in the middle of us, one of his arms around each of our waists.
• • •
Sophomore year, we lived in the same dorm, and one night that fall, Kate crawled into my skinny bottom bunk. Our skin was still warm from summer. Her back against my chest, she put my arm around her so that my hand rested against her ribs. With my fingers I studied the way one of her lower ribs stuck out further than the others.
We were best friends—we knew that—but we didn’t talk about how the borders of our bodies had started to blur. In Classical Latin, costa meant “rib,” which, later, in Medieval Latin, came to mean “edge” or “coast,” the side of a stretch of land. We were walking the edge of a boundary neither of us would name. That night, her body slept against mine like the Atlantic against the Carolina coast.
• • •
“I want you to kiss me,” Kate said one night in the spring. When she moved closer, her face so near to my face I could feel her breath, I turned away. I couldn’t stop my body from shaking.
My fear of my own desire could be measured like a chemical formula, each aspect of my anxiety a letter in a chemical compound. Think of each line connecting hydrogen to carbon as a rib: a butane structure for fear. I was afraid that if I kissed Kate, the atoms inside me would split, and I might not be able to put them back in place.
I worried that my relationship with Kate would change irrevocably if we kissed. What if Kate only wanted to kiss me as an experiment, the way girls in movies joked about having experimented with a girl in college, as if the experience was so inconsequential, so minor they could laugh it off? I hated those girls, the crisp certainty of their laughs. And anyway, I didn’t think they could call something an experiment if they already knew the answer to the question they were asking—they’d end up with a guy.
• • •
In the Bible, when the serpent convinced Eve to eat the fruit from the tree at the center of the garden, maybe it was the structure of the snake’s body—made of so many ribs—that made her trust him. The rib was Eve’s beginning, after all, her connection to God and the only other person who existed on Earth.
Maybe, at the moment when the snake told Eve she wouldn’t die if she ate the forbidden fruit, she imagined her body as beautifully protected. How wonderful to fall, she thought, feeling her lungs fill and empty beneath her ribs.
• • •
We finally kissed in the fall of our junior year. I was shaking, but when Kate slid her tongue into my mouth, I forgot how scared I was. Her face was softer than any boy’s I’d kissed—which was an aspect of kissing her that I hadn’t considered.
The top seven sets of ribs in a human body are called true ribs because they’re attached to the sternum. The lower five sets are known as false ribs because they don’t directly attach to the sternum. In a very small number of genetic cases, the fourth or fifth rib of a person will not attach to the sternum in utero, making that rib neither true nor false.
The first time Kate and I kissed, I realized that everything I’d known about kissing up until then was somehow false. When Kate and I kissed, it felt like my first kiss, even though I’d kissed plenty of guys and one other girl before that night. Kate took off her shirt, shimmied out of her jeans, and crawled next to me in my twin bed.
Kissing Kate, all my nerve endings woke up—a million bees’ wings, humming under the surface of my skin. “Take off your shirt,” Kate said. “This is the only time this is going to happen, so we shouldn’t stop.”
• • •
I knew if I told even our closest friends that I was in love with Kate, they’d think it was a sin, or at least they’d think it was objectionable. At our college, almost everyone went to church, regardless of how much they drank the night before or who they’d slept with. On Sundays after morning services, the school cafeteria filled with students in their Sunday best.
After church on Sundays, as I carried my tray of fried chicken, green beans, and sweet tea to my table to sit with Kate and my friends in our college cafeteria, I sometimes worried everyone could see right through me, that my sin was so strong you could see it, like the outline of my body through my thin cotton dress.
• • •
That fall, Kate and I hardly got any sleep. I was never more tired and never more awake. Kate told me that sleeping with me didn’t mean she was a lesbian. “It doesn’t mean I’m bisexual either,” she said one afternoon on one of our drives.
Miles from campus, we came upon a farm on a back road, where we decided to stop. When we got out of the car, I noticed a herd of strange animals running toward us from a distance, their necks tall and alert. As the animals got closer, I realized what they were, but the realization didn’t ease my fear. I worried they were going to jump the thin wire fence that separated us from them, that Kate and I were going to die right there in the middle of nowhere in a llama stampede. “Get back in the car!” I yelled to Kate. “It’s OK,” she said, laughing and moving closer to the fence. “They aren’t going to hurt us.”
On the drive back to campus, after we’d stopped laughing, I told her that naming what we were doing didn’t matter—that it didn’t mean we had to stop. And we didn’t.
• • •
In the spring of our junior year, a guy took Kate to a Disney on Ice performance. After the date, lying next to me in bed, Kate told me, “We have to stop doing whatever it is we’ve been doing.” I lay there silently.
“It’s just that if I’m going to date Brian, we have to stop.”
The white cinderblock walls in the room glowed faintly in the dark.
“Say something,” she said. But my voice was stuck in my chest, in the tight space between my lungs and my heart.
• • •
Sarah was a biology major and a Baptist, so I began our friendship by asking her to explain things to me, as she did in the laboratory on campus: how does water run up a mountain, why do only our fingers and toes prune after swimming for hours, how can people at your church not believe in evolution?
I didn’t tell Kate I had a crush on Sarah, because I wanted to keep it safe. But my reasoning was more complicated than that, if I’m being honest. When Kate continued seeing Brian after the Disney on Ice date, I felt betrayed in a way I’d never felt betrayed by anyone before, and I wanted Kate to feel what it was like to be replaced.
• • •
The two lowermost ribs of the human ribcage are called floating ribs because they don’t attach, directly or indirectly, to the sternum. They have no anchor in the front of the body. When Kate started dating Brian, my whole body felt that way—detached.
I suddenly understood, more viscerally than I had before, why people call the end of a relationship a breakup. Why people want a clean break. A clean break means it’s more likely that the recovery time will be shorter, that the bone will heal with less chance of infection or complications.
When Kate started dating Brian, we didn’t make a clean break, the way a straight couple would do if one person started sleeping with someone else. I didn’t tell her how hurt I was. I didn’t tell her to end things with Brian, to choose me. I just stopped being her best friend—because that felt like the only thing I could do without completely falling apart.
• • •
On the day Eve was born, did Adam tell her God made her from one of his ribs? And, hearing this, did she trace her fingers over his chest, searching for a scar?
• • •
The summer after our junior year, I volunteered to drive with Sarah to California, to the coastal town where she was going to live with a high school friend for the summer. She’d have a free place to stay and a job waiting tables at a seafood restaurant with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
We drove from one coast to the other in four days. We took turns driving all through the first night, and by the next afternoon, we had made it from South Carolina to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We camped the rest of the nights in deserts.
We didn’t expect it to get so cold at night in May. The days were hot and left us parched, but at night, the temperature dropped into the forties, and the cold air seeped through our thin nylon tent and into our bones. The first night we camped, we zipped our sleeping bags together to conserve heat, and when that wasn’t enough, we moved as close to each other as we could. I put my arm around Sarah’s waist. When I got back from the trip, Kate asked if anything was going on between Sarah and me. She was still dating Brian—he’d mailed her a letter every day of summer break. Nothing had happened between Sarah and me on the trip, not technically. We’d never kissed or talked about the undercurrent between us.
“No,” I answered Kate over the phone, “but I don’t know why you’d care.”
“We’re supposed to be best friends,” she said.
That’s the problem with sleeping with your best friend. I didn’t realize until then that I wasn’t sure whether Kate and I had ever been just friends. Had I loved her from the moment I saw her walk into that math class? From the night she taught me how to blot my lips? From the night she rested her head on my shoulder in my car?
• • •
The first time Sarah and I kissed, more than halfway through our senior year, I asked her to make a scientific hypothesis: how many times can I kiss you before you kiss me on the mouth? Lying next to her in bed, on her dark blue sheets, I ran my hand under her T-shirt and across her stomach.
I kissed her forearm—one. Her skin was warm in the middle of February.
Two—just below the sleeve of her T-shirt.
Then an inch above her collar—three.
She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
I could feel her heart racing through her skin.
Four—a few inches higher on her neck.
She kissed me on the mouth when I looked up at her.
• • •
When we graduated from college, Kate was still with Brian, and I was still secretly dating Sarah. That August, Brian was moving to North Carolina to start graduate school, and Sarah was moving to Charleston to start a job at an ecology camp. Kate suggested she and I move to Charleston together. I knew this was a bad idea, but I agreed to the plan, maybe out of guilt, maybe because I didn’t want to lose Kate. If I lived in Charleston, at least I would be close to Sarah, I thought.
When Kate and I didn’t know how to find the jobs we really wanted and didn’t have enough money to rent a place in Charleston, we moved into the studio apartment above my mom’s photography studio in my hometown, thirty miles inland, and started waitressing at a barbeque restaurant in my hometown. Come lick our bones, the rib joint’s T-shirts said.
• • •
After we moved into the studio apartment, I told Kate about Sarah, even though Sarah didn’t want me to tell anyone what was going on between us. She was scared about what it all meant. She’d never kissed a girl before. She didn’t know if it was right, if she could reconcile her feelings for me with her religious beliefs. Sarah’s family and her church taught her that being gay was a sin, something you might be tempted to think about but should never act on. They believed being gay could be cured with prayer, the same way some people prayed for a parking spot at Walmart. But I knew I couldn’t live with Kate for the next year without telling her. I wanted things to get better between us.
I eased into the words. “Sarah and I . . .” I let the sentence out slowly, as if carefully unloosening the cap on a carbonated drink that had rolled around for months in the trunk of a car. “. . . we’re together.”
“How long has it been going on?” Kate asked, a tinge of anger surfacing in her voice.
The ceiling fan above the bed spun and spun, its blades inches away from the sloping walls. The window air-conditioning unit rattled the glass panes.
“Nobody knows about it,” I said. “She asked me not to tell anyone.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Like the bubbles rising in that shaken bottle of soda, I started to feel unstable, unable to control the situation. “Since February,” I said, thinking she’d already guessed as much.
“February. You’ve been lying to me for six months?” she asked, the question of it half-lodged in her throat. “I asked you outright months ago, and you lied to me.”
When I tried to tell her how it wasn’t actually a lie but a refusal to tell her, how Sarah had asked me not to tell anyone, Kate lost it. She left the room, slamming the door behind her.
Before I had time to breathe, to process her reaction, the door swung back open, leaving a doorknob-size hole in the wall. “I hate you!” she yelled. “I hate you!”
• • •
Meat is most tender closest to the bone. At the rib joint, the smell of pork fat and hickory smoke seeped into the walls, the wooden booths, the framed posters of B. B. King, the green terry cloth napkins, the dingy hardwood floors, the metal vats of sweet tea.
It was impossible to get the smell of smoked pork out of our clothes, our shoes, our long hair pulled back in ponytails. When I dropped by my parents’ house after lunch shifts, my mom started asking me to take off my work shoes before I came inside, a request she’d never made of anyone before.
The year Kate and I worked at the rib joint, you could see my ribs. I lost weight without even realizing it. By November, my khaki work pants slid down my hips if my belt wasn’t tight enough. I went from a size 6 to a size 4 to a size 2.
• • •
“I’ve figured it out,” another server said to me one day in February as we wrapped silverware near the end of a long lunch shift. “What’s that?” I asked, wiping a pink fleck of rib off a knife that didn’t get completely clean in the dishwasher. He wore his wiry blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a smudge clouded his thin-rimmed glasses. “You and Kate. You’re in love with her, right?” He looked across the restaurant at Kate, carrying a tray of food from the kitchen. It made me angry that I was the one at fault, the one in love.
In November, Kate’s parents drove from Florida for Thanksgiving. Before they arrived, Kate asked if she could tell her parents I was gay, to help them understand why she was having a hard time, why she seemed upset when they talked on the phone over the past few months. “That’s fine,” I said, feeling my body tense as I said it. I hated that she was making me the problem.
I placed the knife and a clean fork onto a napkin, trying not to seem thrown by my co-worker’s comment. “No, I’m not in love with her.” I folded the napkin tightly so it wouldn’t open when I placed it with the others in the basket. Before he could press any further, a customer flagged him down from a booth in his section. I watched Kate walking back toward the kitchen. I wonder now what was written across my face as I looked at her.
• • •
The one ritual I practiced the year Kate and I worked at the rib joint was drinking hot black tea.
One day after work, I noticed a strange smell in our apartment: something rotten, but an unusual rotten. A rotten I didn’t recognize. Like a dead fish, but not quite.
In search of the smell, I walked around our small kitchen. I poked inside the garbage can; I opened the made-for-small-living-spaces refrigerator; I looked in cabinets. Finally giving up, I heated some water to make tea, planning to drink it in the bedroom, where I could shut the door to keep out the mysterious rotting smell.
I didn’t laugh when I opened the metal sugar tin I had inherited from my grandmother. I didn’t laugh when I dipped a teaspoon into it. I didn’t laugh when I found a small dead octopus buried in the sugar.
Holding my nose, I scooped it out. Its suction-cupped, purple-gray arms drooped over the sides of the spoon. The iron smell of its rotting tentacles had infused the entire half-pound of sugar.
“It’s a joke,” Kate said when I presented her with the octopus after she got home from her shift. On Kate’s trip to North Carolina to visit Brian the previous weekend, they’d tried a Japanese all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner, she told me as I held the octopus up in front of her. To rib is “to joke,” “to tease.”
At the time, I didn’t think about how the joke meant she’d been thinking of me the whole time she’d been away: at dinner with Brian, when she first saw the octopus slick and gleaming on a bed of ice; on the car ride back to his apartment, the cold octopus wrapped in a napkin in her purse; falling asleep that night, as the octopus froze in a plastic bag in Brian’s icebox; the next morning at breakfast, when she figured out the best way to transport the octopus back to South Carolina; and the 280 miles she drove with it—in a cooler in the passenger seat? in the trunk, as far away as possible? in a cup in the center console, its frozen body rattling against the sides of the plastic cup like a strangely shaped piece of ice?
• • •
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I learned there are two different creation stories in the Bible. In the first one, in Genesis chapter 1, God took six days to make everything. In the second version, in Genesis chapter 2, starting at verse 4, it took only one day.
In the second story, God made Adam first, and then the rivers, every beast of the field, every bird in the air. In this version, Eve came last in the story, made of Adam’s rib.
In the first story, though, God created Adam and Eve at the same time—and there was no mention of Eve being made of Adam’s rib.
• • •
In my story, it wasn’t long before Sarah realized she couldn’t simultaneously love me and love God, and before Kate moved back to Florida and broke it off with Brian, who almost immediately married another girl. Years later—after I finished a master’s degree in poetry, after Kate dated different guys, after I moved to LA, after Kate worked as a church youth minister, after I fell for other girls, after I moved to San Francisco, after she moved to Ireland to work for a church organization, then back to South Carolina, and after she started seminary—she called me one night to tell me something.
“I couldn’t see myself clearly back then,” she said. I could feel her trying to find the right words, like a body bending over slowly to pick something up. “I’m not straight.”
“What do you mean exactly?” I asked.
“I thought that since my experience was different from yours,” she said, “—that I didn’t have a feeling I might be gay when I was younger—it meant I must be straight.”
Something opened inside me when she said it. Hearing Kate name something in herself, what she’d resisted naming during the years we slept together and for years after, the hurt I’d felt, that I wasn’t even fully aware I still felt, loosened.
• • •
If an octopus’s camouflage fails, if it’s seen for what it really is, it resorts to ink, a thick, black cloud, reimagining protection, what it means to live without ribs at the bottom of the sea. When Kate told me she’d loved me, I felt our story bend, the way the ribs curve to encompass the lungs, the heart. In one story, we lived in a jar. In another story, we opened the lid and swam out into the darkness of the ocean.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
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