Tell me what you want. Tell me what feels good.
I press my face against his shoulder and go very still. I know what I want, but even in my head, the words don’t form, don’t gather as they usually do—ripely, readily.
I open my mouth. Close it. Say, I—
He strokes my back, gently.
I close my mouth and lean back on the bed. I am quiet.
He touches my cheek, eyes searching. He bends over me. Do you like it when I kiss your nipples?
A shudder, almost a horror, runs through me at the sound of the word. Also, admiration: he doesn’t stumble, doesn’t stutter. He swims through the word, the language, as though he has been taught not to feel shame.
He kisses me. Do you like it when I kiss your neck?
Most of the time.
He kisses me. Do you like it when I kiss your ears?
Later, in a moment of extreme bravery, I tell him, That feels good.
I close my eyes. Yes.
In bed, alone, I think of him. Do you like it when I kiss your nipples? I picture the words rising in his mind and alighting from his tongue, his lips. The way he asked his question so gently. Naturally.
Then I think of my parents. I think of the words they taught me to seek like low-hanging fruit: words for obligation (contract, treaty, onus); words for oblation (sacrifice, offering, gift); so many words for learning, for study, for sin. In the way of most spoiled children, I am ungrateful. I know to say, “They gave me so much,” but I am aware of all I don’t have: words for the body’s parts, words for the warmth I feel when another draws close, words for wanting and having and being satisfied.
I still don’t know how to refer to my breasts. On paper, it is easier. Breasts, I write, breasts. But on my lips, the word is too airy to hold, too delicate for my tongue to catch. Breas—I try to say, but the consonant cluster departs before I can speak it.
I have some friends who still, childishly, say boobs. A few say tits—a crude, joking word, which makes me cringe when I hear it. There is bosom—matronly, old-fashioned, pendulous. It makes me think of my grandmother, and the times she left the bedroom door open while changing.
Breasts, I say. Breasts. A wisp of a word.
Nip-ple, I try. Nip-ple. The second syllable dissolves sharply into my exhale. Nipple,I say, finally. Nipple, breast, vagina.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
I am twenty years old when I realize I am repressed. That I should be able—want to be able—to speak about a body.
You learn to fake it, eventually. You learn not to start when someone says penis, casually, in conversation. You learn not to laugh when someone speaks about nipples, about breasts and anuses and the plural of clitoris, which I learn is clitorides.
You learn how to speak in bed, avoiding the words you hate like gum on the street. You become an expert in circumlocution.
Yes. Like that.
I become brave, or brave enough, with my hands. I direct where I want theirs to go. I am generous with the hums and exhalations at the back of my throat, little muted things I release in moments of pleasure. When we are really alone—when there is no one for blocks or the walls are thick or we are in a hotel and don’t know the people next door—then I am as loud as I want to be. One laughs afterward, pleased.
What? I ask with a smile, blushing just a little. It’s more fun this way. What I mean is, I am trying to tell you what I want.
I can be very silent, very loudly silent, when I am displeased. Sometimes I push them away. Sometimes I say, No.
There is a W. S. Merwin poem I love called “Losing a Language.” It is about many things. One of the things it is about is the way language becomes misplaced when it is passed from generation to generation.
many of the things the words were about
no longer exist
the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree
the verb for I
Merwin doesn’t talk much about how some referents never change, though their signifiers morph as they’re whispered or boasted or joked or hurled. Pussy, twat, dick, cock.
We do not lack words for the parts of our bodies. Easily, I think of four that correspond to the space between my legs. Six that speak to the space between his. There are medical words, babyish words, so many slang words I still don’t know.
Merwin wrote that the young have fewer words. He was wrong; we have more. None of them seem right.
Once, before, I wanted all of the words for the body. I was very much in love. I was very inexperienced.
I had decided that our clothes could not come off unless we could name the places we wanted to touch. And so, when we were both tired enough not to care—or rather, to care less about how much we cared—we practiced.
Penis, I said. Penis. Vagina. Penis.
Clitoris, he said. Vagina, penis, clitoris.
I made us say the words until we could speak them without laughing. Even after, though, we found different words: words that were not lifted from medical dictionaries or locker rooms or songs that made me blush when I tried to sing along. Together, we built our own language—knew what a single word or sound meant, only between us. There was no shame.
The problem with a private language is that no one else knows it.
He remembers the words, and so do I. But we don’t talk anymore, and I can’t speak this language—body language—to anyone else.
A friend asks me if I think words lose some of their power when they are used freely, if perhaps body language is like ancient blessings, which sound different beyond high ceilings and stone floors.
I tell her this strikes me as possible. There are holy words and unholy spaces. There are words that lose their sheen, the way butterflies or moths lose their scales when they are too often handled.
Still, I say, I want to be able to talk about this. I gesture to my chest.
Once, I visited Ellis Island with my family and found the stone where my great-grandmother’s maiden name is engraved, evidence of her transplant from the old world to the new. Her name was Pearl Brest. My father laughed when we found it. Lucky she married, huh? he said, and I imagined going along in life with this word attached to me almost as intractably as these two milk-secreting, glandular organs are attached to my chest.
Now I say Brest, and it does not feel right to me, but neither does it feel quite as wrong. Yes, there are words that lose their meanings with use—language that grinds down like chalk— but perhaps there are also words that gain meaning with speaking, one association altered by another.
Breasts, I say aloud. I find it different now. The lights are on, and we are not two people in love but two friends sitting across from each other in a poorly ventilated dorm room. I steel myself again. Breasts. It leaves my lips a little easier this time, though the tail of the word still catches against my teeth.
There is some power in the word, I feel now, which I have never noticed before. The way the “b” brushes itself from my lips. The way the end of the word becomes part of the air almost immediately. It is sacred, somehow, the way things that are intransigently part of you are sacred. Almost holy. This word is for bedsheets, yes, but maybe it could also be for ancestors, for voyagers, for conversations between friends.
Brest, I say again. Breast.