Every so often I put one hand on the waistband of my jeans and pull as hard as I can. I’m in Language Arts class, and my teacher is teaching us the key elements of Renaissance art. She opens a book wide and holds it over her chest so we can all see. A photograph of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthy Delights”, the colors glowing deeply in the dim light. Like excavating a hole through the inner substance of the Earth and seeing, down and past the column of basalt, the flush of red-hot magma.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a work of art divided into three sections (commonly known as a “triptych”). Painted half a millenium ago by an aging Dutchman, it features representations of Paradise, Earth and Hell.
In the middle panel, the depiction of a scene from Earth: naked youth wade in silver pools and feed themselves from the beaks of birds. They lie in groves of over-sized fruit, cradling blueberries and roses, carrying lovers encased in cracking eggs. A man reaches down to grasp the fingers of a woman submerged in water. In a grove of trees another steps forward with one hand extended. It’s all rosy pink domes and spring green buds. Females crow and cry, lying in the pool that lies in the center of a great circle of men.
The hand goes to the waistband again, fixing the fit because I’m terrified the boy behind me will see my beige underwear and think it’s something I’m putting in front of him on purpose, that it’s something I wish for him to see. My pants are a size too big, constantly slipping below the safe line of my hips and into dangerous contours. No doubt my male classmate knows these places well enough. Perhaps he’s even touched them before, or at least simulated the experience, using a pillow as a proxy. I’m sure he has seen more than enough of his fair share of porn. I imagine him leaning towards the thumping screen, watching the maid-cum-temptress peeling off purple Lycra underwear. Hoisting sweatpants up with babyish hands, I doubt I make the same kind of impression. Still, I can’t bear the thought that he’ll think I’m trying to seduce him.
In the left panel: in the Paradise of Eden, Adam awakens to find God with His fingers on Eve’s wrist. There are dozens of magical animals, and the horizon is not a threat, as it sometimes is on Earth, but the promise of bright mountains and brighter air. But I imagine Eve does not notice that, not at this moment, with God’s fingers finding her pulse. How does she feel, I wonder, about this brief physical contact with the divine? Does she thrill at the touch? Is she horrified by it, as young children sometimes fear encounters with respected elders? Does she tell Adam about it later, about the texture and temperature of a holy hand? Or is speaking her feelings only betraying the role she has?
When I was a child, my mother spent hours brushing my hair. She’d sit me on a stool in the kitchen or in the living room, picking at the tangles while she watched Law & Order, or ER. Day in and day out, she’d wave away my protests, saying I couldn’t go to school looking like a mongrel. As the years passed, the word changed, going from “mongrel” to “witch” to “trucker”, and, on several memorable occasions, to “guarra”. The Spanish”guarra”, meaning filthy, disgusting, pig, a slut. “La guarra de tu hermana”, your slut of a sister. “La guarra de tu hija”, your whore of a daughter.
Sometimes, in her own way, my mother apologizes for these instances. She asks, “did it hurt when I brushed your hair?”, assuming I’ll remember even though it’s been at least half a decade. When I shrug, she nods to herself, answering for me that “it did, didn’t it. It did.”
Once I heard one of my classmates talk about a teen model he knew. He compared her to other girls as though he were at a furniture store, feeling up bedsheets, or picking lampshades in his favorite colors.
“She was gorgeous,” he says, “much better that any of the chicks here. Well, maybe she was a bit unattractive when she was wearing those glasses of hers, but without? Wow, that’s all I’ve got to say.” He could’ve been at a Home Depot, fingering the shiny tassel on a set of curtains.
I know the structure of the human genome allows no space for philosophy. I know how little separates us from peacocks and lions. I know that much of human superiority is based on fable. But still I couldn’t control how viscerally I reacted to the idea, this idea of a model and I, pinned to walls like butterflies, or lists of things to do. And this classmate of mine, a boy no older than seventeen, looking up at us from a swivel chair, occasionally reaching up to place his hands on our wrists.
I am not responsible for the genetic recombination that occurred in my parent’s gametes. It is not my fault the biological lottery didn’t see fit to give me blue eyes or my grandmother’s nose. It is not my job to scavenge for the beauty I do not possess. But that is what I will inevitably do for the rest of my life.
In the right panel: a hellscape, an illustrated Fall of Man done up in black, brown and ochre. A fellow’s legs are rotting tree trunks. Naked men fall in holes in the ice, knights are devoured by packs of wolves. Black arms pin a woman down. What little light there is comes only from fire. Somewhere, a man is being punished for lust, and a woman is being punished for being the origin of that lust.
The empty apartment of Man, and woman in the mirror, one leg slung over the basin. Woman in the walls, painting her lips and lids red, woman bent over a coffee table, searching the skin of her guests for imperfections. Woman hidden in a cupboard, weeping at clothes too small and breasts too large, woman underneath a bed, popping pimples. Woman hanging at the windows, like curtains, clenching her thighs so you won’t see her stretchmarks.
When I ask a classmate why she wears make-up, she answers, “I want to feel beautiful.” It’s something I want, too. But I don’t want it like this. I won’t climb these stairs with rotten tree trunks for legs, just to reach that glade where men will circle me blindly. I won’t hang my naked body at a window, hoping some one will take me home.
The value of a woman: is it something that can be put down to size and shape? Can you fetch a better price by shaving, painting, stripping or reconstructing your body? If a young girl commits suicide because she is not lovely enough, is this a justifiable loss, like bulldozing a house no one is willing to buy? Are our appraisers those boys at the backs of buses, affixing adjectives to our parts, bumping up the figure according to their desires? If I go to school with a hat covering tangled hair, will they sigh and call me “guarra”? How far am I to carry the role of “eyes downcast, look pretty”, à la Eve? If I bare my underpants to the classmate seated behind me, will he find me more valuable? Does he understand that I am not meant to satisfy his aesthetic sense? Does he understand that women are not meant for men?
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a beautiful painting. But just as women are not walls nor windows, just as they are not hair nor scarves, they are not paintings. They are never paintings.
A big thank-you to whomever submitted this for Schmutzie’s Five Star Friday, 147th Edition! Very kind of you, dear anonymous. Yayyyy.