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Voices

Being You is Also Nothing

by Francesca Mansky

An essay from the Spring 2019 issue.

by Francesca Mansky | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Editors’ Note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.


July is when, feet pressing against the moss, I tiptoe to the coast. Peripheral sketches of trees on the horizon line, Prussian blue fractals sway with the wind. The reeds are sharp and I’m bleeding from my feet when they slip through the water. My skin seems to melt off my arms and legs with the sunscreen, and I smell like grease. The cool water laps at my calves and takes the sunscreen with it. Kaleidoscope oil spinning away from me, the surface of the water is repelled by my body. I would also like to spin away from my body but I don’t because lunch is almost ready.

I feel like a plucked goose, covered in oil and baking in the sun and melting and rotating slowly. I can’t stand the smell of myself, and I can’t stand the feeling of myself against myself. The feeling is hairy and greasy and hot. The sun is everywhere: on the water, on the grass, on my hair.

I have watched a seal all day—a seal which looks like a black sea bird. Maybe it is a bird. Sometimes it dips below the surface with a splash, and the water around it flips like a deck of cards switching hands. A pair of white gulls sew themselves against the tree line farther and farther until they are sky. I call my sister to see the seal, and she sees its black, oil slick head. It flies away, turning to sky as well. My sister and I are hovering too, sunspots above the dew covered grass.

We blink at each other and return to our bodies. Her body tells me everything and nothing. She is fourteen. She is hiding, she is hypervisible. (Helena crying, Helena slamming her bedroom door, Helena, what’s up? Helena: Nothing!, Helena covers herself, Helena: Don’t look! Helena crying.)

I watch my sister yelling at my parents and getting yelled at by my parents and am disgusted and ashamed of myself (my mother assures me: I was much worse). The hormones in my body at fourteen seemed to manifest in about a million screaming cells which I wish I could retroactively have told to be quiet. To pat each fourteen- year-old Francesca cell and say, It’s okay, what happened to you is okay, being you is hard, but being you is also nothing. But I can’t because those cells died and made way for new, slightly less angry cells, or slightly-better-at-hiding-it cells. Some of my cells are still angry, swollen, yelling. I can feel them fuming after eight years. I can also hear some of them crying. But all of Helena’s cells are screaming and red. I want to shhh them. At the same time, in the moments after she slams her bedroom door, I want to turn into a bird, and carry her off to a mountain, and take her away from her body and the bodies of others. And maybe feed her worms and nest together.

My body is marked by time, and by moments which have torn that time away from me. These moments hurled through my history at lightning speed and destroyed my timeline. Things obviously from my childhood lodged themselves into last week, breakfast was a year ago, and explanations don’t paint the picture of this wobbling, unreliable record which sits smugly in my mind.

Pockmarks in the body of my life, as I run my hands along this body, they get caught against the scars and impression lines of moments which still won’t heal. I have a horrible memory, made worse by my constant assertion that I have a horrible memory. But unlike everything else, these marks won’t fade as years go by. Instead they deepen and discolor with exposure to the sun. I don’t really know what happened, because I can’t remember, and I am alone with this non-memory. But with each day the non-memory etches wider, lower. Sunlight taps mirror and I try to catch this reflected light onto my sister’s body. Where are her marks? What are her non-memories?

I want to see my sister as her own person. Or I want to want to see my sister as her own person, but she progresses through my timeline with a five-year delay. I am in a constant state of wondering which pockmarks her body has stopped at and skipped like a CD, repeating words that don’t make sense. Which non-memories do her fingers draw circles around like the water in the drain in the sink, like the sunscreen on the surface of the lake?

I have watched her grow from tiny tiny small to small to big small, and all the tweenage yelling in my house are fights I’ve had with my mother on opposite sides of a wall. I sit on the couch downstairs and hear Helena slam the door to her room, and I am on my bed sobbing again, my hand shaking from the force exerted to shut myself back into my space. Wailing, shaking, careening back into myself. I am telling a stranger something on Omegle, I am thirteen, I am writing FUCK YOU very small on the wall, I am scratching my arm, I am squeezing out a bottle of toothpaste into the sink. Breathing deeply, I am back on the water with Helena.

We squint at the bay together and a cat that lives in the house pads between us. He is fat and orange and hot from the sun.

“Sweet cat,” Helena says, stroking his fur. The cat is purring against her palm. He must be a time travelly cat because it’s

August now and I’m in an air-conditioned apartment in Carroll Gardens, sitting with a man who has told me he is getting back with his ex-girlfriend within the week.

I am looking at him, and he is looking down at my legs, and my hand is on his thigh, and his words are not really making sense.

“But I think we should enjoy this time we have together.”

I am nineteen years old, but five years ago I was fourteen. And two years ago I was a virgin, and ten years ago I was nine and he was grown already. His hand feels like a baseball mitt rubbing my thigh, and he’s looking at my breasts and saying we should enjoy this time together because we’ll know each other for a long time probably, he thinks, because I’m very special and not necessarily less wise than his ex-girlfriend. He says she is as wise as me, even though she is twenty-nine. I wonder, honestly, if there’s a chance she’s just as stupid.

I get a cup of water for him and make a joke about poisoning it, and we laugh together. And then I say just kidding and then I make a joke about killing his parents and we laugh together again.

I am silent sitting next to him on the bed as he strokes my hair. His dick is growing in my hand, and even as I say, “I’m sad, this hurts me,” and he says “I know, I know,” (which are words of understanding) he becomes harder and harder, as he humps my palm. “I don’t want to yet,” I say, when he rubs his boner on my hip bone. He sighs, “fair enough.” But his face says no fair and his exhale also says no fair. But it’s no fair to me because he was so nice and he holds me with his big hands which also handle money and grown-up things and that means I’m also a grown-up thing. When he lets go of my body and sulks at the end of the bed, I am a kid again, and I want my mom. And I want to kill him.

I blink back to July, back to Maine, back-to-back with my sister on the sharp grass. She faces towards the house and I am looking at the water, at the seal or the bird. The cat rubs against me, then my sister, then me and is very fat and is stuck in time circling us. I try not to take it personally that Helena shaves now. We are both closing our eyes although I cannot see her face, and I wonder what she thinks has happened in my past, and if she links it to her future too. Is that ridiculous? Is this my OCD? These questions are not specific to Maine or to July. They may not even be specific to me.

Helena does not talk much in this story because I can’t remember what she said in Maine, in July, and it would feel like a lie if I fluffed this up with dialogue from my sister (like when I lied about her saying

“Sweet cat” even though she probably did say that at some point while we were around him, but I just don’t remember.) Helena laughs often and rolls her eyes just as often.

Sometimes, I look at her and all I feel is pain; all the time I look at her and all I feel is love. Because I was inundated with pain as a fourteen-year-old that tangled up in my genes and sat there and sunk into my body like Spider-Man venom when he gets bitten by the spider. When my powers manifested, though, I could not shoot cum out of my hands and swing from things or kiss women upside down. Instead I could cry in a chair for an hour in front of my silent psychiatrist, and I couldn’t go on the subway sometimes, and I could tell women, “I know what you feel,” when they told me terrible stories. These were all powers that hurt and made me better and made me worse.

April kisses Brooklyn, and I have landed back in New York because of a breakdown at school. I am sulking around my house like a ghost, a shadow of the girl who grew up here before. My nuclear family bounces around me, with their jobs and school obligations. I float, I spin. On Sunday night, my sister is sobbing in her room and my mother is texting me. She thinks, “I’m bad at being a mum.” Blasphemy! Because it’s blasphemous. How could she control the storms which raged unrelenting against the windows of her daughters? My sister makes me scared to have kids because she is difficult (again, less difficult than I was) but my mother says I owe her grandchildren.

Helena skips school the next day because she is unprepared for her tests and is very disorganized. I tell her it is “very bad” to skip school, although I’m a nine-hour bus ride away from school, which I am skipping, whereas she is only twelve stops on the Q away from school. We go to coffee and breakfast and Mum texts us yelling THIS TIME IS FOR STUDYING! NOT FOR HANGING OUT!

We drink our coffee and laugh about being in ninth grade and fourteenth grade, respectively, and our funny and loving mum, and which Kardashian each member of our family would be, and how embarrassing it is to be alive.

I try and help her study for her history test, and I casually mention I am writing about her in a piece I’m submitting for a campus publication.

“Me? Is it bad?”

Is it bad?

Is it bad?

No. It’s not bad.

I get dinner with my grandma that night; we are kindred spirits because we both have mood disorders. The air is so warm and the light in the restaurant is yellow and we are sitting by the windows at the front. Young couples and old ladies sit around us; their conversations marinate into a soupy white noise humming, spiraling around me and my grandma.

I tell her I don’t want to talk about college because it’s painful, and she says that she also hated college when she went in the ’60s although she, too, doesn’t want to talk about it. We both have a glass of red wine (our preference), and my grandma looks at me and starts to cry because we are the same. She wants to see me as my own person. But I’m circling and skipping around her timeline with a fifty-six-year delay. I pat her frail arm under the layers of black clothes she wears as if she’s in mourning.

“How’s your sister?”

“She’s okay. She’s anxious, she’s difficult, but she’s okay.”

I am trying to talk about my sister, but I am really just talking about me. My words circle the drain: me, my sister, me, my sister, me, me, me. I have pain linked to growing older, and I watch as my sister grows older everyday. I think I’ve forgotten that I do too, because circling drains has made me dizzy, and tracing memories has made me exhausted.

Me and my sister, my sister and I sit back-to-back on the grass in front of the receding hairline which is the water licking the shore. My sister journals because of me, and that is an undeniably beautiful gift I have given her.

It’s quiet now between us, although our cells are screaming and yelling and singing and crying and slamming the doors. I don’t know what she’s thinking so I open my eyes and look up. I can’t describe the sky at 8:00 PM, pink against the coniferous trees, blue against the floating mist, orange against the stripped brown bark, the gray shingles of the roof. White against my wishes, it rains.