I love street signs. They let you know where you are, what’s happening, and how to get where you’re going. My favorite signs are the ones on the highway that let you know how close your exit is, so you can plan ahead: turn on your blinker, check your mirrors, change lanes safely. When we were in LA once when I was 12, my parents insisted on going to Disneyland (in the town of Universal Studios, they took me to Magic-fucking-Kingdom. Just for future reference, no 12-year-old only child is going to enjoy themselves at Disneyland, unless they have an unhealthy affection for Mickey Mouse.) Anyway, I noticed the road signs on the highway. The highways out there are enormous, but they have great signs, that let you know if your exit is a half-mile, or a mile, or even two miles away. I bet it’s impossible to get lost.
My favorite signs are about changes to the road: Road Work Ahead; Left Lane Ends Merge Right; DIP. I just love that orange those signs are in. Those signs are so helpful, because they let you know when something scary is coming up, and you have to be careful.
My mom has a hole inside her: right at the center of her about the size of a bowling ball, which I happen to know is eight inches in diameter, because I took Golf & Bowling last semester because I had one gym credit left to get, plus, I needed something to take when I wasn’t taking Driver’s Ed, like I am this semester. Anyway, this hole is, well, it’s a hole. It starts right below where her ribs are and ends just above her hips, and you can see through the hole out to the other side, and once she even let me put my hand all the way through it.
You’d think she’d be some kind of medical marvel, but she’s not. She’s not the only person this way, though I don’t know if she knows that because we don’t talk about the hole. I Googled “People with Holes in Them” once, and after wading through a lot of poems, I found an article about a farmer in Iowa with a small hole below his belly button, and one about a woman in Sedona, Arizona with a constellation of small holes in her ribcage. People come to her for healings. Anyway, if you didn’t know about the hole, you’d think my mother was just like anyone else. She still eats, she stands up straight, she breathes fine, although it’s a little panting kind of breath, and sometimes she pants with her mouth open. I try not to make too big a deal out of it, because I don’t want to make her more self-conscious, but sometimes, when we’re in quiet places, like church or at the movies or something, it can get a little distracting. It sounds like she wants to say something, like she’s excited to share a thought with you, and so you turn to her and raise your eyebrows expectantly, and she looks at you and raises her eyebrows back at you expectantly, and says, “What, Jessica?” with this little attitude in her voice, and you mutter something at her and turn away.
When friends would come over to the house, they were always so surprised by how pretty my mother is. She has shiny, dark brown skin, and cheekbones and shoulders that shine like polished knots of mahogany, and hard white teeth, square and straight and the perfect size for her mouth, not like mine that are crooked and soft, and always seem to stay dingy, no matter how much whitening toothpaste I use. Her dark brown eyes are deep set, and when she’s not angry, they are soft and easy to rest in. But I don’t invite friends over, and I don’t tell people about the hole. It’s a secret.
My mother covers the hole often with baggy clothes, so if you didn’t know it was there, you’d just think she was kind of round and lumpy, and really, I don’t much care that my mom is round and lumpy, most moms are. But Dad and I know the hole is there. Dad always says to her, Ashley I can’t even see it, and I don’t like to talk to her about it. Dad almost never tells my mom the truth. When you are honest with my mother, she is mean to you. Like, capital-B Bitter. Once, she was getting dressed for an interview, and she was putting on this burgundy pantsuit, and the jacket didn’t have any buttons, which would have been okay, because she could have just held it closed with one hand and shook hands or whatever with the other hand. Except that she had on this black clingy silk blouse that kept getting sucked inside the hole. It looked a bit like, well, like she had a hole in her stomach, and the jacket couldn’t hide it.
“How bad is it, Jessica?” she asked. I was sitting cross legged on her bed, and she was standing in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to find a way to minimize the hole.
“Hm. Do you have to wear that shirt?”
She sighed. “All my other blouses are at the cleaner’s; your father still hasn’t picked them up yet.”
I paused. Danger, Wild Animal Crossing. “What’s the job you’re interviewing for again?”
“Associate Editor.” She frowned. She’d been an out-of-work journalist for months.
Yield. “Well, it might make a good conversation piece. Maybe you could write an exposé about people all over the country like you. I mean, you know, see if there are others out there. Like, raise awareness.”
She inhaled and lifted her chest, which sucked the shirt back even further into her hole. She rolled her eyes and turned away. “Steven!” she barked into the hallway. Dad stepped into the doorway, a jar of mustard in one hand. He must have been making lunches.
“Can you see it?” she asked plaintively.
He glanced at his watch. “Well, sweetheart, you can always see it, it’s a part of you,” he answered. “It’s not that big a deal, is it?”
Bridge Out Ahead.
Her face clouded, and she slowly took the jacket off. “Thank you for being so candid, Steven,” she said in a low, cold voice.
I heard him whisper, shit, and he set the mustard down on the dresser and crossed into the room. “Ashley, I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant—”
“Get out,” she spat at me, and then turned her back to him. I ducked out of her room, grabbed my backpack off the kitchen table and left the house. I had to catch the bus anyway, and maybe I could just buy lunch that day.
When I got home that afternoon, I found out she’d skipped the interview, hadn’t even called to reschedule. She only came out of her room to ground me for two weeks.
That trip to Disneyland that we took when I was 12 years old? That was right after the hole in my mother opened up, about the size of an orange, though she somehow managed to keep it a secret from Dad and me, so it was before we knew about it. Everyone was tense. Dad was working all the time, and my mother kept harping about going on vacation and making memories. Every day for about a month she had a different idea. “How about Mount Rushmore?” she would announce to everyone and no one as she entered the kitchen. Or, “We could go to Washington, D.C. in the springtime. I’ve always wanted to see the cherry trees in bloom. Think of the memories we could make.” She would blink her eyes at my father and he would reach out to touch her, but she would wince and back away, afraid his fingers would graze the hole, and he’d be upset or disgusted or something when he discovered her truth. Me, I was barely there, which was alright with me.
It wound up being Los Angeles. The La Brea Tar Pits, and the LA County Museum of Art—which is weird because my parents don’t really like art, but there was a Gordon Parks exhibit there that my dad was jazzed about—and Disneyland. The trip was seven days, and by day three my mother was miserable. Making memories, she kept saying. The only thing I remember is that we all went on Space Mountain, and halfway through the ride, not even on a hill or anything, she started screaming, like high-pitched-horror-movie screaming, and when my father reached out to her, he shouted, What the hell is that? I couldn’t tell what was happening: it was dark (duh, indoor roller coaster) and I was sitting behind them beside some older kid in a blue baseball cap who looked at me like he’d rather be anywhere else.
When we got off the ride, my mother was clutching her shirt around her, but something didn’t look right. Around us, other park-goers walked by, gathering to point and laugh at the stand where you could buy a picture of you taken on the roller coaster in a cardboard frame. We were like a little knot of people in the way, a boulder that the stream of riders had to move around.
“Are you alright?” My father said in a voice that was louder than I’d ever heard him use. “Look at you, Sweetheart! What happened? Oh my god, Oh My God! Are you bleeding?” He kept pulling at her shirt and she kept batting him away.
“No, I’m not bleeding,” my mother said. Her voice was quiet.
“Mom, do you wanna sit down?” I asked quietly. Dad was turning right and left, right and left, looking around him, as if the answer to his questions was going to come off the ride and he’d be able to see it. I took her hand and we walked to a bench nearby. She sat heavily down, and rested her forearms on her thighs. She was panting, her mouth open and her face gray.
“YOU STAY HERE”, he shouted at me, his eyes scanning the crowd, “I’M GOING TO GO AND GET SOME HELP.”
“Are you hurt?” I asked. She shook her head. I put my hand on her forehead. She was sweating, but it was 82 degrees outside, not that unusual. I was sweating. “Can I see?” I asked.
She looked at me, her eyes sad, filling with tears, and shook her head. “C’mon, Mom, it’s okay, I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
She took a deep breath in and sat up, and lifted up her light blue blouse. And there was the hole: perfectly symmetrical, the size of a bowling ball, skin unbroken, a ring of flesh in an otherwise unremarkable, slightly overweight but entirely familiar body that I’d known my whole life. No scar tissue, no blood or redness, no swelling. Nothing. Nothing but a hole.
“It’s been there a while,” she began, and then the words just kept coming. “At first it was the size of a lime, and then an orange. It doesn’t hurt or anything, but I just—I didn’t think it would get any bigger.”
Uneven Pavement. “Mom, is this why… the vacation? Are you sick? Are you… dy—”
“No sweetheart, I’m not dying. At least—I don’t think so.” She wiped her face. “I don’t—I just wanted us to have some time together.”
Without asking I reached a hand out and gently touched her. All I felt under my fingers was warm skin, fleshy, doughy. I began to squeeze gently, to work my hand up and down around the inside of the hole as if I could feel some cause or explanation. She giggled, then frowned. “Hey! That tickles!”
“Sorry,” I said, and continued with a lighter touch. And suddenly I realized what I was feeling under my fingers wasn’t her anymore, but was the shirt. I’d gotten all the way through her to the back of the hole. I gasped, and snatched my hand away. She closed her eyes. “Are you in any pain?” I asked again.
“No, I’m just embarrassed. Please don’t say anything to your father,” she said, “he’s making such a big deal of this, I just don’t want a bunch of strangers looking at me. I’m fine, it’s nothing.”
It wasn’t nothing, it was something, but I didn’t know what. “Can you sit back?” I asked.
She nodded, and gingerly leaned back against the bench. It stretched the hole a little so you could just see the outline of it under her shirt, but she closed her eyes and her breath got a little smoother, so I didn’t say anything. We sat there in silence, for another five minutes or so, until my dad came striding up with a tan, bony white guy in a pale blue polo shirt with Disneyland stenciled on the upper left side where a pocket would go. He kneeled down in front of my mother, and took a bag from over his shoulder. The word MEDIC in large white letters was printed on the back. “Ma’am? I’d like to ask you a few questions. Do you know what day it is?”
My mother lifted her head and opened her eyes. “Tuesday. May 14.”
“That’s good; can you tell me your name?”
She took a deep breath. “Ashley. Young.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Young. Do I have your permission to touch you?”
No Turn on Red.
Her eyes snapped open, and just like that she was alert and present. “No, young man, you do not. I’m fine, I don’t need medical attention.”
He faltered. “I don’t—I’m sorry, I don’t want to do anything inappropriate, I just want—”
She cut him off. “What’s your name?”
“Mark.” He looked at me, and then at my father, who was frowning with his hands on his hips. His sunglasses were perched on top of his forehead and his mustache was twitching.
My mother put one hand each on the sides of the bench and pushed off it to help her stand up. “Well, Mark, I’m awfully sorry my husband’s gone to all this trouble to get you when the truth is, I think I’m just a little overheated. He always was prone to exaggeration, I’m sure you see a lot of that. You don’t happen to have a water bottle in that little bag of yours, do you?”
Mark reached into the bag and pulled out a bottle of water with Mickey ears on the label. He opened it, handed it to her, and my mother took a long drink. I waited to see the water run out of her shirt and soak it wet, but she drank just like she’d been drinking water her whole life. “Oh, much better. Thank you, Mark.” She grinned at him. There they were, those hard, straight white teeth, bared in what to most would seem an impressive smile. Unless you really knew her.
“You’re welcome.” Mark bent down and started to reassemble his bag. He’d taken three steps away when my father went to him and started talking to him. I heard him say, “I’m sorry sir, but if I don’t have her permission to touch her, then there’s nothing I can do.” He headed off into the park, and my father came back, his arms flung out to the side.
“Steven, I’m fine, I just need to rest.”
I should have just kept my mouth shut, but I was scared. “Mom, are you sure—”
“Jessica!” she snapped at me, her brown eyes sharp, daring me to keep talking. My mouth went dry with fear.
My father sighed. “I just don’t underst--”
“Would you please just take me back to the hotel?” Out came the smile again, that only stretched as far as her nose. Her eyes were sharp and dangerous. My father recognized that look. He went ashen with fury. Silent, he turned and headed for the main entrance. I could see that he was fuming, but he knew better than to try and argue with my mother, especially in public. She followed at his elbow, and I was a few steps behind: close enough to hear if they called my name, but far enough away to avoid getting yelled at.
We didn’t go out for the rest of the trip. I lay out at the pool, or read, or watched cable TV. The two of them had conversations behind closed doors. We left two days later.
How do you teach someone to stop hiding from themselves? How do you teach them to feel good, or even okay, about what provokes in them deep and abiding shame? I don’t know. I tried, and failed at it, repeatedly. I always wanted to get my mother to share, but she’s not the sharing type. She shares her money, her opinions, but unless her feelings are rage or disappointment, she doesn’t share.
After the hole showed up, she didn’t tell anyone. At Dad’s tight-lipped, ashen-faced insistence, she went to see her doctor. He even took off work so he could drive her, and this is a man who’s, like, never stayed home sick in his life. Dr. Sweeney was a white guy with a thick beard and twinkling eyes whom she trusted. He promptly brought every other doctor in the practice to see her, and when he asked if he could write a paper about her and her hole, and put her in a medical journal, she got dressed and left without answering. That was the last doctor she saw. I only know all this because Dad told me an abridged version of it when they came home that day. She went to bed and stayed there for the rest of the week, and the two of us orbited around her: small, distant satellites to her icy, inhospitable planet.
The idea that anyone would know about the hole horrified her. She hid it from everyone. It was like the hole had a kind of force, and sucked all the conversation, all the truth, out of the house. We had pleasant conversation—what should we do for Christmas this year, I’m auditioning for the spring musical, school papers, work projects, birthdays, anniversaries—and the hole never allowed for us to have meaningful conversations. Funny how something like a hole, that stuff falls into, can take up so much space.
I know I said I never told anyone about the hole, but I did. Once. Rebecca Yeager. She was white, she sat in front of me in homeroom, and my mother had said that you can’t really trust white girls, but Rebecca seemed as awkward and square as I was. She didn’t have any friends in homeroom, and we rode the same bus together. One day, my freshman year, we were sitting together on the bus home, and she was telling me about her mom’s boyfriend and how since he lost his construction job all he does is lie around the house smoking weed and watching cable. She was quiet a moment, biting at her cuticles the way she always did in homeroom, and I felt like maybe she wanted me to say something to her, and I felt sorry for her. Maybe she would understand. So I told her about the hole.
“Wait. Your mom has a hole in her?” her brown eyes got really wide and I could see flakes of black mascara on her pink cheeks.
Dangerous Curve Ahead. “I mean, you know, it’s not a big deal or anything, it’s just, she has—”
“So, like, where does she take a shit—does she, like, shit in a bag or something?”
“What are you guys talking about?” A soft voice purred from the top of our seat. I looked up, and there were the Pantene-perfect blond bangs and sparkling blue eyes of the Number 32 bus queen bee, Carla Hurwitz.
Rebecca recognized an opportunity and seized it. “Jessi’s mom has a hole in her stomach and has to shit into a bag!” she screeched, and laughed. I hate it when people call me Jessi. We were still a quarter mile from my street, and it felt like forever.
“She does not SHIT IN A BAG!” I shouted. The bus got quiet, and I locked eyes with the bus driver for a second. “She just, has a hole in her stomach is all.”
“Wait, like an ulcer? Is she like, sick or something? Does she have cancer?” Carla asked. “Rebecca, don’t laugh, Jessi’s mom could have cancer,” Carla said, flipping blond hair over a camel-colored shoulder; Rebecca was still laughing.
“She doesn’t have cancer, but it is a medical condition. A doctor wrote about her in a medical journal. She almost died once,” I said, trying to impress her. It wasn’t working; she was laughing at me with Rebecca. Detour. I continued. “The only reason I brought it up is because you said your mother’s boyfriend is an unemployed stoner who can’t get off your couch and get a job, Rebecca.”
“At least he doesn’t shit in a bag,” she said, and half the bus burst out into laughter.
The bus lurched to a stop. I peered out the window and discovered we were at my street. I snatched my backpack off the chair and ran off the bus, the kids behind me laughing.
I heard that Rebecca got expelled for smoking weed the next year, but I started driving to school that next fall and taking AP classes, which she would have been too stupid to get into anyway.
I have pictures of my mother from before the hole, before I was born, before she married my father, when she was just another sista. A bright smile, sincere, that originated in her eyes; tight, bell-bottomed jeans; a spectacular ‘fro with a black power fist pick in it; legs that wouldn’t quit; and a gaze that would cut you like glass. She’s gotten more conservative as time has gone by—afro traded in for an impeccable weave, bell bottoms have become suits—but I have no trouble imagining the sista in these photos blowing a giant bubblegum bubble, and daring you to burst it with a smirk. Sure, I can see her on the back of a motorbike in a leather jacket with her fist in the air. Blithe, defiant, sexy as hell, no dread or anxiety about the hole that will eventually open up at the center of her.
As an adult, I think about being teased because of my mother’s difference, and I taste shame creep like mucus into the back of my throat. I don’t wish I’d had a snappy comeback, because you know, kids are bastards; it’s more that I wish I hadn’t let that girl shame me into lying about my mother. I mean, people have small minds, when it comes to difference, folks who think they are what’s normal don’t really know what to do with themselves, short of mocking whatever isn’t like them. I just wish I hadn’t lied about my mother. I wish I hadn’t felt like I had anything to hide. I wish I had been strong enough to know that people make fun of you because they feel small and scared and lost, and you don’t have to believe the lies they tell you about yourself.
I don’t think my mother ever appreciated the hole. It consumed her, like all she could think about was how to hide it from others. I watched her, as I grew up, get inventive about how to hide it: for a year or two after I started driving, she ate, all the time. After work, on the weekends, the way people buy and consume cases of beer or a couple bottles of chardonnay, my mother would polish off boxes of Entemann’s, pints of ice cream, fried chicken, leftover Chinese. Maybe she thought she could fill up the hole; instead she just seemed to gain weight around it. Her legs and hips and belly got larger, she went up a couple of dress sizes, but still, with all that extra flesh, the hole remained unchanged. Then, she got creative with distractions: when I came home from college I found her wearing makeup and wigs. Sometimes the wigs were tasteful and natural; sometimes they were playful, and once, she wore a Bo Derek blond braided wig. Maybe she was trying to draw focus up to her face, and away from the hole. After she saw pictures of herself at a family reunion picnic in a red afro wig, the collection was boxed and shelved, and she stuck to an unremarkable black chin-length weave. She found one of those padded prosthetic bellies, and was wearing that for a while, too, though with the extra weight, she never seemed comfortable. She rarely goes out anymore. Underneath it all, underneath the shimmering gold eyeliner and the wigs, underneath the weight and the padding, if I looked closely I could still see the same sad, scared eyes I saw when I was twelve at Disneyland.
I didn’t know when I was twelve, or even sixteen, that I’d learn what it really meant to have a hole. I didn’t know that when I was twenty-four, I’d discover my own hole, at first a small kind of sinking feeling, and then an opening that appeared so swiftly it should have come with a sound effect, a kind of suck, POP! It started the size of a golf ball, and opened to about the size of a softball over the next two months. I didn’t know that it could be an ornament, a something special, a helper. When my hole emerged, I laughed, then sighed, and then took myself to the doctor to get checked out. A well-dressed gynecologist examined me, insisted nothing was wrong with me (which I knew), and asked me to come back in six months for a check-up. The whole visit took twenty chilly, paper-gowned minutes.
On the street, walking back to my car some white guy shoulder-checked me and muttered, “Watch where you’re going, bitch.”
I turned on my heel. “Don’t talk to people like that,” I said to him loudly.
He smirked at me. “Or what?”
I don’t show my hole to people to prove a point, or even just for kicks. But right then I lifted up my shirt and jacket. The air was cool on my belly, and the wind blew through me. “Look at me,” I hissed, stepping toward him. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.” As I stepped toward him, I noticed the color draining from his face. He made these sad whimpering sounds as I got closer to him. “I could have a gun in my purse. I could have a disease that puts holes in my flesh. I could be a leper.” I was close enough to him now that I could see where his razor had missed while shaving that morning. His Adam’s apple was bobbing at the top of his smart, white dress shirt collar. “I could reach out my diseased fingers and touch you all over and make you so sick that your dick will shrivel up and fall off and no one will ever love you, or touch you, or even look at you again. So don’t fuck with me, you hear me?”
I dropped my shirt with one hand and reached two fingers out to touch his forehead, and he fainted. Swear to god, he dropped like a bag of rocks right there on the pavement, in his navy suit and Gucci loafers. My fingers itched to rifle through his pockets and steal his wallet. Instead, I checked to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. Then I spat at him, and kept walking.
Single Line. Do Not Pass.
Being a single woman with a hole is kind of like being a single woman with a kid: you get to see pretty quickly what people are made of when you tell them there’s something different about you. They expect a seven-year-old son, or a fetish, or maybe an HSV diagnosis, but when you unbutton your shirt or unzip your dress and they feel their thumb meet their fingers at the center of you, you learn who people really are. How many of you have a built-in barometer? When I met Carter six months ago, he told me he liked jazz, and riding bikes, and that he thought writing was a sacred act, and that he liked listening to me talk, and I thought, hmm...maybe. On our third date, in my Himalayan-salt-lamp-colored bedroom, I slid my black tank top up over my shoulders and showed him my hole. He smiled, and he touched my hole, and I felt lightning in his fingertips. Some nights, we spoon, and I wake up and find that he’s holding onto my hole like a handle, like a groove that his hand fits perfectly into. His hand is warm, and it slides across my belly as he draws me in closer, and most days, we both forget it’s even there.
Jessica Young has been published in several literary magazines and was a regular contributor to WBEZ. She has a degree in Performance Studies and an MFA from Columbia College. Jessica’s a collective member at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches yoga here in Chicago. Read more of her work at www.adevotedyogi.com. Jessica was a contributor to Volume 5 of Packington Review.