Feminine Constraint (One Morning)

Aleina Grace Edwards

One morning—

The sound of the floorboards groaning wakes me up, and I know my mother is already making coffee. It’s always Starbucks Christmas blend, year-round. She needs it to get dressed.

I know her patterns perfectly. After contacts, lipstick: Captive by MAC, a saturated shade of bright plum, from the girl at the Nordstrom’s beauty counter. My mom applies it so diligently it doesn’t seem like makeup. Her bare mouth is only visible over the lip of her mug, sipping that first cup of coffee. 

She’s a uniform dresser, picking her outfits from a rotation of denim and spaghetti straps. The jeans are Lucky Brand or Levi’s, a dark wash, cut tight on the hips, flared or boot-cut. The dresses hit just above her knees or graze her ankles. The shirts are mostly flimsy. If she’s dressed for the day, it’s in heels—black boots or cork wedges. They all add three inches, turning her five-foot-four—“and a quarter,” she reminds me—into five-seven.

Ready for school, my sister and I climb into the very back of the car. My mom still won’t let any of the kids sit in the front, even though Nicky and McKenzie, the siblings we pick up a few blocks over, weigh more than sixty pounds. “I don’t care how much you weigh if you’re not twelve,” pushing her oversized sunglasses down her nose and looking back at me. McKenzie hasn’t mentioned that she’s already thirteen.

Anyway, the passenger chair is my mother’s office, where she sets her big leather purse on top of a few battered manila folders. From the back of car, I can only see her right arm, elbow resting on the console, mug of coffee in hand. I notice her lipstick has stained the butter-yellow stoneware, discoloring a few of the hand-painted bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas.

She navigates out of the neighborhood with her left hand on the wheel, torso braced with the effort of the one-armed driving.

September 14th, 2006—

I’m quiet on the way to the orthotist’s office. My twelfth birthday was last month but my hold on the front seat is still shaky—I’m in the back this time. I most of the thirty-minute drive to Beverly Hills ignoring the copy of The Book Thief on my lap, watching old coffee sloshing in the mugs wedged into the center console’s cup holders, thinking it’s strange that my mom hasn’t poured out the remnants yet. She usually flings the car door open and dumps her cold coffee into the street at the first red light.

When we walk in, the exam room is alive. The floors of the are scaled in terracotta, and the ceiling has a thick stucco skin. My mom sinks into a swollen floral couch, frowning and fighting the upholstery to stay upright.

“Just pull this on over your swimsuit, okay?” The medical assistant hands me a body stocking to replace my shorts and t-shirt. It’s cut to look like a tight dress with spaghetti straps, but the white material is sticky like spider’s silk. I pull the stocking up and over my brown and white polka-dotted bikini. The combination is lumpy and uncomfortable and the excitement I felt when my mom let me pick the two-piece bathing suit from a catalogue wilts to embarrassment.

The orthotist enters and instructs me to lay on the glass exam table. The glass is unforgiving, and I curl my arms into my chest. Leopards watch me from behind green palm fronds on the wallpaper. The orthotist stands just above my head, mumbling to himself as he fiddles with his computer in the corner. He turns and looks down at me, his face sallow in the fluorescent lighting.

“I’m going to add some pressure to move your body into the correct shape,” he explains.

A murmur of consent squeezes its way out of my throat. The orthotist adjusts a set of clamps on either side of the table, bringing them closer to my body and twisting their joints so that their plastic hands press against me—one shoving at my left hip, another pushing the right side of my ribcage. The muscles in my chest and stomach protest the contortions; I stiffen against the touch.

“Relax,” the orthotist intones. He looks me up and down, assessing his work. I stare through his face, through his skull, determined not to make eye contact, not to breathe, not to be here. But the hard hands trap me on this table.

“Looking good.” The orthotist nods his approval.

He adds straps next, long and translucent. He pulls one across my ribs, under my body and back again, pressing skin against muscle, muscle against bone. The straps whittle my waist to a pinched hourglass, a shape—my mother’s shape—and for a split second I delight in the recognition.

Everything is pinned and sectioned off, ribs and stomach and hips. I am three discrete parts; thorax, abdomen, pelvis. A preserved insect, flattened and arranged just so. My mother, sitting at attention on the couch, sees every piece of me.

2 days later—

My dad takes my little sister to the driving range, so it’s just me and my mom at home. She said we’ll go do something fun, but she’s slow to get ready.

I put the toilet lid down and perch there while my mom showers. Her things dominate the tiny bathroom: her compacts and containers claim all available surfaces; her hairdryer sits at the ready in a basket on the toilet’s tank; black bullets of lipstick, all Captive, line the medicine cabinet.

We can’t both fit in bathroom when she steps out of the shower, so I move to the edge of her bed and watch her process through the doorframe. Her back faces me as she stands in front of the bathroom mirror, still fogged around the edges, the wet air heavy with the addition of her perfume. She applies her lotion, then dries her hair. As she moves, her robe parts to reveal gleaming legs, tan slicked with a layer of cream, beaded with condensation.

In half an hour, she transforms into the woman I know best, a painted swallow tail with perfect symmetry and vivid colors. Two big blue eyes brightened with shadow, lined in kohl and exaggerated with black mascara; high, round cheeks highlighted with blush; a curve of a mouth, unabashed pink.

The top drawer of the dresser is open and I peak at the neat rows of lacy underwear. The thongs are tightly rolled, nestled against each other like Easter eggs. “Excuse me, honey.” She pulls a pair of jeans up her tapered thighs and nudges me aside so she can grab a shirt from another drawer.

She seems so tall when she steps into her heels, a height I’ll never reach. Everything flows nicely, pieces perfectly integrated. I admire her back in the mirror, the graceful slopes of her body articulated in denim and silk.

17 days later—

We go to pick up the brace. Outside the office, I hesitate under the sidewalk sign that says Orthopedic Appliances since 1915. I glance in the window of the massive bridal store just across the street; from this far away, the mannequins look like mummies. 

The brace is a thick, plastic corset, fastened with Velcro instead of silk. It’s buttery yellow, but gone wrong, like aging teeth.

“You’ll need to wear it every day for twenty-two hours—the other two hours are for exercising and bathing,” the orthotist instructs, looking at my mother for emphasis. “We’ve seen these work great for scoliosis if you wear them right,” he adds.

She nods, obedient, and smiles. “Thank you so much, Dr. Berman.”

Raised with Southern manners and stark morals, my mother has a strong code of conduct. She was a flight attendant before she had me, punctual and professional in nude stockings and chunky heels. She worked commercial first, then private. She offers me scraps of memory to show me how much her clients loved her—the time Demi Moore divulged her favorite skincare line, or the Christmas gift Tom Cruise got her one year.

Now she keeps first aid kits in three places in our house. She reminds me to find the emergency exits as soon as we sit down on every plane, enter any hotel room. She is always ready with children’s Motrin and Zantac, has combs and wintergreen TicTacs tucked in every purse pocket. If her hair darkens a shade, she dyes it two shades blonder. She makes me believe in rules and routine, the benefits of obedience and diligence. She makes every want or ache or deficit into a problem with a solution and I begin to think my back is just another one of those problems.

I pick at my cuticles and stare at the certificates on the wall while my mother talks with the office manager. Then she stuffs the brace in a canvas Trader Joe’s bag, and I follow her to the car.

9 days later—

After breakfast, I find an array of items on my bed: several thin camisoles I recognize from my mom’s wardrobe, and a few grey boxes that say “base layer.”

I strap myself into a training bra and step into a khaki uniform skirt, then rip open one of the boxes. Inside is a gray wool tank top; I read the information on the back of the box—it’s meant for skiing, other winter sports. I put it on. It’s light on my skin, much softer than I expected, gentler than the old cotton shirts I’ve been wearing under my brace.

I pry that open next, hooking it around my ribs and pushing it down so it grabs my hips, sticking and unsticking the Velcro straps to get it tighter, sucking in and huffing out as I work. My whole torso feels like a bruise.

Secured, I tug a camisole over the plastic, the thin, dense material smoothing the sharp lines of the buckles and straps. I add my school polo on top of all this, the navy one—the white is too revealing—then my oversized athletic sweatshirt. It’s navy too, with my school’s name in white block letter over a white rectangle where you’re supposed to write your name in Sharpie. Mine says Lanie, a nickname I gave myself that no one ever calls me.

I keep the sweatshirt on all day, even though it’s warm and sunny. I drip as I sit cross-legged in the parking lot after school, playing 007 with a few other sixth graders, waiting for my mom to pick me up. “Double, oh, se-ven,” we chant. You can reload, shoot, or shield. I feel dizzy. I choose “shield” over and over, drawing my arms into X’s across my chest to protect myself. One of the other girls glares at me. “That’s not playing,” she says through her teeth.

When I peel off my uniform at home, the merino tank is soaked. My skin is pink and wrinkled, debossed with fleshy hieroglyphics where the fabric bunched under the brace. My mom pushes my bedroom door open, poking her blonde head in.

“How’d the new shirt work out, sweetie?”

“Pretty good.” I give her a strained smile and turn so my shoulder obscures my bare chest. Her head disappears.

She gets my sister started on homework, then goes back out for groceries. Our babysitter is in the kitchen, absorbed in People magazine, so I wrap myself in a robe and go to sort through my mother’s closet.

There is just one row of clothes, carefully arranged on felt hangers, like with like. Her tops, crowded to the left, are my favorite. They are nothing like my starchy school polos or the boxy cotton t-shirts I get from TexMex restaurants. These are slinky, slippery, covered in paisley and sequins.

I rub the shirts between my fingers, greedy for their magic. I want them to transform me. I want to dress up and play pretend, to pull them around my shoulders like the mesh fairy wings I wore one Halloween.

That night—

My mom leans against the doorframe. I’m sitting at the foot of my bed, the brace’s jaws gaping around my slack body, my skin still damp from the shower. She pauses, perfect face inscrutable, then comes over to me.

She rubs my shoulders, the back of my neck, sits down. She lifts a limp strap and offers it to me. I know what she’s after—my mother values prescriptions, doing things the right way. It’s nothing personal. I want her to tell me I can take the brace off, take a break, but I know she won’t; she knows what’s right. I take the strap from her and pull it tight again, gasping as I latch the Velcro.

“Good job, honey, it’s okay, that’s right,” she coos. Her affirmation is predictable. It’s comforting to know how to make her happy, but I can’t stop the tears from slipping down my cheeks.

She squeezes my shoulder, pats my thigh. She gives me a sympathetic nod as I pull harder on the other two straps and seal the brace shut.

Later that night—

Staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling, I pull the duvet up to my chin and let my thoughts wander.

When we were seven or eight, my friend Lily and I spent hours in her kitchen dipping naked wicks into pots of hot beeswax, building candles layer by layer. I would bring my creations home and my mom would light them—she loved candles, and I loved giving them to her. But my candles only burned for a few hours before they became misshapen lumps, collapsing and swallowing their own wicks.

I think about how long it took to make them, and how easily they were destroyed. They could change so quickly, morphing from beautiful to useless. Tears rise in my throat. My mom would throw one away the same day it was first lit.

The white washcloths stacked in the bathroom cabinet repulse me. They’re covered in sooty spots from my mom’s mascara—she uses one to remove her makeup every evening. They won’t wash out. I imagine the marks will rub off on me, smear across my cheeks and stain me too. Earlier I sorted through the towels while the shower was heating, trying to find one that hadn’t been marred, but there weren’t any. They were all wrong.

I was watching my mom get ready for a holiday party a few weeks ago when she showed me a blouse, silver and sparkly with thin straps. She pointed to the bodice and explained what an empire waist was, how it draws in at the sternum just under the breasts. “So flattering.” She squeezed her ribcage for emphasis.

I’ve compared our bodies closely enough to know I don’t have her figure, that the brace molds me into a shape closer to hers, but without the constraint my body moves like a serpent. I feel like I’ve swallowed a pinecone. I imagine pulling the silver top over my head, the sequins snagging on a Velcro strap, the shimmering strands unravelling, the whole thing ruined.

A car drives by, its headlights cutting through my blinds and sending shadows across my room. I remember how much that used to scare me when I was younger—I always thought something was inside with me.

5 months later­­—

The surgeon looks at me with a combination of concern and accusation. “The brace isn’t working as well as we’d hoped.”

He turns back to his computer screen and traces his pen along the spectral version of my spine, pointing to the prominent curve near the top.

“We’re seeing substantial progression in the curvature here. Let’s keep wearing the brace for another six months, but we should start discussing some other options soon.”

I make a sound like a growl or whimper as my frustration mutates into despair. I squeeze myself tight on the exam table, folding my legs under the hospital down and wrinkling the thin sanitary paper underneath me. I stare at threadbare floral pattern. A few tears drip down my face and onto the tissue, eating right through it. “Okay,” I offer.

My mother sits in her metal chair, brow wrinkled, lips pressed in a tight line, staring at my spine on the screen. She stays like that for a moment, but I know she will recover, move to comfort me. She stays. Her eyes are round with fear. I don’t want her to touch me.

It starts settling in, the problem of my body. I feel it nestling in my bones, recognize it in the pressure under my skull and the weight of my legs dangling off the exam table. I will never wear the silhouettes my mother does. I can’t dress the part. Her rules won’t help me.

The next day—

I throw my orange roller backpack into the trunk and clamber into the passenger seat, shifting manila folders onto my lap. Leah slides into the back. We’re not picking up Nick and McKenzie today; it’s just us. It’s a relief.

I pull at my skirt, trying to get the pleats to lay flat despite the brace’s interference with the waistband. When my mom steps into the driver’s seat and hands me her purse, she isn’t holding her coffee.

We reverse out of the driveway and the mug spins into the street, its yellow body shattering, the bluebonnets scattering.

“Shit—I left it on the hood!” My mom slams the car into park and jumps out. I blink, mostly startled by the bad word. From the passenger seat, I watch her squat in the road and fumble under the car. She finds a few pieces in the gutter and starts pulling them out of the muck.

“Leave it!” I caw out the door. “We’re gonna be late.”

But she collects every shard. She gets back in the car and dumps the pieces in the center console. Two hands on the wheel, she takes us to school.

That night—

My mom uses super glue to piece the mug back together. I watch her arrange them on the kitchen counter, building the mug back from splinters, singing along to Pink as she works, “…saying things you can’t ignore. Mommy, I love you…”

She puts the mug back in the cupboard with the all the rest, though it looks a little softer than the others.

One morning—

My mom decides to test the mug out. I worry it will disintegrate in her hands, coffee spurting everywhere, staining my skirt. Anxiety rides with me along the Pacific Coast Highway, sticking its long fingers down my throat.

“Some things can’t be fixed,” I warn my mother. I don’t trust the mug to hold.

She doesn’t say anything, and her expression is illegible behind sunglasses.

ALEINA GRACE EDWARDS is a writer from Los Angeles. She studied communication and art history at the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nevada Reno-Tahoe. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Chicago Review of Books, Heavy Feather Review, The McNeese Review and The Dillydoun Review, among others. She lives in Reno, Nevada.