There are two trees growing together at the bottom of a valley. There’s grass around them, and a river just over there. They’re surrounded by mountains. They can’t see past the tall peaks. Nothing makes sense to them except one another, the grass, the river, and the stars above them. They can’t look out, so they look up. They look up and they reach for the stars.
I grew up in the country but I live in a city now. The stars are what I miss most. You can’t see them through the light pollution. I used to lay on my back and look at the sky. I was the kid with his head buried in a sci-fi book, and so my understanding of the stars was as much defined by spaceships as it was any real sense of science.
While other kids were praying to God, I was making silent mental pleas to aliens: “Please let me know you exist. I promise I won’t tell anyone. I just need to know.” I would walk down back country roads and look at the stars and pray for an answer.
The trees reach for the stars because the stars are life. During the day, one giant star fills the sky and the trees feel their leaves swelling and brightening. At night, thousands of little suns promise something grander.
Over a year ago, my husband David and I sat on a hotel porch drinking whiskey outside of Orlando, Florida. This is not something we usually do, at least not in Florida. We were on a rare vacation with my family, and after several days whiskey was necessary. We sat on that porch in the warm February air, drank whiskey and told each other about dark parts of ourselves. I don’t remember seeing stars in Florida. This was one of several excruciating conversations we would have after opening our relationship. We were learning to be honest with the other in ways we’d never had to be before. We learned to be honest before we learned to talk to one another.
The trees’ branches are intertwined first like fingers, then like naked limbs. Clouds block the stars. Wind picks up, heavy air falling down on the mountains and rushing toward the trees like a river. Trees need storms. Trees need rain to survive.
Monogamy had taught me comfort. That I could tuck away everything I hated about my body because I had someone who wanted to come home and see me every night. Who wanted to kiss me, swallow me, and cuddle with me. I didn’t have to tell him how I felt about myself, and I didn’t have to think about it. Some things are easy to ignore when you’ve undressed for someone hundreds of times.
That’s a lie. You’re never just fat and okay in America. Everything reminds you every day about what’s wrong with you. Sometimes it’s a stranger’s look. Sometimes it’s an ad in a magazine. Sometimes it’s a sex scene in a movie. Sometimes it’s your husband. He’s trying to help, but he doesn’t know what that looks like. My husband doesn’t understand my journey with my body, like I don’t understand his journey with his body.
So what I mean when I say that I didn’t have to think about how I felt about myself was that I thought about it all of the time. I just didn’t have to do anything about it.
I went into an open relationship the way I went through the first years I spent with David: I hid behind him. I might not be hot, but my husband is. Back then I would stand in a crowd, feel fat and invisible, and think “At least I have him. He’s beautiful and skinny and he’s going home with me.”
“Take that,” I would tell the people I was invisible to.
When pursuing other men I would make sure that my husband was prominent in my photos, so that people would know what they’re getting. If they didn’t want me, at least they’d want him, and I would get to be there. Not quite a part of it, but there.
The trees are thick and sturdy but they bend and sway in the storm. Branches break. Leaves fly away. A fox appears. It sniffs the base of one and then curls up between them, its fur stiff against their bark. The trees continue to sway in the wind.
The first time we met a man and brought him home and undressed him and then we undressed me, I was so nervous I was shaking. I found the flaws in this stranger’s body and focused on them. He has flaws — his face was flat, his penis shaped weirdly —, so he can’t have a problem with mine. This was in December, before the painful whiskey talk in Florida.
When the storm breaks the fox is gone. The trees will never know if the storm brought the fox, or the fox brought the storm. There are other furred creatures that find shelter with the trees, stay for a night, and leave. The trees are happy to provide what they can, and to take what they can.
Every time we had a threesome, I would repeat the process of focusing on flaws. It wasn’t until I found a man who was clearly interested in me and not my husband that I stopped playing this game. He was short, but pretty and muscular. I used to think a lot of pretty and muscular. The first time I saw him, I thought “He’d never be into me.” He was. He was young and immature and kind of dumb and we watched almost two complete movies in a row before either of us could initiate sex but when he undressed me I was completely comfortable. Something about how he looked at me made me feel okay undressing in front of him, in front of anyone for, honestly, the first time.
Later I would find out that I looked so much like his boyfriend that Facebook would ask me to tag photos of myself with his boyfriend’s profile.
The storms come and go. The trees look worse for the wear but they’re still strong. Their branches still touch.
The next threesome was with a close friend. This friend has the most beautiful eyes but a body like mine. See, here’s the fucked up thing -- I have never been attracted to fat people either. The same pressure that had taught me to hate my body had taught me to hate ones like it, too. I loved my friend, but I wouldn’t consider sleeping with him until one night when he drove my husband and I home, when we were too drunk to drive ourselves, and he tucked me into bed and leaned over to kiss me goodbye and David closed our bedroom door and our friend didn’t leave until we were all laughing and sweating and covered in cum.
This would be the first threesome we didn’t fight over.
Our friend moved away. Time passed.
One night a bear takes shelter between the trees. The bear snuggles between them, seems to fit perfectly. The trees like the weight of his body against their trunks.
David and I met a guy named Seth. The first time I saw Seth, I thought “Fuck, he’s hot.” And then “He’d never be into me.” I’m glad that my brain is wrong so often.
The bear sleeps between the trees. He leaves and he comes back. He brings food. He scratches his back on their bark. He rests and plays and spends a lot of time with the trees.
This isn’t a one-night stand. We’ve been dating this guy, this fuzzy chubby guy. For the first time I know what it's like to share space with someone shaped like me.
Now I have this guy who is not only fucking beautiful but makes me feel fucking beautiful. Not only because of what he says or how he treats me, but because if I can think he's beautiful then I can think that I'm beautiful too. I don’t hide behind his body. I know better than to find self-confidence from another person but at this point I’ll take it from anywhere I can get it.
I told you about stars and aliens earlier so that I can tell you this story:
One night I lay in bed with Seth, David already fast asleep the way he usually is when the hour’s late and the conversation’s nerdy. Seth and I talked about space travel. About how one of the hardest things to come to terms with in this world was that we would never go to space. Never look back at Earth. Never meet aliens. He felt this pain like I felt it. This was one of the first ways I knew that I was in love with him. There are a lot of ways.
His body is like mine. I slide my hand over his belly and and my hairs stand on end. I trace the lines of his body with my fingers. I’ve yet to find a line I didn’t like.
Now I’ll tell you a story I don’t know if it’s true*. We were laying on Seth’s couch. David was asleep again. He was curled against Seth, and Seth had his head on my stomach. We were talking, and then we weren’t, and Seth reached up and rubbed my stomach and said something I couldn’t quite hear. I asked him to repeat it, but he didn’t hear me. I don’t know if what I think he said was true, and I don’t want to know. But I think he said “I love your belly,” and it’s enough for me that I believe it’s something he would say.
Now, this story hasn’t been entirely fair to David. Just remember the trees. I don’t have a cute anecdote to tell you but I can tell you that we’re learning to talk to one another. Honestly and bravely talk to one another. This story isn’t fair to David because I haven’t told you what I’ve never forgotten: he loves me. He loves me for me, even if he hasn’t always known how to help me. His branches are tangled in mine.
Most of the things I do, I do to calm this fear that I’ll never visit the stars. What I mean is, most of the things I do, I do to cope with the fact that I live on this planet and I can’t ever leave it. Most of the things I do, I do to cope with the fact that I live in this body, and I can’t ever leave it. I make art, I make good food, I eat, I fuck. I volunteer and organize and I love.
Right now, I’m content to stand in the valley, with grass around me and a river just over there. Nothing makes sense to me except the two men standing next to me. We can’t look out, so we look up. We look up and reach for the stars.
*I read this story to a crowd the day I finished it. David and Seth didn’t know much of what I’d written before hearing it that night. It was a big night, this was a heavy thing to read to an audience. That night the three of us went home, we had a lot of things to talk about. It was a good night. Later, as we were falling asleep, the three of us curled up in bed together, Seth asked if I wanted to know if my memory was true, if he had said “I love your belly.”
Like I said, it doesn’t matter, because I believe that it’s something he’d say.
But just so you know, it was true.