TO MY ONCE AND FUTURE BODY by Shabrayle Setliff

Shabrayle Setliff

Grandmother’s body was vast, heavy, and unknowable. Her belly was like an ocean in a cave. She never understood the glorious figginess of it. The tacky, seeded roundness held together with lovely bruised purple skin. Instead, she seemed concerned with its dimpled retaliations. Its heft that felt like the constant plunge of gravity, not the groundedness I knew when I fell into the soft acreage of her arms.

Despite her efforts, the field of her kept producing fractals of brown skin, smooth folds, and pillowy lipids. Her body’s growth came under constant surveillance in doctors’ offices and Weight Watchers’ meetings, on the scale, in the dressing room—and I began to wonder, to whom did this acreage belong?

She was scattered, like seed, along the perimeter of her body, alert to expansion, engaged in a loop of field exercises: chewing her food to atoms, walking the corridors of the indoor shopping mall, and doing water aerobics in the YMCA swimming pool, lifting soaked wings to the instructor’s count.

She fed my blossoming cheeks with noodles and cheese and let me discover the delights of processed meats, the salty curved edges of a piece of fried bologna. She couldn’t eat any of that, though. Instead, she ate tuna, canned in water, and an iceberg head, cleaved in half. She drank glaciers dyed Crystal Light red.

She didn’t travel much, but she did visit the ocean for a whole week once on a cruise ship. I’d like to imagine that she moved along the vast buffet like the wind was in her hair, but I don’t know if she would have allowed herself to be that carefree in front of others. Instead, I saw a picture of her sitting at an empty table with a lei of violet orchids around her neck.

I remember her smile in that picture, but I don’t remember her ever being joyful in real life. Joy was somewhere far away, like Honolulu. I wonder if she ever got off that cruise ship. I can’t imagine her toes ever touching a grain of sand. The grandma I knew would have worn Honolulu’s orchids, taken in its sunset from a lounge chair, but she would have kept the island at a distance.

I have one memory of her lit up with delight in the darkness of an early morning. She was sitting over a turkey carcass with my aunt under the glow of the low-hanging kitchen light. They plucked the stringy bits from the tiny ivory bones with pleasure, the whole country of a beast to be explored, their fingers the compass. Grandma offered me its prized gizzards earlier that day, and I, nine at the time, said “no.” She snuck them into her delicious cornbread dressing anyway, so I did eat them, unknowingly and with glee.

I was twenty-five when Grandma died. Just a few days after the funeral, I dreamed she was on a giant Naval ship. She told me the ship was heaven or maybe it carried passengers to heaven. She didn’t really know—it was all secondhand information. She could see that I was doubtful and even a little worried because the place looked dingy. The walls were institutional pewter, streaked with rust stains. She said it wasn’t that bad. She pointed to a few paperback books on her small cabin shelf that she liked to read to assure me she was okay. I was glad to visit her, so I put my worry aside. When I woke up, it felt so real that I told her I wanted to see her again.

And I do.

Newly forty, her body has resurrected in mine: soft brown mounds have sprouted where there were once none. When I sit, I spread farther outward—every part of me is in contact with another part of me. My legs have taken on the solidity of mature trees, and my steps have grown heavier. When I sleep, I sleep in the softness of myself, like the soft acreage of her arms.

Originally from Oklahoma, Shabrayle Setliff lives with her family in northern Virginia. Last year, she graduated with her MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University. She’s working on a book combining Quechua folktales, the Qheswa language, and her maternal family history. In addition, Shabrayle Setliff works as an associate editor at an education nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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