My most vivid memory of my mother’s illness is my father driving me to school while I sat with a vial of my mother’s blood, turning it over and over in my six- or seven-year-old hands.
I remember the glass vial was smooth, unmarked by my grubby little fingers, and the opening was covered by something reminiscent of a stretched lilac-colored balloon, which a needle had pierced to insert the blood. Yet none of it leaked no matter how many times I turned the vial upside down; this fascinated me. I was fascinated too by how thin the contents were: the blood ran like water from one side of the vial to the other. It even sloshed a bit.
I don’t remember why I did this. I know it was a task my father had given me and that after I was dropped off at school he would take the vial to a lab. As an adult now, knowing what I do about biology, I can speculate that I was keeping the blood from clotting before it could be used to monitor the spread of my mother’s cancer.
But that’s only a guess. If my father ever explained the ritual, which we performed every weekday morning for several weeks, then time has long since rotted it from my mind—and I haven’t tried to figure it out on my own. My memories of my mother’s illness are like animals in a terrarium: to tap on the glass would be to disturb them, to ruin the fragile illusion of their natural environment. (I confess that, more than 20 years after my mother died, I still know very little about the disease that killed her: a willful ignorance.)
Other particularly vivid childhood memories include my mother’s bare breasts illuminated under a harsh fluorescent light as doctors stood over her prone body and made marks on her skin (“playing tic-tac-toe on Mommy’s body” I called it, to my mother’s amusement—plotting her partial mastectomy I think now) and my mother’s startled cry in my ear, interrupting our reading lesson, when the knee of one of the legs I was sitting on broke (“cancer ate through the bone” was the explanation given to me then and that has remained with me since).
I was just shy of nine when she died. A little over a year later, I started menstruating. Then I started masturbating.
You probably see where I’m going with this.
When your kinks and fantasies reach the depths of fucked-up-edness that some of mine do, you spend a lot of time wondering where they came from. What twisted my fragile little psyche enough that the sight of blood makes my cunt clench and the sounds of pain linger in my ears like a song?
The simplistic answer is that my sexuality began to blossom at the same time that I watched my mother’s body being ravaged and reduced to bone and blood and meat.
At the same time, I know that this doesn’t account for the number of other people who also spent their childhoods watching breast cancer gnaw their mothers like a dog gnaws a bone, but who weren’t perverted like I was. Nor does it account for some of my even more unorthodox fantasies: the ones more akin to an episode of Hannibal than pornography. The violence in my mother’s cancer was muted, clinical and clean, sterile; it never bared its bloody teeth and smeared my mother’s gore on the walls.
Still, I’ve relied on that explanation more than once over the years. A prospective sexual partner, squinting at the knife scars on my skin, turning down a corner of their lips at some of my writing, balking at my anxious stuttering “Do you—that is, could we maybe—?” Then, the inevitable question: “Why?”
I don’t know. I really don’t. But people blame my mother’s death for all kinds of things—my queerness, my anxiety, my sense of style—so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to blame it for this peculiarity as well. Maybe the trauma goes unusually deep with me. Maybe my father’s emotional repression, my stepmother’s obliviousness, my sister’s overbearingness served as the spades that dug the damage deeper.
Or maybe at age six or seven, twirling the vial of blood around and around during my ride to school, I was already prone to eroticizing the morbid. Maybe my darker kinks have nothing to do with my mother’s cancer and everything to do with the way that blood beads like polished rubies from a shallow cut and smears pink across the skin like a sunset.
At the end of the day, does it really matter where my kinks came from? To my partners, maybe. Or to the widowed parents of other traumatized children.
For me, it doesn’t. Whatever the cause, just as babies see with their mouths, I love with my teeth and nails, and would rend flesh from bone with the same ardor and devotion with which others would kiss their lovers’ thighs.