A Phantom Body

By Ash Alexander

A phantom body as the ending

There are two of you living inside your body. There is you, and there is Her, and you have both been there for so long, fighting, battling, warring—a body against its host, a brain against its flesh. She is everything that you thought you once were. You are everything that you hope to someday become. But there is not enough room for both of you. One fragile body cannot house two warring forces. 

Recently, you’ve been winning. You’ve become more you than you ever have been. But She is still there, a shadow over your face, over your life. Maybe this is how you will finally do it, how you will finally win. Because this is as much an exorcism as it is a memoir, you will write your story as Hers, and then you will write Her out of it. You will write yourself into existence. 

This is the ending of Her

a phantom body as a prayer

She is nine years old and does not feel at home in Her own body for the first time in Her life. She hates the way She looks, and begins sucking Her stomach in and slouching Her shoulders, unconscious and ineffective attempts to make Herself smaller, to take up less space, to stand out less. 

One night that same year, She closes Her eyes as She lays in bed for another sleepless night and, though She knows nothing of religion, She utters a prayer for a different body. She tells no one of it, but every night She prays, desperate tears rolling down Her cheeks, and every morning She wakes disappointed. She knows nothing of religion except that it has failed Her.

a phantom body as a lesbian

A long time ago, silently, in the dark of a hotel room long past midnight, She labeled Herself for the first time. The world was crashing down around Her, and She was cracking underneath its weight. But She walked away relatively unscathed, stepping out from Her fractured exoskeleton as something new. She was uncomfortable with it, like a fawn on brand new legs, but She was bisexual.

And then She was confused.

And then She was bi again.

And then She was a lesbian.

And She was a lesbian.

And She was a lesbian.

And She was free.

She was understood.

She was seen.

A phantom body as a promise

When things were difficult, sexuality-wise, you used to console yourself with the thought that you would one day live in an apartment with the woman you loved. You dreamt and dreamt and dreamt, down to the smallest details of the food in your fridge. It would be small, and rent would be too high, but it would be in the city of your dreams, and it would be yours, and you would be in love, and that would be enough. 

You, a woman, would be in love with another woman. And that apartment would be yours and hers, hers and yours, yours and hers, hers and yours, until you didn’t know who was who and what was what. It would be a sanctuary—green plants against white walls, sunlight pouring through the open shades, a black cat napping in your living room. You would lay on the couch, and you would kiss her, and she would kiss you, and you would not be afraid.

A phantom body as a girlfriend

Now, it’s your freshman year of college, and a neon-haired butch has just called you her girlfriend. You remember your promise from so many years earlier, but it leaves nothing but a sour taste in your mouth. Once such a comfort, that promise has dried up and crumbled, nothing more than ash scattered into the wind. A phantom promise made to fulfill the phantom dreams of a phantom girl in a phantom body trying so hard to become something more. 

Because she may be your girlfriend, but you are not hers. There is hardly any ‘girl’ left in you, and she knows this, so why would she– 

The questions consume you. You rack your brain trying to come up with some alternative. Partner, to you, sounds too permanent, but what else is there? Girlfriend does nothing but remind you of the reality that your physical form will always be what it is. Boyfriend intrigues you, but not within the context of this relationship. After all, she’s a lesbian, and you’re… you. 

You start to wonder if maybe you and she are nothing more than two puzzle pieces that look like they fit together at first glance, but once they’ve been connected, it becomes clear that their edges don’t quite match up. You wonder if you’ll ever truly belong with someone who fits so neatly in their own body, who lacks that intimate understanding of such a fundamental part of you. 

A phantom body as a foggy mirror

When the first traces of you began to show themselves in Her, you read somewhere that showering in the dark was a way to avoid the jarring reality of your body. After all, if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. It is nothing more than a phantom body—anything you want it to be.

Some people try to explain the struggles of being nonbinary as analogous to looking at oneself in a foggy mirror. A blurred body is full of possibilities, but a nonbinary person so often cannot find themself in that obscured reflection and cannot imagine a body that fits. You wonder if maybe that foggy mirror and your dark bathroom aren’t all that different.

There is no template for you to accept or reject, to alter or fix. There is no epitome of the nonbinary body. You only have yourself because, even with all of its boxes and labels, society has yet to craft one for you.

Look in the mirror. Squint your eyes. Search for outlines, for hints, for vague details.

There is no right way to be nonbinary—that’s the whole point—and yet, 

Sometimes, you wish there was something for you in that mirror.

a phantom body as a buzzcut

A month before the end of the first semester of your freshman year, you shaved your head over a dorm bathroom sink, scattering strands of brown across white porcelain. A fresh start. When you looked in the mirror, you felt light. 

It was with this shaved head that someone misgendered you in the other direction for the first time, seeing your boots and leather jacket and closely cropped hair under the dim light of a street lamp and calling you “sir” as you passed. Somehow, that felt satisfying to you. Not right, but satisfying. A reassurance that someone could look at you and see something other than Her.

A month later, you shaved it again. Shorter. 

Somehow, it made you feel more real. Every time you ran your hand over the top of your head and felt those short, prickling hairs, it was a reminder that you were you, that you could be you – that you could be whatever you wanted.

a phantom body as the beginning

There is no satisfying ending that you can give this piece because you have not yet ended. There are infinite versions of you to discover—so many questions to replace with answers. So much of you left to find. So, instead, you will go with a beginning, because you have finally done it. You have yet cleansed yourself of the girl that you never were, but that you convinced yourself was the truth of you for so long. But this is not about Her—this is about you and all that lies ahead. It’s about making your body and your life things that are yours. You will leave this piece, not at the ending of Her, but at the beginning of You.

Ash Alexander—majoring in English and Psychology, minoring in LGBT Studies—is from St. Petersburg, FL and has loved reading and writing for as long as they can remember.