My family owned a box turtle for one summer. He first lived in a white bucket filled with grass until my father built him an enclosure in the backyard that I could see from my parents’ bedroom window. The pen was made of stacked cinder blocks and chicken wire, a square grassy pasture for a turtle to roam. One morning when my sister and I went outside he was gone. Two of the cinder blocks were knocked over, the chicken wire ripped down. For years, I believed he ran away. I still want to believe this despite the turtle’s size and the weight of those cement blocks. I’ve wanted to believe that because turtles have shells they cannot be stolen, that no one can carry them away.
My partner began calling me a turtle in the middle of my doctoral degree, when our marriage was on the verge of falling apart. The name came from my ability to block out my emotions and focus completely on finishing my exams, completing my dissertation, selling my novel, applying to and securing a job. The ability to burrow through with tunnel vision, my shell strapped to my back until everything was safe again. Neither of us knew that I had long learned the tactics of tunneling, that I had no name for the shell I’d already formed long before we met.
When I was six, a neighborhood friend led me to the edge of her yard where she said her pet turtle was buried. She pointed to the spot. She said her father told her turtle shells stayed, that if we dug into the ground we would find one suspended in the earth. I asked if we could dig and she said no, that I was too young to see it, that I’d have to come back when I was twelve. That was twice my life, six more years, unfathomably out of reach. This is what I remembered from what she said, and not that some armors remain so long after they are buried.
Turtles form shells without understanding why, only that they are as much a part of the body as claws or beaks. I didn’t know I was building a shell when at eleven I tried not to look as a man masturbated on a public train, his eyes boring into me and my sister. I didn’t know I was building a shell when in high school a boy pressed my face into a bed and I didn’t say no because I didn’t know I could. I didn’t know I was building a shell when a boy who didn’t go to my college broke into my dorm and then stalked me for five months until campus police told me they couldn’t do anything unless he did something first, code for violence, code for tangible evidence. When I told a different boy I’d rather use condoms and he pushed his way into me regardless. When a man at my waitressing job came into a storage closet while I was looking for napkins and shoved me against a wall and locked the door and said he wouldn’t let me out until I kissed him. When after that summer I still told myself this was just how it was and that none of this was that bad.
As a child, I wondered what turtles looked like without their shells. I watched The Neverending Story and imagined the wrinkled reptile of Morla, the Ancient One mistaken for a mountain in the Swamp of Sadness. I wondered if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ swords and wands worked in the absence of shells. And I bent low to my turtle’s enclosure before he was stolen and pictured the nakedness of a mole rat somewhere inside his armor. I didn’t know then that turtles and armor are synonymous, the body fused to the shell, that there is no turtle without the shield.
A shell is all keratin, a shelter made of more than sixty bones. Scutes and scales, forged from portions of the backbone and ribs. For years I cried after sex without knowing why, only that something in me had hardened beyond repair. The nearness of my partner softening the hard parts, laying bare the organ beneath my breastbone. It wasn’t just those men. It was running outside. It was catcalls. It was be safe. It was never walking home alone. It was professors. It was the anticipation in so many conversations of underestimation. It was hatching a plan from a bedroom in high school that I would never be vulnerable again, that I would strap on my helmet and forge my shield against a terrible storm.
Marriages present their own storms. We met so young. Even if I’d hatched a plan, my body had long ago internalized its place. I let myself follow. I subverted my own path, let someone else write my narrative. Then I worked my way at last through graduate school and burrowed down, shell-strapped. Three years that nearly ripped us apart. I didn’t recognize then the ways that trauma can look like achievement from the outside. I didn’t know that I’d decided long ago that if my body could be violated, I would be all brain. As if I could disconnect them. As if the brain were separate from restrained limbs, from the ratcheted beats of a broken heart.
Across the many states I have driven and the many in which I’ve lived, I’ve seen so much roadkill. Groundhogs. Skunks. Raccoons. The carcasses of deer splayed across the highway. But the worst I’ve seen was when driving the backroads of Missouri one summer with my high school boyfriend, one who would soon fuck someone else the night before I lost my virginity to him and not tell me for months. We passed a box turtle attempting to cross the road and it took at least three more miles for me to convince my boyfriend to turn around. He finally spun the wheel and when we returned there was only a broken-open shell in the middle of the road, freshly cracked, blood and yellow bile oozing everywhere across the pavement.
Turtling my way through graduate school led to a teaching position where, for once, I felt like I owned a narrative. I’d created a life for myself beyond the inevitability of being held against a bed, of being told by police officers that there was nothing they could do. I’d shored up an entire artillery of making my own decisions on my own terms. I thought I was bulletproof, that I could unstrap my shell.
I know this now of myself: I have tried my entire life to avoid being roadkill. I have done everything I can to steel myself against being cracked open and wonder only now what is me and what is the shell or if there is no distinction, no separation at all between keratin and blood. I thought for the two years of that teaching position that I’d finally transcended the need for vigilance. I spent them in the mountains learning vulnerability despite anxiety and persistent muscle spasms and the onset of internal bleeding, my body breaking down. I was trying to unturtle. My body held onto the pain. My body was waiting, always, to pull back on its shell.
I was in the mountains when my department chair called to tell me the university was closing. I’d spent the morning looking out on a landscape I could see for miles. I was breathless with grief. It was the end of March. I had six weeks to find a new job, the academic job market out of season. The shell waiting always just below the surface. I coiled inside myself and against all odds flew to New York where after the interview I vomited in my hotel room and checked myself into a hospital the following week for a surgery two years overdue, a pain I thought I could breathe through, this weight on my back burying me at last.
I have been unable to find the language for the white-hot devastation of losing my job. It was just a job. It wasn’t that bad. I worry I am telling myself the same things, again and again. I have written this essay nine times because it is inexplicable to me that nearly two decades after feeling my wrists immobilized beneath a man’s hands, losing my job and the control over my life still feels like being pinned to a bed.
Turtles bury themselves in mud and ice for the duration of winter. Their shells release carbon and lactic acid through long periods of anoxic conditions to keep them alive. Two weeks after flying to New York and two days after my operation, I still set my computer on my lap for one more Skype interview, my post-surgery gown hidden beneath the screen, my face sleepless and gaunt in the lower right hand frame.
I have written this essay nine times because I have been connecting an unsounded constellation of dots. I hear the voice of the editor, the reader: so much of this is telling, not showing. Expand this into scene. The boy in high school. What stalking means. What it means to avoid a surgery for two years because you know you will be strapped to an operation table and when it finally happens there is only calm before the anesthesia kicks in because a doctor is standing over you and not a teenage boy. What it means to be chased on a running path by two men who shout bitch we could fucking own you and there is only your winded rage because they are right, because in the power of your legs there is muscle memory, always, of being restrained. This is telling. This is storytelling from a marginal place. So many of us are the words we choose to set down, as much as we are the narratives imposed on our bodies that fuse into bone. There is no separation between the claw and the beak, between the shell and the ribs.
Six months after surgery, I was bleeding again and saw a specialist in New York who checked my incision site and said healing was slow because of the size of the scar. He said what concerned him was that I hadn’t addressed the problem for so long, that the initial wound was so large because I had pushed off surgery for two years. He told me that I should heal regardless but looked at me then looked away. He said, you must have been in pain for a very long time.
My partner and I have discussed the possibility of children. We have discussed having children now for nearly five years, a decision I have punted on again and again, a follow-through I have now botched three times by taking three Plan B pills. After the third time, I was sitting on a bench outside with my hood pulled over my face so no one could see me crying when a truck drove by and a man shouted out his window hey lady come fuck me. There is no separation anywhere. And there is no armor in children, no self-protection. I will not be able to climb inside my citadel and close out the world, no more than I have been able to become brain and forget my body because the endless wave is always there, always waiting to wash over me when I disrobe in the dark. Discussing children again last week with my partner, I said it offhand but out loud for the first time: that being a woman in this world is a wound, one I will carry with me for the entirety of my life.
When I was little, I know I saw turtles without their shells only once. In Super Mario World, a game I played for hours in my basement across junior high before the storm of high school came, turtles could be knocked out of their shells. They walked around in undershirts. They appeared hunched over, completely defenseless and stunned. It was only in later iterations of the game that they walked upright, that they shrugged off the absence of their shells and pulled on sunglasses and made their way to the beach.
My partner said in return that the point is not to transcend the wound, but to live alongside it. The shell and the backbone. That the longer we live, the larger the wound might widen. That the trick is to let it widen, to let the soft parts within us overtake keratin and bone. To release the flood. To allow ourselves to be the open wounds we are.