(Liya Rechtman)– About a year ago, a friend lent me “The Wetlands” by Charlotte Roche. The book was first a bestseller in Europe under the name “Feuchtgebiete” (literally translated from the German in the NYT review as “moist patches”) and then was an Amazon.com bestseller in 2011. Honestly, I couldn’t get through it all. I was simultaneously disgusted and bored. I had never thought that much about the complications of anal sex, masturbation with foreign objects (notably, a home-grown avocado), or hemorrhoids. The book was labeled as everything from “fluid play pornography” to “the next Catcher in the Rye” by reviewers. Roche, the author, intended it to be a manifesto of third wave feminism – a new age for women’s bodily liberation. The New York Times disagrees:
[T]he most unsettling part of “Wetlands” is its author’s belief that she is a pioneer. Roche seems to know nothing about the extensive literature of women’s sexuality, a genre broad enough to merit its own section in most bookstores. In interviews, she sounds like a long-secluded inventor who emerges to announce she has developed the wheel. “Men have this whole range of different names for their sexual organs,” she told one journalist, “while us women still don’t really have a language for our lust. . . . I think a lot of women still don’t masturbate, simply because they don’t know how to talk about it.”
However, because I, too, (surprisingly) am a little sheltered from the world of queer and feminist theory, I found the book, if not gripping or nuanced stylistically, at least eye opening. As a writer I have always been shy in writing about anything graphic, instead opting for euphemisms and extended analogies. In our culture we fear conversation about the body in almost any context. The below piece is an exercise that comes (in part) out of thinking about Roche’s project.
Sometimes she had a problem with picking her toes when she was nervous. And her blisters. Anything, really, that could be pulled off her feet. She would sit with one leg crossed at an angle over her thigh and pick, under the table. She enjoyed the biggest pieces that of dead skin that she could scrape off the corners of her toenails – pieces that had died once the nail had pushed them out of place. These would be hard when she dislodged them, and she would roll them around in between her fingers, briefly, letting the corners press dully into the pads of her thumbs, before dropping them discreetly on the floor or into the cushions of a couch. She would play with her blisters, too, but that wasn’t so much picking, per se, as fingering: stroking over and over to discover where they hurt most, where they oozed pus and swelled or bled. She often wore bad shoes, which, compounded with the Richmond heat and her naturally soft skin, resulted in cities of blisters on her heels and inner-side tops of her feet.
She liked to imagine that no one noticed.
Once, years ago on her summer camp’s sailing dock, Rachel had been chastised by the main instructor for letting little flecks of toe-skin fall onto the lake-worn wood planks of the dock. “You realize,” the instructor interrupted herself to say, putting down the monkey-eye knot she used for demonstration, “that the wood is impossible to clean, don’t you, Rachel? Do you mind? The rest of us wood like to be able to walk around the dock barefoot without worrying about your… habits.”
Rachel knew then that she should have felt mortified. However, at that moment, her great respect for the sailing instructor morphed into indignation. She felt violated. How dare the instructor point her out in front of all the other campers? After all, she was just a kid. Some other girls farted a lot and some even picked their noses, pressing their boogers into the railing on the way up to the mess hall. Why was she called out individually? Rachel felt that the instructor was prejudiced against her. Only the day before she had accidentally flipped a boat out in the middle of the lake. Twice in the past week she had missed her mooring on the first try and had been forced to tack back out and come in a second time, making the water front counselors late to lunch. Perhaps the instructor didn’t care about her “habits” at all, but was frustrated with her carelessness on the water. She continued to pick at her toes, at first defiantly, then out of habit, and then, as she grew older, as part of a retinue of nervous ticks.
Because it wasn’t just the blisters or toenail skin. Oh no. Rachel had a tendency to scrutinize her ears, too. Granted, she didn’t feel nearly as comfortable doing this as she did playing with her feet. She would stick and finger in her ear and spin it around to collect wax. This had to be a more covert activity, one that often took place in bathroom stalls or very secluded sections of the library.
And she would shred paper. Mostly this meant the labels off sauces and beer bottles. If a beer were cold and covered in even the slightest film of condensation, the tick would be almost instantaneous. She would peel the label off in one fell swoop and the act would go largely unnoticed. That is, unless she got drunk and forgot to clean up the small hill of rolled up beer-label paper that would appear directly adjacent to her seat.
This last trait was probably the least offensive, mostly because it didn’t entail a vast overstep of the basic rules of hygienic, 21st century living. However, it was the shredding of paper that was commented with the highest frequency. The people who cared about Rachel the most saw it less as a nuisance and a mess than an endearing trademark. Having a beer with Rachel after not seeing her for a while, they would smile at the signature heap, and mention that they had missed her.
On the night of Matt’s dinner party, Rachel sat two to the right of his seat at the head. The table cloth hung about a foot over on each side and, between that and the napkin spread out in her lap, Rachel was able to graze her toes and caress her blisters in peace. While her hands worked studiously across the jagged edges of each toenail and down the creases in her ankles, she could focus on Matt’s friends.
The boys had recently decided to become men, and they were grasping for an opinion on Bain Capital or Paul Ryan or a perspective on the difference between Black Label with or without real (as in, authentic, shipped overnight!) river water from Scotland. They brought heirloom tomatoes and freshly sautéed octopus in Tupperware and tote bags. One of the men had just started a job with Bridgewater after spending his summer hiking through Eastern Europe. He flexed his stories for his former classmates, entertaining them with travels through bat caves and Serbian poverty. He dipped, slightly, from his nascent position when he repeated, almost by rote, that despite his position in The Firm, he still wanted to write poetry. He was interested in starting a blog, maybe. Rachel said nothing.
Matt didn’t notice the salty beads of sweat rolling down her nose when she downed two beers in a row. Nor did he see the glistening coat that dampened the light hair on her temples when she scooted her chair further in and felt her tampon spontaneously free itself from her vagina to roam in her underwear until she could shuffle to the bathroom and reorganize. He didn’t even see the exaggeration of her resting tremor when she struggled to rid her cut of lamb from the surrounding fatty tissue.
He said only that her mocha pecan pie was “so rich!” He told her how happy he was that she finally made time to come up to New York and squeeze in an evening with his friends. He laughed, a booming, hearty Matt-laugh when he discovered on the counter a moist little mound of shredded Harpoon labels. Around midnight, as the other guests began to flicker out – citing gallery openings and after-parties uptown – Rachel took over the task of drying dishes. Matt squeezed her shoulder, briefly, with a quiet “hey.”