“Pleasures of the Flesh” by Jaclyn Watterson

Image by Amy Lee Ketchum / amyleeketchum.com

Fully dressed, reclining on a bed at Ozanam Hall on the final day of her life, Grandma—distressed, distracted—asked me to move her legs.

Slightly to my left, toward the wall.

Legs was a nickname she wore as a young woman. Legs so sexy—long and slender, shapely as a bottle. In a photo taken at somebody else’s grave in 1939, she stands on them with gumption. Sinewy and strong. Balancing on high heels in the dirt atop a grave.

Her bottled legs that year, more like barrels the last day. Bruised with age, swollen by atrophy, poky hairs sticking at odd angles.

Her slacks, polyester, elastic at the waist, hit at mid-calf. She was dressed as she had been all my life, we were alone together, and she was nearly ready to depart this world.

And gently, I hope not gingerly, I lifted one leg in two hands, moved it toward the wall. And she asked me to cross her left leg over the right at the ankle. It was the last thing she asked me for, and soon her daughters, my mother and aunt, having parked the car, would enter. My last moments alone with Grandma. Over, once the car had been parked. But first, an introduction.

She wanted to go home, after the heart attack, and spoke of it often in those three weeks. But Grandma had a daughter who believed she belonged in Ozanam.

And it was in Ozanam that she presented the boy.

Who is that boy?, she asked.

We were alone together; she had not died; her daughters were still parking the car.

She said, Jackie, who is that boy with you?

Who Is. That. Boy. I thought we were alone. Together.

On principle and for health, I do not eat the flesh of animals. But there is one inside me now. The sea sponge, harvested for my menstrual needs, soaks up a life force that with chemicals and hormones I prevent.

The sea sponge cannot move, but neither can she create her own food, and so she’s an animal, fitting the definition. I’m an animal, too, and when my grandma died I was sleeping. Six in the morning, sixty miles away, the proximity and privacy her death demanded.

I’m an animal and a woman and I married this man who was the only one, and we perform living with three other animals who often vomit in the night.

Now, and for the past three months, I have lived in a city in the southern part of our country, a city not far from the hometown of my grandfather, a place Grandma visited often but never lived. A place I came to only a half dozen times before. I live here in this city with one cat and two others, and with a human. And though I never ingest the flesh of an animal, I feed it from cans to the cats, and keep a body within my womb. We are only as good as our contradictions, only mean what we cannot explain.

You’re an animal, too.

Dying, six years before my birth, my grandfather told my grandmother to sell the land they owned in New York State. You can’t afford it, he said.

Dying, thirty years after my birth, still owning those one hundred six acres, my grandmother asked me to move her legs, and she pointed at a boy I couldn’t see, saying who is.

I had spent the previous summer living on her acres, always morning or else night in that dilapidated farmhouse, always alone. Unrelenting rains washed away unplanted fields, and I turned on the oven, door open, for warmth, and read numerous books I kept in piles in front of a wooden door off the kitchen, lest someone should enter. And then that winter I had married someone—suddenly, it seemed to certain members of our family—in a secret ceremony in a courthouse in Tennessee. I was ever my own witness.

I came to my grandmother alone from Tennessee, when her death beckoned. I moved every year; I took pills or inserted plastic hormonal rings in to my vagina according to a 28-day cycle; I had adopted a third cat. There wasn’t a boy, though I had wed.

Stupidly, I spoke. There isn’t a boy. What boy?

My grandmother said, You have a boy with you, there.

I looked into her pupils, piercing and glazing. She said, Oh, you can’t see him. A deathly conviction!

And soon our time together was up; the car was parked; two days later we were waking her.

But later that summer, the summer after I had lived alone on her acres, the summer of her death, a psychic told me I would have a boy—she saw his spirit already entwined, from the future, with my own. Together we produced a yellow aura.

I don’t see yellow, I don’t want a baby, and I don’t know the boy my grandmother and the psychic saw. Because the cats and the human, my memories of Grandma that you can only understand if a life’s history has romanced you—these overwhelm my desire.

I take care. I never want to say a thing I’ll regret.

I don’t want to birth anyone; I’m nobody’s mother.

Though I wed someone.

I don’t have to.

I’m an animal and a woman and I married this man who was the only one, and we perform living with three other animals who often vomit in the night.

And we will rise from bed three times to clean that mess.

For my birthday, my spouse gifted me the sea sponges. Naturally absorbent beyond any synthetic invention, sponges offer a new and ancient way for women, interested and busy and self-important women like myself, to soak up our bleeding each month.

I had been wanting to write an essay. I would include that tampons were first widely available on the commercial market in this country in the year 1936, the year my grandmother was eighteen, a year when she had met but not wed my grandfather. A year, she recalled, when he was all hands, and she refused him a second date. A year I have thought about often, but never lived. The year my grandfather began assaulting my grandmother, though no one ever called it that. Laughing, instead, at what she said. The way she said it. All hands.

This is the legacy of our gendering, inside a family’s women full of man-worship.

I don’t imagine Grandma bought any tampons that year, or maybe any year, though I never asked. I thought, when she was alive, that I had asked all the questions. Mom described the rubber bands and bulky diapers of her own teenaged menstruation, and I can only imagine something worse for Grandma.

My birthday sponges came in three sizes—small, large, and alarmingly large—and they were wrapped in a box containing other items of interest to me, including a nineteenth century book on proper deportment. By my body’s dictation I waited two weeks to try them.

Living with three cats, I have a favorite. This boy-cat I love like no other. This boy I love in such a way that only someone who has romanced an animal can know.

And yet his place in cunnilingus is questionable. Because curiously and lacking jealousy, he watched, like a lover learning. And my human lover rested his cheek upon my generous thigh, shifted his weight, and moved in again.

As my grandmother did at the end, I wanted to say, That is so good. I wanted to say, I love you. I would marry you again. Every day. But I struggle to place my words, and often do not.

And the cat was watching, and the human closed his eyes, and instead of speaking, I reached out and pet the cat. And he moved his face into my hand, and turned toward the meeting of our bodies, and watched with the dispassion of someone who has never performed or reveled in oral sex.

Our places all were questionable, in that moment and since.

The sponges, lasting about six months, represent a commitment and dedication not to be found in disposable solutions.

Rinsing them, and smelling your own iron, and soaking them in tea tree oil before reinserting. The process is a little like gardening, another task that—like a lady, like someone who has gone deep into the gender prescribed her—I enjoy.

And I have been tempted to take the sponge from my vagina to my mouth, to swallow back its wet—double life, preternatural memory. But I stopped short, settling instead for photographing the body of the large sponge. And a pretty picture that glowing red sponge made on top of the white sink in the house in Erie. Bioluminescent, I might say.

And that is the reason I am giving, here, to you, for wanting to suck it back in. Wanting to finally ingest my blood like my grandmother did her milk—not a baby, but someone slowly dying with the most intricate intention, yet perhaps also merely repeating a ritual that’s been done before.

Perhaps also birthing.

In another week, my marigolds should bloom and inside, I’ll have another opportunity with my sponge. These cycles, like clocks working, by the light of the sun and the moon, and dictated too by the fertilizers we forego or swallow, only frighten us when we do not honor them. Sources tell me the sponge hasn’t died; although her body’s swallowed in mine, she regenerates, replacing what was cut off at the foot.

And once I knew a boy who died. He wore polished penny loafers—slots glinting with the shiniest pennies he could find from the year he was born—and we walked the beach together and hunted crabs, just so we could dump a pail of them all together back into the ocean. And we got older and he grew streaky with mean, and his gestures were frightening—all hands—but remembering our crabs, I let him lick at my vagina, and it was not so good. But we were alone together and he had just shown me how he purred on the pillow in his dorm room, to soothe himself to sleep. His voice was broad and heavy, and the purring had vibrated through the pillow to my fingers, and then my cheek. There is so much to remember. And then some years later he was killed in an accident I thought might have been born of his mean. We hadn’t spoken for two years, and I am still young enough that he is the only person to have kissed my clitoris and later died.

This cat I love like no other has longish hair and a tail like a bunny’s. And like me, when he is nervous his shits go soft and ooze out in spite of himself. And my poor beloved, his hairs catch the defecation and such a mess he makes.

And he is illuminated, a yellow cat with shit mashed into the fluff of his hindquarters. Some times we have to wash him in the sink, and others we snip and shave his fur so poop will not catch.

And I am humiliated, seeing him like that.

And my soul has two mates, and one of them is a cat.

Because I know what it is like to worry so that everything inside turns to seeping excess, stinking foul and waste.

After the heart attack, before the pneumonia settled in, she stopped eating.

Marianne, she said to her daughter, the one who wanted her in Ozanam, I’m not going to eat.

She had grown irritable; past caloric necessity, she was nearly ready.

Water though, she took. From the little synthetic sponge—pink or green—on the end of a stick, which we use to hydrate the very sick and the dying in hospitals. I held the cup of ice slush in my right hand, and brought the sponge-stick to her mouth with my left. She sucked on it, and I thought that maybe, though she was ninety-six, she would get better again, go home again. Willing it, I sucked at my own tongue, urged her to take a little more.

But it wasn’t extraordinary. Every day grandparents die—it’s another run of the mill, a mere turning of the wheel. And now, I bear this grief—a certain pleasure of the flesh.

The woman in the YouTube video is good-looking. She warns that she will show real menstrual blood, and I am dismayed at my surprise when I see she is fully clothed throughout the entire eight minutes, instructs us on sponge insertion mostly with words, her demonstration graphic only in that she holds a sponge, twists it, and places one stockinged foot on the closed toilet seat cover, presumably in her own home. Her pants, though sexy tight, reveal nothing, and viewers are left to imbibe our sponges as we will. In my case, this entails only mild nausea, slight ripping until I remember to moisten the sponge before pushing it in.

Maybe it’s just women aren’t allowed not to want to be mothers. Maybe it’s just I am still young enough, married, income to spare visiting a psychic. But what if it was my grandmother’s animal instinct, her preternatural sight, hours before she died? And finally my brothers had arrived, and she said, Tomorrow we will be together. The sun will be shining.

The last thing she ingested—milk. She said, That is so good.

I love you. I would marry you. Every day.

I didn’t tell my brothers or mom about the boy, but I told my spouse, and later I told my students.

It’s a good story. How in the end, we all belonged to Ozanam.

Yet I hope I don’t meet the boy. I hope this cat I love beyond reason is the boy; I hope two of my brothers so much younger than myself might be what the clairvoyants saw. Or perhaps my spouse; or the pain inflicted by an absent father. Or even the boy I knew when I was a girl.

Because he I can affirm. He I can abide.

Except. My grandmother knew well all of these, would have recognized them.

And I derive pleasure, too, in his sleeping on my dirty underwear. I know it’s impolitic. We mustn’t think of our dirty underwear, and we mustn’t admit a penchant for bestiality, though perhaps it is preferable to swallowing back one’s own menstrual juices?

Pass your judgement and show me your own thick insides.

I saw the way he watched, and I know the way my own underthings smell.

We are only as base as what we do not say. My grandmother would be horrified. I do not wish to confess; it is only her death that demands admission.

I think of it often, and I know the smell.

And I miss my grandmother, and I miss the girls I knew when I was a girl, and I miss the teachers who dismissed me into each summer, and I miss my brothers, who were there for days I couldn’t foresee, though I’m not sure they remember.

And my soul has two mates, and one of them is a cat.

And what if the boy should arrive, one day? Because our decisions don’t always predict the future, and fruition may come from without. He scares me, the boy my grandma saw, but I find I seek him—in dreams and through the phone line and peering out of tarot cards and clawing in from the future. I don’t want to be anybody’s mother, but I do want do believe in what Grandma saw, in meaning and circularity and life, in deep threads of mystery, unknowability, change connecting us to one another—and to solutions glimpsed, but not yet written. I want to believe some open destiny awaits my asservation.

And I look to the hindquarters of the boy-cat, or to the curve of my spouse’s eye, and I wonder what Grandma didn’t say. And I recall a spot of menstrual blood—real and iron-rich, nearly brown at cycle’s end, fallen from my own body to the stomach of my spouse. Just below his navel. We were unclothed, had just exited one other. We watched the spot, and he didn’t move, lest it should roll off.

I wiped rather than licked him clean, feeling only affinity. Feeling like the future was possible. Because my blood on his body, and his skin a little darker than mine, and the window beside our bed open, and the afternoon inside us. We weren’t thinking of boys, but of what we had just done, and how we would do it again, the rest of our lives. And for an instant, our places were unquestionable.

When she was alive, Grandma was in the habit of grasping arms. She would hold on, just below or above the elbow, and look into a person’s eyes, and demand, Isn’t this nice—we’re all together? If it were my eyes she was peering into, my arm she squeezed, I would sheepishly reply that Yes, it was very nice; but really I had eyes only for her. I would angle to sit beside her at the dining table, share a salad, ask quietly and jealously for her to tell me the stories of her youth and middle age.

Especially I would ask about her brother Francis’s death, in 1981. He had come to my grandmother’s house in Queens spontaneously one day in August of that year, asking her to go with him to her acres away from the city. She was delighted at the invitation, and brother drove sister four hours into the country, into a place they both loved, a place she had not sold at her husband’s death. And that night, after Grandma went to bed in that dilapidated farmhouse where it was always morning or else night, she heard a noise. It was his falling off the couch with the force of a fatal heart attack, but she was half asleep and would not get up to learn it until morning. And by then he was hours dead, and she not knowing how to drive a car.



When you pull the sponges from you, you have to push. You’re not used to it, and it’s a little like giving birth to what you didn’t—until you are used to it. And you can smell the iron, a life-source ancient and new.

It’s your own blood not given to somebody else, and then it’s rinsing down the sink.



Jaclyn Watterson is originally from Connecticut and now lives in Atlanta where she teaches writing at Georgia Gwinnett College. She holds a PhD in fiction writing from University of Utah and an MFA from Oregon State University. Her work has appeared most recently in Split Lip, North Dakota Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, and Loose Change.