Tongue of Flame

February 13, 2023

Photo by Dylan Haefner

The sun is misunderstood.

We loathe him for enveloping us with the heat that soaks through our shirts. We’re blinded by his light, so much so that we’ve been warned never to stare back. It’s responsible for so much destruction, and yet it continues to rise and set, unbothered. But we never see beyond his harsh, scorching surface for what he is: an emblem of life. Funny how the sun keeps us close enough but no closer. Maybe he doesn’t want us to see.

But I see. I see myself in him.

The sun and I are one. I wear him on a chain too thick for my supposedly feminine décolletage. I was very adamant about not buying a pendant with flowers or butterflies on it. Those wilt with your touch, but the sun is strong. I am strong. The sun has fueled my strength since I was little. Whenever I was told to not stare, I’d steal a glance in defiance. As if my pupils would be tough enough to peer through its glare. And when I came home complaining of a splitting headache on deaf ears, I realized that I could not wilt. If I wasn’t strong, who would help me?

As adolescence blossomed my friends into dainty blooms of femininity, I bumbled into a glaring eyesore, a compromise between Dad’s 6’7’’ stature and my two X chromosomes. I quickly found that to be a woman is to be effortlessly liked. To giggle with a twirl of their silky hair. To share pieces of your heart in hopes that someone will share theirs. To be a woman is to intertwine yourself with others. On me, these mannerisms seemed foreign. I wear a skirt, and it feels like a costume. My ankles jut below the hem, and my coarse hair sprouts in retaliation. My broadness engulfs my top and stretches it at the seams, struggling to contain my desperate desire to feel feminine. I feel like Frankenstein’s monster — an amalgamation of haphazardly constructed parts. I want to shrink into delicate nothingness, to be a wisp the wind can carry in its breeze. But I look suffocated. I feel suffocated. Womanhood is suffocating. I want to give femininity the cold shoulder, and the puny straps of my bralette are stern nails reminding me why: it’s easier to reject before you’ve been rejected.

I often wished I was a boy. Not in a gender-dysphoric sense. After years of deliberating my sexuality, I decided I was okay enough with being a woman to avoid that introspection. My problem was being a woman. To be a man is to show yourself and make it stick. A woman’s strength came from the community she built. With every secret exchanged and advice given, the woman gained someone in her corner. I didn’t have that luxury. My secrets set fire to my stomach and incinerate my brain of any lasting security. Or so I told myself. In reality, acting like a woman while not looking like one made me feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – malicious, an imposter. Every aspect of womanhood added another puzzle piece that didn’t fit. I felt weak trying to cram the jagged edges together, desperate to create the picture on the box. I was given this role in the world, but with every rejection, every friend I towered over, I felt my grip on it slipping. Womanhood was my weakness, and I was too strong to have weaknesses. As I flew rapidly around the sun and yearned for control over my identity, I leaned into the man’s self-assurance, his control.

I wake up suspended, between masculinity and femininity, self-sufficiency and community. But the sun’s warmth reminds me of my mission. He unfurls a tendril and pulls me out of bed. He illuminates where I make my coffee. Lately, my cup has gotten darker and darker, and I start to enjoy how the caffeine grips my tongue and lingers long after. I revel in the newfound chalkiness of my teeth, the ruggedness that takes hold as my tongue inspects every ridge.

I enjoy the fight.

If I let my space rocks run their course, they’d destroy. Logifying them keeps them grounded – keeps me grounded. I had to pretend I didn’t feel a strange flurry of resentment, superiority, and self-hatred every time my friends opened up. Why isn’t this easy for me? It’s because you aren’t weak! Yeah, right – you glare so no one sees how pathetic you are.

The sun can only glare for so long. Hastily, I blackened. My starving heart pried my ribs open for someone, anyone that would make this monotonous beating worthwhile. She begs to sink her palms into the mind of another, to let her flesh collect under their fingernails and unearth the pearl of her soul. But previously outstretched hands slunk back in bewilderment. The first time I broke down in front of my new friends, I was met with nervous laughter and photography. I was too late. I suffocated myself for so long that I forgot how to breathe. A silent woman was now gasping, and no one knew how to console her, not even herself. I stare at the pictures sent in our group chat, and I can’t recognize myself. So out-of-the-ordinary that it had to be artificial. I was on edge, preparing for them to slowly but surely distance themselves. And yet, I couldn’t shake this feeling of belonging. How relieved my tongue was from the weight of my emotions. In dimming my glare, I felt seen.

Experiencing the effects of toxic masculinity as a woman is bizarre. It is physically impossible for me to be the dainty woman I idolized, but femininity is abstract. Strength is collapsing, blood crackling from your heart, and letting others stitch you back together. Strength is to intertwine yourself with others. Strength is feminine. A woman’s love is unbound, and I feel the weight of her repression every day. But as I hug my hometown friends goodbye after Halloweekend and debrief why I confessed my love for someone with my roommate, my load lightens. I walk to class, steal a glance at the sun, and swear I see a spot. I twiddle with my pendant and walk slower. It’s still a magnificent ball of light.

Maybe one day, humans will explore the sun. Maybe I’ll let more planets into my universe. After all, a sun is only as magnificent as the expanse it attracts. Maybe I’ll let my tears extinguish my tongue of flame. For now, my glare is dulling, and I know that makes me stronger. ■

Photographer: Dylan Haefner
HMUA: Averie Wang
Model: Arliz Munoz

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