Normal/Hunger (part 2) — Tomoé Hill

The written word has been an essential part in all of my significant relationships, especially the sexual ones. It has acted as a guide, and asked questions when I have not been able to speak. Because of this, they hardly seem normal in the context of what is considered typical dating—I am more interested in what I don’t see. I have always preferred words to a face in the beginning. It’s easy enough to put on a mask, but much harder to continue that sort of charade when there is nothing but you and a piece of paper, or a screen, instead of a body. You don’t worry about your unconscious physical gestures or being under their gaze. How ironic that I am drawn to these whispering voices in my head rather than the voices that actually speak to me—it has always felt more genuine, reading someone as a way to get to know them. When face to face we stumble through the narratives we create, there is always some sort of awkwardness we need to navigate. But I must be a reader through and through, since I look for the narrative in written conversations, see the paths it could follow, wonder which path the person on the other side will lean towards in their words. As we read, we write; as we communicate, we are constantly creating . And I wonder if we do not create each other just a little, if part of the pleasure of trying to understand a person is that we feel as if they were a character, if we are characters in a book writing itself?

Of course I understand it is a fantasy like Pygmalion, that we write to someone, fall in love, and wish them to be real so we can physically lavish them in emotion; not just will it through the screen, even if it is via our fingertips. I imagine the other person can feel what I wrote as they read. Letters of love and lust. We send messages loaded with emotion, letters assembled and reassembled into almost infinite messages that say the same thing, because we never tire of hearing them, we seek to be filled with the sensation not unlike floating in an ocean, buoyed and caressed by small waves. It is only natural that if I hunger for books and desire, that I should hunger for all kinds of words issued by a lover—but I want to read before I hear the voice in my ear, to roll every word on my tongue and see if it makes me shiver like a fragment of ice. On the day those lips are pressed to my ear, I want them to feel my skin and know they are what surrounds and overwhelms me; what makes me shiver until I melt.

Barthes on the lover: ‘I fall, I flow, I melt’. Engulf me with words, swept away like snow down a mountain stream, melt into me.

I ask myself, how could I ever have a lover who does not read? If they do not read, they will never be able to understand or communicate with me.

For almost fifteen years—not alone but lonely as if I was—I drank words half in secret, as if dying of thirst. I was not just hungry. I drank and starved, and when I found the ones who wrote to me like they too were reading me, I poured out the pent-up emotions—flooded the receivers because I didn’t know what else to do. I devoured them even as I sat surrounded by books on tables and shelves, steps and ledges, stacked in corners. When I was finally on my own, there were only books, flowers, and perfumes. I must have spoken in an odd language, because those things became my world. Did people expect to find me—and were they surprised by what they found? I must have been something slightly alien, without them knowing quite why. But just as we can see the look of hunger in a person’s eyes, they must have been able to sense mine, even though they could not see me.

Since my re-emergence into the world, I have eaten—more than that, feasted. Food, books, and bodies both real and unreal. I have tasted, touched, and used all my senses at this new banquet.


I am still hungry.
We do not call it hunger when we are young; it is curiosity. It is mostly encouraged, until we mature into sexual creatures—and then we are told many of the things we shouldn’t have such an appetite for, at least publicly. We should be discreet in our hunger, ladylike. Remember Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind eating before a barbecue, because ladies should only pick at food in front of men? We laugh at such dated ideas, but until fairly recently we were still told that we should eat primly with men. If we show hunger, it will be interpreted as also being hungry for other things. Men can show off their appetites in all things, one of the signs of virility. What do my appetites say about me? That I am greedy—not ladylike, not normal.

But this is normal. It is normal that I want and hunger and fill myself the way men are encouraged to do. It is normal that I choose desires for myself and wait for no one to approve or apportion them.

I have never curbed my appetites bar that long starvation period in my life, and even then I devoured lovers in dreams.

Where does hunger come from—when does it begin? I was fed on adult tastes from the time I was a baby. My paternal grandmother would blend the same food they ate for me. There was almost nothing I rejected, and as I grew so did my appetite for things new and different.

Parallel hunger: I grew up in a neighbourhood full of boys my age, discovered them physically as they did me, never once seeing myself as the object of experimentation, only mutual exploration. Eye-level to the pristinely stacked shelves of magazines at shops that featured light and dark-skinned women, unclothed. Wanting to see and touch; never once thinking this was the domain of male fantasy. At first, I only saw beautiful skin that reminded me of the women in my books of famous artworks —Botticelli and Titian, Renoir and Goya. Those images were encouraged as things I should value and study. My young logic decided that these new women too, were important to me. Later, that skin made me reach for my own, wanting flesh and limbs that were fully formed. This, another kind of study.

But this is normal. It is normal that I want and hunger and fill myself the way men are encouraged to do. It is normal that I choose desires for myself and wait for no one to approve or apportion them.

The childish sexual gaze—an uncomplicated gaze, yet untainted by the world—forgets that the photographic object of their desire is for others, for a gender not yours. It is a queer gaze, welcoming of all. I gazed, thinking they had posed for me. One day, I will have a complete body. It will be different, but I will still be one of you. I was happy on the day I sat naked with my knees drawn up, feeling the buds of newly forming breasts touching my legs; when black hairs fully filled the triangle between my legs, curling vines creating a secret nest. I never liked the way my neighbour’s plastic dolls looked in that area, smooth and alien, a homogenised beauty that reflected what my blue-eyed blonde neighbours would become, but not me. Years later, I removed my hair for someone who requested it—looked at my bare pubic reflection, thinking, I am the alien, and no longer recognised myself. The pain was so intense growing back that I would cry in the shower when the water fell on the unprotected, delicate skin. I crouched under the stream, trying to shield myself and thought of hot wax; tabula rasa—tabula, tablets used to write on, their erasable wax forming a new surface. Blank surfaces, blank slates for others to write their desires, overwriting mine.

I grew back those black vines, wherein my desires lay dreaming. I swore that from then on, another person’s desires should only entangle with my own.

Reading a memoir of a well-known woman in fashion, she said of one of her movie-star lovers, he liked me thin. His hunger for her meant that her literal hunger must be denied: she lived on fruit and coffee, sustaining herself on his desire in order to remain desired. Tabula rasa, erase and rewrite. How many times must we erase ourselves, before we demand that our desires are not things to be corrected by men who believe they can create us in a better image than the one that already exists?

When you have no experience or idea of the context of sexuality in the world of adults—the complex and problematic definitions and perspectives—you look at nakedness and the sexual act instinctually, and that instinct is the basis of a later outlook. I looked at magazines for men at girl’s sleepovers, and surreptitiously in the basement kiosks of antique shops; dated images from the 70s of women with open mouths, sometimes empty but often full, as well as other orifices. I looked with curiosity at their acts and wondered why they appeared to give such pleasure. I thought of the male bodies I knew, not fully formed, but giving a hint of what was to come—the small excitement I felt at touching the thing that grew in my hand, soft on my lips before I pulled away with a laugh. I thought there must be a kind of power in a woman’s mouth and between her legs. I knew I had started to become a sexual creature.

There were no such magazines in the house where I grew up in; my parents were not anti-anything, but for whatever reason, they were simply not there. What my sister and I discovered when older and going through some drawers were old black and white erotic photos from what must have been the 40s; we never knew if they were my father’s or my grandfather’s. Everyone was smiling: women’s mouths were full of cocks or else they were being fucked, and it struck me as funny, deliberately holding those poses and smiling directly at the camera. Sex seemed curiously absent in the house, as opposed to its overwhelming presence in popular culture. My mother and father would kiss when he came home from work, when I was younger; they slept mostly with their bedroom door partially open. I remember the times I saw it close and wondered why—I couldn’t quite connect what I saw in all those magazines, and my own nascent understanding of sexuality, with something they would actually do. As an adult, I have tried to imagine them as sexual beings, and it seems distant and removed from the images I was familiar with. That I grew to be—and was from quite early on—so interested in it in myself makes me wonder why I became this way.

And yet my father knew who I was growing to be; he never interfered or told me it was not the way to behave. He only offered, at a few key moments in my life, some advice or occasionally a request. I have always been grateful for this, for it must be hard to see a child develop an appetite before your eyes. That freedom allowed me to understand the responsibility of my actions as well as the power of knowing I had a choice. That of choosing lovers, of taking charge of my pleasure without guilt, and of recovering from the situations that might have left me further damaged if I had been taught that I was to only act or behave a certain way.

There would come a day where I would start flying places for trysts—different states and countries. I would leave a sealed envelope on the piano with details inside of where I was going and who I was with. When I came home the envelope always laid there against the yellowing keys, unopened—the details it held still private, a sexual life developing on its own terms.

A memory: flying to Canada to meet a lover. Warm arms around me while standing in a cold wind; back at his apartment, leaning over a desk using his rotary phone to call my house just to say I’d arrived safely. Steadying my voice as I spoke, we pulled up my skirt, impatiently, and he entered my heat—I’m fine, it’s lovely here, see you soon—then our hands putting down the receiver. The freedom of sexual agency and the agency of sexual freedom.

My early experiences were not just limited to those neighbourhood boys. One night, I slept over at a girl’s house. We spoke of sex as we knew it, which was little—sex at that age is what other people do. We laughed at her brother’s handwritten ‘guide’ to sex, secreted in his bedroom. He, too, did not know the act—only what he thought it might be, by writing it. But as he wrote it, it must have been real for him, as real to me as those women who stepped from painted frames into another kind of frame. I know something my parents have hidden, she said. We found an old Penthouse under a bed, probably long forgotten.

That freedom allowed me to understand the responsibility of my actions as well as the power of knowing I had a choice. That of choosing lovers, of taking charge of my pleasure without guilt, and of recovering from the situations that might have left me further damaged if I had been taught that I was to only act or behave a certain way.

Looking through the magazine in her room there must have been some shadow of men cast over its content—if not images, then in words. But I don’t remember men at all, only women, talking to me with their bodies. The message must have been explicit, but again, nothing spoke to me of men or their demands. My young gaze was demanding too, but in a different way. We looked at the bodies we didn’t yet have in silence, the summer night air punctuated by the occasional giggle—it was more about the thrill of knowing you are tip toeing in the domain of adults, without fully understanding it. We tried to mimic those poses, draping over one another, kissing—although we saw the ridiculousness of us, unformed. But the body still responds, because something is inside you sleeping, to be awakened soon enough. Sometimes the sleeper’s eyes flutter, and the dream-sensation of what is to come in years ahead takes hold of you, and you touch—briefly—like you understand the particular meaning of flesh.

The touch of women is different to that of men. They both explore, but so often, men try to conquer in their touch. The woman’s touch feels like a land that is familiar but new, and explores it knowing there is pleasure in shared discovery. The men I have known who touch the way women do are the only ones who understand them—as much as you can understand a land that is not your own. They know they are guests, and that the customs of the country are yours alone to teach. When you touch and taste the skin of one who shares your sex, it is like being safe, in whatever we know as home.

All the images I took in when young made me feel that I was in a land of women. It was not until much later that I realised that men had created this land to possess us. But what—who—was I then, wandering this place as if it were my own?

Another realisation: that the ideal of woman was not woman herself, merely a projection of what woman should be. To me, there had been no difference between the women in paintings and photos, movies and everyday life—each had her own beauty, and I liked to consider every different body, knowing they were all part of one glorious being.

I can’t remember at what point I started to feel the weight of a gaze I had been unaware of, but I recall the feeling: sinking, that I was shaped and reshaped in the eyes of others, that my flesh and thoughts and desires were not acceptable as they were.

The stillness of women lies between the poles of adoration and rejection, where we are simply allowed to be.

Senta. I was only 13 or 14, and she must have been a few years older, although she seemed so much more than that. Senta wasn’t even her real name but a replacement—just as mine was Romy—while we spent several weeks that summer at a German language camp in the middle of a Minnesota forest. I had never before seen a girl who looked so appealingly androgynous. Her short, swept-back dark blonde hair and angular face, slim boy’s body and golden-olive skin, but most of all, her eyes—the colour of which I can’t remember, only how they looked when she laughed—sent a shiver through me that I hadn’t felt since that sleepover. She seemed to stand out to me wherever I saw her; something inside me quickened. I longed for Senta with every inch of my being: a strange, sad ache that echoes even now when I think of her. I never knew her—we never even spoke—but I still want her to this day, in my mind a woman now, looking much like she did as I first saw her, but with that indistinct change that is still a shock after not seeing someone for so long: to see a face and body at its peak, angled and curved, the age in the eyes reflecting experience. Her laugh is still the same.


I do not know why I do not speak of my few other experiences with women later on: part of me sees them as so intimate that to write about it is a breaking up of the acts we shared; something that felt so liquid at the time turned to unreal solidity—at other times I think there are no adequate words: the gestures and feelings therein are their own world, enough. The physical difference between being with men and women are distinct in my senses: there is an almost mechanical fitting of limbs with one, while the other is more akin to melting. There are few men whose bodies I have melted into, who understand I am not a thing to be connected to like machinery, but instead combined with, who are willing to let go; liquefy. All these memories roll through me like a wave coming in to shore, a quiet overwhelming force swaying the body, which often leaves me wondering why I should ever want to be consumed any other way. I once wrote in a letter that I imagined the word queer as a little wave—breaking free of the larger swell, rolling in to discover land on its own.

That was the same summer, in the very same place, that I had my first almost-full sexual experience with a boy whose name I can’t remember. Idyllically, we teased each other in a field of weeds and wildflowers, set apart from the hum of the camp. We teased each other right into an abandoned cabin with a half-attic and an old mattress, where other camp-goers—and probably the counsellors themselves—would slip away for adventures. I laid on that mattress, sunshine coming in through the skylight, opened myself and asked to be pleased and to pleasure him. He did so, mouth between my legs, surprisingly gentle; with tongue and later fingers he made me come joyously in the summer heat. With my mouth I explored his growing cock, delighting in being able to take my time to feel each ridge and curve before tasting those sea-salt drops. When I descended the ladder from the attic platform, my legs trembled and I could feel wetness on the insides of my thighs.

When I returned home after those weeks, my hunger was almost palpable.

Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty MirrorBerfrois3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat

Art by Yanina Spizzirri