Muscle Memory

Kim Henderson

When I talked back, my father used to make me stand in the front yard holding milk jugs.  It was a good punishment—I was built for it and wanted more than anything not to be.  I would stare at the sunset, then the moon, and eventually the stars would quake in my gaze.  By dark, he’d be eyeing the stopwatch, grinning, shivering in nothing but a flannel shirt and jeans.  “This girl,” he would say, running a hand over his head, glancing around like someone else was going to walk up and be as amazed.

After, he would slap me on the back and I would sneer and pass the rest of the night in the bedroom.  My sister, a wispy blond who hid from boys and still had them knocking on our window, would quietly tap on the door, pace and whisper about homework.  I’d hide her schoolbooks and lock her out until she curled up in the hallway and fell asleep.

In middle school, my father pushed me to join karate, wrestling, rugby.

“You could be the only girl on the football team,” he said.

But I didn’t like the way he watched me, how he drew everyone’s attention.  I’d heard enough about my boxy torso, flat chest, shot-putter’s ass.  I crushed him and didn’t join anything, opted to eat sweets in bed every day from the end of school until dusk.  My sister filled out sweaters beautifully and stuck to the kitchen, canned vegetables with our mother and learned to talk.  She is a preacher now, or an artist, I can’t remember which.

In a program for troubled kids, after I’d put on enough weight to end up in the counselor’s office, the instructors defined physical, sexual and emotional abuse.  I raised my hand and asked about the milk jugs.  They licked their lips and didn’t let it go.  I knew it was something different, some other parent-child relation between frustration and admiration and even love, but I also knew it was not making me into the sort of girl I wanted to be.

Given the choice of snapping green beans with Mom or chopping down trees with Dad, I always chose the trees.  Mom said he and I were too much alike.  I grew up and tried out dresses, leggings, glitter, but found I was still the girl who could bench press her weight.  I think back to the jugs, how what I really wanted was to drop them and lose myself in my father’s flannel.  How I stood there still as a pillar, thinking I was strong.

Originally from New Mexico, Kim Henderson now lives with her husband and dogs on a mountain in Southern California, where she teaches at Idyllwild Arts Academy.  Her work has appeared in Cutbank, H_NGM_N, River Styx, New South, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Her debut chapbook, The Kind of Girl, won the seventh annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming this summer.

*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.