The Importance of Knees as a Bracing Thing

On my left knee, there are two fine, slim scars, silver as a grey hair. The skin is rough and textured, mirrored on my right one, a similarly ugly and knobby joint. When I straighten my legs, the pair become an unhappy married couple: folds and creases form like wrinkled faces. I probably see them as old people because of the wisdom I attach to them. My knees are too flimsy to protect me when I fall off a bike and so rigid they snap if I tangle my skis, but the act of kneeling has been, in my experience, a great emotional teacher.

My first existential crisis occurred on my knees. I was five years old, which should indicate something about the memory’s potency. This was before I moved to the U.S., when I was a stuffy English child whose primary obstacle was the itchiness of school uniforms. In all pictures of me in those awful little blazers I am unblinking, thick-chinned, and miserable. My parents spent long, humid afternoons helping me collect tadpoles at the pond. We trudged there and back through the hip-high grass with nets, then stomped the mud from our boots before the drive back to London. Still, the car smelled vaguely of swamp.

I have never held as much power as I did then, clutching a glass jar of two hundred small, wriggling lives. At that age, tadpoles were breathtakingly wonderful, like everything else that had a tail or moved on its own. We parked, and I leapt from my booster seat in excitement. The jar slipped from my sweaty fingers. The water’s murky surface tilted to a diagonal as the jar fell sideways through the air, sucked down toward the earth. It shattered on the hot pavement; the tadpoles cooked in an instant. As the water evaporated, their frenzied motion became lethargic, then still.

This first fall to my knees was one of disbelief. I was too stunned to cry; I had never seen so many corpses in my life. In that position, I was close to them. I could see their balloon-heads dry up, black on the concrete like fat raindrops. My posture was one of grief, shoulders curved toward the massacre, palms upturned, like I was trying to catch the meaning of it all. I processed the sudden event like a skipping tape: I was cradling their sperm-like bodies in glass and watching the jar spill open again, again, again.

The cycle broke when my mother yanked me to my feet by the armpits. She carried me inside pitifully. I wept, certain that I would die writhing on a hot griddle. Mom always said she was a fish in her past life because she has odd flashes of déjà vu when she fries one in a pan, along with nightmares of being burned alive. Perhaps I had been a tadpole, or perhaps I was imagining Mom in fish form as I watched them sizzle. I don’t remember cleaning them up, but my parents must have. Middle-aged, they were both used to dealing with dead things.

My grandfather, my Dad’s dad, had the most amazing sermon voice. He was an Episcopalian pastor who spoke quietly, with gravity, in a tone that demanded attention not by force but by insistence. It lapped at your ears like a wave.

My father is a Christian-turned-Atheist, but the yearly Christmas Eve service was a family affair. My grandparents live in Richmond, Virginia, and we took the long way to church down Monument Avenue, admiring the seasonal decorations under a towering procession of confederate generals. My favorite part of the service was communion—I knocked back my annual grape juice like an addict—but my second favorite part was prayer.

The church had thick white columns supporting a slanted roof, and when it got extremely quiet, the eaves would groan softly, like they were letting out a sigh. I wrote prayers for my grandparents, kitschy poems titled Dear God, which I would recite silently to myself. In these holy, secular moments, kneeling was reverent. Not to God, the existence or nonexistence of whom I could not grasp, but to family and tradition. I felt a flame of pride when I peeked to my left and saw three generations curled into the same position, eyes closed and lips parted. There was something noble about the sight of men I respected offering themselves up in this way.

In Christianity, there are numerous euphemisms: passing, passed over, passed away, gone to the other side, gone to Heaven, watching over. The last one truly distressed me—I was on my best behavior for the ghosts. During prayer, I was instructed to direct messages toward those who were (another) no longer with us. I sent mine to my childhood dog, a Jack Russell Terrier that had been my parents’ real first child and who was put down only after she devoured an entire rack of ribs.

When I prayed, nothing inside me broke open in spiritual revelation like I assumed it was supposed to, but the church had little knee cushions which were embroidered with purple flowers by the Christian Women’s Society, which I thought felt nice.

I remember the first time I saw a person beg for their life on their knees. It was in Get Smart, the original 60s show, not the idiotic remake—I was ten years old, obsessed, stalking through the mall pretending I was a secret agent, armed with acute suspicions and a green flip-phone.

In this particular episode, Agent 99, the heroine and the only character worth watching for, holds a pistol to a bad guy’s head. He’s blubbering, lower lip wobbling comically, forehead wet with perspiration. He can barely get words out. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I have a feeling it began with Please. Before the camera cuts away and we hear the shocking pop of a gunshot, the scene is laced with hilarity. There’s no laugh track, but there’s implied humor in his horror-stricken face—it’s a woman that finally kills him!

I didn’t realize that Agent 99’s bad-assery was the butt of a joke until much later. It would be years before I thought about the gendered power dynamic of kneeling, comically reversed in this scene that has imprinted on me. What I interpreted as evidence of my own capability to make others submit was really a reference to the expectation of kneeling women: Sex work, housework—kneeling for women ranges from a loving, sensual relinquishment of control to abject domination. I am reminded of how striking it was to see my dad and grandfather in prayer, and can’t help but wonder if it was memorable because it was also unexpected.

As much as I feign immunity to the charm of idioms, it’s romantic to think of humans in love as weak in the knees. Loving is a display of weakness, I suppose—you sacrifice yourself to the all-powerful forces of adolescent heartbreak and loss. It is an alternate type of worship, a worship of another person. It requires an intimacy that, in its precariousness, is maybe just another form of helplessness, the potential for pain mitigated by the sweetness of feeling close to someone.

My earliest form of platonic love-worship was mutual and it was with my father. I idolized him, probably because I rarely saw him—do children tend to fixate on the parent they see less? Dad always seemed to be doing something significant and serious. He was unreachable to me: Adult conversations flew above my head; he was a well-read English major with an extensive vocabulary. He taught me the most impressive words I know. I often wonder if I write in an attempt to become him—I like to think that this passion is my own (it’s probably not).

Dad worked late hours at a hedge fund and walked home through London in the dark, especially in the winter months when dusk unfurls over the city in mid-afternoon. My younger sister and I would be showered and fed by 7pm, listening intently for the jangle of his keys in the door. He’d shrug off his coat, stride to the center of the entryway, get down on one knee, and throw open his arms, exclaiming I’m home! as we ran to embrace him. He’s six feet tall, which seemed impossibly enormous back then, but when I sat on his knee, our faces were equal. As our cheeks brushed, it was like a giant had offered me a priceless and unfathomable gift: I was what brought him into that posture of adoration. It made me feel honored and made Dad seem human.

When I was in the eighth grade, Mom decided it was time to take her children to see the Redwoods. We made the pilgrimage to California for the long weekend and piled our suitcases in the back of a rental car. We drove for four hours to see the trees. We saw so many trees on the way to see the trees that I questioned Mom’s sanity. But then outside the Mazda window, the trees began to stretch like putty pulled upward by invisible fingers. When we got out of the car to walk among them, I was glad Mom had waited to bring me here. The trees made me feel so small that I kept glancing at my sister to remind myself that she was smaller than I was, so therefore I wasn’t the most insignificantly-sized living thing in the vicinity. I was overcome in a way only rivaled by the tadpole incident—I had the inexplicable urge to stuff my mouth with dirt and kneel at the base of General Sherman until I died or grew roots, whichever came first.

I hated seeing the trees next to Dad. In my head, he was so much like them: towering above the rest of life, continuously growing as I tried to catch up. It was at the Redwoods that I noticed he was graying at the temples. Staring up at their massive branches, his posture of awe looked a lot like defeat.

There was a rare occurrence while we visited—one of the smaller Redwood trees had been uprooted on one side and was tipping toward the ground. A knowledgeable tourist couple said that the tree’s roots could possibly lengthen to help it survive the extreme forty-five-degree angle, but that it’d likely die without proper nutrients from the soil. This smaller Redwood tree still had a diameter of around ten feet. I made Dad wrap his arms around its girth. He couldn’t even hold half of it. It made me thrilled and terrified. I tried leaning at a forty-five-degree angle for a bit, hoping I’d become too big for him, too. We took a picture.

The fate of the small(ish) Redwood is nature’s cautionary tale for rigid beings with no bending place—if the tree had knees, it could brace itself before hitting the ground. Knees provide a halfway intermediary step, a point of vulnerability without succumbing. The fact that my father had the capacity to do this for me every evening when he returned home, a capacity that this magnificent Redwood tree couldn’t do to save its own life, filled me with a gratitude from which I have evidently still not recovered.

Zadie Smith describes the wild crushes of teenage relationships as doing something ecstatic to our brains, which, for me, played out in the predictable hormonal extremes of forbidden sexual exploration and depression. I liked the way my first real boyfriend handled me—or more precisely, didn’t handle me, rather observed my moods as if watching a reel from afar. I wasn’t interested in letting him know me, which is why when I announced, manic, that I had fallen in love with him, he did not reciprocate. I question the truth of that statement now, but I didn’t then, so I think this kneeling qualifies:

We used to drive up to the top of St. Louis Heights in his rattling RAV4, which had one busted headlight. The illicit combination of dodging a police citation for the car and being alone with him was dangerously seductive. He’d pop the trunk, cavernous and warm, and we would lie down, side by side, and watch the stars, both wishing we would look at each other. On that night, a plane sounded overhead—most likely UA flight 1175 since it was around 10:30pm. We followed its blinking red light across our field of vision, then the spell was broken and he kissed me. We had kissed before, but it somehow felt awkward in front of the people in the plane.

I had never given a boy a blowjob. He asked me to do it like he was asking to split a dessert. Do you want to, you know, if you’re up for it… I ended up kneeling in the back of the car, the waterproof rubber pressing neat ridges into my skin. I was unsurprisingly bad at it. I had the urge to laugh multiple times, which I stifled so I didn’t ruin the ambiance. My knees bruised from the textured lining, but I tried to ignore it—in my head, the only thing more painful than giving a blowjob in a RAV4 was being unsexy.

Most sexual encounters are thought of as a sort of dialogue, romantic connection inherent in the very action of loving. But I think this particular instance of vulnerability was one that I experienced by myself, rather than with him. In my position, I was unable to meet his eyes or glimpse his face through the darkness. The fingers that cupped my head and threaded through my hair were not intended to support me. It still felt like I had chosen to do this—I am as certain as a woman can be that I let myself be dominated in this way—but I also know that I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t asked.

When it was over, I pushed up onto my hands. They were trembling a bit. I peeled my ravaged knees—right, then left—up from the rubber and crab-shuffled away. The night air outside cooled me down. I unfurled myself, damp with sweat, stretching skyward until my vertebrae slid into place. My knees ached, and their calloused skin had absorbed grit from the trunk of the car. I clicked my tongue and brushed them off. It was a small gesture of thanks.

My knees helped me endure the physical contortion, and, in a way, the truth that the blowjob would not be enough to make him love me. When I am exposed from every angle, when I feel like I am going to pieces over teenage love or existentialism or the prolonged and subtle aging of a parent, my knees allow me to unshatter myself. They brace me through the initial heart-thudding moment of dread and afterward: When the moment passes, I can get up, unbend, stand just as before if not a little bit wiser. It is an exit strategy that keeps me from a different kind of emotional collapse. And I hope that despite the bleakness of some of the knee-memories I have accumulated so far, I will also someday fall to my knees in overwhelming joy. Then, as always, my knees will help me face it.

That night up on St. Louis Heights, I didn’t face my boyfriend until I was ready to. I could hear him behind me cracking his back, moving slow and heavy. Thoughts rushed through me in the dark. I was struck by the pain I had tolerated from hands that were meant to hold me. When I finally turned around, my knees had stopped throbbing and the ruptured part of me that so desperately wanted to be loved had begun to heal.

I was in my college dorm room wading through dirty laundry when Mom called to tell me that my grandfather had died. I set down my underwear and curled up on the bed. He had been sick for a while; It was a matter of time. Dad was on the line, too, but he didn’t say much. I could hear him choked up. He would let out a small moan, followed by silence, then a sharp and wavering inhalation. I silently matched my breath to his. In… pause… out… It was the closest we could get to grieving together.

I kneeled at my bedside before I went to sleep, which I had never done before. The carpet was sticky and reeked of orange juice. I cried, silently but intensely, careful not to disturb the girls I was sandwiched between or the ones in identical cubicle-like rooms just below. It was the best position in which I could acknowledge the memories of my grandfather that welled up in me like blood from a wound, the best position in which I could acknowledge what he preached, however little faith I had myself. In the end, I didn’t pray or anything like that. I couldn’t stop imagining what it was like for Dad to lose his father, and what it will be like for me to lose him, too.

The wind raged beyond my narrow window—it was the biggest storm Massachusetts had seen for a while. A Nor’easter, I’d later learn. Outside my entryway that night, a tree fell. I discovered this the next morning, when I lifted my blinds to see it languished on its side, sprawled across the concrete path. Before an orange truck came to chop it up and cart it away, its naked branches, smooth and brown and reaching, looked so much like limbs.