Every morning while we are eating breakfast, a car smashes through the front window, the glass shattering silently—a chorus of wind chimes in a vacuum. The tires shred up the carpet like a naughty house-cat. It roars past me, and claws for her. Every morning she is pinned to the wall by the hood. We know it is coming. My job is to sit still and wait for it to vanish. I am not even to sweep up the shards or filter the smoke out the dining room. My job is to wash the dishes while she wiggles her way out.
The first time it was messy—bruises down her spine, red blooming across her abdomen. Sitting in the bath together, I told her how much it hurt to watch. So look away, she said. I lost the urge to flee months ago. It happens whether or not I am there to witness it.
I have learned she pens each day however she likes—picks the make and model of the car, the speed at which it storms into her. Once, I swear the car moved so slowly it was trying to nuzzle into her lap. The next day it zoomed so fast I didn’t even know to break the conversation until I heard her scream. Every day, she cleans the wreckage herself, gets into bed without complaint. The limp disappeared months ago—these days, she doesn’t even seem sore.
There is no version of the story where I rip off the engineer’s hands so he can’t build the car, no way to set back every clock so she never thinks it’s time to eat. There is no version where I leap in front of her and save her from impact—my job is to trust that she knows the escape route of each telling.
Sometimes I sit alone in the kitchen and listen for squealing tires, thinking if I wish hard enough the engine will roar for me instead. It is always silent as a blank page. I cannot own this crash. I cannot will myself into understanding. I can be there when the wheels reverse across the rubble, the headlights disappear from the kitchen, and she finally writes the beast back out the window.
There’s a bar in the west village though that gives the lie to everything.
There’s nothing remarkable about it unless you make your way down to the basement and even then you have to find someone willing to let you through the cellar to the wet room. There’s a door with no lock, and on the other side there is earth. Roots come down from somewhere above, the floor is dirt and mud, and along one wall flows water. Years ago it was a stream that cut through the island. It left a swamp along it’s edges and between Greenwich Village and Wall St. was an impassible marsh. We filled it in with stone and dirt, and we built above it. We buried the water beneath our streets, and we forgot that anything came before us.
One morning I knelt in the basement and let the water flow through my fingers. It was ice cold and the current was far stronger than I expected. It felt clear in the darkness and for a long moment I had to resist the urge to cup it in my hands and bring it up to my mouth. Just before I thought the stand, it hit me. I closed my eyes in wonder as the sensation grew out in wider and wider circles.
I felt the ground beneath the stream, thick with packed earth and the bones of animals and fish. I felt the banks around it, the trees that reached down to drink from it, and it was connected to everything. I moved east through the city and I saw graveyards and the remnants of farms. I felt granite north and south, and our tunnels and subways felt small and unimportant. Central Park fit halfway between what was and what we built, and even the streets and avenues flowed with forgotten paths and burrows.
When I brought my fingers to my lips I struggled to remember everything. I was cut off from a world I didn’t know was there, but I couldn’t bring myself back. I sat for a long time on the packed dirt floor and wondered if it meant anything at all.
By the time I got back upstairs there were a few people drinking in the bar. I sat on a stool at the very end, and the owner leaned in as she handed me a beer. I tried to smile, but all I managed was confusion.
“It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” I nodded as she sipped her coffee.
“It’s good to remember,” she said. “But you can’t remember everything, and you can’t remember for too long.”
“I feel like suddenly I don’t know anything at all.”
“I know what you mean. Although, there are worse realizations to have. It’s a pretty good place to begin.”
I nodded again as I drank my beer. It was cold and crisp, and when I closed my eyes I thought I could taste the entire city at once.
And then it was just a glass of beer.
Driving home late through town
He woke me for a deer in the road,
The light smudge of it fragile in the distance,
Free in a way that made me ashamed for our flesh—
His hand on my hand, even the weight
Of our voices not speaking.
I watched a long time
And a long time after we were too far to see,
Told myself I still saw it nosing the shrubs,
All phantom and shadow, so silent
It must have seemed I hadn’t wakened,
But passed into a deeper, more cogent state—
The mind a dark city, a disappearing,
Swallowed by a fist.
I thought of the animal’s mouth
And the hunger entrusted it. A hunger
So honed the green leaves merely maintain it.
We want so much,
When perhaps we live best
In the spaces between loves,
That unconscious roving,
The heart its own rough animal.
The second time,
There were two that faced us a moment
The way deer will in their Greek perfection,
As though we were just some offering
The night had delivered.
They disappeared between two houses,
And we drove on, our own limbs,
Our need for one another
— “A Hunger So Honed” - Tracy K. Smith
She’s been losing weight. She’s worked hard. It’s mostly been through exercise, since she knew she could never stop eating what she likes. She was always a blueberry girl, ovoid and squishy. She had a good personality and laughed very loudly because that’s what you’re expected to do when you’re fat.
Mostly, it has been good. She will feel her hardening thigh muscle and think, yes, that’s good. But sometimes–increasingly now–she will jolt while she gropes her own calf. It is something like regret. Panic. No, there’s not a word for the unheimlich spiral she gets when she feels her side and remembers how her hand didn’t used to rest flat there. She’s lost weight. Instead of remaining intact but changing, thin slices of her are getting shaved away, going nowhere, unable to be retrieved.
When she gets congratulated on her weight loss now, she half-wants to shake people and ask for it back. She looks good. Now her body is good. And that makes her think about bad bodies, and what makes them bad. What makes them bad is that the body is for other people, and they will say to her and show her that it is bad. It colors every single interaction and every single emergence from her doorway. She is the Christmas ham sitting with the other hams in the deep, boxy freezer. There are so many picky shoppers, clutching coupons and assessing her with squeezes.
When she inhales, she can feel her own ribcage. She never used to be able to before. Her hipbones now, too, are making themselves known. When she lies down, they rise up like two horns on a bull. It doesn’t surprise her that many people maintain thick padding between themselves and their own skeletons. What does surprise her is how nobody talks about how scary it is through such a thin layer to touch your own bones.
It is loss. Sliver after sliver peeled off of her, tugged with both hands by those Christmas shoppers, down to the ground, then rolled up and tucked into a purse or a pocket. What she loses goes to them. Her clothes, her makeup, her tone of voice, her behavior as she walks down the street alone go to them too. She asks herself if she’s ever done an honest thing in her life. If she were truly free, wouldn’t she walk about naked, legs sunflower-stem-hairy, singing like a child? She’s not even sure if that is a true picture of what she would do, since perhaps it is only what others have metaphorised to her about what it means to be free.
She’s bought more clothes in the last year than she has in the five before it. Things stop fitting her after only a few months. She can’t talk about this problem to anyone because it is an obnoxious problem to speak aloud, a problem that shouldn’t be a problem. But the happiness of no longer being afraid of florescent lighting is compromised by continually losing use of new-bought clothes. She puts on her new white jeans and realizes she can remove them without unbuttoning or unzipping them–No, I like you, don’t do this to me.
This mindfulness is not freedom. Everything that passes her lips contains a multitude. Every morsel has its own tally and its own baker’s dozen questions–whole grain or whole wheat, olive or canola, is this hunger? I hate corporate farms and I hate diners and I hate my tongue and I hate my ancestors and I hate the width of this country and I hate my taste for variety and I hate the women who went to church with my grandma and I hate my canine teeth for giving me this bankrupting awareness.
Some time ago, after the first fifteen pounds, she had strange stomach cramps that her cheerful doctor couldn’t diagnose, and for five days she didn’t feel hunger. She forgot what it was. She couldn’t believe she would miss it. All she knew was that terrible cramping, spiking like a shot through her abdomen when she moved, like that sensation had replaced hunger. She wondered if and hoped it wouldn’t be like that forever.
When her hunger came back, she welcomed it like a favorite niece. She spoke to her stomach with encouragement as it contracted and growled. Sometimes, still, she worries her hunger will leave her again. She never wants to lose the desire to eat.
Now she quests about her body with her hands. Its juxtapositions nonplus her, bone-hardness beside spongy-soft deposits. She can watch her calves bulge in the mirror, but her breasts have shrunk–her supposed-to fat, her good fat. Her good fat has eaten itself while the bad fat remains in a saturnine loop.
But she’s still losing. She keeps going.
Do you have a goal? someone asked her, and she was confused because her stopping point, though never spoken, has always been until it’s better. Just yesterday, a friend pushed some salt-soaked dry good onto her to make up for what has been lost from her body, and as the friend held out the cardboard container to her, she shook her head and said, You look good.
Because they can. They can get up every day until they can’t. Maria can’t. So many in our lives can’t anymore. See, there is no margin for error. I’m not the only one who’s lost a friend in her prime. I can’t expect people to grab life by the horns because people in my life died too young. But I can join the chorus to try to prevent a life un-lived — either accidentally or on purpose.
The choice is ours — despite mind numbing grief, impossible obstacles, and shattering set backs. Maybe we need friends. Maybe we need therapy. Maybe we need drugs. Maybe all we need is to take it piece by tiny piece. To wake up. To open our eyes. To roll over. To put our feet on the floor. To stand up.
Start at 35:39. The end is especially wonderful.
[trigger warning: self-harm]
“All I got, all I got is my scars.”
— Basement Jaxx, “Scars”
When I was eight, my uncle and I were driving in a brown, loosely cobbled Buick. I don’t remember if there was a radio, but if there was it would have been playing Fleetwood Mac or the Doobie Brothers. I remember the heater worked well enough to lull me to sleep, wrapped in a fluffy blue winter coat, my pom-pom hatted head against the door that had been too heavy for me to properly close.
Just before my face hit the pavement, I felt, for the first time, that unique panic that squeezes your sinuses just before you meet the ground. I bounced and hit the ground again, this time with my hands to brace me. I began to howl, though more from surprise than anything else. There were horns and brakes and hysterics and strange people. Accusing fingers pointed toward my uncle. Mortified, he gently placed me back in the car. I was completely uninjured, except for a few nicks here and there. I used to have a scar over my lip, but now the only scar that remains is a dime-sized oval on my left knuckle.
Felix Buxton, one half of Basement Jaxx, told Rolling Stone that “Scars,” represented a physical and emotional tribute to the things that stick with us. Mr. Buxton was mugged for his bicycle and though he wasn’t hurt badly, he couldn’t shake the fear. He said, “Scars are the things that stay with you.”
There is very little that we carry forever, but scars belong to us. For better or for worse, we never lose them, never remove them without creating another, never separate ourselves from the event — whether we remember the event or the repercussions.
I kept track of that scar. Up til then, I’d led a relatively unscathed childhood, free of broken bones and jagged edges. When I was 9, my grandmother went away for the weekend. I danced on the hardwood floor. I fell on the hardwood floor. My chin split open in the same place as all childhood chins split open. My grandfather acknowledged the injury, gave me a kleenex, and consoled me with ice cream. When my grandmother returned, she was despondant at my disfiguration. Why weren’t there stitches? It would be scarred forever. And it is. Almost no one looks under there.
In high school, the next door neighbors had a disagreeable, high-strung, three-legged dog named Jamal. She got loose one day and the neighbor asked me to grab her. I grabbed her. She bit me. Now, on my right hand, the most visible and ugly scar on my body sits between my thumb and index finger — 3 inches of raised white hide. At first, I thought it would heal itself away. When it didn’t, I reconciled the problem by reminding myself that I didn’t come from a line of women with beautiful hands.
The golden age of 19 found me traipsing around a college campus in Southern California. That year, I wore London Undergrounds: platform, wooden-soled, rocker-bottom sandals impractical for every occasion. My roommates and I were late for a party. I didn’t buckle my sandals, just slid my toes into the front loops and bounced down the outside steps, impatient. I lost my balance and slid the rest of the way down on my knees. “What are you doing down there,” yelled Besty Friend. She blanched at the blood. “Why didn’t you scream?” Now, the scars on my knees and ankles are corrugated like the metal that edged the stairs. I don’t remember it hurting. I don’t remember anything but being surprised.
And it was about that time when I started making scars of my own.
“Distance, it grows now. You don’t reach for me. All I got, all I got, is my scars.”
In “Scars,” the narrator feels she’s “coming loose at the seams.” And I’m not sure when that started for me, but when it did, I lost my stuffing instantaneously. A lot of kids start cutting pretty early. While I poked and prodded myself when I was younger, I lacked true commitment. I didn’t become completely detached from my emotions until I set myself adrift in the world. I was overwhelmed with the choice to continue to be who I’d been taught to be or become someone that I wanted to be. I broke like a cheap toy.
I tried drinking as heavily as possible. The haze was amusing for awhile, but then disappeared completely. I tried smoking, but the only cigarette that mattered was the first one of the day. Weed made me feel terrible and slow. I already felt slow. Frightened. Numb.
I started with a razor blade. Small cuts. Just for me. While writing. While drinking. Inner arms. I cut myself. I cut my poetry journal. We were the same. It felt the same.
After graduation, I didn’t know where to go. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to stay in California. Though I made it into grad school, the number of figures on the finance package weren’t something I could reconcile. So I started working like everybody else. In San Francisco, the bare walls of my apartment were the true indicator of my charade. Besty Friend brought me artwork for my desolate dump. We had to prop it up on the floor because the concrete wouldn’t take a nail.
Here I graduated to a leatherman. I used the smallest, sharp blade while sitting in my tiny, furniture-less kitchen, the heat from the fridge fan warming the small of my back.
I didn’t last a year there. I quit my job for reasons now unclear to me and promptly ran out of money. I slunk back to Montana.
It’s true that inaction is action. This was not who I wanted to be. I wanted to become whatever that was anywhere but there. Back at home with my grandparents, I started working days for a man with a startup and nights as a snow plow dispatcher. After that I worked as a property manager, answering calls at midnight, collecting late rents, and unclogging sinks. I tried to fill myself with rage, but I could only come up with desolation.
I visited my friends in San Francisco. They had moved on. I was welcome, but superfluous. Late one night during my visit, I broke a glass at the bar. I took a shard of it into the bathroom and made some jagged slashes into my wrists. There was blood on the yellow cuffs of my shirt. I had a hard time explaining. Then the bouncer asked me to go home with him and everyone forgot. I laughed with them; the joke was already on me.
When I moved into my next apartment, I inherited an unused, serrated bread knife from Germany. The knife was so sharp, a light cut barely hurt. So the cuts got deeper and longer.
The doctor asked, “What are those?” I said, “I had to rescue my dog from the rosebushes.” A sales lady asked me about my arms. “Old bed,” I replied. “Pulling it out from the wall and the springs…” I have no idea if they believed me.
I started a relationship. We lied to each other about who we were and what we wanted. Then he left me and I sat on a red carpeted floor with a bottle of white Zinfandel and gave myself the scars that I wear on the insides of my arms today.
“Streetlights, they see me. Who will reach for me? All I got, all I got, is my scars.”
I must have cut myself deep enough that night, because it was the last time I used the bread knife on myself. It now sits in a drawer alongside other knives whose purpose is natural and normal. Its own purpose is now natural and normal. I use it for bread and tomatoes.
I’m not proud of my scars. I’m not ashamed of them either.
It took a long time to claw my way out of that darkness. My mistake was waiting for someone to rescue me when I’d always been capable of rescuing myself. A false sense of maturity had led me to a complacency I had to awaken from before I could escape. By the time I had some semblance of knowing who I wanted to be, I was 25. Even then, things were a work in progress.
The guy and I stopped lying to each other. We tried again. Almost 10 years later, I think it’s safe to say we have the day to day figured out. We escaped to a city where we both want to be. We’re chasing our dreams and sharing them with one another. I feel a lot of emotions. None are desolation.
But when I look down at my arms, I remember that final connection: nothing to something, the idea of pain to actual pain. No one else has to understand them. They’re mine.
All I got is my scars.
So you were born backwards.
Your heart covers 80% of your skin.
It is huge—and it is fragile.
You don’t know how to chain-link fence your feelings.
You will find your trust abandoned and bruised on the side of the road—
Do not leave it there—
Dust it off and put it right back under your shirt.
If you don’t learn to stop apologizing for yourself,
you will mirage out of existence.
See, someday, that 80% is gonna get you hurt.
You will tell a woman over and over that you love her,
and she will say nothing.
You will sob in public,
and people will just stare.
They will want to carve their names into you
and watch as the pieces fall off—
let them try.
Your heart is a geiser and for that you will always feel strange.
Most people shut down when they get over saturated with feeling;
most people harden into hate
- into indifference -
because the biggest risk we ever take is to love without fear.
You are not afraid.
You are a cathedral waiting to be filled with hymns;
you are an infinite playground;
you are sky-bound and sprinting,
so cover your heart in goose-bump armor.
It will only beat stronger,
Stand up on subways and shout compliments to strangers,
dance, poorly, in public if it makes you feel better.
Love until it hurts.
Then love more—you know how.
There will be days when you’ll wish you were numb;
when you’ll want to rip your heart off your body
and find something easier to take its place.
Collect those days like bricks
and marvel at the buildings you will make.
Stand on top, chest open, head up—
Nobody will ever see the world like you do.
Never try to be better than the best version of you.
You are not perfect.
You are perfectly human.
My sister told me a soul mate is not the person
who makes you the happiest, but the one who
makes you feel the most. Who conducts your heart
to bang the loudest. Who can drag you giggling
with forgiveness from the cellar they locked you in.
It has always been you. You are the first
person I was afraid to sleep next to,
not because of the fear you would leave
in the night but I didn’t want to wake up
gracelessly. In the morning, I crawled over
your lumbering chest to wash my face and pinch
my cheeks and lay myself out like a still-life
beside you. Your new girlfriend is pretty
like the cover of a cookbook. I have said her name
into the empty belly of my apartment. Forgive me.
When I feel myself falling out of love
with you, I turn the record of your laughter
over, reposition the needle.
I have imagined our children. Forgive me. I made up
the best parts of you. Forgive me. When you told me
to look for you on my wedding day, to pause
on the altar for the sound of your voice
before sinking myself into the pond of another
love, forgive me. I mistook it for a promise.
That evening, after I’d patched myself up, she called me to the back porch to point out a double rainbow, duel arcs untouching, colliding into the hill behind our house.
She stood with arms crossed, shirt still stained with the sauce and wine of her latest fit, hair unwashed for how many days I wish I could say. Her face was turned away, but I could hear her breathing, heavy, as if taking in the full dampness of the air, the wetness of our cedar porch.
“Don’t you think this means something?” she asked, nodding towards the sky.
At another time, years before, we’d come upon one of these rainbows while in a traffic jam: two sweeps of color, unblemished, bending across the road. She’d made me pull over; then she’d stepped from the car. She said she’d never seen such a sight before. She said it made the traffic and the heat and everything and everything worthwhile.
“It’s …” I said, standing there on the porch, looking upwards. I considered the words, their implications. “It’s worthwhile.”
“Worthwhile?” she said. “You think it’s … worthwhile?”
“I didn’t …” I said and ran a finger along the bandage on my face. I wondered if she even understood what she’d done. “You know what I mean,” I said.
She dropped her head back, hair falling in its tangles. “Climb up there with me,” she said. “Find out where they end.”
“Baby,” I said, resisting the want to step nearer, to slide my hands over her thinness, those bones, the remains of the woman I still remembered. “I called a … a facility,” I said. “I’m going to drive you there. Tonight.”
She made a sound like she was sucking at the air. “Just think what we could find,” she said. “If you’d go with me …” She turned, face blotched, lips red and chapped. They’d been that way for weeks. I don’t know. Months, maybe.
“Why don’t you care?” she said, reaching for me and taking me by the wrist. Already the rainbow was dissolving, reabsorbing into the spectrums. She saw me looking at this and she turned to see it, too. I thought she might fall into me then, that she might run her fingers across the bandage on my face and say she was sorry. Instead, she let go of my arm and ran, staggering, then flinging herself from the deck and falling into the wetness of the grass. I watched as she rolled to her back, eyes searching.
“There’s nothing there,” I said.
When she pushed herself to her knees, I stepped off the deck and I grabbed her by the shoulders. I twisted both arms behind her back and told her to be still.
I suppose there should be something significant to say about this moment, some admission to having cried or to having hated myself as I held her and refused to let her free. But the truth of it is: I was calm. As she screamed and kicked and tried to break free, I held firm and watched her hair whip and twirl. I thought about that other time, that evening out there on the freeway. How, after she’d gotten out of the car, she’d started walking down the shoulder of the road towards the point where the first of the double rainbows seemed to touch. I remembered thinking her so endearing in that, thinking her something beautiful and wild. Then, as I leaned my weight into her and forced her towards the car, I remembered how, on the road, she’d turned at some point and she’d motioned for me to join. I couldn’t remember if I had done so; it seemed like nothing I would do. But as she struggled and twisted and spit at my face, I decided that I had indeed gotten out of that car. I’d gotten out of that car and I’d followed her for as long as we could go. Every step. Every last one.
“When I was a little girl I believed there was a clock in my heart, one with little hands that would tick forever. I wish someone had told me how easily those hands could be broken, how quickly the clock could stop, how there is no rewind button. If I had known, I would have paid more attention to time. I would have paid attention to the people around me. I would have paid attention to everything.
There is something very unique about a pair of hands, something sensual and rather vulnerable. Hands convey the human touch. It can be haunting and hollow. It can be fierce and intoxicating. Touch is my addiction. For just a moment time freezes, and that hand-to-hand contact can be the gateway into someone’s buried, unkept secrets.
“It did not occur to me that she could be lonely, or jealous. No grown-up could be; they were too fortunate. I sat and kicked my heels monotonously against a feed bag, raising dust, and did not come out till she was gone.
At any rate, I did not expect my father to pay any attention to what she said.”