I. A Body of Work
There were discrepancies.
He was on the sixth floor of a cramped apartment in New York. It was the middle of winter and his apartment was boiling, the radiator system was the old insensitive variety. It had two settings: off and blasting. It also leaked, or condensed would be a more accurate term, into a bucket beside his bed. He was writing about an opened pavilion in southern France. It had romanesque pillars with plush grape vines scaling up and cascading over the roof. It was a lazy warm day relieved periodically by a cool breeze that rose up from the Rhone.
The air in the apartment had that mildewed musk scent, as if no one had let fresh air in months. No one had. The windows were classified as such, in the sense that they let in light, but air was a different story. He was dubious about the windows, they had that decayed rusted-in-place look. The owner must have been equally dubious, or in a hurry, because he had painted directly over the seam separating frame from window.
The pavilion was surrounded by a lush manicured lawn, hedged by an ancient forest. He used the forest as a setting to foreshadow subtle character developments and plot shifts. His characters would peel off, in small groups or individually, from the gay banter and stroll underneath a dappled canopy to conduct salacious conversations or fall asleep to confront loaded metaphors and significations.
His view lead directly to the brick wall of the adjacent apartment building. A scrappy maple tree
had managed to claw its way up between the two walls. He would sometimes catch its sway out of the corner of his eye as he wrote. It was his eighth successful novel. At this point, he was financially stable enough to move, but his progress in that direction was halted by a superstition that his success was proportionate to his discomfort. Likening himself to the fall of Rome, he felt that if he were to shift into a more affluent lifestyle, his work-ethic would dissipate into indolent decadence.
He glanced over at his book collection, where a row of his own headshot stared back at him. His paleness, at the time, had slightly overexposed the photo, giving him a lost-soul look that certain fans found attractive. Subsisting off takeout, microwaved leftovers, and coffee, he seemed to grow skinnier as his body of work grew robust. Coffee was his only luxury. He clung to it as if it were a basic human right, still continuing to buy his small Cappuccino from the gourmet coffeehouse, one block away, even if the price had increased to $3.90 per cup.
He had the headshot taken at his mother’s house in Allentown Pennsylvania, thinking that his readers might mistake the garden trellis set against the old stone house for a location in Europe. He had never traveled to Europe, France, or even Canada. He didn’t even take French in high school. He used google for all his details on climate, architecture, and the french expressions that he peppered into his dialogue. Occasionally, to set the mood, he would go to fancy perfume stores in Manhattan and sniff all the imported french perfumes: Lolita Lempicka Si Lolita, Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, Chantal Thomass Osez Moi… and he would think of the French characters that he’d seen in films, even if these characters were normally played by Americans.
These discrepancies didn’t particularly trouble him. He knew that his readers didn’t yearn for France but the idea of France, or more accurately the idea of any place a little left of home. There was an opulence lingering at the back of his characters and their choices: women’s voluminous breasts moved silently behind silk; vegetation was blooming and smelled of sage and rosemary; food was laced with butter and cream; and architecture was ancient and enduring, constructed of stone, brick, and hardwoods.
Perhaps, time was the biggest luxury that his novels presented. There were no subways being missed, no people moving to the right-side of escalators to clear space for the people running up the left-side, no meals being consumed while walking from restaurants to offices. There were endless swaths of time to talk before during and after meals; for fathers to teach their children about full-bodied fragrant wines that need to be rolled around in glasses, so that they could notice the way the burgundy liquid rubs up to leave a transparent residue against the surface of the curved glass.
II. A Body of Motion
“A body either is at rest or moves with constant velocity, until or unless an outer force is applied to it.” This body is in motion, moving forward at a velocity of 90mph tethered to earth by 1g worth of gravitational pull. Her driver is tethered to her by a reinforced nylon strap. “Humans are full-hearty with their almost ridiculously fragile bodies,” she thought to herself.
Confident in the language of motion: the subtle exchange of forces, the pulse of rubber against asphalt, the tension of wind against her bumper, she sensed agitation from her driver. It was probably because another driver with a penis was following in a second car. Her driver would suck in cigarettes and become agitated whenever it could detect the male of its species following in the rearview mirror. It would hit the gas, and mutter furiously about confidence, privilege, sperm, STDS, social injustice, etc.
She knew nothing of the soft bodied penis-wielders except their attraction to her compact body, her aerodynamic curves, and powerful engine. They were insignificant. In a collision, with the proper forces applied, their skeletons would split in all the same places as that of her driver. The only relationship she trusted was that all things that have mass are bound to each other. Her driver to her, her to the road, the road to the earth, the earth to the moon. Calculations copulated in her thoughts: mega joules of gas covered into kinetic energy, 80% heat loss, average forces of impact, initial speeds, distances traveled during collisions, 50cm of crushable metal prior to impact.
All things are brought to rest in one way or another: the brain by the skull, the intestines by the rib cage, herself by the breaks— that is, unless something else didn’t get in the way first. The turf was dry; the sky was a clear crystalline blue, but she knew just at the edge of her tires where rubber rubs off on road, that there are no constants except the radio, that repeats the same songs over and over again.
III. A Religious Body
The body was circumcised. There was a promise, a contract of light and land in exchange for obedience. At the same time, the body noticed the seams of its world turning toward putrefaction: milk soured, stone walls crumbled, expiration dates shrieked with a palpable audibility, and the body began to predict its own end, as well as the end of all things as it knew them.
Shortly after, it observed a pouch of skin on its back, above its spleen, expanding to accommodate another body. This new growth had a hard crusty exterior and exuded the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. Looking back, it struggled to discern exactly when this growth gained limbs and independent form, or when its consciences surged into this new body. However, it did remember an unnerving interval when it would catch glimpses of its original body in its peripheral after waking up or turning a corner. It assumed that this was a shadow, only to be confronted by its former face and stare into the eyes that it had once gazed out of. One of the most jarring differences between the two was that this current body had not one head, but three that would seamlessly converge into one and then divide back into three again.
Its mouth started as an intolerable prickling centering around a pucker of flesh right below its jaw. Scratching at it, revealed an opening. The voice that issued forth was hard to ignore. It spoke faith. It spoke tolerance. It spoke forgiveness. It spoke of an omnipresent majesty, a golden domain, and drew the map on how to get there. Soon twelve smaller openings formed around and about its neck, followed by more and more even smaller ones until the entire body was encrusted with mouths that all quoted, paraphrased, interpreted, and elaborated on the teachings of the original mouth. The words infiltrated the air, until they rained down dense and black soaking into long scrolls of papyrus.
In the beginning the body was punctured, smashed, suffocated, beheaded, stoned, ostracized, and exiled. All the same it grew; every twenty years the body would nearly double in size. To control its expanding girth, it needed to organize a hierarchy of its parts. It created glands to interpret and act as intermediaries for the head. The glands appointed dozens of hands to perform the ritual and work, as well as short filamented fingers to serve each hand. Below, in lower regions, it organized millions and millions of eyes to track the signals of the hands. Other parts of the body hid themselves away to filter toxins, tend to gardens, farm, and ferment mead. While others traveled outside the perimeter of the body to infect auxiliary tissues with the body’s DNA.
The body adopted an emperor and in doing so was scripted into the law. The body became increasingly occupied. Acting as a judge, it meticulous scrutinize itself for mutinous cellular activity. It would flay, lance, and scour these rebellious fractions. During less severe moods, it would send the nonconformity on a long walk until it normalized. The body, acting as soldier, took up arms against its Abrahamic brothers in a drawn-out skirmish over its origin territories. Acting as a land owner, it funded public works. Acting as a politician it dominated kings, took bribes, and evolved a gilded exoskeleton.
There was once a time when the body became so broad it could no longer comprehend itself. It gradually bifurcated into a left and right, and then developed an additional left. There were parts of the body that dismantled and reconstructed its alignment. There were fractions that couldn’t bear to witness a portrait of its head, while others commissioned intricate statues interpreting the head's likeness. There were times when the body exalted in melody, and there were other times when music took on sinister intonations and the body conducted itself in silence. There were periods when the body accepted freewill, followed by fatalist intervals when it did not. There was a portion of the body that broadened its convictions to include contemporary scientific and social philosophies. There was also that time when the body fastened itself amongst a strong national defense, gun rights, pro-life, and deregulation.
The body, existing in these multifarious states separately and simultaneously, found its internal-workings at odds. A portion of its limbs strained forward, while others strained backward. It frequently discovered itself laboring away at extraneous ends of an operation. As when it mobilized to raise an enslaved body into a position of equal opportunity. As it peacefully protested and elevated from the ground, it could discern itself, garbed in white and hooded by a pointed cap, acting from an aerial position above, forcing down, hoisting the noose.
IV. A Body Entertained
They keep flaunting the body, specifically the assaulted body, or rather, the assault itself, as it was enacted on the body. A zoom in to a slashed throat, a tooth prematurely extracted, a strangled cry, the chase-in-the-dark, the blunt instrument, the stretched cord, the overly exuberant thrust downstairs. They keep pushing severed heads, ravaged fingers, burnt flesh, and mutilated faces into our hands, along our goose-bumped skin, in front of our faces. The violence is emphasized intentionally, exhaustively, as if the TV production staff is afraid we’ll look away.
Perhaps they are concerned that our attention has been compromised by the textbooks we study, the muscles we tone, the partners we grasp, the houses we clean, and the diners we make; and so, we are not entirely engrossed by the complex web of motives and alibis, fairytale worlds; remote grievances, loyalties, and shadowy back histories that have been so meticulously constructed for us.
They are concerned that we have grown comfortable with the assumption that the detective, the murderer, the knight, the damsel, the hero, the mob boss, the spy, and the victim’s lover are all more or less competent actors; and this series of interactions is strung together by writers who get paid to entertain a broad meaty flank of, us, the public. A public who is pulled forth, almost comforted by an endless supply of corpses.
The series is baiting us to take up the grief of the parents, the resolution of the detective, the revenge of the lover because this was an assaulted body, not a stolen trailer, a lit joint, or a speeding ticket. Though these misdemeanors do happen, they do not have bodies, not like the bodies that we have. The bodies that brush their teeth, mail their packages, type their emails, pet their dogs, stroke their children— vulnerable bodies susceptible to all manner of intentional, accidental, and natural violence.
V. A Body of Water
You would flow up against the current, barefooted, arms swinging, face sunburnt. In those days, you scoffed at hats, dismissed sunscreen, and ferried away shoes from the clutches of your parents, hiding them under beds and behind couch cushions. These were superfluous barriers that divided you from the arid world in which you lived. You would surge up the banks and pounce back down into the water’s bed. They were small banks, only five feet high, at most. It was a creek, although any label other than river was a betrayal. During one hard rain, it carried the vegetable garden all the way to the bottom of your five-mile-long driveway. You remember sifting through the piles of earth trying to salvage strignbeans, Swiss chard, and summer squashes. Where your river flowed, life would follow; a wall of green that spilt the property in two.
You were tracking its source. You had done this many times before, pummeling past the Salvia and Juniper bushes, the Yuccas, and the Prickly Pears; onto higher elevation with shade trees. You’d picked your way through mud, avoiding leaf piles that might house sleeping rattlesnakes, circumnavigating rancid pools of stagnant bluish-green water. Then, right before the trees abruptly ended, you would come upon it suddenly, the spring’s source giving way to a parched basin where you would sit and let the mud crack off your feet in slender sheaths. You’d gather-up all the pieces and try to puzzle them together while noting the impressions of pores and creases where the clay had dried up against your skin. There was a solution somewhere in all of those jagged edges of fragmented earth surfaced with the facade of skin.
The beginning of the river was marked by a soggy seepage of water up through a square meter of ground. Accordingly, it was regarded with skepticism. You wanted something definitive— a hole, a gushing, a geyser. So, after a few weeks, you would conclude that you had somehow missed the source, and take up into the hills again to re-discover it. It was on one such journey that you found the frog. Sitting, just below the grass-line in an alcove of soil, poised, ready to leap. You tried to catch it, only to realize that it was a shell— leathery skin stretched over bones. Its eyes had deteriorated out of their sockets so that it regarded you out of two pairs of gaping holes. To you, it was sublime, hollow but also hallowed, its instincts aligning with air, sun-rays, and dust. After death and decomposition, it had been looted by aunts and larva, so that only a half millimeter of skin delineated it from the surrounding sand and tuffs of grass.
You would take every new friend to see it, and only the most trusted of the adults. After regarding the frog for five minutes, Ray murmured “majestic fellow.” Ray always wore a straw hat and a pair of overhauls. He could move faster than any man you’d ever seen. He flew, without pause, from attaching the tractor hitch, to turning the compost pile, to raking out the dry toilets. Ray would spend hours shoveling and shaping the river. When asked about it, he said that he was creating a meander— slowing the water down, so it wouldn’t wreak havoc during the storms. You thought about what he’d said. For at least three weeks afterward, you would go around things instead of straight through them. The idea was not to touch anything. You would move like a sloth around shrubs, small plants, leafs, aunt hills, and lizard tracks.
Thinking that way, it was almost impossible to stop. Your insides would get all wound-up considering all the fragile things underfoot. It was the same afflicted feeling you’d experienced that following summer when the air was cooler and the weather rainier that it had ever been. People came from all over the world to see the bloom. The ground was coated in color: blue Nuttlel’s larkspur, purple sage, orange poppies, golden yarrow, and fairy lanterns. The tourists took photos, picking the delicate flowers, running over the bloom in an euphoric joy. You stayed hovering at the edge, holding your breath, like the barren sand had held its breath before this exquisite exhale of vibrant verve.
VI. A Body's History
The medical assistant asked when I got my burn. I responded, “on July 19th…around five days go.” She informed me that July 19th was, in fact, a week ago.
She asked about my allergies, my alcohol consumption, if I smoke. I was on the University’s insurance, and this clinic, integrated into the campus, was the only medical attention available. After working late, I woke up at 5am, fed the cats, and due to the holiday schedule, it took two buses and two hours to get there. Her questions were pinging at my weary brain from remote spans of space and time. I was trapped in a well-worn call and response ritual, in order to get a doctor to verify if the oozy palm-sized blister on the interior of my thigh was healing correctly.
The cigarette-question stumped me. I automatically answered yes (I am a yes-man at heart). After processing the question, I retracted. The result was cumbersome “yes-um-no.” This about-face agitated the assistant. She inquired about my confusion. I should have just admitted to a lack of attention. However, not wanting to appear rude, I tried to make the case that being a non-smoker the foreignness of the question had taken me off-guard. The medical assistant discarded my flimsy remark as if it were a damp tissue and repeated “why are you confused?” On one level, I understood her determination. She spent her days sorting out the various ailments of 18 to 22 years-olds, products of sorority and fraternity life. However, being in my 40s, I wished that she would politely overlook my verbal slippage.
I considered the guilty plea. “I don’t smoke cigarettes but I do, in truth, smoke thickset cigars. The burn is not from a thermos of hot coffee spilt over my legs while driving to the airport, but from stray ash that had set my pants on fire, while napping at a gas station.” I sometimes feel that I could have just as easily been a smoker as not. I chew through a pack of gum in a day. There is also that impoverished second prior to tackling a problem, or all those zillions of barren minutes waiting for a friend to finish his/her/their shopping or tie-up a conversation; when I imagine myself peeling off the plastic casing, tamping the pack, flicking open the top, lighting the butt, taking a drag. I struggle with this at airport security stations, while filling out surveys, and during interviews, always finding the line between what I am and what I am not transparently threadbare.
Luckily, the medical assistant decided to move on with another question, “Has anything changed with your family history?” I understood why the medical profession decided on the word, history. History seems untouchable. I had some answers for the assistant: cardiac ablation, hemorrhagic stroke, diabetes, chronic pulmonary edema. Pride too, can be hereditary. A pride that scoffed at exercise. A pride that wouldn’t stoop to any bodily failure, wouldn’t even admit to its existence, or attempt to seek its cure. There are more additions to the history: carrying out a chair stained with piss, an arm bruised and postmarked where the IV had been ripped out again and again, a confused shrieking every time she had to be turned over in the hospital bed, the exhaustive search for a decent low-income nursing home, coming to the intolerable conclusion that the person you love might be better off dead. Instead, I opted for brevity, “no, I do not,” and the assistant left to inform the doctor that it was time to come in.
New Years Skin
As the new day dawned, they stripped away our skin. They knew the flesh had passed its prime. The night before, they laid us in rows and sanitized the tools. On the final day of each December, time is precious. The process takes all day, and those of us that they don’t get to before midnight will retain his/her/their dermis until the following year. If the skin has become moored to the musculature underneath, maybe longer —possibly for life.
Just the thought makes us cringe, the creases and scars piling up, year after year. After 20 years, you wouldn’t be able to recognize yourself. We hear of ones who keep their skins. A kind of mental fragility where they have formed a bond with their dermis, epidermis, hair follicles, and sweat glands. Practically no one has ever witnessed this condition, except those who work in asylums. We hear that these troubled ones’ skins are puckered-up like raisins with wrinkles constructed on foundations of wrinkles.
Before the Unveiling, we were collected up and slipped into a vibrating bath of sharp smelling oils. Purple tobacco candles were lit alongside an ambient melange of plucking noises. The Revealers were professional, as they should be, with all the tax money that is put aside each year to support their salaries. Working evenly and with care, they try to get the skin away in one piece. It comes off easily across the stomach and back, but sticks around the jawline, under the armpits, and in-between the toes.
Glowing skin relinquishes its hold more readily. Blooming skin belongs to those of us that have prospered in some form. For the others of us, that life has pinched, the skin is tougher, dryer, more liable to crack. After the Unveiling, we are pumped for toxins and disinfected of the malevolent thoughts that have coagulated in our systems over the duration of a year. Everything is processed and analyzed. Then, we are advised on how to proceed for the following year: “kiss your wife more,” “kiss your wifeless,” “peel potatoes before eating them,” “clean the toilet in a less vigorous fashion,” “cut oranges into wedges before squeezing them into orange juice”— things like that.
The ones of us that have pinched skin raptly listen to the consultation, where the others that sport blooming skin confidently spaced-out and fantasize about the second stage of the new year, after the Unveiling. This stage is known as the Resurfacing and occurs over a two month period, that is if one hires a team of professionals. However, if one is of a more frugal disposition, and takes on the meticulous business themselves it can take as long as six months.
The title is somewhat self-explanatory. The Resurfacing ritual requires a complete reinvention of every surface in one’s life. Basically, the more surfaces that are scoured and redone, the fresher your re-beginning and the surer your footing at the commencement of each year. Rugs are plucked and re-fibered, walls are re-painted and wallpapered, house sidings are replaced, wood surfaces are sanded and sealed. All food that has passed through the new year is peeled and turned into dishes. One has to be careful what one leaves in the fridge from the 31st of December to the 1st of January. Carrots and onions are all very well, but peeling a hamburger or individual spaghetti strands is maddening.
For metal surfaces like pots and pans, one buys a low-grade acid and burns off the outermost layer and then re-seals the surface before it has time to oxidize. In the last ten years, companies have been marketing layered objects. So that one can easily unwrap or un-peel the outermost layer to reveal an untarnished new layer underneath. These objects are capable of shedding anywhere from ten to fifty layers depending on how much money one is willing to spend. However, many of us, particularly the first generations consider unwrapping to be cheating. If one has spent over a quarter of their life sanding hardwood furniture, it is hard not to feel resentful at the ease of unwrapping a dining room table or a bookshelf.
This is why lean fragile objects are considered pure. When one enters the houses of our oldest generation, the household objects look diminished. The most elegant path for an object is for it to eventually disappear into nothingness, having no more layers to remove at the time of the Resurfacing. This is also the time when we restart the calendars and set our clocks back to zero. We also decide what to do with our children, parents, and partners. They can either be exchanged for another pair or continued. However, if there is a mutual decision to keep each other, contracts and vows have to be re-written and rituals re-performed.
After our former skins are carted away, where they are broken down and recycled to grow next year’s batch, the new skins are brought out in their individually sealed and hung packages. It is vital that no creasing occurs prior to their usage. It is also important that we do not choose our skins. The professionals must conduct the measurements and decide on the size and color. The seals are removed to reveal shiny new flesh, in which our cold raw stinging selves our gently tucked inside. Then the professionals work at the seams, pressing, massaging, and binding them shut.
The following morning, we all lay in bed later than we generally would. Some of us lay in bed for days. We scarcely dare to move. All afraid, to damage our new skins poised ever so delicately over the sinews and tendons underneath. Yet, at the same time, we are breathlessly eager for our first caress, the first warm cup of coffee across our palms, even the first cut is looked forward to with intent anticipation.