08: October 2015 #15 - Littoral Skins
Authored by Sarah Barnes
by Sarah Barnes
Once you found a skin tag on a part of your flesh that is not exactly a sex organ, but would still be illegal for someone to touch unless you said it was okay. And although you are generally a reasonable woman, clean and pretty and diligently acceptable, you couldn’t help but to feel like everything was broken when you found that growth. You decided that, contrary to everything WebMD told you, you definitely had genital warts and/or herpes. This obviously meant that you had failed at your life-long mission to be an immaculate and functional ladywoman. To cope with this failure, you began a nightly ritual wherein you browsed herpes dating websites specifically created for twenty-somethings and cried and clicked through profile photos that stared out at you in false cheer. You saw dozens of black and white images of men with hip facial hair configurations doing things like laughing with a dog on a beach or drinking seven dollar coffee drinks. And as these photos subtextually shouted, “Hey! We can still have fun!” You tried to imagine what your future sex life would be like with these people. You clicked and you drank boxed wine and you thought about starting message exchanges with that man that said, “How does a nice guy like you end up in a place like this ;)”. You would engage in this nightly ritual until the sun came up or you passed out with your laptop humming on your lap. In the daytime, you had to go to your job and your classes and such, but you were still feeling pretty off. So you began to obsessively write poems wherein you tried to describe dudleya leaves and when you showed them to your writerfriends, your writerfriends told you that these poems were “opaque.” They did not share your fascination with the amphibious flora. They did not understand the dudleya’s allure. But you felt that the dudleya were so deeply strange here on California’s neat and orderly coast. And you felt something esoteric and sorrowful in their strangeness. And you also felt that poets had not yet effectively given the topic its due diligence. These poems would be groundbreaking, you thought, if you could just find the right words to make readers understand. So in your poems you tried to describe the plant’s leaves, but the word “leaves” was already wrong. The dudleya elude mundane description. They are sensual and foreign in an interstellar sense. These zaftik flora, these juicy interlopers, are corpulent extraterrestrials that extrude improbably from cliffed coastlines. These not-leaves were described by botanists as fleshy glabrous petals, but they looked more like a brilliant schema of alien growths out of a green rosebud center. And through your writing process you discovered that the thing about growths is that they scare the shit out of you. You realized that there is something so ultimately petrifying about having a surface that will not cooperate. And that one day you could fall asleep as a smoothly puckered product and wake up dudleyed and alone on a sandbank. So in an effort to cope with this troubling development, you went to yoga. You told your yoga instructor that something horrible had happened in your life and that you would never be okay again. And that, no, you would rather not talk about it. You cried coy in the front row of the mirrored yoga studio from the beginning to the end of the class. You could tell by the way that your yoga teacher pushed down on your hips in downward dog to release the tension in your low back. And you could tell by the way she walked silently up behind you and gently pulled your head away from your shoulders in corpse pose. In these small motions, she communicated to you a tacit pity. You could tell that she thought someone you loved had died. And you felt rightful then. You felt like you deserved her sympathy. Because a growth, especially a growth on your flesh down there, is surely an uncontrollable disturbance and a kind of microcosmic entropy. It is a craggy outgrowth of the internal chaos which always lurks beneath the surface, threatening to compromise this whole fucking being-a-sexually-and-socially-valid-ladywoman project you’ve been working so hard on since forever. People go down there knowing what they’re looking for. It is the most explicit currency on your body; it is that which must not be given away. They have to work for it. Like they work for a car, or to pay a mortgage or something. A growth on this flesh that is your last bargaining chip compromises the whole exchange. It is, after-all, the last flesh a visitor encounters before possibility collapses and the story of yet another passing hand gets pressed into the wet plaster craft of young adult sex stories. Sex stories which, long after your remaining parent is dead, you will paint with shimmering golden tempera paint, fully aware of the juvenile timbre of that endeavor. But now you’ll call it “kitschy.” And you will tell your friends at brunch that you had an epiphany in your Bikram Yoga class wherein you finally realized that you have to “be your own parent.” And you will hang these golden handprints on your mantle just because that’s what you do as you get older. You just start painting shit gold. And you start living in homes with mantles. And you start putting your gold painted shit on the mantles because your only remaining parent (your mom) is probably dead and now you’re starting to think about maybe having kids with probably a white man like your mom did “for the betterment of the race.” But none of that is possible with a growth. A growth would leave you alone forever. A growth is the reason that we are unacceptable. Brownness is a growth, so you stay out of the sun and say oh, my mom was born in the Philippines, but really we’re Chinese and Greek and Spanish, just like you were taught to say. And fat is a growth, and sad is a growth, and you cannot have a growth, you cannot be ill in the mind and see spiny ocean plants called dudleya sprouting from your arms in tiny bulbs when you get anxious in class. You cannot jiggle or sweat or cry. The skin must run on smooth and preferably hairless and dry. Except where it must be wet, but there are products for that in the Family Planning aisle at your local drugstore. And the skin must be these things until its purpose culminates in another person’s whooping groan and then their far away calm— while you lay there awake, eyes fixed on the darkness of a dorm room with someone whose name makes you feel nothing anymore, except a casual passing interest in whomever they’re fucking now. But you don’t even mean to write about sex with people you don’t love, or even really like at all. It just kind of happens when you try to write about things that matter to you, like dudleya and your life. Because it’s kind of grim and quiet really, the whole experience of dorm room sex with strangers whom you happen to know very well, and the whole experience of trying to write about things you care about. Or maybe you have a kind of under-researched synesthesia only instead of, like, tasting marshmallows when you listen to Patsy Cline, maybe it’s like, for every memory that is bright and poignant and elegant, you also have a matching and simultaneous memory of accidentally stepping in a still-warm pizza box while traversing gross manboy dwelling debris so as to climb into yet another manboy’s twin-sized bed that only has a fleece blanket for a sheet. And instead of remembering the nuances of beauty and tragedy in the last sunset walk you took with your fiancée before he died, you remember rubbing your big toe and index toe together in that dorm room in visceral detail. And you remember concentrating on the pleasant lubricated slipping of the pizza greased toes. While the whole time this manboy is breathing in your face and asking you questions like “mmm you’re so wet for me?” and you’re all like “mmmhm.” While you hope that the tone of your voice was convincing enough to at least speed up this whole process. You also spend about three minutes wishing that texting was an acceptable thing to do with your hands while he was doing his little thrust and occasional breast squeeze things, so that you wouldn’t have to bother with the tedious rhythmic exhalations and you could just text him that oh yes, he was doing great. And speaking of texting, the horrible part, the truly tragic horrible part, is that you texted the mouthbreathing manboy “whatcha doin?” in the first place. So really what did you expect? And like I said, you don’t mean to write about these memories all the time. Like, you already get it. The reason you repeatedly subject yourself to loveless dalliances with undeserving manboys is because, well, we are all just lonely aching specks of dust who have taken up arms against each other and we only pause the chaos to breathe someone else’s milky breath and for just one moment forget how lonely it is to be alive. You get it. But you want to write about dudleya. You want to write about beautiful things that surprise you and feel real. You want to write memory stories that feel new on your fingertips and tongue. You want to write about things like when a man who would become your fiancée when you were just 17, a man whom you loved the way only a teenager who was raised reading Shakespeare can love, laid with you in your daybed in your mother’s home. And you were sitting on his stomach, and you had impulsive Girl Interrupted we’re-only-this-young-once bangs hanging over your forehead, and you were staring down at him and you asked him to let you lick his eyeball and he said yes. You want to write about that. About how you swear you could taste the whiteness of his eyeball with the tip of your tongue and how it was the closest you’ll ever feel to anyone. And how he just laid there with his trusting chin pointed up and took deep breaths to try and hold still the laughter that was shaking his chest and how your hair hung over his face and he exhaled and you did it. You licked it. And you felt him breathing through your tongue on his eye. You felt a tiny little capillary pulse. But you also want to write about how when you think of licking this man’s eyeball, you can’t help but taste a vestigial sourness now that you don’t think you tasted in the moment. Through your writing you’ve come to believe that maybe that’s what time does to some things. Maybe time works its rot on all things nourishing and precious, like milk, and memory, and him. Time just goes and sticks its fingers in milk and chunks up curdles of poison when you leave it out on the breakfast table for brunch well past the afternoon because your beloved never came back to drink it. And time can reach back into the most intimate moment of your whole life, and turn that memory that used to taste like tapioca pudding and a mouse’s heartbeat into ashes and leachate on your tongue. And time just went and turned this docile man whom you loved into a corpse that accidentally killed itself while shooting up heroin. Because time must have been hurting him so bad that he just had to fill himself up with that black cheating drug that makes time go gooey and loosen its grip. He was just 23, and yet sometimes you still wonder who won that round. But really now it’s all just Peter Pan. Because he will never age and you will grow older and your skin will sag around your features that were almost perfect once, but never quite sharp enough. You always carried the ailment of excess in your mind and in your flesh. As you age it will keep spreading and pulling at your jawline and mouth-corners and narratives of self. As they soften further away from the maybe wholeness they could’ve been, you will be combing the cyber warp-holes of broken-hearted hipsters whose effervescent grow-uppins were ground down into bleak greyscale pixels for their profile pictures, when they felt that no one would ever love them unless they shared a common disease. And all the while, you will be puzzling out the right words to describe a certain kind of amphibious plant that grows ripe and strange by the sea.