I miss that warble-y fake pathos from the 80s, à la Ric Ocasek. We will never be the same. Our pathos is real, but turned inside-out so as only to appear that way. When I was in 7th grade I had a science teacher called Mrs. Harris. She collected road kill and kept it in the classroom freezer for use during animal anatomy lessons. One time she pulled out a fresh raccoon, stuck her hand in its ripped abdomen, flipped its skin inside-out and waggled its leg. The classroom duly exploded in screams and groans. I remember noticing how much she enjoyed her performance. One time there was a weekend-long power outage and all of Mrs. Harris’s specimens defrosted. On Monday morning the school reeked and the classroom was cordoned off, but I must have gotten in somehow because I know that this was the first time I saw maggots.
It is always a delight to use a thing for something other than its intended purpose, thus cheating the whole nomenclature system. Beauty regimens are especially conducive to product experimentation, such as dabbing hemorrhoid cream on your eye-bags, or that horse shampoo girls used in high school. As a housefly tries to get outside by repeatedly throwing itself at the window, I wonder whether a name is best suited to what one wants, gets, or is designed for. When I look in the mirror I see my face fading into a modulating self whose name remains the same, as though birth were a benchmark. It might be that humans’ raison d’etre is to apprehend ourselves getting older. How old do you have to be to say, “I was once a great beauty” and not be thought vain? Beauty is either just a fact or only the appearance of it.
When I can’t fall asleep at night first I count backwards from one thousand, and then I try to figure out why I am awake when the body most often possesses the means of its own mitigation—you rub spit on a mosquito bite, step on your stubbed toe, feel metaphoric, e.g., “make the most of every moment” (your life is not a bag and the capacity of time is always the same). We are so pleasingly self-contained, like one of those triangular single-slice pizza boxes you see at the airport. Of course, once it’s emptied and thrown away it looks like a head, homesick for its all-but-self-same contents. Did you read that story in the New Yorker about the woman whose unrelentingly itchy scalp caused her to scratch right through her cranium? The itch was imaginary, but what’s the difference? She scratched all the way through to her brain.
When I was in 8th grade I went on a ski trip to Vermont. I remember one evening entering a dark room and finding the members of my Unitarian youth group sprawled on beds and around the floor, silently listening to Desperado together. We’d been learning about world religions, had it intimated to us that they were all right and wrong at once—except for our own, of course, which wasn’t a religion, although loosely based in the ideas of a bunch of people best known for never getting anywhere and talking about it. Your prison is walking…, etc. I joined my compatriots in the dark and we sort of radiated toward one another while at the same time palpating our own interior walls, like mimes. I think of this every time it rains so hard the storm drains bubble over and puke up dead leaves all over the street.
I can’t remember a time before I had enough words to remember with, and I often wonder if my inability to remember early childhood is a memory in, just not of, itself. And are there physical differences between the things I can’t remember, i.e., are some memories simply never triggered while others are inaccessible or pinched-out all together? One time my now-husband and I drove from San Francisco to the Salton Sea, which was formed in 1905 when heavy rainfall and snowmelt broke through irrigation dikes and filled an ancient dry lakebed in the desert. There were once some 50s-era resorts along the edge, but now only a few stringy encampments are left. Due to changes in the climate and agricultural water management, the sea’s shoreline is rapidly receding and the salinity rising, so that, the day I was there, there was a ring of little dead fish around it.
When I was eight I cut off a third of my right index finger by shutting it in the door of my parents’ Ford. I remember standing in the driveway with my hand against the car, stock-still and hesitating to scream because I didn’t want anyone to come open the door and let my finger fall out. I think it was Michelangelo who talked about releasing the man from the marble, although I might have read that in The Agony and the Ecstasy, which is an incomparably cheesy novel. In any case, I was severed that day from the fact of my shape and rendered over again in veiny gray stone. They sewed my finger back on but it’s always felt like the wrong one, a victorious foam extremity stabbing from the neck of Winged Victory. There was a crowd around her at the Louvre, or was that Venus?
When I was young I loved catching, no, standing on the threshold between states, say when the streetlights stuttered on at twilight. I would try to see the stick-numbers rearrange on the digital clock. What I really wanted to see, though, was the green flash that is said to sometimes spread across the sky at the exact moment of sunset over the ocean. I gazed at the horizon until it became painful. Research reveals disagreement about whether or not this is even a real phenomenon. Either way, to see it would apotheosize the threshold, although I am equally rewarded with this triangular or tripartite space between real and not-real and the unknown. What if there isn’t even an answer? Here I am, stuck in a staring contest with the void while over there my kid’s lower lip is twisted, trembling with potential energy. Just don’t wake me when it’s over.
Note: As a poet I know of the surprising things that can be said under the pressure of constraint, and I wanted to apply the same pressure to the lyric essay. Each essay in this series is exactly 150 words long.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.