Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
15. A collision of reds and pinks
May (part three)
This is chapter fifteen. It’s normal to start at chapter one, but don’t let that stop you.
It’s Sunday, so I call my mum. She’s in the garden. She apologises for not being more help so far and offers to transfer me some cash. Money is how she launders her guilt. The guilt stems from the fact she thinks it’s her fault I am the way I am. When she says this, the way I am, I don’t know if she means depressed, or difficult, or both. And of course it’s her fault, in the Larkin sense. But it’s also nobody’s fault. My brain is an accident of existence. This is how the atoms fell. She asks me how much I need. Apparently now I’m bringing in decent brass as a handyman, her and Dad see me as more of a sound investment. To expedite the conversation, and because I would like some money, I accept. This seems to relax her a bit. The reason I called is I need some intel. I ask her to tell me more about what I was like as a child. Oh, you were very cute, she says. And so self-determined. We don’t know where you got it. But once you decided to do something you were doing it. That was that. If you didn’t know how, you’d learn. You stopped breastfeeding one day, just refused. Decided you were done. When you were four you took the training wheels off your bike one afternoon and taught yourself to ride it without them. You just went up and down the road outside our house til you figured it out. Your brother wanted his hand held. Took comfort in it. But not you. There’s a pause on the line. I think you wanted to prove that you didn’t need anyone. She takes another breath. And with you being you, you did prove it. You showed us all. And then you wondered why people didn’t stick around.
May is named for the Roman goddess Maia, who oversaw the growth of plants. Hopefully she was forgiving of plants who refused her help and tried to grow themselves.
I’m coated in a thick foundation of sawdust from sanding back the floor in Fern’s studio. It’s gruelling work. My arms still feel the vibrations even though I turned the sander off ten minutes ago. Fern has soup and sandwiches waiting. Our lunches are fast becoming the best part of my day. Both the food, which is always freshly made – salads, soups, bowls, etc – and the company. We talk about art and life and gossip about other residents. Fern is divorced, and only started painting so she could qualify for a five pound flat. She grew up in Seagate and worked for an accountant most of her life, until the accountant ran off with her husband, and left her jobless and homeless (good luck to them, she says). She had her first orgasm soon after, via a suction vibrator she got as a divorce present from a friend. A rich erotic life and a new art practice followed. I wash up some and sit down to eat with her hoping for a story or two. Fern looks wistful. She hasn’t painted anything today. She pauses midway through her first spoonful and starts sobbing. She cries a moment, wipes her eyes, then laughs and carries on eating. I wasn’t always like this, she says. Manic pixie old lady. It’s just I promised after my husband fucked off I wouldn’t hold anything in anymore. Thirty years of marriage I spent holding my tongue, not wanting to upset anyone. So I decided I’d always feel what I felt. Instead of ignoring it, I’d embrace it. Feel it entirely. And today I’m feeling a little sad. And that’s okay. I agree that it is. Fern says it’s my turn to share and asks how I’m feeling. A little sore from the sander, I say. Not all vibrations are good. I laugh, but she shakes her head. I start to explain that I’m a little tired. This doesn’t satisfy her either. It’s simple, she says. Just tell me how you feel. I try again but realise I cannot say. You’ve done a good job with the facade, she says. But you’re missing more than you thought.
I wake up in a cold sweat on the couch clutching a pile of missing posters. The last time I saw my inner child he was afraid. Fern wasn’t wrong about me. But she wasn’t right, either. Not fully. I realise that the thing I’ve never gotten rid of, the thing I’ve been feeling, the thing I’ve been holding onto this whole time, is fear.
The holy grail for the love-avoidant anorexic is convincing yourself you should wait to see if someone who isn’t interested in you changes their mind. I learned this trick as a teenager. It’s avoidance 101. There is safety in impossibility. If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to change their mind – exes, friends, both – you don’t have to put yourself out there. You need never be vulnerable. I’ve avoided love on at least three continents. I am really good at it. Could’ve turned pro. It’s a short-term solution. Short-sighted. But it hurt less. That was the point. Anything to avoid pain. Anything.
Between coats of water-based floor varnish I mop the last of a hummus platter with a carrot stick. A few weeks ago this would have been a reluctant concession in the battle for being whole. Now it’s pure dopamine. Above me is a new watercolour Fern hung this morning, a collision of reds and pinks. She glides into the room on a post-orgasmic high. Sometimes after I turn off my power tools I can hear hers still going. It’s not not hot. The thought of Fern going to town with a Hitachi or a Satisfyer has crossed my mind a few times mid-wank. Best it stays in my imagination. Looks great, she says, appraising the varnished floor, the freshly painted walls. All that water damage. I was so angry when it happened. The night you moved in, no less. I came up there, you know, ready to give you a piece of my mind. Found the door missing and no-one home. So I left you a note. I assume you got it, since you fixed the leak soon after. I shake my head. What note? She shoots me a mischievous smile. I didn’t know you then, she says. And I was very angry. I’m sorry. It’s not normally how I’d handle things. But the leak ruined some of my paintings. She’s waiting for me to catch up. Let’s just say orgasms aren’t the only thing I paint, she says. The penny crashes through the floor. London cunt, I say, shaking my head. How do you feel now? she asks, but I’m already laughing so hard I can’t answer.
The Roman poet Ovid offered another etymology for May. He said it was named for the maiores, Latin for elders. It’s a shame he never met Fern. Then he’d be famous for two poems.
When I was a kid fear drove a truck through my nervous system. In response I went into lockdown. Anything I couldn’t control got shut off. The first thing I denied myself was fun. I started saying no to things that might invite trouble. To drink, to drugs. To the friendships and flirtations that might result. Then, to deal with that loss, and to traverse the remainder of my teen years, I denied myself anger. I convinced myself that this was how I liked it: alone, apart, against the world. Dysfunction dressed up as control. Depression set up shop soon after. Moved in and changed the locks. Because once you switch off a few emotions the rest collapse in on themselves.
My stomach slots in without much struggle, and I go for a walk to help it settle, to wait for the inevitable wave of emotion. I find a spot on the sand and count the peaks on the shallow waves rolling in. There isn’t much of a swell here and it’s hard to make out where one starts and the next begins, like the tide is all knotted together. The break laps quietly at the shore. My breath is short, my body tense. I’m bracing for something, for anything, for some feeling to arrive and wash over me. And then: nothing. Not a murmur. I beat my chest, suck in a lungful of sea air. Will the emotions to arrive. Just when I’m about to give up, I feel something stir. It moves up through my chest and bursts out from my open mouth. A burp. Not even a good one. I swallowed every emotion for years. I guess this is pay back. My stomach is a fucking asshole.
There’s a trick for almost everything. If you don’t know the trick, there’s YouTube. But what’s the trick for the fact that it’s really hard? For the fact that you have to wake up and put your pants on and pay your bills and work whatever hours you can in whatever job you’ve got and at the end of the day still find time to feed yourself? What’s the trick for that? For simply existing? Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe this is all a ruse. A long con. And in that case, well. Time to mix it up. Life is a grift, old chum.
Plan B involves my tool bag and the kitchen counter. I take out my claw hammer, the one my dad gave me, scuffed and weathered from decades of use. The weight of it in my hand is reassuring. I place my right arm on the countertop. From what I understand, the device on my wrist, the thing they call an Acid Watch, delivers a controlled micro dose of LSD at intervals of between forty-eight and seventy-two hours. The purpose is to help unblock neural pathways and unburden traumas. By my estimate, the reservoir of liquid inside should deliver the equivalent of a full hit when ingested all at once. It’s supposed to be tamper-proof. But you can learn a lot of things on YouTube. No more half measures for me. I reach into my tool bag and take out a bradawl, a hardened steel spike roughly six inches long. It’s used for boring pilot holes in wood. I need it to hit reset. To untangle my feelings. To let go of fear. And doing that involves driving the bradawl into a small port on the back of my Acid watch. I slide the spike between my wrist and the device. I need to be wearing it so I don’t waste any LSD. I raise the hammer and drive it down onto the bradawl. The pain is considerable, owing to fact the spike has lodged in my wrist. I’m not sure if I got the dose, and I can’t check as I appear to be bleeding quite a lot. I decide it will be best if I take a seat on the kitchen floor, and in my haste I fall backward and never stop falling.
Chapter 16 arrives on June 1. Like, share, tell all your friends. Tell strangers, even. Thanks.