content warning: depictions of blood and wounds
When faced with a missing person or examining an unnamed or unclaimed body, the police will always ask about physical features. Any birthmarks, moles? Any scars? Anything we can use to identify the body? To tell it apart from the others?
I hear about an instance of this on the TV in my dentist’s office. It is June. I am working at a hospital, surrounded by people with hands wrinkled and worn, studying the ways the mind can unravel with time. By July I am feeling reckless with the idea that my body is merely a record of the things I have held and lost, a promise of the things to come. I am straddling the line between thinking of my body as a vessel and thinking of it as a being. Regardless, it is intimate and it is mine. I open my journal to a blank page and begin to catalog my body.
Here: an oval birthmark with jagged edges on the left side of my face, right in front of my ear. Called a café au lait spot, it is a harmless identifier, an area of light brown pigment that I have never known my face without.
Here: A knotted scar protruding from the top of my right foot, a result of when I was seven and aggressive, zipping around neighborhood streets on my Razor scooter like I owned the sidewalks. Until I tripped and found my foot gashed and red and embedded with gravel. Screeching, I found my father and thrust my sandal-strapped foot into his hands. An extraction of several rocks, a smear of Neosporin, and a band-aid later, I was back, gripping the green sponge handles, biting down hard, flying into the wind.
Here: my ugly ankles. Blemished with circles an unseemly shade of purple-brown, the result of old prolonged wounds. I am the one who makes them ugly, who stops them from healing. For example, I buy new shoes and break them in. I blister and then I pick at them and I bleed and I sop up the red with tissues and I wait for them to scab over and then I pick at them again. For example, buzzy little mosquitoes drink my blood and I let them and later I scratch my ankles and don’t stop until I spill more of my own.
Now all that is left are small mounds and discolored flesh. Scar tissue. I trace them sometimes. I think about girls with long beautiful legs. I want long beautiful legs too but I want a lot of things. I am trying to stop picking at my skin but these small acts of violence are too easy. My fingers love to linger, remember, hurt, heal, and then do it all over again. I think that maybe it is a way for me to embody my own body: I rub my scars over and over and over. Eventually, the skin feels almost heavy. Grounding.
The human body is both familiar and foreign. On the surface, we carry faces and limbs we have known our entire lives. But there are places we carry inside us that we have never touched, will never touch. They are ugly and viscous and fleshy and muscular. We do not know them well, yet cannot live without these parts.
During my middle school years, my father suffered a subdural hematoma. It is a head injury that causes blood to collect in a space between protective layers that cover the brain, in the tissue found just underneath the skull. He had been building a small garden in our backyard for my mother, whose vegetation and plastic pots had crept from the kitchen counters to the corners of the dining room and across the entirety of our deck. He cannot pinpoint exactly when it happened, what caused it. Likely: a tool smacked against his head at the wrong angle. Afterwards: a vessel, ruptured. A pool of blood. Red, an old dark red, accumulating slowly. A growing pressure, slow and insidious between layers of his body he has never seen, never will see.
After the injury and the surgery and the recovery my father was never the same. Surgery is powerful and it is intimate. It changes the body, sanctions someone—a stranger, usually—to reach inside, to touch a body in places that might never otherwise be touched. How surgery changes a person often depends on the kind of injury, the kind of surgery. Sometimes we can bounce back, sometimes we grow stronger and hardier. Other times we are bent over, broken. Held hostage.
The way this one would swing was unclear at first, the signs subtle. My father stopped working on the garden, understandably. Then he abandoned most of his home improvement projects altogether. Soon he began to complain about his struggle to fall asleep, the anxiety of another brain emergency keeping him awake. So he asked and then begged for tranquilizers from his unrelenting doctor, and trashed him behind his back after his request was refused repeatedly. And then I started to notice how our once-frequent conversations dwindled, disappeared; how his temper kept flaring in increasing increments until his shouts were rocking the doors of our house every other day. How I started to dread our conversations, our interactions.
The last time I visited my father’s childhood home I was struck by its lushness. Ang Thong is an hour and a half outside Bangkok. Its name translates to gold basin, a reference to its basin-like geography and its fields swaying with golden rice. It is full of open-air markets and cramped alleyways and is always teeming with neighbors milling around stalls emitting the smells of hearty soups and meat, hot oil and Sriracha. It is a labyrinth of colorful woven straw mats and garish plastic chairs.
I am trying to reconcile the image of my father and the image of a child scampering through alleyways in practical Velcro-strapped rubber sandals and I am failing. Perhaps because in the few pictures he has shown me from his teenage years, his back is a steel rod, his mouth curved in a smile already unyielding. Last month in New Jersey, I saw him old and weathered. A stranger I knew but could not recognize. An alien mowing the lawn in a suburban wasteland. My teeth hurt and I think that I love him. I must. I think about it some more and think maybe I just want to love him. See, I want a lot of things. All of them scare me.
My father has started going to the local church on Sundays. My family is Buddhist but my dad is the only religious one. Before bed he prays to Buddha, as he has his entire life, but also to God in case He is listening too. I am wondering now if suffering itself is a kind of religion. If it is, no wonder I am no good at it. My mother and I are selfish. We look to pleasure first, prayer last. Faith only when we need it most. My last weekend home, my father tries to coax us into going to church with him. Instead my mother leaves to harvest vegetables from the backyard garden. At the kitchen table I sit alone, legs pulled up against my chest. I want to tell him that I am so tired of being lonely in a kitchen full of people I want to love but instead I shake my head and bite into my mother’s tomatoes raw. The insides leak like old wounds.
When skin is punctured, it begins to ooze a vivid red, darkening as it begins to clot and dry. Eventually, it forms a scab. The body’s immune system kicks into action, turning the area swollen and tender as cleanses the tissue and fights infection and repairs the wound. Eventually, new tissue begins to grow.
On Friday the 13th there is a full moon, a harvest moon. A friend’s mother warns her to stay safe and we laugh and I am only a little scared. The moon’s light streams, tender on the streets of Providence, but it cannot change the fact that the night is already too bitter for mid-September. Later, I am all limbs, sprawled on the rug of my room, reading the same lines of poetry until they bite. There is nothing here / that I want to remember as fact. It is a fact / that every person believes they are more than a god. / That is the part of me you harpooned. Cut your name into.
And then you are back, haunting me. I think of you and cannot stop thinking about you. You, the person who cut into me, marked me, who I cannot seem to erase from my body. You, from the writing class, who wrote me long letters and told me funny stories about elaborate dinner parties and the three chickens you raised with your Turkish roommates. You, whom I loved and whom I thought might love me back.
Last summer, we found ourselves on the roof of a friend’s apartment building, the party inside nearly over. We were together and by ourselves. You told me about your dysfunctional family and I told you about mine. We made self-deprecating jokes and later, you told me that you think this is special, maybe. Probably. You gave me a cheeky smile that is supposed to communicate that you care about me but can’t quite say it out loud yet.
In the months that followed, I waited for you even though I knew I shouldn’t. Even though you lived far from me. Even though you were not good for me. I stayed despite the lies you fed me to patch up the unseemly holes in your life, despite the way you called me hours after your bus should have arrived in Providence just to tell me you couldn’t make it after all. You were so good at apologizing. And I was good at forgiving. That is to say: I always wanted to forgive.
Once in class you wrote that your best quality was talking, and it’s true. You could charm a horse or a groundhog or a ghost. You made me fall for you, because of course I did. You’re obsessed with making other people fall for you. You’re good at it. I think about what you said to me when you called things off. It was after a year of longing. I found myself in the same city as you for a summer, and we decided to date, officially, finally. Decided that we would do things for real. Four days in, you told me you changed your mind, that you could not commit to me after all. Did not want to. It’s been so long. It feels different now. Did you mean it when you said you loved me, I asked, more statement than question. You paused. That is answer enough. I did not tell you how, in that moment, a sharpness I cannot quite describe ran through my stomach. Instead I nodded, pretended that it was something I could understand.
A scar forms because new tissue tends to grow back differently than the original, with a different texture, a different quality. Over time, this flawed area may fade or disappear entirely.
Now, your stream of lo-fi hip-hop appears on my music feed yet again and if I could bring myself to I would have erased your name from my screen months ago. My mother is convinced I will be alone forever and I tell her I am still so young we are always so young even if I am forgetting what her fingers French braiding my hair feels like. Governor Street stretches out underneath me and the night is thick with something ghostly. Before I fall asleep I am thinking about you, a habit I can’t seem to shake. My stomach is empty but still aches with a dull tenderness I only associate with you. I am afraid you will haunt me forever and I am just as afraid that you will not. See, I still think about you almost every day. You touched me somewhere soft and vulnerable inside and left a void, a small dark cavern that throbs when I am lonely or alone. See, only now do I understand that there are parts of me that cannot be untouched.
So lately, I have been trying to hold onto the idea that it is not a sign of weakness to remember. There is your old attic room on Williams Street, your Dazai and Kerouac on my bookshelf. Our ribbing banter still a shadow on my tongue. There is my desire to save everyone including you. It’s okay. It’s okay.
This is what I know to be true: When wounded, a body will seek to mend itself. Sometimes it is red and painful but we are built to withstand so much turbulence. For example: I am here and alone and alone and alone and alive and remembering.
PARISA THEPMANKORN B’20 is only sometimes scared of ghosts.