by Isabella Valdez
Since meeting you, I’ve been considering what it would be like to skin myself. The idea of hooking a fingernail underneath some loose cuticle and just ripping mercilessly until my arms are no longer arms, rather a collection of twitching tendons and weathered veins, is an amorous one.
Sometimes, I see myself as a whole person, sometimes as a body and the chance to tear it apart. But most of the time the only taste in my mouth is the sweet of something rotten. Other people, however, never lose their animation before my eyes, and it’s fascinating to me that the street corners do not whisper to everyone.
I always look past people’s skin when I first meet them, wondering wolfishly about what’s going on underneath. For the first few nights, I appear bright and in my entirety, but then my hair starts falling out, my lips begin shriveling in shells, bruises bloom marvelous yellows where you touch me. But you don’t jump back because it’s kind of fantastic to watch someone decay in front of you. So, there we are, against a striking white background, and I’m coughing up blood all over your collar and your face, and you, you’re not moving an inch. Together, we look wrong, but you don’t back away, just like I knew you couldn’t.
Nerve endings brought into open air, millimeters away from complete exposure, my face melted and gooey like glass, I reach my maggot fingers out as if to caress. But my touch, though welcomed, seems to sting what’s left of me. My disease does not spread to others–my eyes alone are oozing pus, my lungs blackened to char. I don’t tell you but there was never a time before this. I, too, emerged from the womb with each limb snapped, tiny bones screaming beneath my gray skin. The doctors cried out in fright when they saw me, nearly dropped me, nearly knocked me out cold.
But this isn’t the childhood I share with others often, and definitely not with you. I’m not sure how your rosy cheeks would react to knowing that instead of raspberry popsicles dripping down my chin and the soft trickle of rain lulling me to sleep midday, I only remember my brother when he was seven and stabbing my even younger sister in the pinky toe with a pencil, the lead breaking off inside her, the sound draining from the air and resurfacing at her horrified scream. Or that my other sister crushed her thumb in the car door and the nail fluttered off as if it were made of tissue paper, the flesh underneath soft and pink, having never been used as protection. You just wouldn’t get how happy I was when my father tied my ice skate laces around my ankles, how the blood trailed everywhere I went until an attendant pulled me from the rink, handed me shrieking into his arms.
It’s not a lie but it’s less than the truth.
I’m feverishly falling in love with the way fists bury themselves in faces. In the way skin sticks to the pavement, the way blood leaves the body. It sounds sick, sadistic even, but when your mouth curls in disgust I prompt you to look at your own childhood, littered with quick paper cuts and scraped shins; this infatuation lives in all of us.
And it’s your tenderness that makes me remember the only instance when touch means anything to me is when the other person is free of the confines of muscle and tissue. It’s the only time I can pressure a head against my sternum and mean it. Jaws creak, kneecaps slip in and out of place, and I relish in the nuance, in their faltering appendages writhing against my own.
There were some people less willing than you, some who refused to let me undress them with my teeth because they were stitched too tight, much closer to themselves than they would ever be to me. They had skin that clung, desperately gripped, clawed, begged to the very bone. So I learned to listen closer, quieter, as careful as I could to catch a heart tittering. I’ve stopped, mid-strip, to witness the symphony of shifting vertebrae, the angelic twist of an ankle, the cut of tooth against tongue. But more than anything, I listen for the compulsion of knuckles cracking, the joints sweltering beneath the skin.
Some nights, I consider the possibility that I am not the child of the father to whom I pathetically grasp. For most of my life, my body has been hanging on by only a few threads. Almost like someone pinned me together from scraps instead of love, a poor imitation for human but passable, the kind of being who only knows exile as a home. Everything but my tongue recycled, I use it now to reach out to others, as a sweet plead that blankets my maladies. This time, it’s their fingers that tremble to contact, and light as a kiss do they grace me. For a second, perhaps shorter, I am not grotesque. I am whole and breathing and without name. They retract. They do not call me monster.
Other nights, the audience grows tired of this them-centric show, and moments before I’m forced out of the arena, I crack my own knuckles and everyone stares wondrously.
This is what it’s about, really, the overwhelming need to see people unable to censor themselves. It’s just like a foolish love that encourages its players to share themselves completely. But the screaming and the crying come at no cost to me. Perhaps, most interestingly of all, is how frequently I’ve encountered people like you, so earnest to reveal yourself, so happy to believe that I am doing the same just because I spit up tooth-chippings whenever our mouths meet.