The pain grows and they are all wretched and I love them and I’m sorry.
I was startled by whatever I was startled by and elbowed myself in the ribs on both sides. I’m not sure I knew I could do such pointed damage, but my left ribs turned greenish and then yellow in the days that followed. I could see the molding colors only in the mirror, and even then, I had to lift more boob out of the way than should exist on a birdbody this size. The softness of the flesh is both disarming and maligned with what’s crisp and angular. It’s a nice, rounded lie, really, about protection or cushion or something sweet. Inside the body, my body, this diorama body, a woman called Joan looked up at her ceiling in the moment of the collision between elbow tip and rib valley. She reached reflexively for the dog’s fluffed head at her waist. Comfort—the real version. The upstairs neighbors are more unruly than they used to be.
The dog, chocolate and with the curls of a poodle but the head of something kinder, leaned into her hard. Joan’s body spent years growing into the sort of sturdiness a pony-sized dog needs for support. She leaned right back—weight as proxy for safety. A shiver passed under the fur and she reached for a toy to squeak, drowning out the echo that reverberated above their heads.
The dog is and isn’t more aware that they live in a body in pain than Joan is. The woman has been in the building 28 years without rent control (but with, at least, sympathy from its landlord) and the dog has been nervous and leaning for nine. As the bruise yellows and turns golden on the big body, Joan’s ceiling threatens to leak—a week or so of darkening dry wall—but never drops anything to the floor, not this time. The dog paces, sometimes throwing a glancing yowl at the ceiling before Joan hushes her gently, playfully. Joan pretends cheer for the dog; she feigns unconcernedness where she can. Sometimes, she cannot, but a bruise is only a bruise. Almost gone.
The body, my body, calls out in impulses of its nervous system the names of parts in pain. The body cannot recall its parts that are not in pain. Comfort is only measured in contrast to hurt, and the body has never been without that. Today the body calls out neck, again, always; calls out sacroiliac joint, calls out right knee, ankle, the peroneal tendon on the outside of the right foot. The body calls out the occipital ridge by name. The sternum burns and calls back, from the front: sound through the throat at an angle and to the back of the skull.
A friend visits town, and I make a fire for us in the yard. My hair is still wet from a shower while the snow falls; the swirling smoke clings to my blonde strands so what’s burned can’t totally get away from me. Even in my big body, I think of bodies as entities in parts trying to understand each other. Without thinking, I ask my feet aloud if my hair is letting them get cold; shove rubber soles at the crackling wood.
Providence hasn’t changed Mira much, or not much that I can see. I can’t see everything.
I’ve been going through the cord of wood I bought from a 20-year-old logger and his wife in fall fast. Mira imagines the world has held still since she moved away from the West, from Idaho, and only its characters have moved. Something like a stage set. I let her play puppets with the people in this town we both knew, commentary as the best mode of re-connection we can manage just now. It’s hard to see her, though, hard to see or know anything when, under the skin of my forehead, someone called Alex unrolls a white sheet and drops it behind my eyes. They’re always doing this. They walk in their socks around to the spot behind my ear, where they plug the extension cord into a synapse and then follow it around to the projector’s cord and finally the projector. They take their seat in the light booth at the back of my skull and turn on the machine’s bulb. Everything is black at first, even though Mira is still talking and must still be sitting across the fire, in front of my body.
My conceptions of all the people I know are shapes that pile on top of each other like some multiplying of Peter Pan’s shadow, loosed from his childbody. Alex shakes the machine and, when nothing shifts much, treads back around to the hanging sheet to hand maneuver the shadow bodies into their places. Alex arranges everyone I know into scenes that make sense.
This is Alex’s job, this making sense. Alex mutters to themself.
They spend each day plugging and unplugging dendrites.
No one hired them; I don’t know what use there is in saying the brain might be better left to its own devices.
They return to their projector machine to draw backstories in light. Now I can see Mira, her grey eyes and soft face between and behind the bodies in my body. Alex’s scenes overlay on the word pictures she’s making, but the two planes don’t line up right—Alex’s art a remaking of and response to the places my brain’s been bruised. Six bruises, each marked by catastrophe or collision.
Both sets of scenes play out as they do; I close my eyes, try to listen to the smoke.
On a Wednesday in spring,
I shriek! My body is shrieking.
All the little bodies in my body are shrieking, and the echo breaks
the glass of my fingernails and
the wet of my eyeballs.
In my big body, I ask the space of the car and all of its recirculating air if I have shrieked aloud. The car turns up the volume on MUNA on Maggie Rogers on Lizzo on Your Smith on Indigo de Souza on SZA on King Princess on Mitski on Haley Henderickx on Julien Baker on Gordi so no one can tell who’s shrieking. The car is my accomplice and my friend, and we continue on, around and over the silt hills of northern Idaho that all look the same.
The body, my body, remembers movement that belonged to it in a ballet studio when it was much smaller, childbody, and had joints that could handle the weight of a self. The adult body, bony as it is, is far too heavy for what the joints can manage now. Inside, Tess wants to do helping. Tess asks Mommy for helping, please Mommy, Tess loves helping, in her blue tutu. Mommy gives her curly pigtails on helping days. Tess has to sleep with the baby yellow foam rollers in her hair to make it happen, but she’s willing. For the helping! Tess wakes up in the crevasse of my iliac crest, head wrapped in Mommy’s scarf and waits for Mommy to unclip each roller. Tess does helping to unroll the hair from the foam. She’s not allowed to boing the curls until Mommy sprays them, and then she boings them three times. Tess loves to helping. When her hair is in its two bunches and her tiara is in place, Tess climbs onto her stool and starts unwrapping the Jolly Ranchers Mommy pulls from their bag. She sorts: blue-raspberry, apple, watermelon, blue raspberry, apple, watermelon. Mommy puts the rubbery mats on every cookie sheet they have, and Tess presses the buttons to heat the oven to—how many, Mommy? —400. One of each Jolly Rancher in a row, two minutes in the oven to melt. Tess gets to help pop all the bubbles in the melty sheet with a toothpick, and then she has to climb down and do her magic dance while Mommy rolls the Jolly Rancher pancakes around skewers into Jolly Rancher straws. Tess’s tutu flies, up and down, while she twirls. Tess and Mommy are doing so much helping to make all new sweet hard candy bones for the big body. Tess can’t wait till they make the iliac shape, so she can sleep on a slick, crackling cloud of watermelon.
MAN DOCTORS love to help me and my body. MAN DOCTORS love to tell me what’s wrong with me and tell me why the last man doctor was incorrect about what’s wrong with me and tell me why I was stupid for trusting him in the same sentence. MAN DOCTORS love to be the smartest man doctor in the whole wide world. MAN DOCTORS move quickly with my body, their ideas about the body a crude outline that doesn’t line up well with my edges. When MAN DOCTORS go to touch my ribs, they ram into me with their knuckles, not realizing that my body has started existing in space before they expected it to. Yesterday, a MAN DOCTOR rested his handful of vials on top of my stomach while he jerked my sternum this way and that like he was trying to bring me back to life. When he grabbed the vials to return them to their boxes on the desk, he dug all four fingers and a thumb into my abdomen, trying not to miss any of them. This MAN DOCTOR has written in his notes that even the lightest touch on my stomach is excruciating for me, the nervous system of this body calibrated to match infinity, but that doesn’t mean he knows it. Yesterday, I was a sandbox for a MAN DOCTOR. I cried silently for an hour, but he didn’t look once to my face.
I fill the kettle. Look out my house’s window. Brown, brown. Think about blinking. Blink. Blink. Brown. Dust on the table again. After just yesterday, Windex, paper towel. Silt is what I explained to a friend far away when I moved here. I read about it—the silt Idaho’s Palouse is made from. Kettle to oven. Oven to click. To high, to medium, to medium high. Whistle cap down but can’t ever let it whistle. To window. To back door, boot mat crooked. Kick at the boot mat with a slipper, like a mouse trying to scare a hog. Or just the textures of that encounter. Wonder if my friend’s wearing the same slippers today in Los Angeles. Wonder if she’s gone for a pastry. Haven’t gotten a postcard in a while. Will send the blue one later. The blue and white. Will keep the one with the clementines for another time. Need to take out the bin of lint from the dryer. Need to take out the bin of clumped batting pulled from the old quilts, under the sewing table. The window: brown, brown. Sky: grey, but I have to lean in for it. My neck, leaden in its sobriety. Sobriety with the world today. Kettle pitch shifts. A pitch pipe to help the day find itself. Changing too quickly. Practice breathing, practice window. The practice is: be unaffected by the crooked boot mat, the brown on brown, the agitated kettle agitating itself into oblivion. Stomach, more sensitive every day or just forgetting and reminding itself of the things that bring it complaint. Bowl in the sink. Turn to the stove. No whistle. Click. Back to the bowl. Mostly water, some wet flour, a butter knife. White glass, old. The Antique Mall at the north end of Main. The stomach. The dry hands not wanting to be wet hands. Not yet, too cold, this day, so grey. All this dirty sink for the pancakes that sit by themselves getting cold next to the oven. All my partner’s kindness. All that the stomach can’t ever handle. All of the small dancing happening in there; all of the small grieving.
My stomach is a balloon, a taught trampoline; my stomach is a stretch of field in Kansas, in the Eastern Plains of Colorado; my stomach is pinned down by the Rockies on one side and Lake of the Ozarks on the other and it’s stretched as tight and beige as can be in between. When I go to the one hundredth doctor, she says Maybe there’s a fire in there, and your abdomen is collecting smoke. This is after doctors one through seven said some combination of Percocet and Codeine and Fentanyl and Vicodin and Oxy. Isn’t that the same as Percocet? But doctor six didn’t care. This is after doctor 32 said pregnancy? and doctor 20 said IBS and doctor 56 said it’s just the head injuries and 71 said anxiety. This is after doctors said giardia, H pylori, HIV, hepatitis, e coli. The lead poisoning, the Lyme disease, mold. SIBO, leaky gut, adverse vaccine reaction, could be leukemia.
So, fire then. I start to see the smoke, charcoal-grey and wispy, when I close my eyes.
Mal has made a lemon tart in the oven that is my pancreas, and it’s not done on time, which is a thing that hurts Mal, physically, in the way that feminized failures hurt, just underneath her sternum. It’s, of course, a stand in for the other things that might hurt. Mal just wants to make an afternoon that’s nice for people, nice for the kids. Just wants to make something pretty while the world keeps doing its ugly vertiginousness. She keeps rearranging what’s on the glass table, trying to be nonchalant about it. Light filters through the beige of my skin, her sky. A little cloudy but almost warm enough for the lunch outside. When she steps in to check the tart, she can see through the window that her daughter Caroline does just the things she does, straightening the pile of cloth napkins.
The word carefree entered Mal’s world on the day before her 13th birthday when she got her period for the first time; Caroline is not yet so old, so her movements are still overt. She’s not yet trying to stash her attentiveness to the needs of others under a brush of the hand. The plastic package that holds panty liners is pink, always pink. Carefree Original. Carefree Regular. Carefree Acti-Fresh. Carefree Thong. (A joke, right?) Mal clenches and unclenches a fist.
If you cross your legs, the thing will probably fold in half and stick to itself. Become a noxious waste dump between the thighs if you try going for a run. Enjoy ripping out your pubes if you wear seamless silkies or a thong so you don’t have panty lines through your jeans.
But the girl grabs the napkin from the table’s edge before the wind that’s come up the body from somewhere low in my legs takes it.
Mal shoves the window shut. The sticky side of the pad will always slip. Girlhood exists, Mal knows, to educate in the performance of the carefree, not in the experience of the real thing. The tart is late and Mal’s trying to balance acknowledgments, apologies, and efforts not to draw attention to its absence. Rita’s kids, who were not long ago sitting patiently by the firepit in my liver and watching its flames, have started poking each other with sticks. Caroline is smoothing her little skirt, telling Shay, next to her, to smooth her skirt too, saying Princesses are never in a rush in ruffled response to Martha’s boy saying Can we goooooo now? with closed-fist despair. Caroline is not talking to Martha’s boy but around him. She’s trying to get the attention of the girls, trying to call them in to girlhood.
Mal watches her daughter smooth and smooth, and then Mal watches Rita’s boy stab a piece of cantaloupe with his stick and plunge it into the fire—one fluid movement. Rita’s girl shrieks with delight, doubling down on her grip of her own stick, even as Rita halfheartedly grabs for it. Rita’s not even close to the stick. Shay was maybe looking to Caroline before, but now she’s giggling and watching Rita’s girl climb up onto a chair for watermelon cubes, which she skewers. The fruit sizzles in the flames, and the kids are in delight. My intestine cramps. Rita’s boy scours the table and comes back to the fire’s edge with tortilla butts from the breakfast burritos Mal rolled, all the remaining melon, and the little paper placards Caroline had hand written for each place setting.
Caroline turned to marble as the papers were crumpled and stuffed onto the sharp end of sticks. Ashy flakes flew, landing in the bowl of freshly whipped cream Mal set, finally, next to one perfect lemon tart. Looking to her still daughter, tears hovering on little girl eyelids, she, too, turned sleek, to stone.
I hear myself say:
It feels like there’s a bubble that’s empty; it’s growing next to my heart. It gets bigger and emptier and fills the space where there’s supposed to be something. Where Margaret used to live with the border collie who loved to run and run.
I hear myself say:
It feels like someone installed a metal rod from one side of my chest to the other. Across the back. The rod is straight, and it’s there to uncurl the ribs. My lungs don’t know where to go because the rod is making a three-dimensional body into a two-dimensional one. There is no room for air.
I hear myself say:
It feels like loud sounds have come with a personal vendetta against my body.
I hear myself say:
It feels like a metal mannequin is holding my neck in place so that it doesn’t twist. The mannequin is behind me. I can’t see him, but he wraps his long metal fingers around my neck and plays my swollen lymph nodes like I’m a wind instrument.
I hear myself say:
It feels like my joints are beautiful—spider webs made to be delicate and sticky and strong for what they are. But not meant to hold up bones.
I hear myself say:
It feels like an earthquake that starts in my jaw or in my abdominal muscles and turns me into an electrical socket. Yes, it feels like mixed metaphors. It happens when I’m cold or when I’m lying on my side clutching my dog, the world’s most perfect small spoon. It doesn’t matter what it feels like because my body is convulsing, my shoulders are thwacking the floor of the kitchen and taking my arms with them. I am thinking only: don’t hit your head please don’t hit your head and trying to corral my arms so they’ll hold my head still. My body is scaring my dog, my dog who loves me.
I hear myself say:
I can’t feel my glutes and the outsides of my hips, but my coccyx is trying to kill itself violently against the metal of every chair it touches. I can’t feel my forearms at all until a lightning storm strikes the pine trees deep in their tissues and starts a wildfire. I hope Emma and her mother can find shelter in the pools deep in the pits of my arms. The rash is always so bad there, and the ground will shake with my hysterical scratching, but the nerve pain won’t be able to scorch them there. Still, it’ll be hot as hell.
I hear myself say:
It feels like someone put out a cigarette on the coronary ligament that rests on top of my liver. I thought Shaela agreed to stop smoking inside, but the ashtray evidence of me is dusted in grey.
I hear myself say:
It feels like I have to skin dive from the inside edge of my skull down my throat and into my water-filled lungs to find the words that I want to use. I scour the wet for the bottom, for the place my memories of words might have settled. I can never find it. When I come up for air, I find that the skull is round and smooth, with no pool’s edge concrete to grip. All I want is roughness, to pull me out. Instead, I’m in an egg, drowning for the things I can’t recall.
I hear myself say:
It feels like my stomach has fallen from its hook on the wall, and it crushed the large and small intestines on the way down. Now they’re all in a pile on top of my bladder, collecting dust mites. The empty space they’ve left behind is the place Nora rented to do her art exhibition about optical illusions, but everyone who came got at least mildly sick with vertigo and a handful had to be carted off on stretchers. Now it sits empty, although the black and white tiles she painted on the walls make me queasy whenever I drop in to check on things.
I hear myself say nothing. Because I am gritting my teeth as if turning my jaw into a power sander will do anything at all to knock the edge off of the things that hurt. I hear myself say nothing because the doctors do not write down my analogies at all and instead say Like heartburn? And I say no. And they say Like nausea? And I say no. And I say my God is there any point in saying anything at all.
Labs send bubble mailers with whatever I need to collect samples at home. I watch the new show on Hulu about Elizabeth Holmes and the con that was Theranos—just one drop of blood—and I glare at my office floor, the bag full of lancets for jabbing my fingers, biohazard symbol in red ink. The lancets have sat on the floor through months of rain and grey. I’ve been waiting for a day when the world outside my body feels kind enough to counter the inside. It doesn’t come, but I’m running out of time to get the results the doctor needs. My flesh bruises easily, and I turn yellow from the pokes. Just a pinch, say the directions, but they don’t say that it’s hard to convince your own one hand to do harm to your own other hand, even if it’s small.
Ruthie knows how to do some harm. Something like harm. The shapes of the wax strips from the box are illogical—long rectangles for the leg to pubis crease underneath and the insides of her upper thighs, squares for the top line, below her stomach, skinny rectangles for touching up. That’s what the instructions say. None of them are very big, and who thought a one-inch square would be a good shape for waxing the whole top line of your pubes? Ruthie’s sitting on the bathmat and then—for fuck’s sake—sitting on a towel, spread wide. She’d peeled two of the big rectangle pieces apart and set them sticky side up, but one flipped. Dog hairs people hairs micro fluff. I wonder why she doesn’t do the whole thing in the smooth bathtub of my spleen, but she’s invested. The rectangles aren’t big enough for their job, and they leave sticky yellow residue on the hairs they don’t pull out. That’s something like a third, a third of the stupid hairs. Ruthie sits with her legs open, Butterfly, fly away (she can hear the directions of her elementary P.E. teacher in her head). She flaps the hips as far as they’ll go, pushes on her knees with her hands. She spreads the inadequate squares across the hairs, one by one, and uses her left hand to stretch the skin of her stomach upward. Taughttaught taught, that’s what the instructions say. Fuck. When she tears the squares away, she reveals the long, thick scar underneath, one inch at a time. A pale glow worm in a sea of agitated pink. It’s easy to forget the place she was sliced open forever ago when it’s covered in weeds. In the bathtub after, she draws circles with the soap bar over the sticky hairs at the fold of thigh to hip. The scar pulses in the hot water, even so many years healed. Ruthie likes to imagine its purpose, asks it questions, asks for its CV and the like. What are your qualifications? is how she jokes with the worm of tissue underwater. Ruthie wishes the scar maybe birthed a baby, birthed anything at all. As it stands, it’s just a bouquet left on an old little gravestone for things that were taken from her. One surgeon, a dashing masculine improvisation; white hyacinths or gladiolas to remember. Ruthie runs her razor over top the scar for the little patch of hairs she missed in the middle—the narrow rectangles too narrow.
Problem of scale. Jean’s scar is my own. I dig at it with my fingers to get to her small self inside me. I ply it open and reach around the extra kidney, tear through the uterus made of scar tissue and skin from someplace else. The metaphor becomes a metaphor for a womb in a way that makes me angry; it was not my intention. I want to reach up into myself and pull her out for what she’s taken and fictionalized from my body. Someone needs to teach Tess to stop helping, go to dance lessons. Mommy needs to put on her stern voice and let the bones be bones, brittle as they are. All of the me-selves are running wild, starting fires with melons and what’s beautiful. All of the girls are crying, and I am crying, and I don’t care. Alex turns the projector back to its usual loop. The bodies of everyone I know fall into a pile—day old black eyeliner smear below my eyewindows. The pain grows. The pain grows and they are all wretched and I love them and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the conditions of this sick body. I’m sorry for the repairs I haven’t made. Nothing equals anything. Me body. Mebodies shebodies. Mombodies. Girlbody birdbody bonebody. Home body.
Afton Montgomery was a finalist for the 2023 Harvard Review Chapbook Prize and was selected by Vi Khi Nao as the prose winner of the 2021 Mountain West Writers’ Contest at Western Humanities Review. She has recent or forthcoming work in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, The Common, DIAGRAM, and Fence. Formerly the frontlist buyer at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, she calls Colorado home.
Header photo by Elena Zhogol, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Afton Montgomery by Adrien Schless-Meier.