Beneath the surface, I spit glittering vitriol in an acid arc around myself. These spattering thoughts blister words into the dirt: ‘Join me in lockdown… feel this grief for a past life… falter here with me, in this stuttering uncertainty.’
But there are those who continue to grow within four walls, plucking opportune plums from a laden bough and making life sweet. They barely stutter at all.
I, meanwhile, simmer in my acid bath, my skin growing thinner with every slow second. The liquid blooms rose-pink and rises.
At some point I should stand up and wade out, before too much of me is lost. But the burn is comforting and the return of full gravity is too much to bear.
I’m staying here. Hip deep in shed niceties, I pass the time by drowning well-meaning platitudes until they dissipate to nothing.
I’m waiting for a letter. It exists in potentia every morning I approach the letterbox, a Schrödinger’s envelope that only resolves itself as my key turns in the lock.
The letter will contain an appointment date, one that I can hang on my empty reels of calendar. It will let me pretend to myself that things will one day revert, the threads will once more be woven into a tightly held pattern of predictability.
In the meantime, the future unspools wildly and puddles at my feet, shapeless and purposeless.
Of course, my former self resented those tight wefts of work and travel. The endless predictability of the future chafed and bit, and left no thread free for a spontaneous embroidered trill.
Yet despite the benefits to my current state of uncertainty, I remain blind.
Society isn’t all that keen on people having unplanned futures, or unpredictable and potentially unstable paths. It likes individuals to snap into acceptable roles, populate and pay up. Faltering in no man’s land is a sign of weakness, laziness, fecklessness, or failure, so people self-flagellate until they implode or fit back in.
I circle myself in my mind and snap at my heels whenever I start enjoying myself. I can’t relax into this state in case I start liking it.
Instead, I remain vigilant and wait for a letter, listening for the click-clack of a loom re-started.
The post-holiday blues are sniffing at the door, scrabbling with intent at the letter slot. Anxiety gives a howl as she butts at the drooping handle, while Misery sits back with his old head resting on his paws, waiting for the inevitable opening of the door. Irritation nips at the others and gives a volley of angry barks at being kept in the cold.
Every song that plays on a playlist that I know to be filled with chirpiness somehow hits a mournful note.
I’m keeping the blues at bay by imagining myself launching into the blackened sky and flying higher and higher until I’m above this thickened layer of mist and rain.
I emerge into blazing blue skies and find the Sun’s fierce glow.
I dance over the cloud plain until the memory is locked in place and I can bring it with me as I descend back down to earth.
And they’re determinedly shifting back into sight whenever I sulkily swing my head in the opposite direction.
They’ve been swelling with every hour that passes, from tiny tweeting companions to hulking feathered dinosaurs that send jerking fear into my stomach whenever they stomp into view.
They hate being ignored. Hate all those other things I choose to look at instead, hate the way I airily dismiss their existence to other people, ‘This evening? That sounds lovely, I’ve got no plans at all.’
Eventually they’ll tire of the chase and they’ll move in for the kill, no longer allowing me to avoid. Black sweeps of wing will reach around me so there is nowhere for my eyeballs to flee.
Dealing with them is painful: every feather is sharply serrated and sticky and progress is slow. But they eventually shrink as I face them, rhino-sized to ostrich, to turkey, to chicken, to blackbird, to a sneezing puff of minute feathers drifting slowly to the ground.
Sometimes it seems they’re caught in amber, in beads cast down by a sweating Sun. And it’s a beautiful place to be – all golden light and weightless suspension, and they’re barely aware that the slide of liquid has stilled around them.
And sometimes the amber darkens to tar. Surface long unbroken, they suspend beneath a blackened crust accompanied only by the larvae of petroleum flies and the souls of all those creatures who discovered the afterlife was hot and sticky.
And sometimes a light catches the tar and it turns to ice. They’re barely visible within, just shadowed potential, but the faintest signs of thaw mark the gritted grey surface. There’s no way to know if they will emerge from Schrödinger’s ice cube unscathed despite their years of stasis.
The scent of the sewage works is sliding around the window. Not exactly offensive, just faintly organic. A nasal weathercock that signifies an easterly breeze.
It’s raining on the shed below (and, unsurprisingly, elsewhere), and each drop has its knees bent up, arms wrapped around for maximum velocity, and is making a satisfying thwack-splat on the plastic-wrapped roof.
Through the collisions of kamikaze rain come the sounds of planes, every takeoff and landing a slow, deep rumbling sigh in the contented chest of the heavens.
I can feel all those sounds in my bones, the smells trickle along vertebrae, and that grey light – so often loathed – offers a soft cloud buffer between the world and me.
I’m a little raw today.
Last night, I unlocked one of those boxes I keep in my head and spilled its contents out, despite my brain’s best efforts to squirm and wriggle out from under your mercilessly gentle spotlight.
And under that light, the shadows of the Dread Shame might have faded a bit.
So I’m wrapping myself in greys and rumbles, bathing in the faint scent of sewage, and hoping I’ll have a while before doubt wheedles its way back in.
There’s a kneading in my chest, a drawing out, a punching in, a folding over. I’m not quite sure what the end result is meant to be (and I’m doubtful it’s worth all the commotion). My lungs are doing their best to press on despite the surrounding churn, thin breath in, thin breath out, a constant battle against diaphragm.
Shoulders are corded tight, ratcheted two clicks past comfortable and tugging up toward my beleaguered neck. They too, appear to know something I don’t.
It slithered in from somewhere, maybe alongside that dream last night with all that frantic dismemberment and panicked swipes of fingerprints. Maybe it came in as I drew away from the present and slid toward the past without shuffling my thoughts into order first.
It’s refusing to answer questions in any case.
This feeling is the one that wants to consume everything in sight. Fill all bodily cavities until there is no room for churn or movement or tightness. There is only the sturdy counter press of repletion.
It always passes, sliding out of my skin and into another’s without any pattern or cause. In the meantime, this mound of flesh I call ‘mine’ will continue to jitter and jolt its way onward, desires and motives entirely opaque.
“Is she in love with you?!” They ask, young eyes wide at the impossible concept of love actually being a many splendored thing: one apparently shouldn’t write poems for one with whom you are not in love.
I didn’t get the memo.
And then there’s the careful note in the arms of someone who feels that love has now become something to be coloured within the lines. The innocence and ease has become increasingly self-conscious and cautious as childhood disappears into the distance.
Eyebrows rise if I share a room with my brother or father when travelling, and assumptions are made if I go to dinner with a male friend. Handholding over the age of ten seems to only signal romantic love, so I receive speculative eyeballs when I support my mother – lover? Daughter? Carer?
A spectrum of love exists to be expressed in a spectrum of ways. So I’ll take off my judgy-pants if you take off yours.
When I love I leave sticky fingerprints on every surface: remembering something forgotten, picking up something out of my way, gifting small joys like a cat dragging in half-battered birds.
My mother has always said that love is shown through actions, words are too easy. I took her belief and buried it in my heart, folding it again and again until rippled metal shone.
My mother and I, we love in absolute balance, action meets action in a constant clash of sparking steel hearts. But not everyone forged their hearts this way. I run the risk of bruising or crushing, or of suffocating others with a barrage of gestures that I watch unfold with impotent horror.
While it is easy to keep words under body arrest, it turns out I have only clumsy control of my actions.
This steel heart consistently runs the risk of stake raising. A gift for a friend that’s more extravagant than warranted, repeatedly putting yourself out until the other person feels a keen imbalance, giving when someone else feels unable to give back.
I’ve gathered ruddy rocks to smelt chains that can wrap this heart of mine tight and slow the pendulum swing. And maybe one day I’ll figure out how to wield it without wounding.
I feel this need to gobble things up. Consume them before they disappear from existence, seize them in a spasmodic clutch that crushes as much as it holds.
Why the rush?
I suppose the future feels empty in its uncertainty. The potential it holds seems like so much Fool’s Gold when compared to the sure gleam in the seam of the present. I seize the day, uncaring that my clumsy grasp might cause a hundred futures to wink out, wriggling threads extinguished without a second’s thought.
I get told to relax a lot. Chill out. Go with the flow. See what happens. It turns out that this doesn’t really have any effect on a mind outraged by the paucity of knowledge available when told to make decisions.
And so I hold onto today like the Earth might turn its back on the Sun, refusing to bring it back around. I feel everything now, in case the future is a burnt out carcass hosting only maggots of misery.
Sometimes my grip releases. Hands go slack and shaky with the fear that those terrible futures might mean that there’s no point in consuming or clutching. There’s no point in holding on.
On those days, when my brain coils tightly around itself and digs its jaws in deep, I need someone to slip their hand in mine and clutch me as though the Earth might spin no more. As though those future threads mean nothing compared to the need for a clumsy grasp today.
And on those days I’ll realise I don’t have to rush alone.
Someone very wise (and unbridled) once suggested that I should send messages, letters, phone calls, and love out into the world without worrying about whether anything comes back in return. The act of sharing and giving is whole and complete in and of itself, it requires no reciprocity to be worthwhile. There may be joy when something is received in return, but there is no pain or shame when nothing comes back your way.
I tucked those words into my heart and gave up paying out my emotions by inches.
I started writing messages to people just because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ or let them know I’d been thinking of them. I drew my feelings up from my gut into my mouth and spoke them without being stifled by fear of silence. Sometimes something came back, sometimes nothing did, but my feelings were no longer exalted or diminished based on someone else’s actions.
And somewhere along the way, I remembered that someone has always got to go first. I think perhaps this was something I chose to forget, always waiting for a sound to hit me before enthusiastically echoing in return.
I am no longer the echo.
I’ve traded in pride to lose guilt and anxiety, and it seems like a pretty good deal to me.
I can never find the edge where we stop and illness begins.
The line that divides personality from disease is fractal, endlessly complex and barely perceptible. And the closer you are to someone, the more you realise that their illness invades every action, every reaction.
I wonder sometimes who you would be if it were cut from you, leaving only the pieces that are actually you behind. Would your soul buoy upward with every sinew sliced apart? Would a rose tint engulf your vision after a lifetime of grey? Would all those barriers and obstacles and weights and troubles clatter to the ground with a tremendous roar as you finally shook free?
I suspect the shadow shape left behind by the carving would continue to whisper. It goes too deep now. Its flesh is your flesh.
And so I learn to love what has become you. I watch my own flesh begin to entwine with illness and cannot stop decisions from being nudged by this poisonous pairing. A scorpion’s sting lodged in its own back.
We have become one and the same. Fraying at the edges.
I’ve opted to donate my brain to the public. I slice away a wafer of grey each day, and post it for consumption, dissection and deliberation. Reassemble all those slices, and the shape of my thoughts starts to emerge – every normalcy and abnormality revealed.
People talk about the ‘courage’ it takes to paint the internet with the contents of your head, I suppose because there is a worry that others might take your weaknesses and wield them, or that others might view you to be less because of your revelations, or that you might discover that you’re unacceptably abnormal and a case for social exile.
Mostly nobody’s all that special. There are millions of brain spatters across the web. Each slice sets off a bell in a similar slice of someone else’s brain – commonality results far more than rejection.
I feel like most of us watch the world in the hope of finding others like us, people who make us feel a little less strange and alone. Some of us keep our brain firmly locked on the inside, lest it give away our less palatable selves. But that only serves to make us more afraid that nobody else is like us, we are alone in the universe with a bitter brain.
I find that sticking slices of brain on the web gives me an extra step of distance – I’m better able to look at myself and reflect on that complex lump of neurons. The shadow self that emerges looks different from my assumptions, visible in all its objective glory.
And so I keep on serving another slice. Bon appétit.
I fear I’ll be transmuted into a millstone – rough around the neck, with an interminable grind that erodes temper and tether.
I’ll become sickly sweet, cloying and claggy even as the mouth gets rinsed again and again.
I’ll be a duty, one to tick off each day with a plummeting stomach and stiffening shoulders.
I’ll be an unreachable thorn latched in a once smooth flank. A ball and chain without a lock. An albatross that was shot without understanding just how heavy it would feel once wrapped around the neck.
And mostly I fear that all the while, I will know.