I’d never encountered anything that I couldn’t achieve so long as tried.
So I tried.
I held smiles on lips that no longer worked, turned precognition to maximum to put things in place before they were needed, and tried to follow the rules spoken on a million forums (not too much, not too little, not too keen, not too distant, be less annoying, be less pathetic).
I tried harder.
Helplessness began to claw its way up my throat over and over again, refusing to be swallowed back down. Wet footprints trod cheeks at first in darkness and then began to march in daylight.
I tried harder.
My heart was rubbed raw with myriad microscopic failings. My ears began to ring with siren calls that drowned every scene with portents of failure.
And when I finally cut myself loose, I still didn’t get it. I couldn’t understand that the problem was not one of effort but one of being:
I needed to not be me.
Stuck with me, as it were, I came to recognise the futility of trying.
And yet sometimes those sirens still whisper sweet nothings.
No matter how hard you try, you will never be enough.
It’s the tenderness of a piglet’s belly, the nestle of warm sheets, the helpless puddling of ice cream in summer sun.
It feels like I’ve only just realised how stabbable I am, how all these knotted organs are wrapped in flesh rather than the spined armour I always assumed I wore.
Like the Emperor’s new clothes, once I realised it wasn’t there, I was left naked and flinching at how easily a word could slip between a rib to puncture or nick.
Fear wraps his arms around me, holding me immobilised as I see your words approach. But they slip over my skin, loosening the clutch of those bony fingers and soothing the bruises beneath. They glide over ribs with the softest of pads, slow and gentle until the tide of anxiety is reversed.
Fear returns the next day, and the next, and yet your words never sharpen with impatience. A disgusted part of me watches the floundering and shrieks for me to weave back the armoured illusion I once wore.
I crawled into my first shell in childhood, a tiny whorl of cream that settled a comforting weight around my shoulders.
Likes reading, more slapdash than her brother, bit of a temper, proud, lies really well, perfectionist.
I outgrew that first shell in my teenage years and found myself a larger one, a cone splattered with brown.
Thoughtful, doesn’t like getting things wrong, good at big picture stuff, hates trying new things unless she knows she’ll be good at them. Good with other people but doesn’t always have the confidence to speak up.
When I headed to university, I moved into a long pale spiral that gleamed inside.
Works well with others but needs her own space, will step up to lead if given a shove. Picks things up quickly, sees too many sides to successfully argue just one angle.
And so I moved as I changed, finding new homes whenever I outgrew the last.
I’ve been in my current shell for the last few years. It’s a gorgeous mottled green, fading to yellow at the tip. It fitted well, holding all that I am, all that I enjoy, and all that I was capable of.
But now it hangs loose about me.
The person who chose this home saw the world differently, had different expectations, and had assumptions that can no longer come to pass.
It is time to choose another shell.
There is a sadness in leaving one behind: I’m losing the familiar and the loyal, and moving into the unknown. But with change comes potential and possibility.
This new shell will contain my new self as it moves along a perpendicular path. It will be a shelter to life’s tides, a safe place to regroup and regrow.
I used to form relationships with a locked chest, living in fear that the lid might open or a rib might crack to reveal an uncurated and unsanitised heart.
That heart still had expectations and needs, but they were tattoos etched invisible under my skin. Those who failed to read these imperceptible instructions were subject to imperceptible resentment and anger – thick jagged lines that boiled beneath my skin’s surface.
It took pain to unlock the chest and strip away the opaque and callused layer that covered my feelings. I emerged raw and vulnerable from my shed skin, tattoos meeting the eyes of others for the first time.
I began to form relationships with my ribs spread wide open, the catch broken and hanging by a single rusted screw. My inner self was finally congruent with my outer self and my relationships were no longer rent by disparity.
One sharp tug by a pair of knowing eyes and my heart spills onto the table with a wet thwack, pulling itself toward those eyes with a hundred bloody arms.
The extremes of life scrape and soothe more loudly than they did before, and sometimes these tattoos cause burning shame or fear of rebuff.
But that old skin with its suffocating shielding would never fit me anymore.
There’s a constant skittering, hollow clatters, the gentle knock of a skull against the door.
They’re pretty well behaved really. There was this one guy in the building next door who had a mammoth skeleton that he couldn’t close the door on, so it used to just follow around behind him. Man, you’d know he was walking down the street by this constant knocking sound, loud enough to shake your knees. He went crazy, that guy. Always screaming for the hulking thing to leave him alone. That’s what happens when you don’t deal with your skeletons.
I took time to get to know mine after I saw what happened to him. That one, the one that’s scraping on the closet hinges, it hatched that time I turned someone down while in queen bitch mode. That one, with those elongated digits, it showed up when I didn’t send a message to someone I once loved.
Skeletons hate being shut away, they want to lick up every drip of negative emotion you leak. That’s how they grow, tastes of guilt and shame and fear and regret. Sometimes mine escape the closet and run cool and smooth over my skin, chittering with delight when guilt blooms over me. They’re a bloody nightmare to get back in until they’re fed. Once they’re high on emotion, they slump into snoring piles on the mattress. I can scoop up a softened handful of bones and dump them back in and close the door.
Sometimes I pull open the closet door to take them out. It’s kinda perverse, I know, but there’s something about staring right at the scabs of your past mistakes and wanting to peel them off till they bleed. Probably not so smart anymore, some of those old bones are getting hefty.
Some folks say they don’t have anything in their closets, that you can beam pure positivity and starve those skeletons till they shrink up and die. Seems pretty unlikely to me, seeing as they’re dead to start with.
But I do know that one of mine once disappeared.
It had been made up of all these articulated segments of regret, they’d click one after the other against the door when it slithered free in the night. I’d first heard it after I’d lost someone I love in a messy puddle of pride, confusion and misery. It was years before luck struck and healed the heart wound that had brought that skeleton into being. And then the next night there was no click of coils in the closet.
I don’t know if I could heal those other wounds. Don’t know if I’d want to try either. That might just land me with something bigger clawing its way out.
And there’s something to be said for my skeletons.
I have a box in my mind labelled ‘Mouth Fail Recordings’. The lid is lovingly worn from the number of times I’ve rummaged through and replayed, ad nauseum.
I am not good at being put on the spot. My tongue tends to flap and flop like a beached whale, spewing the absolute crap that my brain frantically throws at it from its blowhole. A delighted part of my subconscious grabs popcorn and records it all in high definition, preparing for inevitable slow-mo reruns.
My brain reacts to most unannounced phone calls with a violent urge to flee for the hills and throw the buzzing grenade as far away as possible. I don’t have any extra information to stop my brain from short-circuiting: no warning, briefings or body language. So mostly I ignore the call, gird loins, and call back… Which I also loathe, because phone calls involve interrupting someone, shouting (or vibrating) into their lives unannounced. It just feels rude.
I would possibly have been better off in an era that relied on handwritten missives. And networking by carrier pigeon.
I’m also a bit pants with on the spot face-to-face interactions. It took me a long time to be able to interact with cashiers or bus drivers without an ‘I carried a watermelon‘ moment. And then they introduced contactless payments and self-checkouts, so I assume the future is on my side. (Though they’ve also introduced recorded video interviews, which seems to be even more whale-tongue inducing for me).
Technology has yet to throw pouncers with clipboards onto the scrapheap of a bygone era. I get that charitable causes need people to donate and need to find a way to make themselves visible, and I also get that most people aren’t me and probably don’t have a problem with the whole thing. But clipboard holders feel like lions in the long grass. I get stalked because I look approachable, and then I get savaged with guilt because I’m too polite to cut short the spiel.
I assume the only people donating to charities are the really nice ones who can’t get away. Ditto with cold-calling. Which doesn’t seem all that charitable.
I don’t know if this kind of anxiety is heritable or a learned behaviour, but I’m not the only one in my family who views innocuous interactions with abject fear. And I definitely did have a toy telephone as a kid, it didn’t help.
Aside from exposure therapy, my only recourse is to await the development of mental grenades that can obliterate that box of mouth fail recordings, as well as those other boxes labelled ‘Social Awkwardness’ and ‘Shameful Misdeeds’.
I walk into my wardrobe each morning and select my meat coat.
It barely takes me a minute. The bones and sinews of my hand reach toward the well worn coat in the middle of the array. Like the others on display, it shines pale in the cool light of the wardrobe – amphibiously pale, as someone once pointed out, though sadly lacking in mucus. It is somewhere in the middle of the other meat coats, heavier than those that are more wetsuit than meat coat, but less bulky than those at the far end.
The meat coat I choose bears more signs of wear than the others. Faint tan lines around the neck and shoulders, a spatter of freckles at the elbows, slightly better skin from all that moisturising. I should really moisturise the others more often, but the topography of even the thinnest coat is tricky without a body inside it. Every time I nick this meat coat, I faithfully replicate the slice on each of the others, and pay close attention to ensure the healing scars match. Wouldn’t want to cause a scandal.
My mother, of course, thinks I’ve made a foolish choice and should swap my current coat for a lighter one, one that doesn’t come with a range of risks for disease and ridicule. My mother and brother are both wearers of leaner coats, tan skin taut over veined muscle. I can see her bite back words of worry when she looks at me, when she spies the lack of gap between thighs, the lip of belly, the softness beneath chin. She doesn’t always manage to bite back successfully.
This meat coat comes with a lack of expectation. It doesn’t play the game that the thinner coats would have to play, and isn’t a target for the flak that the heavier coats would receive: it is happily on the sidelines. It comforts rather than threatens, and it remains invisible to most. It feels safe.
I’ve never worn the thinner coats. I wonder if I would feel like a child wobbling in high heeled shoes. A newborn colt, suddenly exposed to the world’s gaze. I’ve crawled into the meat coats at the far end, the ones that don’t like to move, their softness both comforting and claustrophobic.
Venturing out without a meat coat is the greatest taboo, of course. But I thirst for a morning where the meat coat I choose is of no consequence. It signifies nothing. Holds no import in comparison to the person it covers. That isn’t how we work, of course. We constantly seek a reflection of our insides on our outsides, uncaring of whether it actually is a reflection or not.
If the world were blinded, it wouldn’t be long before those with the sweetest voices were sanctified.
It’s around 30 feet across, covered in the springy grass that only grows atop really peaty soil. About two feet in from the edges are thick metal loops that have been hammered into the ground, each as thick as my wrist and veined with faint reddish streaks. They’re buried at one foot intervals around the circumference of the island, and while some lie empty, others hum and spark.
The one nearest me is barely visible beneath a mass of shining, seething threads, each stretching and intertwining with its sisters to form a single thronging rope that throws itself beyond the island and out into the mist. This is by far the busiest hive of threads.
It leads to my mother’s island.
Every thread is a message, a photo, a phonecall, a hug, a shared laugh, a rushed journey to comfort, a warm meal, an eye roll, a word to the wise. The threads dash from my end to hers and back, the rope between us now too thick to grasp in both hands and electric with activity.
A short walk away lies another loop. This one empty but for a single sparking thread that noses the air, then tentatively slips away into the mist.
Let us watch and wait.
After minutes-days-weeks, the thread begins to vibrate, and from beyond the island comes another line, intertwining with mine until it reaches the metal loop. As it does, the filaments grow brighter, stronger. This is the birth of a friendship, the tentative creation of a relationship that will grow stronger as the threads continue to weave between the islands.
On the other side of the island are the loops I avoid, letting my eyes slide away as I walk past and tend the others. They still have thick bundles of threads tied to them, but they are withered and grey. There is no spark, no movement, and if you stand and watch, you see only fraying and splintering. Some of those cords still stretch in vain out beyond the island’s edge, but others hang limply over the side, severed and flailing helplessly in the wind.
The threads of these relationships stopped flowing: one too many missed calls or failed replies, a long forgotten argument, a barrier of pride.
One too many cancellation.
Every time I cancel – a dinner, a birthday, a meeting, a concert, a rehearsal – I watch a nascent thread falter and fall still. For newborn relationships, it can be fatal; with established relationships, I can see a thickened scar of burnt out threads.
I tend to my island with love, haunted by the burnt out cords that flap failure in my wake.