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.
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.
I spent the past few days bathing in a pool of like minds.
(Also a lot of sweat.)
There’s an inordinate sense of comfort when everyone around you shares your values, when you can speak to a stranger without carefully excising all the bits of your self that might prove controversial.
In times like these, the warmth and friendliness of fellow humans smooth over the bruises that bloom daily in the wake of the morning news. The songs that break lips begin to burn away the helplessness coiled around hearts. Determination long dimmed stokes at the touch of new hands.
And in the real world, where strangers don’t talk to strangers, eyes dance to avoid another gaze, and another bruise marks my skin, I’ll recall that this stalwart silence does not mean that I am alone.
Painkillers are saviours. With them, there’s a chance that things won’t escalate and I’ll get back to normal much sooner. With them, I’m less likely to do something stupid to make the pain go away. They’re an occasional safety net, a buffer that stops my brain from blowing its tolerance gauge.
But they also coat my brain in lethargy and sew my eyelids shut. They drain me of saliva and dangle me by the nape of my neck so my limbs hang heavy and helpless. My words come slow and cracked, and bruises bloom on my shins and shoulders.
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.
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.
He’s stood at the end of an aisle with a backpack the size of a 1990s television hanging loosely from his shoulders. He’s getting repeated glances from those nearby, presumably because their teeth are rattling from the sound of the bass vibrating from his incongruently tiny earphones. Or possibly because he sniffs every three minutes, with a lengthy snarfing sound that makes it seem entirely possible that the entire carriage might disappear into the damp recesses of his nostrils. It’s possibly due to his cold (or allergy, or drug habit).
He’s doused himself in enough aftershave that nail varnish on the hands near him is starting to bubble and peel. A spark could result in conflagration, tearing through the wavering field of scent that surrounds him like a boxy Christmas pudding.
He’s got both hands out to grip a span of three hand holds, butt swaying back and forth with every crash from his thudding accompaniment. His backpack has been ramming repeatedly into the man behind him, who has apologetically slid closer and closer to the seat in front whilst attempting not to thrust his own crotch into someone’s face. His gymnastics have not been enough to save him from those hip thrusts.
Maybe backpack guy’s got rubbish sight. It would explain the blank way he ran his eyes over the woman next to him who’s been trying to reach a hand hold but has been forced to stretch on tiptoe because he’s still holding on to the grip in front of her. She’s too polite to say anything, she just keeps on stumbling backward and forward while he keeps right on looking through her.
He finally gets a seat, much to the relief of the guy behind him and the woman next to him. As their frowns fade to relief, backpack guy plants his bag on the floor and promptly flings his thighs out to the sides. His elbows follow suit.
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.
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 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.