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.
My night sky is scattered with heart glow – a bunch of flowers, just because; a birthday card with both sides filled; a glow-in-the-dark keyring from a long ago trip; a scribbled post-it in mother-tongue handwriting.
Over time, a light might fade alongside memory, a dull white dwarf then nothing. But another always arises in that same patch of sky, burning fierce with love.
One day, I’m scared that those dark patches will stay dark, as every note and card and piece of kitsch crumbles to dust, and she’s not there anymore to set the sky alight anew.
I will not live beneath a dark sky: I will seek someone who sows stars and together we will strew galaxies.
I remember the feel of it, that blanket of trust and warmth and pride and ease. From the inside, it seemed impossible that anything could exist outside the golden globe.
But I’m on the outside now. And I can’t find a path back through the purpling bricks of disappointment and hurt. A wall started stacking the minute disillusionment hit, the minute I slid out of the golden bubble. Each brick whispers a memory, and as I brush my fingers against coarse surfaces, those jolts of remembered pain rip their way back in.
And I jerk back from love.
My body built those bricks in response to threat: each one shaped around grit that would have scoured my heart raw. Each one is a warning that this love hurts.
To get back to love, I would have to pass through these mounds of past pains, feeling them anew.
I know that love is somewhere in there. But it might not be worth the journey.
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.
“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.
Rationally, I accept that most kids go through a phase of being selfish, whiny, demanding bastards.
Somewhat irrationally, I find it really hard not to hate them for it – quite possibly because it’s like looking Past Isla in the eye.
Past Isla was what polite company might call, ‘head-strong’, and what people behind closed doors might call, ‘a pig-headed, smart-mouthed, amoral princess.’ She was determinedly unwilling to accept that she might not be the centre-point of the universe’s orbit (she was, after all, much more right than anyone else), and she made sure to correct anyone who failed to recognise her supremacy.
Backing down was for lesser beings. Lies would escalate, piling on top of one another like teetering blocks held only in place by steely belligerence. The universe fell into line with a whimper when she demanded that it be just so. And when something failed to align with her plan, her wrath was terrible to behold. Eardrums shuddered at her rage, skin burned under laser stares, and smoke crept from beneath doors as she smouldered.
It didn’t take her long to learn that there were other ways to force the universe into line. Sweetness and light was a new one, all wide eyes and shy smiles, obedience that went beyond the letter of instruction, liberally slathered in butter that made it all the more likely that she’d win. She continued to smoulder underneath, of course, but learned to tuck the smoke inside and stop it from pouring down her nostrils.
The sheer humiliation of being told off sent rolling waves of scorch down her face and along her arms, blew deafening white noise into her ears. This was unacceptable. She adapted, it was imperative that no-one find out things that would lead to a bollocking. Instead, she hid those infringements, honed her lies, and began to work in earnest on her outward facade. She needed to appear perfect from every angle, no gap to reveal the complex calculations and mechanisms that clicked and clunked beneath.
Eventually, the facade was perfected and the smouldering child lived wholly within its walls. As that facade grew more familiar and those actions and reactions became second nature, her fires banked and her hackles gradually lay smooth against her spine.
I remember her when I watch another child give the world a hard kick in groin, reptilian eyes showing only satisfaction and menace. And I wonder if Past Isla’s still in here somewhere, if I’m unwittingly carrying Versuvius within my skin.
Being truly listened to is like standing on the edge of a sudden void, lit by thunderous sunlight and held in a silence so keen that moisture hesitates to evaporate.
I fall into that void, cold fingers fluttering behind me like wings.
And for the first time, I don’t curate my stories. I don’t shape tales to coax forth smiles, I don’t polish my thoughts to present their best side. And I don’t tuck the things that cut me out of sight.
I keep tumbling, tears creeping into the corners of my eyes to burn at skin.
And then there far below, I see light blossom in the darkness.
Strands dance on lightning feet, orbiting each other before flying outward in a new direction. They hum with pleasure at the feel of the listening: words suddenly caught by an ear and held in the brain with the touch of gentle but curious neurons.
Those strands weave as they go, forming a billowing net with edges that ever expand as words of understanding and tenderness wrap warm arms around my own.
The void becomes a safe place to fall, the silvered net a constant assurance.
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.