The water was already hot. I placed my hand on the shower knob and turned it as far left as it would turn. The skin on my chest and arms became red and white. The pain deepened into an itch. I turned the water off and grabbed a towel. In the foggy mirror I saw the outline of my figure – no face, just the suggestion of features, like one of the paintings I had seen in an art museum. “I’m not dead.” This declaration ricocheted in me like an echo. I was eight and still reeling from a sexual assault.
Which is the better joke – death or life? This was the central question to a short story I wrote during a particularly sunny and existential winter. Death and life were personified through juxtaposing character tropes. Death was a young woman, dressed in neutrals, whose loose humor could make any barfly smirk. Life was a middle-aged man with a drinking problem and a kind tongue. Life and Death’s friendship flourished from beginning to end, even as their intentions were revealed. Life wanted to fuck Death. Death wanted validation from Life.
John Keats, the English Romantic Poet, was 25 when he died from Tuberculosis. I was 21 when I stood before his modest grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. For weeks I had been trying to memorize his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, so I could recite it sitting beside his gravestone. “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” The stone’s etching moved me. I stood there gaping, not even able to whisper.
I sit in anticipation when my Mother speaks of the day that Elvis died. I know and love this anecdote, like a child who knows the all the words to their favorite bedtime story. When she learned of Elvis’ death, she ran outside and climbed a cherry tree to cry. My Mother almost never cried during my childhood. And now when I hear Elvis’ voice, I picture her obscured by branches and wonder what her young tears smelled like.
When I was drunk and twenty, I convinced my boyfriend to fool around in a graveyard. It felt wonderfully cliché. Love feels like a sublime antithesis to death when you’re young. Now, any indulgence feels that way for me.
I tried to get a man I once loved to answer one simple question. Would he rather drown or die in a house fire? He always got mad at me for this. Said I spent too much time agonizing over dreadful things. How wrong he was. I wasn’t agonizing. I thought the question would help me discern his decision-making skills. How wrong I was.
I have several reoccurring dreams. One contains a large shadowy man who is there to chase me. In another one, I am barefoot in a dense vibrating forest. And in the last dream I am always driving. The freeway is dark and empty. Someone I know or love is always in the passenger seat. I am terribly tired and can’t keep my eyes open. The car swerves and swerves, just narrowly missing an accident. My internal dialogue is of wordless panic. I am angry that I can’t take control. Mad at my irresponsibly. Fear and love for the life of my passenger. I can usually wake myself from the dream before a crash occurs. But two months ago, I woke drenched in sweat after the car went over a cliff. In the dream I was driving alone. I let go of the wheel and embraced eternity.
“I’d prefer to burn in a house fire,” I said after taking a sip of wine. My date looked back at me in half amusement. “I assume you want to be cremated over a burial then?” He asked. “Nah, just leave what’s left out for the coyotes.” We did not go out on a second date.
Ryan was my best friend in high school. One day we got off the school bus and ran to his house. The rain was heavy, not the usual drizzle of an October in Washington. We kicked off our shoes and slumped into oversized couches. Ryan glanced at the door that lead to the garage and smirked. “You want to see something cool?” He opened the door. Five skinned deer, heads and hooves removed, hung on the garage’s white walls. It smelled like annihilation, sickly sweet, slightly metallic. I liked it, but I knew that wasn’t the reaction I wanted to have. I don’t remember leaving his house, but I remember walking home and feeling the cool rain run off my flushed cheekbones. I felt alive, but I also felt somehow ruined. Ruined with my lust for things sticky and primitive.
I used to babysit for the same family every week. One of the kids, a 4-year-old girl, loved watching Animal Planet. During the safari episodes she would jump up and down and cheer on the lions as they chased after their dinner. I found myself wavering week-to-week between joy for the predators and compassion for the prey. After a particularly gruesome episode, I told her that we needed to watch something else. “Why? It’s like Lion King,” She said with a tilted head. “It’s the circle of life.”
I remember the two pink lines and the sinking realization. I had just finished my freshman year at the University of Washington when I decided to have an abortion. At seven weeks, a fetus is the size of a blueberry, a blueberry with tiny arms and a heart. I writhed around on the cold bathroom tile. What drained out of me looked more like a crushed blackberry than a blueberry.
Fredric Baur, the creator of the Pringles can, requested that some of his ashes be put in one of his creations before being buried. Apparently, his children bought the can at Walgreens on their way to the funeral home. They debated on the flavor before agreeing to use the Original.
I spent much of my early years daydreaming that my body was not my own. That my mind was trapped in a corpse. That I had died when he was done with me. I would test out this delusion with bloody results. I found that pain was the only reminder of my animation. But even when I grew out of this, I started fantasizing about taking my life. I had Kurt Cobain’s suicide note taped on my wall. I mixed my pharmaceuticals with liquor and cough syrup. I put deeper cuts on my arms. I don’t think that all of me wanted to die. I was just flirting with the edge of death. I wanted to look over the side and drop a pebble. I was curious.
When my Mother got breast cancer, death seemed to stare at us through the back-door window, like a feral cat. They caught it very early, thankfully. But I remember her contemplating the end. Oh, the fear that fell from her eyes. Her voice rang in bright octaves; her hands flush. The inescapable beauty of these moments – when life becomes something inestimable.
Our world is two minutes from the end of times. At least this is what The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock reports. The clock was first unveiled in 1947 just before the events of the Cold War began to unfold. Now, of course, humanity is not really one hundred and twenty seconds from extinction. But the purpose of the Doomsday Clock is to illuminate the potent dangers of the modern world – unstable nuclear powers, catastrophic changes in our climate, and the political intentions involving our technological advances.
This year I have been trying to work through the trauma of my first assault. Lydia, my therapist, has me do an exercise to keep me from retreating into numbness. I have to open and close my hands over and over again while maintaining eye contact. She asks me to walk her through the house where it happened, over to spot on the carpet. She asks me what I see. Through the sliding glass door, there is a squirrel on the trunk of a red maple tree. She asks me what I feel. Nothing, I feel nothing; I am hollow, I want to say. This isn’t true; I am drowning. I am on my back. The carpet fibers irritate the back of my legs. I feel his hands. My labored breath must give me away. She asks me to walk her out of the room. Walk her out of the house. I start to breath again.
I was at work when I found out that Ryan jumped from the Interstate Bridge. His family thought they would recover his body, but I didn’t hold out much hope. It was December when he jumped and the Columbia River is the largest in the Pacific Northwest. Part of me hoped they would just call the search off. I knew that finding his body would give his family a small sense of peace. But to find him in whatever state his body might be in? Well, some parts of death should remain a mystery. They buried an empty coffin in April. After his funeral, I got drunk with his sister. She fell asleep crying on my chest. I laid awake, fearing this intimacy, before I could slip out the back door into the cool spring night.
What would you do if you found a baby picture of your rapist? This was the prompt that one of the women in my writing group wanted us to work on. But how do you neatly package your damage into a 7-minute freewrite? I tapped out early. But I couldn’t get the question off my mind during the drive home. Would I burn his photo and recite a curse? Would I say a prayer for him? Would any act allow me to finally feel free from his touch? A photograph can be a conduit for magical thinking. And we lean into magic when meaning feels out of our grasp. But I don’t crave revenge and I don’t believe in divine salvation. And I no longer need to know why he did what he did. No meaning, no explanation will undo the experience. In turns, his touch put me to sleep and then jolted me awake. So, if I did have his photo, I would probably store it in the secret place where I keep all of the objects that make my heart pound. I would keep his photo because it would make me feel alive.
Carly Hood writes personal essays from her couch in Seattle, WA.