They tell lies about the body. When they say for example that it’s one, the same, a continuous, keeping all memories and emotions within. Indelibly emblazoned with every scar we got. False: the body changes over time, we shed skins as snakes do. It’s a kind of miniature death each time, with subsequent rebirth (if that makes sense). Our cells are replaced: in turns maybe - all sooner or later. Then the stuff we’re made of is entirely new. We have become something else.
I can tell - for you were sitting before me and I didn’t notice. I bent forward to whisper in my colleague’s ear. Not wanting to disturb the play I spoke softly, very close to her neck. And to yours since you sat besides her. I breathed just a millimeter away from your cheek, basking probably in your smell. Brushing your beard, your skin. But I didn’t notice: that proves what I stated above.
I mean my body didn’t react to your proximity. How is it possible? Because my mind didn’t know? Come on! When did the mind have a say about attraction? Doesn’t desire always fool the mind? Didn’t we – I – fall in bed always mindlessly or (more often) against my mind’s warmest wishes? What made me react to you in the past didn’t need awareness. It was a mechanical response. A matter of magnetism. Chemicals so powerfully stirred they took action without me noticing. You know what I’m talking about.
Now, even if my brain had not added the elements, not done the multiplication - had I not labeled your presence with your identity - my body (if it were even partially what it previously was) should have performed its job. My hair should have stuck out (it’s called horripilation), my glands should have poured sweat, I should have blushed without understanding why (vessels madly dilating, blood rushing to the surface, eager to watch the show, enjoy the bullfight).
I should have jumped on the metaphorical table as if seeing a spider, a mouse, a toad: whatever scared me as a kid. Isn’t it how it goes? Instinctual reactions are supposedly permanent unless you employ self-control. That I could have: having sensed, almost touched you, having being struck by an internal lightning, my heartbeat insanely racing, I could have checked myself by the heights of my wisdom, my seasoned matureness. I could have behaved as if nothing happened.
As if? The point is: nothing happened. That is only explainable if my body were changed. I don’t mean modified, no. I mean substituted. Switched in its crib as a changeling.
Then I felt embarrassed. Not emotional, no. Mentally embarrassed by a purely rational concern. What if you had seen me? You might have thought I was me. Don't get me wrong. I know it’s obvious: externally I haven’t changed much. Something in my profile – highly recognizable – would have rung a bell. You would have put a name on the picture and assumed (here comes the embarrassing part) that entity (name plus bodily appearance) corresponded to the person you used to know.
Embarrassing: just for the enormity of misunderstanding and the impossibility (should the occasion arise) of explaining it. There is nothing to explain. What comes closest to reality is that I died too often. I could tell you that much but you wouldn’t grasp it. Though you might have an opinion about – even knowledge of – death, that doesn’t comprehend mine. Death is personal.
You wouldn’t know, you couldn’t possibly imagine… my accounts or descriptions would remain as they say a dead letter. Exactly. That must be where the expression originated: a ‘dead letter’ is the attempt to give life to someone else’s death.
I have died many times after we last met. Each resurgence of course was a bit more hazardous. You can do it repeatedly (resurrecting yourself, rising from your ashes like a phoenix) but it wears out eventually. The result is more and more Zombiesque, Lazarus-like… I wish you could see the bandages I can hardly conceal. Well, I wish you could not. Or anyone else. It’s my private affair.
I have died many times then sewn back my carcass with care for resemblance. Not to fool anyone: just because of inertia, seeking a familiar shape, something I was used to. Also to avoid explanations. Do not think I wouldn’t have liked, sometimes, picking a new skin and wipe off the past. Then I should justify though... I should find an excuse for those folks exclaiming: “You have changed,” adding: “why did you?” That could break the dams: searching for the most banal answer I could let out clues such as pieces of flesh, severed limbs, bloody rags. The entire arsenal I thought I had disposed of.
That is why I kept it simple. I sew back a me as kin as possible to what people were accustomed to - with the leftover parts, neither truly fit nor sufficient. When you die (not the last time but the previous ones: those preparatory mutations each of us randomly endures, following the whims of what’s called ‘individual destiny’ – or luck) obviously something goes to waste. Pieces actually get burned out, ruined. Chunks of various amount and importance: it depends on the specific occurrence.
Some deaths of mine were routinary. Consumption like, sneaky. Dull. Sordid but undramatic. Some were brutal, with loud explosions and consequent loss of bolts, nuts, rebuilding instructions. One of those impromptu catastrophes, dear, struck me recently. I am barely walking around, still experimenting with the taste of fresh air. With breathing – that in summary is all you do for resuscitating, as you learned in basic rescue training.
That’s all you have to do: inhale, exhale then repeat ad libitum, at nauseam, and your cells after some erratic attempts end approximately in the proper place. Your cells? New cells recently fabricated. As we said some get lost, some perish. New ones pop up, insufficient: the original stock is never reconstituted. The promised refill is nothing but a dishonest ad, a marketing scam. New cells appear, resembling their deceased ancestors but knowing nothing. They have no memory, did not learn their history, none of it.
I am no more myself, believe me. Not my bodily self. I’m this shell broken and patched. A black and white shot fading in its turn. I so wish you wouldn’t think I’m feigning indifference in your presence. I am in-different alas for I am different.
And what do I know? Maybe the same happened to you in the meanwhile. It happens to many (following the random caprice of what’s called individual destiny, or luck). But the problem persists: even if you died as frequently as I did, as I previously stated it’s not the same death. We didn’t die together. We diverged, we parted, we drifted away.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in The Altadena Review, Poetic Diversity, Edgar Allan Poet, Litro NY among other journals. She has published two children books, two collections of short stories and one of essays in Italian. She has contributed for a decade to Italian magazines such as Mezzocielo, Salpare, L’Ostile and Inguine.