Ungrateful Skin by Claire Comstock-Gay

When I was eighteen and nineteen and twenty, I lived by myself. I was lonely and free and I didn’t have anyone I could call on the phone and talk to but I went to school and I had a job and I had enough money, most months, to go to the movies a couple times, maybe get a haircut. I lived across the street from a church, and every Wednesday, if the weather was warm enough, they had their evening services outside in street and I’d sit by my open window watching them all sing, watching the kids chase each other around on scooters, watching them stand up and swallow and take the mic to tell stories about sorrow and shame and redemption. I learned the names of all my neighbors this way. I learned the names of terrible things that could happen to people in this world. I learned the words to a lot of hymns.

I was on very good terms with Ronnie, the guy who did maintenance work for the church. Ronnie was on good terms with everyone at the church and he was on good terms with my landlady. He was on good terms with the hippies who kept chickens at the house next door and he was on good terms with the cops who’d apologetically stop by the church once in a while when someone called in a noise complaint. Ronnie wore a backwards Red Sox cap and a little diamond stud in his ear. He was into The Rolling Stones, which I knew from the boom box he carried around with him while he worked. He was into astrology, which I knew from the earnest way he didn’t come on to me when he asked for my sign, the way he just nodded and warned me about the middle of the month.

In the middle of the month I stopped going to my classes at the tech. I didn’t leave the house at all for a week, just sat on the couch under mom’s old red blanket, staring at the television and ignoring the phone the couple times it rang. On the seventh day I got hungry. I got dressed and walked down to the Market Basket for some turkey and some bread, and ate a couple sad sandwiches on the couch under mom’s blanket, no mayonnaise or anything. The next day I woke up at noon, hungry again, and walked to the bakery on Main Street and bought a cake. They were quietly playing a Rolling Stones song in the shop, and little sign on the corner of the counter said they were hiring someone for the kitchen, and before I had time to freak myself out over it I asked the guy at the counter if they had an application or something, and he just shrugged, asked if I had any experience — I told him no, I just used to bake with my mom — and he said whatever, come in at six tomorrow.

So I walked home, shaking the entire way, and ate half my cake, and woke up early to measure out flour and sugar all day. I did not know where to find anything or how to use the big industrial sink, and I once used cinnamon instead of nutmeg, by accident. At the end of the day they asked if I could keep coming in at six every day. I said fine and they gave me a baseball cap to wear at work and I went home and ate the other half of that cake. And the next day, and the one after that, and the one after that, I woke up at five and walked to work. It was almost empty in town and nobody looked at me and I felt safe in the quiet spring dawn, better and safer in quiet morning bustle of the bakery than I had ever felt at school.

The kids in my business classes at the tech had always made a big deal of how badly they wanted to work with their brains. To me this seemed like the most nightmarish thing. I did not want to talk and I did not want to think, I just wanted to measure ingredients and roll dough and let my brain wander around somewhere else, somewhere safe. I just wanted sift flour and sugar and cornmeal through my fingers, to run my hands through bowls of strawberries, to nearly drown in the textures and smells of the bakery, to not think of a single thing other than temperatures and bake times. I was always letting my brain wander too far though; I always getting too caught up. Once I accidentally dropped a big knife right next to my foot, so close it made me weak. Once I got so lost in the long straight rows of scones on a tray that I burned my wrist taking the pan out of the oven, and minutes later distracted by the bright oozy burn on my wrist, I slammed my fingers in the refrigerator door. Every time I hurt myself was such a surprise. The other bakers got used to it fast; it became my thing. They joked, gently and kindly, about my head being up in the clouds, but that was never quite it. It was always more like my head was underwater. That was what my mom used to tell me, back when I was a dense and distracted ten- and eleven- and twelve-year old who was always dropping things and forgetting to turn off the faucet. She never even got angry, she just shook her head, confused by me and scared that all of her love was for nothing. She never called me ungrateful, but I was.

Once in the kitchen I saw someone get distracted for just a second and accidentally stick a paring knife deep into the webbing between her thumb and pointer finger. She very calmly walked to the sink and calmly came back, towel wrapped tight around her hand, to tell me that she was losing a lot of blood and going to the hospital. I asked to see the cut; she said no. When I was very young I saw a girl fall off the slide in the playground at the park by our house. She cracked open the back of her head and my mom wouldn’t let me go look at the gash. I was so jealous of the stitches she’d get. I remember one summer a long time ago at day camp at the Y, sitting around at lunch with a bunch of the kids, all of us showing each other our scars. Someone had a scar from a dog bite on her thigh and someone had a scar on her chin from falling off her bike. This one girl pulled up her t-shirt and showed us rubbery, stretchy-looking burn scars all over her stomach and back, and what could the rest of us do but widen our eyes and nod, silent, reverent.

For a few months when I was eighteen I was having sex with someone who had faded scars all up and down his arms, small short scars from a knife, maybe a razor blade. I would look at them when he wore t-shirts and I would look at them when we were naked and I wanted to run my fingers along every single one. I touched them a few times, but always lightly, like I didn’t mean it. I don’t know, I thought I’d embarrass him. For a few months when I was nineteen I was having sex with someone with little stretch marks all over his shoulders and chest and stomach and I wanted to stare at them but I tried not to; I wanted to touch them but I was scared to make him feel strange in his body. Later that same year I had sex just once with someone who I met on the bus back home from school, who had straight blond hair and tattoos on his calves and no scars at all on his body. He bought me some beers at the bar out past the mall, then brought me back to his place where he put his hand around my throat and laughed and laughed. I stayed the night anyway, then left his house early in the morning and walked all the way home down Loudon Road and over the river, wondering how close I’d just come to dying, making a list in my head of what the pros and cons would’ve been.

Once when I was twenty I went to the beach with a law student who I’d met at the grocery store, in the freezer aisle, where he asked me which brand of frozen pizza was best and then asked if I wanted to go to the movies or something. He was always smiling at me. I didn’t trust him and I didn’t not trust him. He drove us up to the beach in his Honda, humming along to classic rock radio and talking about contracts. When we got there, he sat in the sand and did his homework while I went in the water. I swam out as far as the farthest person and floated on my back, feeling very light and mostly free. I was ready to stay out there forever, ready to float out with the tide, until some teenagers in board shorts and shell necklaces hit me with their football, until they made me remember my body. I swam back to the shore. Halfway there a wave knocked me over and held me down and dragged me a dozen feet and then suddenly let me go. I sat up, stunned and blinded and gasping, untwisting and tugging my bathing suit back into place. It was the most I’d ever lost control of my body and it didn’t feel bad. I couldn’t believe it, when I was back on my towel on the sand, still breathing hard, that the law student hadn’t even noticed anything. Later that night he teased me for getting so much sand in my hair, he said it was so cute, how did I even do that. I didn’t say anything. I hated him.

Not that long after that day at the beach, I got distracted at work and accidentally put my hand right on a hot burner, just for a second, and just for one second my brain jolted blind and black and when my vision came back and I was alive in the world again I saw everyone frozen over their work stations, gaping at me. I looked down at my red skin, at the stripe across my palm that looked like melted plastic. I would have collapsed right onto the floor if someone hadn’t caught me. It wasn’t bad enough for me go to the hospital, it was fine, my boss said. He gave me some salve and wrapped up my hand and sent me home for the day. I was embarrassed by my foggy underwater brain and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even do real damage to myself. Just a close call, always. Just imagine, always, if it had been an inch closer, a second sooner.

When I got to my street I saw Ronnie was setting up for Wednesday service. I waved with my bandaged hand and he got a look on his face and ran across the street to me and said oh no what did you do to yourself this time. I told him I got hurt at work and he said oh but of course, you’re a Pisces. I smiled at him and he patted my shoulder and told me to take care of myself, and that there would probably be food at church later, if I wanted to stop by. His earring glinted as he ran back to the church, and he winked at me as he started setting up rows of folding chairs. My hand was throbbing and I wanted to scream and cars started pulling into the church lot before I could run after him, before I could ask him to stay, before I could do anything different. So I just walked up the peeling stairs to my apartment and took a bag of chips out of the cupboard. I never cooked at home. Cooking was quiet and ugly in my own kitchen; my wandering brain became a terrible thing in my own empty kitchen. I sat in my faded green chair next to the window — Ronnie had given it to me when the church got new furniture for the fellowship hall — and wished I had friends in this town and wished I could call my mom. I thought about calling the law student but couldn’t forget the way he put his hand on my face, the way he looked at the sand in my hair.

Outside, Ronnie was testing the PA. “Hello. Hello! Helloooo-ooo.” I unwrapped the gauze on my hand and stared into the burn and didn’t cry, didn’t yell, just watched the people at church move around so busily and brightly. They hugged each other and shook hands and smiled into each other’s faces; they crouched down to beam at children and ask how school was, ask if they were getting excited for softball season. When my weird jumpy jealousy got heavier than my love for these strangers outside, I went into the bathroom and took off my clothes and started running a bath. When the water was almost too hot to touch I got in and scrubbed my face and neck and armpits and crotch and feet. I held my burned hand over my head safe and dry, while the rest of my skin slowly turned red.

The service would’ve just been starting. I imagined it happening like this: the tall pastor would welcome all God’s children to him. He would make some announcements, he would ask everyone to please pray for Mrs. Bonner’s health. They’d sing: Blessed be the name of the lord, blessed be the name of the lord, blessed be the name of the lord most high. Then the pastor would call somebody up to the front, Mila or Agatha or Jessie B., where she would tell the congregation about her depression, she would talk about unthinkable darknesses, about days when she couldn’t get out of bed, about the days when she couldn’t eat, couldn’t move. And the whole congregation would nod, because they all knew. She would talk about the no-good men in her life, she would talk about staying because she didn’t know what else to do. She would talk about waking up in the middle of the night and staring at the ceiling, so lonely and scared, so cold, so desperate for love, for a hand to hold. She would talk about hitting the absolute brutal rock bottom of her loneliness, and her voice would crack, and the whole congregation would nod, tears in their eyes, because they knew.

It was a story that I was so good at telling to myself, but it only worked as long as the bath stayed warm. It didn’t work anymore, once the water got cold, to try to imagine this bright warm world where everyone was kind, where everyone spoke the same language, where they could tell you, if you asked, which places were the wrong ones to look for love. So I got out of the bath and dried my hair and put on sweatpants. I stared at my little brown face in the mirror until something started hurting behind my eyes, then went back to the other room to sit at the window. Sometimes, when I envied it all too bad, it helped to try and imagine the ugly things at the church, the secrets that I couldn’t see from up in my house, but some days I wanted to join them so badly that it didn’t even matter. I would’ve done anything. I would’ve changed my whole self. I wanted to join them so badly but instead I started crying on Ronnie’s green chair, shaking, holding my throbbing hand close to my chest. I wanted to join them but I screamed into a cushion until my stomach hurt and then got up and put two pieces of bread in the toaster. I wanted to join them but I turned on a baseball game on tv. I wanted to join them but I cracked two eggs into a pan, one-handed and awkward. I wanted to join them but everyone was already milling around, hugging goodbye, drifting back to their cars. I ate standing up. I put the plate in the sink. I wanted to join them but I wanted to die but I wanted someone to come over and sit with me and lean their head on my shoulder and tell me everything was going to be fine. I wanted to join them but I wanted my mom back but I texted the law student to ask if he’d come over. I wanted to join them but I wanted to get back in the bathtub and stay there for hours, stay there for days, stay there until my skin melted right off my body, until my bones dissolved down the drain.

 

Claire Comstock-Gay writes horoscopes for The Rumpus. This is her first piece of published fiction. She lives in New Orleans.