by Jennifer Griffin Graham
Her blood is so noisy she can’t even think. She comes in the house and goes upstairs before anyone notices her. She heads straight to the bathroom, shutting the door and then twisting the doorknob—one, two, three times—to make sure it’s secure. Success. She’s slid past her family how many days of her life already? One more is not a problem.
The bathroom is pale around her, paler than her own pale skin. Grey floor, white walls, the porcelain all around scrubbed twice weekly by her mother. She turns on the fan. With the fan running the bathroom is emptied out of any other sound. It slices off the boundaries of the little room. The sizzling animal fat in the kitchen, the thumping bass from her brother’s room, the commercials and clinking bottles in the living room downstairs. The rustle of the newspaper. Noise on top of noise on top of noise. The fan surrounds the perimeters, lets no decibel by.
If she has to hear one more word, if anyone utters a word to her, it’ll be the last word. It’ll kill her. There’s been enough noise already today. Noises pushing out at her skin from inside her organs and arteries. Noises pushing into her ears. It’s exhausting. She wants it all to shut up shut up shut up.
She opens the medicine chest and it swings forward so fast she stops, inhales. Slower now she pulls out an old metal Band-Aid tin. They don’t make metal tins anymore but she likes the cool solidity of the object in her hand, so she keeps reusing it. Inside the tin is a bundle of gauze. Underneath the gauze are the razor blades. Increasingly hard to find, razor blades. She uses exacto crafter blades these days, because all she can get at the drugstore are those plastic safety razors.
She’s been shaking all day. After the nightmare hour in choir she put herself in a stall in the school bathroom—dirty green walls covered in Sharpie lines: Jessica’s a dyke, I heart Dylan, The Truth is Out there—and raked her blunt nails over her arms, trying to break the skin. It didn’t work. She raised some welts, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t the same. All the rest of the day the words piled up, stopped meaning anything, clattered around her ears. She trembled and trembled and it felt like her organs were maybe coming loose inside her. She trembles now, laying out the gauze and the blade next to each other on the counter.
Her sweatshirt has holes near the cuffs where her thumbs hook in and tug the sleeves more firmly down. She didn’t cut the holes. They wore themselves in, after a year of tugging and pulling and clutching and fidgeting. The bathroom is cold—it’s October, snow on the ground outside, and the heat low since her Dad runs hot—but she takes off the sweatshirt. She folds it carefully and places it on the toilet seat.
In the mirror her face floats over her white tank top. Skinny white chest. Hair bleached white-yellow, brittle as straw, one more chemically clean thing in the room. Skin white and soft and arms criss-crossed with scars.
She opens the mirror again, this time the center panel, and pulls out the hydrogen peroxide. She likes its obliterating smell. She pulls the wrapping from the exacto blade. She is so careful. Exacting. Exacto. Then she puts it back on the counter. She pulls the tank top off over her head and folds it carefully and places it on top of the sweatshirt. She’s not wearing a bra. She doesn’t really need to. Her boyfriend likes to tell her she’s on the Itty Bitty Titty Committee. She’s like the chairwoman of that committee, he says, when he’s tweaking her little pink nipples. They—the nipples—are the same color as the tributaries of scars, and it’s sort of pleasing to the eye. She’s color-coordinated! The scars run over her arms and shoulders and some down on her trunk, but there are none across her chest. That would make it a sex crime. She’s not a deviant.
She sits down on the toilet seat, on top of her shirts. She wants to see how long she can wait before grabbing the blade. She feels like grabbing the blade right this minute. She feels like lunging for it but then just who would be in charge here? So she sits on her hands and lets the noise turn over and over: up one side of her body and down the other.
Her boyfriend saw the scars the first time they had sex, and he ran one gnawed fingernail over the longest ribbon of pink on her arm. “Look everyone, it’s a walking cliché!” he said. “You going to special SI-sleep away camp? Is Daddy paying enough attention?” She didn’t say anything, just let him trace the scars. His words were mean, but his fingers were gentle, and something about that contradiction was almost as good as cutting.
She’d had a boyfriend previous to this one who had wept over her wounds. As in, literally, pressing his face over her arm and letting his tears ooze into her. “Why do you do this to yourself, angel?” he’d asked her. Even she couldn’t take a boy like this seriously. But she couldn’t bring herself to break up with him. She opened her mouth to do it a thousand times, but she couldn’t release the words. Words, she knew, could fly out into the world like winged monkeys and break everything in their path. Words were weapons, and it was too hard to hurt him. Instead she’d just gotten quieter and quieter. She’d stopped responding to anything he said. She hoped eventually he’d give up and break up with her, but he was stubborn. “Why won’t you let me in?” he wailed on the phone. He made her mix tapes that claimed that Boys Don’t Cry, that declared him her Personal Jesus. It was only the new boyfriend who finally forced the issue, the current boyfriend.
Her fingers are numb when she pulls them out from under her bottom. She lays them on the blade. At first it’s cold, but it warms as she holds it pinched between thumb and forefinger. She makes the first cut on her bicep, right under the round curve of her shoulder. The moment before she presses the blade down, every inch of her skin wakes up and shivers and reaches up for the metal. She uses a soft touch. The blade creases her, makes a light dent. Then the line turns red. Then her flesh falls open and starts to sing.
“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot…”
The lipless mouth of the cut flaps, the song blasting through the porcelain quiet.
“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot.” It’s the scat from “Tom’s Diner.” She’ll have it stuck in her head all night now, but it’s better than stuck in her veins.
The cut flutters wildly. The wind moving through it feels hot and ugly, but as it starts to move out of her a scintillant and glittering relief settles around her. The blood runs down her arm and into the fluffy blue bathmat. She’ll have to get it to the laundry room without her mother noticing. For now she doesn’t care.
“Doot doot doot doot…” She watches her body in the mirror and looks for another bit of blank skin to cut.
The new boyfriend is eighteen. He works at the video store where she rents horror movies every Thursday night. A few months ago he started to flirt. Every time he gave her a movie—Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Hellraiser—he pinched her wrist, grinned like he knew she’d never call him on it. He was tall and skinny and moved with lanky aggression. She went in every week, imagining him as a Viking who would carry her off from the weepy boyfriend. She imagined that he would hollow her out. That he would fill her with something, some force that might finally rip her to bits.
“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot…”
She hadn’t broken up with the old boyfriend so much as replaced him. She and the video-store boy ended up making out in the stockroom, surrounded by teetering piles of VHS. He put his fingers in her hair and cupped the back of her head as if it were something fragile, even while he bit her neck hard enough to break skin. When the old boyfriend called her after that, it was as simple as hanging up on him. As simple as gliding past him in the halls at school and ignoring his pleading voice. She knew this was meaner than just telling him to take a hike. But this way she just didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t have two boyfriends, after all. It wasn’t her fault the new one had moved in.
But thinking of the old boyfriend, his face lost in the crowd of the hallway, her blood starts roiling again. Without even thinking she quickly slashes at another spot on her arm, lower down. It gurgles for a moment, the mouth of the cut filling with blood, and then it puckers and spits the blood out and starts to lilt. The puckering, the spitting, it hurts in a different way than the cutting. It bunches up her skin like a pinch.
“I think we should just be friends,” says the cut in a hollow girlish voice.
“Doot doot doot doot doot doot doot doot!” belts the first cut.
Here is a list of things that have never happened to her: she has never been raped or molested, never been beaten, has never gone to bed without supper, was never picked last for dodgeball, has never gone without a meal, has never slept in the rain, has never been slapped by her mother or father, has never even been spanked (except by the new boyfriend, once, wonderfully thrown across his lap like a helpless child), has never been abandoned or mutilated (well, aside from the obvious) or neglected, has never been prostituted for drugs or money, has never been called a name worse than bitch by an adult, and that only because the adult in question was drunk. This is why the boyfriend thinks it’s all a sham, an attention-ploy, this cutting. A way to add drama to a banal life. She lets him tell her all these things and maybe they’re true, or part true. She doesn’t really know anymore. She doesn’t like to argue with people.
“I love you like a brother,” says the second cut blandly.
Ankle next. Ankles always bleed so much. It’s the spot she always nicks while shaving, usually by accident. She sits down on the toilet seat again and pulls her foot up over her knee. The cut makes her shake, makes her feel sharp and clean. There’s a moment where she’s not sure she’s punctured, and then the blood starts pouring down her foot. The voice is deep and male. “Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi: ben dovrebb’ esser la tua man piu pia, se state fossimo anime di serpi.”
Everything is so bright. The porcelain is pure and white and the metal faucets sparkle. It all glitters and the colors, those few colors, are profound: the cornflower blue of the towels, the now-purple-flecked bath mat, drops of blood soaking in the fibers. She knows the chemicals involved, the endorphins unzipping the colors of the world to be better and brighter than they are. But what it feels like is that with all the noise finally flooding out of her she can take a moment to slow down and realize: this is what blue is. What silver is. What white should be.
“I just need a little bit of space,” says cut number two.
There are still a few pink welts on her forearms from that afternoon in the school bathroom, the failed attempt. She hadn’t even been thinking. All day she hasn’t been able to think. In the deli where she worked after school she just watched the electric meat slicer. She wasn’t allowed to use it yet. But she watched the college girl who shared her shift whipping the block of roast beef back and forth, the cuts of meat wrinkling silkily out the other end. Chopping tomatoes with the little hand-held knife, she came close a few times. But she really needed the bathroom for it to be right. Not just the privacy, though that was part of it; what she really craved was the way the bathroom would make its own world. How for just a little while she could be the only creature alive.
She traces one of the welts with the blade. “God damn shit fuck,” it blurts. It seems they’re finally to the meat of things. Her skin gapes open pinkish red. It spews curses, though she’s not sure to whom. “Fuck damn asshole.”
“Doot doot doot doot…”
A sudden knock rattles the door. Her entire body flails like a spastic marionette, the blade flying up into the air. Small streaks of blood splatter across the mirror and the counter. She sprawls across the floor of the bathroom, shaking.
“Hey, how long you gonna be in there?” asks her father’s voice. It’s loud and rumbling, a little sloppy.
“Quando si parte l’anima feroce dal corpo ond’ ella stessa s’é disvelta…”
“My magazine’s in there. Do you think you could pass it out for me?”
“Doot doot doot doot…”
He laughs, a tangled knot of phlegm. “Burrito day at lunch or what? All right, fine, I’ll go get your mom’s Readers’ Digest.”
“World class son of a whore motherfucker.”
His steps thud along the hallway, shaking under the fan’s roar. She lies on the floor, shuddering. There’s fear. She can’t place the fear. She doesn’t know if it’s for herself or for him. For a moment she tries to imagine what would happen if he jimmied the lock, opened the door. If he saw her in her own blood. The things that would have to be said out loud. The things her tongue would have to push out of her mouth.
“And the motherfucking horse you rode in on!” calls out the last cut. “And the horse you rode in on!”
She lies on the floor. The world’s been invaded, the fan overshouted. Now that she’s listening she can hear her brother’s music pulsing underneath the fan. She can hear faint clunks every now and then, pots and pans in the kitchen downstairs, the water turning on and then off. She can even hear a television theme song if she strains her ears very hard: Jeopardy! For just a moment she feels constricted, confined, strangled. She feels the web between her and her family stretching all through the different rooms, its tensile strength holding her shoulders tightly. She writhes around, flops her arms around. Blood splatters all over the floor with every movement. The one on her ankle is a real gusher and a tiny puddle is forming by her foot.
“…e dinne, se tu puoi, s’alcuna mai di tai membra si spiega.”
The world invaded, she suddenly can’t stop thinking about the choir test. The stupid fucking test! Everyone had to sing a solo, in front of the whole class, as part of the mid-term. She loved choir because she could sing, belt out, but disappear into the crowd. She could join her voice in with a lot of other voices and not even hear herself, but could feel the vibrations in her throat, could feel the stereo sound of harmony surrounding her. But she hated solos. She never auditioned for solo parts, for higher choirs, for any of that. She was happy where she was.
But Ms. Nelson was new this year and seemed to think it was important for them to sing solos. It was a requirement. Ms. Nelson was very young but very strained all the time, a crease in between her eyes that made her look miserable. Her sticky kindness was unbearable.
She’d practiced for three weeks straight, alone in her room with the door shut and locked. Every time she thought of the test her stomach felt hot and pinched. More than once after practicing she’d slipped into the bathroom and into the cabinet to get the exacto blades. More than one of the fresher scars on her arms were from rehearsals. But she practiced over and over and when the door was shut her voice came out strong and clear. She thought maybe it would be fine, this once, that she could stand in front of them all and sing the words she was supposed to say and sing them well.
The ex-boyfriend was in choir, a tenor, and his eyes never left her face as she stood up before the class. She tried not to look at him. He’d finally stopped pleading with her in the hallway and calling her on the phone. He’d stopped shoving notes through the slats in her locker. These days he was wearing all black and painting swirls on his face with kohl, but it was pathetic because he was plump and acne-patched and was never going to be Brandon Lee no matter how hard he tried. She didn’t blame him, though. She understood the instinct to hide.
Her hands shook so hard. Not everyone looked at her. Lots of people were bored, passing notes, whispering. There were forty kids in class who had to sing solos over the course of the week. Plenty of them had sounded terrible. There were catty conversations in the hall after, but no one really paid much attention. She wasn’t nervous what they’d think of her. She was nervous to hear her own voice out there in front of them. She was nervous about what would happen when she opened her mouth.
The piano started, and she sang. The words fluttered in her mouth. She started singing a little bit louder. Stood up straight and reached down into her diaphragm.
“Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand,” she sang. At first she felt like a music box, throwing notes out carelessly, but as she kept singing she felt a faint glow in her mouth. The words stripped themselves down of meaning and she put other meanings onto them.
“In the Body and the Blood, He will give to all the faithful His own self for food,” she sang. She felt the melody on her tongue, in her throat, in her chest, in her lungs, in her skin. She sang it as an apology to the boy in black, who she loved in a way, even though she couldn’t stand him. She sang it to her family, who always tugged at her everywhere she went, even when she wasn’t in the house with them. She sang to the boyfriend, the current boyfriend with steel toed boots. She said different things to all of them.
Then the song ended. Everything was very quiet for a moment, and she heard a giggle from the sopranos. She tried not to look at her ex-boyfriend. She glanced at Ms. Nelson, who was scribbling on a clipboard.
Finally Ms. Nelson looked up. It looked like it pained her to have to say anything at all. “Didn’t you notice that you were a half step off through the whole song? I kept pounding the right note on the piano trying to steer you back.”
She shook her head, mute again. She stumbled her way back to her seat.
The ex-boyfriend leaned over towards her. She tried not to look at him. Her blood was screeching inside her ears. But he would smile at her, maybe. Maybe he heard what she was telling him, even if it was done wrong, a half step off. Maybe he understood and was looking at her to smile, to pass a note saying don’t worry, I know what you really sound like.
But when she looked up and made eye contact, his mouth crumpled up in a smile.
Cunt, he mouthed, across the third row.
She slashes again at her side. Her blue jeans are purple in spots from the dribbles of red. Down the hall her brother’s bass thuds dully. Downstairs Jeopardy! seems to be over. Downstairs she imagines her mother burning herself on a casserole dish, pulling it out of the oven. Downstairs is Dad’s coffee table, covered in empty brown bottles. If they’re right there on the table, in front of everybody, no one can say anything, because it’s not a secret, it’s not a problem, it’s right there on the coffee table for all the world to see. You just can’t say anything about something so clearly not a problem.
The last cut finally speaks out.
“I’m saving your lives.”
Groping her way up to her knees, she clutches the edge of the counter. She pulls the gauze and the hydrogen peroxide down to the floor. She opens the bottle and pours the liquid onto the gauze, and one by one she starts to daub away the blood.
The stinging gives her another wave of shock, another round of glittering colors. She daubs the first one first. It’s still singing, but quieter. She clutches it closed and presses a Band-Aid down onto it. It mumbles around the bandage for a moment and then falls silent.
She works slowly, patching them all up, shushing them gently.
“You’re lucky I’m a half step off.”
The last cut is calm, serious. Deeper than the others. She pours a stream of hydrogen peroxide directly down into it and gasps, throws her head back.
“Next time I’ll find another way, a better way, and what I say might destroy you.”
Tonight is Thursday, and she’s going to the video store, as soon as she gets cleaned up. She feels cool and empty and ready for the boyfriend’s calloused fingertips to shape her into something new. She steps into the shower and turns it up as hot as it will go. She wipes herself down. She has to ask her father for the car keys. Sometimes he gives them to her. Sometimes he doesn’t, just to prove they’re his.
When she comes out of the bathroom, the bath mat wadded up inside her towel, her mother is in the hallway putting clean ones into the closet.
“I want a tattoo,” she says.
“Not under my roof,” says her mother, not looking at her.