By Harmony Button
There is a certain horror to the ordinary. Every day, we force ourselves to do things that go against the messages of the body. I watch the nurse turn towards me, needle in her hand. She swabs my inner arm and I look away. Run! says the body. Bite and fight! But instead, I stare at a spot on the wall and try to count to ten.
The nurse tries to make conversation. I can’t remember what comes after three.
“So, are you married?”
I tell her the truth: I am not.
“Just having fun, then,” she says, drawing the blood.
This woman does not know me. Everything about what’s happening is wrong. I need out of this immediately, and my body pulls the ripcord.
I feel the cotton coming on. It’s in my ears. At this point, I can usually stop it, if I throw myself to the ground, if I can rest my forehead on the earth, if the rest of the world will just back off and let me coax my self back to consciousness. But it’s too late for that.
“I’m…” I warned her. It’s in my chart. They never believe me, because my blood pressure always spikes, ahead of time. Rage! shouts my body. Rage & despair! This measling world cannot contain us!
We parachute into the dark.
When I come to, I’m laying on the floor, a cold slick of sweat on my chest. My head is angled out the door of the small blood clinic. There is a line of people waiting for their turn with the needle and vial. A child stares at me with curiosity and horror. The needle woman is gone, and a white coat doctor kneels beside me.
I apologetically gum a leftover Halloween cookie someone hands me. It’s an Oreo. The cream center is an unnatural shade of orange. My mouth is so dry, I can barely chew. It’s very odd — this cookie has no taste.
Someone hands me a Dixie cup of lukewarm water. I sip, swallow. The sugar climbs into my bloodstream, heartbeat by heartbeat. I feel it stepping through my legs, my lungs, my hands. There is nausea, and I’m cold. But the worst is over. I fake my way through enough of a conversation that they think I’m fine. They let me go.
* * *
A body is an other — a me and not-me. To say, this is my body is to suggest that there is an “I” to which the body belongs, an “I” which is not the body, but resides inside it, an “I” that wears the body like a meat-puppet. Some days, I am the hand inside my puppet-self; some days, I am the helpless passenger inside the infrastructure of my hand, my lung, my synapse and grey matter. On those days, the body is in charge — it shuffles me around the house, holds me by the neck and says stay down.
A classic fear: the empty puppet comes to life; the body lives without the “I.” We call these fears by many names — zombie, robot, comatose. All this to say, I am afraid because I’m made of meat. What is free will to a hamburger? What separates me from so much processed beef?
* * *
It’s hot and we can’t sleep. When the dog pants, the bed shakes. When he stops, I start to worry that he’s dead, so I roll over and shake him to see if he stirs. If he doesn’t, I rest my head on his chest, listening for a heartbeat. This dog lets me hook my chin over his neck, rest my face on his face, fall asleep to the faint puff of his breathing. His ears flick when I breathe on them, which I sometimes do on purpose, just to see if he’ll twitch.
When I’m the only human in the house, we sleep pressed against each other, his warmth curled tightly in the hollow of my knees and chest — but we both know it’s too hot for that tonight. Instead, I’ve been snoozing through episodes of some crime drama on Netflix and he’s been licking his paws, making a broad wet splotch on the duvet cover. It’s too late to reasonably justify either of those activities now, but there’s nobody here to tell us to stop, so we both keep doing it, partners in neurosis.
My head aches, again and still. Earlier this evening, I held ice to my sinuses, attempting to freeze my histamines into submission. The bite of the cold was some comfort. I told myself to drink more water, but I didn’t.
* * *
Ever since I moved to Utah, land of abundant sun, I have been an enthusiastic gardener, if not a proficient one. My first garden was born in the back yard of my basement apartment when I bought a flat of generic tomatoes starts and stuck them in the dense, dry earth. The apartment itself had been advertised as a “garden” flat, for $450/mo, but it was really a dank little hole in the ground with brown shag carpet, so I figured the “garden” part of it was up to me to create. The tomatoes grew, and grew — taller than the first floor of the old house. Jason came over to water them at dusk; he liked to visit the plants in the evening. It was as I was falling in love with Jason that I fell in love with dirt. When I swapped apartments and left Salt Lake for the summer, Jason stayed behind and built me a guerrilla garden in the abandoned lot behind my new place. He built raised beds, a brick path, a snap-pea trellis. There was a fire pit and weeds so tall they looked like trees. The whole thing was surrounded by sunflowers.
This garden was paved over when a new owner bought the lot as part of a new condo project. I stop by it every so often, when I’m out with the dog. I look at the freshly painted lines on the black tarmac. It is so clean, so devoid of life.
* * *
There is no reason why the dog should be dead. He’s in his prime, that glorious age when he’s a full grown animal but his breath is still puppy sweet. There is no equivalent of canine SIDS that I know of, but since I first brought him home as a sickly, tiny little thing, I’ve had this fear. I’ll wake up in the night and reach for him — on the bed, on the floor — and if he doesn’t raise his head or stir in his sleep, I’ll feel a stab of fear cut through me, shrill and cold. I’ll call his name, shake him by the scruff, scoop him up and clutch him to my chest like a drowned child I’ve pulled from a pond. The dog will groan, sigh, and ask what gives. I feel the slick of panic drain away, a thin fringe through my ears, and I scold myself for how ridiculous I’ve been — again. But there will always be something fragile about a body you have grown, and known, and loved.
My god, I tell myself, he’s just a dog.
* * *
I realized early on in life that my body was my dull companion, my wordless twin, the underwater mass of my identity iceberg. I was doomed to spend day in and day out inside this self-sack, and I would never fully understand its burlappy husk, its onion masks. I have taken this body through seasons of self — those years of high school when no matter how tiny I was, I could still feel the thickness of my bones, their length and sockets broad and sturdy despite my best attempts to be bird-like, petite. I look back at pictures of myself — a hundred pounds? A buck ten? And I remember feeling oafish in my skin.
Which is to say, I felt oafish in my mouth, in my mind, in my cotton ears that flinched at any laughter that was too loud or pointed, usually from other girls, usually from pretty ones who usually knew that that they were pretty and who saw that I thought I was not. I wonder, if like pack animals, Alpha girls learn early on to identify the potential threats to their dominance and to put them in their place. I made a pretty good target — too timid and awkward to be part of the pack, too dangerous to ignore. I was that weird kid one good make-over and an attitude adjustment away from being cool. Maybe that’s why the mean girls liked to make me show my soft belly to their “just kidding!” teeth. Sometimes power isn’t what you have, but what you act like you deserve. I didn’t see the point in fighting it — I almost always rolled.
* * *
When he was a puppy, the dog was a glutton for punishment. Other dogs would grab him by the neck and mop the deck with his little body and when they let him go, he’d jump back in for another round. He came home from daycare with scabs and scratches all over his chest, completely exhausted and seemingly happy. I tried to intervene at the dog park, to keep him away from dogs that seemed too rough, but he always picked out the biggest, baddest canines on the block as his favorite playmates.
It was the play I never had, the play-fight and the fight-play. He had his ass handed to him on a daily basis and he had no shame about it.
* * *
In moments of conflict, my body betrays me. What I want to say gets bigger as my throat gets smaller. The stronger the emotion, the duller the knife of language. I gum my way through the moment, my wit turned all to sog.
As a child, it was understandable: the world so boundless, the words so rigid. “Use your words, Harmony,” my parents would prompt, but by that time, the words had already failed, the battle had been lost. How could they understand? I felt all hope of ever being able to communicate the tremendous importance of the moment sift and suck away beneath me like tide, like blood, like breath. I felt the pre-lingual world spill, hot and fluid, from the faltering body of my language, and down I fell, into the blackness.
As a child, this was nothing a good holler and tantrum couldn’t express. Never underestimate the power of the primal yawp.
As an adult, I tend to get the shakes. It starts in my solar plexus and works outward. I become very cold, even in the summer. My tongue goes dry and thick. I become very aware of my own heart — inside the hollow of my wordless chest it thrums and bumps, an infertile egg that inhales blood and exhales blood and cracks and cracks but won’t ever hatch.
* * *
As an adult dog, things are a little different for my furry fight-picker. No longer does he show his belly to every dog he sees; no longer does he get his face rubbed in the dust. At 65 pounds, he’s lean and powerful. No matter where he goes, he prances around like he owns the joint. He has, in fact, developed quite an attitude, and he isn’t afraid to tell off any dog who might have, not so long ago, treated him like a fleshy chew toy.
“He’s such a good dog, most of the time,” I say to Jason. “I don’t want him to be an asshole.”
“It’s not that he’s an asshole,” Jason told me, “It’s that he’s an asshole detector.”
It’s true. We’ll be walking together, having passed half a dozen dogs he was happy to wag and sniff and wiggle at, and then we’ll see that one dog across the street — the one straining at the end of the leash, the one huffing through his flared nostrels — and my mild-mannered gentle-dog will lose his little mind. I imagine the dialogue like this:
My dog: WHAT! WHAT! DO YOU SEE HOW MANY TEETH? I AM THE FIERCE! I BRING THE PAIN! MESS WITH ME AND I WILL END YOU, F— M—-“
And so on.
It is a preemptive strike, a social gamble that never really pays off. I tried to explain to him that shouting at potential threats is not a good way to avoid them, but he scorns me.
“What would you know,” says the dog. “You’re not even in your body.”
* * *
The term ‘body’ assumes a kind of variousness — it is an assemblage of parts, a term used to describe a sense of a whole. My whole body aches, my mind complains when I go running. I need to stop, my body says. I ask it to identify the weakest link: what part of the system needs to stop running? Where, exactly, is the problem? I don’t know, says my body. It’s not one part. It’s all of this. Why are we still moving?
At the same time, the word ‘body’ implies that that there are outliers — it is the main part, but there may be other bits: the body of her work went unpublished. When we talk about the body of an animal, we mean the torso, the trunk. The body, in contrast to the head and limbs, is the part of a life form that holds in most of the gooey, important things — the organs. Blood is not part of “the body” in this definition: blood lives in a body, but refuses to be relegated to the body of the body.
One time, I found what I thought was a bead in the crack of the couch. Absentmindedly, I rolled it between my fingers while I talked on the phone, only to realize that it was actually a dead house fly that had been polished to a hard little pearl, the head and wings and legs rubbed off. The dog is in the habit of catching flies in his mouth and holding them there, gently, until they suffocate. Sometimes, I’ll catch him staring off into space, a hollow buzz coming from inside his mouth. Once he’s gummed them until they’re round and smooth, the dog leaves the flies around the house in special places, like polished jewels.
If you are living, you have a body. If you are dead, you are a body.
* * *
The dog and I have been going to training, partly for him, partly for me. My trainer tells me that it is important that I let the dog know that I’m on top of any potential danger, so he doesn’t have to be on alert all the time.
“I got this!” I tell the dog. “Thank you for your concern, but we’re okay!”
My trainer is not impressed. She tells me I need to believe it. The dog smells lies a mile away.
Nobody told me dog training was like people-therapy.
“And stop talking to him in complete sentences. He doesn’t speak English.” My trainer is kind of fierce. I like her. I don’t tell her that the dog actually has fairly advanced language skills. He just needs someone to translate for him.
“Now you need to believe me, as well as what you’re saying. Focus!” The witchy woman is reading my mind! I try not to think subversive thoughts. But even though I want his behavior to change, I have to admit, there’s a tiny part of me that kind of likes having a Hyde to my Jekyll — an animal that isn’t afraid to shout or fight or draw attention to himself. I’m mortified when he barks at other dogs, but it’s the kind of shame that comes from a lifetime of avoiding fights.
“It’s okay,” I tell the dog. “Relax.”
“Your mouth lies,” the dog grumbles. “Your face smells like anxious.”
* * *
My third garden was at another rental. For this one, we dragged in railroad ties and built tiered beds and edged it all with reclaimed brick. We mixed truckloads of compost into the soil, planted rosemary and oregano. Over my lifespan as a gardener, I’ve probably planted a dozen rosemary starts. They tend to die pretty quickly, at least within the year. The only one that is still alive now is huge and beautiful and growing in someone else’s yard. I drive past my old apartment on the way to a friend’s house, and I always slow to look at how it’s changed and how it hasn’t. The garden beds have gone to weed, but I can see the rosemary from the road. Even in the winter, its sprigs are stark against the snow.
It is strange to see a body of land you once cultivated go to waste, to seed, to dormancy. You put in all that work, all those sweat-hours and sunburns, and what is there to show for it? I have eaten all the best parts of that garden long ago — the gallons of tomato sauce, the tubs of pesto. I gave up buying store-tomatoes years ago — I eat them garden fresh from August through November, and then I sauce or can or freeze the rest to last the winter. In this way, the garden is an extension of my self — my food becomes my flesh. No wonder my relationships with gardens have been emotionally fraught: gardens satisfy my need to earn my food, they frustrate me with their neediness, they delight me with their unexpected abundance. They mark the blurry boundary between body and world — mysterious and thirsty and rich.
* * *
My vegetarianism came on slowly, over many years — like the gathering or loss of faith. I didn’t plan for it to be a real thing, with a name. Maybe I wasn’t really vegetarian — I just found myself avoiding food that bled. There was no real ethical stance to my food preferences, but it seemed to come down to an issue of fluid. If a body bleeds — a lot — when you butcher it, then I would prefer not to put it in my mouth. If I can kill it and eat it without iron-sticky life-juice gushing all over, then fair game. This is why seafood some times becomes a grey area in my particular version of vegetarianism. I gutted a fish once, scooped out its guts, fried it up in a pan and didn’t look it in the eye when I ate its body. Can you eat the body without the blood? Can you take half of communion?
The dog says he wouldn’t mind eating a fish head, but the thought of him licking out the brains offends my human sensibilities. The dog’s food is made with wild salmon and sweet potato. It’s the best food available in 50lb bags. I want the dog to be healthy. I want the dog to live forever and never get tumors or polyps from eating corn and chicken by-product his whole life. I run my hands over the dog’s body, searching for lumps or tender places. I tug his legs, I feel between his toes. I push on his belly and find his pulse. The dog lolls his head back in my lap. I’m so rewaxed, says the dog. So freakin’ rewaxed right now.
* * *
Today, my garden is in my own back yard, the one I own outright. It is the most elaborate, and the most incomplete of all the gardens I have built. It is a body in process, still growing into itself. It is awkward and gangly and fertile. We’ve never had so much land — a whole yard of it, a huge expanse of earth to till and plant and harvest. Most of it grows sunflowers and weeds, thistles as tall as the tallest man you’ve ever met. I water these things anyway, because if earth is the body of a garden, then water is the blood, and feral greenery is better than no green at all. I can rarely grow what I want to grow, but what takes root goes and goes. Last summer, I tried to plant a peach tree, an apricot, a weeping cherry, a Japanese pear. None of them survived the winter, and this summer brings me back to dust and thistles and Russian kale that shoots up yellow flowers above my head. It goes to seed and spreads itself. This is no domestic lettuce. I water them all, gamey greens and weeds, alike. I am grateful for whatever holds the earth to the earth.
* * *
These days, my body is not as strong or lean as it used to be. My body and I have differing degrees of comfort with that fact. Relax, says the body, you’re fine. I scold the body for being lazy, but I feed it whatever it wants. Luckily, most of the time what it wants is kale salad with cashew dressing and garbanzo beans, but there are times when I don’t trust that the body has our best interests in mind. Peanut butter! says my body. Feed me cheese! It is difficult to reason with a hungry body.
I try to stay on top of it, to take care of the child that is my body, but some days, I get distracted, forget meal times, tell the body that there are more important things to do right now. It grumbles impatiently while we finish errands or wait for Jason to come home from work. Then, all the sudden, the body flips from stomach-growling yowler into dead-eye zombie. The sandy path between my body and my mind disintegrates under foot, and I find myself staring into space. What was I doing? Was there a goal? The body drops my blood sugar and I lose the will to live. There have been times when Jason has come home to find me slouched, destitute, on the kitchen floor, staring up at the counter in despair.
“It’s just so far away,” I say. Jason toasts a slice of bread and avoids conversation until I’ve eaten it. With peanut butter? asks the body. Jason spreads a little on the toast and feeds it to the body on the floor. Slowly, the girlfriend re-emerges from the dark.
* * *
The dog started talking at a very young age. He curses casually, slurs occasionally, and tends to drop syllables in the names of his favorite foods: tu-fish, ‘scream, ‘gurt. The dog knows that his body can exist without a body of language, but I struggle to understand. How can there be an “I” without a body for it to wear? How can there be an “I” without expression? If there is no “I” inside my dog’s body, then who is my dear companion?
Excuse me, says the dog. But are you planning on eating that whole sammich?
I hear him, plain as day.
I will trade you for this fly. It has no wings, but it is still alive. See?
Most of us understand that the human impulse to translate for our animals is due to a shortcoming on our part, not theirs. As identities in bodies, we humans are crippled by language — our sense of self extends so far beyond our physical form that we need to prop our bodies up with sticks of words, crutches of sentence structures, braces of descriptive adjectives. We scaffold our self-awareness outside our bodies with tiers and tiers of language.
I turn on Skype and talk to Jason about the weirdness of writing about myself, how it creates a self outside my self, a body to be polished and fine-tuned. The dog rests his chin on my laptop, holding down a series of random keystrokes.
Why are you so boring? asks the dog. How is Jason’s mouth-noise in that boring-box?
* * *
In moments of panic, when I felt the words drain away from me, when I felt nonexistent and powerless in the face of the things I was feeling, I used to try to count to ten, to ground myself, to get a grip. Now, I count to one, and one, and one. It’s just a body, I tell my self, at the doctor’s office. It’s just a mind, I tell my body, on the trail. I exist, I am the body of my body, I am, I , I —
My trainer tells me that my dog thinks he walks me, not the other way around.
“It’s his job,” she says. “But you need to give him a different one.”
But what if I’m not strong enough to be the walker? What if, some days, I need someone else to drag this sorry self out of the house? The garden needs water. The ball needs to be thrown. The body needs reminding of its boundaries — some days, bigger, some days, smaller. Some days, the mind needs the opposite of quieting — the mind needs thrown wide open to the all-ness of the everything outside of language. Other days, the mind feels distressingly various and craves the cool marble of expression, the reality of a single version of something, anything.
* * *
Theories of language are theories of the body. Language is a bucket that holds an idea, but it is always an idea that is somehow altered by its time in the bucket — as if language was an old tupperware that will forever flavor everything of garlic. We know, in our gut, that there are limits to our language, but we still believe in the purity of the unsaid idea.
In this version of the story, the body is the dummy, the thick rubber glove that allows us to interact with the world. Sometimes, I like to think of the pre-lingual this way: as a red hot coal, something too bright to see.
But I think it is more complicated than that: the body is not rubber — it is a porous membrane, just as language is porous. Meaning seeps in, leaks out. Maybe this is why I find blood-drawing so disturbing: the blood is of the body, in the body, but it is not included as a body part. I watch the needle, feel all of my words go south. How could I even say…?
Sometimes, the body understands things the “I” cannot. Sometimes, language is, without a speaker. Language can have meaning without intention — a reader can breath life into a corpse. I think about this when the dog crawls onto the couch and circles three times before laying behind my curled legs.
* * *
A body is a bucket of blood; a word is a bucket of hope & moan. But what if the body is not just a vessel that holds an “I,” an idea of an identity, a that-which-we-cannot-say? What if the body, like language, is also an invention, an idea, a series of points held improbably together to suggest a singularity? Look at celestial bodies: amplified versions of our own improbable solidity. Examine the edges: what is a body if you can’t draw a solid line between it and the everything-other? Another basic human terror: what if there is no “there” there?
The dog walks me through spring trees and tulips. Look at this, we tell each other. Look at this and this. I dabble with my fears: I try to blur the edges between all of the “this” and the “this.” I attempt to forget the names of things; I tamper with my boundaries. When people say, stop thinking, what they really mean is stop cooking in your word-maker. I try to count how many steps I can take before I get ambushed by a word, a thought that bubbles up in language — but of course this is impossible, because counting happens only in words like ‘one’ and ‘two’ and ‘three.’ I try to feel the condition of counting, without the actual count. I try to walk like the dog walks, now and now, now and now. I look at tulips, call them nothings, no-things, thing, a silence, a — . It feels like holding my breath, like —
And then I gasp, and grapple for language. I tip the mind-bucket and grasp at the hands of all the word-things that come crawling out. I look at tulips and think thunder-pocket! I look at cherry trees and scratch the language itch: amphibious, an ocean of April. I tell myself that I have not been drowning.
The dog trots on, a fish in the sea.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.