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July 13, 2017 Nonfiction

The Bends

Tracy Haack

The Bends photo


I lift my knees to walk in flippers, grab a glass of water in the kitchen before high-stepping my way back to the living room where Joe and I have dinner in front of the television. I like the abnormality of this well act. As a child, I read a book that mentioned the bends. I misunderstood decompression sickness, imagining the body turning itself inside out like an old shirt, like the flipping of an eyelid, like the rubber-skinned mud puppy. I wonder what it would feel like. Would pressure pull the outside in like a black hole? Would the digestive tract be ripped out like a fish who has swallowed a hook?



My cat’s body turns outward. I pinch a sesame grain between my fingers. Old grains have hardened. Where my cat slept, there are new grains. They feel elastic, bulbous. They pop and decompress between my fingers. Fleas carry larvae which are consumed during grooming. Then, the larvae grow into taeniaeformis or the feline tapeworm. The tapeworm’s head attaches to the small intestine where it can grow to several feet. The parasite passes segments of itself, a fluid-filled sac that is often mistaken for rice or sesame seeds. Each bladder sac, the size of a pencil tip, contains thousands of larvae. I imagine them inside the warmth of the sac, completely surrounded. If tapeworms can feel a feeling that makes sense for tapeworms, do they feel claustrophobic and ready to have a body of their own or do they experience twin syndrome times one thousand, a longing for siblings which drives them to attach their bodies to the body of my cat? I buy antibiotics to kill the tapeworms in my cat. I put my cat’s antibiotic in a treat, in butter, in a mixture of wet food. He licks around the pill until I have to cup his head in the palm of my hand. I fail to push the pill past his tongue twice. You can’t choke him, the vet said. His body will instinctively block the respiratory passage.



In 1977, a study of human bacteria found a 10:1 ratio of bacteria to human cells. That is, ten bacteria in the human body for each cell. Today, the American Microbiome Institute reports a loss of bacteria. But that isn’t right. Not a loss.  The estimated number of bacteria never existed. A revision of the body’s ecology. A retaking of the body in data? New studies report that the number of bacteria is much closer to the number of human cells in the body.



My sisters visit for the week of Thanksgiving. I ask for dirty clothes at the end of the day. I clarify plans. I remind. I just think it looks exhausting, having to control everything like that, Nicole says. I am trying to be a good host, but it is also true I have a history of controlling the body, of making my feet smaller when they want to be larger by peeling off the skin. I want to breath when I desire air. I want to want to care for everyone.



My sixth-grade health teacher comments: Your breasts will appear bigger if you stand straight, shoulders back. My mother comments: Pull your shoulders back or you will get a hump. I throw my pillow on the floor each night to sleep with my shoulders back, neck straight, controlled.



I move across the country to attend graduate school. Don’t do things halfway, I tell myself. I am allowed to stop being at the end of the day, I tell myself. I write it on a sticky note for the front door. It is the last thing I see each morning. Right now, I can turn the TV on. I am not my job. But I can’t make my body sleep or get enough air as I read in front of the classroom.



I imagine a hand cupping my head, fingers on my forehead as it pries my jaws apart. The actual number of bacteria may be anywhere from 30 trillion to 50 trillion, according to the Weizmann Institute. 300-500 trillion missing bacteria. I push myself to miss them. I take another drink of coffee and considered the number of bacteria in each swallow.



My single-greatest ache is loneliness. Perhaps this speaks to my dependency on others for approval, comfort, love, self-worth. Perhaps, we don’t have to look that far into it. Perhaps, our memory forms before we do, twin syndrome and the desire to attach myself to you, to Joe, to my cereal bowl of wheat flakes and almond slices.



Sometimes, when I’m with Joe, I feel a distance. I miss him. I cling to him until he feels smothered. I follow to watch as he brushes his teeth. I desire the feel of his skin. I press my hands beneath his t-shirt, my cold hands on the skin stretched over his spine. As he spits, I feel the notches. Are you backpacking me, he asks. I am. I look him in the eyes. I want to wear him like an Edgar suit, only then will we be close enough.



I get the message his body types to my body.



Knowing him changed my insides. I can’t pinpoint where. I touch a pin to the freckle on my leg. There? Point to the place behind my knee. The press of my hip bone. He is closer to my stomach, near the spleen. Don’t love me halfway, I say. In the moment, I mean that I don’t have time for ego. I want to feel loved always. Now, I mean that I want him to love my mess, the essential core of me as much as he might love my hangnails or dry scalp.



Us and them. I push myself to miss them too, to carry metaphorical buckets of water to beached humpbacks, to make symbolic popcorn for birds, to make rivers for otters, to build damns for beavers, to walk my bike by deer, to wrap you in my jacket, to hold pumpkin seed fish up in the water so they might rest their fins, to let them go, to put the spider outside, to call back to lonely barn owls, to adopt shelter pets, to let them be, to avoid animal testing, to keep wolves warm and to keep polar bears cold, to carry sloths across highways, to avoid hugging sloths as this makes their hearts erratic, to teach tortoises about romancing a mate, to stop eating meat, to love the hamster who ate her sister, to swaddle injured bats, to lift cats who want to see outside, to carry Peanut on the way back, to place the rabbits under a heat lamp even though it didn’t work last time, to bring a bouquet to the released rabbit, to cut plastic rings apart, to report dog abuse this time, to wash ducks like in the commercial, to gift sea kelp and songs to manatees, to protest bile farms, to try harder, to get it (I am so close to calculating the right formula, to filtering each of them into me just right.), to care, to care, to care.



I don’t know how to separate myself from others or how to estimate loss or revision of the body. Humans are not animals. Humans are just animals. Humans and/or animals. My phone rings a reminder: DNA is made of atoms.



I push myself to look strangers in the eye even if it gives me the bends. To look but not to gawk. Is there a difference? To take them in even though it will not be enough. To read about Syria and know it is not enough. I say the names of the Asylum Point Cemetery’s dead. I tell myself: Don’t you dare estimate and interpolate these bodies as numbers or illness. I listen to NPR as I get ready for the day.  I hear about the famine in Yemen. Don’t pretend I’ve done anything, that I have the right to talk about famine and it is enough. Awareness isn’t enough. It can’t be enough, but I don’t know how to know them. Get out of your brain, I tell myself.



Be present. Outside of the brain, I tell myself. I force myself to be mindful, a contradiction. Be here. For a moment. I mean you and me and us. On the couch at the end of the day. I want to shut my brain off, but I can’t. My brain is in the past and the future. My body feels like an encumbrance that must be turned inside out. I must sort all that has filtered inside. I pick a stray hair off my cardigan and wonder how many I have to fall and how fast they grow. Using the pace of leg hair as a unit of measurement, I estimate the possibility of my hair dwarfing the rest of my body by 10:1, my head dragging, trachea rings pressed to stretching neck.



I contort my body to hold the arch of my foot. I scrape the skin until it peels up in elastic ribbons. I’m opening my body at the base. Hours pass. In the morning, Joe asks what I watched while he slept. The truth is I will have no idea. The television plays in front of me but the desire to make my body open, alive, is hypnotic.



I should leave my socks on, cut my fingernails, put on a warm blanket. I could roll myself like a burrito. My cat watches as I feel the dry and peeling skin. His concern shames me into placing Band-Aids over each heel. I will not unwrap the body. Where I am unsuccessful, the raw skin feels alive with infinite nerve endings. I walk on ice until the skin hardens and dies again. Everything feels cold to the flesh unwrapped.  My doctor names the behavior and tries not to show emotion when she says it. She prescribes a change to my neurological chemistry to make my brain well.



Mom calls back to say she can’t fly out to stay with me. I’m just having a bad day, she says. She couldn’t stop crying yesterday either. Sometimes crying is okay.



Over time, my neurological chemistry is changed. I take regular medication. Years from now, the body may require a higher dose to find a place of balance. Balance is what everyone keeps saying, but I’m not sure whether they mean internal balance: my right arm is the same heavy as my left arm. Or, if they mean external balance: there, your insides are the same heavy as everyone on the outside. I balance how many current events I can manage while taking care of myself. Balanced, I try again:



The body of African elephants can be altered, revised, too. Elephants are born without tusks. Because of poachers, more tusk-less elephants are giving birth than elephants with tusks. For a brief period, our mother cleans at a puppy mill where the owner docks the tails of shih tzu puppies. But there are also dogs who carry a natural gene mutation that results in the naturally docked tail. Although elephants and dogs are not people, and survivors of war are not the sum of their epigenetic change, which is not the same thing as the changes in tusks or tails, survivors of war may experience changes in the core of their person. The director of Traumatic Stress Studies Division, says, trauma may change our DNA. Trauma may pass on genetic markers for stress or depression. I question nature and nature, chickens and eggs, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Of course, it does.



I will adopt, I think. I will adopt a baby, a cat, a puppy, a lizard, and they will have whole feet.



I was born without two of my permanent teeth. Not my wisdom teeth, although I’m missing those too. My dentist says that the lack of wisdom teeth is normal, but these other missing teeth are a less common genetic mutation. I imagine these teeth existing elsewhere. There is one gap in my mouth where the baby tooth has no replacement and one remaining baby tooth. Without the mature tooth to push its way out, the last baby tooth hangs on. The periodontist asks me to open. He comments on the way the tooth is receding into my gum line.



Stephany was born with two extra adult teeth. They grow sideways beneath her regular rows of teeth. I want this connection to her, a sharing of my body she can keep with her. When I call to ask her about these teeth and her trip to a dentist in Mexico, I am sad to hear she denies they exist.



You are born with a deformed kidney. Unlike your gallbladder, you are allowed to keep the dysfunctional kidney. It does not insist upon collecting stones, stamps, spoons. I wait for the day when you will ask for one of my kidneys.




image: Emma Sovich