Lies My Body Tells Me (a list-in-progress):
2. Okay, maybe it’s not cancer but still, I’m dying right now.
It’s 1995 and I’m in a tiny classroom in Harvard’s African-American Studies Department. My professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., head of the department, is standing at the head of an enormous oval table carved of dark wood. He’s no more than eight feet from me and I feel the strength of his intelligence emanating from him like an electric power station: the air buzzes with it and when I breathe, it feels like I’ve swallowed something living. He has his arms crossed in front of his chest and he’s leaning back against the wall waiting for us, his select group of 15 or so graduate students, to say something interesting. My peers are jumping and thrashing like fish from a pool of water and I can’t get a word in edgewise, I keep trying to say something but I can’t figure out how to enter the flow of the discussion, and that’s when I have my first panic attack: it feels as if electricity is being poured down my throat until I am full, sopped and sweating, holding the edge of the table like an epileptic chomping on a piece of wood, gripping that wood as if it might ground me, the other hand clamped over my mouth because if I open it again, I’m going to vomit.
I’m sitting on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the air in front of my face. I have just found out my good friend Susan has died. Something inside me has just curled up and withered like a slug in salt water. I am dead, I am no longer breathing; I am still sitting upright but I’m also floating, looking down at myself, waiting for my heart to stop beating. Outside that locked door, my husband is knocking softly. He’s holding our two-month-old daughter in his arms and my 6-year-old is standing next to him. The deafening noise of a wailing siren seems to be coming from my own mouth.
Premonitions of catastrophe extend to my loved ones: School has just gotten out and I watch my daughter run across the playground. She’s running fast, pumping her little arms, head tilted back with the pure joy of it, but I’m sure she’s going to fall and skitter and bleed. The hardness of the pavement slides through the soles of my shoes, trembles up my legs and grabs my stomach. If I had balls, they’d have shrunk to the size of marbles.
3. If it feels good, it must be good for me.
Just a little more red wine, please. Just one more of those and I’ll bloom like a giant pink dahlia, I’ll understand every secret, I’ll be whole again. And when I put the cigarette to my lips and inhale, it’s hot and thick and tasty, so much better than regular old air: it’s the air of the gods and I’m as fierce and powerful as a fire-breathing dragon, I’m a teflon femme-fatale. This is not unhealthy, it’s just the delicious damage one must inflict to tenderize a piece of meat. It’s a powerful weakness, a noxious medicine, and you have to tear it all down before you can build up, right?
(I smoked clove cigarettes for 16 years. I quit 16 years ago but still, in my dreams, I light one up.)
4. I can fly.
Of course I know I can’t fly: I’m not crazy, you know. (Insert smiley face here!) And yet, and yet, if I close my eyes (why do I always have to close my eyes to hear my body?) I can feel what it must feel like to soar with my arms outstretched, every inch of my body tensed to keep me up, upper. This feeling not the residue of too many Marvel and Zap comics as a kid or alleged teenaged experiments with various substances or many, many dreams; it comes from those places but also from my bones, from some deep and ancient part of my brain, it’s dormant in my muscles. As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, my apartment was right next to the infamous Barrington Hall, a huge, sprawling, derelict, graffitied, smelly, blaring co-op where all kinds of out-there fringe-type people crashed. During one of their “wine parties” a guy took some of the acid they passed out as party favors and jumped off the roof. He died, poor kid. But meanwhile, I was leaning out my window and thinking the same thing: If I wanted to, if I really trusted, I could step out into the air, I could float above impossibility.
Thank god I don’t believe everything my body tells me.
What lies does your body tell you?
This is the 6th entry of my series called “body talk.” To read more, go to my home page to select.