disjointed: notes on healing

by Sung Yim

fistula \fis·tu·la\

  1. an abnormal connection between organs.
    1.      I’m freshly eighteen years old. The piercer clamps my tongue with forceps and says oh, that thing’s just begging to be pierced. This discomfort is layered and hard to describe. His rubber gloves are smooth as what skin, I think, should be like.
      He hands me a pamphlet detailing aftercare instructions and winks.[1]
  1. a passage created surgically which leads from an organ to the body’s surface to permit exchange of fluids or secretions. From Latin meaning pipe or flute.
    1.      I’m on my period and half a bottle of Xanax when G— comes over. I tell him not to, but he insists. I tell him not to at least three times and I’m crying on the phone when he knocks at my door. It’s raining and I want to be alone. I want to feel close to someone without being touched. Does that make sense. Be seen without being looked at. Does that make sense. I want to be alone but not feel alone but it’s raining. Does that make sense. He says he’s my friend. This is a secret code. It’s raining and he’s getting soaked out there. This is also code. I’m on my period and that’s mostly all I remember. I say I’m on my period and he says then he won’t need a condom and I’m on my back. I’m so tired. I’m on half a bottle of Xanax and G— has been begging for me to give some up for an hour and three years. He’s heavy like a storm. He says, do you feel how wet you are as he sheathes himself in blood. I’m already forgetting how it started but I know it’s wrong.
    2.      The next time a man touches me, I reach for a knife I don’t own.[2]

 

splinter \splin·ter\

  1. break or cause to break into small sharp fragments; separate into smaller units, typically as a result of disagreement.
    1.      When I first meet Bear, I notice he repeats words after a few beers. Especially after a few beers and a few rails of coke. It’s perhaps compulsive. He’ll say, I’m breathing, I’m breathing. He’ll say, I can’t stop repeating, repeating while rocking back and forth, bug-eyed and confused like his body and will have splintered down separate paths, caught in a loop of awkward momentum. It reminds me of my mother mid-prayer. I fear the problem may be neurological.[3] My fear is perhaps compulsive.
    2.      My dealer says she survived a car crash decades ago, but this isn’t the story. She says the doctors missed a shard of glass buried in her elbow after X-Rays upon X-Rays, a ruptured spleen, purple and swollen from the ER to the ICU. So her muscles stretched and folded over as she healed, wrapping this piece of windshield like a gift until the next time she gets X-Rays taken and there it is. It takes a while to remember where she picked up this little souvenir. She says she carried this piece of glass through her first abortion, first overdose, first and vehemently last marriage. The X-Rays show multiple hairline fractures where her boyfriend’s steel-toed boots made impact, but this is not the story.[4] Her body has learned its way around this piece of glass the way her tongue has learned its way around the word no as in trust no man.[5]
    3.      Sometimes during sex, Bear looks at me like he wonders if something terrible has happened. I can’t answer when he asks. My body breaks into parts with no binding awareness. Or each part of me has its own. An arm, a leg, a breast, each feeling and being felt[6]. This is the pain of my body remembering itself.[7] Like he asks if I’m okay and I say I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

 

clavicle \clav·i·cle\

  1. a bone of the vertebrate pectoral girdle typically serving to link the scapula and sternum—also called collarbone. From Latin clavicula meaning small key.
    1.      My mother picks the lock off my diary. She says this child needs Jesus. My mother searches my pockets and bag each time I walk in the house. She says this child needs Jesus. My mother finds a joint in my dresser drawer, but not the painkillers. She grabs my wrist so hard it purples and stripes. I snatch it back so hard something in her breaks. She cries this child needs Jesus. She gets on her knees and claps her hands across my forehead to pray, leaning into a frenzied gibberish, speaking what she calls the blessed tongue.[8]
    2.      Summer, 1986: My mother boards the bus home in Seoul, Korea as blinding white petals rain down from trees bricked-off into grids, the weight of uncertainty slung low in her chest. Every day she leaves work pondering the purpose of a typist, the purpose of her college degree, the purpose of a woman in 1986, the future looming without promise and formless like dusk. She is suspended between graduation and husbandry, suspended between ambition and her foothold on this precarious era. My grandfather is arranging meetings with potential suitors. She is promised a husband in the next five years. She will undergo several cosmetic procedures in preparation for courtship and marriage—creases nipped along the eyelids as per Western traditions of beauty, sparse eyebrows typical of Koreans tattooed darker.
      My mother rests stiff against a blue vinyl seat on the bus as it trundles through an intersection. She hears the lonely skid of tires against pavement. It happens quickly. She scans through the window, clapping a hand on the cold glass. She grips a hanging strap overhead as the bus lurches forward, everything lurches forward. She is suspended in the force of a collision. She is collateral damage in the act of inertia. The bus rail snaps in half. Her clavicle snaps in half, a compound fracture to the music of careening steel. She will tell this story over and over to herself, which feels like no one. The medic’s hands are gloved and swift. The pain is not what she remembers later. The snap of steel is unbearably simple. There are people dying with names she’ll never learn. The snap of bone sings a rush of possibility, this feeling she names Lord and Savior. She will tell this story over and over. She will tell this story over and over to the pastor, who feels like Father, God in Heaven. She is compounded risk in the palm of Christ, in the arms of a congregation. She tells this story over and over. She is suspended in the ecstasy of conversion.[9]
    3.      Summer, 1986: My father is boarding a subway train miles away in a different district of the city. His shirts and ties are wrinkled. He eats more instant noodles than his yearly salary would suggest. His coworkers chide him for being without a wife to keep him sharp.
    4.      Summer, 2014: My mother says she never wanted children and when I ask what it is she did want, she trails off into the story of her bus accident again. I am twenty-four years old when I realize consent was never etched into her vocabulary.

 

splinter \splin·ter\

  1. a small needlelike particle, especially embedded in the skin.
    1.      I inspect Bear’s hand under the light. I prod a dark speck buried in that first layer of thick, whorled skin on his thumb.[10] Sharp pain. The smell of iodine. Relief like cold water.[11] He winces, but doesn’t jerk away. The same way I am learning the instinct of tenderness again.[12] It’s strange how the body acts. And reacts. Strange how without intervention, the threat of a splinter swells up his body’s defenses, swells up the skin with fluid and pressure, engulfing and swallowing just to push the offending object out days later.[13]
      Strange how the body reacts. Strange how excision risks infection. Strange how without intervention, the affected area will continue to ache vaguely.

 

nodule \nod·ule\

  1. a small rounded lump of matter distinct from its surroundings.
    1.      Bear refuses to take his shirt off in public. He hesitates at the thought of visiting the beach. Sometimes he even resists being looked at with the lights on.
      The left side of his chest is flatter than the right. His left nipple is smaller, the surface almost concave. Just enough hollow for a shadow to pool in.
      He points this out when he’s sad. He’s tried everything. Every workout imaginable, as many reps as he could muster. The right side will grow, but not the left. There’s just nothing there. He says something is missing. It was always missing.[14]He points this out when I’m sad. He will watch me searching the mirror for things I didn’t know to hate. He will tap that shallow dip of his chest because he knows the feeling of not being enough of something.
    2.      The dentist taps my right mandibular second molar. She says it’s huge. Her assistant laughs softly. Well, look at that. It’s approximately three millimeters wider than its twin on my left, two millimeters taller. This is noted in my chart. I ask how unusual it is. She says it’s no cause for concern, medically speaking. That’s not what I’m asking.
      I compare my right breast against my left. They seem identical. My right hand against my left. They seem identical. This reassurance comes with unease.[15] The classification of a single tooth as anomaly weighs like bricks balanced atop a pin, one freak in a dentist’s twenty years of experience, in my medical chart, in ink, in my jawbone, compared to how many other pairs of parts matched with regularity? And why?
      Do my kidneys match, do my ovaries, my lungs, lymph nodes, ribs, what else, what else. I search my reflection for what else until I find it: an uneven drape in my epicanthic folds like someone has drawn the curtains without looking, the crooked flare of a nostril, an inch-long difference between my left ear and my right. The faults come tumbling like I’ve flung the cabinets wide open with too much haste.

 

  1. a swelling on the root of a plant. From Latin meaning little knot.
    1.      The third time Bear proposes, he is swaying side to side with his hands splayed across his grin and bulging eyes. He slurs you should just marry me but I laugh it off because of all the cocaine and booze. I laugh it off because he suggests but doesn’t ask.
      I don’t know it yet, but he’s aching with disappointment. I don’t know it yet, but he’s so scared I will say no and I’m scared he’s just drunk. I will say yes the fifth or sixth time but I won’t remember how it happens, only that it does.
      I won’t let myself know it yet, but I want to say yes and there are reasons I can’t seem to understand while we’re both this fucked up.[16]
      When I laugh and say are you fucking serious he says did you really think I was and we snort another line but it gets a little quieter. He twitches and shivers, lying back on the bed with his eyes closed.
      It feels as though we are skirting around the precipice of something, as though the only edges of this memory are those of his body defining itself against mine because the rest hurts too much to keep, for reasons we don’t know how to know yet.
      I am reaching over to touch him, to find that boundary which makes my body real and makes the experience it occupies real, in the only way I understand.
      I ask, do you really love me? He says yes.
      I ask, why do you love me? He says I don’t know. He says I guess I just do.
      I lay against him and the left side of his chest welcomes my cheek. Welcomes the curve of my face like hunger.

 


 

[1] An excerpt from Beginner’s Guide to Body Piercings: “Once the skin is pierced and jewelry is inserted, the body’s immune system will react to the foreign object (i.e. a trusty 14gauge implant grade titanium captive bead ring). Following this initial procedure, signs of inflammation such as swelling, redness, heat, or secretion of fluids are all normal and expected. During the healing process, the body produces new epithelial cells and tiny blood vessels around the puncture, forming a tunnel of tissue to accommodate jewelry. This network of flesh and blood flow is called fistula.”

[2] See: fester.

[3] There was an unusual case of hydrocephalus in the news some years back. A French civil servant visits his doctor and CT scans reveal a shocking absence of gray matter, condensed and consumed by excess fluid and the resulting cranial pressure. His brains hug the walls of his skull as if shrinking from a cold touch. He is 44 years old, of average intelligence or slightly below. He is a father of two and remains unnamed. No further details of his personal life exist on public record. Doctors are baffled at first by his level of functioning, later crediting plasticity. The way a deaf person might gradually develop heightened perception in other senses of the body, the way a lazy eye is caught up to speed with a dark patch over its twin, this unnamed patient continued to speak, drive a car, and perform a civil service job on half a brain, frontal lobe learning how to gauge distance, cerebellum learning to count change at the supermarket. I wish I could ask those doctors what became of him, about the worst potential outcomes of missing half your brain, of falling in love and building a life with someone who is missing half their brain.

[4] I’ll be sober next year, though I don’t know that yet.

[5] See: hypervigilance.

[6] See: broken circuit. See: a dammed river. See: too many seams.

[7] See: trauma

[8] Christianity thrived in Korea as a form of nationalistic resistance during Japan’s annexation (1910-1945). Churches cultivated by western missionaries proved a rare refuge for native Koreans in the face of Japan’s assimilation efforts—stringent bans against the Korean language, enforcing Shinto practices and worship of the Japanese Emperor as deity. This bolstered an ironic connection between preservation of Korean culture and a western religion.

Following liberation from Japanese rule and the splitting off of two Koreas, Christians fled from North Korea to South in search of religious freedom against a rising tide of Soviet influence. This marked a pronounced shift in population—an influx of Christians in the South, a former stronghold of churches left abandoned in the North—as well as shift of meaning—Western religion repurposed as essentially Korean, Korean nationalism translated into anti-communism.

This history wedges itself as the fracture between my mother’s love and my understanding of it.

[9] To this day, my mother will press her meaty fingers into the dip of her collarbone, feeling its crookedness in times of hardship and waning faith. To this day, my mother says she is waiting for me to have a car crash of my own.

[10] Skin so tough it caught a splinter that went unnoticed until squeezed. Skin so tough it aches now, pinched open to the air with tweezers. Translucent and milky when bloated with water. Scabrous and warm like fresh-baked bread after roasting and grilling for hours at work.

[11] See: shiver.

[12] How the feel of Bear’s hands grazing my legs makes me feel softer as though I didn’t know the softness of my body until his touch hissed along my skin.

[13] This process is called rejection.

[14] The pectoralis major, or something. His mother was a smoker, she liked her cocktails, the research wasn’t out there yet, or something.

[15] Julie Andrews was forced to quit the 1997 Broadway run of Victor/Victoria due to a hoarseness in her voice that was diagnosed as nodules (possibly cancerous), which she promptly had surgically removed. A decade later, she disclosed that the nodules never existed. The strain of the show had crimped her larynx. The strain of playing a woman playing a man, hurdling up and down her range caused what she now calls striations. Her voice never returned. There was a lawsuit. The doctor had removed what was never there, destroying what actually was. It seems then that the smallest things can mean something entirely larger and unexpected, especially in a doctor’s office.

[16] These reasons will only seem wholly clear afterwards, revealing in a slow bloom as I drag myself to 12-step meetings, support groups, to therapy, as I erase my rapist’s number from my phone and get back in school, as I wake shaking from a nightmare and Bear holds me, saying I’m here, I promise, I won’t go, I promise. Each time he says I’m sorry for things he didn’t do to me.

 

 

Sung Yim is a currently a student of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.