By the Skin of Our Teeth by Sadie Fuchswild

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, May 27th, 2019

"I am complacent again as I swallow his fingers."

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Personal Essay by Sadie Fuchswild

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          It was a gruesome tableau. Mom had been gifted another sun conure as a companion for the one she already kept; but, both having been raised in captivity, the birds didn’t take kindly to vying for food and sharing a single perch in their small cage. We woke one morning to them both at the bottom of the cage with their smooth, black beaks severed from their bodies, blood pooled around them and crusted over their ROYGBIV feathers. The parrots’ colors always reminded me of the Lisa Frank garbage that my friends had and that I coveted, but now it was something else; the moment became a prism that separated experience into a spectrum that my eyes hadn’t yet developed the capacity to see.

          I talked at Dad through the newspaper, telling him I saw on “Animal Planet” that some turtles bite each others’ necks while they’re mating and did he think that that’s what happened to the birds?

          He lowered the paper and finally looked at me and said, “Makes sense to me. Animal behavior…” His voice trailing off, mind elsewhere.

          He kept the paper between his pointer and thumb unless he took a drag from a cigarette and left the one side flapping in the breeze for what felt like an eternity as the smoke drifted into my tiny lungs. Flicking on his zippo with a single gesture, he leaned over and set fire to one of the longest frays on the hem of my cut-off jeans, letting it burn as long as he could before it touched my skin, extinguishing the flame with one quick breath. I yowled with delight.

          My feet continued to dangle under the porch swing. I sat in the silence for a moment more before summoning the courage again, “Um, Dad?”

          “Hmm?”

          “Mrs. Willis said in science that people are animals. Like, part of the animal kingdom. Did you know that?”

*

          He was a hillbilly scientist, a cosmopolitan redneck— or perhaps, a chivalrous berserker? Am I making any sense? I’m trying to tell you that he was a knot of contradictions that I thought I could tie up in a bow. Everyone probably thought we were a disaster together, but I felt like I had discovered a whole new color.

          His friends called him Frosty, which I took to mean “Frosty the Snowman,” but I moved in with him anyway. Turns out he was a drug dealer, but only pot and only enough to get through medical school. He laughed easily and lived hard. On his left bicep, a tattoo: “Mama Didn’t Love Me,” in a banner flown over an anatomical heart—a heart not quite on his sleeve, but just underneath it and sometimes seeing some daylight.

          Once, at a bachelor party, his friend shot him in the chin with a BB gun and he held a rag to it to stop the bleeding, and as the stripper bounced up and down in his lap, he cursed his luck and blessed his stars.

          So, I guess what I’m saying is: he was the same kind of bad as me. Too smart, or too dumb—bad news bears or a breath of fresh air, depending on who you ask and what they’re into. He was a mountain kid, like me—just a different mountain. We were cut from the same cloth when they were skimping on fabric. We ate our dinner out of pots with our feet up on the table, overgrown orphans who had never really had anyone to show them to sit and eat properly. We drank out of jars because that’s what we had, not because our favorite brunch place served mimosas out of them.

          He often found himself holding my hair back as I threw up from trying to go tête-à-tête, stroking my back and just telling me to “get it all out.”  I almost made it, too—it was just one bourbon neat too many and then I was pissing in the doorway of an empty storefront as a woman walked past wearing flip flops that splashed the golden tributaries all over her bare legs and feet. Me, too pissed to feel shitty about it.

          I emerged from the doorway with renewed vigor and snakes in my hair and picked a fight with him because he ate an entire pint of raspberries I had bought with my food stamps that afternoon and I hadn’t even gotten a mealy one that had been crushed on the bottom. His oceanic, diazepam-blue eyes staring back at me with all that hurt made me want to throw up again. Two a.m., standing six feet away from each other, wondering who this other person we had each shackled ourselves to really was and why it hurts so much if this is what all those pretty songs are about.

          For a brief moment, I thought that we could band together in our own tiny gang, wreaking havoc wherever our boots touched the ground. An archipelago of lonely, volatile isles bobbing in an infinite sea of drudgery and senseless, abject suffering.

          But we didn’t come from careful people, and it’s hard to make a whole shape of a thing when you’re so used to taking your own side.

          Our future together shone bright as sunlight reflecting off the edge of a razorblade—a stunning, glimmering thing to behold, filled with potential for so much pain if held with just enough pressure between an index finger and a thumb.

          You could probably say that we had some shit to work through.

          Still, during long drives between the coast and the mountains, my thighs sticking to the bench seat of the truck as I slid over to get closer to him between shifting gears, I found myself thinking that this is probably, maybe, what love is like.

  *

          My brother knocked on the door and came inside. As he spoke to me, trying to calm me, I peered through the shutters made by the spaces between my fingers.

          I sat slumped over the toilet, sobbing. This was not out of the realm of the ordinary for me, this relentless crying. I often cried so hard I couldn’t breathe, the force of my fear so great that it took over every mechanism of my child body. I shook like a rattle filled with seeds of terror.

          He sat next to me with a pen and a notebook and said, “Tell me everything you’re afraid of,” and began to render images of my monsters—vampires, ghosts, zombies—practice for the scarier stuff of adult life, like death, longing, and insatiable hunger. He drew each of them, giving form to my fears and making it so that they might loom less large in my imagination.

          When he was finished drawing, he held my hand and we knelt down in the backyard with our knees in the mud and placed the drawings in a shoebox, sealing it with duct tape. Zach dug a shallow hole in the red clay of the Carolina foothills, the earth I walked barefoot in every day, with a primary-colored Fisher Price shovel from a sandbox set. Then he buried the ballast ceremoniously. We stood over its resting place, joining hands and humming our protection spells. We danced.

          I believed in my brother’s magic—the power to cast away things that haunt you, to bind the heavy and the dark to a place that can hold it, to transfigure loneliness into solitude. I still might believe in it, if I believe in anything. Otherwise, I might find myself having to believe in something else, like the benevolence of bureaucracy or the logic of the free market.

*

                      At our worst, I lie along the edge of the bathtub. Frost is readying the implements with care—we have no autoclave, only the singe of alcohol and a lighter.

          A foreign object, lodged in my mouth. A piece of metal with which I adorn my body, only for it to reject my endless attempts to tame it, cultivate it. The unnaturalness of it all—my appearance, my desires. Like the technology of this brave new world, I go to great pains to make the surfaces of my body and my spirit smooth to the touch, resistant to relative motion, masking the unsung labor that made it possible. I pluck my eyebrows, I shave my legs, I comb my hair. I get degrees, I get jobs, I tell people I love them when I really just mean, “Goodnight.”

          I entrust him with the task of getting it out of the inside of my mouth with what we think will be a few careful incisions with a razorblade dipped in cocaine. It makes sense at the time, as many things do. He has done plenty of surgery on mice in the lab—I’m not worried. But I also don’t have insurance, so I don’t have the luxury of worry. It is this, or:

  1. A few thousand dollars in medical bills
  2. The metal could migrate out of my face eventually, permanently disfiguring me.
  3. Risk a potentially worse infection that could travel to my brain and give me encephalitis or meningitis—I learn this from him, Ph.D of Brains.

          He spreads out everything he needs along the lip of the sink and I am peering into the corners of the ceiling that have been colonized by mildew. “Ready?” he is asking as he pulls a headlamp down over his forehead and shines it directly in my eye. The doctor is in session. I nod, I sit up, and do a line off Jupiter’s Travels, scraping up the excess with my finger and rubbing it into my gums. I take a swig of whiskey and swish it around my mouth like Listerine, to disinfect, and then swallow, for courage.

          Actual hours go by. A bump here, a bump there. He still hasn’t fished it out. Hours of spitting my blood into the sink, the red of it swirling against the milky-white porcelain, emblematic of how the act we are engaging is violent, destructive, and nurturing in the same instant. I tell myself that he is caring for me. But I am high as a kite and sauced at once, what do I know? Why should I care?

          He kneels beside the tub, looking at me from behind the headlamp, brow-furrowed and looking older than I ever remembered him looking even though he was in a band when I was born. He could be my father, but it’s so cliché I try not to even think about that. I’m not that girl—this is different, somehow.

          He is probably wondering, why doesn’t she care that this is happening?

          But, I also don’t really know.

          I don’t ask him.

          I slide back down, chicken-skinned against the cold tile and with cocaine teeth rattling inside my skull and my jaw chattering like a wind-up toy trying to wrest itself from me. He seems to be waiting for a cue from me to keep going, for me to choose this once more.

          We are too deep in it now—why would I let him leave the job unfinished, like another one of his electrical projects, his motorcycles, any one of the cars on blocks on the street in front of our house, the bathroom tiles, or the entire basketball court’s worth of concrete that he has yet to break up and pave the driveway with?

          I quiet my brain, steady my jaw, and tell him, “Keep cutting, you pussy. What are you waiting for?” I open my mouth wide enough to accommodate a scalpel and whatever blunt object he is using to hold down my tongue. I am complacent again as I swallow his fingers.

          A few more minutes of his face, scowling inches away from mine.

          A few more cuts, deep but short.

          Giving up, he is quiet and wraps everything soiled by my fluids in a towel and washes his hands in the kitchen sink, the one not covered with bloody prints, and re-enters the room with them raised over his head like he’s finally been caught. I can tell I wore him out and that he’s distressed in an unsympathetic way as he rubs the back of his head and neck, making the hair that he styles with a trucker hat stand at attention, in the way that I like that suggests that we’ve been in bed. He turns his back to me, and yet I am grateful— grateful to not make a butcher of a lover any longer than I already have. I emerge from the bath with a bit of a wobble as I take the scalpel left in the sink in my own hand and turn my lip inside-out in the cloudy mirror, plunging an unwashed finger into the jagged wound, numb to the touch, to estimate where I should start incising again, without him.

          Teeth stained, eyes bloodshot, gums white, lips blue, I cough down my sleeve between cuts and don’t kiss him on the mouth for weeks.

*

          At this spot along the river, I saw herds of people come and go. Lonely people, or of course, pairs. The other twenty-somethings back in the city were probably busy teeming in bars and feeling up comparably attractive strangers, but I identified too much with my own suffering to be an object of desire.

          One evening, another young woman came through the trees to the site next to mine.  She was travelling light, parked her pickup at the top of the hill and walked down with her tent, two boxes in her arms, and bottle of Jack Daniels in her elbow ditch. She did not introduce herself to me until around eleven p.m. in the glow of my raging fire as I sat writing down my thoughts about the past few months, her curly hair falling all around her in a Joplin-esque composition. I never caught her name, but she told me she had come to bury her cat and looked as though she had been sobbing, her eyes puffy and red.

          She had come with the stiff husk of a cat and a revolver, but she had forgotten to bring a shovel in the swell of her grief. I sensed she had something heavier than a cat weighing on her conscience and asked if she was okay. She replied that she was, as much as anyone really is, and that it helped her to be here, continuing to explain that, in honesty, she gets ideas and had come out here with the Jack and the gun to follow through, but that my presence had stopped her. I was quiet for several moments before I told her that I would help her bury the cat in the morning with the shovel I use to turn over my fire at night.

          She lowered her gaze, and made semi-circles in the sand with her boot flexed en pointe like a ballet dancer, like the one inside a jewelry box I had as a kid. Surrounded by cheap purple felt, the ballerina spun and spun until something got caught in the wind-up mechanism—Captain Crunch wreckage? Fruit Roll-up stick?—and the hollow, tinny, slow music stopped forever. It was just a vessel from then on, with a mirror where I could investigate my ever-growing collection of freckles, my mangled teeth, and the mystery between my legs.

          “You must think I’m terribly strange, coming out here like this and talking to you about this stuff,” she said, dropping me back into the present.

          “I’m not quite sure I think anything’s strange. Perhaps you should try to get some rest,” I suggested to her.

          I didn’t get any sleep that night myself, listening for a gunshot, my frequency tuned to death, disaster, tragedy. But all there was, was me and a night, the trees scrawled against the sky like manic calligraphy, way out here where the dark was so dark and the stars so bright that it felt like night was actually happening; an event all its own, though I was just a spectator.

          The next morning, I woke up and walked through the overgrown path to her site, which was sandier than mine as it was farther down the bank. She had already packed and left, but a glance around revealed she had tried to bury the cat by digging a hole under a tree with her bare hands a few feet away from where the soil met the river’s edge. The grave was shallow and the corpse’s fur was already exposed by the wind, tufts of it kicking around the site, so I grabbed my shovel and finished the job. I carved a heart into the tree above it with my pocket knife, in case the girl ever came back and couldn’t remember where she’d laid it to rest. Burial rites aren’t for our dead, anyway.

          In the evening, after a day of pondering a girl, a cat, and a gun, I cooked a sausage in my pot, washed it in the river, and put it right back next to the spatula. I ate the meat right off the fork, squatting on flat feet for balance since I’d had to burn the bigger log I’d been using as a bench, and wearing a band of elastic from a pair of underwear around my head that I’d fashioned into a strap for my headlamp when it broke a few nights prior.

A girl.

A cat.

A gun.

A girl. A cat. A gun.

A riddle I might spend the rest of my life trying to solve.

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Header image courtesy of Mickalene Thomas. View her artist feature, go here.

Sadie Fuchswild is a writer and musician from the Carolinas who lives in Portland, Oregon.  She was once described as “chaotic neutral,” by a friend, no less.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.