Flesh Memory (Elisabeth Murray)

(Edited by Michelle McLaren)

Her skin crawled with sweat. She gathered her shirt and let the hot air seethe up her spine, to her bra, to her lymph nodes, where the doctor had prodded and she had winced at the cold hands, the prick of a manicure.

She leaned over the doormat, hands on the brick, looking at what was left of the word ‘Welcome.’ Sweat dripped off her forehead. She sweated more these days. It was something chemical.

When most of the sweat had dried on her skin she unlocked the door. She didn’t want dirt in the house.

She thought of all the patterns of sweat she had left on the road, on lawns, in driveways. Crystalline patterns now covered over with engine oil, leaves, dirt, taken away by the wind or tyres or bird feet. It was a good thing that her body could produce such substance. It was good to know.

She shut the door. In the hall she felt her body slowing, her heart settling. Her skin still stung with motion, a pleasant kind of flesh memory. Her stomach curdled a little. She had sprinted at the end until she felt her body reach such a pitch of protest it split off from the world, the dark a screen, the ground a shell.

Some days were full of a nausea that was even worse than what she had felt before the drugs, when her mind was at its most shattered, when she had first learned that the mind was far more than a mere acquaintance of the body. After snatches of sleep she woke with a horrible pain, stumbling to the toilet and hauling up everything, left exhausted and white, her mouth full of hot things that should stay far lower in the body.

Then there were days when she could run kilometres and feel every piece of strength she had ever possessed, sweating as she had been told only men sweat, pushing it off her eyebrows and chin, splattering the road.

She went into the living room and looked at the book under the lamp that was dark now but would later make a hard spotlight. It was a thin book but thick in beauty and wisdom. Things she had once looked for in the strangest, unholiest places before. But she had found you had to strain the mind as much as the body, there was no use running the streets if you left your mind to sag, to pale and bloat as if immersed in water.

Tonight she would sit in the light and she would go further than she had gone just now, thrilled to the point of exhaustion, her chest drumming and her palms dampening so she knew the mind and body were made of the same nerve and sinew.

But there was a knocking behind her. She was so surprised to realise it was a person at the door that she opened it before she had time for another thought. Half of her was still out on the streets, in the newly dark evening.

The air left her, as if a payment for the extra oxygen she had taken in those ten kilometres. Tiff stood so close it seemed she was halfway inside already, wearing a purple hubcap of a necklace as if she was on holiday.

‘Hello.’ She heard her own voice lapsing to politeness, her body settling the mania and reverting to the old passivity. All the air was gone. She hardened her chest, her spine, but her throat was burning and softening.

‘Hey!’ Tiff’s voice flashed through the dark hall. She was going to hug her. There was the old fragrance that brought in all the pain, the chaos, the neglect. The hubcap pressed against her throat. She was going to choke. The boundaries of her skin were gone, irredeemable. Then, as she pulled away, she felt the hot air come over her, like sandpaper, and she was solid, and separate, and the anger came in to rescue her.

‘So, you going to ask me in?’ It was the old cheerful voice, with a hint of threat. She had decided the mode of communication and the interlocutor had better not try to shift it.

She knew this voice as she knew every one of Tiff’s voices, every one of her gestures and postures and half-smiles, though she had not seen her or heard from her in months. It was like a dead relative returning, it was as startling, as infuriating. Because you know they have come back for something, there can be no other reason, they want something from you, and you have spent all this time grieving, and trying to recover, and grieving again, and half dying, and slowly recovering.

Tiff must have chosen her moment deliberately. It was the moment they all chose, when you are almost recovered, but not quite, so all the air is knocked from your body, so when they make their threat it gets you – you listen.

‘You can come in off the porch,’ she said. She left the door open behind the girl. She flicked on the light.

Tiff was wearing a dress they had picked out together months and months ago. She remembered standing in the dressing room, wanting to leave, the countless mirrors throwing their bodies back, as if they weren’t only two people but manifold, not rooted in space but fugitive as holograms. She remembered the dizziness and the emptiness and the nausea beginning. No, she wouldn’t think of that now.

‘I’ve just been running.’

‘I thought you felt sticky.’

She nodded. She wanted to fold her arms across her chest. The anger was here, but it was not raging, maybe later it would rage, and the thought petrified her, and for a moment everything flared up in her throat so she thought she would fall, this woman coming back here cheerful and threatening as if all was forgotten… No. She let it cool a little.

‘Well, should we have some tea?’ Tiff laughed. It was not a question. She was already moving towards the kitchen.

‘No.’ She didn’t laugh. ‘No. It was nice of you to drive over here. But you should have called. If you’d like to meet somewhere else, that’d be fine. But I don’t want to drink tea here, now.’

Tiff looked as if all the air had left her. She glared about the hall as if there might be somebody else who would take her cheerfulness and her threats as they were.

‘It’s been a long time,’ she said as Tiff looked about. ‘Maybe too long.’ She stepped to the door and held it.

She thought she saw a piece of something crease the girl’s face that she hadn’t seen there before. She was half waiting for Tiff to speak, half wanting. A moment of the old fragrance, the pain, the entanglement, her boundaries collapsed. Then Tiff was outside.

When she shut the door she felt the rage under her skin and she pushed all her energy to the surface to stop herself punching the pane of glass. She knew she could do it, she had done worse.

After a time that was very long or very short she locked the door and went to the kitchen. It was a shame she had to flood her body with chemicals to overcome such moments. But she had nothing else, she knew. Nothing but her own house where she chose to keep out what had caused her so much damage for so long.

She made a cup of tea and sat under the lamp. She felt her body picked out of the darkness, opened the book and felt its density in her palms. Her skin and her muscles remembered the strength, speed, sweat, bound together now, with the pain and anger and all her sickness, knowing what had hurt her and what was going to cure her.

holophotoElisabeth Murray is a writer from Sydney who is interested in all things feminist, queer, and mental health-related. Her work has been published in Fields Magazine, Tincture Journal, Contrapasso, Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and several University of Sydney anthologies. Her novella, The Loud Earth, was published by Hologram in 2014. You can find out more about Elisabeth on her blog.