over a scrumptious ethiopian dinner, a new friend tells a story about the time a fly flew into her eye. “it was bigger than a fruit fly and smaller than a horsefly.” i recoil, trying to imagine something the size of a grain of rice lodged in my eyeball. “we tried blowing it out, flushing it with water, everything short of removing it with our fingers. no one wanted to touch my eye.” i imagine what an eyeball would feel like against my fingertip. peeled grapes? soapy marbles? the inside of a longan shell? “the worst part is that i could feel it moving around.” she pauses to make room for our reactions–a symphony of gagging noises, expletives, and groans–before she finishes the story. “the next morning i woke up, and when i was washing my face, it just like, fell out of my eye. it came out in a clump, completely covered in eye juice, like a giant booger. my eye was completely fine.” i think of insects fossilizing in tree sap. more gagging gives way to intrigue and we stop being disgusted long enough to marvel at the way our bodies deal with foreign objects. i consider that boogers are just the crap in the air that didn’t make it past nasal security, and i stop being surprised at the way our bodies protect themselves.
one time when i was eleven, i got in big trouble. i probably couldn’t recount in satisfying detail what i did or what the repercussions were, but i know that it was the kind of trouble that left me marinating in my own guilt. i remember feeling helpless and anxious and what made it worse was that my dread was steeped in drowsiness. as the day inched along, i found myself on the verge of falling asleep at every turn–nodding off in class over passages of lord of the flies, while gripping my styrofoam tray in the lunch line, and at the handball courts in our fenced-in school yard. i was a narcoleptic delinquent pre-teen, threatening to pass out on you, but not before putting glue in your hair and writing mean things about you on my aol homepage.
later that day i got desperate and confided in a teacher about both sins and sleepiness and she said, you’re stressed out. sometimes, when we are out of tune emotionally, our bodies react by shutting down. this is its way of protecting you.
the summer that i turned eight i made an ill-timed turn while wearing ill-fitting shoes during a game of tag. i fell on a pile of glass. it was from a broken car window, one of those things that feels normal when you’ve only ever lived in new york city but realize later in life that actually, in many places people don’t often go around breaking into other people’s cars. after i got over the disappointment of being “it,” i started to pick myself up until i noticed that my left knee looked like mount vesuvius on a bad day–gaping hole, lava spewing haphazardly, a smattering of particles from the sidewalk like fallen ash on pompeii.
before i could react, a neighbor scooped me up and carried me into our second-story three-bedroom apartment, where my mother made sounds of dismay as she transformed the couch into a hospital bed with firefighter-like efficiency. she cleaned my knee with rubbing alcohol, sterilized a pair of tweezers, and dove in as if she was merely removing an ingrown hair. i felt the searing pain for a split second before i blacked out.
a few hours later, i woke up. the only evidence of the fall was my bandaged knee and the too big, blood-stained shoes placed in a corner of the room. i laid back down and asked my body, how did you know not to let me hurt anymore?