By Toti O'Brien
They tell lies about the body.
For instance, when they let you believe under the surface there is just unanimated tissue. A mess of flesh and bones, plus some fluids and blood that will escape as soon as the thing’s unzipped. It’s the fluids and blood, they claim, that make the stuff animated.
The minute you tinker with it the body switches nature. Just like iguana skins passing from rainbow to dust, bodies give up as soon as you pick at them. They show what’s beyond the illusion: an unworthy, perishable, reverting-to-nothingness clump. It is hard to believe, but you come to accept it over time.
Only it is a lie. A bunch of tissues is not what we are made of, as I discovered when I was a guest at my blind cousin’s home. Not that the two facts (her hosting me and my discovery) were related. I’m just setting my chronology right.
I was peering out of an illness, enduring a number of unfamiliar tests. During those ceaseless exams, I learned bodies make a hell of a noise.
Not the intentional ones: language, song, screams, laments. Or the unintentional, such as coughs and snores. Or even complex activities like tap dancing: I don’t mean those either. I’m referring to the roaring storm I listened to, trapped for forty-five minutes in the MRI tube.
They were magnetic resonances: dolphin calls and whale choruses—some plaintive, some repetitive, some plosive, some thunderous—eerily produced by parts of my brain. Neural cells resonating. The result was a concert so mighty, so astonishing to become sensorily challenging, on the verge of unbearable because of its majesty. The unbelievable part was that I knew nothing about it.
How could I have spent my whole life unaware of the rumpus inside my skull—a crazed radio fond of nineteenth-century dodecaphony, primitive drumming, and Morse messaging? Those magnetic sounds confounded and scared me. They highlighted my helplessness: I wasn’t in charge of the organ I had claimed as my own just a half hour ago.
My hemispheres played a score I was clueless about—though I call myself a musician. It went on night and day, with me awake or asleep, following directions I never was given. Directions to where? Not the faintest idea.
When the nurse pulled me out, he asked if I had been afraid, claustrophobic. No, I said. But I found the sound overwhelming. Why didn’t he warn me?
Same thing happened with my heart. I don’t mean the beat: that was familiar, of course. We can easily feel those thumps in our chest, being fooled about the magnitude of what truly goes on. We tend to believe there’s only such steady, comfy ticking. Unvarying, domestic.
Through the machines I heard the slushing and smashing of my arteries and veins. My throat tightened, I swallowed, then I dared to ask: is it me? Sure, smiled the doctor, it is your blood pumping. I suspected that much. But I wasn’t aware it sounded like waves breaking against the cliffs in a night of tempest, non-stop from crib to grave.
What’s the point, I wondered, in listening to the ocean or wind, getting all worked up, humbled by nature’s majesty, if we have the same thing locked inside our cells? A sense of displacement chilled me suddenly. It made me feel lost. As if I had been lied to, fooled about an invaluable matter.
Why did I sit on sand, worshipping an outer force I, in fact, carried within? On a smaller scale, but equally intense. I felt cheated, betrayed by my arteries yelling so close to my ears, while I heard nothing.
I did not talk about it with my cousin. But we spent time together, and she asked about the tests, of course. I remained vague. We chatted about this and that, holding hands, her head leaning against my shoulder, sometimes.
The last night I spent at her house, I turned the lights off just before I climbed to my room, a mezzanine perched over her office. I had never done it before. I had always left them on, like I found them, in her office and along the corridor, without paying attention.
That night, having an early plane to catch in the morning, I wanted a good rest. Once in bed, though, I feared I might have caused trouble: what if she woke up and needed to pee, to fetch water? She must have left the lamps on for a reason I had bluntly ignored.
I kept worrying, coming to the conclusion you shouldn’t steal light from the blind. What an unforgivable slip! My brain drew a paradoxical syllogism: because seeing is hard, very hard, for the blind, she must need more light than the average person. How could I have missed it? I thought I had made things hazardous for cousin. I should turn those lamps on, right now. Then, I fell asleep.
In the morning I hadn’t reached clarity yet when—with suitcases in hand—I said: “Sorry I turned the lamps off, I hope I did not…”
“Dear,” she cut me off, “what are you talking about?”
“Oh,” I stuttered, “I thought you might feel it…in a different way.” Maybe a temperature change? Or a prickling on her skin, aiming her towards a door, a closet, a ramp of stairs.
“Light doesn’t exist to me,” she said, hammering each single word. Hugging me at the same time. Holding me long and tight.
I had never known how strong she was.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Synesthesia, Wilderness House, The Harpoon Review and Litro NY among other journals. Her story “Incubus and Your Lips,” published by poeticdiversity, was a Best of the Net nominee for 2014.