Conjunctions:69 Being Bodies

Skeleton, Rock, Shell

“Shells are chiefly protective and skeletons are mainly for support. Skeletons are, therefore, chiefly internal structures, whereas shells are external. In some animals the same structure may serve both as a shell and a skeleton. … Every animal with a shell must, at least in theory, decide whether a light but mobile shell is better than a heavy but immovable one. A shell may provide some protection, but it requires energy to construct and move; animals without shells save energy but are vulnerable to their enemies.”

—William Lee Stokes in Essentials of Earth History: An Introduction to Historical Geology

I once knew a man who told us to listen to the spirits inside stones. He held a rock in his hand. Think, he said, of what this rock has been through. How it has traveled.

I imagined the pressures of his hand.

I ignored the rest of the lecture, the importance of fossil fuels, and thought instead of my once-long hair.

Here is the whorl of a fingerprint, the loneliness of a shell.

Stones speak, he said, if you close your eyes and your mouth, if you listen. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. I leaned, tossed my hair, and enacted the look of the slightly bored: allowing the look of possible future intelligence to sprawl across me. After the lecture, when the others had collected their satchels and book bags, their long, red scarves, after they had filed out toward the glass-front dining halls and the miniature town, I stayed behind. I stole that rock he had left on the wooden lectern. I went home to my dorm room, the weight of the rock in my jacket pocket like a secret leaning, a weight pulling me in one direction, and I walked perhaps over-straight to compensate.

I want to say that I got to my room and closed the door.

That I silently pried the clothes off my body. I lit candles and incense (the only law I broke repeatedly, besides speeding) and that I balanced the stone on my stomach. That my hip became a sand dune. That the rock, feeling smoother as it passed over each bone, as it sloughed off cells—that this stone enraptured me. That it cleansed me. I lay in the bath, the water beginning to cool. I want to say that the weight of this rock succored me. I felt the boy parts of me: my hips, the buttons of my spine, percussing each notch of the sternum, as though my body were something I could unhook and step out of, and sometimes I did dream of this. Unhooking. The O’Keeffe of me. The body a dress I had grown tired of. I wanted to see my bones. I wanted to loosen my skin until I could see underneath. I wanted to return to bone.

Words conjure. Why not simply say it? The only oracle is in the bones, is in the pattern of what is left. Of what remains.

I once drank too much. I was not in a ceremonial way. I danced and danced. I wanted to erase you. Ease you into the sack of memory; any kind of regret, rising. This is the oracle of the bones. I drank so much I could not remember. I drank so much I could not push him away. I could say now: I didn’t mean to. I could say: I tried to get warm, to dislodge you, a slow suddenness now sealed in my skin. A rock is a planet fallen to earth. I drank coffee after coffee, refastening my head, shaking my head from side to side, gingerly, like something that had once been whole.

I wanted to sleep and I wanted to not remember: aren’t these the most elemental of human wishes? I am no different. He stopped my mouth with his finger. It is an unheated attic and it is nearly December. I will have to remember this night until I can forget this night. I want to forget your hands. The deftness of your hands. The yellow-haired girl crying by the door. I hadn’t seen you in eight or nine years. You were engaged the last time I saw you.

Any child, walking along the shore, will fill her hands with shells. Sand from her hands, spilling from the corners of her dress, pulled up. A fist of the rocks that looked green in water. What is there to do but throw them out when you return home?

Arrange the broken pieces you carried back.

We dream space until shapes emerge: a wheel, mandala; confetti.

Loss is the name for the Spanish settlers who could not forget.

You say it was a misunderstanding. You say you had no idea. (I seemed to be pushing back against your pushes, perhaps the organism of me was; my body moving in the way it understood that movement begins. And ends. Betrayal: a response you cannot control. To an action you cannot control.) Bones are the only oracle.

Your hands were so quick; nimble. Cut the hands off of quick boys. The boy with quick hands jumped over the small brown girl. She never found her earrings. They got lost like I wish you had got lost. Get lost in the world. Get me out of this world.

I will whittle myself to the bone. I will triangulate. All the more to be invisible from you. All to disappear into the farthest corner. All to ruin. All to invite ruin. What else will last? In the divine way, I mean.

A rock is a desire fallen to earth. You throw your hands up, in the practiced way. A rock is a planet that has begun to divine, a planet chipped to a million runes.

I was not your ceremonial fuck, you are not the lost descendant of French settlers. At best, you are Canadian.

Afterward, you will say to the common friend: “She is just saying that now. I heard her enjoy herself.”

Was I wanting it? I wanted you to see. I am not that brown-haired girl. I was never the black-haired girl that I am. I was always the brown-haired girl, except with black hair.

A rock is a winged boy fallen to earth. If I let this go, then? How long does an indentation last, then? Your name is a narrowing lake in a chain of lakes. How can everything not be an echo of what was found and lost? Of the things we understood, when we stood at the shore collecting things? And still, we got lost.

It was a reunion. Their breasts bobbing like markers in Utowanna. The tops of their breasts shimmering. The girl wanted to look nice. I was that girl. I am not that girl. Of the four Indians and one Sri Lankan in our class, only two of us returned. I should have worn what I always wore. Possibly ugly things. Loose things. Things that obscure. It is dangerous to be seen. It is stupid to think I could erase you.

A list of losses: this is a general idea of how I am arranged.

Trilobites are rocks that have already been washed and decorated in the ceremonial way.

Out of my nervousness, I asked for help.

She surveyed the map of me.

The shoes were fringed with sequins, more expensive than anything I had ever bought.

All I remembered later was that my feet were cold.

I could not walk home.

Nothing I wore that night could hold enough heat.

I wore a sweater, too thin. It was the night after Thanksgiving.

My clavicle could not speak and my arms were bare, hair rising.

Too thin for Newcastle after Newcastle.

Nothing I was could hold enough.

Nothing I could hold was enough.

My brother’s wife and my mother waxed my arms, together, laughing, in the pink bathroom I grew up in, against the mirror I grew up seeing my face in. Here are the strips to lay down against the arms, thin as bones, and here is the rip of the leaving. Of the pulling away. Leaving my arms thin as branches, brushed to perfection.

A girl is a tree stripped of bark.

A girl is a skeleton, rock, shell.

A girl is a boy who cannot forget.

A boy is a girl who has learned not to see.

You told me later what I kept repeating.

I was very cold. Cover me, wrap your arms around me, be my overly friendly acquaintance; be my good brother, my hand-drifting uncle. It was Thanksgiving, for heaven’s sake. I was not looking for a quick fuck. I was looking for warmth. I was looking for another you; I was looking for you. I wanted the weight of you.

Everyone else has moved on. I am still sitting here drinking coffee, listening to the garbage trucks pull up, listening to the people walking by. It is hot the way it is always hot in the city. You know how the heat comes in two directions, rising from the pavement, hard from the sun. I wanted to look nice. I did not want to be that girl I was. I drank enough fermented wheat to push her away until I could barely keep my balance. I drank enough cold beer so that the cold wasn’t cold right away, so that I couldn’t push you away.

I am trying to say it, to step up to the plate and claim it.

A girl is a memory pressed into stone.

You went to your reunion and then to hers. You were with her, your hand on the small of her back, when she drank too much. You told me that her dress was black and red and clingy. I was angry at you for describing her dress that way. I think that was one of the many times it became clear which way things would go, and had been going all along.

You always have a choice. Every day you have a choice about how you will live your life and what stories you will tell about the choices you made.

You had the gift, like many people I have known, of making the story you tell seem to be the only story there is. This is what you said: I just need more time. This is what I understood: I am not enough. This is what I understand now: there is no more time.

You are only a shell. Or perhaps you are an Apache word for metal. Or: you are a petroglyph. No one can give someone else a reason. I believe in excavation. You believe in burying. It is better to make these distinctions. It is one way that I temper my eagerness to believe that you might have chosen differently.

I forced you in the end to say what we both knew. I wanted to hear you say that you loved her. I wanted you to say to me: I don’t love you anymore. I thought I did. Go home. Humiliate me. I wanted the final humiliation so that I would not hope, never hope. It is a terrible trait of mine, of not believing something until it is pushed into words, and of believing words long after they are useful. Words are only words after all.

I am a trilobite, a regeneration in clay, a one-way sign. You have only to say my name, and I will appear: a silly incarnation of a sixteen-year-old. I am your atavistic hope: a minor goddess with a gift for calling, for incarnating, again and again. I am your worst nightmare: a vegetarian who won’t go down on you. What kind of hedonism is that?

I had no words to tell you what happened. I could barely tell myself. I just knew that it would not have happened if you were there and I wanted you to know that. I kept waking you the last night you slept next to me; I was awake and I was suffering. I wanted you to be able to read my mind, to comfort me. KNOW THIS. The girl who practiced on bananas gave better blow jobs and you knew it. I was not that girl. You chose what you had to.

I stumbled from one side of the wooden bar in its faux-NYC-loft-warehouse-look to the other, wanting your hand on the small of my back. Tonic. Your quiet laughter behind me. I would have been telling you about the kids in my elementary-school classes, about who looked different, who looked better, and who looked worse. I was saving up these stories to tell to you. Were you making a list in your head for someone else all this time? I made this into another reason to drink Newcastle.

Let me pretend you were with me all this time. I should have at least that. I would have walked you downstairs in my parents’ house to the guest-room bed, and told you how to say “My name is _______” in Gujarati. Maru nam_______che. I would have knocked into you and said, Tell me a story. You would have said, S_______, let me bring you back upstairs. You’ll fall asleep downstairs. I don’t want your parents mad. Come on, S________.

After the last time you left, I sat down and cleaned my apartment. I opened the second file drawer, the lower one, the one I had never used, and began to sort out papers. I forced myself to look through files I had not looked at in years, to make decisions about what was still useful and what should be recycled to make room for the stacks of mail and paper I had accumulated in the time I had been thinking of you instead.

I returned to the bath, trying to enact intact. I wanted to return to intact.

A rock is a moon that has fallen to earth. Its concentric rings promise one side of the horizon to the other. Each rock, even the smooth ones, carries cracks.

Given sufficient heat, nearly any type of continental rock may melt. You barely fucked me. Granite rises, another form of regret. I think you barely loved me. Below a stone = the stillness of a flute. You were a mistake. Continents form through the process of accretion. I wanted you to see me. I want you to take it back. Erase you from between my ears. Close your mouth, close your eyes, and listen: I was a mistake.

I tried to fit us together like a child takes the continents, pushes South America into Africa. You said, I’m no good for you. What looks like it should fit and doesn’t. I did not account for pulls. Fits and pulls are different forces altogether. I did not account for you and me. I did not account for getting stuck. Or the pills that I take every day to steady me, to keep not exalted and not below. I want to take it back.

Love is the name for a burial in what is now southern Utah.

Is that what love is then, letting things lie?

Loss is a calling forth in middle Kentucky.

And my penchant for excavation? There is no name for this.

Love survives at 2:30 p.m. in middle Kentucky. These words will call forth.

We die for the smallest things. Nothing washes off—. I have died for the smallest things. Nothing washes off.

You left New York, and returned to our colder town.

But what will I think about before I sleep?

Earlier brachiopods were called inarticulates.

Following the granite-forming period came a long period of erosion.

I am a suggestion, sunk into slate, beginning to harden.

A rock is a girl rising from the earth.

“I have died for the smallest things. / Nothing washes off,” are the closing lines of Angela Jackson’s poem “The Love of Travellers,” first published in Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters (No. 35, Spring 1988). The sentences immediately preceding hers, “We die for the smallest things. Nothing washes off—,” are my echo of Jackson’s original lines. I read “The Love of Travellers” when I came across it in The Pushcart Prize XIV in 1990. I’ve had those closing lines in my head ever since.

Sejal Shah is the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. Her first book of essays is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press through its literary nonfiction series, Crux. Her fiction manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist for the 2017 Mary McCarthy Prize from Sarabande Books and the 2017 Robert C. Jones Prize from Pleiades Press. Her nonfiction manuscript, Things People Say, was a finalist for the 2017 Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Prize and the Kore Press Memoir-in-Essays Prize. She lives in Rochester, New York.