The portraits in Heads and Tales are photographic documentations of sculptures I made out of animal skin and body parts, intended to provide springboards for stories, reminiscences or meditations on the lives of women. I asked a number of writers I admire to select the image of one of my women and create a life for her. As the work addresses issues of violence, death and gender identity, the writing reflects similar concerns as they are specific to women, not necessarily from an obviously politically fraught or polemical perspective, but more typically resorting to fantasy, satire, irony and other subversive modes of presentation to disrupt the hegemony of the everyday and release the power of its horror.
My intention with the work was to make it as life-like as possible, vivid and sometimes disposed in positions suggesting movement. I used untreated pigskin to cover a sculpture I had made out of clay, with raw meat for the lips and fresh pig eyes in order that the resulting portrait would appear as if it were looking at the viewer with a vital expression which the photographer had just captured at that moment. In fact, a photographer taking a picture of a model does more or less what I've done with my sculptures: the model will be made up, its hair will be done, appropriate lighting and pose will be chosen, etc. Or, if you prefer, what I am doing is reminiscent of what a mortician does in preparing a corpse for viewing: creating the illusion of life where there is none.
Taking photos of my sculptures is like reconstructing life, it simulates a simulation by fabricating an image of a fake face, an image calculated to deceive the viewer, since taxidermy (from the Greek, taxis: order or arrangement, derma: skin) and photography work so well together. The fake image appears convincing because we expect to see what we are used to seeing. The portrait of a face staring into the camera or captured in a snapshot simply doesn't conjure thoughts of death, even though we are often, in fact, looking at the living image of the dead when we view a photograph. Every photograph is a memento mori, and of course we like to forget that reminder of death, so we are easily persuaded that these images represent real, living people.
I didn’t make any demands on the contributors as to form or content. I simply wished that they would breathe life into these inert forms with their words. Since the violence that is often at the heart of women’s experience certainly pervades the images, I rather expected that the texts would to be related to pain, abuse, loneliness, madness, violence and death, etc., though I imagined that they could also be connected to, say, beauty, love, motherhood, ageing, plastic surgery and any number of other themes, perhaps exploring the pain and mortality that pervades those themes as well. In any case, the simulacra that inspired these literary creations, and which are, thus, life-creating in themselves, intend to invoke a play of subject and object, of life and death.
I am delighted that I was rewarded with a collection in which the unknown, the uncertain, the arcane lives of virtually anonymous human beings who have suffered more or less obvious or explicit harms are thematized, not to mention how powerfully they are evoked in the contributors’ words. I feel that it is a step toward understanding the female experience.
I owe the authors who have so generously participated in the project my heartfelt appreciation.
Giving Her Life
Asked to imagine another woman's life—this woman from her shoulders up—women here imagine banal horror, despair, hopelessness. Sluggish, dazed, cold, familiar, she "can't get the point of herself straight" (Carol Novack, Crazy Broad), like a stubbed-out cigarette on broken pavement. She is alone to a depth philosophers of alienation have never plumbed. When other women reach out to her, their solidarity tends to be a gesture to little end beyond itself. Nothing helps really. Rarely overcoming, she gives birth to someone else, a baby we are allowed to imagine will have a life that is not like hers (Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfano, Jill, Big With Child). Or she protects a bird she killed, keeping watch over its suffering-to-death, preventing loutish men from desecrating its already violated corpse (Lydia Millet,Sexing the Pheasant). This she can do. Her own semi-sleepwalking life is seen with clarity only in retrospect, when it is too late. "What's done is done. It's about the horror beginning to be assimilated."* Newborn babies, killed pheasants: over these she has momentary power. Over those, and her own fatal knowledge, her own suicide. Never over living her own life—safe, joyful, triumphant.
Look into another woman's eyes given image in pig flesh. What other women see is year after year of being acted upon. Sexual abuse that never goes away, leaving tracks in the body as well as the mind. Much rape called anything but. Relationships predictably, but unpredicted, gone askew and awry, as she daily lays down her life for those around her. Endless trips to doctors who do not help. She is acted upon as a body but the scars that are left are spiritual: silent, aching, almost without even memory of hope lost. But her despair is not grandly existential; it is circumstantial. If things did not go as they did—with men, primarily—they would not be as they are, feel as they do. Her passion spurts to the surface on occasion, rarely to salutary effect, often as a last-stand valedictory. The fact that this life of misery, tedium, terror could be different for her, carry her own meanings, is always there just around the corner, making the fact it usually does not utterly heartbreaking.
Each woman here has her own style, but Heide Hatry's portraits also convey everywoman, nearly all the same woman and feeling tone underneath the skin. What the style says of the self is complex. Each one's particular life story is learned from the smallest details of dress and demeanor**-- **which, as it happens, is how women learn to look at one another. Who is she from that wrinkle, that fur collar? Where did that hair wake up this morning? What family history is hidden behind that cut of those eyes? Embodying this woman's way of looking at women, these portraits are not a series of examples of generic women or abstract woman. If amalgamated from what seem initially to be laden clichés, even stereotypes, each is definitely someone in particular, first imagined visually by the visual artist, then given a certain specific life verbally by the verbal artist. Neither monumental nor metaphorical, the portraits hardly resist meaning. If anything, their meaning is too familiar, overdetermined. The life context each portrait embodies is so quotidian as to be almost virtual. Every detail is something we have already seen, its meaning pre-coded. We read the life from the face and its close material surround from decollete up, filling in the rest of the body down—the cross of the legs, the slouch or tautness of the stomach or stockings—imagining we know the rest of her from there. As the writers imagine it, her world is mostly one in which everything is over for her. Other than these nearly postmortem sketches, no one is keeping track. She twists in the wind.
Even as each nightmare belongs to her alone, these portraits and stories as art create and inhabit a particular social world. The looking and writing in this volume are connected not as art and criticism, but as art and art. The referent of the stories is the world, not the world reproduced simply but the world imagined by the visual artist, who seems to be copying but is instead, almost god-like, creating life by distilling a commentary on it in deceptively literal form, who then has writers give her images back a fuller world, filling in the background, coloring the foreground, casting her in a moving picture short subject of her life. The words are under the spell of the images, which is where they belong. Hatry's portraits thus inhabit a life visually even when made from a dead pig and the characters, as they often are, are given a verbal death. Although tangible, providing the credibility of the real, they are not real, but embody an idea of their reality, and thus are also "exercises in an emancipation from the tyranny of matter."** Thus does an uncompromising message of dead-ended hopelessness, in facing up to it squarely, offer up a deeply buried hope.
The resulting book—not a catalogue or comment on the exhibit but the exhibit itself—is accordingly not a trapped hall of mirrors but a layered murmuring dialogue between image and word, book and world, artists and audience, in a conversation that comes close to theatre. The politics of this spectacle within two covers is markedly democratic and participatory in its invitation. You can give these women a life.
* T.J. Clark, _The Sight of Death _(Yale, 2006), p. 81
** Leon Wieseltier, Spirit in the Sky, in Constable's Skies (Frederic Bancroft ed., Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York 2004) p. 61
Jennifer Goes to the Dogs
Around the block from my sister’s kind of shitty neighborhood there was this huge house where some rich people lived. The people had the house built to look like Tara in Gone with the Windand it looked ridiculous because the surroundings instantly shattered the poorly executed illusion. It turned out the people who built that house were rednecks who’d won the Louisiana lottery.
The yard guy who worked for these people was found dead and they said the dogs had done it. The rich people had three Rottweilers and they found the guy in their backyard. The Rottweilers had a reputation in the neighborhood. I’d be tak ing a walk with my sister and we’d pass the rich people’s house and see these dogs and under her breath she would say: Oh look it’s those dogs, they are really sweet. The dogs had this reputation for being really sweet. Not like other Rottweilers that mauled the faces off boys and shredded two-year olds. Sitting on my brother’s porch talking about my sister and the whole dog thing while knocking back some beers, he said, shit, that’s the thing about intense dogs, you never know when they’ll snap and neither do they and its all one big happy family until the fucking apocalypse explodes in your face. Yes, I said, I guess that’s the thing.
When they found the yard guy everyone had to eat their words about the dogs being sweet. When I’d ask my sister if there was any new news on the yard guy situation she never said “those dogs were so sweet… or so we thought.” In fact I was always the one who had to initiate the topic of the dogs. So it was with sur prise that one day when I asked if there was any news about those dogs she told me it wasn’t the dogs fault, turns out the yard guy was on crack and the dogs were trying to rouse him when he collapsed. But at that point she couldn’t resume the old myth of “those dogs are really sweet.” Even though it turns out the myth was true.
Then there was that miserable woman in France. A total junkie, she tries to kill herself and overdoses. Her Labrador tries to wake her from her drug induced coma and does. She sits up and lights a cigarette. Something I can totally identi fy with. But when she pulls her hand away from her mouth she notices blood. Then she looks in the mirror. Her face – gone. That same day another woman tries to kill herself and succeeds. When the mauled woman gets to the hospital the French doctors have an idea. Something never before attempted. Why don’t we take the face off the woman who killed herself and put it on the woman who got her face eaten by a dog while trying to kill herself.
How fucked up is that I swear to God, the French. Anyway, the irony here being clear and including: the dead woman lives through the on-going nature of her face, and at the same time the living woman has to wear the face of a dead woman.
In both of these stories people first believed the dogs were responsible for the atrocious happenings, but in both of these stories it was the people’s own fault for dying or trying to. The dogs were trying to wake the people, they were trying to prevent death or bring the people back from dead.
My grandfather once shot a dog. He had to as the dog was rabid and this was in the country. Not long before my grandfather died he told me that for years he suffered nightmares in which he relived the moment before he shot the dog. He had thrown a steak and the dog went to fetch it, which is when my grandfather raised his rifle to shoot, but right then the dog turned and looked at my grandfa ther directly in the eyes. My grandfather was crying, kind of sobbing actually, when he told me this story.
I know that my grandfather felt terrible about it. Maybe he thought he had dis appointed the dog by breaking some kind of code of ethics whereby you do not shoot dogs in the back even if they are rabid. A couple of days after he told me this story he shot himself. With the rifle he shot the dog with? I don’t know, but my guess is probably.
Did my grandfather break down while telling me the dog story because he knew even then that he would kill himself? I’ve gone over those last conversations again and again.
When my grandfather shot himself he did it in the back yard, where we kept our two dogs. They were small and cheerful dogs. After his death they wouldn’t leave the guest bedroom closet and when anyone approached they would shake all over and make whimpering sounds. I spent a week in the closet with the dogs, try ing to comfort them. After, the dogs were given away. One ended up having a hap py life and one ended up having a sad life.
As an adult I have owned one dog that died when she was hit by a car. She was such a light-hearted dog. Her death coincided with a break up, a process that would, it turned out, take years. I ended up with that dog accidentally – though I was pretty happy about it – but it wasn’t like I went out and tried to get a dog so when she died I realized I didn’t want another one.
I have read two novels which feature dogs as metaphorical themes. Both of the books were about the heart, our human dog hearts, our breaking heart hearts, and then just getting on with things. I loved those books when I read them because they seemed hopeful.
Once when I began a particular affair, I wrote a poem about dogs and when my lover read it, he cried. It made him feel scared, but he didn’t know why. Really there was a bad dog in the poem but it was about this other guy I had sex with a week after meeting my then-current lover, an experience I failed to mention as I was so caught up being in love. Three years later when I told my lover about the guy I had sex with, he became furious and ended our affair. There were other rea sons of course, but I look back at when my ex-lover read that dog poem and think: damn.
You also see those bumper stickers, the one that say Dog is my Co-Pilot.Are the people who put these bumper stickers on their cars making fun of God or AA? It is unclear.
When I was a kid I thought Kujowas the scariest fucking movie ever. I remem ber only one scene, the one towards the end where the sweaty mother and wound ed kid are in this tiny hatchback piece of shit car that of course won’t start and Kujo is pounding on the windows of the car, a killing machine.
I was once told as a child that a black dog portends death. Years later when I was working at a 7-ll I’d often get night shifts with this guy Jim I had a major crush on. Only freaky or drunk people came in during the night shift so we would go out back before our shift started and get stoned out of our minds. Then Jim would get the portable jam-box out of his car and bring it into the store and we’d listen to music, which I didn’t know anything about, but Jim knew a lot about. One night Jim played the Nick Drake song Black Eyed Dogand then told me how Nick Drake died right after he wrote that song and that he had unbelievably long fingernails when they found his emaciated body. Jim cranked up the volume and we listened to the song again and it was like you could hear it all in the brassy edges of Nick Drake’s voice. In the middle of the song a college frat kid came in to buy some condoms. Jim didn’t turn down the volume so the guy had to buy the condoms with Black Eyed Dogblaring. It was so great because when Jim was selling the kid the condoms, it was like he was giving that kid a sermon or some thing, like: “you want condoms well here you go andBlack Eyed Dog, mother fucker.” Coincidentally this was the first time I ever thought about marriage as a personal option, seeing Jim toss the condoms at that kid like that. I thought: there are some people I could really learn to live with.
After my divorce when I thought I was losing my mind Wanda suggested I get a dog. She sounded so optimistic when she said it and was very adamant about the idea, she was so glad she was having it. And I wanted to be glad she was glad so I lied and said I thought it was a terrific idea.
My sister got a dog “for the kids” meaning her husband and baby Casey and once when we were talking about something I’d written she said, you never put in the good stuff, only the bad stuff, and the dog was barking in the background and she had to repeat herself three times so that by the last time she was yelling but right then the dog stopped barking so she was just yelling.
The dogs around here make me feel –what?
There are many hanging from trees, slick and bloated flags. And there are oth ers aimlessly wandering about, starving. I watched one take a shit then lie down and die next to a jumble of broken stuff that included a doll’s head strangled in Mardi Gras beads.
So, to answer your question, Barbara Walters,
I guess I’d say that dogs do make me think about death.
I like that they have this streak in them, which tries to wake humans from death. It makes me feel like something is watching out for me, even though dogs often hurt people when they try to wake them. But when I think about the dogs around here wandering around looking for food, I also think they are competition.
I could go on and on about dogs.
I was seven years old. It was so hot that I used my tiny hands to divide the air like curtains so that I could walk. Thoughts of my body lying in cold water wove through my mind, but there were seven miles between me and the public swim ming pool, and I had only my bike, and I didn’t have permission to go. I imagined cycling so fast through the dense air that it would open like the Red Sea, and that would be proof that it was right for me to leave, when I heard my dad shouting my and my sister’s name.
Again I was too late, again too stupid to hide, again too embarrassed to behave like her, who never had to go.
My dad blew the horn impatiently and asked where my sister was, not even lis tening to my answer, but pulling me up onto the tractor by my arm. I swore to myself that this was the last time I was going without my sister. I despised myself for putting up with this every day, a feeling similar to how I felt after I masturbat ed again although I had promised Jesus the day before that this was the very last time.
Arriving at the meadow, he threw the equipment from the tractor, helped me down, handed me a bottle of mineral water and an apple and yelled back as he left that he’d be back soon. My vision blurred; I felt something hot collecting in my eyes, crawling down slowly on both sides of my nose, suddenly running as if star tled and then dripping down from my chin to my collarbones and evaporating in my imagination with a zsch… and some steam.
The meadow was huge, impossible to see to the end of it, but I knew from the other day that there were seven rows with twenty-three trees in each row. I hid the bottle and the apple under some hay in the shadow of a tree, took the rake and pulled the hay towards me, went one step to the left, pulled, went another step to the left, pulled, another step to the left until I reached the next tree; then I pulled, made one step to the right, pulled…
I created a hay snake. She grew fast, got fatter and fatter, and I imagined she was able first to devour only mice, then rats, then muskrats, then martens. (Five years later when I first read The Little Prince I thought about all the hun dreds of snakes I had created and fed and my vision blurred and I felt something hot collecting in my eyes, crawling down slowly on both sides of my nose, running and dropping from my chin like a leaky faucet.)
For the distance between trees two and three I used a different technique: I pulled, went one step back, pulled, went one step back, pulled… until the snake started to live in the middle of the rows. I jumped forward on one leg toward the trees, pulled, stepped one step back, pulled, another step back, pulled, jumped for ward with two legs pressed together, pulled, jumped back, pulled, jumped back.
At the end of the first row I was out of breath; my tongue felt like a snake, too, rough on the outside, as when you stroke her against the grain, hard and complete ly dry. Getting the water now would waste a long unproductive walk. I wouldn’t be able to run, I would have to walk very slowly to avoid getting dizzy, and I could just as well do the next row while I was going back. I just had to make sure that this thing in my mouth wouldn’t touch my palate, because if it did the single papil- lae would get stuck to it and they’d be impossible to get off, like tiny strands of chewing gum, stretching thinner and thinner in the middle until they’d break and all the papillae would hang ruptured from the roof of my mouth like stalactites. If I concentrated on keeping my tongue exactly in the middle of my mouth I would n’t feel anything unless my tongue were to grow and fill out my whole mouth. I tried to make very smooth movements, so that if somebody could see only my upper body it would look like I was being moved along on a conveyer belt.
As I neared the place where I’d hidden the water, my tongue started to rebel, and it made me think about diving: when it feels like you can’t hold your breath any longer you want to get to the surface to get air, but if you convince yourself that there are only a few feet left, or that you can’t get up before you see a some object on the bottom and after that another one, and so on, you can stay below for a hun dred meters, even though you were out of breath after fifty.
The apple break made my stomach feel funny. The big pieces of apple I had swallowed without chewing them into a mash clacked together like boats in a storm, and when I jumped, the water and boats hit the top of my stomach and col lapsed.
After a few hours I lay myself underneath of a tree, completely exhausted, but happy and very proud that I had been able to do the job, though it had seemed impossible at the beginning.
I heard the engine of a tractor, and I imagined my dad jumping down to me with his beautiful smile, taking me in his arms, throwing me in the air like a little baby, catching me and telling me that I am the only one he can rely on, that I am fast and that the snakes I made are amazing… But it was a different farmer who passed by, and disappeared.
I gathered the longest blades of grass and braided them together, but they broke. So I laid them all parallel on the ground and held them in place with my bare foot so they wouldn’t move and wove other blades into the grid until I had created a mat. I was marveling at the artwork which lay in my outstretched palm when a big drop of water landed on it. The vault had darkened and huge drops pounced from the sky. The cold summer storm provoked a tempest in my body, and I started to cry hysterically. When my dad arrived I was happy that he couldn’t see that my face wasn’t wet only because of the rain. As he pulled me up onto the tractor he said that he couldn’t get there sooner because he had to save the hay he already had on his wagon. I was facing the rear crying silently as I watched him destroy my snakes with the metal fingers of the spider (German for hay rake rotary) so the hay would be able to dry again after the rain was over.
Sunday morning 4 am, my mother woke us up and asked us to come help in the stable. It was cold, dark and damp outside. I was freezing and half asleep and I had a hard time getting into the stable clothing that we kept in a separate room so the rest of the house wouldn’t stink. It was disgusting to smell this stable reek so ear ly in the morning; it felt as if it were passing unfiltered directly into my body, not just through my nose, but right through my skin as well.
My dad gave each of us a shovel and explained that he would fill up the sluice containing manure with water. As soon as the water came up to floor level, the rats would come out to get air. If we saw a rat we were supposed to hit it as hard as we could with the shovels to stun it, and he would come and kill it.
It felt like a dream, unreal and crazy, only my body was so uncomfortable that it had to be real. I held my shovel in a vertical position so that I would just have to drop it if I saw a rat. I could see the water filling up the sluice and some rats stick ing out their heads to find out what was wrong. The very first rat who came out just plopped down in front of me and cleaned its face. It was so sweet, I thought I could never harm it, but the next one I saw ran straight toward me. I slammed the shovel down on the rat, afraid that it would hurt me. My dad ran toward me and stabbed the rat with his pitchfork straight through its body. It was shrieking and writhing terribly and it didn’t stop. The next one ran in the direction of my sister, and the next toward my brother… and it was always the same procedure. I backed away a little into a corner, shivering, with my shovel over my head and so full of fear that I peed in my pants. My father collected all the rats on the fork as on a skewer, still writhing and crying. When the fork was “full” he exchanged it for a new one. I was shivering so much, it was a kind of double shiver: one because I was freezing, the other because of my fear. Suddenly I felt something jump from above onto my hands. I screamed in terror. I was completely immobilized by fear. Gradually I could see that what I had felt was only cow dung that had stuck to the shovel when I hit the first rat and which was now slipping off onto my hands. My family broke out in a peal of laughter. I was embarrassed, but I was also angry and swore to myself never to help them with this again. I left without a word. They tried to keep me there, apologizing, but I left the stable, washed my hands in the house, left the clothing on the floor for them to put away and went back to bed. I was nev er asked again.
Every girl in my class had her period and breasts. I didn’t have anything. I was n’t suffering on that account, rather the opposite: I was training as gymnast and it was very practical to have no boobs and no period. In biology we were studying snails. Snails are hermaphrodites and I asked the teacher if it was possible that human beings could also be hermaphrodites. She simply said yes. Her answer hit me like a stroke of lightening. I was devastated. Now it was clear why I didn’t have breasts or menses. There was nobody to ask, no section in the public library acces sible to kids where you could find out anything. I suffered for about a year trying to get used to the fact that I was different until I woke up one morning and had tiny crystalline balls right beneath my nipples. I wouldn’t say it was exactly a relief, but I guessed that that might be the end of my being a hermaphrodite.
I met him in a Bible class. He was so different, he looked at me in a way that made my heart start to pound. We sat in a big circle with about twenty other young people. We read a passage from the Bible and then we tried to interpret it. Normal ly, it was boring, but every comment he made was brilliant and thoughtful. He played in a Christian rock band, had long hair and played the guitar for me alone, even though I didn’t like it that he needed to connect it to an amplifier. I was in love. His room was the only place where we could meet privately. We made out a little then stopped and knelt down to ask Jesus for strength not to continue with these sins. When that didn’t work anymore we explained to ourselves that we would get married in any case, so it would be fine for us to sleep together. I moved away at the age of fifteen and after that we saw each other only on weekends. I learned that there were other ways to speak, other ways to think, other ways to see the world and very different kinds of people. I fell out of love with Jesus and out of love with him and decided to stop our relationship. He didn’t let me; I had prom ised to marry him. He possessed me and I felt like I was possessed and I wanted that to stop. He came to the city in which I lived and rang the doorbell. I didn’t open the door. He came back with an axe, stood in front of my apartment door and said he would not leave before he waded through my blood, until he spooned my brain out of my head. I called the police. They took him away, and I went for a few weeks to a friend’s house a few hundreds miles away. He found out where I was and I found him in front of the door as I was on my way out. He apologized and said he needed to talk to me. I didn’t want to let him into the empty house so I agreed to drive with him to a coffee shop nearby. On the way he turned off the road through a field and stopped the car underneath a bridge. He opened his pants and wanted me to suck his small pink cock. I refused and tried to talk, but his heart started to beat so wildly that I could see his shirt moving, as if powered by an elec tric pump. He yelled at me, called me names, tried to undress and rape me. I escaped from the car, but he caught me, pressing my head against a stone and hit ting me in the head with his fist. He forced me back into the car and began to stran gle me, all the while yelling what a horrible person I was. I couldn’t listen to what he was saying, I just tried very hard to think, think, think, think; what can I do? How can I survive? How can I stop him? How can I get out of this? Fortunately he was still trying to convince me to come back to him, so he paused a few times dur ing which I coughed and choked after breath as he asked me questions. I promised everything, that I loved him more than anything, that I wanted to sleep with him, that I would never look at other men again… he squeezed my neck so hard that I knew I would die. I had done everything I could. I would die without guilt, prob ably nobody would find me. I saw him from above yelling my name, slapping my cheeks. I felt a slap on my face and he fell back on his seat exhausted and absent. A tractor passed close by, and I managed to get out of the car and escape.
Every night I dreamed the same story, waking up the moment he strangled me. I feared going to bed and I thought every evening about how to react in my dream, what weapon I would have and how I would use it. After a full year I was able to lay hold of a pair of scissors and stab him in the eyes. Then I escaped. That was my last dream.
Agnes, The Treatment
There is a red splotch on my cheek where I accidentally scratched the skin off. If we ran into each other you’d ask me about my face and I’d tell you it was a fun ny story actually but that I didn’t have time to explain.
I did it because I’m crazy, obviously, and you’ve already said that, so why the dumb questions about my face? Don’t you remember when I peeled all the skin from my fingers; you complimented me on the style of my band-aids, bought me a drink, and then introduced yourself.
I’d thought I had something on my hand, I’d explained. And so I scratched until it came off, I’d continued to you charmingly. I’d had dreams about things grow ing on my hands – giant welts in the shape of tiny animals, secret mathematical formulas puffing up from the skin, and skyscrapers that kept getting higher, and so when I woke up I scratched and scratched until it was raw.
Seeing what I’d done I dipped the whole hand in a sink full of peroxide. The way it fizzed white like soda when I put it in and stung me all the way to my eye lashes, I knew I was doing the right thing and they were clean. Later my parents made me visit a doctor because I didn’t want to die just yet, not before I found love and wrote a novel on a paper napkin anyway, or at least obtained a good position typing, and a boyfriend who’d pay for dinner and say something nice about the dress I chose to wear.
The doctor looked at my hand, and I looked at him concerned. He said it was only scar tissue. “But underneath, underneath!” I said. He said there was nothing underneath, so I stopped scratching and it healed.
Remember when I couldn’t open my mouth all the way and so I had to mash bananas through the small opening between my teeth when I felt hungry? The doctor said it could be TMJ, so I told you I couldn’t hold your cock in my mouth anymore because it placed undue stress on my jaw, and I felt I should leave my retainer in all the time if I wanted those years of braces to be worth anything. Lat er on, when I was leaving again for a long time and you were staying behind at the bike shop, I told you I couldn’t kiss you anymore because we weren’t getting married, and I didn’t want to anyway, but would always love you even though I didn’t like you anymore, and hated the way you came near me in the bed at that seedy motel after your cousin’s wedding.
We haven’t seen each other in a while, and I couldn’t respond to your letters because I woke up the morning after my last birthday with paralyzed arms. I fig ured they were probably just asleep from the way I had been lying on them, not wanting to stress out about it, so I slammed them against my bureau and desk and walls to get the feeling back, but it didn’t work so I went into the office that morn ing but couldn’t take notes. The numbness is mostly gone now, which is good because it was winter and it was hard to button my coat.
I’ve been seeing a chiropractor who is trying to right my spine, because it all comes from the spine, he says. He twists my neck till it pops, like the way they kill monsters on TV with one swift stroke. It calms me down seeing him three times a week. I’m not supposed to carry anything heavy, and I bought a new chair for my desk and special wrist splints to wear while typing and sleeping.
I saw a neurologist before that and he asked if I had been doing anything fun ny before it happened, sustained any trauma. I didn’t mention the drunken roller skating down the incline in my apartment because I didn’t fall or anything, and there isn’t enough space to pick up enough speed that it would be so bad or inad visable, and how would I explain it?
The chiropractor tried to get to the bottom of it, and he asked me if I was under any kind of stress or if I was sad, if anything had happened in the last few months or year, and I said no, not at all, and never thought for a moment of you of all peo ple and my jaw felt tight suddenly, which was weird because my jaw’s been fine for years now. “No, nothing,” I said, as he pressed me. He told me I was only deceiving myself if I tried to deceive my doctor because that’s part of the treat ment and it all goes back to the spine. He left the room to get the x-rays and I started crying but really fast, so when he came back he couldn’t see anything. The other day I saw a pink spot on my cheek and started scratching it and applied peroxide and various creams I found in the medicine cabinet. And then this morning I accidentally scratched all the skin off so it’s raw and it hurts a lit tle.
My face is all messed up, which is why if I saw you on the street I wouldn’t tell you all this but turn around before you saw me and not call you back if you called and stop seeing you once and for all, all together. You’ve been calling all week. You probably love me now that I’m gone, because you think I’ve stopped thinking about you and I’m beautiful when I’m not looking at you. All the photos you have of me in profile. The one with my eyes closed you say is beautiful. I don’t think about you every day, sometimes it’s all I can do.
I don’t go out anymore, and I wouldn’t be lying if I said I was busy last Wednesday; I had to stay home because I wanted to and because there is a lot to keep me busy at home. I stood on my head for an hour to see what it felt like, to see how it might affect my alignment, and to see if it would work to get me back to the way I was before I met you. My back still hurts, but I don’t mind the treat ment, and the doctor has noticed an improvement in my mood, though he hasn’t asked about the splotch on my face, steadily growing and taking over. It’s new skin. Maybe I can get all new skin.
I’m not seeing anyone. I could, but I find it too boring. I’m too busy. Yester day, I pulled all my eyelashes out thinking I wouldn’t need those wishes anymore. I have to stop wishing that you’d call and say that you love me rather than “do you love me?” as you would if I answered.
I pulled them all out and dipped both of my hands in peroxide, and covered my face with toothpaste, and cracked my neck, and stood on my head. Then I did it again. I listened to the fizz of my hands sizzling cold in the peroxide and dreamed about how you’d stop calling eventually and how that’s what I want.
Adapted by the author from the story “Symmetries”
We take them out. No one can say we’re not human, and yet so few people thank us for it.
It’s true, in part. They do take us out, they bring us the most beautiful disgusting clothes, they take us to the most beautiful disgusting places with silver candelabra in order to eat delicious food. Disgusting. They are not in the least human, let alone humanitarian. We can hardly taste the supposedly delicious food, the clothes are too tight around our chests; besides, afterwards they return us to the horror they make us vomit up all the food they tear off our clothes they make us give everything back. With interest. Except that, except that in some corner of our souls we manage to maintain a minimum of dignity and we never betray the others.
When love comes along it lights up everything.
Forgive me if I laugh at such a stale cliché. Forgive me if I laugh out loud, now that they leave us so little room for laughter.
Only room for what we will call love for lack of a better word.
A word that can be the worst of all words: a bullet. Just like the word ‘bullet,’ something that penetrates and lingers on. Or doesn’t linger on at all, it merely pierces.
After me, the deluge. First, the shot.
The women who are in our power know it. This woman knows it, and that one and that one and that one too. They have lost their names among us and have learned to allow themselves to be penetrated ‘cause we have taken great pains to tame them. We have done our best and they know it.
They know other things that even the generals and admirals would like to know and which the women refuse to reveal. Despite the horrors and the dazzling, punish ing outings, the women remain silent and the military cannot help but admire them for that.
We look at the women but they do not see us. They have hoods on or we have blindfolded them. Being walled up, we call it. We look them up and down and inside too, we stick things inside them, we perforate and puncture and explore. We stick things inside them, not always our own. We put things inside them that are much more terrible than our own, simply ‘cause those things are a prolongation of our selves and because they are ours.
The women, I mean. The women scream if they have any voice left. Then we take them out to supper without a blindfold on, without a hood, and without even that thread of a voice, with their eyes dim, their heads down. We make them wear the loveliest clothes. The loveliest clothes.
They bring hairdressers and beauticians to the clandestine detention centre and they force us to put on long, embroidered dresses. As in other instances, we want to refuse but we can’t. We know perfectly well where they get the dresses from – cov ered in sequins and strapless as if to underline and emphasize our scars –we know where they get them from but not where they will take us when we put those dress es on. With our hair done, and made up and manicured and modified, with not the slightest chance of being ourselves.
When they uncover your head they cover your body you lose all consciousness of self that’s the most dangerous thing you don’t even know where you’re standing and we very rarely do stand except in the freezing courtyard.
Sit down! We shout at them as if they were recruits, sit down with your legs apart, wider, we shout, and it’s an excellent idea. Don’t allow them to die standing up like soldiers, let them die belly up like cockroaches, like the grovelers they are —;but they are soldiers, they are more like soldiers than we are. Are they braver? They know they are going to die for their ideals and they hold firm to their ideals. We merely –pleas urably –kill them.
There is a complaint:
Who whispered the word ‘pleasurably’without daring to say it out loud? The exact adverb to use would be ‘gloriously’. Gloriously, I say. Gloriously is how we kill them, for the glory and honor of the fatherland.
You have to look because if you turn away, if you feel pity or repugnance, because if you feel pity or repugnance what we are embarked upon ceases to be sublime.
It’s almost diabolical we know what it’s called they don’t give it its true name they call it interrogation they say it’s a lesson and we know about our companions who have been left in tatters destroyed gradually bone by bone and have been left bleed ing gaunt dumped on the floor after they have first made them lose all semblance of humanity. We know about the other women, the other men, and at night we hear their cries and those cries sometimes get inside our heads and they are only our own undy ing memory of ourselves and we know when with their nails or their shoe or some other equally brutal method they open our vulva as if it were an open mouth in which they can stick anything but never never anything as terrible and voracious and alive, as destructive and irremediable as that which they have stuck into others, because lat er they will take us out and show us off like the trophies we are.
How is it that no one knew before, how is it that no one said anything, how is it that no one saw them in the Mesón del Río, for example, or in one of the other classy restaurants where they took the women between sessions? Those possibly beautiful women, perfectly turned out, their wounds disguised with make-up, silent, placed there to demonstrate that the torturers have an even more absolute and unanswerable power than the power of humiliation or punishment.
It was a joint experiment then suddenly one colonel lost his grip on reality. 1977. I want this woman just for me don’t touch her only I am going to touch her from now on leave her to me I’m here I can see to her myself.
This woman is mine now I pass my hand over her haunches I caress her gently she knows or believes that I’m going to hit her nothing of the sort my hand goes too far, my hand slaps her, enraged, my hand has a mind of its own I caress her again and I can relax, surrender myself. I can at last surrender myself to a woman, I can drop my guard tear off my stripes, I can, because this woman is more of a hero than all of us put together, because this woman killed for a cause and we just kill for the sake of it, ‘cause they order us to.
This woman is mine and I’m keeping her and if I want I’ll save her not that I want to save her, I just want to have her for myself whatever the consequences. For her I leave all the medals and braid at the door, I rip up my uniform, I take off my clothes and I dissolve and only I can hold her close. And dissolve her.
The colonel’s centre, his concern, is this woman behind bars, lying on her back on a torture table always waiting for him with her legs apart. A captive lover. This woman stretched out on the metal table, writhing on contact with the electric prod. The cattle prod is, of course, applied by the colonel reduced now to the universal role of lover.
The 1977 woman is living amongst real savages and yet her colonel lover has managed to get a smile out of her which hovers there, almost angelic, because luck ily those who amused themselves with her previously did not play at trying to smash her teeth.
Howls can be heard from the other side of the walls and they do not come from the jungle, however much they resemble the cries of wounded animals in the depths of paleolithic caves. On the table, which is covered with a metal sheet, on the rough cement floor, against the walls encrusted with blood, he makes love to the woman. The enamored colonel and his chosen one. And the smell of sex mingles with the other sickly smells of those who passed through there before and stayed there, for ever spattered on the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the torture table. It’s important not to forget. We must remember those walls that have been demol ished with the clear aim of removing the corpus delicti, of erasing from the face of the world the memory of the horror. The horror must never be forgotten nor the stench nor the pain nor
Few are concerned about the woman (1977), an inscrutable woman with rather atrophied muscles, gaunt but beautiful. Only one man, in fact, is concerned about that woman and he’s very concerned. Too concerned. He’s not content now with giv ing her dresses and jewels obtained during dubious police raids. No, in mufti, he himself goes to the best lingerie shops and fashion boutiques in the city and buys her clothes. With his own hands he measures her neck, pressing a little too tightly, and then he goes to Antoniazzi’s to order a choker that’s a bit too small for her and far too expensive for him. He offers it to her as proof of his love and he makes her wear it, and the choker looks rather like a dog collar, with rings made out of blue gold, a specialty of the jewelers. With a fine snakeskin belt by way of a leash, he could take that woman anywhere, but that is not what he wants. He wants her to follow him of her own free will, he wants her to love him.
And if, for her, love was ever anything more than submission, she can no longer remember. Or else she prefers not to. These are times of survival and silence: refus ing to give the tiniest bit of information, remaining absorbed, distant, just smiling a little if possible and trying to return a kiss but never opening her mouth to speak, to betray. Never. Disgust must remain relegated to somewhere outside those walls.
The colonel is those walls because he removes her from imprisonment in the clan destine center and, walled up in fur coats, camouflaged in beautiful clothes, masked by elaborate makeup and hairdos, he takes her to the theatre, to dine at the best places and absolutely no one seems to recognize her or approaches her on these outings, not that anyone could, surrounded as he usually is by his bodyguards.
She, in turn, recognizes no one, she does not even look up. She knows obscurely that a single gesture on her part would condemn the others; and she knows that for any such gesture or look he will hurt her, later on. He will mark her below the line of the low-cut dress so that he’ll be able to show her off in other clothes.
He doesn’t do it in order to mark her nor does he insist any longer that she betray her comrades. He is only looking for new excuses to be able to penetrate her each day a little more until he manages to possess her entirely. He loves her, much more deeply than any man has ever loved before, he thinks. And he takes her out more often than is advisable and he even hopes to be able to introduce her to his legal wife and to install her in the marital bed.
High-ranking officers in the army begin to be alarmed, even if the pleasure of the colonel is measured as befits his rank. His pleasure is apparently measured, but the love he feels for the hooded woman is immeasurable. I happen to love her, it seems he said –it just came out of him –on one occasion, and the words did not fall on deaf ears. His superiors started to watch him and to worry while they themselves paraded their own favorite victims through the salons of the large hotels. They observe him, he who only observes the neckline of the woman he loves or the clum sy way she raises the glass of champagne to her lips.
The prisoner he’s pampering is a dangerous subversive and worthy soldiers like him cannot be involved with elements who are the enemies of the fatherland. Or rather they can and must be involved, what is unforgivable is to have abandoned his’s duty in order to plunge–unwittingly it’s true –into the murky waters of desire. An act of downright insubordination. A colonel cannot place a woman above the army itself, even if that woman is the property of the army.
It’s best to make a fresh start in these cases.
So the colonel is sent to Europe on a specific mission while, with the aid of her choker the 1977 woman is sent to Hell on a mission unspecified.