Sunday, January 02, 2011

Scabs and Scales

Two of the toes of my left foot, the second and fifth, had been badly bashed, and their nails had become thick and crumbly: it took me a long time to realized that somehow getting bashed had rendered them susceptible to fungus, and that they were never going to recover on their own. I read around on the net a little and tried, improbable as it sounded, Ointment of camphor, eucalyptus, & menthol and “aggressive debridement” -- filing them down. After a few days, the the nails had gone dark, and then sloughed off altogether, which was fascinating, if a little alarming. They grew back in, not quite right, but much better.

The smell of menthol always reminds me of things forbidden. In my early teens I found discarded pack of menthol cigarettes, and I smoked a couple of them -- cautiously, and, like Bill Clinton, not inhaling. It was a strange feeling: deeply attractive, deeply disturbing. The wickedness of the tobacco companies was a common theme in my nonsmoking household, as I was growing up. But the menthol put a strange twist to it all. It felt so refreshing, so much the opposite of smoking, like a mouthwash. And the nicotine, like caffeine, fizzed in your synapses and made you smarter, livelier. And then for days afterward I could taste the hint of tobacco, lingering on my tongue, in the soft tissue of the insides of my cheeks and in my soft palate.

I knew the stuff was mortal. I threw the rest away. Still the memory of the menthol tugged at me, and whispered to me of different lives, lives in which you didn't count the cost of things, in which a moment's rush was worth what it seemed to be worth. I eyed the mothers of my friends who smoked, their yellowed fingertips, the stale tavern odor that hung about their clothes, and wondered what women who valued the rush so highly did all day, and what their fingers would taste like.

Bloody linens unrolled across the sky: a wounded morning, seeping through its bandages. I suppose there's always this urge to pick away at the scabs and scales. I always wonder what new tenderness is there; I always wonder if the new life beneath is being protected or smothered by its shell.

You could say, with St Vincent Millay, Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to death? Or with Yeats, Those that I fight I do not hate, those I defend I do not love. Or you could walk on the rust red cinder paths of the Cascade passes, with the broken brick dust of the whirring grasshoppers at the corners of your mouth and eyes, and the silence of the mountains pressing on your ears and making them sing like mosquitoes.

If I hold your face in my hands, and tilt your face to the light, what do I see? Still something oblique, something that always escapes the camera and the poem. We played truth or dare when we were kids because we thought the hidden thing was something you could say in words. Now we know better: but the ache of that curiosity never goes away.

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