We were like one of those two-headed snakes. Sharing a heart, but always looking in different directions. She liked to read actuarial tables of risk. Risk of burns and/or cancer after risking full sunlight for fifteen minutes in high July. Risk of getting blood clots in one’s legs on a four-hour flight versus a fourteen-hour one. Risk of kissing in the center of the room rather than the doorway, in case of an earthquake. Et cetera. I liked things that hurt in small private ways. Jalapeno juice stirred into homemade lip balm. Popcorn chewed hard enough to lodge hulls into the gums. Individual pubic hairs pulled out by hand. Et cetera. I liked the ridiculous distractions of small pains. She didn’t like any pains at all.
What, I’ve always wanted to ask her, is the risk of undergoing life-altering agony because you ignored your girlfriend too many times? What are the odds of a person like that noticing her girlfriend has left? Has left for good? What is the chance there will never be another girlfriend? Another good girlfriend?
But that would make me sound needy.
She tells me that ingrown hairs tend to become infected—she thinks she might have one right now, right where her briefs make lacy tracks over her left flank. She reveals a thick black hair embedded in a mole.
“It’s reddened, right?”
“It’s barely pink.”
“It feels red to me. I’d better switch underwear to relieve the irritation.”
She buys a new pack of cotton whites. The pain of imagining her wearing them only for herself is not enjoyable. My mouth dries up so badly I down an entire glass of grapefruit juice. Bobbing on a lake of sour, I put things I want to keep into my electric car and drive away. Noiseless. When I said we shared the same heart, I meant the odds are high that we will always be animated by complicit rhythms. Not that we should always huddle under the same roof. Love is like the La Brea tar pits. Don’t hang around too long or you’ll get stuck.
For once I don’t know where to go. I crash on swayback couches, adding hairs from various friends’ dogs to my various sweaters. I circle classifieds, wander astray online, ask strangers for leads on subleases. I land in one of those industrial spaces with the aggressive chrome edging and the Edison light bulbs like bared teeth. Chic, but it makes me cut myself. It gives me flicks of joy when blood skips across my thigh. Scratch, scratch, the white lines on both legs that show how the claw marks of happiness have touched me and how I have healed from that happiness.
My therapist knows about it. He insists it means something I tell him over and over it does not. We’ve been getting into these very polite pushing matches, like when you’re dancing salsa with someone domineering and have to last through three more pointless, clammy minutes until the end of the song. All week I come up with what might be novel ways to hurt myself. Analyze this.
He says there are things I don’t see, things I am overlooking, ways I am too fascinated with my own hurt. I claim I am my own archeologist. Gotta see what’s in all the striated levels of muscle and mud and dirt. He says I must detest myself, and that it’s possible to work through shame and through having been with a partner like Jac, who made us stop having sex and stop leaving the apartment, because actual and absolute safety lay in sitting next to each other on the sofa, staring into a space we had darkened by taping garbage bags over the windows.
I tell him I have an aesthetic appreciation for homemade, DIY entertainment and for cuts, scars, white lines, keloids, all the way bodies mark time by keeping score. Mostly I’m tired out from how I needed so badly to get away from Jac, and still do.
But now where is my other head? Where is the black little bead of an eye that has regarded me for the past eight years?
“Maybe you need to give your pain its proper due.”
The therapist tells me to go to Pine Barrens. I think, if I do this thing for him, I can finally shed him.
Just focus on what they’ll do there, he tells me. They’ll help me handle my pain. So I think of pain like a snake; apparently I’m always thinking of snakes. Pain handling like snake handling, done by tangle-haired mountain people with sin-snarled intestines and bare arms. It possesses a kind of logic. It is perfectly possible to think you are holding your pain in the recommended way, and then bam, it can twist in your hands and latch onto you in a whole new, sensitive place, pumping in its toxins.
Maybe at camp they will finally explain how pain and happiness, when they mix, are not at all like oil and water, but are much more miscible. So compatible that you cannot tell which is which in the places where they intermingle.
Maybe I should tattoo “hurt” on the back of one knee and “happy” on the other. But that’s maudlin. I scan online galleries of other peoples’ tattoo photos for the next two hours instead. They always take the photograph right after the needle stops, right before they tape the bandage on. The lines glow plump with blood. So many bluebirds swinging on banners with other peoples’ names on them. I could never put Jac’s name on me. I might manage ‘Ball the Jac,’ nautical, amusing. But I stop caring. The cuts I leave with my scalpel are much more abstract than whatever a tattoo gun would lay down. You can read into them whatever you want; the cuts aren’t looking for a punk rock microphone.
In therapy I’m learning about expectations. When to have them. When to tamp them down, like tobacco inside a lower lip. So I forego imagining what scenarios might unfold at Pain Camp. Whenever I start to think about it, I pinch myself and then I fold laundry or empty mousetraps. I like the photograph my calendar displays for April. Tall columnar cliffs and sun and smoky shadows. I don’t feel like looking at any other picture, so every month that goes by, I cut every day out with nail scissors as it passes. I leave the squares on the floor, a pile of numbers. At the hospital they ask where your pain lives on a scale of 1-10. A scale of 1-31 would be more precise.
Snip, snip, snip. Pain Camp day arrives in July. I pack a duffel bag with a cutting kit and with sets of clothes, what you would expect but no swimsuit, plus thick socks because they double as bandages. I pack a notebook; I pack a vial of iodine drops in case the camp water is bad. I hear Jac whispering in my head, and so I put the calamine lotion and Advil and the packets of moleskin back into the medicine cabinet because I need to be out from under her safety-obsessed thrall.
The better question is, do I want to appear tragic at Pain Camp or glamorous? Often it’s best to start as a wallflower, jeans and striped tops. You let the rest of them burn out their energy scrumming for dominance. Strangers make human relations so obvious, they might as well be sniffing each other’s lower sphincters. Up each hole is just the raw meat core of who we are, warm and fetid.
In the bus I sit across from a woman in her late fifties who looks bruised with wrinkles, like the sun’s been slapping her around the eyes day after day. She’s fishing little airplane liquor bottles from a brown bag held by some seventeen-year-old who thinks she has calculated all the ways to live and has arrived at the best one, which to her is probably being an online cam girl. Someone, anyway, who gets a grandmother drunk for fun instead of just reading a book like a normal desolate person. A loud boy behind them keeps trying to attract the girl’s attention, but the girl is cozying against the grandmother’s shoulder; the girl is spreading a blanket over the both of them; the girl is twisting the heads off the little bottles of booze as if she’s ripping off daisy petals.
Then I smell vomit. Grandmother splatter runs into the aisle. The girl indulges in luxurious teenage panic and sways up and down the rows, imploring people she has been aggravating for assistance. None of us wish the grandmother harm, but it feels so good to express rejection with just a little twist of our neck muscles as we turn our faces aside. “So do that,” she hisses, “pretend you don’t know what’s happening.” I would smack the girl, but I know from the tin quality of her laughter and from how little she pretends she cares about what other people think that she has too many defense mechanisms to be worth the trouble. Probably the only people she knows are strangers.
The teenager bribes a man with whatever is left in the paper bag to carry the grandmother out and lay her on a strip of grass beside the next station. I let myself believe the girl is going to find assistance, but she is walking away with a lazy hip swing, the boy close behind, trying to blow vape smoke down the back of her shirt, and the grandmother still lying like a lump of oatmeal on the median.
Pine Barrens does feature pines. Only a few, like stray eyebrow hairs. The camp has those long low tan buildings that you know before entering have glittery popcorn ceilings and the kind of carpet it is impossible to smell without a sinking in the soul and throbbing in the toenails.
It’s cold, a whinnying kind of cold that chafes. My nose drips. I’m aware that people who have been abused like to sleep close to the ground, so I take a top bunk. I freshen my deodorant and put drops in my eyes to make the whites gleam.
The people already here are like hermit crabs hunting for shells. Who will harbor their softer parts, who will brandish balletic claws of threat? You feel you are about to have a very short and meaningful relationship with the truest person you have ever met; you also feel a soon-to-be-sworn enemy lurking just around the next wood-paneled corner. It makes your hairs stand up. At camp, brokenness is like a split bone that shoves against the skin to get to open air.
Over the PA a disembodied voice asks for me by name. I hate PA systems. Rickety chairs that fall apart inside your ears, splinters of static. Would I please make an appearance at the main camp office at my earliest convenience.
The office smells of citronella and old sugar cookies. The woman with fuzz-red hair says she is glad I have made it safely, as though a bus is a perilous stagecoach ride through the bandit-infested Rockies, and then she presses my hand with both of hers to express the depth of her gladness. Her hands are damply mentholated. She might hold unwrapped mints until they melt. I imagine her licking her own palms. Ecstatic.
“I am,” she says, “a great friend of Ander’s.” The therapist.
“Well there you have it. I’ll be looking out for you!”
She gestures toward the dining hall.
“Suppertime,” she says brightly. “Mustn’t let you starve!”
Girls are lined up on the picnic table benches like end-of-the-night rotisserie chickens. Glistening tan skin and ribs. So thin and American they wear baseball caps to hide how their hair is falling out. They’re hungry for medical princes to rescue them from self-induced comas. They’re secretly exultant sled dogs, showing Life how they can break its junkyard chain and scamper into the wilderness of the Afterlife anytime they please. Dying is as easy as booking a ticket to Alaska, they seem to say, and then they go and make a big production out of living anyway.
At my table I pretend to read an invisible book about loons.
The girl who sits beside me has center-parted hair, stick-brown, along with a port-wine stain on half her mouth, the right half. Beet Kisser, I call her in my mind.
“Any minute now they’re going to pick up filet knives and forego eating each other,” she comments. “They’re so disciplined. I prefer being the opposite.” She is one of those people who lets an entire banana split melt, just to see what happens. She is one of those people who will spill a melted banana split on someone else and make it seem like a convincing accident. She won’t say “oops.” She’ll say “Oh, no…” in a hushed and grave tone that makes it sound as though she expects to be beaten, as though she always sees a mushroom cloud in her periphery whenever she’s laughing. She also shows white lines underneath her arms, behind her knees, on the sides of her neck. Sick how the different pathologies find each other so fast.
“You’d like to be alone,” she says, “ but I don’t care.”
“Why are you here?”
She thinks about saying “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” but she perceives the razorblade glint in my eye and tells me the truth instead, something I will not hear her tell anyone else at Camp that year, which I know is a psychological trick to promote an impression of closeness. My glint lets her know I don’t care about closeness, so she can be close. This is how indifference makes people feel safe. A higher-order psychological trick.
“I had an argument with my best friend and drove over her with my mom’s Escalante. The worst part was that I got body fluids on the leather seats.”
“That’s always the worst part.”
“Probably it was worse for the cows who had their skins taken off to make the leather,” she says. She flings an asparagus spear at a willow.
“I would be more likely to run a stranger over if I got road rage. I like things to be arbitrary.”
“Maybe that’s the difference between us.”
Right away we form a dyad, which is therapy speak for a pair. But we do not practice social grooming: braiding each other’s hair; using extended gazes to bond, talking face to face. We talk side by side. Our cuts speak more than our mouths do. They tell each other jokes.
By dinnertime we have both observed that all the counselors are older women.
“No mucking about,” Beet says, “with opposite gender attraction.”
“So whoever they got to take these jobs has real problems and a lack of imagination.”
Camp could give us hot chocolate and regulated fires after dinner. Instead, we part our legs wide behind potters’ wheels. They want us grounded right away, they say. We see they mean to braid our various pains into thick and glossy plaits of earth.
“Push,” the teacher, inexplicably young, says, “your hands into the clay while your feet pump the pedal.”
We wait for the life lesson. The clay climbs our forearms and coils onto the floor. The lesson will be that we are all terribly vulnerable and that life can shape us any way we permit. Or that we can shape our destiny. Or that the rest of life will feel like being blasted in a kiln and then sitting on the windowsill of a woman who ceaselessly whistles “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”
How much clay could fit down someone’s throat before you’d have to stop cramming it in? Beet turns red with suppressed laughter when I ask her this. When they ask for volunteers to carry wood for the kiln, Beet and I get up at the same time without even stopping our wheels, so that our fingerling pots collapse flat.
“Lyme disease is on the rise,” Beet says when we reach the knee-high grass and clumps of thicket. “Did you know young moose are dying from tick infestations now?”
I picture a teenage moose, meditative on its knees, clusters of ticks around its velvet nostrils, luminescent as pearls in early moonlight.
“What does road rage feel like?” I ask her. I am actually asking how it feels to run over a body. Is it more like a speed bump or a rotten log?
Beet says, “I didn’t kill her, you know. She jumped, and I wasn’t going that fast. She only got a crushed hip.”
Handfuls of IV tubes are plugged into another girl’s body out there then, a girl who is knitting herself back together with surgical steel and sinew and hate. Hate is so hot and steady, sometimes it feels better than adoration. You can at least depend on it. I must be exhibiting signs of emotional growth, as my therapist would say, because I am jealous of that run-over girl.
I don’t let Beet sleep in the bunk below me. Easier to treasure our illusions about each other if we cannot hear each other snore. If we have to do a little work to borrow scarves and BandAids and balm. We aren’t going to enter co-dependent cutting territory, I decide. If I learned anything from Jac, it is to share a lighter but not the blade.
We get up in the dark, following the model of boot camp. Which was designed to break down wills and lathe every recruit into a version of the same piece of equipment, shiny and calibrated as anything Henry Ford extracted from his assembly lines, I want to remind the counselors. But they wear earplugs to muffle the sounds of their whistles. We do push-ups, sit-ups; we run two miles around a track that smells of cork and sand. Talks are delivered at breakfast like sermons given to cows during milking sessions.
“We know,” the head counselor intones, “you are going to hurt yourselves. Let’s not be naïve here. Some people say you have the choice whether or not to do this, but the campers here always hurt. We’re not even going to delve into the whys. We’re only going to talk about what to do with your urges.”
“Does it bother you they haven’t defined hurt yet?” Beet whispers in my ear. “You could just substitute the word ‘masturbate’ for ‘hurt’ and it would make as much sense.”
Pinching the bridge of your nose cuts off a sneeze, but I haven’t learned how to stifle a laugh yet. Beet looks smug with victory.
The Camp, we suspect, has not yet learned to accurately gauge the competitive depths of pain. How far girls will go to experience it. Football is the flashier sport, where the breaks happen faster, but ballet is more sadistic, the injuries more insidious and more easily hidden. Boys mete out pain to others as punishment, but girls appreciate pain for its own merits. So you can guess who constitutes the better Stoics.
We wear clothes that casually fall open to reveal imperfections. We master ways to convey great depths of emotional suffering with a single glance. Some of us, like Blythe, are more trained in the physical domains. She passes her hand evenly through the campfire and picks up live embers, but only with her left, subordinate hand. Among us are also those specialized in psychological pain—how to detest oneself, of course, but also how to torture oneself with humility or how to provoke rejection from others to demonstrate fortitude.
The counselors are unsympathetic.
“What good is all that suffering anyway?” one of them asked. “What good is all this garden-variety pain I see around me here?”
I would listen to her and reflect on her insights, but I am watching the particular way Beet’s kneecaps jut. An advanced pain demonstration consists of luring someone into caring for you and then driving her to hurt you. Or hurting yourself by sacrificing the relationship for reasons that would seem obscure to outsiders, but contain the utmost internal logic. The sacrifice, which resembles a betrayal, happens either because someone is afraid she cannot bear the depths and nuances of the relationship any longer unless she is the one to kill it, or else because she wants to spare the other the pain of breaking it off. There are pains within pains, betrayals within betrayals, and no way to tell an action’s motivation or meaning unless you have attained omniscience. That’s the hook.
Every morning we start by reminding ourselves we are addicted to pain and can temper this addiction with mindfulness. We sit in a circle.
“Stroke your shins,” the instructor says. She is wiry and gray-haired. We can tell she picks at her lower lip. She shows us mindfulness, prolonged yoga stretches, controlled breathing exercises.
“This is about being content with smaller measures of discomfort,” she says, “and it is also about proving to yourself you exist without relying on so much hurt.”
She has such a calm voice it is difficult to listen. In my mind I am doing emotional Beet physics. I have to prove I can be close to someone, and I must also prove I am strong enough to ruin an authentic relationship.
At fire time, tinged with the penetrating odor of citronella, Beet and I speak with barely moving lips about the total lack of Tabasco sauce in this place, the total lack of ice as well. Pouring salt on ice and letting it sit on your skin or submerging one’s hand in an ice-water bath are both blunt, basic ways to hurt.
Our eyes gleam.
“Hey Beet. Who should we try to unravel?”
We use our elbows, nudging to pass silent judgment. I judge it a promising sign that we both choose Ms. Hanna Faloumi. She stands out like a lighthouse.
Ms. Faloumi processes her feelings without reactions, though you can tell the gears behind her face are fully oiled. Also, her eyebrows are excellent. Distinct markers in a face that shares both the hallowed-out length and the dignity of a saluki’s.
To plan, Beet and I leave each other coded notes, breaking Camp rules with abandon. While I read Beet’s writing, which is careful and well shaped, I can almost smell the cucumber-smelling lotion she rubs over her cuts. I contrive to steal and blend cosmetics from other camp-goers until I arrive at a lipstick matching her stain, which I wear thereafter. On the left side of my mouth. She pretends not to notice or to care.
In code we conduct a character analysis of Ms. Faloumi. It is the same procedure as profiling an act of criminal behavior, but done the other way around. Instead of asking “What kind of person would do this,” you ask “What could this kind of person be made to do?” Until you understand your mark the way an engineer does the struts and tensors in a bridge, you are only an amateur. You should not touch someone until you can begin to move their mental furniture into new arrangements without them noticing the break in.
We start with securing Ms. Faloumi’s unsuspecting affection. So we become what she recognizes, fit ourselves to a pattern she is already prepared to see.
We sit cross-legged on a rag rug, a candle lit between us, our pupils enlarged in the relative dark, our index fingers linked, and the lights knocking on and off because of a storm that is still slapping the gutters against the roof. We are good campers, with a thick pile of candles and matches and flashlight batteries.
I told Beet that I had asked Ms. Faloumi to visit us. To help us understand what to do with certain kinds of pain. She would know what kinds, I insinuated.
Beet has been cutting again, I am sure of it. An antiseptic smell lifts off her. So I have taken her cutting kit. She hasn’t said anything yet.
“Don’t be nervous about Faloumi,” I say.
“I’m not nervous. It’s just so exciting, being at camp, isn’t it?” The skin around her nails shines pink and nibbled. Biting and biting. It’s like watching the way a house cat dismantles a hummingbird.
I remove her cutting kit from my bag where I have kept it wrapped in my sweatshirt. I set it on the table with a metallic click that makes her eyes swivel toward it. I unlatch it and lift the lid, not letting her see what I put inside.
The first thing I remove is a paintbrush. One of the most slender ones it is possible to buy, made of bound mink hair. Softer than baby’s breath. I use the brush to stroke the skin around her nails.
“Hey,” she says. A slow, gentle exhalation, just as I imagined. She doesn’t slide her fingers away.
I take out a piece of palo santo wood, no bigger than a pinky finger. Fire takes it fast once I click the lighter. Such oily wood.
“Close your eyes.”
I let the wood smoke drift just under her nostrils. She will protest and get silly and pull away or she will keep her eyes shut and sway, willing to pretend she’s in a trance. I could cut her right now. I could flick her camisole strap off her shoulder. She is already there, in both places, damage and devotion tumbling in her brain. But it would be too predictable, so I can’t let myself do it.
I get out my little portable speaker.
The moth don’t care if the flame burns low
“Who is that?”
“It’s someone with a beautiful voice. Aimee Mann.”
We sit. Each minute like the moment an unfurled tulip petal falls. I play the song again. Then again.
“It’s called duende,” I tell her. “The feeling of something that is plaintive and beautiful at the same time while reminding us we are mortal.”
“Why are you doing this?”
I push a little tin of smoked and sugared almonds over to her.
“Have you forgotten about Ms. Faloumi yet?”
“I know what you’re trying to do.”
I start the song again.
“You’re trying to cut me with the opposites of pain.”
Something like that, I think. You have to give pleasure a chance to slice through the pain. Pleasure itself hurts in those circumstances—there’s the shame of admitting you like it, there’s the ache of stepping away, even momentarily, from pain. Pain must be balanced, that’s the concept I’m trying to work out on Beet. To prolong pain, to wring the most from it, you need to counterbalance it.
“Is that what Ms. Faloumi told you?”
“She’s not coming.”
We sit together for an irritable little silence. Finally Beet says, “I don’t like the female kind of pain. The self-pitying and moaning and all the little bruises and burns and cuts, my God. If you need attention, just hurt someone else like a man would and be done with it. Stop trying to make the world rescue you from yourself.”
“I knew you felt the same,” I say. “Ms. Faloumi would’ve been too easy for us.”
“What are you saying?”
“That both kinds of pain, the feminine and the masculine, are about getting attention. What if you give yourself that attention? What if pain is not the only meaningful way to experience one’s emotions?”
“What are you talking about?”
“This.” I put an almond in her mouth. I pull a scarf out of my bag and drag its wooly fringe over her forearms. I don’t have to tell her this isn’t seduction. This is just waking the body up to other things.
“The thing is”—she falls back—“pain is just so much more immediate, isn’t it? It’s such a reliable shortcut.”
“So don’t take the easy way out.”
“You can’t let your need to control other people’s attention possess you. You can’t disfigure yourself, you can’t turn into one of those girls who starve themselves or put on weight, as if their bodies are human sand bars trying to change the river course of other people’s attention. What matters is only what you think about yourself. Don’t you believe me?”
I roll a plum across the floor to her. I’ve always liked the dusky purple bloom on them. I know desires are frightening. All the acting out and the pain-infliction, all the indulgences of hedonism. Start believing you don’t deserve to feel, and you’ll pull away from life, connecting only through flames and blades.
“Oh, make me feel,” Beet says. She holds both hands a few inches from her face and lets her fingers sway and flicker in that demented, woebegone, sweetness of being lost in your own desolate, glittering brain, not sure if you want to escape that labyrinth or not, not sure you have left yourself a guiding thread, and already certain no one else will ever, ever understand.
“Just feel,” I say. “That’s all there is to it.”
I leave her the cutting kit I restocked for her. Keep doing this, I tell myself. Kindness and my lack of irony is going to destabilize her. I’m not being trustworthy. I’m not being predictable. Can she trust her own body and its sensations? Can she be anything different than what she’s settled for, a pain puppet, dancing at the end of her own nervous system? Do I care?
I get up and walk out of the room. The storm is still banging outside. I might as well be wet to the skin. I want my pupils lightning-seared; I want my eardrums obliterated by thunder. I want to be swept up by it all. Beyond the reach of anybody else. Including myself.