It was not simply that my skin was bad, it was that I was forbidden to even squeeze my pimples. Every time I looked in the mirror, my shiny blemishes itched at me – like finding a scratchie on the side of the road and shredding it with your fingernails.
Some nights, if I had something particularly important on, such as the year 12 formal, or when I’d tried to ask Christopher Price out, I stayed up late, later than even Dad, just so I could pop them to death. It didn’t work. Like many things with my broken body, I wasn’t sure of the exact technique.
Times when I was too tender, the yellow would just rise to the surface like the last whale of its kind. Other times I would apparently be too rough and it would be blood – blood I was taught to fear more than anything else. At those times I would panic, seeing the forbidden redness, and patch myself up with toilet paper, sweating porcelain under the bathroom lights.
My parents slept like the dead, and I was grateful for this if nothing else. It meant I could slowly stem the bleeding myself, knowing that if they were to toddle in, panic would ensue. Instead I printed my forehead, chin, neck with ripped florals and Bumsoft, hoping I hadn’t been too rough with myself. Every time I’d think it was done, I’d peel the paper off and drop it in the loo. But the blood would well again to the surface, in the same tidal fashion as my heart.
The risks make it hard sometimes for me to meet normal people. But something else is in the way too – I’ve been told I come across as anything from distant to foreign.
‘Are you German?’
‘There’s a bit of British in me, but…’
‘Ah so you’re from England then!’
‘No,’ I’ll say, apologetically. ‘I’m from around here.’
‘Oh,’ they’ll say and sometimes I’ll just leave it at that, but if they still seem desperate to understand, I’ll say:
‘I was home schooled.’
This isn’t quite relevant, or even fair, as both my parents were wonderful, and sent me to school for VCE anyway, just in case.
It’s about as accurate as an amputee explaining away the absence of his foot by saying his dog ran away as a child. But people nod. They like this answer. It fits. I’m a puzzle, and an isolated childhood is that missing piece of sky.
We get along well enough after that. They talk about their school life, their childhood, what it was like having friends. I have a very limited social bubble, and as grating as many of these conversations are, they’re what I need. Each party I go to, each bright-toothed man who asks if I’ve had my first kiss, each well-meaning woman who checks I also went to uni and don’t think that Pluto is still a planet, these are ways of getting out of my comfort zone.
I smile at them, laugh with them. I tick one more off the countdown. Eye carefully the wine in their glasses and their wide white wrists, arcing carelessly across rooms. Someone brings in a cheese platter, and the sickle-knife slides off as they offer camembert. The blade falls, nowhere near slashing my tendon, but still I am the one that flinches most. If they notice this, it surely cannot be put down to home schooling.
I have no scars, and this is despite -I tell a lover who marvels – my ease of bruising. He only knows my skin as a discount banana, but now he looks closer. At the longterm past that I don’t have. The worst injuries are the ones that I did to myself, the secret pimples, and once, the poking at my gums with a toothpick that I didn’t notice until there was blood in my mashed potatoes, my father shouting at it, eyes wide in fear, like I was losing teeth again.
The waiter came over but didn’t understand, was hurried away by my mother, his fist tight with concern and tips. In the car on the way home they admonished me, and we all shook our heads at what could have happened. I tried telling them it was only small, no chance of things getting out of hand, not in a restaurant, a public space. But still.
‘And this is why I take things moment by moment,’ I say. ‘Each small achievement…’
‘Hm?’ My lover asks, ear pressed to chest. But I haven’t yet told him about the countdown, the way I measure my life. So I tell a lie, which is easy in the darkness.
‘Oh, nothing. Just talking about how I’ve learnt to be careful of blood.’
‘I’m glad,’ my lover says, knowing the danger I put myself in. Knowing the risks of my condition. I feel my heartbeat in his fingers, the nervous rabbit of my ribs and tell him once more to bite me, harder perhaps. So attuned to any small wounding, it is a thrill to dabble in this mortifying masochism. He looks at me with eyes that are hard to read in the gloom.
‘I’m sure,’ I say.
And he takes my clavicle between his lips. In equal measures we are a product of intimacy and fear. But he stops too early. Doesn’t trust either of us as to what will happen if he breaks the skin. I
n the bathroom I check my body for marks, as careful as someone panning for arsenic. Then I return and kiss him gently. We sleep, disappointed but still tingling.
It is late June when I almost die. It happens, as I imagine many people’s deaths might, in a sudden accident. I am opening a can of food for the cat. Something slips, my hand or the tin. I gasp at the way something so round and bright can cut so deep. I breathe slow and try to find my factor replacement medication. I press a few bench wipes to my thumb and then the whole pack. Try a few tea-towels and then realise that won’t be enough and grab towels from the laundry basket, pressing them to my chest like a useless poultice. It makes no difference. I feel bad for ruining the cotton. I push past the front door, bang it closed, fumble with the keys, and then stand by my car before realising I could easily pass out and take someone else with me, long before I got to the hospital. Luckily our apartment is at the end of High Street and I hold out my good arm at the first taxi that arrives, wondering whether I should just walk onto the road and hope.
‘Hospital please,’ I say, opening the door with my opposite hand and shouldering my way in. ‘Oh!’ the man, a tanned Italian has his shirtsleeves rolled up and turns around quickly in his seat. ‘You’re not…?’
‘Pardon?’ I try and get comfortable, wonder if the urgency in my voice is too quiet to make him start driving.
‘Well I thought you were about to pop,’ he says, and I think I must have misheard him in my woozy state.
‘I’ve had pregnant women before, all quite unexpected yes, thought, well, say no more.’ He shakes his head to chastise himself, but I’m too close to death to be offended. Thankfully he starts driving. The smell of my blood seems thick in my nostrils, and I wonder how he hasn’t noticed.
‘Why you carrying so many towels anyway?’
They hand me a course of pills and I lie back in bed and squeeze the first one from its pack. A small thing, but I count it towards my tally anyway. Coming from nearly dying I feel like I need as many as I can get. The bubble countdown is how I decided I would mark my age.
It was perhaps because my 21st had been such a letdown – everyone carrying plastic knives and downing jelly shots from unbreakable glasses, nothing that could harm me, not even a boyfriend. But this method of aging seems suited to a haemophilic life.
The average sheet of bubble wrap has 700 translucent blisters. Each small bubble that I break, whether metaphorical or physical, makes me feel that I’m coming closer to a truer self. Bursting through suffering until I can be held, translucent against the light.
A recent Creative Writing graduate and a founding member of Dead Poets’ Fight Club, Rafael S.W has been published in The Big Issue Fiction Edition, Voiceworks, and Award Winning Australian Writing. He also regularly contributes to Going Down Swinging online and competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games. http://rafaelsw.com