A story is never told the same way twice. So much depends on who’s listening; just as much depends on whether the story is happy or sad, on whether its subject rewards brevity or embroidery, on whether the point was actually to explain anything at all. Injury stories are especially good test sites for these principles, since they’re never told without the intention of eliciting some reaction, whether pity or not. The aim can also be humor. The aim can really be both.
Anyway: last month I fractured my left elbow because I slipped on a curb while carrying a box of La Croix in one arm and a two-liter of Diet Dr. Pepper in the other. The box burst open, though the cans were fine, and the two-liter was shaken badly but recovered after a few hours in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, I scraped both knees, one of which was bruised purple for two full weeks, plus the knuckles of one hand. Meanwhile, I went on to have half a dozen x-rays and be seen by multiple medical professionals, including, most recently, a very nice orthopedist who told me that I was now healed enough that I need only wear my sling in places where I might get pushed or jostled, like the subway. This is (was?) a stable fracture, the kind of thing that heals itself; I only really had to protect myself against my own discomfort.
And listen, I know what you’re thinking, so here’s the answer: the La Croix was peach-pear, and it was worth it.
Maybe I’ll start over. My sixth grade spelling teacher hated the word “like.” Only a little of her classroom remains in my memory now: I remember blue walls and high ceilings, heavy windows that we propped open in the winter when the radiators ran hot, chalk boards ghosted with last period’s half-erased words. I remember that she was tall and platinum blonde, that I admired her in the vaguely frightened way I admired all adults who took me seriously. But mostly, I remember her pacing between our tables, interrupting us when we slipped up and saying, with no little sharpness, “Like, like, like. Don’t say like.”
By then – which is to say, 2002 and 2003 – there was a veritable like epidemic going around our school. At the time I thought it was, like, unique to us, though when have West Virginia sixth-graders ever been the vanguard of pop culture? Later I would learn that the colloquial “like” turns up as far back as a 1928 issue of the New Yorker, but Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet and I had to go off my gut. It was just as well that Mrs. D taught spelling and not language arts. Our grammar was not her primary concern, though she was, you understand, concerned.
Whenever we got each week’s vocabulary list, we’d go over each word, pronouncing them in turn and providing usage examples and definitions when called upon. This always brought me quiet, uncool joy. Inevitably, one classmate or another would offer up the forbidden syllable: “It’s, like, a kind of boat,” or “She was, like, totally ecstatic,” or something equally harmless. And Mrs. D would spit fire for a moment, but then we would move on, eyebrows singed but intact.
So the day I got my own dressing-down was a betrayal: I’d thought of a simile I was proud of, but only got as far as it was like before she cut me off. I don’t remember what it was, or what it like, exactly. Only that it was like something else, the way everything is like something else, though my knees as I stared at them were just my knees. I think I gave a different example then, desperate to prove that I really did know what this word meant, though what I’d wanted to say was better. And then we moved on.
The sting died quickly and I got over it. Just kidding! It’s 2019, and I’m still telling this story. But really, the whole thing is funny to me now. I wasn’t a teacher’s pet, but I was always too eager and uncanny not to be a teacher’s something, which is to say: injury stories can be about your pride too, too. I was effectively swept up in a grammatical sting operation, and all because I’d wanted to say that the clouds were like cotton or something. This is, like, a metaphor.
Maybe I love injury stories because they’re the best way I know of talking about pain. Maybe I love injury stories because the pain I am most familiar with is not easy to describe, except in metaphor, and so rarely makes a story at all.
My therapist is always careful not to let me see what he’s writing in that legal pad of his, but I entertain myself by imagining that he’s keeping a tally of my references-per-session. I’m not his only client, and surely I’m not his only jittery, overread trivia fountain of a client, but maybe I’m the one who reaches for props the most.
“It’s like that line from the poem, how does it go?” I’ll say. Or, “It’s like that scene in that episode of Mad Men season one, except I’m both Sally Draper and the plastic dry-cleaning bag.” Mostly I am trying to be funny. I’m uncomfortable being serious without trying to be funny, and we are there to be at least a little serious.
The day I first came in with my arm in the sling, he asked me how I was doing and I laughed – real laughter, too, nothing sardonic or sad. I’d spilled coffee in my purse that morning: coffee that Griffin had lovingly made for me to bring to work, and the purse that he’d bought me for my birthday last year. The whole thing was a disaster I couldn’t fix fast enough because I was on the train by the time I noticed and my one good arm was occupied. “Oh, terrible,” I said. “But I’m always fine when everything goes wrong. I’m like the eye of the hurricane.”
“Why do you think that is?” he said, which I should’ve seen coming, since I pay him to ask me difficult questions. I shrugged with one shoulder. I’d taken a lot of ibuprofen and my purse was almost dry; we were already almost to the part where I could make this into (only?) a funny story.
I meant to tell him that, somehow, I made it almost a full month before someone pushed my bad arm on the subway. They were in a hurry, and I was in the way. And it’s a stable fracture, I reminded myself, gritting my teeth. It hurts but the hurt does not signify anything new.
It’s like that line from the poem, you know? Noli me tangere – some of the only Latin I’ve ever known. Touch me not. A friend put the last lines of Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt” in her AIM profile once, back in the dark days of AIM profiles, and I didn’t read the full poem until much later, afraid that I wouldn’t like it as much as I liked its ending:
‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’
In high school, this was tied with my other favorite poem ending, from Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
And how could I have liked anything as much as those endings, even the poems they grew from? I wanted to be wild. I wanted to be a creature rising from the fire. I wanted to be so sure, so tough, that I would never have to explain how I felt again. Not in the physical sense; how I felt on the subway platform, holding my wounded arm in its sling like a baby (like, like, like), was easy. The other kind of feeling. The kind my elbow has been a good distraction from.
Maybe I’ll start over. For real this time. Here’s the thing: I haven’t written for months. Not about myself, anyway. And not for lack of trying.
But I don’t know how to begin writing about the last few months without writing about crying snotty, messy tears in my therapist’s office as I asked for the test, whatever it’s called, the one that would finally tell me how crazy I am. Most of the time I am trying to be funny. Mostly I can’t be serious without trying to be funny. Instead I let my own plea hang in the air between us because there was nothing funny to say. I looked at my knees instead – my knees that still look only like knees.
“Okay,” he said, very gently, after a small eternity. Probably all of five seconds, during which I’d reconsidered my entire life, aged infinitely and badly, turned into dust, and blown away across the indifferent ocean. “We can do that.”
I don’t know what I looked like then, and I’m glad I don’t. Probably like – like, like, like – someone had finally let me into the building on a cold night when I’d forgotten my keys. Your own gratitude can be embarrassing to witness.
The test is actually a whole battery of tests, spread out over multiple appointments. A few were familiar from Intro to Psych and from counseling intake in college. This, of course, made me certain that I was going to cheat somehow, that I’d game the system into telling me something kind and therefore untrue. Later, the doctor would tell me that the tests are designed to account for distortion in either direction: people lying about being good, or people convinced that they were bad. I still find that remarkable.
There was a semi-structured interview. There was word association. There were sentences he started that I had to finish. There was, once, a laptop cued up to a multiple-choice survey that was either three hundred or five hundred questions long; after a certain point, the numbers blur together. There were sheets to fill out in ballpoint pen. There were questions I could see the gist of and questions I absolutely could not, each of them getting at the untellable story of a certain kind of pain.
Between insurance hiccups and the holiday season, it was a few months before I got the report. And then, all of a sudden, there it was: an appointment on my calendar, a seven-page PDF about myself to look over first. I read it slowly before I walked to the doctor’s office, delaying the ending as long as I could, doubling back to make sure I understood. Then I read it again. I wrapped myself in my own arms, both of them still unbroken for another couple weeks.
The ending of the report isn’t poetry, though I’ve kept it humming my head the way I collected Plath and Wyatt once. What mattered more, then and now, was that the words described me. I was wild to hold. I was rising from the ash. I met the criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and here, the doctor was saying across the table, was what we were going to do.
Pronounce OCD. Define it. Please provide an example without using the word like, because everything is like something else and right now you are trying to be specific. Please provide an example without invoking physical pain or past accident. Please provide an example without getting cute.
We understand that something definitive, like an x-ray, would be helpful. We understand that perceptual ambiguity is sort of the whole problem. It’s, like, pretty unfair. In the meantime, maybe metaphor is a consolation prize.
Right now, I am sitting on my couch, drinking a can of La Croix. Lime, specifically. It comes from the same grocery trip as my poor, much-battered peach-pear, but my best friend was holding that box and so it wasn’t hurt at all. I realize now, I forgot to tell you: I wasn’t alone.
Injury stories are never told without the intention of eliciting a reaction, and I am telling you a story, singular, which is to say: I am realizing that I’m not alone.
Story, singular, meaning my elbow. Story, singular, because my brain is not yet (and may never be) a story I can tell – though I’m sending postcards, and I hope this one reaches you. It’s just that there’s no good way to tell a story you’re still inside of and will always be inside of, especially not here, at the beginning, when I am just beginning to figure out what I’m going to do.
My elbow is mostly healed now. I stopped wearing the sling two days ago, and the ibuprofen has sunk to the coffee-stained bottom of my purse. Even that stain has faded a little. Time passes. The slippery curb and I have reached, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce. And my bruises have faded, and my arm extends the whole way, and I only resent people the normal amount when they push me on the subway. Don’t touch me, I think, every single time. Like that line from the poem. You know?
Let this count as starting over. For real this time. Let my tricky brain and I reach, if not an understanding, then an uneasy truce, and let me find a way to say what this is like. If not now, then someday. If not someday, then still, let me try.
This is, I know, no kind of an ending. But this is the new year, and I am trying to read the rest of the poem first.