Theresa is raising her hand.

Copyright Gary R. Johnson Photography

Her thin arm is up, raised in answer to many questions. She has something to share. Something Theresa wrote and buried deep in the middle of a notebook, hoping no one saw it but hoping to not forget it herself.  She did this often; wrote little notes and shoved them into tree trunks in her yard and in the parks and cemeteries surrounding her home.  She wrote about the first time she skipped school and she wrote about the first time she drank enough to feel the Earth slip away from her. This was something she’d started doing as a girl, and hidden in a hundred tree trunks around her childhood home were the memoirs of a girl who sometimes heard voices before she fell asleep.  They usually didn’t frighten her, but whispered just what frightened them. Sometimes she wrote down what they said, and tried to shove their nightmares away with hers. It made her happy to think that some robin or squirrel had used her stark confessions and the ones that were whispered to her to build up a nest – that as fickle and silly her story might be, at least it brought someone, even if it was just a bird, some comfort.

I am around  thirteen. I have burnt myself badly on my left hand while setting fire to a photograph in our bathroom sink. I took one of my sister’s lighters that she used for smoking Marlboro lights (glamorously, I thought) and lit the bent edge of it. I waved it a few times in the air, when it suddenly exploded in my hand. I then ran my already almost raw thumb and forefinger (that were grasping the photograph) under the faucet, and watched as the burnt bits of the print fell like volcanic ash into the white porcelin, then swirl down the ancient drain (our rental was not a luxury one).

As my hand throbbed in real agony, so very real compared to the pain of a teenage crush that I was feeling prior to burning the photograph – the reason I burnt the photograph, I decided I needed to devise a quick plan to explain why my hand was burnt. My sister was at work at the video store and my parents would be home soon. How does one legally burn their hand? We didn’t have a fireplace, I wasn’t allowed to burn candles when home alone and this was before the days when candles were scattered in interior design mode all over the house, how to explain this burn? The truth was embarrassing.

I was in love. I was in love with a boy in my class who was funny and charming and he was my best friend. I hated him. I loved him. He always had a girlfriend and I was a huge nerd. That he even spoke to me was a miracle, that we were best friends was a revelation. But he brought me pain so I decided to burn his class picture. Erase the evidence. I couldn’t tell my parents that.

But, I could prepare food for myself while alone in the house. That was a recently earned privilege. And I was always burning my hands in the spots where the potholder didn’t cover my flesh so there was a valid excuse. I decided to whip up a batch of slice and bake chocolate chip cookies (thank God we had a tube! Thank God it hadn’t been eaten yet, even though it was bought the day before!) and claim that my hand was burned then. I knew that I couldn’t say I burnt myself while baking and not have anything to show for it.

My hand really, really hurt by the time everyone arrived home. I couldn’t have been home alone for an hour or two after the cathartic burning took place and in that time I felt as though I might pass out. I slathered butter on the burn but that was all I knew how to do. It helped a little. My parents were annoyed that I hurt myself but sympathetic. Plus, well…the cookies were good and they got to eat them.

I didn’t feel better after burning the photo. I didn’t end up feeling better long after the burn had healed (I remember it still throbbing during the “Thanks be with you” part of mass for weeks and weeks afterward). I didn’t feel better for almost ten years after burning that class photo.

She has other things to share, if she can dredge it up. She’s not sure tonight, but she does know that when she’s especially exhausted, the voices stop saying words and start issuing a chorus of disjointed sighs. Her own sighs mix with theirs and she tries to whisper back but ends up falling quickly asleep. So good night to her.

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"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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