I carry my bruises like badges. Though awarded for clumsiness—the careless, uncontrolled movement of my limbs—or the obliteration of my equilibrium, as they bloom on my body they grow in my mind.
It usually begins with an invisible pain. There is a deep ache when pressure is applied. Hours or days later they appear like the heads of jellyfish, pushing up to the surface of my skin in dreamy greens and purples. I forget their origin by the time they form, unless there is some clue in the injury itself. Brown, finger-shaped bruises once appeared on my biceps, a result of falling backwards in a pub in Ireland. People are going to laugh at me, I thought, sprawled on the floor which was sticky with spilt liquor. I should probably just stay down here. The guy I’d been talking to tried to haul me back on my feet but I resisted, letting my head loll back like an infant’s. When I finally consented, the fellow pinned me between the bar and himself. I held onto his pockets so I wouldn’t slide back down.
When the bruises showed up mornings later I was in a hostel in Amsterdam. I stood in the gray light of the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror. I wore a men’s tank top with the collar torn out and I turned left and right, admiring the detail of each bruise. The tips of his fingers had left the darkest marks. The shallower the bruise became the less I could make out; the middle segments of his fingers left only smudges. They ached a little when I pushed them. Girls came in to wash their faces and glanced at me. I eyed them back in the mirror, like You don’t even know, bitch. Certainly if they did know, they wouldn’t be half as nervous or impressed.
With a bruise comes a story. And even if it’s a story about how I tripped down the stairs, it’s a story about me. Sometimes the most gorgeously grotesque bruise is obtained without my knowing how, and that invites others to speculate. A mysterious bruise appeared on the inside of my arm, dripping yellow around the muscle. I watched it expand like a tiny bomb under my flesh and then vacuum back into a freckle. One girl suggested it came when I lifted her up at a party the night before and almost fell down (I didn’t remember doing that). I may have only glanced it against my dresser, but it was more enjoyable to relay funny, irresponsible things I had done. Better still, I could see strangers examine them and, though they made no comment, I knew they had made a judgment. That I had been hit. That I was a klutz. That someone had grabbed me roughly. Any number of humiliating scenarios were checked off behind their eyes. There has been no great tragedy in my life: I was never beaten or molested, my parents are sill happy after 25 years of marriage. The bruises let me play at tragedy without every having to experience it. It was once the same with my writing. My characters always turned into drug addicts and someone was always murdered or raped or abused. I could inhabit those scenes and remain unharmed.
I made a heroine of a character in John Fowles’ The Magus, a woman who “held her mouth to give her a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more.” I liked that. It made me think of heartbreak, a story everyone but I might tell. To bruise also means to break. I’ve always wanted that ache, or at least to affect it. I want to be hurt, really, badly hurt, so I have an identifiable reason for why I feel so lousy. My most intense heartaches have been self-inflicted. I fell for a boy with a lined face, and I wanted him so badly I couldn’t even look at him. We spoke once in three years: I was drunk and accused him of stealing a cat. It was, in fact, his own pet. I never gave him the opportunity to shatter me with rejection or some terrible, gunpowder romance. I felt only the bruising of a missed chance. I might heal if I could stop milking it, pinching it nightly, wondering if he could have, did, does love me. But again, no great tragedy, no excuse for my sorrow except cowardice.
The next winter I found myself miserable and in love with someone new, so I drank two bottles of wine. I lay on the carpet, pounding the heavy glass bottoms against my hips, defining them with broken capillaries. I don’t know if injuring my hips had some sort of connection to sex and love and marriage and babies, or if it’s just that they were there. When others glimpsed those marks, they were ignored. Maybe they were too personal. No one talks about those broken heart bruises, though mine were self-inflicted.
Those bruises you only feel, the ones that don’t arrive on the surface like a cracked egg, are worse than the ugliest welt. They lay where none can see them, giving no physical proof of pain. John Lyly wrote in Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit: “The wound that bleedeth inwardly is most dangerous.” The boy from the pub bruised me again, but left no visible mark. He put the seat all the way down in his car and pulled me on top of him. A techno CD pounded in the background and he kept breaking from warm kisses to change the track, because “this next one is brilliant.” They all sounded the same. We pegged motorcyclists with water balloons from the roof of my flat. He slept beside me and kept me tucked under, against him, holding my hands tightly in his. My last night in Ireland, his brother revealed that most of the things he told me, including his name, were lies. All those little things that meant too much to me ached under my skin, and I didn’t show it to anyone.