Shadow Sacrament

Georges Antoine Rochegross, "The Death of Messalina" (Detail)

Georges Antoine Rochegross, “The Death of Messalina” (Detail)

Ah, touched in your bower of bone
Are you! turned for an exquisite smart,
Have you! make words break from me here all alone,
Do you! — mother of being in me, heart.

– G.M. Hopkins

We tend to think of words as invisible, as notional or suggestive. As a veneer for meaning. But words, you see, are sacramental – like the rest of the world. They mediate the real. They symbolize, participate in, invite and educate in meaning. Like the rest of the world, you see.

Words have touch. That is how I think of them. They reach and pull and bend, communicate and conceal. As our touches do.

I went to the dentist today, and I was not looking forward to the touch of metal instruments and cool hands. I am not afraid of dentists. I don’t hate them like some people do. But touch disturbs me, and the glint of sharp tools leaves me cold. I am not afraid of dentists, but I am afraid of anything that reminds me of anything I hate to remember. And I hate to remember touch and tools.

Sights and sounds and physical pressure, gestures and gazes and more: these are sacraments, too. They are real; they bear what is real; they bear us into what is real.

I followed the hygienist down the hallway to our room, and on the way I caught sight of a young girl laying down in a chair. Saw her splayed out underneath a spinning tool. I shivered and looked away.

“What have you been up to?” the hygienist asked, gesturing toward the empty chair in the empty room.

I placed my jacket in a corner, movements measured and muted. “I am a professor.”

I am good at words. I am aware that I am good at words. Their light touch takes a shape that I am especially adept at attending and guiding. Gently. Always gently. I speak and write with practiced precision, searching for just the moment when my words seem as if they have no touch at all, no pressure: you want to look where I want you to see. Your heart takes you there, just where my words leave you be.

I’ll not have seemed to convince you at all. You’ll have already thought it somewhere secretly. It’ll already be yours, even if I have given it.

“Beautiful,” people say, staring me in the face. Eyes wide, vulnerable. Features softer, younger.


Meaning is beautiful. And vulnerable. And – always – young.

A few weeks ago, I sat quietly in a large, cushioned chair across from my therapist. Holding some coffee in my lap, barely occupying the expanse of the seat. I am naturally small, my mother’s Sicilian heritage reflected in my diminutive frame. Always lean, I have thinned considerably of late. I somehow take up even less space. I’ve been taking better care of myself, though its ironic outcome has been my own physical winnowing.

“I want to mention something that I remember from early on in this process,” my therapist began. I watched him, open and attentive. Holding hard-earned trust. He is soft-spoken, slender, intelligent. I hardly knew what to guess, what it was he meant to surface from those embattled early days. I was cagey and angry then, avoiding much. Lashing at myself with tears and words – if not a knife. Reserving absolutely none of the gentleness I had for others for myself. Remembering those days, I waited, listening.

There is much waiting in being a patient. I am good at being a patient. Sometimes I think of the old word passio, in Latin, which means “to endure” or “to change.” A good patient endures. A patient person is someone who knows how to endure.

I hate that. Enduring.

My therapist looked at me: “You reacted strongly, once. When I asked about the couch.”

I glanced at it, off to the side. A therapeutic couch, narrow and soft. With a pillow. A bit like you might see in a TV version of therapy, which of course is mostly lies, with a patient reclining and remembering as a bespectacled therapist listens with notebook in hand. My eyes flicked to the closed office door. Then back.

Everything in me seized. I felt a lopsided smile pull across my face before I could even think, automatically masking the terror that spread out cold in my chest. He mirrored my grin. These small gestures calm those in whom I sense a threat. Some tiny corner of my mind howled, wordless and raw. The rest of me bent, invisible, in a poised crouch. Every mental power at the ready.

Just as I was in the damn dentist’s office, weeks later. Poised and alert yet calm and affable, gently accepting instructions. Offering nothing by way of explicit resistance, even as the whole of me was prepared to disappear with any touch I found too much to bear.

It didn’t even take a touch, of course. Just an X-ray machine that she asked me to stand in front of, fitting my small frame underneath its bent arms. I clenched my teeth over fitted grooves. There was a mirror. I watched my own thin face become someone else’s as the machine whirred to life and spun. I vanished.

It never touched me. It didn’t have to.

I remember too many machines. The various colors of my bones and veins and organs. The searching digital gazes.

Maybe you know what it is like to vanish before someone else’s eyes. Maybe it happened, once, in a bitter argument: and you knew then that the person in front of you saw nothing about you at all. Can you imagine digital eyes? Will you add the touch and cut of a scalpel? The whispered command to hold still?

Even a word is enough, sometimes. It was just one word. Weeks ago. Just a couch. Just a word.

And not at all.

I held still, coffee clutched in my lap. “What about it?”

Defer, I thought. Distance. Make him say it.

He paused, seemed aware of the challenge. “What do you think about it?”

“The couch?” I swallowed, glancing at the closed door again. Run, the ragged voice in the back of my mind hissed. I held still, commanding a rush of horrible memories into silence with gritted teeth. Distraction would do me no good. I looked at my therapist, watching him. No distractions. I needed to watch him, now. Because now he was a threat, and I am very small. I swallowed again, struggling to find where my trust had gone. “I think,” I said, voice low, “I think if you asked me to even sit on it, I’d try to run out of this room.”

(Not that I really would. I didn’t, at the dentist’s office.)

“I didn’t ask you to do anything,” he clarified, “just think about it.”

I waited, mouth shut. Disbelieving.

“I think it means something important,” he explained. “I know it’s very painful for you, but I’m trying to do right by you.”

Memories clawed at the peripheries of my thoughts. I glanced at the couch, back at my therapist, at the door. Waited for him to command me to lay down, waited for his betrayal. I held still.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Just a couch. Just laying down. Just a doctor asking me to lay down. And he hadn’t even – yet. Not yet.

“What would you do,” he asked, “if I asked you to lay down?”

I scowled, which was the utmost aggression I felt I could show. “I’d probably do it, if you asked. I wouldn’t want to. But I’d go away, and then I’d do it.”

You never run, the bitter voice said to me. I blinked at tears.  I would vanish – the self we have, the self we take for granted, the self we obsess over, the self we try to meditate away, would vanish – and the rest of me would be left to hear commands, to mechanically respond, to nod and obey. This is called dissociation. It is how the mind protects itself from things too awful to comprehend.

Just a chair. Just laying down.

“I haven’t asked you anything,” my therapist tried.

I held still. Waiting.

What an irony, to know I’d lay down weeks later. With ambiguous willingness. I’m not afraid of the dentist. I’m a fully grown adult, and I’ve seen much worse than their damn cleaning tools. Much worse. With much darker intentions.

So what do I care about a dentist? Nothing I can’t handle, except how it bears what I can’t. Except the touch and gaze that mimics the ones I wish I never knew at all. The present sacraments of the unspeakable past.

“There is so much to say,” my therapist said, existing somewhere I didn’t understand, level and even. “So much you have never been allowed to say. Can you not even say what you think when you feel terrified?”

Ice spread through my veins, tears threatening. I shifted slightly, mind collapsing, scattering apart. I thought of being dragged and held down. I thought of hands. Sharp, glinting objects. Needles and knives. A hand covering my mouth. Silence. Those hands holding me down. Forcing me to lay down.

In an instant. A small eternity.

Just lay down. It’s just a couch. Just a word.

Isn’t it?

I opened my mouth, but no word offered itself. I swallowed, shrinking in my seat. A tremor ran its way through my whole body and remained, like the trembling spark and hum of a broken electric wire. I tried to hold still. Tried not to move my hands. Tried to make sure he didn’t see.

I opened my mouth, and a voice weaker than the one I know as my own reached my ears. Strange and soft and so, so afraid. “Please. Don’t hurt me.”

I couldn’t look at him.

He breathed deep, pain etched on his face. “It will follow you until you face it.” Follow me down the street. Into a dentist’s chair. Into every touch I’ve ever received. “You need to let someone in with you.”

I nodded but said nothing, unable to picture anything but strong hands gripping me and dragging me down.

There is no meaning there, where the shadows are. In the depthless darkness that has bequeathed itself to all the gestures of my life, a somber sacrament that somehow perpetuates itself. That somehow will not cease. And the only way out is back into the middle of it, where the hands and needles are. I have to go back there.

Do you even want to look, reader, where I need to see? Where there aren’t any beautiful words, and no gentle touches?

I don’t know that I do, except that I do anyway – every time anything takes the shape of that dark place.

I have to return tomorrow to fix some cavities.

I’m not excited.


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