I hold the razor blade carefully between thumb and forefinger. Double-edged and old, it bears the greyish-blue patina of silver plate locked away between company visits, stored somewhere dark and cluttered where little hands aren’t meant to pry. There are many such things in this house, the house where I have lived since I was born some sixteen years ago. This razor blade is one of the more tangible.
I found it in the medicine cabinet at the end of the upstairs hall between my bedroom and my parents’, in a small flat box faded with age, blurry red, dirty white, imprinted with a brand name that I can’t remember. How long that box had been there before I relocated it to the back of my desk drawer I don’t know. As far back as I can remember my father has shaved with an electric razor, one I hear buzzing around his sagging face like a swarm of angry insects every morning while I lie in my bed in the dark, trying to get up the courage to come out from under the covers and get ready for school. The medicine cabinet is full of strange and mysterious things my family has collected, it seems, since the dawn of time: wizened tubes of patent ointments no longer made, with dark crusts around their screw-on tops; old toothbrushes with bristles bent and deformed from past use; half-full bottles of prescription medications with expiration dates years old. My parents grew up during the Great Depression; they never throw anything away.
There are a few newer things too: the tube of toothpaste currently in use, the big pharmacist’s bottle of thick, yellow and pink tablets my mother sometimes takes for her headaches, the smaller bottle nearly full of yellow, aspirin-sized Valium. Sometimes, when I can’t stop crying, I sneak one of these, knowing that my father, for whom they were prescribed, will never miss it.
Blood blossoms on the soft skin of legs exposed to the thigh by the cut-offs I am wearing this humid, July evening: a red track below the knee, angling along the curve from the shinbone to the back of my calf. Thin at first in the razor’s wake, the cut widens as the flesh parts and the blood ooze becomes a steady trickle. I make another slice below and parallel to the first, vaguely intrigued by how little I feel. For months I have intermittently been practicing this kind of self-mutilation and it is always the same. I do not feel the razor. I do not feel anger, or self-hatred or despair. I do not have any real intent to hurt myself. In fact, I have very little consciousness of myself at all. Sometimes I think this is why I do it, to shock myself into feeling. Sometimes I think that there is a thing inside me trying to get out and breaching the walls of my body is the only way it knows how.
Afterwards I often feel a kind of peace, like the lessening of tension that follows masturbation. As with that too, there is a dissonant mixture of shame and desire, of doing something I have been brought up to believe is wrong but can’t stop until the process reaches its own conclusion: a transcendent experience that by its very nature violates all codes of acceptable behavior. I think about how masturbation has been euphemistically referred to as “self abuse,” and while I have taught myself not to subscribe to the term, I know the two are inextricably linked.
When the episode is over, both of my legs are crossed with fine red tracks from knee to ankle and I am covered in blood. It still runs thickly from the wounds and for the first time I know a frisson of fear. Although I have often thought it would be a great relief not to be, I am not consciously trying to kill myself. If I had been, this would be a poor attempt in any case; even I can see that the cuts I have made are largely superficial. Still, I am afraid. It is as if I have been somewhere else, watching disinterestedly as some stranger made this use of my body and though this time I have survived, I don’t know what will happen the next time the stranger moves in, or the time after that.
I reach for the phone. It is an old, black rotary model on a long cord; sometime in the afternoon I dragged it across the hall from my parents’ room, almost as if I knew I would need it later. I dial my friend, Vicki, whom I have known since first grade.
“I really messed myself up,” I say when she answers, knowing this will not shock her. She knows everything there is to know about me. “I’m scared.”
“I can’t talk right now. You need to hang up,” she replies, and then she is gone. I stare at the receiver for a minute before replacing it in the cradle, wondering if her dismissal has hurt me. I think about calling someone else. There is no one else to call.
I sit in the squashy green armchair that used to be my father’s before the bottom springs began to fall out and he replaced it with a recliner, and I talked my mother into letting me have it for my room rather than send it to Goodwill. Outside my bedroom window the summer sky is the hazy lavender of the long, Michigan twilight. The neighbour kids are screaming at each other as they roller skate up and down the street in front of my house; somewhere a radio is playing the latest Disco hit by Donna Summer. I think I am no longer bleeding, but I don’t bother to check.
The phone rings. I ignore it, knowing it is not for me. Presently I hear the stairs creak, followed by the muffled swish of tennis shoes on the upstairs carpet. My bedroom door opens and my mother is there in the navy polyester shorts and navy- and white-striped boat shirt she wears for gardening in the evenings. She has been cleaning up the kitchen after a dinner that I didn’t eat; her face is a little flushed and curls of her greying hair are stuck to her forehead with sweat.
“Katie?” Her voice is brisk, businesslike. This is the voice she uses to speak the sympathetic mother words at times when she knows it is her job to do so. Her inflection makes them something not far short of an accusation, like speaking a foreign language where a difference in intonation turns love to hate.
“That was Vicki. She says you’re upset and that I should check on…”
She sees me then and snaps her mouth shut, her lips tightening into a thin line of disapproval. I have seen the same expression on her face when a cake she is baking for a teachers’ meeting fails to turn out the way it should, or when our old tomcat sprays in the house. Something has made more work for her when it ought to have known better.
“Oh, Katie!” She sighs, a sound dripping with anger that she cannot let herself express in any coherent fashion, perhaps cannot even let herself feel. In our house, anger is not sanctioned.
“Oh, Katie! How can you do this to me?”