I show the scars to Jason. “Do you understand?” I ask. “Does it make sense?”
It’s Sunday. I’ve finally stopped putting off telling him, now that we’re getting serious. He is sitting across from me, at my kitchen table, tousling his bedhead. We squint through the morning sun, ignoring the half-cantaloupe untouched between us. “No,” he says. He’s looking at me like he’s never seen me before. I’m nursing a sliced thumb, which I’ve just cut at the sink, rinsing the melon knife. The dishwater turned pink, like clouds in a sunset. Jason noticed and grabbed my hand. “You’re bleeding, bad!” he gasped, looking down at the floor, at the trail of red scattered across the tile like breadcrumbs.
“I can feel pain,” I explain again, sticking a fork in the cantaloupe and leaving it there. “But it’s like a pressure. It doesn’t hurt. So I don’t—can’t—really care about it.”
“Like that guy from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?” Jason asks. He stares down at my fingertips, my thumb, frowning.
“No,” I reply. “That guy, that character, he couldn’t feel pain at all. Me, I feel it. It just doesn’t hurt. Asymbolia.”
“I don’t get how that’s possible.” Jason exhales, dropping his head into his hands. I want to tell him that I don’t either, really. I was just born with it. But it’s my body, so I’m responsible for it. I’m supposed to understand it when other people don’t, and explain it to them.
“Well, pain has a sensory component,” I say. “And an affective one. One that makes you feel, one that makes you react. I don’t have the second one.”
Jason peers at me through his fingers. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. So that’s not even, like, a bad thing.”
He’s looking at me like he’s never seen me before
I wish it weren’t a bad thing. To someone who’s experienced it, I imagine, it’s nice to think of a life without hurting. Hurting makes people squirm, makes them uncomfortable, makes them cry. That’s all I can really gather from what my mother, my childhood friends, my exes, and my doctors have explained to me. From what I see. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to imagine what it’s like, but I can’t.
“Kind of,” I tell Jason. “It’s nice, I guess, not being bothered by small cuts and things like that. But it’s dangerous, too. I could puncture a lung or something, and not even realize it.”
“But if you feel a sensation in your lungs, wouldn’t you know?” Jason asks.
“It’s a feeling, yes, but it’s like a touch, or a tickle.” I graze his arm with my hand. “Like that. It doesn’t feel bad, so my brain doesn’t know that something bad has happened to my body. For all I know, it’s a hiccup.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he sighs, lifting his head from his hands.
“It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.” I look down at the tougher, stiffer skin on five of my fingers, trying to remember what it looked like before. Jason reaches across the table and takes my hand in his. I don’t know what’s coming. Did I wait too long? Six months? Guys have broken up with me over this before; it’s too weird, they say. They’re right. Pain, and hurting from pain, is normal, and being immune is not. It’s un-human. Knowing this, I think, is the closest to hurting I’ll get.
I wait for the breakup speech, but it doesn’t come. “Don’t worry,” Jason whispers, gripping my hand. “It doesn’t change the way I see you.” I know he’s squeezing me hard, watching me carefully for my reaction, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s new to him, all of it, and he hasn’t left yet, not like the others have.
We go to Great Falls around one, just to walk. It smells like rainwater. The trees along the path aren’t yellow anymore, and brown leaves are clumped in slippery piles on the dirt. “You’d make the best MMA fighter,” Jason says, kicking a rock along the path with his foot. “No pain aversion. Superhuman stamina.”
I cannot blame him for wanting to talk about it. “I know it seems really interesting,” I say, “but it’s really just healthiest for me to live normally.” Whatever normal is; if you can be normal without hurting.
“What about emotional pain?” he asks. “Can you feel that?”
“Yes, I can feel it all, remember? I can be upset. I just don’t get bothered by the… physical manifestations.” I think of how Dad died. I was five, barely old enough to understand that cancer wasn’t an illness you could fix with Tylenol and soup. Once I realized I’d never see him again, I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore, and then I stopped eating. Mom begged me to eat, cooked me waffles and spaghetti and all the things I liked best, but I refused. The pain of the emptiness in my furiously growling stomach didn’t bother me, so I didn’t have to give in to it. The counselors said I was just grieving. I lost five pounds.
We walk quietly for a few minutes, and then Jason stops abruptly. “So, do you flinch, ever?” he asks. His brow is furrowed.
“Not really,” I answer. “I don’t hurt, which means I don’t anticipate harm.”
“So the whole point of hurting is your body telling you there’s harm?”
I nod. Jason exhales. His breath hangs in the air for a split second. “I’m serious,” he says. “This could be like a superpower. You could do so much stuff without hurt holding you back.”
The only thing I can think of to say is, “Yeah.” Jason takes my hand and we continue to walk down the path. I do like being outside, outside with him. It wasn’t until I left home that I got to roam freely; once we learned that I was asymbolic, after Dad’s death, Mom was too afraid I’d be careless and get hit by a bus—when you aren’t bothered by pain, you have no reason to avoid things that could give you pain. I used to chew through my lower lip with my teeth and pick the skin off of my knees until they bled. When the doctors finally figured it out, Mom made me flashcards so I would learn normal causes of danger, things to avoid or run away from, things that I wouldn’t know intuitively. There were over a hundred of them, printed on index cards. The backs contained photos gathered from newspapers, magazines, and library computers, all depicting horrific accident scenes: a fiery car crash on the shoulder of the highway. A woman’s leg, badly broken, the bone protruding from the thigh, after a bike collision. Bloody knuckles and a mouthful of broken teeth. Sometimes, when I’m on my own, I stay indoors anyway. To be preventative.
I used to chew through my lower lip with my teeth and pick the skin off of my knees until they bled
“I can’t believe I never noticed,” Jason mutters, shaking his head.
“I don’t really broadcast it. I try to be cautious.” When I drive, I am slow and defensive, unwilling to take risks. I look both ways, twice, before crossing the street.
Jason picks up a twig and twirls it between his fingers. “I wish I knew what it was like for you.”
I like that Jason is a curious person. We met at Roots, the ultra-organic hippie grocery store downtown, when I worked there over the summer for extra cash. He was new to the city, having just signed to do PR for Georgetown Athletics, and didn’t know where to get cheaper, less exotic groceries. At checkout, he laid a deluge of items onto the belt I’d never seen before. Taro cubes, tiger nuts, green spirals of romanesco cauliflower. “I don’t know what any of this stuff is,” he grinned as he took his credit card out of his wallet. “I just want to try.”
Now, I think of my mother again, telling me to be careful. I wonder how we would have spent our afternoons when I was younger if we hadn’t spent them memorizing the flashcards. “I wish I knew what it was like for you, too.”
Jason peels some of the smaller fibers off of the twig before dropping it on the ground. “I don’t think you’d like it any better,” he chuckles. He points at a rockier path, off to the side of the main path. “Want to take the Billy Goat trail?”
My shoes don’t have much grip on them, but Jason is already walking towards the trail marker. “Wait, Jason!” I start to say, looking down at my beat-up Nikes. They’re made for going to the gym, for easy walking.
“It’ll be fine!” Jason says, nodding his head in the direction of the trail. He’s already excited. “I’ll help you.”
When we first started dating—after Jason admitted that the reason he started shopping at Roots every other day wasn’t that he needed groceries—we went bowling, indoor rock climbing, even waterskiing, once. “You’re seriously ride or die,” he told me while we wriggled out of our sweaty life jackets. “Like, down for anything. I love it.” I glowed under the praise, and Jason chattered about future adventures on the drive home while I happily picked at a splinter I got on the dock. Now, I look between the trees, at the land between them. The trail isn’t that steep, and the orange markers don’t say anything about hazards. What’s the worst that could happen?
I manage to steer the conversation away from me, onto other things, as we ascend the thin, rocky path overlooking the Potomac. While we chat about reruns of The Office, I focus on my balance, picturing what it would be like to fall a hundred feet down, into the river. The image reminds me to be careful, to step only where the rocks are steady. Despite the difficulty of the land, I feel more at ease here, talking about television, than I did on the main path; discussing my asymbolia tends to make me think of Dad, and whether the cancer was painful at the end. Maybe, if he’d been like me, dying would have been easier on him. I wish the asymbolia were something I could trade away, to people who actually need it.
We’re almost done with the loop within an hour and a half. Jason is fast, and I feel my feet sliding on the damp rocks as I widen my steps to keep up. The final stretch of the trail is steep, and Jason shuffles down on his thick-soled boots, clinging with his hands to crags in the adjacent rocks. They are too far for me to reach. I start to just slide down after him, but I stop, thinking again of the flat, slippery shoes on my feet. Thinking of the flashcards. I do not know how dangerous it would be to tumble down fifteen feet of rocky, 70-degree-angle earth, but I don’t want Jason to have to clean up my mess. I imagine trying to get to the car, dripping blood, with bone sticking out of my skin.
I focus on my balance, picturing what it would be like to fall a hundred feet down, into the river
“I don’t know if I can do it without falling,” I call after Jason. He’s waiting for me at the bottom of the incline. “I need a hand.”
He looks up at me for a moment, picking at some dirt on his jeans. “You totally can do it,” he says. There’s a slight, eager smile to his eyes. “If anyone can, it’s you.”
I wiggle my feet in place, just slightly. They slide with ease on the wet mud. “I can, I guess, but I’d really rather just have help.” Jason looks up at me. Maybe the smile had been a trick of the light. I feel high-maintenance, needy. “Or I’ll just sit down and slide down it like that,” I offer.
“No, no,” Jason sighs, “you’ll track mud in the car.” He plants his feet in a lunge and leans towards me, into the middle of the path. I take his hand and inch down the incline until I’m closer to level ground and he lets go. We’re quiet as we walk to the car, and I fiddle with my jacket to avoid looking up, hoping the silence isn’t an angry one.
The fender-bender happens on our way home. Jason’s driving. My frustration in myself has passed, Jason is talkative again, and we chat about fun, stupid things, like Marvel movies and Twitter and how to pronounce the word isthmus. The roads are still slippery, and a white sedan catches water as it merges, briefly grazing the front passenger side of Jason’s Acura with a crunch like chewing toffee. The Acura skids for a moment as Jason hits the brakes, then it is steady. We pull over to look at the damage, but the sedan doesn’t stop and instead speeds onto the loop for the Barton Parkway. Jason fumbles with his phone, trying to catch the sedan’s license plate on camera.
“Shit,” he says. The photos are blurry. “What were those numbers again? After the Q?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know, I’m sorry.”
Jason rubs his neck, wincing. “God, I’m stiff. I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t have time to deal with this. I have work tomorrow, I can’t take my car in.”
I nod sympathetically. “But at least no one was injured,” I say.
Jason turns away from the road, towards me. “Why didn’t you tell me that guy was merging? He was on your side.” His voice is steady, quiet, and calm.
“You were driving, Jason,” I reply. “Not me.” I cast my eyes down and see that Jason’s fists are clenched, his knuckles white, almost green. He puts them in his pockets when I look.
“Are you sure,” he asks, “that you didn’t just notice, and not care enough to say anything?”
“What?” I feel the blood rush to my face. It’s tingling pink in the cold air.
“You knew you wouldn’t get hurt, right?” Jason continues. “So, no trigger.”
Did I see the white Sedan coming up on us? “I wasn’t driving, Jason,” I say. “The passenger doesn’t check the mirrors every minute.” As the words leave my mouth, I’m not sure whether or not they’re true.
“So it’s my fault that guy is a dipshit?” Jason takes a step towards me. His neck is red, but his voice is still even.
“N-no,” I stammer. “It’s his fault he hit you, not yours, but also not mine.” I’ve never seen Jason angry. Maybe I deserve it—maybe someone more vigilant about harm would have noticed the other car. Maybe it is my fault. I grit my teeth, hard, wishing I knew if I was clenching my jaw enough to damage it.
Jason takes another step closer to me. “You don’t even flinch,” he says. “Ever. You’re not scared.”
“Of what, Jason? The other car is gone. We aren’t seriously injured.”
He laughs and steps closer to me again. “It’s ridiculous,” he says softly. “Do you see that?”
I back away, towards the car, just so he isn’t standing on top of me, inside my space. He’s so close I can feel his breath graze the top of my head. I frown up at him, waiting for him to take another step. Is he going to touch me? I try to feel afraid, to feel some sort of fight-or-flight response, to feel if I have anything to worry about, but I can’t. People are more complicated than tragedies on flashcards. My pulse beats against my skin as I wrack my brain, frantic, for the right response, for the response Jason is looking for. The normal response.
But he does not touch me. He relaxes, just a little. “You’re breathing heavy,” he says, and I realize I’m panting, exhausted from confusion. To Jason, it must look like fear. The heat begins to drain out of his neck as he watches me struggle to catch my breath. He clears his throat. “Let’s just get back in the car. It’s driveable, and that jerk isn’t coming back.”
I try to feel afraid, to feel some sort of fight-or-flight response, to feel if I have anything to worry about, but I can’t
I stay standing where I am as Jason gets in, letting the chilly breeze strike my cheeks. The dent on my side of the car is shallow and long, tinged with streaks of white paint from the sedan. The moment in which I think I should have felt fear—just maybe—is gone, like perhaps it never existed at all. Maybe the hike, the talk, and the recollection of the flashcards made me paranoid.
Jason takes my hand when I slide into the car. “I’m sorry I upset you. It’s not really your fault.” His eyes are wide staring into mine, and I nod and try to smile. “I just am trying to process all of this,” he says. He squeezes my hand again, softer this time, I think.
“It’s okay,” I say, looking down at the scars, at the fingertips of my left hand. I was six when I stuck the needles in them, deep. I took them from my mother’s sewing kit, which had been left out on the coffee table, and jammed them into my skin, one by one, until blood trickled down my arm and soaked into the carpet, leaving behind a blackish stain. Only the very tops of the needles stuck out, five silver dots protruding from a fleshy red mess. I giggled as I ran the fingers of my other hand across the wounds, skimming them like a sickening braille. My mother shrieked and went pale when she found me, and I just smiled up at her, thinking my fingers looked pretty, like her earlobes, like jewelry. She asked me a lot of questions and took me to the hospital and cried, and I cried because she was crying, but not because I was hurting. Never because I was hurting.
Jason smiles and puts his hand back on the steering wheel. The heaviness of the confusion filling my chest begins to evaporate. Jason isn’t mad, and nothing has changed between us, not really. A fluttering feeling grows in my stomach as we merge off of the shoulder and back onto the highway, and I know it could be something else, but it’s probably just affection.
ART BY DÁNIEL TAYLOR
Dániel Taylor is a Hungarian graphic designer who playfully merges double exposure with collages and illustration. His designs take you on a trip through time and space, into the depths of forests and the realms of our galaxy in search of natural beauty. Instagram @mrtaylordani
Kyra Kondis lives in Dallas, Texas, and studies creative writing at Southern Methodist University as an undergraduate student. She currently works part-time in marketing and reads first-round submissions for The Southwest Review. In August, she will begin her MFA in fiction at George Mason University. Twitter: @kyra_nicole_k