Body Map: The Spine

Sarah Rose Etter


A year after the Russian man splits you open with a scalpel, you will look back at a desert made of crushed painkillers, the white chalk of the pills still stuck between your toes, the world still covered in that powder, that dust still clinging to your hair, your face, your skin. In dreams, this is what you choke on. In dreams, it is how you die that wakes you up.

A spine is a column that holds up a house of skin. A baby is a memory of a certain point in time. A spine doesn’t support a baby at first. At first, the limbs grow, the muscles become more like muscles, then there is a crawling, then a standing, then a walking. That is when a spine establishes itself, proves its value.

Once a baby becomes a woman, it is held up by a spine. A spine allows a woman twenty-nine years of freedoms: Walking, bending, running, fucking. A spine or a baby can both collapse, and with them the skin falls inward. This is how motion quits, how the world stops moving, how a body becomes paralyzed.

Without a spine, there is no action. Without a spine, there is only laying on carpets, staring at the same blank ceiling, the heart inside the chest a two-headed fox furred red, two mouths gnawing through the insides, trying to escape the white ribs, hungry for air, movement. The definition of hell is an absence of air, of sleep, of movement, the limbs becoming fat off paralysis.

Doctors are men with fingers that press parts. Pain is a feeling with a scale to it. A slit above the spine is a type of release. Life is a series of surgeries. Some involve knives, others involve silence.

Here is the nightmare: A row of sixteen doctors in white coats. Your body is unopened on a table. You are in the paper gown. Beneath your skin, your blood is lava, so hot the pain makes your body translucent, the ache is so great you become a light, glowing lamp-like, your eyes scattered in different directions from the pain. One by one, the doctors approach your wretched body, prone on the metal. One by one, the doctors look into your face, into your scattered eyes, and say their scripts:

We can’t find anything wrong.

You are fine.

Stop asking for pills.

All around you, the chalk floats down soft, snow dusting the heat of your skin. The powder of the pills builds and builds and builds, covering the color of the lava blaring through your veins. The dust creates small mountains on your nose, your elbows, your legs, from above you look to be coated in powdered sugar. But the throb is still there, the heat of the lava only dormant for the false winter.

All around you, you have quit your life. You’ve moved out of the city, back into your parents’ house. You’ve stopped going to work. You’ve started to lose control of your bowels. Six times a day, on average, pain rockets through your spine so sharp that you leave your body, pain beyond pain, pain beyond four letters, pain there is no language for, and you return to your body wretched on the floor.

A spine is a new home for needles, which navigate like hurt rockets through skin, sink through the flame to create a new pressure that erupts up the vertebrae. After this, there is silence in the bones, a quiet for days. This is when a two-headed fox goes to sleep or becomes more violent, chews through even more viscera to escape. This is when every hue takes on a deep calmness, or else a hand itches to write a postcard from a hell pit.

A doctor is a man who can be as wrong as a spine. A nurse is a woman who holds up a wrong man. A body is a piece of meat illuminated on large screens. A father is a man who is at a loss for words. A mother is a lap for your spinning head. Pain is a sensation that wrenches the body when it is not being blocked. A mother is a woman who will stroke your hair when you wish for death out loud.

A house is made of walls of skin. In the attic, the brain is a triangle. Vertebrae make a white ladder from skin to that shape. The most important part of living is protection from damage, the ability to climb. Everywhere, there is danger. Everywhere, there are threats to flesh. Outside of the house of skin and brain and spine there is a mouth with a tongue. A tongue is an entrance and an exit. Lips are a welcome mat or a door closing. We disagree about the eyes, whether they are windows. There is no way to prove this one way or the other.

The Russian man is bald with crossing wires above the scalp. A scalp can be a chessboard. The Russian man is a king of white cloth that bends over both glowing rays and human bodies. The Russian man determines the problem with the column in the flesh house. The Russian man says your spine has a herniated disc worse than he’s seen in 30 years. The Russian man cannot believe you can walk. The Russian man slides his thumb into your ass to determine how much rectal function you have lost over these three months.

He says:

“This is very simple. I cut you open and slide muscles to the left. I tie muscles with neat bow. Then, I cut the spine. Then, I untie bow and slide muscles back.”

Everything inside of you is a curtain. Everything can be slid and tied to reveal more. You are a canyon of organs, bones, fat deposits, possible tumors, breast tissue, ligaments, white and red viscera, and then, finally, beneath all of that, the spine, which is your main river only very still, very hard, made of bone.

The only man you have to love is the Russian man. No other man is as concerned with you, as worried. No other man frets over your form, presses his fingers against you, his fine knives. A man has never looked upon your body with such sharp eyes. The Russian man has memorized the freckles constellating on your back, the slope of your ass cresting up out of your spine, down to your legs, the landscape of your whole skin. If nothing else, you have this.

Is the Russian man a father? It is hard to know. You cannot imagine his accent at baseball games or buying small hamburgers at Wendy’s. But there is that circle of silver on the certain finger, which means there may be all of that and more, the baseball games and hamburgers, the nights in front of the television after the house has gone to sleep, tears collating at the edges of the eyes during an infomercial, when he realizes nothing will solve the lonely puzzle in his chest.

The Russian man speaks in timelines. The Russian man details a likely path of recovery. By timeline, we mean the hours it will take for the skin to mend itself. By timeline, we mean the minutes it will take for the house to make progress. By timeline, we mean the total milliseconds required for cells to regenerate over wounds.

A spine is an unclasped necklace of bone and disc. A disc is a circle of fiber. When a disc herniates in the lower back, it presses on a bundle of nerves at the base of a spine. When the bundle of nerves at the base of the spine is pressed, everything is lost; feeling, control, motor function. When the disc touches the sciatic nerve, it torches pain through the body. So much pain, the Russian man says, that you could have six children with no painkillers, that you would laugh at it now.

The Russian man says it best, says it simply, when he says it you fall even more madly in love with him, with the promise of the removal of lava from your veins.

“Inside, the disc looks like shards of crystal in blood. I remove shards.”

The night before it happens, you are swimming in painkillers in patches sucking at your skin to deliver relief, fog. The night before the Russian man splits you open, you picture him inside of you, his hands deft, sliding  small, clear fragments from your flesh, your body just a skin bag of shattered glass.

Before the Russian man there were other men who touched you. They had names and faces and an order. The last one before the incision was the tallest. At the time, that felt important. At the time, that made him a prize.

Unconsciousness happens when a man needs to create a hole in the flesh to enter. A crowd will gather around, all in white, the inverse of a wedding, unless the wedding gown is your nudity. This is a day for no makeup. This is a day to enter false sleep on your back. While you are gone, while you are in a numb landscape, you will be moved. What happens to your limbs? Does the crowd struggle to lift you and put you in different positions, so the Russian can access your spine? This is a complex question that gets at the weight of your form.

You don’t know where you go while this is happening. This is a point in time during which you stop existing. There is no accounting for these hours, for the time of the scalpels and masks. You are sure, above you, that there are eyes only. You are sure, only, that this is a medical masquerade.

Anesthesia is a form of becoming only a body. At first, the needle makes it so that only your spine disappears, all of your specific nerves blocked, the pain still there but covered by a kind ether. For hours or decades, you are held up and held down by nothing, your body columnless, a house of skin floating, the walls rippling and shifting when the wind blows.

A loss of consciousness can be reversed. A nightmare can chew on your heart for days. Spend one month with your body always parallel. This is how muscles mend. On special days, your father takes you to the pool. On those days, you can lay down in the grass, in your swimsuit, parallel to the pool, your incision healing under a layer of dry cotton, under the sun. On those days, you are forbidden to enter the water, which looks more gem-like than any day before.

You can split your life into two periods of time: Before the Russian man and after the Russian man. No matter how you describe what the Russian man did to you or the aftermath of that slicing, no one seems to understand. You can describe, at length, the pattern the stitches made up your spine. You can go on about the way your head became a permanent moon over the toilet, the contents of your stomach shooting like white rays through black night into the clear sea below.

A scar is a ghost with cells. At a desk, on weekdays, a human body is a vessel for slouching. A spine is a curved stick of chalk. The buildings all have the windows you are imagining. The people are all wearing the clothes that you wear when you go to work. They are driving their cars, drinking their coffees, wearing their shoulder pads, too. Beneath your clothes and on your body is a thin line above the vertebra, a marking where he entered you, the proof of stitches after he left.

The bathroom is beige and navy blue. Inside of it, you take your shirt off. In the mirror, you look at your mirror body, everything is a little silver, light bouncing around. You turn around and look over your shoulder at your mirror back and you see it for the first time, you see where the pain came from. The slit at the bottom of your spine is parted a bit, the stitches invisible, you can see down through your skin, all the way to the deep flesh, that dark, dark red.

The Russian man checks your healing. You’re in the paper gown in his office again, the warmth of his body familiar now. He touches your back, the incision, the muscles. He redresses your wound after he touches you, cleans his hands with sanitizer. At other times, before him, you let insane men touch you and try to heal you. One man jabbed your legs with toothpicks, another one you let inject your back full of saline to dull the pain, and the whole time, as he slid the needles into you, he kept saying Here comes the sugar water, here comes the sugar water.

At times, they will make a temporary corpse out of you. At times, there will be root canals and bad organs and wilting heart veins. At times, you are going to need to be gone from yourself so you can be worked on, so the red machinery of you can run well oiled again, so you can be fixed. Understand, you are just a soft, wet robot with bone for metal.

Nerves are inside of you and they are red. Also inside of you is a splay of deep viscera black, that horrible red that means death, that vital color. A scar is forever, a way to define a person, a way to find a certain body in a certain crowd. At some point, you can throw away all of the old feelings, you can force them into a mental fire, burn everything that mattered. At some point, you can start all over again. At some point, it will all be white.

An anniversary is a celebration of or the opposite of a celebration of a death day. Did the Russian man have small scalpels for fingers or did he have real human hands? You are always remembering him wrong, you can’t remember what his eyes looked like, there is a haze around him or a halo so bright it is hard to see anything but the top of his head, bent over you, pressing, pressing, always the pressure of him.

There are anniversaries that don’t involve cake. There is a date on the calendar that will rip your heart out with its hands. Isn’t that what an anniversary is? On August 22, don’t look for the Russian man. He won’t show up. Stop picturing him at the front door of your apartment, balloons in hand, a silly hat, that cake, with your name on it in blue.

It takes one to three years for nerves to heal after trauma, if they ever heal at all. A brain is a control board for a body. When a brain is in sustained pain for long periods of time, it rewires itself to cope. It floods itself to sustain. It changes. Studies say the brain can change back, but isn’t that always a question? Has your brain changed? It has. Will it change back? Will you know if it does? Who are you now?

A body is a flesh house. A body is holding you. A body is a flimsy thing and all around us are dangers. Most anything can pierce skin, most objects or accidents can draw blood. An unbleeding body is a blessing, practically a miracle. If all of your limbs are in tact, be very careful. If all of your limbs are in tact, you are temporary porcelain. If all of your limbs are in tact, spend the next hours, minutes, seconds waiting for the shattering to happen. The next shattering is always coming.