I’d never been carried horizontally before. It’s mildly nauseating. The ceiling runs away like a tunnel from a train, room-corridor-lift-corridor. They park me in the operating theatre lobby, waiting for the preceding surgery to finish. Someone decided petrol blue made a good hospital colour. The medical assistants float around in blue Crocs, blue smocks. I’m also in a smock, laid out on a stretcher, paper bracelet round my wrist, compression stockings up to my groin to protect against thrombosis. None of it’s mine, everything I brought with me got left in the room, including my nail varnish. We need to be able to check oxygen levels during surgery, the nurse in the room said, before going to get nail varnish remover. Write to me, write to me, because other than your letters, I’ve nothing of my own, wrote Camilo Pessanha in Macau. I met his great-grandchildren when I went to Macau, after moving out of my last house. That was almost a year ago.
For years I could count how many houses I’d lived in, ten, fifteen, twenty. It’s like counting lovers: there comes a point when the hand lets go of the rope (and I kissed people I didn’t sleep with, and I slept with people I didn’t kiss). I think about when I was in Mexico and, without having taken any kind of drugs, I saw time converge. I don’t feel like thinking chronologically. I’m laid out on a stretcher in Lisbon, I have thousands of books in Alfama, suitcases near the Benfica ground, books and suitcases in Xabregas, and all that remained in Rio de Janeiro, boxes from my last house in Baixo Gávea, phone bills in Alto Jardim Botânico, a computer in Praça São Salvador; tenants, best friends, ex-boyfriends; guardians from both camps. I’m more of a third camp. I hesitate when asked for my address on forms.
Moving to Brazil was like jumping off the Titanic. My Lisbon house in Alfama was sinking under the weight of so many books. But when I jumped, it didn’t sink, maybe because the weight was mine. A man who lived there afterwards said the house actually was a ship, always at water level. A ship run aground, loft in the crow’s nest.
Living out of two suitcases, make believe. Two suitcases soon make a home, like a type of lizard, salamander or starfish. After a month in Rio, my two suitcases had become a semi-jungled house where once in a while I could hear the whistle of a ghost ship, no doubt blown in from Alfama. A semi-jungled house allows you to cry out when you’re screwing, but that’s not really much of an issue in Rio de Janeiro, a city with sun, sea, sand and motels. Rio has motels tucked away in the back of beyond and motels advertised on the backs of buses, right in front of your face. In Rio de Janeiro, motels are a sort of coming-of-age novel, part of the general bibliography. It’s hard to find a Carioca who hasn’t screwed in a motel. The haves have houses, but everyone has a body.
Aged twenty, I thought the body led to the world. At forty, I think the world leads to the body. Besides, laid out on a stretcher, you are your only home.
Spotlights, LED lamps, millions of watts: the operating table is a stage; they slide me off the stretcher and I enter the scene. It’s cold, the germicidal cold of a fridge, but a nurse promptly sticks a pipe of hot air between the sheet and my right shoulder. Meanwhile, another nurse pierces my left wrist to make a bifurcation for all the liquids soon to come, including the anaesthetic. The anaesthetist arrives wearing a headscarf so colourful I think a pirate has come to administer my anaesthetic. He jovially asks me which anaesthetic I’d prefer, as if discussing favourite ice cream flavours. He recommends the general anaesthetic, I ask if it’s mind-altering, he says no. If it was, I’d have had an altered mind almost my whole life, because I had my first general anaesthetic before I could even read. Regardless, given that I’m about to undergo a transverse incision, I want to be unconscious. That premodern nightmare: seeing your own body cut open.
‘There’s no chance of waking up in the middle of it, is there?’
Shaman in the Amazon consider the body a hollow object that ancestors and other spirits can occupy during ceremonies. The body is a commune, the same way that the house, which the Amazon Indians call a ‘hollow’ or ‘communal hut’, is a body commune where different eras coexist, one on top of the other, ancestors buried underground and those in the vault of the heavens, above. Body-house-cosmogony.
Of the Amazon Indian tribes I encountered in Alto Rio Negro, only men took part in shaman ceremonies. Some allowed women to join in if they were over fifty, once they’d stopped menstruating. Rules vary from tribe to tribe, but the Amazon Indians I met wouldn’t let me drink ayahuasca, the tea they use in rituals, made from boiling a hanging vine with a special leaf. It’s said that ayahuasca can give you the sensation of leaving your own body.
When my scar heals, I’ll go back to Brazil. When I go back, I’ll be invited to try ayahuasca. When I accept, I’ll tell someone in Lisbon, who’ll say:
‘So, if your body’s your house, you’re running away from home.’
And I’ll say yes, before thinking: not exactly. Because you don’t have to run away from home: you can just leave.
One cup of ayahuasca will be enough. I’ll see bubbling cauldrons, eyes spinning, bodies in seizure, shaking, people beating the root of the plant, vomiting out black jets. I’ll see all this from the hyperlucidity of the stomach, the exodus of man from within man. And I won’t leave.
Staying home is to take the long way round.
The smile of the pirate-anaesthetist above me, a bit like the Joker. Will I dream? Cut (I don’t even remember feeling tired).
Two weeks later, I’ll ask the surgeon for a report: Start: 13h. End: 15h. Skin Prep: iodine solution. Type of incision: Pfannenstiel [one finger above the pubic symphysis]. Suture threads: Reabsorbent multifilament, vicryl, calibre 1/0. Macroscopic description: White nodules, with a whirlpool appearance, located in the submucosal and intramural areas, in the anterior wall, posterior wall and fundus. But only by seeing the photos on her computer screen will I understand what we’re talking about: a lump like an elephant’s sore foot, the equivalent of an eighteen-week pregnancy.
I can’t think of a better way of describing it: the white nodules look just like elephant toenails.
I therefore spent a good part of my Brazilian life with a four-and-a-half-month pregnant belly. What’s inside a woman’s belly? Even medical science doesn’t know before it opens it up. The transverse incision can be followed by a longitudinal one, when the malady has spread higher up. One scar becomes two, though it’s still a laparotomy, which merely means an incision to access the abdominal cavity. Walt Whitman sang the body electric, from drop of the ears to toes, from inward and outward round to man-balls, and managed never to speak of the belly. And yet it’s the first home of all mammals, home of the beginning and the end, when the blood stops flowing and women cease being considered a threat, even today. Ancestors are still with us.
The belly of a woman, that’s to say (here we go): large intestine, small intestine, liver, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, bladder. A uterus is the size of a fist, I learned from Angélica Freitas, a writer from southern Brazil, who so named her second book of poems. I remember her saying that lots of people were sceptical of the title because of the word uterus. They feared it sounded like a feminist pamphlet, nothing against feminism, everything against pamphlets. Though Brazil, if it’s possible to speak of Brazil in general, has more against feminism than it has against pamphlets. Freitas kept the title, and thus one of those books the canon would never think of emerged. Hats off. If the canon can think of it, why write it?
As for the male belly, thank you to all the feminists who fought hard so that I can sing:
Men / so good
whenever I feel like it.
One: I know who I am. Two: I’m on a stretcher. Three: it’s over (I put my hand on my belly, a huge coating). Four: pain, nausea. Five: dry mouth, no voice coming out. Six: raise the arm, raise the arm. Seven: people on stretchers, sound distant. Eight: raise the arm, raise the arm. Nine: a nurse comes, gives me a little stick with a sponge on the end. Ten: the universe is a trickle of water on a sponge. Eleven: morphine, hemlock, something. Twelve: raise the little stick like a traffic policeman. Thirteen: a nurse comes, says it’s time to go. Fourteen: something gets poked into my left wrist. Fifteen: you have good veins, says the nurse who perforates my wrist. Sixteen: I can remember this, I ought to be able to remember everything. Seventeen: raising the little stick, raising the little stick. Eighteen: a nurse comes, plunges the little stick into a glass of water. Nineteen: more morphine, hemlock, something. Twenty: a nurse comes, says it will pass. Post-anaesthesia care unit, what a name.
Night. Room. Slow motion. A face leans down to my face, moves back up, speaks. Gives me the little stick with the sponge. I squeeze it against my lips, I still haven’t got my voice back. It’s like a film with a split screen: soundtrack above, mute below.
Only one body fits in a hospital bed. Internment: the turn-of-the-screw of the body upon itself.
The body is transitory to those who believe in God, sequential to those who have children, but in the post-operation fog, I think of it as an end in itself, chemical matter, quantum, definitively pagan, a house that is its own sky, where sex is a shaman, with no vines or grass.
Anti-erotic fog. No sex last night (nor the next ninety nights).
The surgeon uncovers the scar. A line as thin as a thread dividing the body. My idea of a scar comes from the First World War, a hole in one side or the other, like a trench. But there’s no feeling when I touch its surrounds, it’s a no-man’s-land. Rosa Mosqueta oil; a long list of medicine and Rosa Mosqueta oil. I’d never heard the name before. I Google it. Rosa affinis rubiginosa, pretty, no? A healing rose. Perhaps it grows with the other roses in the gardens of Kabul. Perhaps it has grown there since the days when the dividing line between Persia and Afghanistan was as thin as the scar.
Shabnam Shabazi, a Britain of Iranian origin, has a project called Body House. Performance, theatre, video, sound, text, installation. It references the series Femme-maison by Louise Bourgeois. It’s inspired by notes, written in exile, by Edward Said. It introduces me to Faustin Linyekula, a refugee from Congo: I’ve spent so much time on the road. My only true country is my body. I’ve tried to survive like a piece of music that’s never been written.
I’ve always been fascinated by imprisoned bodies, the way they manage to turn themselves into castles (And if the body weren’t the soul, what would the soul be?). First power, finally poverty. Gandhi fasting.
I go out in the petrol-blue smock, determined to earn my discharge. I hear newborn babies everywhere, for we share the same wing. I meet a friend at the door to a room. He’s just had a little boy. He’s wavering between Salvador, Benjamim, Mateus. I go in to see the baby, resting on top of its mother, skin to skin, everything that didn’t happen to me. Never has this been so true. And – a hospital exception – two bodies in a bed.
The first music I hear when I get out also tells me one body is not enough: And I’ll be coming up to serve you all the gold. November in Lisbon, home wherever.
Detail of ‘Lady Restoration’ courtesy of bean MOST