• “Peel This Skin”

    A Poem by Eric Gansworth


    The Human Skin is made up
    of three layers: Epidermis, Dermis,
    Hypodermis, and here, at the base,
    legitimacy already comes into play.

    You see, the Epidermis seals the body from
    intrusive outside influences. The Dermis
    houses scars from breaks in that seal (and
    tattoo ink, if that’s your thing), and its
    darkness is determined by the
    accumulation of melanin, the body’s natural brown ink,
    richer in response to environment.
    The Hypodermis is said not to be
    a true layer, a lying layer, as it were,
    made of insulating fat and connective tissue.

    The Apple Skin’s color is determined by
    the accumulation of anthocyanin, its natural
    red ink, also richer for environmental influences,
    but it does not have the same luxury as human skin—
    its covering, an easily bruised and battered thin layer.

    Metaphorically speaking, this weakness is perhaps
    why the Apple is the fruit so often depicted as Eve’s edible
    error of assertiveness, her knife-keen desire for knowledge.

    The Apple, tender and vulnerable, is the seat of Original
    Skin. Some people grant inexplicable value or judgment
    on saturation levels of either melanin or anthocyanin,
    but once the skin is flayed, the insides are remarkably similar.

    It’s good to know some things stay the same.



    It is November, when I am twenty-four. Wendy
    and I are in college. We met in a class
    whose name I can’t remember, but it was
    taught by a history professor who hated history
    texts, a history professor with a secret life
    as a literature professor, using classic novels
    to teach us 20th century history, including,
    naturally, Animal Farm. Predictable, but neither
    of us has read it because we both went to boonie
    schools low on college prep, lower in academic
    opportunities (though both schools were athletically
    supported well—resources neither of us desired or used).



    Of the books I’d been assigned in high school, I remember
    three: A Tale of Two Cities, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,
    and The Metamorphosis, one for each year (my tenth grade
    English teacher, on the brink of retirement and bitter exhaustion,
    agreed to leave us alone if we extended him the same courtesy).

    From the first of these three books, I learned
    the rich exploit the poor (Okay, I already knew
    that, so, really: nothing). From the second, I learned
    Vader, Luke, and Leia were more interesting onscreen
    than on the page (Okay, loving that far away, long ago
    place, I’d read the novelization, so I already knew that,
    too). And from the third, I learned that you might find
    yourself transformed and exposed one day, inexplicably,
    and that others will still find you undesirable, maybe even
    more than you’d felt before (Okay, I’d already gone from
    the small Rez elementary school to the giant white middle
    school, so yeah, I already knew that last one too).

    I wonder what the tenth grade book might have had
    to offer, if we’d been assigned one: another lesson
    already learned or another new way to understand
    your place in the world you lived in? Sometimes, it’s
    easier when you at least know people think you’re a
    “monstrous vermin” that should be left unspeakable
    and unspeaking, clicking and hissing away in your
    bed, desperate for those in your life
    to understand the ideas you’re trying to reach them with.



    Wendy and I walk across quads, a couple
    hours before our evening class starts. The only
    light is a strip of burnt orange clouds, a median
    dividing the darkened highway of land and sky.
    Dusk often finds us here together, for this hour.
    The air is cold enough to make our breath visible,
    ectoplasm ghosts, but we know what awaits us
    on the western edge of campus. Our destination
    is an exhaust vent the approximate square footage
    of the small precarious, drafty houses we were raised in.

    We don’t know where the warm air is being
    pushed from, perhaps every heater and every
    furnace of every building and every class
    room and every dorm room and every lab
    and every meeting room and every office
    and every space claimed by others, but for
    the hour of Monday sunsets before the snow
    falls, this particular warmth is ours, alone.

    No one can see us, when we climb the half wall
    into the obscured vent, and stretch out, lie
    suspended across the grate, our belongings
    secured in backpacks so we don’t lose
    anything to muddy sooty shadows and air
    shafts into the school’s physical plant.
    We come here when we long for food we
    can’t articulate. Mostly we are silent
    because this roaring heat joyously blasting
    on us drowns out our voices unless we shout.
    We watch the horizon disappear and stars try
    to penetrate Buffalo’s dense light pollution and
    denser regular pollution until we can’t stand the cold
    air dropping on us from November’s crystalline
    sky beyond the limited powers of our HVAC deity.



    Sometimes, we play a game, telling secrets no
    one else knows, each assured the other can
    not hear anything beyond hissed consonants
    and mumbled vowels. (Though of course I know
    I can hear hers and of course she knows she can
    hear mine, and maybe even some other students
    walking anonymously near us, hear these disembodied
    confessions float by them, allowing us our privacy.)
    We know the danger of this game, having both
    made the mistake of playing a similar game with
    our other friends, in which you tell three terrible
    stories about yourself, but two of them are lies.
    Your friends have to figure out the true one.

    It’s like that Meat Loaf song, but when you think
    of that title, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,”
    what you really mean to say here, is:
    “One of These Three Is Awful.”

    You can only play this game with people
    who really love you, or people you are
    never, not ever, going to see again, people
    who maybe don’t even know your name.



    This activity is all fun and games until you tell them
    * **** *** *** ** * ***** ** ********
    and then they will never, not ever, see you
    the same again, because after that they know
    *** *** *** *** *** **** *** *** ** *
    ***** ** ********* and they know what
    a crafty façade you’ve rendered, to be allowed
    in their presence. You’re lucky Wendy has her own
    sequence of asterisks. She recognizes that no one
    who has ever heard them can unlearn them
    and she knows more than most what it is like
    to rise up and unflinchingly be exposed.



    She is sometimes a model for Life Drawing
    students, and I ask her how she can stand
    before twenty strangers with all of her clothes
    off, knowing they will not only be staring at her
    for three hours straight, but also memorizing her
    body’s contours, mapping different shaded parts,
    the scarred parts, the perfect parts, on sheets
    of smudgy paper they will take with them
    forever, maybe later, in seclusion, doing
    things she does not desire for her image.

    When we have this conversation, I’ve been
    painting for years, but all of my models
    are invented from vapor as transient as
    our ghost breath on these cold November
    nights. She says she knows, noting that
    the breasts I draw are like none that have ever
    existed on any real woman in human history.



    Before we graduate, she hands me a gift, a nude
    photo of her taken by our friend Nate for his
    photo studio class. He made only three copies
    before destroying the negative. Her payment
    for modeling was print number 3/3. By this time,
    I’ve been writing a lot about reservation life,
    and being in love and my partner Larry, who is not
    the right age, or the right class or the right race or
    the right gender. She says that, between the two
    of us, I am by far engaging in the riskier act. She
    says that when she takes off her clothes for artists
    and viewers, it’s just skin she exposes, the body’s
    first defense, as she makes her contribution to the art
    world. At the end of the three hour session, she
    can put her clothes back on and leave the scene.



    A month later, I understand one part of her
    observation. Our friend Nate, who took
    the photograph, has a painting commission
    but needs a nude male reference with a small waist
    and broad shoulders and, desperate, asks me
    to trade sessions. If I model for him now, he will
    later reveal himself and pose for me when I need it.

    I have never done this but our friendship has
    endured for years and I’ve recently come to see
    the usefulness of life drawing, the value of truth.

    His studio is an illegal space he and three
    other painters rent above a machine shop.
    While his studio mates leave, and sparks fly
    and acetylene torch trails fill the air below us,
    I fully disrobe and stand frozen, as instructed:
    arms outstretched, neck extended, looking
    at the network of wires and pipes crossing
    his ceiling. I take very few breaks as it is
    tough to get back into position after relaxing,
    and frankly, it never feels normal to make small
    talk, even with a friend, while you are naked.

    Maintaining the pose, I discover Wendy has told me
    the truth. I forget after a while that I am standing
    wholly naked in the sun, as someone stares at me for
    long periods, sometimes stepping close enough for me
    to feel exhaled breath, inches away, to capture a contour,
    the play of light and shadow on muscle, bone, and hair.

    I study an enormous pair of metal eagle wings hanging
    in the corner, like one of Bruce Wayne’s or Leonardo
    da Vinci’s experiments. Nate has welded and riveted
    them together from cut sheets of brass, individual
    feathers layered and fastened in place. He tells me
    the commission is for a life-sized naked angel, half
    painting/half sculpture. When he finishes capturing me
    on this sheet of plywood, he will cut my body loose, reinforce
    my backing, and mount my wings. He says I will hang
    suspended in a cathedral ceiling entryway, featured in
    my own spotlight at the mansion of some wealthy Buffalo
    man, presumably, until he grows bored of my body,
    exposed in all its major scars, and minor perfections.

    I tell Nate I’m not sure how I feel about that future,
    and he says it’s a little too late for modesty, and I can
    tell by the region of plywood he’s working, that he is
    capturing my equipment in oil paint, linseed medium,
    and brush strokes, and he promises to make me look good,
    to put me in a flattering light, even as I express my reluctance.



    Two weeks later, Nate is gone, having used
    his commission to support a move to the west
    coast, and I have never seen him again, clothed
    or naked, and I have never seen the finished work.

    Somewhere, in some fancy foyer in Buffalo,
    floats a young wooden Indian man, made of pressed
    ply, layer upon layer, thinner than I am now, harboring
    considerably fewer scars. He wears the wrong arrangement
    of eagle feathers, for a young Indian man. I try not to think
    often about this person I used to resemble. Sometimes
    years pass before I’m again reminded of the way Nate talked
    me into being exposed and captured and the way he then skipped
    town, ducking on his promise to take the same risk for me.



    Wendy’s words rise more and more often, the secrets
    we told each other buried in the roar of heat we could
    never get enough of. She hangs on my wall to this day
    in that photo Nate had titled “Lot’s Wife.” My family notices
    the nude woman, in stark black and white exposure on emulsion,
    in the middle of an abandoned factory, only they don’t perceive her
    as nude. To them, she is naaaay-kid and it is against the way we live
    to ask about such a thing, and instead, they silently honor my choices.

    Wendy is right about the risks of writing, and as I have
    this thought, I recall that at the end of The Metamorphosis,
    the transformed “monstrous vermin” dies because his family
    can no longer repress their repulsion. His father lodges
    a piece of fruit deep into his back, where he can not reach,
    and he gives up, owning the infection and starvation together
    until he withers away and is quietly swept out of the house.

    The rotting betrayal wedged into his back is an apple.



    The skin’s outer layer is supposed to protect the body from
    outside violations, but every guard has limits. Has my likeness,
    suspended somewhere in a Buffalo neighborhood I could never
    afford to live in, fared any better? Does he like his role, as frozen
    heavenly figure from some other culture’s beliefs, Gabriel or Icarus?
    I hope at least, that this younger me faces westward so he can see
    the occasional sunset and, through Buffalo’s light pollution and
    pollution pollution, some constellations, a few stories made of stars,
    floating in sequence against the universe’s unknown blackness.
    His skin has maybe faded and chipped, and become weathered
    and scarred like my own, from a botched surgery and the indignities
    I’ve accrued as my years on this Earth slide and stretch into decades.

    Or maybe he has protected himself better than I have.
    Maybe, his arms outstretched, he has never done what
    I am doing here, he has never revealed * **** *** ***
    ** * ***** ** ******** and he keeps his secrets,
    knowing that one thing I never learned, despite being
    told by multiple people over and over again.

    You can only play this game with people who really
    love you, or people you are never, not ever, going
    to see again, people who maybe don’t even know your name.

    Even then, these people must not ever know you
    really can’t fly, they can’t be told the wings are weights,
    when you leap off the cliff, and they can’t know that
    after the fall, you’ll be left with everything irretrievably
    exposed. Even if you are careful, someone may raise
    a knife-sharp curiosity, break the tender membrane,
    tinted with melanin or anthocyanin. Despite your best
    efforts to be tough, impermeable and impenetrable,
    in the end, they will successfully peel this skin.

    It is good to know some things stay the same.


    Eric Gansworth, Apple: Skin to the Core

    From Apple: (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth. Used with the permission of Levine Querido. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Gansworth.

    Eric Gansworth
    Eric Gansworth
    Eric Gansworth, Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ, (Eel Clan) is an enrolled Onondaga writer and visual artist, raised at the Tuscarora Nation. Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College, his books include Extra Indians (American Book Award), Mending Skins(PEN Oakland Award), and Apple (Skin to the Core), Longlisted for the National Book Award, and included in Time Magazine’s 10 Best YA and Children’s Books for 2020, and NPR’s Book Concierge. Portrait by Dellas.

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