Skin Cells

Kina M. Viola


Dad would never use a cane to walk. He can do it himself.

Last Thanksgiving, he helped a hunched-over, ancient gym teacher, our neighbor, reach his front door from the car. Please, the man said, I can manage. Standing back rubbing his palms on denim pant legs, my dad coughs. It’s awkward. I’ll be the same way, my friend, he says. Some pieces we keep. Others we leave behind.

Dad gets pieces of his hands and back cut off, freckles big and pink. I hear about this from a distance, from my mother’s faceless voice through a phone. I go home. We’ve seen it happen before, many times, actually. The bad pieces that go off to die. The bits of him that bulge.

I know I know they’re discarded in sanitary bins, but imagine the nibs as seeds, eggs nested in stark twigs and garbage, imagine where he might end up via scattered bits of skin. I think of the living as woven together, the strands anchored somewhere else.

There he is, kneeling in the yard. There he is, gloveless and browning in the sun. Pulling out poison ivy with bare hands, calluses hardened like rocks.

They say skin regenerates faster than we blink. That in seven years, the body replaces our outer layer so that we can be new.

When I was born, Dad retired his film cameras and 6-speed bicycle to our unfinished basement. He brought me on his shoulder to liquor stores where he talked and talked, his stories of dragons and mothers and daughters and age and death and marriage and tea kettles and old washing machines and walking.

Today he shows me slides. He has traveled the world. I imagine sometimes he keeps it in an old leather backpack now also in our basement. That used to be his darkroom. That now reeks of water damage and mold spores breeding. That has been crumbling since I arrived and fit in the palm of his hand. Our backyard swampland seeping through cracks in foundation.

My father the encyclopedia, the photographer, the chemical engineer evading Vietnam with flat feet. He could live to be a hundred. None of us prepares to die.

He tells me: the Maori people of the South Pacific love their bodies in one perfect whole, curse the surgeon who discards a ruined finger. Every piece of our mangled life is precious. This is the night before I will move my boxes through six states, unpack them in Mississippi. The body must be returned to the family to be buried, we are born from our mothers and must return.

The thought could keep you up at night: am I whole?

I wonder if the soil here would take me back. If it takes my father back. If any place would take back anyone who’s sewn bits of legs and arteries into the fibers of state lines, oceans. Can a body feel where it is missing a tooth; a memory?

If in seven years I can replace my shell, I’ve washed away that boy who touched me wrong. I’ve shed the feathers I did not like. I grow a little bit like mountains do, shifted by tectonic plates. Seven more years—I could be a flightless bird. I could be a striped wild cat sharpening my teeth against rocks and the skin keeps flaking off, coming back from a place so deep inside me I couldn’t locate it with a finger, tell my lover to kiss me there. Some pieces we keep, others we leave behind.

Throw me in a river somewhere, Dad would bark at family funerals. Scatter my bones. We all hide our faces in hands, skin cool and thick in air-conditioned rooms. We don’t talk about death, only the aftermath. An ending with a curl of the wind.