“Visceral”

It started as a small slit: just a little opening in the skin, right at the dead-center of my sternum. I spotted it in the mirror—I was standing over the sink, shaving, before work—and there it was, like a new mole or an ingrown hair—only weirder. Of course I was concerned but, to tell the truth, not really alarmed. More curious than anything.

I didn’t go to the emergency room, or call my GP. None of the typical things you think you’d do if something odd like this were to happen. Not that you ever expect something like this to happen, exactly. But I think you know what I mean.

For a while I waited and watched, too interested to do anything else. As I stood there observing, the opening didn’t bleed, didn’t pus, didn’t ooze: it just slowly grew wider and wider.

An hour later, I sat down at my desk at the call center. I put on my headset and autodialed the first number on my list. Then I delivered the spiel and half-listened to the person on the other end of the line. By then the small slit had opened into a rounded diamond shape. I thought about a card within a deck—shuffled and frayed and scuffed against others. My mind wandered and returned.

Every so often, in the middle of a call, or in the brief moments between, I unbuttoned my shirt to peek in. Each time I could see the patch of bone: the geometric plane growing as the skin peeled away.

By dinnertime, I could see the curved slats of several ribs, glistening in the glow of the fixture that hangs above my kitchen table. The skin had receded over most of my chest and was continuing its slow, steady retreat. It crept around my sides and across my back. I watched the intercostal muscles between my ribs stretching and relaxing—cycling with each inhale and exhale. But this was the most striking thing: without those seven layers of skin, and the subcutaneous fat that went with it, there wasn’t as much padding to muffle the sound of my heartbeat, which thudded audibly in the quiet room.

I reflected then on what a thin and vulnerable membrane the skin is to begin with. Then I had this funny thought: skin is overrated. I had to laugh a little about that. And yes: I know skin protects us from infection and generally holds us together. I try to be grateful. But isn’t it, in some sense, a hindrance? Isn’t it a false—or at least misleading—boundary line? One that we too-willingly accept at face value?

I thought about messiness and interconnectedness and books I’d read—about Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns—about Hindu holy people and Yogis all over the world—about how this is really, on some level, what they’re all talking about. Isn’t it? At least, sort of? It’s not unrelated, anyway. And I thought about how, really, fundamentally, we’re not separate to begin with. We can’t possibly be. So, who needs skin?

Besides, by late that evening, the wound had stopped spreading. That is, if you could even call it a wound, neat and clean and bloodless as it was.

At that point, my entire upper torso was exposed. It was disconcerting, but really only in a tentative, cringe-y sort of way. For a minute, I worried about the lint and other debris that would collect there. On the soft, shiny, moist flesh between and around my ribs. On the slick, exposed surfaces of pectoral, abdominal, deltoid, and trapezius muscles.

But then I thought, really, what would be the harm? If I’m going to become one with the universe, that means becoming one with the couch fibers. One with the carpet fuzz and the cat dander. One with the particles and plaster dust and fumes and grit and grime and on and on.

So: let it in, I thought. Why not? Let it all in.

About Matt Tompkins

Matt Tompkins is the author of two books: Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) and Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press). Matt’s stories have appeared in the New Haven Review, Post Road, and online at the Carolina Quarterly. He works in a library and lives in upstate New York with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate).