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The weight of one's past



"For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" The priest anchored the wine-soaked wafer with the thumb and index fingers of both his hands. Balancing the chalice between his palms, he ripped a piece of the sacred flesh and placed it on my extended tongue. As I pulled the sacred morsel into my mouth, he invoked the trinity. "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen." It was the first of anything I had eaten in twenty four hours, yet this was not breakfast, lunch nor dinner. "The body is a sacred temple," my mother said. "You must not indulge it with the food of this world in order to prepare it for the feast of the other." Now, with the fragment of Christ's body sandwiched between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, I wasn't permitted to chew nor to bite down. Allow it to dissolve in your mouth," I was told. "If unable, then swallow it whole." A rush of anxiety shot through my spine as I realized the responsibility of behaving properly. Can you imagine doing the Heimlich maneuver on someone choking on God? At the least, the firm upward thrust just below the rib cage to force air from the lungs would simulate genuflection. After the previous day's fast, it was only now that I was permitted to dine on my mother's cooking. Ample amounts of shish kebab, rice pilaf, dolma, kufta, soubourag, and other delights awaited as my father pulled the 49 Plymouth into the driveway. All these on the condition that whatever went into my mouth had to stay there. I was warned not to gnaw nor to suck marrow out of any bones. What about the fork? No toothpicks. How about a spoon? No spitting and no foul language. My body had been sanctified by the Eucharist and it had to remain that way for several days. "For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" What a set-up. I wasn't absolutely certain of my sins, yet there I was in a group confession with fifty other people asking for absolution. What a pathetic sight we must have been to the others seated in the pews. Were they not sinners or were they merely in denial? Was my confession a lie? If not, the restrictions placed upon me would almost certainly lead me to do so. God, how could I stop from spitting, chewing, sucking on bones, or cussing? How could I prevent anything that went into my body from coming out? Yet, every Sunday morning, it became routine. Early to rise, no breakfast, white shirt and a tie, black slacks, black shiny shoes, and Brylcreem gripping my hair to my scalp. The five mile ride in the back seat of the Plymouth followed by genuflection with a chorus of sinners, swallowing Communion, then no spitting, gnawing, or cussing. Is my memory real or merely an illusion? Perhaps, the deepest truths can only be represented in the concrete. Time 4:10-What a coincidence. It was during these same years that I formed a strange bodily habit that I've continued to this day, a private ritual that I would carry on during the week in between my holy weekends. I found distinct pleasure in biting the hand that fed me by chewing my skin, the skin around my fingernails, my cuticles, and in the area of my finger tips. "For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" It enabled me to escape the intensity of my own thoughts, to suspend any expectations, and to slow the passage of time. Or, was I merely accelerating my chronological age by overwhelming the natural process of generating and eliminating body cells? In doing so, was I losing time? Some nights I dreamt I was flying with my hands flapping like the wings of a bird, other nights my hands were heavy as concrete blocks dragging on the floor. After biting and ripping away, I would chew the tiny morsel obsessively. Then I would spit, its landing random-unpredictable. A divine reciprocity, on Sundays I took in bits of Christ's body and during the week I expelled my own. According to Newton's third law of motion, for every action force, there is an equal and opposite reaction force. Entropy in action, my body dispersed, scraps of skin flying from my mouth in all directions. My actions were discreet, that is, I assumed they were. The only time that I could've been found out was if someone had aimed their gaze directly at me. If caught in the act, I would pretend contemplation-with my fingers gently tapping my lips then sliding down to hold my chin as if on the verge of some profound thought like Socrates or Rodin's Thinker. Meanwhile, the surface of the chair upon which I was seated and the floor around me would begin to resemble an early snow or an acute dandruff problem. Bartholomew became my patron saint and Michelangelo flayed on the Sistine Wall my idol. My habit followed me to all parts of the house, to school, to the movies. Only on weekends, at church, would I work hard to consciously restrain myself. To college, to my job, in the car, in airplanes, on the trains-I would surrender myself. I've often wondered if, in all these years, anyone detected the presence of my skin after I had walked away. I always hoped for a more obvious interpretation: crumbs left by a sloppy eater or sand from the cuffs of a beach bum. In my home town, in the cities that I have visited, in the countries where I have traveled, skin, ripped from my fingers, chewed with a sense of delight befitting a nineteenth century dandy, hurled through my teeth and landed wherever gravity would force. The pleasure of my habit coupled with the possibility of such dangers as transferring germs from my fingers to my mouth, being caught in an act of folly, causing skin cancer, made the experience sublime. What an embarrassment the first time that I was actually found out. It was by a policeman no less. I was sixteen. I had just passed my driving test when a cop working the DMV asked me to step forward to his desk. He took my hand and pressed my fingers against a black stamp pad, "fingerprints for your license" he said. This was before they used photographs. Upon examining the results, he looked puzzled. He examined my finger tips and asked me if they were diseased. Rattled by his suggestion, I responded with the truth to which he then declared, "well, you won't be too hard to track down, will you?" If that wasn't admonition for staying within the law, I don't know what else could have been. I then realized the burden of my craving, I had branded myself with marks of anxiety, I could be easily detected. "For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" In fifty years time, only two months have I refrained from this corporeal indulgence-it happened last March and April in the Republic of Armenia. Signs of despair and hopelessness were everywhere, buildings were in a state of disrepair, streets filled with pot holes and garbage, people without food or water, soldiers being carried in procession to the cemetery of heroes. Thousands of wild dogs roamed helter skelter through the streets posing a wide ranging threat, so the government gave permission to shoot. Gun shots rang out all through the night, dogs fell as did people in the Kharabagh just on the other side of the border. Was the horror merely another example of the second law of thermodynamics? I kept trying to remain objective, but failed. "Are death and dying merely realms of the aesthetic, or are they real?," I wondered as I realized the finiteness of my own life. In a state of panic, I telephoned Sherrie in Los Angeles. She asked if someone was holding a gun to my head. I didn't understand the question, but I replied "no" anyway. To keep me from losing my senses she reminded me that I was an American. Believing this a remedy, I wrote it down and repeated it like a mantra every morning for a week. Anahid asked if I wanted to see the architectural monuments of Yerevan. I reluctantly replied "yes" and went along. All I could do during her tour was to look at the ground. Only briefly did I look up to catch a glimpse of the site to which she was referring. Having lost my bearings in what appeared a God-forsaken land, I thrust my gaze downwards if only to feel safe and secure. There, on the ground all around me, I noticed what appeared to be black, shiny fragments of broken glass. Precious in their appearance they captivated my attention, they took me far from Anahid's monologue about the city. "What are all these black rocks everywhere?," I asked. To which she condescended, "Oh, those, don't pay any attention to them. They're a nuisance. They're the Devil's fingernails." These people believe that their land is cursed. Rocky, mountainous, and jagged, is the character of their landscape and the harsh realities they have endured over the past centuries. Particularly devastating: the genocide of 1915, seventy-five years of Soviet socialism, the earthquake of 1989 that claimed 25,000 lives, the current economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan leaving them without the basic necessities of life. The conditions of their history and their land are intertwined. They believe as God portioned land to all the peoples of the world, he did so with disregard for them. While others received beautiful and bountiful settings, they themselves were left with the remains, the worthless scraps. What appeared to me as shiny black fragments of broken glass turned out to be obsidian, a stone found everywhere in this country. Geologically, it is a form of glass produced through volcanic action during past millennia. (Video ends pause on "hair") Despite its rich black color and its quasi-precious appearance, here it is perceived as a nuisance. The black, shiny, brittle, razor-like properties of this ubiquitous stone, and its origins from the fiery bowels of the earth, have earned it the title of "the Devil's fingernail." "After chewing his fingernails in Hades, the Devil spat them out of a volcano and scattered them everywhere in this God-forsaken land. Be careful where you step!" Upon returning from Armenia, I resumed flaying my fingers, chewing skin, and spitting. Why?, I am not certain. Perhaps it's a physical manifestation of survivor's guilt, a form of penance for living the good life. In all the years of Communion, how many Christ bodies have I ingested? In all the years of ripping and chewing my skin, how many of my own bodies have I spat? Where are my finger prints? What is my identity? Who will remember me?


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© Charles Garoian 2005