In Italian, the verb “to skin” is spellare. The way I understand it, this is a verb distinct from the Italian for to peel, or to strip, or to shuck. It’s the word you’d use for preparing an animal, for flaying a corpse. Informally, you can also use a version of it when you mean I skinned my knee or even I shed my skin. Either way, it’s a word that connotes a body revealed and ready for refashioning. I learn all this one afternoon in Bologna at the threshold of the Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio, a friend translating the librarian’s rapid Italian as quickly as she can manage. We’re at the first site of the University of Bologna’s medical school, and this room—built in 1637—is where the earliest human anatomy courses were taught, where men did some of the first sanctioned dissections of human bodies in the West. Surgery, as we understand it today, was essentially born here, and now the librarian is gesturing up on the wall above the marble operating table, where two lacquered wooden statues gaze down. I look closer and realize they’re all carved visible muscle and bone. He calls them Spellati: the skinless ones.
This trip is a colossal, improbable gift. My first collection of poems has just been released and, as part of its publication, I’m here in Italy to spend six weeks at an artist’s residency at a castle in Umbria. I’m twenty-five and about three weeks out of graduate school. The notion that I have any kind of a writing career still feels a little like a joke, and when you combine it with words like castle and Europe and funded fellowship I have the distinct sensation I am watching a movie of someone else’s life. I can’t stop fingering the passport in my purse; I need a constant, tangible reminder that this is really happening.
But over the past year or so, as my book has come into being and my professional life has come to resemble more and more the one I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child, my body has been undergoing its own kind of transformation. The symptoms of my cerebral palsy are worsening. Recently, the low consistent ache in my knees has been increasing in intensity and my back has begun to spasm whenever I stand up. Hard enough to knock me over if I’m not careful. The two kinds of changes form a mystifying syncopated rhythm: I have a piece of artistic good luck and, as if in concert, I get a little less mobile, am in a little more pain. I use my wheelchair more and more, even for very short distances.
In the two weeks before I leave for Italy, I push myself too hard while preparing to travel. I take a nasty fall and wrench something I can feel but not name. All of a sudden it hurts when I’m sitting at my desk, when I roll over in bed, when I bend to tie my shoes. I’m panicked and enraged at the timing. I drag myself to the doctor and ask for a cortisone shot and a prescription for a heavy-duty muscle relaxer I can take on the ten-hour plane ride from Mississippi to Italy. The doctor at the campus health center wants to request my medical records, wants to do an X-ray and figure out what’s really going on. I don’t have time, I tell him, I have things to do. He shakes his head but gives me the shot and the prescription.
I want to tell him, Listen, I’m breaking every rule I’ve ever had for how I treat my body. I’m suspicious of quick fixes, steroids, narcotics, anything that masks the real weather of the body with false and dangerous calm. I want to say, I swear I’ve been tender; I’ve been tough when I needed to be; I’ve let my body call the shots so it would last. Just this once I need to force it to fall in line. I want to make him understand: I love my body but I can’t let it take this opportunity from me.
Instead, I say thank you, and leave his office gingerly.
Here in Bologna, I’m visiting an old friend for a few days before my residency starts, and we’ve come into the anatomical theater through a circuitous back entrance in a connected building, one that involves an elevator so narrow I can barely fit my wheelchair inside it, as well as several locked doors, through which the librarian leads us apologetically. My friend translates his steady stream of I’m sorrys and explanations: This is a very old, historic building; they had to get so many special permits even to put an elevator in the one next door; this city is terrible for people in wheelchairs; if he had known I didn’t walk…I’ve discovered by now that I can get almost nowhere in this city through the front door and that there are many places I can’t access at all. I’ve also fallen in love with the light, and the occasional hidden channels of water tucked behind wrought-iron gates, all the rose-colored stone, and the throng of the main piazza. The past feels shoulder to shoulder with the present here. I want to witness everything, and I’m having trouble knowing what to do with the way the magic of the place is tangled up in my inability to access it. Or with how my sense of my unbelievable luck is butting heads with my mounting anxiety about my mobility, my mounting frustration about my pain. The dissonance makes me fragile and defensive:
My life is extraordinary. How dare I feel sadder than I do grateful?
There’s so much in the world I want to see and do, and already so much of it is unreachable to me.
The last time I had a sudden, inexplicable increase in pain it marked the first time I needed a wheelchair, the last time I walked more than a city block. I never got that early body back.
This is the beginning of the life I’ve always wanted.
What if I’m about to lose another body?