As a bartender at a craft cocktail bar, you peel a lot of fruit. Lemon swaths and orange swaths and blood orange swaths and no, you cannot substitute orange for blood orange just because they look and taste exactly the same.
While training earlier this year, the veteran bartenders let me know that I would most definitely hurt myself on the peeler at some point. Bartender destiny. Bartender blood cult. They taught me how to hold the fruit and position the peeler so as not to swath my skin. But this stubborn invincibility complex I have been mastering since birth (or conception since the complex comes from a long line of take-no-shit woman) told me that I could no doubt handle a small plastic vegetable peeler. No doubt.
Until the night I was standing behind the bar with blood dripping off the eight paper towels wrapped around my left pinky finger. I had taken the rind from both the lemon and myself and now both were laying in the sink.
Bartender blood cult initiation.
I was not aware that a 2 ½ inch limb even contained so many red blood cells, but I know they soaked through the gauze and bandages four times before I was sent home. In my bathroom I unwrapped the bandages, ran warm water from the sink, eased my blueish-white, slightly shriveled pinky under it. When the only blood left was that dried into the sticky Band-Aid residue, I saw a hole the size of a lost baby tooth. I saw the last layer of ivory flesh covering the bone. I held my finger there. It had burned, gone numb, burned more. The blood was gone. But I wanted to see the bone.
Right hand braced on the counter, left pinky underwater. I did not see the bone. Look in the mirror and my face is the same color as that last layer of ivory flesh. Keep holding it there. Look back. No bone. But I did pass out.
The blood hadn’t bothered me all night. Staring at my own chunked-out cartilage did. Leaving a piece of myself in a drain. Understanding the tenderness of my plasma. Knowing that I was invincible to neither vegetable peelers nor scar tissue nor burning. It all sent my nervous system into surrender.
That is vulnerability. Chunking out your cartilage. Letting it lay around. Leaving your DNA wherever it falls. Trusting baby-teeth-sized holes to heal. Trusting holes the size of shark bites to heal because that's how chumming works. But when you become raw meat, you realize that we live on land. You realize how few landsharks there truly are and you learn how to spot their fins real quick.
Yet we beat on like knights. Nailed up in steel with fireproofed shields - judgment proof, rejection proof, human proof. Be careful who you let in; be careful what you let out. I used to be so good at this I could carry a shield seventy times my weight. I built up this beautifully uncrackable shell and circled the person I wanted to be, circled the raw, living skeleton of myself. I treaded this existence between shell and bones in fear that my bones were not enough. I got so good at internal bleeding and panic attacks. But my skeleton was waking up and aching from homelessness and I could no longer tell her to quiet down. So I mined myself. Chiseled and split the shell to let her reside my own aching skin. We settled in together.
Now I love somewhere between Tin Man and a tornado. Not simply romantic love, but the Bob Marley type of love for friends, fellow creatures, sisters and brothers. Touch down with honest ferocity. Thrash around a bit. No idea where I'm going next. Though, like Tin Man, loving vulnerably has meant not holding back. Crying when I accidentally tramp on an insect. Spilling my guts without gathering them up real quick and running the opposite direction. It takes work to leave your guts on someone else's floor. That is the scary part of vulnerability. Uncertainty. Maybe they throw your meat to sea and wipe their shoes clean. Or maybe they stay, spill themselves onto your own floor because they know you can walk barefoot through rubbish. A high tolerance for words that almost rotted under their tongues. Doubt is a hellish place to live and we will always be moving in and out. But Tin Man loved because he knew what it was to be hollow. Bang on his chest and nothing rattled inside. He still had to oil his jaw to form words.
When all he wanted was a heart, the supposed badass Wizard told him, "You want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable." Such a gold-washed word: unbreakable. A lot like shells and nothing like real bones. Poet and superhuman Andrea Gibson said it better in "Royal Heart."
"It's hard to watch - this game we make of love like everyone's playing checkers with their scars, saying checkmate whenever they get out without a broken heart. Just to be clear, I don't want to get out without a broken heart. I intend to leave this life so shattered there better be a thousand separate heavens for all my flying parts."
It's not like we're getting out of this world alive, anyway. But the guts we leave behind will stay.
It took about three weeks for the hole in my pinky finger to grow a decent layer of skin. That was 11 months ago and now I have a scar that gave up trying to blend into the surrounding tissue, reminding me it's there each time that finger bumps a hard surface or touches ice. It took a decade to learn I would rather be breakable than invincible, or that the two are nearly the same. Shatter so many times and your arteries learn how to tether themselves back together. Your spine learns new knots. And sometimes it pulls so tightly that it clamps your throat shut, tongue swells, lungs swell, veins freeze, brain ditches to the moon. Killswitch on. Cave into yourself.
And eventually you let go. And your skeleton is dancing again.