WHEN VISITING COUCH, YOUR BODY IS NOT YOUR OWN.

Foreign Body

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WRITTEN BY LAURA JEAN MCKAY
I write about humans and other animals. My short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia (Black Inc. 2013), explores the electric zone where local and foreign lives meet. Holiday in Cambodia has been shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia, including the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards and the Asher Award 2015 for books on an anti-war theme. One of the stories won the 2011 Alan Marshall short story award. You can also find my work in The Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The North American Review and J Journal. I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, Australia. http://www.laurajeanmckay.com
Illustrations By Rachel Mccollum
I create two-dimensional works of abstract shapes interacting in space. Using repetition, movement, and a consideration of spatial relationships, my compositions attempt to express the inherent playfulness I observe in the behavior of nature. I typically work with a flat, saturated palette and draw from an evolving collection of biomorphic forms in varying combinations across different bodies of work. My materials have ranged from oil paint on canvas to craft felt that I cut, sew, and install in public spaces with duct tape. 

Since graduating from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Painting in 2012, I have lived and worked in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Portland, and Washington DC, and have travelled across country several times. I also like to make small gouache paintings on paper, digital drawings and gifs, stitch things onto clothing, take photos, make monthly playlists, and practice yoga. Contact Rachel at http://www.rachelmccollum.com/ or rachelmccollum.b@gmail.com
Foreign Body

When visiting Couch, your body is not your own. Distances are distorted. I could dimly make out Water Bottle poking through the zip of my red travel bag, which lay over an uncrossable desert of carpet on the other side of the room. I was thirsty.

I got to Couch in the usual way, having made it through all the checkpoints in time: incubation, fever, rash, arthritis. At duty-free I picked up some extras: headache, nausea, vomiting, swelling, photophobia, desquamation, anxiety and loss of appetite. I set my heavy baggage down on Couch with time to spare.

Couch is blue. It was given to me by my parents, who have subsequently regretted it. They sit on it again when they visit—testing how their new overstuffed bed-settee compares to this elegant, intentionally swaybacked old thing, an aged blue pony with white trim and stout legs. Aside from its looks, which are charming, Couch has extra legroom—four seat cushions rather than the usual three. It sits by the window like an emergency exit row.

Of course, I had visited Couch before this, many times. Usually I go with my boyfriend. The extra cushion means that he can stretch out from one end and I from the other, while the overhead lamp illuminates the words of whatever books we’re reading. Couch is an island in the white sea of house, where piles of dishes float like boats and seaweedy clumps of clothes and shoes collect in corners. Couch is always clean enough, though there are the dubious stains on cushions that I turn over for guests, and a cake’s worth of crumbs and coins and pens down the back of it.

“Australian customs didn’t blink as I brought chikungunya into the country and headed for Couch.”

On my return to Couch I carried the proprietorial air that travelers have when they’ve been somewhere before. Because I have also been to Ubud, Bali, twice (where I got bitten by the mosquito that sent me to Couch), I now know the place. I know about the yoga and the lecherous hippies and the infuriating pan flute music coming out of every vine-hidden speaker. I know that heaven is wrapped in a banana leaf and features tempeh, sambal and a pyramid of rice. I know my way around Denpasar airport, where the Kuta tourists make their buttocky way in tiny jean shorts heading in one direction and the tightly wound but soon-to-be-uncoiled Ubud tourists go in another. I sat in that airport boiling with fever and rash, looking 100 percent Kuta sunburnt, the disease stretching and bubbling my skin. Six hours later, Australian customs didn’t blink as I brought chikungunya into the country and headed for Couch.

I knew my destination well but found the landscape around it foreign. We had only just moved Couch from a tiny unit in Brunswick that fronted a car park to a house 110 kilometers away in Portarlington: a small, bright town of retirees that overlooks Port Phillip Bay. If I sat up on Couch I could see Melbourne stretch its fingers in hazy salute 40 kilometers across the water. I had not the fingers to wave back—my hands swollen, the skin beginning to peel from the flesh like a banana. My joints clicked loudly as they unlocked and stretched.

For entertainment I played the game “what would you take to the island?” or my version of Joan Didion’s “to pack and to wear” list from her essay “The White Album” (The White Album, 1979):

1 pot ginger and turmeric tea and a cup
1 bottle omega oil
1 silk sarong
1 pair sunglasses
1 soft flannel pajamas
1 heater, 1 hot water bottle, 1 soft blanket
1 pillow
1 long warm bath and 1 25-kg bag of magnesium salts
a kit with: bulk packets of Panadol Osteo, ibuprofen, valerian,
super mushroom complex powder—pine line flavor,
neuropathic arthritis pills, powdered magnesium—tropical
flavor, valium.

Notice the emphasis on soft and silk for the brief but screaming rash that bit and itched and swelled the skin. Notice the sunglasses for the light sensitivity. Notice the bath for twice or three times daily soaking (I could call this piece “from Couch to Bath in 19 agonizing steps”). Notice the constant need for warmth—the smallest breeze on Couch brought pain like a series of punches to my feet, hands and shoulders and a ripping anxiety-as-symptom, unexplained. Notice the pillow to hide under when nothing else would do...

"NO, I FORWENT ALL TOURS AND STAYED ON COUCH ALL THAT LONG MONTH AND INTO THE NEXT AND THE NEXT."

Any trip has excess—that pile of things that seemed essential to take but get left in hotel rooms, bus stations and airports for the cleaners and gleaners to use or throw away. I am a fairly experienced traveller. I once calculated that I had spent 340 hours in flight, two full weeks in the air. But having never been to Couch via pain before, my excess was enormous and expensive and included complacent GPs, green bags full of alternative therapies, yards and yards of university bureaucracy and bottles of eucalyptus oil that burnt rather than treated my rashy skin—leaving long welts like maps along the pink flesh. You are here.

To get to Water Bottle from Couch, one needs to navigate a series of almost impossible obstacles and psychological barriers. The physical obstacles are in the form of a tangled blanket, a useless body, a small brown table. There is also a knock-over-able teapot, the endless stretch of carpet, then the bag—a minefield of zipper pull tabs and resistant metal teeth. Not to mention the crushing weight of the 750-ml water bottle itself.

I rotated my sore eyes (lesions, say the guidebooks. Chikungunya causes lesions on the eyes) to stare at the bay through the window—so still out there that the fishing boats left snail trails in their wake and the magpies shot straight, like bullets across the sky. I knew I should leave the luxury of Couch, take a tour, go on a drink-bottle adventure. But the psychological barriers plagued me, too. I mentally anticipated the stiff punch to the hips, shoulders and legs, as though someone was giving me a good going over with a boxing glove for daring to move. The placement of foot on carpet, as though stepping on broken glass, or a bed-of-nails left out in the sun. And each step after that the same. The humiliation of the hunched body (though Couch is isolated and there are few other travelers there to witness this humiliation), the eternity of time from starting point to destination. The decision to crouch (will I be able to get up again?) or kneel, those hot nails now stabbing at the knees. Awful to be unable to grasp and pull at the zipper. Awful to be unable to twist the lid from the water bottle once you have finally wrestled it out from the loose pocket. Awful that the water, should you get to it, would make you sick.

"COUCH IS AN ISLAND IN THE WHITE SEA OF HOUSE, WHERE PILES OF DISHES FLOAT LIKE BOATS AND SEAWEEDY CLUMPS OF CLOTHES AND SHOES COLLECT IN CORNERS."

No, I forwent all tours and stayed on Couch all that long month and into the next and the next. I stayed there thirsty but safe, with a pillow for shelter, my social, political and professional life taken care of by occasionally clicking “like” on Facebook, the drugs close by and the bath not too far away.

I still visit Couch. When the weather turns unseasonably cool and that invisible boxer starts sparring at my joints, I draw out some time and settle in there. Or, like so many travelers, for whom the fantasy of destination rather than the reality of home keeps them afloat and able to carry out life’s daily duties, I find myself thinking of Couch from the enormous distance of Kitchen, Study or Bath, safe in the knowledge that inertia is only a few painful steps away.

Note: Chikungunya (meaning “that which bends up”) is a mosquito-borne tropical disease. If dengue fever and arthritis got together and had a kid, it would look and behave like chikungunya. The virus lasts between two weeks and two years.

This piece first published in Meanjin, 2014

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