Image: Blood (see also ‘unstable border’)
I ring a bell outside the frosted glass at reception to announce I’m here. I look at my watch and wince. The window slides open.
I am all apologies. I’m so, so sorry, I repeat, the GPS sent me to a different building.
We moved – says the receptionist in a voice that’s spent time smoking. Her nametag reads Rhona. Update your coordinates. Name?
I take off my jacket, revealing a formerly white t-shirt proclaiming ‘GRL PWR’ in orange, now speckled brown with coffee taken to-go.
ID card and insurance, Rhona demands with raised eyebrows. She inspects my driver’s license and highlights my name from a list. As she returns my card, she studies my shirt. Her eyes narrow.
Feminist, and she says something else under her breath.
What word sounds like difficult?
How did she know?
That this is the story of a difficult body.
Rhona hands me a clipboard and pen. Take a seat, she motions with her chin in the direction of sofas. I’ll run your insurance. Ring the bell when you’re done. Rhona’s face disappears behind the frost.
The patient registration form wants to know about me. I leaf through its fourteen stapled sheets. There are lines for writing, boxes for checking and tables for completion of a story. Printed carefully, please.
The questionnaire runs through a set of histories, asking for the personal, medical, obstetric and family parameters of self.
PATIENT REGISTRATION & PERINATAL RISK ASSESSMENT
This form should be completed on every patient at the first visit.
Name (First, M.I., Last)__________
Gender ☐ M ☐ F
The box and the line are vessels for space. While their empty shapes hold possibility, the completed form keeps language in code. Across the demarcating line is otherness; within it, claimed space. The geometry of a form does the work of a boundary, framing domain like lines on a map. The geographic border, Rebecca Solnit posits, is metaphor across which separate territory might be defined; and so too, the lines on a form are partitions across which meaning might be made.
Border can repurpose as compass. The boundary situates, orients and navigates. When I lived in Philadelphia, the international students who were my consort of friends warned me not to travel north of La Frontera, by which they meant 44th Street, past which Chestnut Street became less academic campus and more frontier. The student word for this place was ‘sketchy’. I disregarded the advice in pursuit of a rental from a Blockbuster on the other side of La Frontera, and on my way out of the store, was assaulted at gunpoint, losing the DVD and my purse.
Why had I disregarded the border?
Because the representative bears limitations in truth. These are perhaps most acutely felt by the subjects bound by it. While researching a piece on domestic division of labor, I once asked survey participants if they considered themselves to be feminists. A friend said No, she did not, that she had never identified with the cause, and that she did not hate men. I went on to learn her view has widespread subscription, that feminist was a word with a filthy silhouette. The label, writes Roxane Gay, ‘is rarely offered in kindness’, and in the collective imagination refers to women who ‘hate pornography, unilaterally decry the objectification of women, don’t cater to the male gaze, hate men, hate sex, focus on career, [and] don’t shave’.And, to women charged with being generally inconvenient to difficult, this an accusation with vaguely defined parameters that appears to encompass females who, as Rebecca West described, ‘express sentiments different[iating] [them] from a doormat’.
Take, as case study, Theresa May. She ‘is a bloody difficult woman’, said Conservative English politician Ken Clarke of then Prime Ministerial candidate May, and the emphasis fell on woman.The public was supposed to take Clarke’s assertion as fact based on a single substantiating detail: the gender of difficulty.
This comes up in conversation with a cousin in the leadup to a referendum on a new Chilean constitution, one that might be redrafted to ensure financial gender equality in marriage. Across the phone, she looks at me differently. Wait. Are you a feminist?
 (Assuming we exclude hatred of other sentient beings from these charges, what would the problem with their eventual veracity be?)
Lest the reader consider me suspect of being a difficult feminist, I further elucidate the limits of categorical renderings in space. While living in Paris, I met a woman who confessed that I’d surprised her – she had expected me to be blonder and more manicured, larger and louder. Instead, she was met by a shortish, bushy-eyebrowed introvert with dark hair. I thought you had American blood, she said.
The innate characteristic and unchangeable trait are referred to as being in the blood. But blood is tissue that flows.
Phlebotomy, the science of drawing blood, has its roots in Ancient Egypt. At the time, blood was believed to stagnate in extremities. Arteries and veins were understood to contain only air. Bloodletting was an early phlebotomy practice in which priests made incisions in skin near the site of diseased body parts to purge stale blood and exorcise evil spirits. Motion and flow was a healing modality. From humanity’s earliest, if flawed, understanding, vitality in blood and body required not inertia, but dynamism.
HEMATOLOGY RESULTS NO. 1
LISBON, PORTUGAL (5/23/2019)
In the waiting room, I skim Rhona’s questionnaire, which probes for chartable details that plot as key points on a person’s map. It wants my parameters fitting in space.
Here ☐ and exactly here_____.
‘Signs traced on the blank page’ can become a form of ‘inventory’ that, to Georges Perec, delineates ‘how space begins’. Or where. What spaces are available on the basis of this accounting? The border traces physical and communal difference, creating spaces of ‘inclusion and exclusion, or incorporation and expulsion’, posits Sara Ahmed. Through the demarcating line, some expanses remain free and others narrow. Who is captured within borders, and who is freed by them?
Spatial canvasses, including the traditional dining room seating chart, can be moralizing arenas through which to exercise power relations. Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting Freedom From Want was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime State of the Union address two years earlier. It depicts a patriarch standing at the head of a table flanked by mostly women and children; at the opposite end appear a few men. A woman, presumably the matriarch, has no visible place at the table at all. She crouches in an apron before the well-suited patriarch, presenting a turkey. Does she look difficult? She appears to embrace culinary servitude. But is she hungry? Would she like a chair? I want to offer her my GRL PWR t-shirt. I want to pull up a chair at her place of choice.
Choice can be a contentious place. At a recent dinner at my house, a guest, M, did not believe I should be sitting in the space of my choosing, which happened to be at one extreme of the table. Some might call it the head. Others might perceive it as the Power Seat. I understood it to be The Free Space Where I Could Set Down My Plate. ‘What were you trying to prove’ M said to me after dinner, and this was not a question.
Freedom from Want is considered one of Rockwell’s great works. At the time of its creation, it was well-received for its wartime symbolism, which transmitted patriotic notions of abundance. Of food, perhaps. And of space? The question is space for whom.
‘We just get stuck in’, Theresa May reflected on women in politics in light of Ken Clarke’s accusation, refusing to stay stuck herself. A few months later, May became the first female Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher, choosing the Power Seat.
Perhaps being difficult means refusing the line.
Gender ☐ M ☐ F • Difficult F
Practitioners of western medicine are trained to take histories prior to physically examining patients. The purpose is to obtain information for use in evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. Information such as:
Marital Status (circle ONE) ☐ Single ☐ Married ☐ Divorced
How well do I speak English? ☐ Very well ☐ Well ☐ Not Well ☐ Not at All
What is my Race_______
Level of education__________
Are these answers aspirational?
Have I begun to lie?
Am I in any pain?
Baby’s gender known? Circle one. (M/F)
Current medical conditions? Check all that apply.
Any other medical concerns or problems? __________________
The concern is the subject is unstable.
The concern is the questions are unresolved.
The concern is the answers refuse the space.
HEMATOLOGY RESULTS NO.2
MIAMI, FLORIDA (6/17/2019)
A patient’s medical history is known in medical circles as anamnesis. In Ancient Greece, anamnesis involved summoning experiences from past lives. Recalled memories were the subject of rational dissection such that they might be used to inform experience in this embodied life. The Greek root of anamnesis translates as ‘a calling to mind’; the literal etymology makes it a ‘cause to remember back’.
How far back would the questionnaire have me go?
My therapist tells me to reach far back. We are searching for the psychological roots of an ongoing sense of entrapment. Can you recall this in childhood?
I tell her about a once recurring childhood dream. I lean into the back of the sofa chair, as if avoiding impact. I remember the dream in broad strokes, like a watercolor in greyscale that’s faded. In the dream, I am a young child hiding in an unlit closet. I can see only the outline of clothes hanging from racks above me. Their fabric makes a canopy sitting low above my head, beneath which my younger sister and I crouch. As is the nature of dreams, this one endures as a sensibility rather than plot. We are afraid; of moving, because we’re afraid of being found, but I’m unsure who or what we’re hiding from. A door opens, letting in light. A shoe in the doorway, a man’s voice. My sister and I retreat. My ribcage hits the back wall. I have run out of space.
The patient registration form is exacting in the space it provides for answers. I write my date of birth, sure of my answer. Beneath it, in what seems like a half-space, the form wants to know my nationality?_________
How to classify the language of allegiances that are multiple?
The Latin root of ‘nation’ refers to a state’s mappable landmass. It also motions to the contents thereof, encompassing people. In what geographies can I claim nativity?
Welcome home is the greeting of a Border Agent each time I fly into a US airport. The reception feels like Hollywood, with an emphasis on ‘home’. From my Parisian outpost, I’ve mostly forgotten this is the way people elsewhere speak. I am reminded occasionally in films. My passport is stamped, and I cannot escape the feeling of performance, as if I know the lines but not how to say them.
Each time the airplane begins its descent into Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benitez airport, I look at the Andes mountains below me. I know they’ll be capped in an icing of snow despite the season; I know the form of their ridges, the angles rising like the veins on the backs of my hands; I know the turbulence made by descent into their air. The plane lands and I know the feel of the ground and the smell of the concrete capital. I know this the way that native grammar is innate. I know where to find the nearest bathroom, that the nearest coffee is on the other side of the border.
To cross it, I must follow signs for one of two lines that separate the CHILENOS from the EXTRANJEROS. I take the quicker line for nationals, but the other seems equally apt. Extranjero, which translates as ‘foreigner’, is a nominal cognate with the French étranger, meaning ‘stranger’. I wear a strangeness in this place. It’s on my skin as I bear the shades of a different hemisphere. It’s in my tongue despite my best Chilean accent. To declare the nationality is not quite truth.
‘I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen’, my mother stated upon her naturalization as a United States citizen. Are allegiances this singular? Does inhabiting one space require abdicating another?
HEMATOLOGY RESULTS NO. 3
LISBON, PORTUGAL (9/20/2019)
The answer might be found in language. Cruza los dedos, I advised my mom as we stood outside the Palm Beach County Courthouse before her naturalization. In her place, I would have taken the oath, but fingers crossed.
A mother tongue is also known as one’s arterial language, as if speech were a network of cardiovascular passageways. Blood vessels are elastic in nature. They morph in their environment. Like language, they stretch, making space for adaptation that is constant: weather and pressure, nutrients and oxygen are cause for vessels to shape-shift. The expansive mother tongue, just as the elastic cardiovascular network, is life-giving in its plasticity. Language is there, asserts trilingual writer Jhumpa Lahiri, ‘to help us make sense and to ground experiences that have no words’.
Linguist Leonard Bloomfield understood one’s native language to be the only one a person might be sure of, this being the language ‘learned on one's mother's knee’. But there are many forms of speech, only some of them involving words. I imagine my mother bouncing me on her lap with my sister in her arms in a medley of relocating flights that made us serial transplants. Grounding and flight became native tongue, akin to my mother’s Spanish and father’s English. Ya llegamos, ya nos vamos. We’d touch ground to new borders, that spoke, say, of ocean and rain on asphalt, in a tone of singsong, or in vowels that disappeared. Like makeshift furniture, new parameters assembled for me to inhabit, replacing precipitous homes that came undone just as easily. We’re moving all over again.
Can fluidity be one’s origin? ‘There was no one place to stand and one way to think about things’, writes Lahiri of her multicultural, multilingual childhood. Nationality need not be singular. One’s sense of place can be what she sees as a state of constant ‘collision, or simultaneity’, and ‘spiraling outward’ a form of mother tongue.
Home is a moving edifice built on shapeshifting ground: identity is molten terrain. ‘I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted’, Perec writes, expressing a desire for ‘places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin’. Instead, he finds only ‘fragile’ spaces, as if the brittle, difficult footing of a stance that straddles borders.
A nurse peers her head into the waiting room and calls my name, summoning me for a blood draw. You can finish the paperwork later, hun. The doctor’s on a tight schedule.
The nurse washes and gloves her hands. I find my way into a chair with wrap-around armrests. The nurse tightens a tourniquet over my arm and the green of my veins pulses through skin. The nurse finds one vein she likes. She swabs the area and palpates the crease between humerus and forearm, now fragile, waiting for a needle. • There.
The needle pierces skin. It enters body but does not puncture vein, which has refused to stay in place. The nurse tries again, holding skin as if stretching saran wrap over dishware. The vein rolls. There is more puncturing.
This one just won’t stay put, the nurse says.
The body can speak resistance to spatial fixedness, which we expect in some contexts. Metabolisms slow, expanding waistlines; bone density decreases, shrinking skeletons. But body also defies space unexpectedly. My foot grew a full size in my early thirties, forcing a ridding of footwear that I had once justified buying on the promise that it would last forever.
The body’s native language is one of constant and often inexplicable conversion. Its thinking has ‘no mother tongue, only’ what Rosi Braidotti identifies as ‘a succession of translations, displacements and adaptations’. Embodiment is wandering parlance. Fluidity is as native to human anatomy as its fixed component parts might be.
The afternoon in my therapist’s office, I ask her what the recurring childhood dream might have meant. What is the closet? Why are we hiding? Who wears the approaching shoe?
The significance, conjectures the therapist, is perhaps neither the closet nor the dark, but the fear of being backed into unmovable space.
The nurse re-attempts puncturing, this time with a butterfly needle. Finally, she’s drawn blood. I thought you had good veins, girl! I wince, recoiling not at the piercing, but at the offending word.
I don’t believe in good or bad, I tell the therapist.
She asks if I can say more.
Eighteen years ago my body had been the subject of a diagnosis.
(I do mean body rather than self, for I wanted the diagnosis to have nothing to do with my person).
Can you explain? asks the therapist.
The diagnosing doctor had assured me that I would be a good patient, the best, suggesting I was fit for it, and I would rather not have been.
The doctor’s remarks stayed in mind, replaying in sleep, in the car, while I brushed my teeth. Why had I been offered up as a such a good candidate for chronic illness? If my prospects as patient were so ☐ Good, had I brought diagnosis onto myself? And if my outlook as patient had instead been • Difficult, would I still find myself in a better body?
Any prior diagnoses? (Please describe) ____________________________________________
 In 1670, English physician Henry Stubbe first links medical symptomatology, used to gather and interpret information for diagnosis of disease, to the study of signs, using the term semeiotics interchangeably with diagnostics. I would, at the time, know nothing of the association, but I could intuit that I wanted no association with symbology, that my body was neither figurative nor parabolic.
It is hard to remember body in wellness, which is to say privilege, which is to speak of a sort of freedom. But I do remember the aftermath of first feeling trapped. The skin and bone that I once understood as self became shifting ground. I could neither recognize nor predict it. Suddenly, I was awake to what Virginia Woolf describes as the ‘daily drama’ of a body that ‘intervenes’ … ‘all day, all night’ in an ‘unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction’, relative illness and relative wellbeing.. The frame I no longer recognized as mine was not freely given. My job was to keep it well, and the task was perpetual, and in the meantime life around me moved on. I didn’t know how to go along with it. Because suddenly, I’d inherited a MEDICAL HISTORY:
Do you have, or have you had, any of the following conditions:
DIABETES (Type 1) • Yes
Grief • Yes If so, where?
Now, I see grief everywhere, I tell my therapist, for spaces I can no longer inhabit.
What spaces? She asks.
Spaces inside me, I explain.
Grief for my body was grief in the body: ‘how physical my missing’ is, Max Porter writes, how ‘perplexing [the] slow-release of sadness for ever and ever and ever’.
Grief does not fit anywhere. Grief has contours that bleed.
Diabetes is serious, my father says to the news of my diagnosis, it’s forever, he goes on, and he’s angry but he doesn’t know it, and now you’ll be ☐ Disabled.
I do not understand what this implies or what to make of it. It appears there is some kind of spatial horizon that I’ve been made responsible for finding myself against.
This does not go away, do you understand? Do you understand?
☐ Yes ☐ No • Still Unsure
‘We human beings’ writes physician and trauma specialist Gabor Mate, ‘are biopsychosocial creatures whose health or illness reflects our relationship with the world we inhabit’. My candidacy for illness had been too good, and the goodness appeared to have invited a medical history, tracing an early finish line around what would have otherwise been a future.
To have an illness that is chronic suggests a terminal state, an enveloping border. After my diagnosis, I tell my therapist, I was somewhere on the spectrum between down and depressed. There was simply nowhere to go.
But what is chronic is also ongoing, I understood years later. This can be a place of possibility.
The chronic state is subject to recurrence, reinvention and persistence. ‘It is better to live in a state of impermanence’, suggests Gaston Bachelard, ‘than in one of finality’; the unfinished nature of a chronic condition – or of the human condition – can be a form of impermanence that permits a constant becoming.
I needed to see the choice.
To see that the seat is less relevant than the choosing.
I decided on a new vantage point. Consider it seating at will.
From new space, there was a fresh view. I stopped Googling diabetics and their complications, and instead decided to meet one.
Dan was the friend of a friend. He happened to be a blood-pumping human rather than the case study I’d expected. He bought me a coffee and told of hobbies and work and family and friends. Decades after his diagnosis, I could still see the grief. Also, hope. Clearly, that he chose his seat.
Disability • Yes • No • Unsure • Actually, who is this up to?
After her own diagnosis with type 1 diabetes in 2012, Theresa May would again refuse to be placed in a box. She is pictured in hiking gear, summiting a Swiss mountain - the difficult woman capable of doing difficult things. Just as May defies the overwhelming gender of politics, she challenges the politics of health status; the condition ‘doesn’t change what you can do’, May said in a post-diagnosis interview.
Or, define who you are.
From my new perspective, I could be both ill and well. I could be living and dying, foreigner and citizen, local and stranger, simple and difficult, female and feminist and even simply just person, straddling the many borders that hold my allegiance. This seems like a slice of expansiveness, which is to say possibility, which is to say that the back is far from any walls.
I could be a hybrid-blooded being in a body nourished by its disparate, contradictory and coexisting parts. This hybridity might be Rhona’s difficult, the French root of which refers not only to challenge, but also to what is perplexing: for ‘you can be a hybrid and not share a body with anything else’, Bhanu Kapil writes, such that the ‘different parts … never touch at all’.
Body, and all that it contains, might be perceived, rather than discrete ‘location’ or set of locations, as what Elspeth Probyn sees as ‘loca-motion’, and this is what I make of my rolling vein.
This is also what the obstetrician later makes of my shifting blood type.
HEMATOLOGY RESULTS NO.4
BOCA RATON, FLORIDA (8/8/2021)
A person’s blood type is classified as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ based on the presence or absence of an antigen known as ‘Rh’. My Rh antigen is considered weak or partial. It is neither present nor absent. It registers as positive at times. At others, it registers negative. ‘Ideological inconsistency’, writes Zadie Smith in the introduction to her essay collection Changing My Mind, can be ‘practically an article of faith’; I keep it in the blood.
The ‘unstable border’ is a territory of possibility in that it is unfinished, allowing for Virginia Woolf’s state of ‘root[ing]’ and ‘flow’. Embodiment is constant passage, a space ‘crossed by differences that refuse to be’ anatomically ‘contained’.
For all my concern about spaces and seats, body is most interesting not for any inhabited realm, but rather, for its motion and trailing imprint.
‘What exactly is this flowing?’ asks physicist Carlo Rovelli, ‘Where is it nestled in the grammar of the world?’ It is in colliding tectonic plates, in tidal waves that crash into sand, in rising and falling coastlines, in frozen ice caps that melt into oceans that change with the thermostat of a year in its rhythms, evaporating in sky and falling as rain. Human embodiment is but an element within this ever-shifting, boundless space.
HEMATOLOGY RESULTS NO.5
SINTRA, PORTUGAL (11/9/2021)