A young woman slowly unravels during lockdown when compulsively chronicling her own body’s deterioration in Ramya Jegatheesan’s stunning short story, ‘Emanance’.
Content Warning: This piece includes references to eating disorders, disordered eating and obsessive compulsive behaviour.
When lockdown was announced, she stopped using deodorant.
What was the point? There was only her in her one bedroom apartment. She watered her plants. She stretched her leg out, the toes pointed. She placed her hot palm against the cold window glass and admired the white haze left behind.
In two days, she could smell herself. Nothing unpleasant. Waking up at midday, safe and content in her sheets, she could smell her own flesh. Hot, she thought. I smell warm and – like salt. She arched her back, turned over into child’s pose. I smell like the very tops of trees, she thought sleepily and dozed off again.
She became obsessed with chronicling her smells. Her world had shrunk to the size of an apartment blueprint, a laptop screen, her own lightly shimmering self. She investigated her body ruthlessly, found its measure in comparable smells, her nose the yardstick. She put her face into her armpit. Something feline, she thought. She caught ghosts of her scents as she dressed. A pond on a hot day, she scrawled down, her t-shirt still caught around her neck. Her smells frustrated her. She could never find the right words to describe them. Hours she spent, rubbing her fingers under her arms, holding them to her nose, sniffing, sniffing, eyes closed, trying to remember what exactly she smelled like. Something familiar and comforting. Moving her head away, drinking in clean air like a drunk, then coming back to herself. She gave up and went for the abstract. Like if your nostalgia had a voice.
After two weeks, she asserted herself more forcefully – olfactorily, at least. She left Post-it notes all around the rooms, dropped pens and pencils to stand at the ready. She never knew when she’d get a whiff of herself. She never knew when she’d find the right word. Her extractor fan said sour. The tiny balcony door said like onions. The mirror over the sink, sharp. By her bed, a litany of smells: thick embroidered material / apple sharpness / rounded cheese tang.
She froze when, cutting cucumbers, she pushed her hair out her face with an arm. I smell like my mother, she thought.
But the smells kept coming. Evolving, maturing as the days went past, catching her by surprise, the emanations her body could produce. She ordered a new notebook.
Sour and briny, how I imagine an oyster would smell.
Wetter than before, not so dry.
This time, not so pleasant.
She widened her horizons, started to smell other parts of herself – not just her armpits, not just her sweat, but her ear piercings (faecal, mouldy, vastly unpleasant), her belly button (cheesy, a surprisingly wet smell), the space beneath her nails (like decay but milder), her vulva (like apple cider vinegar). She was proud of the bouquet of her body, that it could do all this. That it could take up so much space. Be so much in someone’s face. She’d been so busy with flesh, with skin, with moisture, that she hadn’t paid much attention to the world outside. She’d joined in with group workout sessions, online art workshops, Zoom quizzes, but not much more. Then, she’d read the news. Rejoined Twitter. Read the news again. Refreshed. Blue-white light had shone on her face for hours.
The next day, she stopped eating.
She noted her smells, the similes, paying attention as she had before. But now there was more to do. More to track. She scanned barcodes, measured blueberries, mushrooms, spinach minutely. Bottles of oil went rancid; she threw out cakes and crisps. She set a total, as low as it was arbitrary. A circled figure, held always at the front of her mind, mumbled in her sleep: 1000, 1000, 1000.
The days were dazzled by numbers, by adding, by mental arithmetic. She bargained like she was grieving. If I have 50g of rice now, then I can have 100g of chicken later; if I sleep until 2, I won’t need to eat until 3. Restaurants opened up for take-away service. Come sit in the park with us, her friends said. We’ll eat ice-cream and talk, 2 metres apart.
I’ll come later, she said. After the ice-cream was finished.
Her notes on her smells suffered. They got messy, vague. Smells strong, she wrote one morning. Smells like sweat, she wrote on another.
But it didn’t matter. Because there was new comfort, new pleasure. Assembling her last meal of the day, tapping into her app. Black beans 60g. Chicken breast 110g. Tomato passata 300g. A total. A new low score. She felt the glee in her shoulders. Her chest relaxed. She felt safe. She felt right.
Hunger transformed, too. It evolved. It was biting, near the surface, loud and gauche at first. But in a few weeks, it faded to the background. A thrum like heartbeat, ignored, neglected. I don’t feel hungry, she thought, vindicated, smug. But then something clutched all the strings inside her body. The hunger moved. No longer in her stomach, but in her brain, her subconscious, her limbic system. Her limbs stilled for hours on end at home. But she couldn’t move down supermarket aisles without keening. She was possessed, sent reaching out for sandwiches, pasties, anything immediate, anything that could be eaten now now now. She hurled herself out of the shop, hurried back home. She assuaged the hunger with eggs and spinach but it only dipped its head back down, below the waterline, waiting. She lay in bed and felt her stomach twist. She distracted herself by touching her new body. Bones and planes emerged like debris at low tide. She went mudlarking on herself, pushing back skin and hips to dredge up angles, sharpness. She read the news every day now. Scrolled through Twitter before she left bed. She pinched the skin over her cheekbones and moved it back. Another night, another notification to say she was on target. Well done! The app says. If every day was like today in five weeks you’d weigh…
The next week, there were white flashes of pain like sparks across her knuckles, wrists, ankles and knees. She booked an appointment with the GP, showered and masked up tightly. The nurse touched her body, made her walk, made her lie down, made her push her away, pull her close, push her palms down, push them up, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. She listed her symptoms and the nurse looked grave.
These are typical symptoms of arthritis, the nurse said quietly.
I know, she thought. I Googled it yesterday.
Tubes of blood were ferried away from her. She watched, marvelling at the clarity of the red, its depth. The phlebotomist held the tube up and light from the window fell through it. How beautiful, she thought. Like a miracle.
The next day, her knees seized up. She could only walk at right angles, and even then in so much pain she regressed to hopeless, terrified childhood. She couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes because the pain shot like a twist of rubber. She showered sitting on a bucket, the showerhead aimed at her forehead because her elbows had calcified, too. I am reverting, she said tearfully, her hair wet in bed. Or aging. I am either a useless, immobile infant, or a useless, immobile geriatric. This is either my past or my future. And then howling, her whole face pulled back until her lips touched her ears. I never thought this would be my present.
She couldn’t brush her hair, couldn’t cut with a knife, couldn’t carry the kettle, couldn’t type, couldn’t stand, couldn’t dance, couldn’t walk down her road and see the house with the beautiful flowers out front. She couldn’t sleep. She could only sit if her knees were at right angles, only lie back if there were pillows under her thighs, knees and ankles, only doze packed around with hot water bottles like meat in salt.
She was floating around in a sack of flesh she had no power over. I thought I had, she whispered to a heating pack as it steamed her skin. Her body had let her down. But she’d let it down first. This was what she thought she knew. The pain was a visitor that would not leave. She refused to accept it as a roommate. But that was her deepest fear, wasn’t it? That it would never leave now. She waited breathlessly for the test results.
Here is my body. And I know nothing about it. Who is it? What is its name? What does it do when I am asleep? I thought I was my body. I thought my body was me. But now – I sit across the table from it. Am I just body? Body, body, what are you? A toddler throwing a tantrum for attention? Am I a fleck of salt dissolved in a body of water? I set my sights on the kitchen table but you will not comply. What are you then? What are you to me?
She stared at the ceiling because she could not sleep on her side. She could not sleep at all.
Months later, her lockdown lifted. It was gradual, as was everyone else’s. Her bloods came back clean. The rheumatologist ruled out something chronic.
A bad reaction, he said. I’ve seen it before.
She was finally able to go back to work. She shaved carefully, grateful for the ability to stand, to bend, to balance. She washed herself with lemon scented showergel. She rolled on unperfumed deodorant. She had planned to see her friends tonight, before work began. She reached for her coat, and then stopped. She could smell herself. She looked around her apartment. She’d thrown away all the Post-it notes but smudges of stickiness remained. She took her clothes off, washed huge armfuls of them in concentrated fabric softener and washing up powder, the fake pine scent climbing up into her skull. She blasted everything with air freshener, lit dozens of candles. But she realised it was her. She was smelling. So she climbed back into the bath tub, frothed the water with every gel, cream and foam. She slicked herself with every ungeunt, every soap, until she was dizzy and drunk on smells. She climbed out, rolled on perfumed deodorant under her arms, sprayed chilly anti-perspirant everywhere else.
She stood naked in her room, chest heaving. She raised her arm – and smelled.
About Ramya Jegatheesan
Ramya Jegatheesan was born in London to Sri Lankan Tamil parents. She has a BA in English Literature and Language from University College London, an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Warwick University and an MSc in Medical Humanities from King’s College, London.
She is a short story writer and is currently working on her first novel. Her short stories can be found in the 2015 UCL Publishers’ Prize anthology, the National Gallery’s Degazine, Untitled: Voices and REWRITE READS. She was longlisted for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize 2021 and published in the anthology of the same name. In 2020, her novel was shortlisted for Agora Books’ Lost the Plot Work in Progress Prize and longlisted for Penguin WriteNow. She is also a Hachette THRIVE Grow Your Story writer.
Ramya is a trustee of North Harrow Community Library is passionate about opening access to the arts, reading and creativity. Alongside the library team, she organises low-cost author events, open mics and workshops for all ages. Through her photography and creative writing project, Spinning Straws, she brought together visual artists and writers for short, hybrid pieces that melded the written and the seen. Spinning Straws also facilitated multiple open mics across England. You can find some of Ramya’s work here: https://linktr.ee/Ramya.Jegatheesan or follow her on Twitter (@RamyaAndTheWord) and Instagram (@RamyaJay19)
This piece was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Feature image: detail from a photograph by Francesca Woodman, 1979, under fair use (wiki art).