On Skin and the Self — Rachael de Moravia

Where are you from? It’s a conversation starter. It’s small-talk at a party I want to escape. It’s an innocuous question that demands a simple answer. The response is neither here nor there because it wasn’t a serious question, and the person who asks is scanning the room for someone he knows, or someone he wants to know better, and it really doesn’t matter where I’m from at all.

Where are you from? It’s an accusation. It’s a politically charged question, with a multitude of consequences. Its response is judged, then (consciously and subconsciously) acted upon. In the case of immigration officers at ports and airports this question is definitive. Yes, you are accepted. No, you are not welcome. You have come from Sierra Leone/Glasgow and you may bring Ebola, so we reject you. You have come from Syria/Iraq and you may have been radicalised, so you may not enter.

Where are you from? Which answer do you want: The city I was born in, the village of my childhood, the town where I was schooled, the universities I attended? Perhaps I should map out my career. My résumé is a nomad.

He slides shallow charm around the room and returns to me, uncomfortable, unfathomable. I can’t figure you out, he says, and I just can’t put my finger on why.

I’d positioned myself in the corner of the room, the best vantage point. I now realised this was a mistake. I’m trapped as he strokes my naked shoulder like a pet. Your skin, he says, your skin is so soft and the nicest of colours. What colour is this, your skin, he asks.

The music gets louder and he pushes closer, his groin to my hip. I’m cornered: physically, yes, but he’s also trying to place me, trap me, quantify me; he wants to define me by blood, or name, or country, or creed – and he’s trying to get to me through my skin.

He tells me I’m lighter than Beyoncé; warmer, more golden. She’s cappuccino, he says, and men like cappuccinos.

Perhaps I’m a nice cup of English breakfast tea, I say.

That’s boring, he says. You’ve got to be more exotic than that.

I remember the first time I was told I was exotic, different, other. I was fourteen. It was on Corfu Island during my first family holiday abroad. My parents had saved (for I don’t know how long) to take my sister, brother and I on a special vacation before we grew up and flew the nest. We camped in the mountains and spent the days walking the coastal paths from Nissaki to Kassiopi, swimming in rocky coves, and rambling the cobbled paths of Paleokastritsa. Towards the end of our stay we took the local bus to the Achilleion Palace, high on the hillside above Corfu town.

The story of Achilles had been impressed upon us from an early age. Bedtime stories were Greek legends: a heady mix of epic adventures and formative warnings. Our parents told us we could do anything in life, but we should remember we were vulnerable, and we must never, ever, show weakness. Our visit to the Achilleion Palace felt like a pilgrimage of sorts (a pilgrimage with added glamour, since the main draw for my father was that it was used as a location in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only).

Although she’s two years older, my sister and I were often mistaken for twins. In fact, we looked like every other European teenage girl in the nineties: faded vest tops, cut-offs with fraying hems, and flip flops. We had long black hair that fell in crispy sea-salted curls over our backs and flat chests, and our limbs were as bronze as the local girls’. We played hopscotch on the monochrome tiled floor. We played hide-and-seek with the white-skinned marble statues gleaming against the backdrop of blue, of sky and sea. From the terrace we could see the Albanian coast.

We didn’t understand the shouts of the Palace guards; we didn’t realise they were angry with us. We tried to run away, to find our parents, but khaki uniforms surrounded us. Their mouths, moustachioed, muttered into walkie talkies. Then they started to push us away from the terrace, away from Achilles who sat on his plinth, back arched in pain, in a perpetual reach for the arrow piercing his heel.

The guards grabbed our shoulders with their rough hands. My parents, hearing the commotion, raced over to check we were alright. A tour guide intervened to explain: “You do not need to worry about these girls,” she said, “they should not be here.”

My parents looked confused. “Why should they not be here?” my father asked.

“I’m sorry you have to see this on your holiday. We have a problem with the Albanians,” she said, trying to lead my parents away from us. She gestured to the coastline across the water.

“They swim across at night. The currents are strong in the Adriatic; they use tractor tyres for rafts. We find them begging from tourists because they come with nothing.”

She spoke to the guards and they started to lead us away. “But these girls are our daughters,” they said, and my young brother cried out for us.

The tour guide seemed not to hear: “They are refugees from Albania, we will take them to Corfu town. Do not worry about these girls any longer.”

My father stood in front of the palace guards, blocking their way, and took our hands. My mother took our passports from her bag. She showed our photos to the tour guide, and said calmly:

“Please release my daughters. They are British citizens.”

The tour guide and guards looked at the passports, and looked at us.

“They do not look English,” she said, and with that, we were free.

The lights are low. I start to move away but he raises his arm, hand against the wall, and blocks me. He tilts his head and his nose touches my neck. He slowly inhales. I turn away from him, pushing to escape, but his other arm slips around my waist. He holds me tightly, his hand flat against my lower abdomen. I grab his arm. It’s hot and firm. I try to push my fingernails in to his flesh.

My nails are red. I wear OPI: The Thrill of Brazil. The pigment is deep and makes my skin look warm. I’ve tried different shades, but any hint of yellow or orange and my skin turns corpse-grey, sallow and bruised. It must be a trick of the light. How is it that my skin changes colour when I change my nail polish? How is it that I can change my natural appearance when I wear different coloured clothes? I wear white: it makes my skin glow, iridescent. I wear cream: it extinguishes me, turns me pallid and waxen. Why is it that my skin has to be set against another colour in order to reveal its truth?  It can only be identified by the other.

Tonight I wear black. I thought it would help me blend into the shadows at the edges of the party. I thought black would be my invisibility cloak, but instead I’m a living target. This prey has no camouflage.

He manoeuvres behind me now, one arm around my neck, the other hand still over my belly button. There are people in the room dancing this way. He’s breathing hard but we’re not dancing. I danced like this once at Carnival in the streets of Port-of-Spain, the celebration before the start of Lent. I drank rum and danced soca with friends, and with friends of friends. We danced all night, and when we sat on the beach chatting at sunrise some of the group were surprised to learn I was visiting from England. They thought I was local, a pale-skinned Trinidadian.

“You look like a Trini, you dance like a Trini. We had no idea until you opened your mouth,” they said.

They forgave me. After all, it was Shrove Tuesday – a day to shrive – so I was granted absolution for the sins of my skin

His arm is smooth and muscular, but I do not want it around my neck. I do not want his other arm around my waist, or his hand edging down into the waistband of my knickers.  I dig my nails in hard. A drop of blood emerges, a scarlet bead on his skin. I can’t help but hope his blood is different from mine. A Japanese friend once explained ketsueki-gata to me, the idea that our blood cells determine our personalities. Is it possible that blood type indicates temperament? It dawns on me that I don’t know my own blood group. A nurse flicking through my notes at hospital once told me I have “the blood of gypsies and kings”. She nodded gravely, then laughed, but I never thought to ask what she meant.

He tightens his arm around my neck until I loosen my grip. We are both sweating. Our clothes are damp and we are stuck together like lovers in the corner of the room.

“I’ve forgotten your name,” he whispers.

“I never told you my name.”

“Will you let go if I tell you?”

“No.” I feel the breadth of his torso against my back as he laughs. He’s so close he’s almost in me.

“Why would I want to let go when we’re having so much fun?”

“Then I won’t tell you my name.”

Why does my name matter? It’s just a word that could so easily be any other word. I changed it when I got married – it’s easily done. I do not want to talk with him about names, but at this moment all I can think of is my great-grandfather, the composer Ernst Hoffstein. He was also called Ernest George, but I’m yet to find any record of Hoffstein or George at the Royal College of Music, or the Royal Academy where he supposedly studied. I can’t figure out whether the young Ernst Hoffstein came to Britain and changed his name, or whether Ernest George was British and took a stage name. I don’t know where he was from, which means I don’t know where I’m from. My grandfather and aunts recall he was young Ivor Novello’s piano tutor, and there’s talk of a Hungarian Count somewhere in the family history.

“What the fuck is your name?” he grunts, pushing me harder.

I could make up a name; he’d never know. But I don’t. I don’t want him to know me, or know anything about me.

My favourite song starts playing. He licks my shoulder, and slips his thick fingers down further.

The author and her skin (Rachael de Moravia)

Rachael de Moravia is a writer, journalist and university lecturer. Her journalism, essays, fiction, poetry and drama have appeared in UK and international publications. @rachael_moravia. http://www.rachael-de-moravia.com

Images:  top, DSC_1665, by RonIncognito, Creative Commons License; author photo supplied by the author.