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The Elephants

Performing the Map and the Territory

Sophia Kim

Dear —,

I began this letter to you at my desk, watching the window in front of me. When it is night here in Oakland, the glare from my lamp transforms the ancient factory window into a transparent mirror, superimposing a reflection of my writing office within its rusted steel frame. On the surface of this glass, my own reflection appears to be framed by the pendulous shoots of a palm tree just outside. The fauvist color play of viridian against my tan brown skin and fuschia hair brings to mind a Gauguin tableau. It lends a certain seductive charm to this state of sluggish procrastination I've been in, and I imagine myself as a horny native in an overgrown tropic, waiting in humid, sumptuous indolence to be painted and ravaged and gazed upon.

[on the other side of this pane of glass there may be eyes looking upon me but i cannot see much distance into the dark courtyard past this glare]

Though I’m transfixed by this exotic image of myself, I force myself to remember the truth of my separation from the plants that appear to frame my head. When I raise my hand to stroke the palm’s waxy leaves that in this glass seem to be dripping just above my head, I watch as my reflected hand becomes a sheer veil draping itself atop the undisturbed tree. My hand feels nothing, holds nothing apart from the air of this room, which contains no plants.

[the act of drawing back the outstretched hand, empty, is met with a familiar humiliation]

I will myself to remember that this failure at grasping demonstrates the illusion of this world I watch in the glass. It is only in the context of this pane of glass that any tropical tableau exists. It is only due to this mediating device, this pane and its accompanying glare, that my body in this room and the world several feet outside are captured on a single plane, in union.

[—, since we parted i have often tried to encounter you in such a space]

However, this pane is the very device that prohibits me from touching the tree on the other side, from holding its waxy leaf, inspecting it for dew, smelling its rubbery scent.

[and on the page when we meet, i'm desperate to touch you again but even here i am shy and in my shyness i forget how to touch, so i propose a game: we take turns touching each other under the constraints that we may not use our hands or mouths, first i fit my nose into the recess of your clavicle, and it fits perfectly, as if these parts on our bodies were the ball and socket joint of some fantastic chimera, and next when it's your turn you use the stubble on your cheek, not the skin of your face but the very outermost tips of your half-day's growth of beard, and you run these sharp points across the inside of my elbow, alternating with firm pressure, and then the slightest graze]

I tell myself that it is because I fixate on this facsimile of a world represented in glass that I've been moving as if a simulacrum of my body might achieve what I cannot. I may practice my movements to coordinate with the glass so seamlessly that sometimes even my own eyes are fooled, but even then I still cannot feel what my likeness is experiencing in the space of that illusory tropic.

[and yet: writing of your prickly beard tickling my elbow induces a chill I feel right now, that begins in my wrist and travels the length of my arm, up to the crown of my head]


—, you are so far away from me and it is this awareness that we occupy distant worlds that has kept me from writing you, this knowledge that our correspondence only continues constructing the architecture of a false space, such as the world in the glass pane, whose muggy weather I cannot feel.

However, I cannot give up my obsession with the possibility of drawing my body into this middle world. And so, I am writing this letter that you are reading across my body, writing me into a telegram for you to receive there.

I start with the obvious: my desire for you. Lingering on the tickle of your beard, I write this fantasy across my elbow, a continuous line of cursive connecting the dots of goosebumps where a chill has just shot up my arm. I continue recording my fantasies about you around my breasts, taking care to position a pair of letter O's over my nipples, which immediately harden at imagining these O's as miniature rings of your lips curled around them. Certain coy details I write out in hidden areas, that you must seek if you would like to read. Underneath a tuft of coarse hair that falls over my upper thigh, in tiny print, I remind you of the way I smell, the way I taste.

I catch you up on my life since last summer, writing these mundane details neatly over the composition lines of my ribcage. I learn to write all of this in a mirror-image of my handwriting so that my body is legible to you. But as I think of your eyes on me, my chest under this pen heaves. For all my time spent chasing a single moment of connection, finding my body located in such a moment, even a future moment, makes me feel like a cat stuffed into a pillowcase. I force myself to seize my breath, remaining perfectly still to prevent marring my words. Eventually, my handwriting learns to flow backwards, instinctively orienting itself towards your gaze.

Open-ended questions circle around my skin, trying to create a point of entry to pull your attention towards me. Do you remember when we last saw each other? (this question mark is conveniently dotted by a mole on my belly, one that you kept stroking your fingers over, absentminded, as we chatted in your bed one morning)

Remember how, when I reached my head out of the train to kiss you one last time, the doors closed right on my face here and here (who knows how many variables began multiplying and separating us in the moment marked off by these two spots on the sides of my face when those train doors closed? I start speculating on all that may have already transpired in the time since I left, but when I regain my presence of mind and see how these lines I've just written have run off my face and down my neck, spilling haphazardly all down my shoulders and chest, even becoming footnotes to that initial memory, I reign myself in because suddenly I remember that I'm failing to focus on my body, that if I continue on in this manner I'm again obscuring the body underneath a mass of hypotheticals)

So I direct my pen to this point * where you first kissed me (leading first with your eyes, and as I looked at you it was if I could watch this virtual kiss taking shape there in your eyes before it ever materialized, I saw the kiss unfold there before I could feel it here on my mouth, could see you forecast that kiss onto my lips like one projects a movie, and then you rushed in to meet your lips against mine, directing them in your movie, and they auditioned for that role like a hungry bitch on a casting couch)

This line I'm writing ends at my hip, in exactly the first place you touched me * as you guided me out of the club and onto the street (the sky above us was lit with that deep, electric bug-zapper blue that strikes when dark breaks, that incandescence that turns faces into nightblooming flowers under a blacklight, rinses everything in that eerie blue of television screens)

But, in between these spots I marked off there's an explanation of how I got a few scars. (The points marked here, and here) It’s a story about a guy I had before I met you. This letter I’m writing you is not a letter about him, but perhaps there are little stories like these that must be included to explain why I got on a train instead of staying with you. Perhaps this explains why, when you'd instruct me in various Austrian customs, hoping I'd move there, and you explained that your national brand of humor is heavily sarcastic, I immediately concluded that your affection was an elaborate prank staged at my expense.

It's hard to know how to frame all these disparate points so that you'll know how to go about reading them, because a linear reading from top down (“head to toe”) is a jumbled mess of fragments. If you tried to read my body this way you'd run the risk of confusing the places I marked to indicate kisses from ones that indicate scars.

The way you approach reading my body, allows you to construct this letter for yourself, to your own unique reading. My body is your very own Choose Your Own Adventure story. As I write this letter for you, I am granting you this power.

(another cigarette burn *here)

I decide to reserve the large swath of my back for telling you of my failures. This way my flaws might not be immediately obvious to taint your first impression of this letter. While I write these parts my hand falters and my lines become unstable. My pen marks become erratic, trembling, leaving spotty, interrupted dashes. These lines are ugly, but not with the charming imperfection you could call Jolie Laide. I erase them and try again, forcing my hand to be more obedient. The point of this exercise is not to appear unbeautiful. To be so vulnerable carries an expectation of beauty, it demands it. But I am diligent, hoping that when you do read these lines on my back you might be inspired to fold your arms around me. For some reason, I’ve noticed, men never think that I'd like to be held and comforted. I wonder now if perhaps that's because of all these angry cusses * I wrote out on my forehead?

(Remnants from an earlier fit of frustration—it's onerous work trying to calligraph beautifully, much less legibly, across one’s own back.) I rub out the words scrawled across my brow, hesitating slightly, since with these reworkings the palimpsest eventually gets ground down to a haggard pulp. I've been told that I must be careful with the way I touch the skin of my face. I must always only use sweeping, graceful, upward strokes. I've been told that the under eye area consists of the most delicate skin on the body. I've been told I must use concealer here, and must always only use my fourth finger so as to apply the slightest amount of pressure. I scold myself to be more gentle with my face, reserving it for only the most considered, fairest of messages. For, even the finest words would get lost in the coarse crevices of a crumbling page.

And now my print is more steady, but this steadiness betrays a flatness of aesthetic. However, to be so exhibitionist demands originality, so I experiment with different styles, test out different mediums. I try on a neon paint, but it seems too flamboyant, too eager to be noticed. Seal grease tar india ink, ground up slate dust and oxide, I rack my brain trying to invent a novel fashion of justifying the attention I'm trying to solicit. Gunpowder mixed with my own menstrual blood? I could get more transgressive than that but I'm reluctant to get any more gross. It might win your respect, the way you admire the Viennese actionists, but it's not like you'd fall in love with them. Just like no one falls in love with GG Allin, probably no one ever bent GG over a kitchen table and caressed his cheek with tender doting.

And so, there is always the dread that I might include something in this letter that will repel you. Now I write another story for you, an older one. A thirteen year-old girl longs to feel pretty, but fears that she will fail spectacularly, that she will be ridiculed for her foolish imitation of a pretty girl. So she determines to fail on her own terms, to make herself ugly on purpose. She chops her hair off, wearing a chunky hair helmet that covers her face, shielding her like the sleeve of Quasimodo's shirt. Decades later, the helmet has matured into something polished and sleek, but the same defensive impulse still impregnates the follicles, growing into thorned roots and shafts. I pull my hair up away from my face into a neat, sober top-knot, and if you crane around to the side of my head, you'll find the spot behind my ear where I left you this part of my letter.

A bead of sweat carries the inky residue of some other tale of my childhood, rolling down all the way to a gnarled finger, balancing at the tip for a moment before it falls away. This work of explaining has taken its toll on the body. The soft, lithe fingers that you once held are now cramped and arthritic. In ideal conditions the living body would not permitted, because the body interferes with this letter. Romantic promises stretch and bloat with weight gain, bones that broaden beyond your control, it all begins from the inside. On my skinned knee, where I've scrubbed away errors too many times, an abrasion has turned into a raw sore, washing away a part of the text as it weeps. I often wish I could halt the body in order to complete the work. But alas, the body of work must sustain itself somehow to complete itself.

Over time even my most impassioned points fade out, bleached by sun, and camouflaged with liver spots. Messages impregnated in skin, charged with pigment and the remnant of some old sentiment, fall away as the body sheds itself. Other dry flakes stick to fresh ink, and eventually, the layers create a shell around my form, sheathing my body in a second skin, an accretion of body and meaning.

One day while I'm at work on this letter, it occurs to me that there may be a fatal error in this project. I realize that no matter how I try to express the entirety of myself onto my body, so that my story and body can become one object I can send to you, that there is a potentially disjunctive relationship between my efforts and what I wish to achieve. The more I write to you, attaching my thoughts to points on my body, the more my body becomes something else, a patchwork of a body, a Frankenstein of histories slapped together with bodily components. The body is subordinated by thought, serving only as evidence of its own thoughts, and providing no further proof of the body's existence. No matter what corporeal spaces I map out on my body, these locations only serve to refer to stories off of the page, refer to subtext that I cannot render with gestures available to my body, and to past and future realms that do not exist within reach of my body, or bring my body within reach of yours.

But, while I am copying down all of these worries, I realize I have run out of space to write. I search for a reflection of myself in a glass and find that I am completely sheathed in print, blackened out in a jagged crust of new and old writings. I can only recognize myself underneath this black catsuit by peering into my eyes, preening back at myself in the bedroom stare of utter abjection. I light a cigarette.

Now my work is finally finished, because I am indistinguishable from this message I intended for your receipt. I am my letter, justified to the margins of my body.

Still watching my absented reflection, I bare my teeth to see their sharp glint and imagine my letter as a succubus flying through your window tonight, the cadence of these words pressing themselves onto the rise and fall of your chest.

—, the body on which I write to you takes the shape of a QR code, those pixelated graphs that you can scan electronically at your convenience. This body is optimized for a maximal userfriendly experience. But, the QR code simply refers back to a flattened image of this living body. The image is always out of date.


—, the body is a concept piece I’ll title “Performing the Map and the Territory,” where the territory is always larger than the map, and the running time of the piece always outlives the performers


—, I am about to sign off now, and peel this writing from my body to send you the letter you are now reading. As you read it I hope you might hold it against you, the warmth of your body transferring some of my words off onto your skin. So that when you are with your next lover (or maybe she is your wife by this point, or maybe you’re onto your second or third wife), you may leave traces of me on her, and I may writhe and stain your crisp sheets like old times.


—, when you are finished reading this letter, you may hang it on your wall, hopefully in a soft, flattering light. If you choose to reply, maybe you’ll speak to my letter as it's tethered there, rehearsing with it what you would say to me. It gives my project a sense of fulfillment to imagine that you’ll hang your letter on the wall, next to mine, like a diptych, under glass.

What lays underneath this letter that I’m about to peel away and send off? I do not know. Perhaps the body I am about to uncover is a bivalve on the ocean floor, pink and amorphous, rhythmically shunting open and closed: larger than it is, smaller than it is, larger and smaller, and as it pulses, counting off like a timer

With love,

Sophia Kim is an MFA Fiction candidate at San Francisco State University. She has most recently been based out of Oakland, California and is currently traveling throughout South America while working on her first collection of stories.

This originally appeared on September 27, 2017