K. Degala-Paraíso

A History of Skin


Mama [grandmother] started coming to me in my dreams before she was even dead. Before all of her body’s organs failed at once, before her brain finally shut down, before she lost her memory, before the diagnosis, before her brain cells started degenerating. Before all of it, she came to me in my dreams. As though she sought refuge from her mind in mine. 

And then after she died, she vacated. Must’ve flown out of my ear, a bird freed of its cage. Her ghost nested in the space between the ceiling and the wall. All the time, just hovering above me, watching over me, unwilling to leave. 

Sometimes, I forget to look up. Forget to greet her. She glides down from her perch and brushes against my arm. Whispers my name reserved for only her in my ear —

She always forgives me for forgetting. 


[a kind, strong animal? pastillas? Grandma’s river? living in a dome, thousands of miles from my family? flowers from Grandma’s baranggay, one for each family in the clan?]


[tattoo artist offered it for free because she laid the lines of papa’s fish too thick. didn’t know what to get, so got this.]


[5am coffee before fishing]


[chasing the dog around the rose garden]


The problem with tattoos: the pain of being stabbed with an unrelenting needle thousands of times per minute becomes a good pain at some point. A pain that you come to crave every new moon.


Sometimes, I just really miss my Mama.


One day, my manic mother “forgets” to give our diabetic dog his insulin shot. He dies a horrific and unnecessary death. 

After seeing the body, my youngest brother comes to stay with me for the weekend. He acts normally, but I don’t buy it. Eventually he folds.

I get out my sewing kit, lighter, half-empty bottle of India ink, paper towels, small plastic trays, a cup of water. We sit on my bedroom floor with the lamp between us. Lofi beats play through my laptop speaker.  We etch matching crowns into our flesh in silence. 

We’ve always been headstones.


Things I Know About Salt:

     1) In alchemy, it’s one of the tria prima, or the three primes: foundational elements, of which all materials are composed. It is said that salt is the base element for the body; mercury, for the mind; and sulfur, the spirit. The alchemical sign for salt is 🜔.

     2) It is easier to float in saltwater because salt adds to the density of water, permitting submerged objects more buoyancy.

     3) In cooking, salt universally enhances the flavors of the other ingredients. At low concentrations it reduces bitterness while increasing sweet and sour flavors (preferable for sweet dishes). At higher concentrations, it reduces sweetness and increases umami (preferable for savory dishes).

     4) It also acts as a preservative, and is thus pragmatically essential for peoples of third world countries. In the Philippines, for example, access to refrigeration technologies is a luxury. But the islands don’t care: they remain hot and humid anyways. Pilipinxs use salt (and vinegar) to preserve their food.

     5) Pilipinxs preserve, even after they leave the islands.


[scene of former lover stick-n-poking my ribcage by the light of a lamp placed on the floor. spent all of college remembering myself just to come here and feel like i was forgetting myself again and you just can’t trust your memory because your brain will one day eat itself so it is of the utmost importance that we document as much as we can and then never forget that we documented so i’m letting this boy carve the title of my memoiric poem that i wrote in college in his handwriting onto my body in permanent ink and i wonder what i’ll think this means years from now when i catch a glimpse of it in the mirror out of the corner of my eye when i’ve forgotten how his hand held my breast and all of my own poems and how he stretched my skin and my own name]


[the plan was that i would pay for our housing with my student loans, and he would help me pay them off after graduation. but then we broke up and he never paid me back and i didn’t ask because i didn’t want anything from him. couch-surfed for a while, then posted in student email forum asking if i could pitch a tent in someone’s backyard. someone responded, said i could live in the garage for $400/mo. there were black widows nested in the dark corners of the garage; cigarette butts and empty beer cans on every surface inside the house; and a massive ditch in the backyard, where everybody claimed the pet alligator of the previous tenants lived. wasn’t expecting much, especially from this house of five cishet-yt-boys, but it was the first home i knew in a long, long time.]


Once upon a time, I ran alongside some of the fastest women on the West Coast. They called me Captain and I loved them and they loved me.


Tectonic plates moving an average of __cm a year
[study abroad in nepal]
but Indian and Tibetan plates move at a double-time average of __cm a year
[smoking hash that my lover scraped off the marijuana plants growing along the mountainside, and rolled between his palms] 
the land folds in on itself like a paper accordion.
[the smoke tastes like his hands. we’re in one of our yellow tents and there’s some kind of magic in the fog that rolls in]
This epic collision causes a massive, devastating earthquake every 100 years along the fault line.
[my friend is stick-n-poking me in my ribcage: a tiny triangle]
A bi-product of centuries of collision: the majestic, awe-inspiring Himalayas.
[and the number 2 in devanagari: a symbol that looks like a rupture]


After the breakup. 

People ask what it’s like to get a tattoo on your sternum. It’s like somebody clawing toward your heart. Like fire consuming your flesh. Peeling your breasts away from the bones. Like the opposite of numb.


[history of expression in italics, intertwining with ode to italian host mom]


[stick-n-poke with the ink that i got shipped to my italian host family’s house from great britain (it took 3.5 weeks for it to arrive), and a syringe i found in one of the cabinets. while the family was out, did it by lamplight in my little host brother’s bedroom that i was staying in. it’s not a real constellation; it’s a symbol from the cover of an album that’s a little too nostalgic to listen to anymore.]


[stoned in portland with my college boyfriend and my best friend, going to get tattoos. one leaf for each brother, in the colors of new england fall.]


[cultural appropriation, but list what it symbolizes]


I’m 18-years-and-1-month-old, standing at the mouth of a garage-turned-tattoo-studio in East New Haven. 

My tattoo artist is a prick. He’s also a shitty tattooer: he leaves blow-outs in my skin that will still show, almost ten years later.

I don’t bother telling him that I’m getting this in honor of my friends — the ones who slit their wrists and pray that their own hearts will fall out the openings. He’s not worthy of knowing.

For years, it is my only visible tattoo. People who don’t know me notice it, and somehow always have the audacity to proclaim: “Oh, you must wear your heart on your sleeve!”

[last line: my mother always accused me of having a bleeding heart. said it would be the death of me.]


K. Degala-Paraíso (she/they) is a Filipinx-American experimental writer with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Pitzer College. She teaches creative writing through GrubStreet. Her work has appeared in miniskirt magazine, [PANK] Magazine, and Okay Donkey Magazine; and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. When she’s not writing, catch K. hauling ass up the Santa Monica Mountains. Follow K. at kdegalaparaiso.com.