Avery has a dead friend. The dead friend’s name is engraved on a thick metal band that never leaves Avery’s wrist. I run my fingers over its sharp, cool indents, silently reading the words:
Wendell Kade Johnston
October 24, 2015
with my fingertips.
Avery does the same thing with my skin, trailing his fingers down my stomach, over my hip bones, and quietly tracing the engravings someone has left there. We fight each other for sadness, Avery and I. Both of us always trying to retreat further into our own silence, to remind the other it is a place they cannot follow.
Avery is visiting for the weekend. The Air Force has decided they can spare him for that long. We have decided to be excited about it the same way we have decided to be in love. We exist quietly in my dorm room, assuming the appropriate positions in that isolated dollhouse.
Avery thinks having a dead friend makes him special, and it’s not his fault. People with dead friends always think they’re special, but they don’t usually know they think so. Avery doesn’t know it. I think not thinking I’m special makes me special, and I know it.
I tense up when his fingertips kiss down my stomach. It is soft and white and flat but still never flat enough. I wait on edge until he finds his way to my hip bone, protruding proudly, sticking out sharply, though maybe not sharply enough. When his hand is tired of reading and he leaves me untouched for a moment I will try to shift around without him noticing. I know that if I arch my back just right, my ribcage will appear in two peaks that rise above the tops of my slowly diminishing breasts. I call his attention to it, pretending to lament the flattening of my chest.
“Look, my ribcage sticks out further than my boobs,” I say. It is always best to convince a boy you are worryingly thin. It need not be true, he just needs to believe it. Otherwise he will likely find a way to think you’re getting fat. Or you will find a way to think he thinks you are.
“You are perfect,” he says. Maybe not out of duty, but probably mostly out of habit. “I wouldn’t want them any bigger.”
Neither would I. I want my body to continue to consume itself. I want my ribcage to continue to rise, casting shadows over the flat plain that was once home to two snowy mounds. When my body has cloyed itself of breasts and thighs I want it to turn to flesh and bones themselves, leaving behind only that mountainous ribcage.
There is always something clumsy in our interactions. We are always straining ourselves, Avery and I. Our words jar and scrape against each other before tumbling into the gaps of silence that swell up between them, expanding like heat and growing heavy in the air like humidity. My room is small; we will suffocate quickly if no one speaks. Someone will, but it barely breaks the air. My throat has already closed and when I speak my voice catches familiarly in my throat and barely strains out.
But it’s worse if we leave my room. Sometimes we do out of some obligation to do things normal people do when they’re pretending to be in love. We went to breakfast one morning, walking thirty minutes to get to a chain pancake house. It was November, and the entire world had turned a musty shade of brown. The sun gleamed sickly out of one corner of the musty brown sky as we strolled past musty brown houses trying not to rot into their musty brown yards. I chattered on, each word scraping against my swollen throat, hoping he wouldn’t notice how disgusting the world was and how much I felt it was my fault.
The restaurant was crowded and loud and hot. I could feel Avery’s huge, glossy eyes on me across the table, their wetness pressed up against me like the putrid air swelling through the room. I wouldn’t take my eyes off the menu. Far more perceptive than I like to imagine, and probably still more so than I know, he asked if I was okay. I had to look at him. I gave him a reassuring half smile while my face heated up and a vague nausea collected at the bottom of my throat.
Beside us, two fat children fussed with a balloon while their fat mother yelled at the waitress. I wondered how long it would be before they would become ashamed of her. How much longer after that until they became ashamed of themselves.
On the walk back, the sun continued its sick, weary gleaming while we passed houses with chain-link fences and dogs tied haphazardly to them. I stopped for a moment and swallowed hard as I felt a sudden wetness fall between my legs. It had been deposited and kept warm in my body earlier that morning. Now it cooled uncomfortably on my underwear as it rubbed against my skin.
Sex of course is another thing that is always clumsy and strained. I am always relieved when we manage to make a success of it. In those moments words come easier. I know what to do, moaning and bouncing up and down and saying whatever I can to coerce that strange and important extremity to relinquish his hold.
We don’t always manage it. There isn’t always any triumphant release to trickle back down my leg after breakfast. Sometimes I have to curl up quietly, hugging my knees to my chest, while his wide glossy eyes gleam up at the ceiling.
He is far from my first. I’m not sure why I’m not better at it by now. In fact, I think I’ve gotten worse at it. I am the worst combination. I am the awkward fumbling of a virgin without her innocence. My movements are stiff and unyielding and I cannot even explain them away with the promise that at least I am yours and only yours.
I didn’t bleed when I lost my virginity. I didn’t feel any pain either, and in fact had forgotten I was expected to until the boy breathing heavily beside me on the opposite side of the backseat said, “Your cherry was already popped.”
Though I had apparently, however unwittingly, long since abandoned biological proof of my innocence, I was none the wiser for it, and responded to his eloquent observation with a bewildered, “How do you know?”
He laughed lightly between gradually shallowing breaths and threw an arm out to draw me closer to him. He held me against him for a moment but made no attempt to retain me when I moved away. It was the hottest day that June had seen so far, and neither of us cared much for any continued closeness in the sweltering backseat of his Honda Accord.
He knew, of course, because she had probably bled a year or two years or however long ago it was when he had claimed his first conquest – my nameless, faceless predecessor. She didn’t have to be nameless or faceless, of course. There were any number of people – my perspiring backseat lover included – that I could’ve asked for the information. But then she would’ve been a real person with a real name and real blood stains on his sheets, and I wouldn’t have been able to believe my own existence was somehow more real than hers.
He disappeared, and I searched for new ways to make the blood flow to prove I was real and he had been there. I began to carve the proof into my skin, watching as the soft white field below my hipbone broke apart into thin red lines, slowly blurring together and bathing themselves in a wash of red.
They didn’t last. I watched the lines sew themselves up, fading from red to purple and then almost nothing at all. They, too, became imperceptible, as if they had never been there.
I reopen them, adding new ones, crisscrossing over the old, vanished ghosts. I let the blood run freely from my engravings. It trickles down my leg, a sign of completion. A substitute, but a strong one.
Usually I cover them up when visitors are expected to that area. I cake my designs in thick layers of concealer so no one has to ask questions.
Other times I am not so kind, leaving my wounds bare for an unfortunate, unsuspecting few. I lure them into a strange, unwitting perversion as they make the discovery, their hands freezing when they hit the bloodied canvas, then running up and down it a few times to confirm their suspicions. They cannot curb their morbid curiosity.
How does it feel to fuck something that wants to be dead, the engravings whisper beneath their curious fingertips. They slow their bodies and hesitate inside me as I bring them face to face with the realization they are fucking something wounded, something ill, or worse yet, something human. But they usually resume.
I am a monster to these boys, yet I morph myself into a victim in their hands, silently begging them to save me as I dissolve and run like blood through their fingers to prove just how helpless we both are.
Tonight Avery is one of them. I have left my scars uncovered for him for the first time, wearing them proudly the way he wears his dead friend on his bracelet. We silently trace each other’s engravings, proof that we have suffered and, in having done so, are somehow more real than those that haven’t.
The room is growing hot again under our silence. I take him in my mouth to avoid talking. It is the worst thing I could have done. I know somehow before I begin that I will fail. I do it anyway. The minutes pass agonizingly. My forehead breaks out in sweat. My hair, swinging forward and back, forward and back, sticks to my skin and his. I push it back furiously and return to work, but so much progress has been lost in those few seconds. I have to start over. From time to time I can feel my reward slowly creeping up beneath the thin skin pressed between my lips. Relief begins to wash over me as I feel it rushing towards its exit. I have only a few more moments, only a little coercing left to do before I can taste satisfaction, I think, only to then have it slowly fade away, drain back from whence it came, leaving me to begin again.
Now he is the monster. Forcing me to realize that his pleasure is not my concern. Neither is my own. I am only there for satisfaction. To prove that I can make him yield to me when I won’t to him. You are here for no one’s pleasure, he reminds me. Only for validation. And he won’t let me have it.
I grow more feverish with each disappointment. Rushing forward, retreating back. Spit trails out of the corner of my mouth, lending my hair another place to stick. Tears of frustration sting behind my eyes. The back of my throat grows tired, the gag reflex awakens. I get lazy about teeth. When I finally pull away to breathe he knows he has won.
“It’s okay,” he says, putting his hands on my shoulders to keep me from going back in.
In this moment, I hate him.
I roll back off my knees and lay curled on the floor like a child. I force hot tears to my eyes so he can see how much pain he’s caused me with his game, but they too halt before reaching their peak, rushing forward but retreating back before they can flow freely.
Avery leaves, probably to go finish himself off, but I don’t ask. I let him disappear into the hallway of my dorm—the strange, silent realm I share with so many closed doors and the private tragedies they protect.
I go to my drawer and take out a small razor blade. It is dirty. So much the better, I think, as I glide it along my hips. I am doing this out of spite. I am punishing him. I want him to see what he has done to me. But when he returns I will pretend I don’t, I will pretend that I am deeply ashamed of the discovery. And I will almost believe it.
I hear his steps coming towards the door, but I hold onto the razor, taking it for one last plunge. The door opens and I look at him, flinging the tiny instrument on the desk and pulling my waistband up over the wounds. It quietly soaks up the blood while I pretend to hope he didn’t notice.
He plays along for a bit, but his jealousy gets the better of him. Boys are always so jealous of sadness. My cuts bleed between us and remind him that I feel things and don’t say them. They are the gaps in our pale, withered conversations. They reach depths his own thrusts into me will never even graze.
He decides to play the role I have just handed him a script for. He is quiet and angry with the calm, practiced austerity the Air Force has attempted to mold out of his core. He makes a show of throwing out my blades. “These things are never a big deal until they are.” He thinks this is very profound, and glances down at the dead boy on his wrist.
I laugh. He is fighting my sadness with his. I wonder if the dead boy knew he would spend this much time between us in bed. But it is very nice of Avery to pretend I might kill myself. That my pitiful scrapes and etchings will ever be more than vague, abortive attempts to connect to the external world, not escape from it.
We have finished our scene, Avery and I. My hip continues to bathe itself quietly in its own warmth, and its faint stinging lures me into a familiar exhaustion, the kind of luxurious sleepiness that will eventually envelop an inconsolable child.
Yielding to this warm drowsiness, I lay my head in Avery’s lap, next to the soft symbol of my failure. I drift off to sleep, his fingers roaming softly through my hair. A stray strand or two occasionally gets caught in the metal bracelet.
He will leave in the morning and I will try to cry. The tears will get caught again behind my eyes. I will heave a few dry sobs to try to will them forward, but they will retreat back, never gushing forth in the glorious release that was promised.
Someday we will marry because we won’t be able to think of anything else to do. Later we will divorce for the same reason. We will take our engravings to other lovers and proudly shut them out of the depths we have carved for ourselves.
Kayla Kibbe is a student at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, where she is pursuing a degree in English with a concentration in fiction writing. A lifelong resident of New England, she plans to move to New York after graduation. Her writing has appeared online and in print. Follow her on Twitter @Kay_Kibbe or reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.