His mother holds his hands in hers, her thumb scraping at the congealed colors – three shades of red polish – thatspill messily past the edges of his nails. The memory is sharp with the smell that he will later think of as acetate and shame;the thick, rubbery texture of puddling nail polish coming away like a layer of skin. He’s six, and his parents call it stealing asif the act of fishing dusty, clacking bottles and tubes from the forgotten corner of his mother’s purse is a crime. When sherubs her hand across his face the color of roses stays smudged across her palm, and he can feel it after she has pulled away, like a bruise around his mouth where the lipstick dried against his skin. Whatever excuse he gives – I didn’t know, I didn’tthink – must be a lie.
It begins with a lump in his throat, like the need to cry, round and hard as a stone. He clutches the soft underbelly ofhis jaw, feeling something climbing his throat like a snake and falling onto his tongue. It is heavy and soft and slightly bitteragainst his teeth, and when he opens his mouth and lets it go into his hand, polished-tipped fingers close around somethingwarm and slimy with spit. He holds this close to his mouth, unwilling to reveal whatever has just emerged from him, and runs to the bathroom, tossing the handful of clay into the small plastic trash basket next to the toilet.
In the mirror, he watches his face and he scrubs his mouth from a color that the lipstick tube named simplyeternal and which leaves a faded hint of rust in the corners of his lips.
Afterwards, his parents simply do not look at him, or even at each other.
That night he waits until he hears them go to bed then tiptoes down the stairs, hesitating with every wooden creak.He digs the drying lump of clay from the bathroom trash and runs hot water over it until the surface dissolves in ribbonsdown the drain.
A week before fourth grade he tells the first lie that he remembers clearly. It forms under the flourescent lights of adepartment store, a memory of infinite white walls, sale signs, and larger-than-life people sitting on glossy grass. He weavesbetween the towering posters, the girls his age with soft, candy-striped leggings or delicate floral blooms printed acrosstheir waists, with sparkling kitten-heel shoes, miniature versions of their beaming mothers’ muted feet. Lip gloss onkeychains, bracelets and bags in pastel pink and lavender. He picks up a purple shirt with a pattern of diamonds across thefront in shimmering sequins, runs his fingers over the chest just to see how it feels.
Shame unfurls hot in his belly when he hears his father calling him, standing anxiously at the end of the aisle. Whatare you doing? This way. Wrong section. He does not understand his father’s fear, only the expression, pulled tight aroundthe corners of his mouth and eyes. He puts the shirt down quickly and backs away, step by step, pulled between thediamonds hanging tilted on their hanger and his father’s voice.
I didn’t know, he says. I got lost. I wasn’t paying attention. In the future he will always pay attention, catchinghimself before he can forget who he’s supposed to be.
This time he recognizes the feeling of clay sliding up his throat and lets it rest in his mouth, a stone-smoothpressure against his tongue. When his father’s back is turned he spits it into his hand and tucks the clay into the pocket of hisjacket. He spends the rest of the back-to-school shopping fighting back the hot, prickly feeling of needing to cry that’sgrowing behind his eyes.
That night, he adds the lie to the plastic bin under his bed where he has begun to store the accumulation of clay.When he can’t sleep he forms shapes from it; hearts and starfish and spheres, a butterfly with whorled wings and delicateantennae, a leaping dolphin, a mask like a two-dimensional moon.
He outgrows bedtime stories, so his mother leaves books in his room like hidden treasures. In them, rough-and-tumble boys pick fights, solve crimes, find bodies in the woods. In them, girls are to be looked at, hated, kissed. He prefersthe stories she read to him when he still felt small enough to fit on her lap, fairy tales with softened endings hinting at adarker, bloodier past. Girls who turn into swans and trees, boys who turn into wood and back again, who shapeshift intowolves, who melt in the sun. In school he gets a reputation for distraction and daydreaming, a quiet boy with his mindalways floating somewhere far away. He hopes that if he keeps his head down he might become invisible, like a fable wherewhat you wish for is what you get but twofold; a punishment for wanting.
The boys he has known since childhood begin to measure each other in ways that he mimics hollowly, unsurewhat it means to fall short or to succeed. At fourteen, the first of them announces he has not only kissed a girl but felt herhand on him, making jerking motions in the air while the others
laugh. The idea of being touched in such a way, the motion of it, distinct, the vulnerability of someone else beneath hisclothes, all of it leaves a thick coating in his mouth that he must swallow down.
Puppet-like, he makes his body nod, his laughter joining the others like an echo, half a second behind.
Sometimes at school, even when he hasn’t said a word, he hides himself in a bathroom stall and spills pellets of clayfrom between his teeth, like marbles, like bullets, like seeds.
His parents notice the accumulation of his loneliness and he chafes against the bandaid-pull of their solutions. To please his father he tries soccer, baseball, track, and finds joy in the last; in the freedom of running until his lungs ache,until he is drenched in sweat and drowning in air. He likes the shorts-and-tank-top uniform and the way his hair moves inthe wind. He likes how dizzy he gets after running for miles and not eating enough, the slippery feeling of his skin when hesweats, as if he’s turning inside-out.
At night he sleeps from exhaustion, or cannot sleep at all. The feeling of his bones jutting through his skin andthe stripped-down angles of his body make it hard to breathe, even at rest.
He takes the clay from under his bed and forms it into a doll, thin-limbed and infantile and faceless. Heswaddles her in old clothes to hide her, and in the morning the earthy smell of clay is caught beneath his fingernails, ascent that might grow into something clinging to his skin.
He falls in something that feels like love while reading math problems over the shoulder of a girl he’s never spokento. She smells like cheap, fruity shampoo and wears her hair in a braid with a strand of color running through it thatchanges from week to week. When she glances past he can only see the shape of her eyes, the heavy outline of black inktrailing into wings. He steals a stick of cheap eyeliner from the CVS near his house and spends the night in the bathroomtrying to draw neat lines around his eyes, washing it o”, trying again. By morning he’s red-eyed and wishing for thechoking comfort of clay in his throat, the safe familiarity of lying. He breaks the pencil into pieces, crushes it under theheavy corner of a textbook and flushes it in a swirl of splinters and ink-dark wax.
Each night he adds to his sculpture, which now hides in his closet behind layers of old jerseys and a three-piece suitthat used to be his father’s. Slowly, he begins to form it into something new. The shape of a person, two legs, a waist, twoarms. An imperfect imitation of a teenage girl, headless and hard to look at.
At school he sees the girl tucked against a locker with an older, taller boy whose beard is beginning to growthick around his mouth. Her eyes, lidded with color, widen and then relax when the boy slides his hands around her waist ina motion that is cautiously possessive, one hand cupping the curve of her hip. The two of them murmur, the angled shape ofthe boy’s jaw pressed close to the jewel in her ear.
At home, he stacks lies on the clay girl’s shoulders and molds a head for her, though her face remains a blank curvewaiting for something. She’s exactly his height, a mirror image. He finds himself
stealing clothes to wrap around her; a skirt, a fitted button-up with a floral pattern, bracelets. He takes these with thehammering heart and sweaty palms of a boy stealing nail polish from his mother’s purse.
He leans against the cold glass of the car window while his father drives, half sleeping with his hair slicked with thewetness of the rain. His father turns down the radio, coughs, lets a hum of tension build inside the dark interior of the car, inside the space that the curtains of water make on the windows, a staccato blending into a stream.
You know…his father’s voice is as crackly and soft as the radio announcer. You know, if you ever want to talk…his father’s fingers curl around the edge of the steering wheel, clenching and then loosening, clenching again. Thesporadic motion betrays anxiety, a desire to reach forward.
He remembers the way his father’s face looked in the girl’s aisle of the clothing store. Tight around the edges.He closes his eyes, pretends to be asleep.
At home he weaves his newest lies into her braid, longer and longer, until the clay strands spill down her back,down to the floor. Rapunzel, waiting to escape, waiting to throw him a ladder or a lifeline.
At a party, a girl with bright red lipstick – plus or blossom or maybe even eternity – takes him by his hand into a coatcloset, pushing him up against the rustling jackets and teetering hangers so she can close the door behind them.
He looks at her in the almost-black and wishes he could touch her. But more than that he wants to slip into herskin, to spill beneath the layers of makeup and muscle and consume her in some undefinable way. When she leans forwardto kiss him it is almost that, an enveloping warmth and wetness on his face and for a moment he leans towards her,pouring himself as if he could tip into her body as easily as that. Then she slips her hand under his shirt, chill against hisbelly, dips beneath the waist of his pants. Everything warm about him goes cold, his heart squeezing tightly in his chestand rising into his throat with a desperate rhythm that he imagines she can feel pulsing on his lips.
He pulls away and pushes past her, fumbling for the handle and hurrying through the laughing room to thebathroom. Alone, he leans over the toilet and drops petals of clay from his mouth, one after another after another. Later,when he has scrubbed his teeth of gray and scraped the earthy taste from his tongue he blames it on the alcohol, pulls hissleeping bag into a quiet corner and pretends to fall asleep.
In the morning his mouth tastes as if it still hosts a slimy coating of clay, tainting each bite of food he tries to eat.He skips breakfast, then lunch, then picks at the dinner his mother cooked before excusing himself early, curling beneathhis covers and dreaming of molding himself the way he molds his clay. When he wakes up, he can feel the way hungermakes his body light, detachable. He floats, untethered from skin and sinew until lunch, when he eats a sandwich thatcongeals to cement in his mouth, tasting of clay and sitting, afterwards, in his stomach like a rock.
By the summer he has developed the habit of skipping meals, afraid of the feeling of something in his throat, theswallowing of food too similar to the motion of clay thick in his mouth, threatening to come out. When he does eat, hetakes slow bites, as small as he can, trying not to choke.
To avoid his parents’ watchful eyes he rises early and stays out during the day, running across town until his legsshake, until his vision blurs, until he runs out of oxygen. He becomes dizzy more often, sleeps too much, gets nosebleedsthat he hides as carefully as he’s always hidden his clay, flushing sheet after sheet of red stained toilet paper when no oneelse is home.
One day he wakes up to his mother standing over him, crying while she tries to call an ambulance. Shefound him on the floor, the front of his shirt streaked with blood.
When he refuses to go to the hospital his parents sit on either side of him as if to o”er some kind of protection.You’re sick – something’s wrong – let us help – something needs to change. His eyes drift to where the clay girl hides, andhe agrees.
When he is alone again the echo of their worries and the way his father put a hand on his shoulder and calledhim son float stagnant in the air, condensing around him like humidity. He pushes back the fog and rises from his bed,locking his door before he pulls the clay girl out from where she hides. Eyeless, featureless, she looks at him withoutjudgment, and he leans against her for a moment, his cheek against the fabric of her shirt, a closeness he has never allowedhimself before. For a moment,
he imagines he can hear a heartbeat underneath, faint and slow, but there is nothing there. He puts a hand to her wrist,feeling the delicate outline of the artery where blood would pulse.
Then he begins to carve the empty space that had been the clay girl’s face, and this time he copies the details of hisown expression – his same nose, his same eyes, his same mouth, though the clay version is curved into a smile. When he’sdone, he feels the slow drip of another nosebleed, touches it with fingertips that come away painted bright with shades ofred.
He puts a hand to her cheek. The clay is as cold as ever, as lifeless. He lifts his fingers and the imprint of his bloodsits for a moment, stamped across her face, then the clay drinks it like dry earth drinking water. A spark of somethingkindles in her eyes. He sees it, and feels it echoed inside him, a blossoming of possibility.
The blood from his nose is thin and dark, and the second time he touches his dampened fingers to her face, he tracesher lips, the careful curving of her smile. It stains them red fading to pink, the gentle blush of a makeup aisle; scarlet,cherry, rose.
With his hand there, hovering in front of the sudden color of her lips, he feels a breath of air, a gentle breeze hotagainst his palm. Her gray-moon eyes stare back at him, waiting and wanting. Push forward or pull back.
He fumbles through boxes, drawers full of old junk, a first aid kit his parents left behind in his bedroom. There’s aneedle, sharp and silver and bright with longing. He pricks his thumb, just enough, watches the blood well darkly from hisfinger, presses it against the clay girl’s hand like a vow.
She sleeps, she wakes, he sleeps. His heart thunders in his chest. The blood flows steady and true, soaking herarm with a spreading blush. He imagines it is a thread, weaving itself through the solid softness of her clay, anunwinding from within him.
When it becomes dikcult to stand he folds himself to the ground, and for a moment he thinks his hand will fallaway and break contact. But then he feels her grip, fingers wrapping around his wrist as she holds him steady against her.He looks up, and for a moment there is duplicity. Him, looking up at his own face, flesh and blood with long hair comingloose from its braid and spilling around her ears. Then her, looking down at him. Blood streaked and pale skin going gray.
She takes a breath, soft and easy and deep. The body at her feet looks frail and shrunken. She leans at the waist,lifts him e”ortlessly into her arms. He’s still warm, but she is even warmer. She carries him to the bed, loving the way herbody feels in movement, the easy rocking of her hips, the supple shifting of new muscles as she walks.
She lays him down and he is curled, fetal, among the tossed covers of the bed. Her
mirror-image face lax now, a softening of his edges to match her own. She leans down, kisses him on the forehead and feelshow cold he is, how bloodless. His body wishes to fold inwards, a final collapse.
In her hands the flesh becomes clay, filling in the hollow space she’s left behind. Ribs curl and connect, his angledcorners rounding together, arms and legs rolling thin under the caress of her fingers. Doll-like, miniaturized, she canhold him in one arm, light as a feather.
She rolls him smaller still, small as a stone in her palm, gray clay smoothed by the heat of her hands. She makes aheart, a memory of chambers and aortas abstracted, small enough to fit in her mouth. She swallows him, and he slidesdown her throat to settle inside her.
Her heart beats steady in her chest, and she feels relief.