At fourteen a boy touches your hair—twists his fingers in its brown and pushes it gently behind your ear. Your hair belongs stuck to the sides of your face: slim, pointed, shiny as ice. But instead it’s long and looped under your chin and so he touches it—puts it behind your ear where it gets stuck on the pewter back of your earring. You ask him to leave. This is not loneliness; it’s piety—the tainted bit of hair, a sacrifice. Scissors cut it off quickly in your bedroom upstairs, where the door is closed, where the windows are painted shut, where the twin bed waits for you—narrow, sheetless—the quilt bunched and shaped like a skinned pear.
Fist-pumping, knuckle-cracking, fingers through hair and palm-slapping. At eighteen you become so good at being the only one in the room, so visible they can see through you. On a sofa, crumpled, you are surrounded. Someone passes around a magazine, rips out its centerfold, sits her next to you. They discuss: her thighs and your thighs; her lips and your face; her chest and your front. You look nothing like her; you don’t bend or fold. They dissect her image and your lack. You remember the time in high school when the hair prickled on your legs. You crave that sharpness, the itch of hair sprouting through skin. You start to count your bruises, the number of peanuts stuck in the shag rug. You start to count the cracks in the wall, tug on the peeling paint.
At sixteen you go down on a virgin with a physicist mother. His hands are miniature, hot—the pads of his fingers gorge your scalp, blister. He sweats. His thighs slide across your cheeks and you hum the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents and wish he’d put on some music. Beyond his hunched shoulders, the red numbers of his clock radio blur and glow. You watch them change, watch their timekeeping colon beat in time with your song. He is afraid his mother will come home early. He rushes, lunges for the back of your throat. You can’t stand the warmth. Later you will wake up hoarse, an ashy rash spread across your face. You’ll pick at the bumps, peel the flaking skin.
At twenty-two you fall asleep in the bathtub, half-clothed and bloody. The thin green cotton of your t-shirt sticks to your ribs and billows at your stomach; the fabric collects filthy water and balloons. Your skin peels and flaps at the slits in your arms and thighs. Water seeps in and blood leaks out; the cold, white porcelain stains red. You are not dying. You are trading fluids, transfusing. When you wake up the water is cold and half-drained, your wounds puffed and gaping, your shirt heavy and soaked. You get out of the tub and remove it. You try to tape the cuts.
Colleen O'Connor is a writing student at Columbia College Chicago. She is also the editorial assistant for Switchback Books.