This Human Form Where I Was Born
Four. The size in inches of the raw discoloration on the right hip.
Annie’s body no longer has an owner. After leaving Gertie, her body tells her to return to its owner, to go back. Her body puts her on the wrong train after work, the blue one that takes her to Wicker Park and Gertie, instead of the red one that takes her to her tiny, empty studio in Uptown. She dreams of puzzles missing pieces, socks without their pairs, graves on the edge of cemeteries.
There’s a night when Annie’s friends take her out, the friends still around since the divorce. Engaged Anya and married Chanda and partnered Michael and open-marriaged Marcus. At dinner, ceviche and margaritas with salted rims, they speak from a script. What really happened, they ask. I can’t believe it, they say, which is also a question. Both sound like an accusation.
Annie says they fought a lot, her and Gertie. More than they let on.
Her friends fidget. Anya bites a purple-manicured nail on her wedding-china-white hand. Chanda nibbles her straw through too-white teeth and plum lips. Michael taps his pointed-toe loafer on the floor and his skeleton fingers on the table. Marcus checks his phone for Scruff hits on his BBD profile. They ask questions that are not given voice in that fidgeting. Aren’t you supposed to persevere? Past the fights, the boredom, the disappointment?
Annie says she is sad and would like to change the topic. Her friends’ relief is a mass exhale of tangy lime breath.
They eat, they drink. They cab to Boystown, Buddy’s for the guys, then The Closet for the girls. There is dancing to Rihanna and Madonna and Ariana, drinking of vodka sodas and tequila shots. Annie becomes one of many twisting torsos across the tightly-packed dance floor. She and her friends turn into strobes of smoke, and she waves her arms above her head, watching her limbs lengthen with the black and white elegance of a Marlene Dietrich film. Her sweat smells sweet amongst the humid cloud of humanity, tinged with Coco Mademoiselle and the salt from margaritas. She is light as she bounces on her toes, insubstantial, incorporeal. She could leave her body behind on this dance floor, float between the speakers and the rafters, through the TVs playing a loop of pin-up pictures, beautiful butches and femmes, into the crisp autumn air, up where the stars are hidden by the orange glow of street lights.
Her friends want to leave. But if Annie stops moving, she’s afraid she will die.
One of the shapes surrounding her resolves into a recognizable form, and Annie sees black skin and a soft brown crown of hair. A short white tank top, tight high-waist jeans. Annie’s hand meets round hips. She is happy the woman has softness where Gertie had muscle and bone. She is sad that this woman does not have the shape of Gertie.
Dancing in the space between the strobe. Drinking. Talking. Annie forgets the words as they leave her mouth and hit her ears. The woman kisses Annie’s neck, her lips, then pulls her off the dance floor. Annie screams over the music, a line that’s been in her head all morning from an old Pixies song.
The woman leads Annie into a back storeroom, or maybe a closet or kitchen. Annie can’t tell in the dark. Then the woman pulls up Annie’s shirt and bra, tongues her breast, while also slipping a finger into her cunt. Annie breathes deep, leans back, stretches towards the tongue and finger. It’s a comfort to know her body is real, that it’s seen and felt. Annie feels a vibration, something searing, and for a moment she thinks it’s a new form of release. It’s exciting, thinking she will have a new kind of orgasm to herald her new life and new lovers. But then the woman extricates herself from Annie’s body, jumping back with a shriek. She pulls Annie into the bathroom, her jeans around her knees and breasts out. The woman pushes Annie onto the lip of the grimy sink. Annie doesn’t understand until she feels the cold water on her hip and looks down. There’s a bright pink spot. The woman says something about a pipe, radiator, burn. Annie watches the water, waiting to feel it, feel the cool or the burn. Nothing. When she looks up the woman is gone.
The next morning Annie remembers the burn by scraping her underwear down her leg. She wants to vomit, but instead she applies Vaseline, unsure what else to do. Only after, as the burn stings and aches and hisses through her hip, does she remember the woman’s tongue and finger. That at least is something.
Three. The height in inches of the subdermal black ink on the back left shoulder.
Annie passes a tattoo parlor on Broadway every day on her walk home from the train. The door is sometimes open to the street, and she sees red walls and thumbtacked prints of comics. The speakers scream Social Distortion and Fugazi.
Gertie didn’t like tattoos.
On a day the hum in her hip recedes a bit, and the hum in her head re-emerges, the one that begs her to go back home, Annie goes through the door. A man with an orange clawed hand stretching across his neck guides her to a table that could be used in a gynecology exam. A college girl on the next table has stripped to her bra and jeans as her silent artist chisels a sword along her ribcage. A skate punk next to her has stripped to his boxer briefs to get a Lannister house sigil engraved on his thigh. No shyness or qualms in the name of art. Annie takes off her shirt.
The artist prepares his surgeon’s plate of sterilized needles and guns. He keeps another one on his other side, for ink, gauze, and cream. Tattoo artists are not hair stylists. They don’t want to know the mind inside the skin they carve. The man behind her is silent, and Annie, tired of talk, is happy at this silence.
The college girl breathes in a thin rattling whistle between gritted teeth. The skater tugs at his snapback hat with the weed symbol, takes it off, folds it, back on, grimacing. There will be pain, that is what Annie sees. It’s what she expects, and without it will be disappointed. She hates the firstness of this moment though, wants it to be over.
Social Distortion stops, and the air gets loud with moans and gasps from the others. A metal hum. A troll with elvish markings across his arms, legs, and shaved head appears from behind a tartan curtain. He marches to the counter in his board shorts and flip flops and pushes buttons. Then horns, and Otis Redding. Try a little tenderness, he sings. Annie’s shoulders sink, leaning back into relaxation again. That’s when the machine begins behind her ear and the needle bites into her back.
Annie breathes in sharply, a gasp and catch and stiffening. Painful, yes. But more.
The gun vibrates, and the needle stabs in quick succession, and the artist wipes away inky blood, and there is nothing else she needs or wants and nothing else to think about. She remembers this feeling is called joy.
Otis sings, an entire album of pain and pleasure at once, while the gun and the need and the artist do their work.
Finally, they are done. The artist wipes once and then gives Annie a mirror. A small black dove flies on her left shoulder. Cut her open, and there it was.
Two. The centimeters disparity between the length of the legs, measured from hip socket to bottom of fibula.
Annie runs. It is Thanksgiving morning and it is snowing and she runs for an hour. She runs a rectangle from empty Uptown to quiet Lincoln Square to vacant Roscoe Village to silent Lakeview and back. Her earbuds pump out White Stripes and Peaches. Her left hip twinges in mile two, then pulses in mile four, then screams in mile six. During her two block cool down, the music downshifts to Cat Power and she limps along to her howl about a metal heart not worth a thing.
This is not the first hip pain from running. But it is the worst. So Annie gives in this time and visits a doctor. The doctor sends her to a physical therapist. This therapist watches Annie walk and run on a treadmill. The therapist wears Lululemon pants and a hoodie, and she speaks to the top of Annie’s head, saying words like IT band, excessive mileage, improper gait, misalignment, corrective exercises.
Annie has been walking wrong her entire life, the therapist says. Annie’s legs are not the same length. Annie’s body has finally had enough and will be heard.
Left alone for a moment as the therapist writes up a treatment plan, Annie thinks of pairs. Her legs are pairs, as are her arms. Her hands, her buttcheeks, her ears, her eyes. Her body is made in dual shapes.
Under the therapist’s supervision, Annie practices balance exercises on a Bosu ball, rolls her legs with a foam roller, performs deadlifts and squats in slow motion to correct the form. At the end of the appointment, Annie is sweaty and sapped.
The therapist has Annie lay down on a long rectangular table reminiscent of the tattoo table. The therapist stretches Annie, folding her left leg and pushing it into her chest. The therapist’s face hovers over Annie’s. She has a mole on her white forehead above her penciled-in eyebrow, gold triangle earrings that dangle near her cheeks, blond hair that curls over her ears. She looks nothing like Gertie. But there are two people, a pair, in this moment, and they are touching limbs, and can feel each other’s breath.
Annie’s hip throbs when she leaves, and her underwear is damp.
In her empty studio, Annie stretches out her legs on her emaciated futon. There are different patterns of moles and freckles on her legs, and one knee has a patch of long brown hair she missed when shaving. She tries to eye the difference, see the extra length the right has over the left. But they look the same.
Annie does the work, attends the appointments, until her insurance allotment runs out. She walks instead of runs. The work doesn’t take though. Her mismatched limbs no longer respond to her commands.
One. Toe with an empty nail bed.
Engaged Anya and partnered Michael and open-marriaged Marcus gather at married Chanda’s condo in Humboldt Park. It is mid December, and this is a holiday party with a large invite list. Annie drinks three gin and tonics before the Lyft arrives. Spouses and significant others will be at this party.
Chanda and her husband are agnostic, but they have a real pine with string lights in their den, stockings above the stairwell, Bing Crosby on the Bluetooth speakers. Sequin dresses and tights on the women, sweater vests and oxfords on the men. Annie wears Converse and a knitted hat topped with a pom.
There is apple cider and bourbon, and on her third mug Annie talks to Chanda’s brother Chase. He is asking about Gertie, and Annie shakes her head and drinks the shot she poured along with her cocktail. No really, Chase says, his twenty-something white male face a blank space on which she can paint her own pattern. Tell me, he says.
And she does. Annie tells Chase that she’d been in love, or at least had convinced herself that she was, and was there really a difference? What you think you feel, you feel, she says. But that feeling, that belief in a feeling, changed. There wasn’t a specific event to point to, she says. She and Gertie argued about what mattress to buy, what shade of gray to paint the condo’s living room, and the right amount to spend on a bottle of whiskey. They occasionally yelled at one another, when they could not yell at their supervisors and their parents and their elected leaders, and most of the time they understood this need to vent, this role that they played for each other, and any resentment and hurt feelings could be forgiven. They stopped surprising each other. Consistency is a kind of comfort, Annie says. It’s nice to know what to expect. But, for example, the punctuality of their weekly sex at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays, after an early dinner and a movie in Streeterville, became a series of known steps, all enacted in the same order, for the same amount of time. Like laundry and an annual Pap smear.
Really, Annie says to Chase, the things she liked changed. Ten years is time for that to happen. Dairy and steampunk and mid-century design, all things she loved at 25. Things she couldn’t stomach at 35. Gertie was one of those things.
That’s depressing, Chase says. Annie says yes. Aren’t you supposed to change together? Annie says yes.
They drink to the disappointment of reality. They keep drinking, as the music gets louder and segues to disco, as the veneer of mid-thirties adulthood slips from the people in the room and they remember what it feels like to party without responsibility. Vests are shorn along with shoes and there are shots and dance-offs. Someone breaks the rule of smoking only on the step-out Juliette balcony and lights up in the living room.
Chase is very close to Annie, the two of them wedged into a corner of the living room. He’s speaking into her ear and his lips brush her hair and cheek. It’s been a long time since Annie has flirted with a man, had sex with a man—college perhaps. She always appreciated the beauty of some men, even of their cocks, brainless worms that they were. She appreciated them, even if she preferred the shapes of women. She puts a hand on the front of Chase’s pants, feels the outline of him through the poly-cotton blend.
After a moment, one where they gape at the other like witnesses to a three-second knockout, where Annie holds her breath and Chase gasps, he pulls them into the hall. Chase grabs her hand, sticks it down his boxers. Her senses are heightened yet slowed, so it takes a moment for her to grip, to feel it grow. A kind of victory, the speed at which his body responds to hers.
And it’s fine, and she thinks it might be fun to feel the tip of his penis nudging around her vagina in the way that they do. But Annie also feels nauseous, the bourbon returning back the way it came. She pulls her hand out of his shorts, scraping her nails on him, and he yelps. She run-stumbles, her left Converse coming loose, to Chanda’s personal vanity and shower. Her left foot wedges under the thin particle board door of the bathroom. Something rips, and there’s stabbing pain in her toes, but she’s got a bigger problem, and it’s coming up her throat in a hot gush. Her vomit just misses the toilet, spraying the tile and shower curtain, brown and curdled.
Ah fuck, Chase says. He’s followed her, the perfect gentleman, and she looks up to see him dry heave and turn his back.
Annie winds wads of toilet paper around her hand and pools the puke. She stops to vomit again, in the commode this time. Chase says he has to go, apologizes. Annie thinks the apology might be to himself, to his body, his squeamishness getting in the way of sex.
She splashes water on her face and rinses her mouth. Notices red on her foot. Peels back her argyle sock and brings her big toenail with it, stuck in the fabric like a macabre brooch. Her toe is all red and now she feels the full hot pulse of it. She cries as she curls her leg over the sink, runs cool water over her foot. She finds hydrogen peroxide in the medicine cabinet and bites down on her palm when it sears her toe. She picks the nail off her sock, and puts the scaly thing back on her toe. Binds it together with gauze and tape from the cabinet.
This is not an adult solution. Her toenail will not reattach and grow like a lizard regrowing a tail. But Annie is surrounded by adults who are pretending they are young again, who have forgotten their world weariness and ready answers for crises. And she is not an adult.
Annie decides she will handle this tomorrow. A solution will come to her then. She leaves the party without saying words to Chase Chanda Anya Michael Marcus all busy losing their minds.
At home, Chase texts her. Asks if she’s feeling better. If she wants to meet some other time. Annie blocks him from her phone, changes her bandage and hopes for sleep to heal.
On the train home. The right one, the red one. A few days before Christmas. Annie is staying in the city this year, the idea of the pity at home too much. Her parents and their spouses had been slow to warm to Gertie, girl that she was, phase that they thought she was. But now. To be alone at 36. Disaster.
Annie is thinking of Gertie, listening to Henry Rollins scream in her ear buds about being a liar. She is thinking of the shit year it’s been. She is thinking in her loop when the ache in her chest, the one that’s been there all day, gets bigger. Louder. It covers the area under her breasts, into her armpits, under her lateral wings.
And then her knees give out. She kneels on the floor, the curved metal cutting into the flesh of her calves. She’s unable to catch her breath, but at the same time she’s inhaling the stench of piss and bile and slush down there, the stuff that no amount of industrial cleaner can erase from these train floors. Sweat pops under her bra line and down her back, pouring from her hairline. Someone says words to her, but she can’t see this someone, can only see the vague outline of their shape against the growing black of her vision.
The train pulls into Belmont, and Annie finds adrenaline and fear ready, pushing her off the floor and onto the newly expanded platform. She sprints down the newly metal stairs. Something is going to explode and she’s not sure what or what direction it will be, but Masonic is two blocks away. She runs, the long long city blocks to Wellington, and for a moment feels happy that she is running again, freedom and power, and she runs east and spots the ER and activates the sliding doors and stops inside and pants and her bladder lets go a little before reasserting control and she sweats and sweats and the hall is turning black and she feels hollow and
Annie feels another body keeping her steady, strong arms that gently guide her on quivering legs to a plastic chair. Someone gives her water, and points a tiny desk fan at her face. Over long seconds, Annie’s sweat cools, and her breath slows. Someone, maybe the same someone with gifts, asks her what happened, how she’s feeling. Words come out of Annie’s mouth and she thinks they are the right ones.
There’s tests, cuff on her arm, syringe in her elbow, electrodes on her heart. All of them come back to smiles from nurses and technicians and doctors.
Anxiety, they say. Panic. That’s all. The body does funny things, they say. When it’s under pressure. But zero heart irregularities.
Annie is not relieved, as perhaps she should be. This should have been a heart attack. That thing in her chest should be shocked and broken. It should be reshaping itself. It should look different and act different and be different. Her heart’s resilience isn’t fair, the regularity isn’t right.
The doctor hands her a prescription for Lorezapam. Ten pills, without a refill. Annie wonders if it’s enough, if ten will do the trick of shutting this body down for good. She may have said some of this out loud, for the doctor narrows his eyes, takes the slip of paper back. Tells her to hang on a sec.
When he’s gone, Annie slips out the sliding door.
In her studio she lays on her futon. For a long while, she doesn’t move, simply breathing and taking small pleasure in the lack of pain. Her eyes are open, and she charts the stipple on the ceiling, the small bubbles and patterns that form a sort of constellation.
Late in the evening, she gets up and eases onto her feet. In a slow, careful trip to the bathroom, she assembles her tools. The cream she eventually found to soothe her burn. The lotion to keep her tattoo supple and bright. The tennis ball she rolls over her hip joints to ease the strain. The new bandage for her toe bed.
Annie fingers her brands and scars. She hums as she works, the line from the Pixies song, but also bits of other songs, and sounds that come to her from nowhere. She hums and hums, making it up as she goes.
Amy Lee Lillard is the author of Dig Me Out from Atelier26 Books. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize and named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018. Her short stories appear in Barrelhouse, Foglifter, Angst, Epiphany, and Atlas and Alice. Amy is the co-creator, co-host, and producer of Broads and Books, the funny and feminist book podcast.
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