I. At 16
He makes me think of artists. The famous kind. Botticelli, Rodin, Renoir.
All those models immortalized with perfect skin and bright mouths.
In the mirror above the sink, my reflection just looks pale and disappointing.
Called on in class, his ears turn red, and then he’ll grab his books to keep his hands from shaking.
Unwisely, I compare his face to mine. It aches in the same way looking at a star makes you realize you’re inconsequential. Girls should always be prettier than boys.
I close my eyes in homeroom and dream that he will see me.
Too soft, too fragile, too perfect. Someone in the hallway yelled fag.
II. The Movie
We watched a holocaust movie in history. It was old. The pictures blinked and crackled across the screen and sometimes it was hard to see what was happening. The movie was actual footage of what the American soldiers saw when the war was ending and they were taking over concentration camps one by one. The camp in the movie was Dachau and there were a lot of bodies.
He wasn’t supposed to sit next to me. The seating chart had him all the way back against the wall, but he’d moved his desk up. The lights were out and he was sitting impossibly close so that his elbow was almost touching mine. I could hear him breathing.
His best friend laughed at him, leaning forward to jab him in the ribs. “God, you’re such a pussy.”
But he just crossed his arms around himself, cupping his shoulders with his hands. I turned so I could see the curve of his neck, the angle of his head. And pussy is one of a million nasty ways of saying girl—I know that—but I couldn’t see how closing one’s eyes was particularly feminine.
I’m a girl. There were 400 naked bodies on the screen in black and white. Their heads were shaved, their bones were jutting through their skin and I wasn’t even crying. I kept thinking, I should be crying. Other girls are crying. All these people died and I’m not even crying. He was trying to sit up straight, act normal, like he wasn’t shaking or like each breath wasn’t getting stuck in his throat. I began to write words in the margin of my notebook.
Psychosomatic—He kept touching his mouth, pressing his fingers against his eyes.
Psychological—I was watching him as he tried to stop shaking.
Physiological—He looked like he might get sick.
Logical—I felt guilty for being so cool about the whole thing. I couldn’t cry.
Illogical—His hands were shaking, so he made fists.
Ill—When the bell rang, he didn’t file down towards the locker bays with the rest of us, but went out the side-door to the parking lot, still holding his hand close to his mouth. I thought how if people were mostly more like him instead of mostly some other way, then no one would ever die in a mass grave. I thought he might pass out but he didn’t.
He friends made fun of him the rest of the week. They kept calling him a pussy, telling everyone how he dry-heaved in the Honors lot after class and I thought that was funny, or maybe just cruel, because he wasn’t like a girl at all, but more like a human being than most of us.
III. At 18
Shaved head, split knuckles, cold hands, cigarette behind one ear.
I have a half-formed thought that he’s turning uglier by the day.
When I bloomed, it was like growing into my bones.
In the mirror, my face looks pristine. I think about Dachau sometimes, wish that I’d cried.
He looks bruised and willful, like he’s trying to scrape the soft parts out of himself.
Kicks his locker door. The only one of us who understood genocide, who held it inside his ribcage like a stone.
If I could paint the scene, it would be transparent as a watercolor.
If I knew what it felt like, I could stop feeling guilty.
If they didn’t see empathy as weakness, maybe he wouldn’t either.
I’m sweet, but only on the outside.
When he puts his hands against his face, even obscenities sound like prayers.