Kailyn McCord, 2009
A Portrait; How We Fit
I have always liked tall men, and they are usually in abundant supply, as I barely clear five feet. I like the way I can lean against the middle parts of their chests when we're standing together and my knees are tired. I like how when they decide to kiss me, and I don't know it yet, they actually have to tip my chin up. It happens in the movies all the time, but I take comfort that it is some kind of vertical necessity in my real life, with these tall men.
He is a tall man, with fourteen inches on me, and dark hair that he cuts in very strange ways. Lately he's been sporting a tuft in the front that hangs down on his forehead, a kind of truncated Mohawk; he is attempting to grow peyos, although he's not Jewish, he just likes their aesthetic. They are small still, barely a few inches long, but he can just manage to tuck them behind his ears; sometimes he uses bright plastic clips to hold back his front tuft. I find this treatment of his hairstyle endeavors amusing, almost as if he chose to grow out the three most troublesome places just to play with them, to blow them out of his eyes with a frustrated puff of air as he reads on his computer screen.
* * *
"I think you should totally do it. Yeah, totally, it would be awesome." I looked at him in the mirror, playing with his hair, holding it straight up from his head at different angles.
"Ok… yeah, ok. Lets do it." He plugged in the clippers and handed them over.
"Erm, like, about like that?" We both turned to face the mirror.
"Yeah, totally. And you want just the front? Sort of a Chelsea kind of thing?"
"Ok. Here goes." The clippers buzzed in his ears, and I concentrated on the lines of hair, the way it separated and split, little cowlicks dotted all over.
* * *
His computer; he loves his computer. The disk drive is broken, so he can't watch movies on it anymore; instead he scavenges the internet for streaming video, copies of his favorite films with the fastest links, copies that don't have Korean subtitles scrawling across half the window. He lies in bed with the G4 powerbook perched on his chest, a foot from his face, screen bent forward at a forty-five degree angle so he doesn't have to strain his neck. Back then, I tried to wedge in the side, hold his hand in mine with our arms trapped straight between our bodies. I could usually see most of the screen, although it took on the darkened veneer that comes from a sideways perspective. The light of the characters' faces skewed, the shadows on their cheeks became purple-black pools of diode color, and their expressions read like photo negatives, distorted and polarized. When he was tired, he would sigh and close the computer and place it carefully to the side of the futon, and role over with his back to me, and we would sleep.
He has a beautiful back, severely scarred from the cancer he had as a baby, skin stretching across and up an almost 50 degree curve in his spine. The scars run straight down from between his shoulder blades to just above his hips, leaving a large patch of nerveless space that branches to trace around the line of his belt, ending in the creases where the front of his thighs and waist fold together. The skin around the scars is also nerveless, a consequence of the many grafts throughout his early childhood. He told me the stories, how the doctors placed little football shaped balloons under his skin, inflating them each week to stretch it out. He wore baggy shirts and overalls for all of elementary school, hiding his inflated torso, until they removed the balloons and cut out the previous, now outdated graft, using his newly stretched back to cover the space. He can still sense pressure over most of it, but nothing light, no surface sensation, anywhere below his shoulder blades. As a result, when I hugged him, I pressed hard with the tips of my fingers and my palms, knowing that if I didn't he wouldn't know my hands were back there. Reaching above his shoulder blades, where he did feel, was impractical because of our difference in height, but I at times I became tired of pressing, and would run my fingers along the asterix scars, feeling the strangely pulled pores and hard tissue seams, the pocked places where staples had been.
The rest of his body is dotted with similar marks – more tiny skin tucks and surgeries, little distilments of the monster on his back. There is one in the divot between his arm muscles, at exactly the height of my nose; they are everywhere, just like on most people, but on him each for the same reason, all removed pieces over the years. My favorite is the one above his left eye; it is the reason that I first noticed him. It makes his face look slightly uneven, and when he forgets to shave for a week or so, it becomes clear that the skin on his cheek was pulled up, stretched to make up the space, and that were he to have a beard, it would go higher on the left than the right. When he really smiles, the excited, suddenly surprised kind of smile, the scar itself gets lost in his eye wrinkles.
* * *
I met him at the end of the summer. The days had started to melt into each other to the point where we wished for the cold to come again, to where we wanted the rain. We worked our summer jobs together, him in the boiler room, me painting buildings, and sometimes, when it was too hot to work at all, he would find me in a curtained dorm room where I was trimming the corners or spackling poster holes, and we would sit on the desk or the bed and swing our feet together. I lived four blocks from the campus, cheaply, in a friend's unfinished basement, and would sit on the porch, in those last weeks, smoking hand rolled cigarettes and drinking mojitos. The first time he rode past on his skateboard, I was genuinely surprised. I wore a purple dress I had made out of an old sheet, hand stitched together in a frantic night when my sewing machine had broken, and I smiled when he stopped and told me it was on his way home, lavender cotton swishing around my ankles.
He rode by a lot that summer, but it wasn't until the fall, after I moved out of the basement and into a real bedroom, that he told me it wasn't on the way home; he had come by especially to see me, all those times, and it was if with this new knowledge I was suddenly more special. As school was starting again and our jobs ended, we curled in my big bed, listening to music and talking. He only stayed over when he was too tired to ride home, and it wasn't until October, when he got a room of his own across the parking lot, that he told me he didn't actually fit in my big bed, that it was uncomfortable for him to sleep there. From then on we stayed as his apartment, on the futon, watching movies until he was too tired, seeing each other in the sleepy mornings and at the exhausted end of each day.
* * *
"What are you doing?" The credits were rolling across the screen to synthesized tragically romantic 80's rock. He leaned over the edge of the bed and started scrawling on a piece of scrap paper.
"Nothing. Just something I want to remember."
" 'bout what?"
He didn't answer and finished writing; he didn't look at me.
"These movies make me sad. That's what I'm writing."
"Why did it make you sad? I love Pretty In Pink. I don't know… I remember watching it as a kid, or you know, an… adolescent I guess, loving Molly Ringwald… wanting to be the girl in the purple dress… all that. It was great."
"But it doesn't work that way. It… it lies about… about… never mind." He rolled over and faced me, our heads sideways on the pillows.
"I mean, I know it's not that way all the time. But sometimes…"
"I don't know… I'm tired."
"Ok." I touched the side of his face, my palm cupping his cheekbone, thumbing the side of his scar and listening as his breath slowed into sleep.
* * *
He doesn't keep a journal, but writes on little scraps of paper, or in his art notebooks, or on objects he finds and collects. They lie scattered around his apartment, asking to be riffled through. Often they aren't even complete ideas, stopping mid-sentence or ending with a ragged edge clearly torn off in frustration. When he doesn't have time, he will write a few words on his own skin to remind him for later, and the tops of his hands become covered with these nonsensical hints. I stared at them when I couldn't sleep, wondering what it was they meant, milling over and over their possible implications and imagining what larger narratives they would later spawn. Sometimes an idea would sit too long on his skin and become lost, rubbed away by the cuffs of his brown corduroy coat.
* * *
"So you really believe that? That once… that once a piece of art is made, it just… it doesn't belong to you anymore?" His room was cold and I moved my naked legs together under the sheets, warming them. I felt the need to reassure him, to tell him again and again that I liked his art, that he could keep it, own it. "I don't know… I want the things I make to always belong to me. Somehow I —"
"But then they belong to other people." His voice faltered as he leaned up to turn off the light, and I huddled farther under the blankets.
"So once you're done with it, once people see it, it's gone, and once we see something it…"
"It becomes a part of you. You take a little bit with you." He settled in, an arm snaking around me. "Everything you see and… interact with, everything you witness changes you…. like… like your made up of it, when you see it."
"Ok. Maybe I like that a little better." I turned and burrowed my back into his chest and his arm dropped over me, his hand resting on my drooping belly. It felt strange to imagine myself comprised of these pieces, of authorless and estranged products, creator-less things. I edged closer to him, and put my hand on top of his, our fingers locking in the soft space between my hipbones.
"Goodnight then." I took a deep breath; my ribcage expanded back into him.
* * *
We split in November. I went over to his apartment late, and we sat together, as we often did, talking about the day. He was oddly removed that night, pacing around the tiny kitchen, coming back to the couch and pulling me close to him, more affectionate than usual. I could tell he was shaken about something, but for the better part of the night and into the early morning he refused to tell me why. We didn't go upstairs to the futon to watch anything. We didn't make food or do our reading. We hadn't said a thing in more than a few minutes, and I looked at the clock ticking past three am, and looked back at him, and saw that he was crying. So quietly crying, he kept his eyes on the couch cover, pinching the red canvas between his fingers, avoiding my face.
I flushed in a moment of terrified epiphany, and asked if it was about me, this thing we were waiting up for, and he nodded. It took that to make me understand, and the whole night and weeks and months that we had been together rushed onto me, suddenly one big false thing. My head tipped upwards towards the ceiling, chin jutting forward, and I walked quickly to the sliding glass door, wanting to run through the cold night. I remember saying ‘ok' when he told me that we should be friends. I needed to give him permission to leave.