The Summer I Bit Myself to the Bone
On my knees in front of him, I try to picture him as an altar. I don’t pray, and I also don’t particularly believe in god, so the image shifts—more than I would like it to. Eventually, everything settles into one thought, one feeling, one penetrating pinprick culminating into itself—let’s get this over with.
This isn’t to say he’s not … working hard to acquaint himself with my body. This is to say I am bored. Terribly, awfullybored and he cannot hold my attention. I walk to the bathroom after. This pretense will cover up for my brusqueness, and maybe, if I am gone long enough, will compel him to leave.
I sit on the toilet seat as a forced trickle falls down. I say goodbye to any distinct remains he might have left inside me and imagine him putting his clothes on and leaving. The thought soothes me. I will walk back out for a goodbye in a fewminutes. Sexual liberation has been hard for me. This daily debauchery has its perks, but ownership of my sexuality andbody isn’t necessarily one of them.
I want to start an OnlyFans, but I know I’ll inevitably end up sounding like that girl from Twitter who has really nice boobs, the one who thinks she is superior to other people on OnlyFans because she has a degree from Cambridge. She’s wrong. She’s superior to other people on OnlyFans because she has amazing tits. I look at mine in the small mirror above the sink and try to kill time.
Kabir, the guy who might still be (is) waiting outside, has been a fling for ages. I made it a goal to be with him since I saw him for the first time in eighth grade, way before we would ever even have a conversation.
It was the last day of school before our summer vacation started. I remember walking up: our eighth–grade classrooms were on the second floor and we complained voraciously about lugging heavy backpacks upstairs. I took the stairs closest to the senior classes on the ground floor: I was 13 but confident I fit in. As soon as I stepped onto my floor, I could see groups of girls gathered around each other, talking in big whispers with elated smiles. I walked past them because, as was always the case with me, I was late to class. One of my friends ran towards me, stopping me in the middle of the hallway. “There’s a new guy in class and he looks older,” she said. I turned to the girls who were melting like honey clusters out in the sun. “He is so attractive, like a supermodel!” all of them practically yelled at me.
As soon as I walked into class, I knew what they were talking about. He was tall in a room full of kids who had not even had their growth spurts yet. He had hair, thick facial hair. But perhaps what was most special about him was the air of easy confidence. He sat there, new and unafraid, in the middle of the classroom, an unimaginable thing for a new kid to do. He was not talking to anyone, and it did not seem like he much wanted to either. He did look old. I instantly saw what the girls in the hallway meant, even though I did not find him attractive at all. I understood that he was special.
When I walk back out into my room, he is lying on the bed twiddling with his phone, his upper body leaning against the wooden headboard.
“I thought you were never going to come out,” he smiles at me, putting his phone facedown next to him.
I am confused for a second. “From the bathroom, you mean? Sorry it took me a while.”
“Come here,” he says with outstretched arms.
“I actually have an early morning tomorrow, and it is two a.m. Do you mind if we cut it short tonight?”
“Hey, I am only trying to lay down with you for a bit. We can just fall asleep, and I can leave in the morning when you wake up.”
“Yeah. I would actually prefer it if you leave right now.”
His brows start to collide, coming to a deep prominence at the center.
“Is everything okay?”
“Yes, it is. I just want to sleep and you would distract me.”
He smiles again, his brow relaxing, “I will see you in a couple days then.”
I let him kiss me goodnight, and then watch him pull his T-shirt on and walk out the door and down the stairs.
Lying used to infuriate me as a kid. I would not let my mother tell a lie. I was spiteful with the way I went about it too. I had a sour mouth, like one filled with lemon-juice. My mom tried to teach me that not all lying is created equal. “I don’t lie like your father,” she would say. That did not make me feel better. I was a seven-year-old who had just found out both my parents were liars, and one of them was the worst kind. Now I am a liar too, but I don’t know what kind.
After Kabir leaves, I crawl back into bed and pull out the hash and rolling paper I keep in my upper left bedside table drawer. I will smoke a couple blunts before calling it a night; I do not actually have an early morning and I love the act of smoking. I try not to do it in bed though, because it is really hard not to drop onto the sheets little pieces of ash that burn mostly invisible holes in them that become visible the more I do it. But tonight I am troubled by Kabir.
He’s been reckless ever since the deaths. He’s been drinking a lot, smoking a lot, texting me a lot. I wonder if he’s doing okay; he is surrounded by friends, but he still keeps texting me, the girl he met at 15. I cannot decide if I am worried about him or if I feel some tenuous burden of responsibility. I yearn for him when I lie in bed alone, but I know I don’t enjoy his presence when he is there. When you let too many people you aren’t in love with touch you like I do, it’s hard to remember which one you’re really truly thinking about, never sure if you remember it in its rotundity, preserved in its sanctity. I think I stay involved with him because I need to feel bad while having sex. I’m unable to have sex without using words with inherent destruction in them, without intoning pain as sexual. I think it means something about me that I am completely unable to feel intimacy when I am being treated like a human. That thought in itself makes me want to cry. I cannot believe how fucking sad I am. I cannot believe it.
I was a seven-year-old who just found out both my parents were liars, and one of them was the worst kind.
I have been too tired to work this past month. I have been calling in sick multiple times a week and staying in my room instead. Nalini, my business partner, is worried; she thinks I need to get out more and stop sleeping with people I am not dating. I tell her it is hard to be in a bakery surrounded by food when I feel nauseous and sick to my stomach from the second I wake up to the second I lie back down to sleep. I handle whatever I can from home; I am way better at finances and talking to people than she is. She really lets her kindness get in the way of a good deal. I don’t really care. I keep telling her I am still working as much as her. It is not the whole truth, but it is enough for her.
I moved back to my hometown after graduating to open a bakery, mostly because I could not bear the thought of working for someone else. The city is a dead end, in my opinion. People in Chandigarh keep on living how they are living with minimal disruptions to their way of life, regardless of passing time. You need discomfort to grow. My mom was happy about the bakery, and my dad funded it. He thinks it compensates for missing my childhood.
My father traveled the world while I stayed at home. The first time he went abroad was when I was seven, to Singapore. He was gone for three months, though I can only remember the day he left and the day he came back. In between those days, I am told I fell violently sick.
My mother took me from doctor to doctor, but none could tell her what was wrong with me. I was tested for pneumonia and malaria, and then for diseases that were already obsolete. It didn’t matter: I wouldn’t test positive for anything. The constant stomachaches, the inability to eat food, the low-grade fever, the fatigue, and the tiredness had no discernible cause. My seven-year-old body continued to suffer.
After a month, my pediatrician concluded that I was in mental anguish, something he couldn’t cure. Once a few different doctors confirmed that there was nothing physically wrong with me, my father came back. This is the part I remember. My mother woke me from a nap and told me my father was outside the house. I got up, ran out the front door and into the veranda that enclosed our house, and saw my father closing the small black gate behind him. I ran into his arms as he put his suitcase down. I was better in less than three days.
He resumed traveling soon after, and both my mom and I got used to his absence. We had a fairly good time without him, mainly because he was not there.
We govern our cities like we govern our bodies; there’s no space for unruliness. We tame our best impulses and force them in unnatural places—all for the sake of it.
I lived at home until I moved for college at 18. I knew how we lived was odd in general and that most people would not consider it a good time, but the oddest thing about the whole living arrangement at home was how obviously mentally ill my mother was, and how hard we ignored it. We were as devoted to her defense as she was. Nobody could ask her to get help without being the perpetrator of an undesignated crime.
The thing is, my mother is special. She doesn’t want anything for herself. Every one of her desires can be fulfilled by my incompetency. As long as I exist as human, I face a steady reprimand from her, which I imagine must be her life force. She critiques each action with the lens of what is best for her, withholding the perfection of her decisions from me so I may never know what adequacy looks like. We hear of it, distant tales and perhaps myths, things we hold dear to our sense of the world, our perception of possibility, our estimation of what’s real. She’s warped herself around me. She is not the center of my world, but she is in every crevice, nook, and cranny, her formlessness enabling her to be everywhere, to stretch herself into every little space, to create space where one couldn’t foresee any. I move through her as if she is space, but I only get further entangled. The only way anywhere is her, through her, to her, with her. She doesn’t want anything. She is never going to get it.
My mother was unruly. She had let herself go, and when I say that, I don’t mean it as a euphemism for her getting fat—I mean that she had lost something that sustained her, tethered her to earth, made her want normalcy. Her room had chai-stained magazines on the bed that I couldn’t possibly believe she was still reading, clothes piled in stacks around it. Her paint sets collected dust. I didn’t know what, if anything, would ever make her happy.
I tried visiting after I had moved out, but her collection of things kept growing as she continued to use none of it. Her house became a shrine to newspapers and magazines decades old, yellowing books and musty scribbled pages. I couldn’t understand her need to have to-do lists from 1997 pinned to her walls, nor her desperation to act as if she was cleaning every single time someone outside of the family came in. “I really need to sort through the newspapers,” she would laugh, as if sorting through the mounds would be more normal to the people she was trying to appeal to. Her back veranda was entirely filled with copies of Reader’s Digest dating back to 1993. My mother’s bloodshot eyes pierced into my soul at the mere mention of possibly discarding them. Once I read an article in one of them about keeping a man, a young girl on the cover. I still want to make my mom happy, but it is too painful to face her. I have been avoiding her phone calls for the past month. I only live 30 minutes from her and I am afraid she will just drive over.
The thing is my mother is special. She doesn’t want anything for herself. Every one of her desires can be fulfilled by my incompetency.
I am hungry. My mind fixates on that one feeling as I will myself out of bed and walk across the room to the mirror. It is early. I have never been a deep sleeper. The windows let in broad strokes of daylight and light my room up. I stand in front of the mirror and take off my sleep shorts to survey my body. I look at myself, turning around, capturing every angle. I touch parts of myself, not knowing how I feel about each. I think about food. I could be eating cereal right now. Or granola. Dunk it into some Greek yogurt with candied almonds and strawberries. I could mix it in and drink coffee with it. I could put full-fat creamer in my coffee and feel the luscious thickness. I could eat a little muffin. Or a big one. With sugar granules all over the top, with blueberries sticking out. It could crumble in my hands as I held on to it and then I could eat the crumbs off them. I could drink orange juice. The sugary kind. I could pour out a glass full of it and consume it, fill myself up. I could eat eggs; oh, I love eggs. I could make them sunny-side up and cut into the yolk after I put it on warm buttered toast, the butter melting in with the runny yolk. I plan to skip breakfast; maybe then I could eat a pizza. I love this restaurant called Sicily; it is only a 20-minute drive away and serves authentic Neapolitan pizzas. I could get some chicken wings; I love the glaze on them.
I get back into bed.
Publab Fellow 2023
Ojaswi is a 23-year-old writer from Chandigarh, India. She is an incoming MFA fiction candidate at UC Riverside and is interested in cultural critique, film, language, human evolution, and gender and queerness.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a French Symbolist painter and printmaker. His artworks take a fantastical approach to everyday subjects, and are seen as a precursor to Surrealism. “In the Spheres” is part of a series of six lithographs inspired by the writings of American author Edgar Allan Poe.