“I love you,” he said.
The words leapt from his mouth red and hot and too fast for me to turn away. They clung to my face and suckled at the pores to let my blood. They bubbled and burned and boiled over, swelling my eyes shut so I could not see, but I could feel the skin peeling back from my face, melting away like celluloid over a flame.
The heat of the words careened down my neck towards my sternum, ripping open the skin on my shoulders and chest. My lower back, my stomach, my thighs— all blistered and burst. The hairs on my arms and legs smoked in their follicles; palm prints and footprints singed away until they were bruised and bare and thorny white talons tore through the scorched tendons in my fingertips.
My debris corrupted the air, making it vile and acidic. Muscles in my face twitched and bent but, as the flesh over my nostrils crumbled and collapsed into the cave where my nose once was, it became impossible to keep out the fumes. I took a breath that closed and cracked my throat and shriveled my lungs into something soft and rubbery and grey. The tartness seared into my ashen gums and the taut, wiry fibers of my cheeks. My eyelids caught a brief spark and then evaporated in a puff of sour smoke and their lashes fell away like sand underfoot. Now I had to see.
I had to see him look directly into all of me— that which was previously hidden, but was now suddenly and painfully overexposed. The charred bones, the frayed veins, the arteries sputtering black specks at dead ends.
The muscles, dried out and damaged.
The soft tissue, hardened and scarred.
I was worse than naked: I was raw.
He looked into my eyes, pupils shocked wide like the entrance to a universe with no stars, and I wondered if he could see right through to the petrified nerves splayed in the blackness like lightning. I imagined my eyes, fragile and ornate with empty blood vessels snaking through the white gloss like fine ivy, falling from their hollow sockets and shattering at his feet. I tilted my chin to keep them balanced in my skull; vertebral dust floated down and settled into the valleys of my fascia like snow.
My jaw ached with arthritis and a longing to explain where the softness had gone— to blame him for his tenderness, to apologize for needing it. But instead I stood there, breathless, willing him to look away from this ugly thing that I was.
He did not.
His eyes flickered in the light and the silence between us as he stared at the parts of me I never warned him about like they were his own, tracing the wreckage hanging from my ribs with the rhythm of familiarity.
He took my hand carefully as though my bones might prick him, as though he were the delicate one and feared my touch might break him, too. The erosion of my knuckles was halted; the sands sunk into and settled upon and were held in place by the warm ridges in his fingerprints and I wondered what would become of me if he let go. I thought of me, crumbling in his wake, blown away by the breath of his goodbye, and I felt a tightness in the center of my chest that had not been there before.
It was painful and it was not, a pressure gradually swelling and threatening to burst, only to dissipate with a shudder before swelling again. Every repetition of this swelling and shuddering came more quickly than the last, gaining momentum until it became a single process that seemed to vibrate my bones from the inside out. Necrotic tissue shook from beneath my splintered breastbone and I felt the bruisedness of red muscle returning, struggling to push sludge out of my veins, to suck air back into my lungs—and not too fast, so that I might find the words to level him into something without skin.
To annihilate him.
To turn him into something delicate.
To shift his sands into me.
Grace Ngobeni was born and raised in East Hartford, CT, which is not as bad as people say. She holds a bachelor’s degree in film and television with concentrations in screenwriting and psychology from Boston University and currently lives in the Boston area, where she works in an office with free coffee.
When she is not demonstrating her proficiency in Excel, she tackles an ever-growing list of creative projects, including a comedy web series.
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