Speaking with Skeletons
By Stephanie Holden
CONTENT WARNING: Disordered Eating; Depression
The yellowing tile is cool beneath your feet. The apartment is a studio – only 500 square feet – but it’s in a pre-war building in Chelsea, five minutes from Hudson River Park. Old, pinkish brick lines the walls, and every piece of hardware wears a blue-green patina. You were born here, in the rusting mauve bathtub, and your parents died just outside. Perhaps in some ways that is the circle of life, or perhaps it is just the spiral of horrors we orbit – the first horror will always be birth, but the last, you guess, is not always death.
The apartment now is a sad version of the one you once knew. The living room, once decadent, stands like a graveyard for your youth. The red armchairs are sun-faded to a soft rose, and the baroque frames on mahogany end tables now house a thick layer of dust. You brush the film off the glass of a family photo and blink.
You are a child again. The wind tastes like salt and sounds like summer. The sand is not sand, rather some type of beige dirt, and it is kicked up into mud in the shallow murkiness of the shoreline. Seaweed wraps itself around any surface available, strangles abandoned sunscreen bottles and drags stolen floaties into the rough waves. A long-dead but still-deadly jellyfish clings to the expanse of gritty earth, and you jump on it because you do not know that it can sting you. Its tentacles brush your ankles innocently, and soon your legs have caught fire, and you are on your knees in the water wishing that its coolness will soothe you.
Mother gasps when she sees you there, engulfed occasionally by the frothing waves. “Oh!” She grabs your father’s arm. “We need to save –”
“The child will be fine,” Dad says without so much as a glance over the leather binding of his book. It was The Brothers Karamazov, a red copy with ornate gold detailing on the cover and a gilt along the outer edges of the pages. He looks regal in the cabana, his white button-up’s sleeves rolled up to the elbows, slacks carefully positioned so as not to touch the sand. You’ve never seen him wearing shorts, not even at home.
He’s right, you will be fine. In fact, you will go on to live another twenty years, at least, whether you like it or not.
They say there is a monster called the Pillowman who convinces children to kill themselves to prevent them from their future suffering. You wish now that he would have taken you deep into the vastness of the ocean then, let your parents think it a tragic accident rather than this thick revulsion for the thing you would one day become. They are nothing but ash in the ground now, gone in the same way you wish you were, and you wonder if they, having been so happy with life, are now angry with death. In fleeting moments you wonder why their ghosts do not haunt you. Perhaps they do not love their daughterson anymore. You don’t blame them.
You rearrange the furniture, try not to live in memoriam, deconstruct your parents’ bed and put it on the curb outside the complex. Sleeping in it feels wrong. You sleep on a mattress on the floor instead. An old mirror with a hand-wrought bronze frame rests against the wall. Clothes are strewn across the floor; you take them from your parents’ armoires – you burnt all of yours – but to re-hang them is futile. Everything is wrinkled and dusty. Mother would be horrified.
The only things you bring into the apartment are decorations. Dad hated decorations because he thought they were gaudy or low-class or tasteless or some other synonym of the sort. He allowed only a green spruce tree with tinsel and a star topper for Christmas – and that only from mid-December until the new year. Now, you bring in plastic jack-o-lanterns, hanging heart-shaped garlands, statuettes of Easter bunnies, and wreathes for every season. You sit a posable skeleton elegantly in your father’s favorite reading chair near your mattress. You give it permission to haunt you. If only you knew.
You are a child again. The ice rink at the Rockefeller Center is cold and hard beneath the seat of your pants. Your body is a bruise, as always. Mother watches from the side of rink, sipping coffee with leather-gloved hands. She loves the shelter of the 100-foot tree, with its glistening lights and chic tree topper.
“Get up, little girl! Keep it moving.” The security guard that walks around the periphery of the ice blows his whistle. You flinch.
“Come on, son,” says an older man you don’t know. “Let’s get you back onto those feet.” He grabs for your hand to pull you up. You flinch again.
You’ve never liked the constraints of those words – girl, boy – the strictness of them, the exactitude – and you feels sharp blades in your stomach when you hear them for reasons you won’t understand until years later. Even then, it will be confusing.
You wear your mother’s leather gloves to set out the holiday décor.
You want to look good, but your body is not yours. A purple dress that used to belong to your mother hangs over your thin frame. She was bigger than you, with a wide rib cage and sloping hips, but shorter. The dress is too big and too small all at once. The plastic skeleton positioned as though drinking tea in the corner seems to make eye contact – seems to mock you.
I am not man or woman, it whispers. Neither flesh, nor muscle, just bone and soul. I am all you long to be.
You take the mug from its bony hand as punishment. You do not eat dinner, either, for good measure. You don’t deserve it.
You don’t deserve it, echoes Dad’s voice.
You are a child again.
Your father is smoking imported cigars on the balcony of your apartment with his business partners. Mother is inside, struggling to cook three courses of a meal at once. You are no use in the kitchen, so you watch the men through the floor-to-ceiling windows in your living room and play with the mauve curtains. When one of the men looks back at you through a curl of tobacco fumes and smiles, you ask why Dad only smokes in the company of other men.
“Fancy cigars and extravagant dinners have to be earned,” she hums.
You realize you have done nothing to earn your keep, so you tell her that you will watch the roast in the oven, but as quickly as the words leave your mouth, you forget.
When the men have gone, your mother approaches your father, who is sprawled lazily across his favorite plush chair. “Darling, could I have some extra money with my allowance this week? The Bloomingdale’s Spring collection has just come out, and I thought I could buy myself a new dress.”
He looks at her squarely and motions at the half-burnt roast on the marble countertop. “You don’t deserve it.”
He fixes himself a plate, taking everything not singed at the edges. Mother does not eat. When no one is looking, you steal charred bites that you know you haven’t earned, and the guilt of the undeserving begins to settle in each organ. Soon, your entire body will be colonized. Soon, you will feel the anguish of revolution.
It's not that you don't want to be, it's that you don't want to be here in this wrapping that doesn't look like you. In the endlessness of the black night there are stars that cannot be seen from this city, and ones that cannot even be seen from the desperate emptiness of the Arctic, and you long now to be a part of that great nebula. There is a solidity in this flesh, a too-small set of limitations, but you are a gaseous something, a groggy haze of energy, and the prison of existing in this way stings and bites and scratches at the walls of your frail body. Each day you grow thinner from the poison of waking up. Each day your envy for the skeleton inches further up your throat.
Days pass, the air slowly becomes frosty, and clothing covers more of your feeble body. You wear your dad’s favorite tie every day for a week. It’s green, with black stripes climbing diagonally up to your neck, and it’s made of some sort of synthetic-silk blend.
The businessman’s noose, Dad used to say.
Don’t tempt me, you think, fingertips sliding up and down the length of the fabric.
You look almost like him now, in slacks and a dress shirt but no jacket, ready to go to work at the dealership. You’re not sure if he would be proud or upset. You tuck a ruby earring that was once your mother’s into the wound you stabbed into your left earlobe with a safety pin years ago.
Upset, he whispers. He never liked the way you dressed – too feminine and too masculine all at once – or maybe the truth was that he never wanted to confront what you were. You take the earring out. You are always avoiding too-uncomfortable conversations with him, even in your head.
You stop feeding the thing you inhabit, in part because it does not belong to you and in part because you like that it aches, that it claws and begs not to be punished for being alive. It is a voracious thing, this cage of yours, and it clings to life with a steadfastness you have never had for anything.
At some point you stop going to work. It’s not exactly a conscious decision; you just stop getting out of bed. The money is meaningless anyway – the apartment was paid off long ago, and your trust is open now. The job was just a way to provide purpose, anyway, but it has become increasingly clear that that such a method only works for those who basically enjoy physical existence.
From the bed, you can see your reflection in the mirror. It is hauntingly thin, but inescapable as ever.
The skeleton taunts you from its lush seat, jaw agape, ribs set like prison bars just wide enough to escape through. I am not restrained to myself.
You close your eyes and try will its voice away.
As long as you have skin stretched over those bones, you will be trapped inside.
You grab the sneering thing by its ulnas and throw it from your father’s chair. It collapses pathetically to the tile, but you feel no better.
You get up only to pace the apartment. The skeleton watches with deep, eyeless sockets. The smell of rotting food hangs over the place, but you don’t have the energy to take it out. You keep your eyes closed, hope you don’t see anything that will bring you back to childhood. Everything here is a memory. Everything here is a reminder of the child you should have been. Mother’s furs tucked neatly into edge the armoire, Dad’s library of too-big books sprawling the expanse of the apartment. You are a pendulum child. The Dalbergia wood clock on the wall swings neatly – tick, tock – as each moment slips between your fingers, made meaningless by your disuse. Your brain aches, pulses as though it is oozing out of your unwelcome skull.
The floor is littered with 2-inch strands of coarse hair from the day you got tired of the oily weight of it and shaved your head. It sticks to your feet when you walk, and you let it. It is at once familiar and foreign – black, like your mother’s, but not curly, not beautiful, instead lackluster and limp. Someone who didn’t know you might think you had shaved a dog instead of your own head.
You are a child again. No, you are not a child again. You are an adult – worthless, undeserving, but an adult nonetheless – if you can transform now you will not become the simpering body of a child that failed you by not prying the balcony bars apart and slipping neatly into the abyss.
Mother holds her kitchen shears. “What have you done?!”
You fight the memory, but the apparition flickers. She is staring at the scissors, angry and bewildered, and when she looks at you there is a dagger twisting its cool blade deep between your ribs. You look down, hoping for an escape from this weak mortality, but the weapon is made of air.
“What have you done?!” There is hair on the floor. It is everywhere – hers and yours. She is on the verge of tears.
You will her dead – think of the car crash on the road outside your building so many years ago. You will her into the passenger seat of their Mercedes, will the red Corvette to hit them head-on – Dad dies perhaps of merely the idea of being killed by such gaucheness. You will Mother into the hospital, will yourself to visit only once. You will the call from the lawyer to come in the middle of a shift, will her to tell you the trust is age-restricted before she tells you Mother has finally died.
“Why would you do this? Why?!”
You will her buried. You throw a handful of dirt over her coffin. The plot next to theirs is empty, waiting for you. You will yourself to jump into it, but instead you fall back onto the mattress.
Your reflection slithers like heat waves from the mirror's glass. Each time you blink, darkness consumes a different piece of your reflection. Yet the skeleton remains, gloating, ever-present, unaffected by the mottled tenebrosity of your failing vision.
Suddenly you are at its throat, hands pressed thin against a plastic corpse, and you are ripping at each limb, pulling and twisting and letting the thing writhe beneath emaciated fingers. The disjointed bones look gnawed at the edges as if by rodents – yellow-eyed beadinesses ravaging the night, and maybe they are you, and maybe you are them, because surely you are not yourself.
The bones are on the floor around you somehow – femurs and vertebrae and fragments of shattered pelvis – and you on your knees, body wavering in starved shivers, the skull of your enemy behind you, alive as always, unbreakable, still taunting you even in its destruction, dark eye sockets still holding an emptiness you will never know.
You wish you could scatter your own bones the way you’ve done its. Your cadaver pulls itself across the floor – through the bits of hair and shards of plastic – makes its way to the vindictive skull – skin gripping and sliding like wax paper across the tile – eyes blurring the form of the spiteful thing – obscuring it – skull bobbing and floating in slow motion as if a planet bumbling sluggishly through a coagulated galaxy – inkiness seeping further through your landscape – object of your desire nearly obliterated now – fingertips clutching blindly for plaster – finding only your own DNA – miserable whispering reminders that you exist – no skull still to be found – and then you feel it! – that sacred thing – that devil’s object – that wretched home you wished for so long to haunt!
The other arm of the carcass you inhabit reaches desperately for that smooth eyeless plastic, but before it can hold the thing, the world goes finally, endlessly, infinitely black, and your mother’s pearl earrings and your father’s wingtip shoes clamor to the grungy tile, finally delivered from their wicked captor, and you know as your ghost fails to rise that your enemy is doomed to outlive you.
Stephanie Holden (she/they) is a Halloween-loving queer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She writes poems about love, trauma, gore, and the self. Her interests are fantasy books, body modification, and the South. She has two cats, a bearded dragon, and deep love for frogs.
Find her academic writing at The Journal of the Wooden O and The Kennesaw Tower, her poems at The B’K (forthcoming) and dipthong lit, her art at BEST SERVED COLD (forthcoming),or her narcissistic tweets at @smhxlden.