From the author: Gideon spent years watching the disease take his grandfather's body one piece of glass at a time. Now, struggling to come to terms with his grandfather's death, Gideon must deal with the fact that his own body is slowly succumbing to the same fate. Content warning for self-harm.
The top knuckle of my left pinkie shattered under the heavy crush of a hammer like a star exploding, little shards of glass skittering across my desk in every direction. I screamed involuntarily through my teeth before I had the chance to realize there was no pain. That’s what made me the angriest, how easy it all ended up being. It should have hurt. It should have hurt like the king of all motherfuckers. If it hurt, then I could understand. But it didn’t. I looked at my new little pinkie stump. Tiny flecks of glass still stuck to the end where it hadn’t all come away. I took up a pair of tweezers and tore at the stump, satisfied at the few bright shards I had to fight for, the ones that came away bloody.
That was my first time.
Franny shakes the shoebox and the sound it makes is so light and delicate I want to cry. What is this, Gid? she says. That’s me, I tell her. She makes a little sound, too, then.
My grandfather only hugged us with one arm that day. I was 15. Franny was 8. He was old. Thin gray hair and thick gray wrinkles means old to a kid. Whatever your grandparents are, that’s what means old to a kid. He was hiding his left hand deep in his pocket. My mother watched him, her eyes glassy. When they greeted each other, he did not meet her gaze.
Grandpa lived alone. We usually saw him one or two times a week. Looking between Grandpa and my mother, it occurred to me this was not a usual visit, and something flared inside me. Franny and I had been set up. I thought that maybe I should stand between my sister and this scene, protect her somehow from whatever was coming. I didn’t. She clutched a comic book to her chest and watched.
Coffee? my grandfather asked.
With whiskey, I think, my mother said, and followed him into the kitchen. When they came back out a long time later, my grandfather held his coffee cup on a saucer with the formerly hidden hand. We could hear a clinking sound coming from underneath the ceramic from where his fingertips would be.
It’s called vitrification, my mother explained when we got back in the car.
I didn’t want to hear it.
After my pinkie, I started diagnosing every little pseudo-symptom as a full-blown emergency. Glass rash itches, for one, so bug bites used to send me into a panic. But to be honest, it got old fast getting worked up every time I had to scratch my ass, so finally I figured out routine: once when I wake up in the morning and once before I fall asleep every night, I count my scars and I check my itches. There’s a pretty good chance it’s glass rash if the skin around the itch feels rough, like a fine sand that won’t wash off. None of it really matters anyway until the scale forms, but it helps being able to keep track. My doctor calls them “formations” and WebMD calls them “crystals,” but let’s not kid ourselves here. They’re scales.
Once there’s a scale, it’s just physics. A hammer blow took care of my pinky, but most scales require a little more finesse than that. That’s where a box of nails comes in handy; a hammerhead to anywhere soft is a lot more likely to bruise up nice and ugly than it is to crack glass, but decrease the impact area and you increase the shattering force. It’s tough to find a smaller impact area than the point of a nail. Give that sucker a solid tap with something heavy and no scale stands a chance. I’ve had to get more creative once or twice, but it’s almost never more complicated than that. A good pair of tweezers takes care of the rest. Once the glass is out, it’s just skin left. Sometimes, I don’t even scar. And it never hurts.
How many? Franny asks, still holding the box. How long?
I don’t know, I say shoving my hand in my pocket. A lot. Years.
I laugh, a little choking sound. I don’t mean to laugh. I know it’s a cruel thing to do, to laugh at my sister right after I tell her I’m dying. Then I think maybe that’s exactly what I mean to do, and I laugh a little harder.
I don’t date anymore. My last girlfriend, Lynne, had a thing for scars, which was fortunate for me. I told her the same thing I told everyone else about my pinky: it got caught in a door. A big one. One of the old, heavy ones that opens up into a lecture hall at school. I thought maybe we could reattach it until I found the tip, crushed between antique slabs of wood like a strawberry under a heavy boot.
What class? she asked.
What? I said.
What class were you going to?
I stammered and had to think about which buildings on campus were even old enough to have those gigantic stupid doors. The look on her face while I figured it out, like she’d just caught a really, really fat mouse, didn’t go away when I finally blurted out, English. She pointed to an old burn scar on her elbow and said, cooking accident.
What were you cooking? I asked.
Eggs, she said before I even finished.
Here are two things I remember perfectly about Grandpa: Except for when the glass took his face over he smiled constantly, and he could fix anything. One of the only times I remember that he wasn’t smiling was the day he told us he was sick. I remember that clearly.
That’s what’s so fucked up, though. There’s just no way all of those smiles actually happened. I know I saw him sad. I know I saw him confused. Mom tells me Grandpa used to throw things when he got angry, and I know in the back of my head I saw him do it. But it’s so hard to find those memories, and when I do he’s smiling in them like a jackass. I mean, I have memories of Grandpa when he was sleeping and when I look back on them I see the corners of his eyes crunched into laugh lines and I see his lips curled back in the toothiest cartoon grin you can imagine and I know I’m not remembering things right.
The kicker is I don’t even want to remember him happy. I want to remember him angry. I want to remember him throwing things.
Here’s what else is fucked up about memory.
I remember before Franny was born, I would follow Grandpa around as he worked on the house. Cheaper than paying a professional, he’d say. And better work, too. In one memory, he’s under the sink working on a busted pipe or something. I’m handing him his tools while he quizzes me on my schoolwork. This was years before he got sick, but the whole time he’s down there I can remember hearing glass fingers rapping like mad against that pipe.
When I was eleven Jessica Healy checked the box on the note I slipped her that said no, she didn’t like me. The way I remember it, when Grandpa slipped his hand into mine to give it a knowing squeeze, never condescending to my dramatic pre-teen innocence, what I felt there was cold and hard as marble.
I remember walking to school with a friend named Emile. We stopped at a corner to wait for the light to the change. I was distracted and I didn’t see him run across the street against the orange hand. I just heard the tires, a little crunch, and a thud. And then Emile was on the ground, little bits of windshield stuck to his cheek like a mosaic. Grandpa picked me up and took me home and talked to me for the rest of the day to make sure I wasn’t broken, or to put me back together if I was. But in my memory when he’s talking to me what I see are the scales covering his cheeks, glittering in the pale evening light with every quiet word.
When Lynne got my shirt off for the first time, her eyes lit up. Some guys have muscles. I have divots. It’s not all as cool as I’m making it sound. Lynne didn’t jump me when she saw how many scars I had. She just put her thumb into the deepest one, right under my lowest left rib in the front, and sucked in her breath. I stared her down as if to say, Your move. Then she showed me her scars. That was all.
There’s a museum in Venice where they display people like me. I’ve seen pictures online. The people who put themselves there see their bodies as pieces of art, like dying slowly was their god damned masterpiece. They have them in all these different poses, sitting down reading a paper, spooning tenderly, holding a bow at the ready; I saw one sliced carefully down the middle to display the cross-section like a medical model. And there are different ways of tending the bodies to get different looks. They actually have stained glass statues there. One nude was so perfectly tended before she died you can see the outlines of her glass organs through her crystal clear glass body. She had an enlarged heart, but they didn’t realize that until a cardiologist taking the tour pointed it out to the guide.
Here’s the thing about it, though. Full vitrification can take years. These people rely on friends to build them harnesses to make sure their limbs hold in the right position long enough to set. Imagine you need to have an arm raised for your pose. You need to have that arm raised in exactly the right position when the scales form that lock the shoulder and elbow joints. And then you just have to stay that way, arm sticking up in the air like a jackass, until you die. These people look at what’s happening to them and see it as an opportunity. They don’t even try to get better.
There’s one guy there who saw it as his calling to make himself into one of those ancient Greek statues that had all its limbs break off over time: arms, legs, nose, dick — the whole shebang. First he got himself in really good shape, and then he waited. There’s an interview he gave in his harness I watched a few times where he’s talking about how lucky he was that his right arm finished vitrifying before he was too far gone, so he could see the work in progress. You can hear someone starting up the glass saw in the background, to cut the thing off at the elbow. This guy looks over his shoulder when the noise starts, and when he looks back at the camera he’s smiling.
I have this fantasy where I go to the glass museum and I find this guy and take a crowbar to that god damned smile. I just crush the fucker.
Lynne only got bad enough to cut herself once, she told me. It lasted a few weeks. Every couple of days during that period she carved the word LIAR into the same spot on her thigh. The cuts would start to heal and she’d carve again, keeping them open so when she walked it would hurt, so when it hurt she would remember what she was.
Knives give me the willies, she said, tweezers in hand. Fire is easier. Just hold the lighter up to your skin and flick.
So why did you do it? I asked, grunting. She dropped another sliver of glass in the shoebox and returned her attention to the fresh hole in my kneecap.
I told you, she said. It was really bad at the time.
I checked out the application process to get displayed at that museum, once, just to really piss myself off. There’s a list of poses they refuse outright — Buddhas, Jesuses, that sort of thing — either because they already have too many or just don’t want the trouble it would bring. I guess posing yourself like Buddha is the Chinese-writing-tattoo of vitrification art. Anybody with half a brain or half a fetish thinks it’s the damned coolest thing they can do. Jesus is over on the other side of the spectrum: so much as think about letting yourself die in his image and people lose their collective shit. Right next to Jesus on the list they have Han Solo with the word “carbonite” in parenthesis. It turns out alphabetical order has a sense of humor.
I thought about donating my shoebox for maybe a half a minute, and then I closed the tab and went to the kitchen to look for a really sharp knife.
How long have you been shattering? my new doctor asked.
I’m just here for a prescription, I said.
I know, the new doctor said, rubbing his hand over his face before dropping it again to his side. He sat as low in his adjustable chair as it would go. He was long-waisted and I was slouching, but somehow he managed to get down below eye level so I could look down on him while he spoke in very compassionate tones.
There’s disagreement in the field about how to classify shattering, he said.
I’ve heard this, I told him.
Of course, he said. I’m sorry, but it’s my job to take this seriously. Self-harm is a symptom of many kinds of anxiety or depression which can be associated with grieving, and you have to admit that shattering bears at least a passing resemblance to cutting.
It doesn’t hurt, I said.
Yes, he nodded, his gaze falling meaningfully on my pinky. I’ve heard it described like cutting your fingernails. That’s the usual case against self-harm: Since the glass is inert, what actually is the harm? There’s clearly no medical benefit, though. Shattering removes topical crystals, but doesn’t slow the spread of the disease otherwise. No credible doctor has even suggested it as a treatment for years.
I’m really just here for a prescription, I said.
No, he exhaled. You’re here because you saw a commercial for Muranosil and thought 25 seconds of smiling faces and chipper narration could save your life.
I could hear my own breathing as he said these words, feel my fists clenching and unclenching against the cheap paper sheet covering the exam chair. I heard it tearing.
He paused, pressing his fingers hard against the bridge of his nose, looking tired.
I’m sorry, he said finally. Muranosil is a dangerous drug, and you’re not the first person to ask me for a slip. Like most anti-vit drugs it’s not clear that it makes any difference and it’s not clear how it even got FDA approval. To be perfectly honest, I would be happier and you would probably be better off if I could refer you to a grief counselor.
I walked out before he could say another word.
I want to be clear about one thing here: shattering is not self-destructive.
Okay. If you want to be very, very literal, shattering is self-destructive.
But here’s the thing: I tried Lynne’s way, and I tried cutting. I held a lighter under my knee until I could actually smell the skin roasting. I took a shot at melting a scale off one time, but it turns out the melting point of glass is absurdly high. I sliced tallies into my forearm one time, just to see, and got as far as a two count. I took a page out of Lynne’s book and tried to carve the word “WEAK” into my chest, but gave up, retching, after half a W. That shit didn’t even scar.
I tried it Mom’s way, too, and I’ll give her this much: it’s hard to remember hurting yourself when you do it her way. I woke up with the king of all hangovers, his migraine queen, and a thumb-deep hole lined with dry blood just below my lowest left rib, with no idea how it got there. I found the scale that hole came from later on the kitchen floor, still whole, scraps of skin clinging to it for dear life. A blood-stained hand towel was thrown on the counter. The dishwasher had been run with only a single sharp knife inside. I haven’t touched a drink since.
So, yeah. I’ve tried some shit. Here’s the thing about every one of those tries: they fucking hurt. They don’t make me feel anything but pain, and I don’t want to hurt anymore.
When I shatter, I’m fighting for my life. That’s the difference.
Grandpa let the glass eat him alive without a fight, and we all just had to live with it, Franny, Mom, me, and — from a distance — Dad. If we tried to bring it up, to ask him to get treatment, he’d just raise one angry, trembling finger and say, No. And he would smile, and that would be the end of it.
It took him a long time to die. Ten years is a long time, I think.
When Franny was 9, he handed her a spoon and let her whack the glass tips of his fingers. That was all the glass he had at the time. They found out those little whacks made different little notes on each fingertip. By the time Franny was 10, she could play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Old McDonald, and Happy Birthday, just to name a few.
Sometimes she swung that spoon a little too hard and that little note rang out like a crack. My eyes jumped at the sound no matter what I was doing, just in time to see Grandpa inspecting the fingertip, smiling. You’ll have to hit me harder than that, he joked, and held the hand back out to his waiting audience.
When I was 19, I got the nerve to ignore that terrible trembling finger. Why don’t you do anything about it? I asked, all my effort focused on eye contact, on keeping the mask of a challenge on my face. He was having trouble with his right arm by then, and his face was just starting to scale. He stared back at me for a long time, and I remember that for once he wasn’t smiling. Then he balled that finger back up into his fist and I held my breath, expecting him to hit something, to do anything except put himself on display for the rest of us, but that fight I wanted wasn’t there. When he curled that finger back into his fist, it just was beating a retreat.
I’m going to die, he said, his throat catching the words like flypaper. I’ve seen friends die. Then he looked up to the ceiling and asked, How can I explain it in a way you’ll understand?
I don’t understand, I said.
When Franny was 18, she called me. He’s down to months, Gid, if that. You should come see him while you can.
I will, I said, and hung up.
I mentioned how I don’t date anymore. Lynne and I split about two years ago.
It was sometime in late July. Lynne’s brother was getting married that winter and we were comparing air fares to Virginia. Between clicks, I scratched at my lower back, just to the right of my spine. This was day two of the itching. My skin was starting to get that characteristic feel under my nails, rough like tiny grains of sand. I told Lynne.
She pulled her hands away from her laptop and looked at me. What happens if you get a scale on your dick?
I made a noise that might have been a word and then said, What?
It’s not that I wouldn’t have answered the question, or that I was being a prude about it. I was just surprised. It’s a question she should have known the answer to. She’d seen the evidence. I can tell you every inch of skin Lynne has burned in her life.
She started to say something and then stopped, realization breaking slowly across her face. She looked impressed, and then she looked, I don’t know, something else. Her hand buried itself in her jacket pocket and I knew it was wrapped tight around her lighter. When the scale on your back comes in, she said, can I break it?
Yeah, I said. Those ones are tough to get on my own.
She drew out the lighter and ran the flame harmlessly under her fingertips just to feel the heat, but not to burn. Our attention drifted back to our laptops, and the moment passed.
We broke up after the wedding. I don’t blame Lynne for leaving. She just admitted to herself where everything was headed before I did.
I was home for Christmas a couple years after college, one of my few visits since moving out full-time. I hadn’t seen Grandpa in months. I hadn’t seen anybody. This was maybe a year before he hit stage-4 and got really, really bad.
The right side of his face was covered, but the scales hadn’t really knitted together yet. It reminded me of Emile after the crash, light flicking off a dead face with every movement.
Grandpa couldn’t really open the left side of his mouth, so it was hard to understand him. His right arm had fully vitrified since the last time I’d seen him, locked at an odd obtuse angle, forearm supinated like a beggar accepting alms. His left arm was hardly affected at all.
You didn’t tell me you had a new patch! Franny frowned, brushing her finger across a rough new formation just right of Grandpa’s Adam’s apple, so new you had to have a lot of experience looking to even have a chance to see it. In my pocket, I fingered my pinky stump, scratched at my thigh through the fabric.
I don’t like it when you fuss, Grandpa said.
Yeah, well, Franny returned, not finishing the thought. Or maybe that was just all she had to say anymore. She pinched some cortisone cream onto her index finger and some kind of prescription gel onto her thumb, rubbing the two together before smearing the mixture across his neck. He protested, but didn’t stop her.
Grandpa, I started, but there was his left hand stopping me, finger up, shaking. Franny saw the finger and shot silent daggers at me from behind it.
That was when I realized I hated both of them.
I waited until Grandpa’s speech was really bad, until he couldn’t use his hands well enough to write, and then I showed him. I showed him the hole in my side and the new patch on my forearm, covered by long sleeves the rest of the time. I showed him all of my good work.
Then I looked at him — really looked at him. He was trying to say something.
I was looking at him through tears, so everything shimmered, and he looked just like a prism breaking light across the room. I closed my eyes and squeezed the tears out and heard the tinkling, glass grinding, little bits shaving off and cascading down his body as he tried to stand up and hug me. I felt the shocking cold of his right hand, upturned, against my left hip.
I pulled away and pushed him back. I wiped my eyes and looked at him again. I saw an old man, then, and knew with dead certainty what old actually means when you’re sick. There was a man he had been who I can’t even remember anymore, and that man had shattered a long time ago. When you’re sick, you don’t grow old by waiting the way healthy people do. You grow old by losing what made you healthy in the first place.
I picked up the little pieces of glass he’d shed and deposited them in my pocket. I didn’t see him again after that.
When Grandpa tried to hug me, some of the glass chipped off and some of it ground away in a fine powder. That powder is what they’ll turn him into now. Grind up the glass and it’s almost like a pile of ashes. Spread them anywhere you like. Less toxic than burning a body, too.
Lynne did Thanksgiving with my family the year we started dating. She told me how her family did big holidays with dozens of family members, and how that would have been great if she didn’t hate her family so much. That year, it was just us, Mom, Franny, and Grandpa. Small, Lynne said when I invited her. That might be a nice change of pace.
We sat around the table, me next to Lynne, Franny next to Grandpa, and Mom alone at the head. Refilling a glass of wine, Mom insisted on saying Grace. It’s a holiday, she said. And it’s so nice to have everyone here together. Grandpa smiled across the table.
I decided not to mention Dad.
Bless us, O Lord, she started while we bowed our heads. We thank you for these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. And we thank you for letting all of us be here today and for Grandpa’s health and all of our happiness. Amen.
She took another drink and we passed the food around in silence.
When we were all finally settled, Mom started up the small talk train in earnest. So, Lynne, she said, you two must be very busy at school. I feel like we never see Gid anymore.
Or: Lynne, Gid tells me your family has these big get-togethers. That sounds just wonderful. I wish we could get everyone together more but you know how it is. People live so far away. Gid always has something going on.
Or: I think every family has different kinds of people. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get Franny out of the house, and you know how hard it is to get Gid back in! Tell me about your family, Lynne.
With each self-imposed turn in the conversation, she drank her wine. Lynne did her best not to talk about either of us while Mom did her best to make sure she had to. And all the while, Franny sat with Grandpa, cutting his turkey into bite sized pieces and helping him clean his face every now and then, or unhitching a scale when his jaw caught on it and wouldn’t close properly. By the end of the meal, she’d barely eaten. Mom stayed in her seat as the rest of us stood and started to clean up.
On the drive home, an hour or so later, Lynne turned to me and said, Jesus Christ.
Amen to that.
It ended the day Lynne asked me if this was what I really wanted.
She was digging away inside a fresh hole on the boney part of my ankle and she wasn’t doing a very kind job of it. I gritted my teeth through a confused response.
This, she answered, holding up the tweezers. All this pain.
Shattering doesn’t hurt, I said.
That’s what you keep insisting, she said, gracelessly tearing another small piece of glass away from my skin as if to prove a point. I mean, she continued. I know we both like it, the pain. It, you know, the fire levels me. It makes me feel normal.
I don’t say anything.
But it’s not normal, she said, is it? Normal people don’t hurt themselves.
What’s so great about being normal? I asked.
Nothing, she said confidently. But what’s so great about being in pain, either? I just wonder, Gid. Is that what we’re doing together, just finding a creative new way to hurt ourselves? I know I like it. I like the fire. I like us. I’ve just been wondering if that’s what I really want. More and more often, I’ve been wondering.
I miss Lynne a lot, if you haven’t figured that out. I’d rather just be pissed at her.
Okay, of course it hurts sometimes.
There aren’t any nerve endings in the glass. Or, there are, but they’ve all vitrified anyway so it’s kind of a meaningless distinction if you’re not pre-med.
But there are nerve endings around the glass. And I am using a fucking hammer and a god damned nail to shatter it.
I’ve had a couple of scales show up on my toes, on my neck, a small one on my nose. Those hurt, but that’s a pain I can deal with. It’s productive.
Franny puts the shoebox down, stands up, and punches me right in the eye.
If you don’t come to his funeral, she says, I won’t come to yours.
She tries to walk out, but I grab her arm. Franny, I start to say.
That’s not my name! she screams. I’m not a little girl, anymore, Gid. I had to grow up. I had to watch him die. I had to take care of Mom all this time and I had to report to Dad when nobody else would. I did. So you can show me the damned respect to call me Francine for once in your pathetic, self-pitying life.
She pulls her arm out of my grip more easily than I would have given her credit for, and this time she does walk out, not even closing the door behind her.
Shit. She’s going to tell everybody. I need to call Mom.
Gideon, I don’t understand, Mom says, and that does it.
I’m going to die, I remember Grandpa saying when he tried to explain his inaction to me. I’ve seen friends die. How can I explain it in a way you’ll understand? he said. That’s always where I stop remembering, but memory hasn’t always been my best friend. When Mom says those words — I don’t understand — I remember. Grandpa said something else.
He said, I can’t force you to watch an unwinnable fight. I love you all too much.
Gideon, Mom says.
Gideon, are you there?
Gideon, I don’t understand.
Another memory unlocks itself when the phone clicks off. Mom steadied herself for a moment against Grandpa’s door when it clicked shut behind us. Franny clutched her comic close to her chest, creasing the thin paper with the little balls her hands were making. We waited for Mom to make the first move, not even making a sound. Mom collected herself, ushering us toward the car, and then walked ahead.
Halfway down the drive the sound of ceramic crashing and shattering against a wall stopped us in our tracks. More crashes followed. When he was finished with the dishes, Grandpa moved on to what sounded like the coffee table, and then there was silence.
Mom started walking again. She practically shoved us in the car. She reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of something and held it to her lips like she was suffocating and that bottle was filled with air. It made a small, hollow sound when she put it back, the only sound anything made for another minute or so.
It’s called vitrification, she said then, starting the car.
I pick up the shoebox and I walk it back into my room and place it in my closet where it’s been for as long as I’ve lived in this apartment.
I step into the bathroom and I look at my eye in the mirror, already blooming a bright red. I wonder, did she know? You could have hit me a little harder, Sis, I say, and saved me the trouble later.
Dad was the first to fuck up. He was gone before anything even started to go bad. He just looked around one day a few months after Franny was born and he realized he wasn’t cut out for any of it. He wasn’t father material. He was barely husband material. That he’d gotten so far with one kid was a miracle. And then he was gone. Part-time dad was more his speed, single drifter more his lifestyle. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Dad set a good example for fucking up, but Mom took the art to a new level. If Dad ran, Mom distanced. Even without her drinking, she had a gift. I remember Franny and me being dropped off at Grandpa’s with an excuse to give him while Mom drove away. Mom says she wishes she could stay, but she has a dentist appointment she can’t put off anymore. Mom wanted to stick around, but she promised Ellen she would help pack up for the move. Mom isn’t coming. She’s busy. Taking the car in for work, or something.
After about a week of this, Grandpa looked us over critically and said, Your mother sure is a busy woman these days.
Yeah, I said without any conviction. Really busy.
I guess I take after my parents. Then there’s Franny. But every family has its black sheep.
My right eye started to bother me a couple of days ago. Like I said, I don’t freak out every time I have to scratch my ass or rub my eyes, so I ignored it. I took a Benadryl and I popped in some eye drops and I forgot about it.
Mostly. I still have my routine.
Yesterday, once in the morning, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror and poked at the corner of my eyeball with the stump of my pinky. It wasn’t red or puffy and I didn’t really feel that sandpapery grit against my stump so I downed a Benadryl and drowned my eye in Visine. And then I forgot about it more or less until it passed my nighttime check, and I went to bed.
In the morning it still itched, but it also still checked out. I got the call from Franny that afternoon. He’s gone, she said. The funeral’s in a week. Are you coming?
He’s gone? I said.
That’s what I said, she said. Are you coming?
Am I coming? I said. To the funeral?
Oh, Jesus Christ, Gid, stop repeating everything I say and just say yes.
I don’t know, I said.
Listen, I’m not going to have this fight over the phone, okay? she said. And that’s the thing about Franny, she’s not a liar. She was at my door the next morning, and I had a black eye by lunch.
I was only mostly sure about my eye when Franny tried to put her fist through it. Even now I can’t quite feel the glass with my finger, but I can feel it with the inside of my eyelid, like teeny tiny little knives running up and down the membrane every time I blink, like sharkskin. They call those microscopic teeth that cover the skin of a shark denticles — I looked that up so it wouldn’t bug me for the rest of the day.
But what really made me wonder in the first place was how when I cried about Grandpa, after I hung up on Franny, the one eye cried less than the other.
I pull my hammer out of its drawer. There’s still time before I have to shatter it, but I need to steel myself. I take out a small nail and place it next to the hammer.
This is going to suck.
I can’t force you to watch an unwinnable fight, he said. I love you all too much.
I’m six years old and Grandpa has been on his back under our sink for what seems like hours, and I can’t stop watching him. I’m his assistant. He asks me very important assistant questions while he’s down there, like, What’s the capital of California? Which is an even more important thing for a plumber’s assistant to know than for a plumber to. I ace his tests. While he’s down there I hear his wrench rattle against the pipes, and I hear his grunts as he twists things into and out of place, and I hear his questions, and that’s all.
I’m eleven years old and Jessica Healy just ruined my entire life. You know, Grandpa says with a smile, your grandmother, God bless her soul, didn’t like me at first either.
Tell me more about Granny, I say.
Okay, he says, and he takes my hand in his, and it’s as warm and as soft as a sheet pulled fresh from the dryer.
I’m 24 years old and Lynne just said goodbye to me for the last time. I cry myself to sleep, and I don’t tell anyone, and I wait for the glass that’s been forming on my collarbone to finish scaling so I can crush, and I mean just crush the fucking thing.
I pick up the hammer and the nail just to take my practice swings and I stand back in front of that bathroom mirror, and I can’t decide whether it’s filthy or I’m just not seeing things quite right anymore. I pass a damp towel over it in any case, and that seems to help.
I hold the nail up to my eye experimentally, and my whole life stares back at me compressed in that point, a million memories like angels dancing across it.
I put the nail down and breathe a hollow, shuddering breath, and I lift the nail back up.
I feel my control of the situation. I control the nail. I control the hammer. I control my fate. And my hand isn’t shaking; that’s just my eye straining because I haven’t blinked for too long. And my knuckles around the hammer aren’t going white with strain; I’m always that pale. And I’m not afraid of what’s happening to me; I’m taking control of the situation. And for just a moment while I stand there, I’m not afraid. I’m not.
But then I try to move the hammer and the moment passes.
It’s just supposed to be a practice swing, no big deal. Just line up the shot, move nice and slow, take things right up to the edge and then back off. It’s just supposed to give me an idea of what to expect, but even thinking about taking that swing I flinch.
I flinch and I can feel my eyelash brush past the nail. I can feel those little blades against my lid, those god damned little glass teeth that are chewing away at everything I’m supposed to be, taking little bites out my life with every patch of skin they take.
I was supposed to be a grandson. I was supposed to be a son. I was supposed to be a brother. I was supposed to be a boyfriend. I was supposed to be a person.
But I’m a statue in front of that mirror, and I can’t move to save my life.
Slowly, very slowly, I manage to put the hammer down and I manage to put the nail down beside it. I pull open the drawer and I reach inside and my fingers search until they find what they’re looking for.
I draw my face very close to the mirror and with as much control as I can muster I raise the tweezers up toward my eye. The anticipation of contact makes me flinch and those little bites remind me what I’m doing.
I hold the tweezers up to the inside corner of my eye, against the white, and I don’t blink again. I move them gently, minutely, like a razor against a balloon, careful not to pop it, until I feel the edge catch on a crystal, and I squeeze them shut around it.
And I pull.
And it hurts. Oh, fuck it hurts. It hurts so much that I can’t stand, so I drop against the bathroom wall, catching drops of blood in my right palm while my left hand keeps squeezing those tweezers. And it just keeps on hurting, like the king of all motherfuckers.
Sitting there, living in that exquisite pain, I know: this is exactly what I wanted.
But somewhere else, sitting on the floor at six years old naming state capitals, in the seat of a car at 15 not wanting to hear it, on a bed with Lynne tearing pieces of me from a hole in my knee, in a chair with an empty plate in front of me watching Francine clean gravy off of glass while Mom takes another sip, I know for certain for the first time: this is not what I want.
This story originally appeared in Aliterate Magazine.