Years later, what she remembered was how he made her notice her own skeleton. His attention to her flesh was perfunctory; her mouth and breasts bruised or chafed by his careless running-through of a checklist of nerve endings—but the lines of her ribcage, still visible then, and the jut of her hips, and the edge of her jaw tingled, afterwards, with his slow, ambiguous touch.
There would have been other things, she knew, or imagined; maybe that they only ever went to his place, or that he’d introduced her to the Greek bistro down the road or had an unexpected scar on his thigh—but after a couple of years you need to decide which memories you’re going to keep and which you’re going to throw out, because Jesus this place is a mess, and she decided to keep the thing about the bones. Probably it wasn’t the most interesting thing about him, but who the hell was he? Just a memory. Probably all he remembered about her was the bangs she used to wear. Or something.
“The clavicle,” he said once, shifting a little on his back and catching his breath. “It’s a good word. From clavis, Latin for key. They thought it locked into the shoulder.” He had leaned over and kissed her there; she had bitten him back.
A little later, she had said, “Something something skeleton key.” He’d laughed.
He was studying to become a doctor, in a long line of doctors, is why he knew; she was studying to be a frustrated editor, is why she kept waiting for him to try to be something else.
They were both coming along pretty okay.
Typically she’d go this his apartment in the city, after work at the restaurant with the “colonially inspired” aesthetic, if she didn’t want to catch a train back up north—not if it was late, when the gauntlet of whistles and stares and misspelled pleas for alms curled itself into something crueller and harder to navigate—and he’d let her in, smiling in a lopsided way that probably looked good in photos but became awkward when held for more than a few seconds. He’d make her a cup of bad tea, and ask about her day, and she’d get halfway through her drink and two thirds of the way through telling him about this bullshit couple who mispronounced “fillet” and didn’t leave a tip before he’d moved around his pulped-wood table and she’d have to stop talking or drinking because her mouth was full of his mouth. Sometimes they’d grab whiskey to ease the way to bed. Not always.
Later, when he was tensed on top of her, his hand snaked behind her head, she wondered how the back of her skull felt in his damp palm. How the x-ray of this situation would read, two skeletons wrapped around each other, uncertainly sexed for those who didn’t know what to look for. He probably did. She didn’t.
Sleeping with him was fine. She tended not to finish, but it felt nice enough, and she liked lying there, having him run hands or lips along her sternum, collarbone, vertebrae. It was a different way of getting looked at—and on the days when she felt like her skin was a disaster and her neck was flabby, it was nice to have someone who’d look through it. Her cheekbones were still there, even if the tide of flesh around them came and went a little in the winter.
The first thing he’d say when he finished was “sorry,” shuddering a little and rolling to the side of her; they’d both breathe heavily for a couple of seconds, and then she’d ask, “Why?”
“You didn’t come. I’d meant to hold out a little more.”
“Oh, no, that—it’s fine. It was nice. Really nice.”
She’d feel the bed shift slightly, and then there’d be teeth against her teeth, hands on her waist, her back, and she’d sigh and shift her head, a little tired, a little turned on, and let him keep trying.
They’d met at what was actually kind of a nice bar near the university, and had irritated their respective friends by pawing at each other for about an hour before leaving for his place. They’d kissed the way drunks do, bumping faces together, pulling off one another’s clothing jerkily, grateful for the darkened room and darkened perceptions. Dimly, she’d grown aware of frustration on his part—he’d bite her at the hipbone, or on her neck, before returning his attention to wherever he thought she wanted it to be. He had gone down on her for what felt like hours—nice enough hours, sure, but past a certain point she found herself pulling him up by his hair, kissing him thickly, and saying, “Sleep.”
When she woke up, that first morning, he’d moved to the far corner of the bed but was still facing her; as she sat up, his eyes flickered open.
“Oh,” she said.
“What?” he’d asked, face half-buried in the mattress, dried blood cracking around the corners of his mouth and nose.
She had gestured towards her face, and he’d stood up to go see.
“Ha!” he’d called from the bathroom. Meanwhile she’d gotten a better look at the sheets, which weren’t so much spotted as splattered with reds and browns, like bad abstract art.
“I’m so sorry,” she’d said, when he walked back in, face damp, a little red from cold-water scrubbing. “If you have some salt—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he’d said, then leaned over the Pollock bed sheets and kissed her; she could taste sour whiskey, cigarettes, and behind that, faintly, iron.
“I’m sorry,” she’d said, pulling away. “I didn’t—.”
“It’s fine,” he’d said. “An omen that obvious I think we can safely ignore.” They’d showered together; he’d taken her out for breakfast, and walked her to the bus stop. When she came back a week later, there was new bedding.
There were times, she knew, when their x-rays made them look like something they were not—when they undressed quietly on opposite sides of the bed, in the dark, the way she knew her parents had done, or on the one or two occasions that he took the bus down with her to the station and someone tried to sell them flowers, when she surprised both of them by kissing him on a street corner.
But these were obvious omens, and she ignored them; a couple of weeks after he told her about the clavicle thing, she got a job closer to her place and met a boy she figured was worth her full attention—and when that was done going the way it usually goes, he was seeing somebody, and then that petered out, and they never really picked things up again. Years piled up between them, things changed. Maybe there hadn’t been much to pick up, or over, in the end.
So what she remembered was the thing about the skeleton.
– Liam Kruger is a 24-year-old South African writer currently concluding his MFA at the University of Cape Town. He’s had work published in The Newer York, Playboy and Thought Catalog, and he lays down an equally haphazard twitter game over at @liamkruger.