Study of Bones
by Sophie Ouellette-Howitz
2017 Fledgling Prose Contest First Prize Winner
I have soft bones. Soft tendons, too, and soft skin. This softness results from a defect in the way my body produces collagen, which I used to know mainly as an ingredient in certain face creams and shampoos. Having defective collagen, I’ve learned, makes me extra-susceptible to joint injuries.
The shoulder joint forms where the ball end of the humerus fits into the socket of the scapula. Because the ball is far larger than the flat bone plate it rests against, ligaments, tendons, and muscles help hold the bones together. Shoulders must be mobile but also stable; the compromise between the two can lead to problems.
Brett and I found each other on a dating app late one night in November. Seven messages in, I learned she lived across the country from me—she’d popped up in my queue of possible matches (set to display only those within a five-mile radius of my current location) because she was in town visiting her parents. She would be flying home to California the next morning. Ten messages in, I learned she’d be coming back my way in a month. Nineteen messages in, we started describing what we would do to each other’s bodies if we didn’t have 2,507 miles between us.
I committed the pictures on her profile to memory. First, her headshot in shades of blue: navy suit jacket, crisp shirt, striped tie, and shining, Atlantic blue eyes. Then, a blurry snapshot in which she holds a torch aloft, broad shoulders thrown back, and expels a stream of fire from her mouth that dominates the frame. Then a close-up, flamboyant vegetation and mountains in the background, nose-to-nose with a puppy. And last, her motorcycle parked by a beach, sun gleaming off chrome, waves crashing.
We texted with escalating frequency as the date of her return approached, but part of me doubted we would ever meet in person. Part of me believed it would be a letdown if we did. I picked out a bar and an outfit—seductive, but not like I was trying too hard. I watched the door, wondering whether each approaching silhouette on the other side would turn out to be her, and still, a spur of doubt.
Osteophytes, commonly called bone spurs, develop where bones rub together. If they amass, they limit movement.
Brett walked into the bar that night in December, and less than half an hour later, we walked out together. We saw as much of each other as we could for five days, spending most of our time together naked. When we were too full of each other to move, we still sought as many points of contact as possible. Her cheek on my breast or my head on the inner curve of her thigh, the specifics of whose part went where didn’t matter, what mattered was that we were touching. Then she flew back to the home she shared with her girlfriend and began the miserable process of breaking up. “Not because of you,” she said, “but…” The surprise was not that she had a girlfriend—her profile had notified me she was in an open relationship, though that fact was first addressed in the same breath that announced their breakup—it was that already, Brett was sure that what she felt for me needed more space than their arrangement allowed for.
When my first girlfriend Caroline and I broke up for the final time, I threw a shoe at her—not hard enough to bruise, but hard enough to hurt. The shoe, a strappy heel covered in silver pinprick sequins, had been a gift from her. I picked up its match and threw that too. This had begun calmly and with the best of intentions. We were going to lovingly and respectfully part ways. Then I had decided to return every gift she’d ever given me, and as I moved about my apartment (a charming 400-square foot porch that had been flimsily weatherproofed) collecting the gifts into a cardboard box, the task became daunting. Caroline had purchased so much of what I owned, down to the plates I ate off of. I lifted those from the sink, unwashed. When she tried, gently, to intervene, I threw the shoes. I did not know how to let go of her without removing every trace of her from my life, and once I’d done that, what would be left?
The trip to the desert, an extravagant means of seeing each other again, was Brett’s idea. I had not believed it would happen until I was on the plane, and even then, I wondered if I would land to find a text from her calling it off. Instead, I found her waiting at the foot of the escalator. It had been two months since I felt her hands on me. As we drove out of L.A., and she accustomed herself to the red Mustang convertible I’d rented, she questioned its worth. The emblem on the steering wheel was peeling, and after only a few blocks we paused to put the top up, ceding to the chill in the night air. I’d chosen the Mustang impulsively after she had said something about the thrill of driving in open air. The rental company had been off-brand, but a Mustang is a Mustang, right? I watched her jaw muscles contract as she looked for a break in the heavy traffic. Cars jerked and fumed on both sides. She turned on the radio, let it scan until she heard a song she liked. I reached across the center console and traced my fingers along the inseam of her jeans. The glare of taillights all around us lit up her blond hair, the back and sides tapered to a fine buzz, the top long enough to grab. The marrow-deep attraction between us stirred, like a third passenger in the car.
Soon I had the tip of her ear between my teeth, my torso arching into the length of her arm, my legs opening wide so her fingers could fill me. Her eyes, flicking from me to the stopped cars ahead, her feet, careful on the pedals. Neither of us thinking of the eyes that might be on us, even when the glare of the craning streetlights caught us.
It was late when we finally made it to Yucca Valley, and we were both hungry. We stopped at the first grocery store we saw, tumbled up to the plate glass door (bodies colliding gently and lingering where they connected), and wailed when we found it locked. Then, as Brett spun away from me back into the parking lot, a cashier appeared on the other side of the glass, pointing to a door farther down to our left. It turned out the store was open until midnight, and the Wal-Mart across the street never closed. We loaded our cart with items that, in the interests of maintaining my body’s allure, I would typically avoid. But it’s not sexy to announce you eat a mostly vegan, mostly grain-free diet. So, we picked out bagels, eggs, cheese, locally made ice cream, wine, whiskey, cigarettes, plus a few things I thought I could quickly turn into dinner—a Vidalia onion, arugula, linguini, Parmesan, and a jar of marinara. I kept reaching for her as we crisscrossed the store, draping my body over hers or pulling her arms around me. “It’s so efficient, shopping like this,” I said, chin resting on her shoulder, chest pressed into her back, the entirety of my body leaning into hers. “It just feels right,” she said, and turned so she could see me. We paused in the produce aisle, holding each other’s gaze, and the weight of what might be sank in.
In principle, a cubic inch of bone can bear a load of 19,000 pounds. The reality of what a bone can bear is more complicated.
I learned how to fall over and over during the four years I played collegiate rugby. Skillful falls reduce your risk of injury. You want your ankles to hit the turf first, then your knees, your hips, your shoulders, and finally—with your tongue pressed tightly to the roof of your mouth so the muscles in your neck pull taut—your head. No matter how perfectly you fall, it hurts.
We practiced falling sideways. We keeled forward, first slowly, then at full speed, overriding the urge to use our hands to break the fall. That’ll get you a nice wrist fracture. We got knocked off our feet and onto our asses. We also learned how to make our opponents fall over. The theory behind this was simple—their soft spot plus your hard spot. Wrap your arms around them. Don’t let go until you’re both on the ground. One of the fastest ways to regain your feet is to push off your opponent’s prone body. Not only is this entirely legal, it’s encouraged.
Caroline and I met on the rugby pitch. She was the first person I fell well and truly in love with. She cracked me open.
Sleepy-eyed behind our mirrored sunglasses, Brett and I picked our way along the ridge behind the house she had rented for us. She was quick and sure-footed, several paces ahead of me. I had never been this close to mountains before. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Whichever way I looked, I saw their torn paper silhouettes on the horizon. The sky felt higher here. Brett turned to me: “Be careful of the cacti. Even the ones that look soft.” I smiled at her, my low-heeled boots shifting under me in the sandy soil. We spent a lot of time smiling at each other. Sometimes I smiled from the sheer joy of it all, sometimes as a stand-in for things I was unsure I should say. Every time I looked at Brett, her eyes were waiting for me. Silently, I described their blueness—deeper than the arching desert sky, brighter than the denim shirt she was wearing.
Later, when I’d peeled off her shirt, and she’d tossed my boots into a corner, and we were naked again, she cupped her hand around the curve of my ribcage. “This one’s mine,” she said, tapping her pointer against it. “Your fifth rib. The one that goes right over your heart.” She was not the first to lay claim to my bones, but as a doctor, she brought a medical specificity to it that was new. My ribs, my sharp hips, my clavicles—they’ve all been claimed before. I let my bones say the things that scare me. The shrug of my shoulder, for instance, meaning I care more than I want you to know. The way I buck my hips, meaning, I need you. My ribs expanding beneath your palm: I feel safe with you.
Rib fractures can result from one massive trauma, like a fall from a height, or from the accumulation of microtraumas, injuries so slight, you might not notice them. In most cases the term “broken rib” refers to a rib that has cracked, not one that has split into pieces, which is far more dangerous.
I’ve never broken a bone; I’m more prone to dislocation. Once, a separation. Shoulder separations have degrees of severity: when a severe separation occurs, the ligaments securing the clavicle to the shoulder blade tear, and the weight of your arm pulls your clavicle out of place. When I separated my shoulder, I felt the bones gape. Then I picked myself up off the turf and kept playing. Holding weight in your hand can make the injury more apparent. Weeks later, when I picked up a cup of coffee and burst into tears from the pain crackling through the joint, my friend finally said enough is enough and insisted I get it looked at. That shoulder healed crooked—you can see where it knit back together if you know where to look.
By the time I threw the silver shoe at Caroline, we had split and rejoined enough times for me to lose count. But that last break-up, that was because she had fallen in love with someone else as hard as she had once fallen for me. There would be no going back.
I didn’t think I’d fall in love again. Most of the time, I didn’t want to. To fall meant to risk a separation. Better to remain alone and intact.
Brett polished off what was left of the whiskey before she told me she loved me. The plan had been to go out dancing, but we got sidetracked by the hot tub. Within that small space, we could hold each other, drift away, and reattach. Endlessly. We drank our whiskey on the rocks, then straight from the bottle. She took the last swig and went silent, her eyes pinning mine. “What?” I said.
“You know,” she said, “you know,” and I did. My ribs drew together, my muscles pulled taut, my breathing suspended. Then she said it and I kissed her before the words “I love you” fully left her mouth, and I said “I love you” back to her and kept kissing and kissing and kissing her. She bent me backward over the tub’s hand-hewn wooden edge (I could feel my vertebrae bruising as her fingers slid in and out of me) and I moaned at the stars spread out across the sky. I could see constellations I hadn’t seen in years, patterns I recognized but whose names I forgot.
That night we fucked all consumingly, watching our bodies in the mirror on the bedroom’s back wall. This is what I look like astride her. This is the shape my mouth makes (an “oh” of wonder) as I fit my entire hand inside her. This is the color of my face as I come with her hand around my throat.
There is a single bone in the throat called the hyoid bone, or sometimes, the floating bone. It is the only bone in the body not connected by means of a joint. Fractures of this floating bone are incredibly rare.
Knowing about my defective collagen, my heightened propensity for injury, that wouldn’t have stopped me from playing rugby. Everyone had to sign waivers each season acknowledging this thing we loved could damage us, disable us, even kill us.
I’m not scared of falling in love, I’m scared of what comes next: spurs can accumulate, marrow can prove insufficient. If a fracture occurs, will I crack, or split into pieces? I am too aware of how it could all go wrong. The farther I fell in love with Brett, the longer my list of all the ways she could hurt me. All the ways I could hurt her, too—my hard spots colliding with her soft ones, or vice versa. There was no single moment when I decided that even if this thing between us, this love, split me, it would be worth the hurt. It would be worth healing crooked. It took some time for me to put that understanding into words, but my bones had been saying it all along.
As we left the desert, we passed a sign that said “Soft Shoulder.”
“My favorite,” Brett said. She stretched her hand out and rested it on the crest of my shoulder, and for a moment, all that mattered was the feeling of her skin and bones on mine.
Published December 3rd, 2017
Sophie Ouellette-Howitz teaches writing for Elephant Rock and is a nonfiction reader for Orison Books. She has also served as editor of Call Sign KJEH, a blog sourced from archival material related to a historic ocean liner, the SS United States. This is her first literary publication.
Born in Chicago, Melanie Schiff lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work has been exhibited in solo shows at Kavi Gupta and Kate Werble Gallery, among others. She was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial. www.melanieschiff.net