Pieces of a Man
Though Katherine wanted to be a woman, wanted to butterfly out bright and kaleidoscopic onto the streets fully formed, complex and multitudinous, she found herself, upon each insistent inspection of her body, solidly still a girl. She blamed her mother, a girl’s mother, a sad mother, a mother who will remain for the rest of her life postpartum. She blamed her body, a girl’s body, and her clothes, still and girlish in her closet. In the formless dresses and little blouses she saw herself, the small tender swell of her breasts, the smooth slender fall of her hips into her thighs, an unblemished line, a child’s thin lips, a child’s thin arms, the girlish curls that unfurled blonde and bouncing from her forehead, and the odd dark tuft of hair a few inches below her navel, out of place and offering futile promises of nubility. She blamed her love, a girl’s romance planned in passed notes and notebook graffiti hearts, a romance that at fourteen had felt safe, and now, at fifteen, felt safer.
And even though her house predated her by some years, Katherine still considered her home a girl’s home. The house sat alone atop a hill, covered on one side by a small forest of dark fir trees. A winding grey scar divided the forest in two, a gravel road connecting the house to a private beach. Isolated above the forest, smoke puffing out of the cobbled chimney, the breeze carrying salt from the ocean, it was less a house than a story, a girl’s fairy tale into which some strange hand had written her.
Even before she turned fifteen, the desire to leave grew in her. She began walking, reaching places only to find them immediately foreign and strange. Her boyfriend’s home no longer held anything for her except unwanted security and uncomfortable promises. It was a place where parents discussed weddings behind closed doors and tiny lovers discovered their tiny bodies with increasing boredom and respect behind their own doors. As she lay in his bed, her boyfriend’s head on her near nonexistent breasts, she would take his hands in her own, pull strands of her hair from the band of his watch. She would look at both pairs of hands, folded neatly together, and think, these are not the hands I want to spend the rest of my life with, neither his, nor mine.
She became a girl always in transit, moving between people and friends with an abandon that confused and frightened her. She longed for some ineffable stability, dreaming hard and solid dreams, dreams of bodies and muscles and empty houses and cars driven by strong, unfamiliar hands. She dreamt of her father. Every day he drove her to school and every evening he picked her up, letting her out of the car and into the house, and she would go into the kitchen and peek out through the blinds and watch her father sit alone in the car and long for a place of her own, wondering why those moments of silent familial voyeurism seemed to her the most beautiful in the world.
At fifteen and a half her father took her to get her driver’s permit at the DMV two towns over, and when she passed the test he brought her home to find a present in the driveway, an old orange Volkswagen bus.
Feel free to leave, he told her, and smiled. Just don’t get caught.
She drove to the beach, stopping only because she could go no further. Through the windshield the sea stretched out before her. She felt the uncomfortable settling of her eyes on the horizon, the sheer size of the distant line, like thin twine that tied the world together. Dirt and small cracks in the glass speckled and tinted the ocean like a dying television set. The waves rolled thick and vicious in the edgeless distance. She pressed her hands to the worn glass. She kept her hands there. She looked at the waves and when they did not crash over her, she stepped out of the car.
On the beach she and the Volkswagen bus stood alone. She leaned her hand on the side of the door and removed her shoes and socks, placing them next to the wheel, already submerged in sand and dust and rusting from the salty air. She curled her toes against the earth, squeezing the small fragments in the soft empty spaces of her feet, feeling the sand trickling between her toes.
She left the bus and walked towards the break. Tiny footprints followed her down towards the water. Little fossils in the sand. How small they were, pressed too shallow to possibly be her steps, to possibly have borne her weight.
Water brushed her toes. She stepped further into the ocean, submerging herself in increments, her toes, the balls of her feet, her heels, her ankles, her slender shins. The tide held her, rushing forward to embrace her and sliding back into the sea, pulling with it the loose pebbles around and under her feet. She thought about the earth bleeding away beneath her. Salt and quartz rubbed raw from underwater rocks, crushed sea shells and mollusks, decayed algae, odd bits of life ground into dust. How easy it would be to go with them, for the ocean to hold on to her feet and pull them clean from her ankles away into the sea. How easy to rip her into little pieces, joint by tiny joint rubbed away in the waves leaving only even tinier bits behind, particles of a shell joining the others broken in the sand.
How odd, she thought, to stand there, whole, and be anything at all.
The sun set. Violent reds and remote violets streaked across the darkening day. Screeching gulls became bugs swarming in the warm air. She checked her phone. Her boyfriend had called four times, her mother not at all.
At the beach in the bed of the old Volkswagen she lay down and cried and imagined herself to be her mother in bed, immobile, and infinitely far away, an adult and, like her daughter, still a little girl.
She began going to the beach every day, coasting the old Volkswagen down the hill and through the forest until she hit the sand and the bus slowed to a stop. Alone on the beach Katherine forgot herself. Every night she would undress and lie in the sand and let the surf play over her bare body, feel its cold fingers find her most intimate places. She lay there until she lost feeling in her toes and knuckles, until her skin darkened and her joints froze stiff. Then, she would rise and dress and return to her car and fall asleep, holding herself in her arms and wondering whom she was becoming.
One day she found something strange. The beach lay quiet and the surf bobbed in and out, leaving little gifts for Katherine just past the edge of the water. She picked them up and held them, bits of shell and rock and broken bottles saved from a future of sand. Walking along the swash, she saw something in the distance, a dark lump peeking out of the sand. She approached it and stopped and kept going, looking at the pinkish thing in front of her, a pinkish thing that had no place lying there on her beach, and certainly no business lying there alone. She stood over it and poked with a piece of driftwood, turning it over and over until she finally had to admit that yes, there on her beach lay a human foot.
The foot was big. A men’s size twelve, she would have guessed. Pale blonde hair covered the top of the foot and little curly tufts puffed off the knuckles of its toes. The heel was square, its nails well manicured, cut short, and the skin looked soft and smooth despite the foot’s time in the ocean. The foot ended just above the ankle, cut clean across, and a small nub of white bone poked out of the top. She turned around, looking for some sign of the foot’s origin, a corpse or a scream, or even another foot, but the beach lay empty. She lifted her own foot, hesitated, and touched the foot with her toe. It was still warm. Behind the skin the meat of the foot pulsed red and wet, the fresh flesh almost oozing, veins almost pumping out thick rich blood so that the foot appeared alive and Katherine nearly expected it to right itself and hop away down the beach.
She went home early that night and ate dinner with her parents for the first time in several weeks. As she stared down at her meal, a cut of pork loin, thick, pink, and juicy, which her dad had prepared just for her, she could not help but remember the foot. She could not help but see its supple flesh on her plate, the hunk of meat narrowing and elongating before her, dividing into five little toes that curled around her unused fork, begging her to pierce the fleshy ball of meat under its heel.
She excused herself and went to bed without eating, leaving her parents confused at the table. Upstairs in bed, Katherine called her boyfriend for the first time in three days.
How are you? he asked.
She hung up the phone.
He would not know how to handle the foot on the beach. He would tell her parents. He would call the police. He would comfort her and tell her to forget the foot and to leave the beach. He would not understand it was her beach, and by extension, her foot. A sudden desire seized her, an uncontrollable urge to break open his chest and see with her own eyes what filled him. Did there exist within him worries beyond their two hands, or theoccasional togetherness of their lips? Or would she find simple flesh and blood?
The next day she skipped school and returned to the beach. She worried about the foot and hoped it had
disappeared, but, at the same time, Katherine was happy to have something to worry about other than herself.
But this time the foot was not alone. More body parts had washed ashore and joined the foot on the beach, all
clustered together as if huddling for warmth, as if they had found each other after a long lonely voyage. A nose
caught her attention first, long and thin and pinched at the bridge, pointy with wide nostrils and tiny curly hairs
that stuck wiry out of the holes. The thin hairs blew gently in the sea breeze, so that it seemed as if the little
discorporate nose still breathed, pushing oxygen to some unseen body. An arm lay next to it, darker in color than
either the nose or the foot, speckled with brown freckles, coarse hair, but clearly feminine, slender lilting wrists,
tapered forearms. She saw a chest too, a man’s chest, wide and bright, light skin and hard dark nipples, well
defined abs cutting the stomach into compact sections of muscle. They all lay there splayed before her, spectral
and carnal, missing pieces from missing wholes.
The sea bit her eyes and stung her cheeks. The water washed over her feet, still attached solidly to her ankles. She felt her chest and her arms and her legs, all connected together. The wind swung her hair in a lilting waltz and it fell over her eyes, covering her world in curly yellow lines. But when her hands swept the strands from her face the body parts still lay there in the sand, the still pieces of men.
More body parts washed onto the shore, and more the day after that. Each day Katherine returned to the beach and watched the legs and the torsos and the ears and ankles float onto the sand and join the growing pile of limbs and flesh. She told no one, and saw her family less and less. Her father thought she was going to her boyfriend’s house, her boyfriend thought she was taking care of her mother, her mother thought Katherine had finally become like her and given up. Katherine kept up appearances, going to school, kissing her boyfriend, kissing her father, telling her mother they were both fine, her mother telling her they were not.
Every day she returned to the beach and watched the pile of loose body parts grow. By the end of the week they had filled the beach, eyes and the eyelids, buttocks and knuckles and knees and ankles strewn across the sand, thousands of limbs piled high and wide, more floating onto the shore every hour. Infinite combinations of bodies, infinite combinations of people.
She began to build. It started with a thigh, thick and muscular, strong smooth quad rising up behind the skin, which was peach and soft, covered in a soft apricot fuzz. She held the thigh in her hands, surprised by its weight, by its density, how it filled and completed the open palm of her hands. She set the thigh down away from the pile of body parts, and saw the small ghostly marks of her fingers, clawing white lines on the pink skin.
She chose an arm next, and then a chest, and a pair of feet and large old eyes, and knees, long dextrous fingers, thick muscled fingers with hair on the knuckles, cheeks and lips with small wrinkles around and below the mouth, unexpected attractive grooves that held her and held her, changed an arm, picked a forehead, switched the feet, now larger and clumsier, chose hair long and wild and dirty, chose a stomach, beautiful with a long rippled scar, creased knotted skin that stretched across and through its navel, which was round and shallow, picked ears, chose new ears, building and building, picking and choosing the pieces, feeling and finding more intimate places, firm buttocks, a groin, places she had felt before in the dark, but never seen, both she and her boyfriend ashamed of their small developing bodies, but in this body developing before her she felt no shame, in this body she saw only the potential of perfection, the potential of one beautiful solid body among infinite imperfect ones, the potential of a body of her own so completely not her own body, a body alluring and whole and frightening, the body of a man, sturdy and worn, wearing the signs of life, scars, wrinkles around the eyes, changed a leg again, longer, taller, stretching out and beyond her, out and beyond her busy building hands.
When she finished she realized he was older than she had expected, probably over twice her age. She took off her clothes and lay down next to him naked in the surf like she used to do at night when she was alone, and she looked at their two bodies together. She placed her feet next to his and stretched herself alongside him, feeling the curve of his thigh, the muscle of his back, the empty spots between his wide ribs, and his shoulders and neck and head, which stretched past her own head, perhaps a foot longer or more. They lay there together for some time, growing cold together in the swelling ocean, the sand and surf playing up and down their frames. She sighed and placed a hand on his chest. Its warmth surprised her, as well as the small rhythmic movement of his breast, probably caused by the pulse of the waves. She pressed her hand down hard and gripped his chest, holding as much as she could with her small hand, until another hand closed softly down on hers.
Her breath stopped. Her heart stopped. The whole of her body froze in that moment, the collapse of hand onto hand, the twining of fingers, the shared pulse of two separate hearts meeting in their palms. He stood, unfolding himself into the twilight, his long solid body taking up more space than she believed possible. For the first time Katherine became aware of their nakedness, the shame of exposure and the strange intimacy of their bare bodies together. She took him in, for the first time, as a whole, not the sum of chosen parts, but a body and a being separate from her own. She looked at his groin and covered her breasts.
I need to go, she said, and he nodded at her.
His voice, impossible and loud, stretched out into the night like a deep siren, a primal pulse that hit her hard in her exposed chest. She did not expect that voice, that rich old hungry voice, that penetrating voice that struck deep into her heart and the back of her knees.
Then go, he had said, and she wanted to go. She wanted her home. She wanted her mother and her father and even her boyfriend. She wanted familiar arms to embrace her, not these great trunks, hard muscular arms that split from this man like tree branches, arms that could crush her small girlish body into its tiniest parts. He touched her hand and held it and pulled it away from her chest and she didn’t move. He touched her other hand and held it and pulled it away from her chest. They stood there like that as the sun fell behind the horizon until she could no longer see him, he holding her hands in front of her, like a guide pulling her forth into the night.
She stayed away from the beach for a few days, working herself back into the life she had started to leave behind. She ate at home, saw her boyfriend, expressed worry about her mother, frowned in the mirror. But even alone, just behind each action stood the man she had built on the beach. She saw him in flashes at school, caught his eyes in mirrors, saw his arms in crowds, heard his voice in the murmurs of students and shopkeepers. Then go, she heard him say over and over, his voice made wide and infinite in memory. Go, she thought, then go. On the night of her sixteenth birthday she returned to the beach, the large pile of body parts looming in the distance as the bus pulled up onto the sand. There he stood, bare and beautiful. He faced the open ocean, which lapped hungrily at his feet, as if desiring to pull him back into the sea and reclaim his beautiful body as its own. She walked down the beach and stood next to him, and he smiled at her with old knowing lips, and they said nothing to each other for some time.
Aren’t you cold? she asked him.
No. Are you?
He held out his hand and she took it and they watched the ocean together, the waves beating and pulsing with their own hearts. The sun set. The earth darkened.
I should go, she said.
Then go, he said. And she did.
She came back every day to be with him, finding it more difficult to return home each night. They walked together along the beach, sometimes holding hands, sometimes not, sometimes talking, often silent. When they talked they rarely spoke in conversation. Rather, they took turns listening to each other. She told him about her fears and worries, about her mother and her boyfriend and her body. She asked about him, but he only told her about other things. He spoke of love and desire, of the sea and the waves, of bodies and sex and fear and yearning and hope and hopelessness. There on that beach she wondered if it were possible to speak in anything less than grand statements and fantastic truths. She wondered if there was anything that he could not explain to her with fullness and beauty.
She begins skipping school. She begins forgetting her other world, and imagines that it forgets her. Every morning she drives to the beach, each night she drives home later and later. When she arrives, he undresses her, exposing her soft body to the day. He looks at her, and she at him. With her boyfriend she always dressed quickly when they finished, turning her back as she slips on her shirt, putting on her underwear under hisblankets. The man on the beach takes her in his hands, traces the lines of her body, guiding her down his chest, learning her body, the sensitive hidden spots, the inner lip of her thigh, the back of her neck, the curl of her ears, the soft spot between her navel and her groin, and the lines below that, delicate and swollen and tender and new. Her hands discover the body they built, lingering on his chest, the soft skin just below the knot of pelvic bone, moving to envelop his body with her own, possessing him with her flesh, learning for the first time the rapture of bodies.
She keeps skipping school. Her teachers call but her mother doesn’t answer and her father stays late at work. Her boyfriend calls her and she ignores him. Over time her phone rings less and less frequently, and the time between calls weighs on her, though she never answers. Why aren’t they calling? She throws her phone into the sea. On her small arms and small legs and small breasts she feels the shame that drove her to the beach, the shame she must relearn every time she enters her bus and drives home. She tells this to the man on the beach, gushing her envy of his body.
Don’t you understand? she asks him.
She takes his chest in her arms, which barely stretch around his chest, and presses her cheeks into his flesh.
I want to be like you.
He looks at her, and speaks slowly, flexing the upper palate of his mouth, his tongue, stretching the muscles in his lips.
Then change, he says, If you want, you can change yourself.
So she does. She hunts through the old forgotten pile of body parts lying on the beach, tearing through thin legs and wide wrists, still fresh and warm, the pile moist with sweat, choosing the future pieces of herself. Small things at first, a long pair of eyelashes, slender blue fingernails, trading away the hidden corners of her body. As she extricates herself from the pile of limbs she is surprised at which arm is hers. She turns around and the man watches her, carefully inspecting her body.
How do I look? she asks him.
She returns home, testing the changes in the shine of the faucet, her face in the downstairs windows. Behind her transparent nose and eyes she sees her father pull up outside their house. She watches him from behind the blinds and for a moment feels like her old self, loves her boyfriend, loves her mother, upstairs crying, loves her life which she knows just needs more time, just needs a little more time. Her father gets out of the car and walks towards the house and suddenly she knows. She knows that her father will take one look at her and see it all, see the strangeness in her, or worse he won’t even recognize her, he’ll scream at her and ask, where is my daughter, who are you, where is my daughter? The door opens and closes, revealing her father, standing there looking at her. Her heart tightens.
Oh, hi honey, nice to see you. He hangs his jacket on the coat rack by the door. What are you doing here? he asks, Shouldn’t you be out?
I’m just back for a second, dad.
He smiles at her.
Well, have fun dear. Be safe.
I’m going to go check on mom, she says.
Her father walks into the living room and sits down to read. She walks up the stairs and knocks on the door, which hangs ajar and swings open. Katherine stares at her mother who lays still on her side and doesn’t move despite the creak of the hinges or feet stepping across the floor. She can hear her mother breathing. Whether she is awake or simply crying in her sleep, Katherine can’t tell. She turns to leave, and just as she reaches the door she hears something.
I understand, says her mother, why you’re never here. I’m not angry. If I were you, I would have left too. Back in her bus, Katherine curls up in the back seat to sleep. Time passes and the sun crests the hill, providing just enough light to see by as she coasts the bus back down the hill to the beach, where her man stands waiting, watching the unending ocean.
Are you happier? he asks, not looking at her.
No, she says. But I’m less sad.
He takes her hand. As he leads her to the pile, footprints bleed out behind their feet. The two sets of prints step together, intertwining as if in conversation, like two dancers together in a great hall far away. Together they comb through the potential parts of her, choosing the body she always imagined. A body built of stolen images, a collage of limbs, a kaleidoscopic stranger. He tries to help at first, choosing large full breasts, soft flowery thighs, picking for Katherine a body she doesn’t recognize, pouty rose lips, large almond eyes, but soon Katherine’s fervor outstrips him, and she pores through the piles of hair and flesh, losing herself in her own desire for self, rejecting his offers of hourglass hips or sleek black hair for the wavy brown locks of a beautiful girl who flirted with her boyfriend in their English class, the voluptuous arms of a woman she once saw on a bus, a mismatched quilt of bodies made beautiful by the paintbrush of memory.
Days pass as she rebuilds herself, perfection takes time. After that first night at home, she has been careful
to avoid her reflection. Ghostly ripples of skin in the water, her face in the hubcap distended and bent like a swollen kidney. She fears the new high cheekbones, the rounded nose, which she can’t stop feeling with her new, large hands. The parts of her body no longer know each other.
She hasn’t seen her parents in some time, returns home in her bus only in the dead of night to steal food. Every time she returns home she expects to see signs of panic, “Missing” posters, and crumpled tissues, or a missing placemat on the dinner table, or her boyfriend asleep on the couch, clutching his phone to his chest, waiting for a call that will never come. She imagines his familiar childish body, the round cheeks, and wide, smooth forehead. Before she even finishes dialing she regrets calling him, and each ring sounds forever in her new ears, high-pitched roiling clicks, has the phone always sounded like this?
He sounds calm. She hears no worry in his voice, no sign that he has been crying or lonely. She listens to him breathe, small smooth streams of air, calm nose breathing, not the rough pitchy mouth sighs of despair. She hangs up the phone and closes her eyes and walks to the bathroom, relearning the way with her new hands and new legs. Tracing the lines of her house, each new sensation fills her with an alien recognition, as if her fingers are covered in wax. She opens her eyes.
To her surprise, she recognizes herself. The eyes in the mirror are not hers, nor are the cheeks, nor the hair, nor the chin, nor the skin. Yet, despite their individual foreignness, the little parts make up a face she recognizes indisputably as hers. She knows this face, she has seen it before. She always thought there would come a point where she had to choose between her new self and her old one, that her old life would fight for her, that her transformation would climax with a dramatic choice of identity. She had prepared for this. She had steeled herself against it. But the face doesn’t seem foreign. It seems friendly. She would talk to this person on the street. If there had been a climax, it happened without her.
She leaves for the bus, returns to the beach and the man and the pile of body parts washing up on the shore.
Nothing there has changed. He stands there, waiting and watching the ocean. He sees her and his mouth twitches in recognition. His lips are the same. He takes her in his arms, which she chose. The arms are the same. Are you happier? he asks.
No, she says, but I’m less sad. I’m less everything.
You’re more, he tells her.
She hugs his body with her new arms, holding his chest to her new breasts, large and beautiful and boring. The earth under her feet feels wet and crisp, tiny drops of water squeezed between tiny grains of sand. You’re almost done, he says. You’re so close.
He lets her out of his arms, the arms she chose so long ago, and walks to the pile of body parts strewn along the shore. He bends over and rifles through the pile and stands up, holding something dark in his hands. He holds it out to her, large and full, a red beating heart. This is it, she realizes. She looks at the heart as it pulses in his hand. She thinks about her old world, her home on the hill, no longer her home, her parents, no longer her parents, her boyfriend, no longer her boyfriend, her body, no longer a body at all, no longer a problem, no longer anything to her. And she thinks about her new world, her new body, her womanly body and this manly body across from her, and she takes the heart. The muscles jump in her hands, constricting in sections, beating just once.
Two seconds pass between the last beat of her first heart and the first beat of her new heart, dead. She can feel the blood course through her, new blood, new oxygen carried to new parts. She waits. He looks at her expectantly.
She feels expectant. What are they waiting for? What signal will they recognize? Nothing. She touches her hand to her neck and runs her fingers down her throat to the knotty bone in her collar down her chest to her breast, and stops, feeling the gentle subdermal pulse, like an unending tide. A heart is just a heart, a leg just a leg.
There must be something else, she says, and runs to the pile. There must be something else.
Katherine, he yells after her.
No, she says, don’t call me that, please don’t.
She changes everything she can. She replaces herself over and over, trying six pairs of arms, fifteen different pairs of feet, but none of them fit, none of them feel right or wrong, they just feel like feet. She turns around to show the man, but his lips tighten and the muscles in his cheek contract into hard knots.
You did this, she tells him. This is your fault.
No, he says.
You’re beautiful. What am I?
Beautiful, he tells her, but it no longer matters.
Then why did you make me change? she screams. Why did you make me?
As he stumbles back away from her, she is surprised at the force of her new adult arms. She is surprised by the clumsiness of his body, before so graceful, and she is surprised by the hurt she sees on his face. They look at each other and she sees the ocean behind him grow and swell, and she pushes him again deeper into the water, deeper into the waves, and he makes to move towards her, raises his arms, opens his mouth to speak, but anger burns in her new cheeks, and when a wave rises behind him she has the time for just one thought before it comes crashing down, a surprising, who is really betraying whom?, before the water crashes into his beautiful shoulders, knocking him down on his knees and into the sand.
No, not onto his knees, off of his knees. There, next to him, floating in the ocean, lay his legs, strong and muscular and disembodied. He looks at his legs, surprised to see them floating there next to him, until another wave hits, pulling his arms from his thick torso, thrashing him, dismantling him, unmaking him, ripping his surprised lips from his surprised face, stripping his eyes from his head, undoing everything that once made him a man. She is amazed how quickly it ends.
She looks at the once body in the water, the pieces of a man. She runs back to the pile and claws through it, looking for the old pieces of herself, but flesh blends into flesh, hair into skin, muscle into muscle, she sees an arm she recognizes, tries to crawl to it through a sea of limbs, wet and permeated by the ocean, loses the arm in the pile, sees a nose, or is it that nose over there? or this one? and under that torso, a hand she recognizes, and she dives through the flesh and sand, and grabs for the hand and she hears a screech behind her and dives to avoid a great white bird, a seagull that swoops and flies away with a familiar hand in its beak. She searches longer, finds nothing, and finally she stops. Looking up the beach at the bus parked in the sand and the forest and the gravel path to her house, she imagines she can see her home, though she knows she cannot, and she imagines the yellow lights in the window and small blurry shadows of people moving about the rooms, setting the table for dinner, lying in bed, and walking down the stairs for dinner every day, going to work, reading. She walks back to the ocean. She remembers the first foot on the beach, the great potential of a single foot.
She climbs into the water and stands amidst the destroyed body of the man she built. The surf pounds, throwing his limbs, grinding his flesh, now beginning to melt away. Ground into dust, broken into pieces, pulled into the sand beneath her. She floats there hoping the waves will find her, will pull her apart too, break her into pieces, but she floats there, unhappily whole, still she floats there, still she floats.