You put Dad’s favorite John Fogerty CD on repeat. You run in circles around your Band-Aid–covered rocking horse. Gray living room carpet blurs beneath your staticky stocking feet. You’re not sick of the music. You never are. Repetition lets your mind run fast.
You watch five minutes of a movie and hit pause. You jump from couch to recliner to couch to recliner, hands slapping against your thighs. The television flickers gray and black.
You play the panyo. The pan-pee-an-yo. The piano. You pick out the notes with your tongue poking out of the corner of your mouth. Your fingers are chubby with baby fat. When you reach for a B, they slip. You miss the note.
Repetition lets your mind run fast.
You stop playing. Put the offending finger between your teeth. Bite. Pain jolts through you. Tears spring to your eyes. With your finger throbbing, you go back to playing.
You make it through that passage just fine—after all, you punished yourself once, and punishment helps you learn. But then the next passage comes. Your fingers slip again. The note is sour.
You stop playing. Rest your fingers on the edge of the piano. Take a deep breath—and drop the lid on top of them. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” you chant. Your hand aches too much to play any notes right. You can’t finish the song. You slap your own face. The pain that spikes through your soft skin is sharper than your cat’s teeth when she nips you. You hunch over the piano, crying. Someone’s wedged a knife between the ridges of your ribs and is slitting you open.
Put the offending finger between your teeth. Bite.
You dream about purple and gold Harry Potter sweatpants hanging up in your walk-in closet. You wake up. There are no purple and gold Harry Potter sweatpants hanging up in your walk-in closet. You yank the belt off of Mom’s soft blue robe. “What did you do with my pants?” you sob.
“They aren’t real,” Mom says.
You lie on the couch and scream.
The cat tears out of the room, claws catching on the carpet. Mom soothes. Mom begs. Mom yells. You are late for school. You’re too old for this. Too smart for this. Get up. Get up.
You run into the bathroom. The blue elastic rips from your rainbow-printed panties when you shove them down. Pink skin stretches between your thighs. You drag your nails across it. It burns. You pull the toilet paper off its cylinder and slap your thighs with the cylinder. You bruise purple and black.
You bruise purple and black.
You hurt yourself like this in class sometimes. It’s not always a punishment. In class, it’s like slapping your hands against your legs as you jump from recliner to couch. Your mind turns fast without the sting. You trip over words.
Your teacher and Mom talk after school. You rub your bruised skin against the stone bench in the courtyard.
Mom buckles you into your booster seat. She says, “You can’t masturbate around other people.” She buys you a picture book that explains what masturbation is. The definition doesn’t make sense. But you listen. The next time you want to pull that fragile pink skin until it’s deep purple, you lock the bathroom door.
I am getting lunch with my college roommate. My milkshake’s plastic container is slippery with condensation. It slips from my fat fingers. Chocolate liquid sprays across red tiles. I crouch by it and touch the pool. My fingers come away brown. I stare at the cold drops seeping beneath my nails. My roommate says my name.
I slap my face.
Kirt Ethridge is a recent graduate of the University of Evansville's Creative Writing BFA program. When they're not teaching, they're probably working on their upcoming podcast about queer Catholicism.
Illustrated by Leigh Luna.