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Break Me Open photo

“It’s time for you to understand this,” our teacher says. 

The weather is hot.  The air conditioning is broken.  Everyone’s body is aching.  “You’re old enough to know.”  Our parents, he says, agree: it is time for us to understand openings, to recognize that we are not pinatas.  We are not stuffed with sugary candies in tight plastic wrappers.  Streamers and noisemakers will not burst forth from our chests.  We should not go at one another with baseball bats.  Openings are not occasions for blindfolds.

The teacher dims our classroom lights and berates us not to fall asleep.  He is usually kind, his voice the warmth of a hot bath, but today his words bite.  He carts in a television.  On screen, a couple holding each other by the shoulders look into each other’s eyes.  The man is tall, cherubic in his cheeks, with cropped blond hair.  The woman is short, her complexion glowing and tan.  We cannot tell how old they are.  Older than us, yes, but that’s all we know.  They are not wearing shirts, and we blanche at the bareness of their skin.  Some kids giggle.  Our teacher pauses the video.  He does not yell at us for our silliness.  Instead, he scans the room.  He has watery eyes that glisten in the dark of the classroom as if struck by the moon.  He looks sad, but his voice carries when he says, "This does not have to be boys and girls.  Boys can do this with boys.  Girls can do this with girls.  Anyone can open anyone, if it’s the right person.”  He unpauses the video, and at some signal we do not see, the woman presses her thumbs into the man’s clavicle, digging into the tender flesh above his bones.  How they decide who presses at whom, we do not know.  All we know is that we feel an uncomfortable tightness in our throats at the sight of those pushing fingers.  The weight is practically choking; we feel ghost thumbs prying at our veins, the arteries we know are so valuable.  Our teacher pauses the video again and, taking a sighing breath, says, “This is the important part.”

The woman opens the man at the bone.  His body widens out, as if his ribcage is a pantry door.  The video is silent except for professional voice-over work, so we do not hear the creak-crack of marrow or the slither of hot blood exposed to cold air.  But we do see what is inside, how veins and muscle snake around one another in an erotic dance.  How organs, blue and purple, are squashed together.  The man’s lungs heave.  His intestines coil.  Vital fluid stays packed tight, as if held up by an invisible barrier, suspended like a jelly.

But his heart. The man's heart is pale, a pulsing pearl, slippery and clean as a blank piece of paper.  With slow care, the woman reaches her hand in, fingers dancing past breastbone and ribs, careful not to touch anything else, as if there is a risk of shock.  The man stares at the woman, his face moony when her fingers close around his heart.  Some of us know that look.  Most of us do not.  All of us pretend.

“And now,” the narrator says, voice throbbing and deep like the leap into a cold lake, “the gentle press.”

Her fingers tighten, squeezing just enough to interrupt but not stop.  We imagine the man’s ventricles and atria and the way they pound against her palm.  How there is strain but not struggle. 

The camera closes in on her grip.  We can feel those fingers, a tightness in our chests, a wriggling, an airy draft like we, too, have been broken open, right here in our classroom, tucked into our desks.  Our hearts flutter and fritz and warmth pools in our heels and we imagine being laid bare like that, our slippery pale hearts hearts touched for the first time.  We watch as the man's heart takes on a deep, rich color. 

Descriptors dance on our tongues: crimson, carmine, vermillion, burgundy.  Scarlet, ruby.  As the color fills the chambers, our toes curl, our breathing shallows, our foreheads and spines tingle with yearning.  Is this, we wonder, what it is to be awake?

After school, we poke and prod.  In pairs, we hide away in bedrooms and basements and backyards.  Our voices are shaky as we stand before one another just like in the video.  We place our hands on each other’s shoulders and let out weak laughter, a show of our lack of expectation.  We do not think we will hinge open in one another’s hands; this is not real, yet.  We just want to imagine.  We understand that our bones will not crack, unwrapping our skins for one another to see.

That is how it goes for most of us.  But a few are surprised, tremored by the sudden feeling of wind beneath our ribs.  Nick Perrone’s body opens at Bryan Newbower’s touch.  Bryan nearly retches at the sight of his boyfriend’s tender interior, but he steadies himself, curls his fingers around that pearly mass at Nick’s center.  Cassandra Singh is shocked to see Lucy Harmon’s body flutter open.  Mike Ness is surprised by the cold chill of exposure as Jessica Hummel stares at his flesh, split and cracked like bursting fruit, though nothing splatters or spews.  The video, they will all report, is right: the feeling of being butterflied open is cold and hot at once. 

“Don’t worry,” Nick says the next day, arm tight around Bryan’s shoulders.  “It doesn’t hurt.”  This is mostly truth.

The rest of us stare at ourselves in our mirrors.  We run our hands over our bodies, feeling for secret nooks, crevices.  Our teacher sees our worry.  He is a big man, with wide shoulders that he hides beneath flannel shirts.  But he rolls the sleeves so we can see the muscle in his forearms.  He wears thick-framed glasses as black as his hair.  He always squints, but he also smiles.  It makes us feel seen.

He says, “All things happen when they are meant to.”

But this is hardly enough.  Those of us that are not the Nicks and Bryans and Cassandras and Lucys and Mikes and Jessicas yearn for that feeling of a hand locked around a heart, kickstarting and warming something deep inside.  At night we knead our chests, we massage our throats, we poke at our bones.  We find new partners, hide in new spaces—fitting rooms in department stores, public restrooms at the park, the empty computer lab in the library—and strip away our clothing, churning with nerve when we expose our skin, feel a flushed rush when strange hands touch our flesh.  And still we do not open.

We feel a ragged heat, a sluggish frustration.  Adonna Gilchrist takes a knife to her collarbone and digs around, ignoring the pain and the pooling blood, seeking a sacred hinge.  Her mother finds her passed out and calls an ambulance.  We are exhorted not to be like Adonna, to demonstrate patience.  “The right touch will come.  It will.”

But what if it does not, we wonder.

Our parents can tell us nothing.

Our friends whose hearts are full of color and life shrug.

Our teacher has no answers.

At night, we listen to our heartbeats and we picture the hard white at our cores.  We dream of fingers, of a million hands reaching and prying.  We wake sour-mouthed, our heads pounding, calves full of knots.  We cannot bear our loneliness.

When we say so, we are told to be calm.

And then Clayton Gillespie opens himself.

We hear about it in ripples, tributaries of gossip and whisper that ride through the hallways.  How he stood at his window and prodded at himself, fingers dancing along his collarbone like he was playing the piano.  How in a weird flash of fuzzy pleasure he hit the right spot with his index fingers—some say it was his thumbs, or his pinkies, or his ring fingers, as if it matters—and he felt a shudder, a shift, and suddenly he could see his inner self in his reflection in the glass, his body yawned open like his ribs were angel wings.  How he stood that way for nearly an hour, mesmerized by the purplish-red of his interior, the white-hot blare of his heart.  How he was just about to reach in and scrape at himself when his mother found him and she howled, snapping him out of it and slamming his body shut, his ribs biting at his venturing fingers.  How bone slapped against bone, the sewing up of Clayton’s flesh interrupted by his wayward reach, and he collapsed from the sudden pain of things not being right. 

We take Clayton as a cautionary tale.  We walk past his house and swear we can see blood spatter on his bedroom window.  We shake our heads.  Our teacher whispers his name to remind us, to warn.  That all things come for all people, though in different moments and places.  How can we be sure, we wonder?  How can we know that we should't break ourselves open, those of us who feel the heavy want of a frozen heart?

No one else manages to open themselves like Clayton.  We see his hand drifting over the lumpy scar on his chest, fingers running along the keloid dune that cuts across his torso.  We imagine our own fingers playing over such scars, reading the history in that dead raised skin.  Our fingers itch, so we sit on our hands, we suck in deep breaths, we tell ourselves everything will be okay, that one day, someone will come along.  They will shudder us open and give us a squeeze, our hearts singing with perfect joy.  Until then, we remain cinched up, bodies humming with as much noise as they can muster.

image: Tyler McAndrew