I once knew a girl who kept breaking bones. I once knew a girl who dreamed of breaking every bone in her body. I knew a girl who learned the names of each bone in her foot so she could break them one by one. I knew a girl who learned the names of the bones in her wrist, in her hand, in her arms, in her legs. I knew a girl who broke every bone in her body over a period of years. This is not possible, you say. She would die. She did not die. I knew a girl who I never knew without a cast on her body. Her bones were so small and so light. Everything about her seemed fragile. When we kissed, I found my tongue drawn to her teeth, testing their thickness. When we fucked I pictured her bones snapping beneath her skin.
We lived far away from each other and were happy, for a time. We sent each other packages. I sent her things I found, masks, beads, cuttings from magazines. She sent me pictures of herself in casts, and tapes containing coded instructions. I dreamed of us hardening and taking our places among the ossified oaks. She dreamed of hospitals, of people worrying over her. She wrote me long letters in code. If I held the letters up to certain kinds of light, the correct words would become illuminated. “Dear ONE: I wanted to speak to you earlier about the machines that have begun filling up my body. DO NOT BE ALARMED. They are the correct machines. They pump my heart. They keep my brain at the appropriate temperature. They are responsible for the flexing and unflexing of muscles, for the contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm. Previously I suspected that the doctors placed them in my body whenever I arrived, unconscious, at the hospital. Now I know that this is not the case. The last time I was brought to the hospital I pretended, you see. I’ve gotten quite good at feigning unconsciousness. I didn’t even gasp when they sliced open my leg.
“You will say that they nonetheless knew, that they understood I was testing them, that this time they held back. I don’t think so. I have other theories, now, about the origin of the machines.”
I have never broken a bone. Because of this, I don’t often think of my bones as breakable, the way that those who have never experienced violence don’t think of it as something that happens, outside of movies.
Her name was Karen or Karamaneh, which means, one whose name is a name for something else, and what her name was a name for was the soul that she kept in her body. She came to stay with me where I lived, at first it was just for a visit and then longer and longer until she finally said that she’d given up her apartment in New York because she couldn’t deal with the rent anymore. And so she came to live with me. She had a habit of taking one name or the other and disappearing for long periods of time, and when she returned there would always be something different about her, something that did not belong to her when she left, some new part that had replaced an old part. So that after many disappearances and returns it was impossible to say if she was the same, if any of the original Karen was left.
When she arrived in Chicago I bought her lights for her bike, a helmet, a day-glo yellow windbreaker, reflective tape. I knew that none of this would help, even if she actually used any of it, which of course she wouldn’t. “You’re sweet,” she said. “You’re the sweetest boy I know.”
“Are you seeing anyone else?”
“One other boy, Charlie. He’s not particularly sweet. Are you jealous?”
“I just like to know,” I said.
“Charlie calls me names when we have sex. He started out by calling me bitch, whore, cunt, cocksucker, slave. Then he branched out. For a while it was racial epithets, homophobic slurs, religious blasphemy. There was a period in which he was making up names, whole new words, things that didn’t necessarily have a precise meaning but sounded horrible. Now he’s moved on to other languages. He spends hours in the library looking up new languages to call me names in. Some of the things he’s found are unimaginably bad, concepts of degradation that we don’t have in English.”
In my mind I referred to Charlie as Charles Manson and made up stories about him: he pretended to be disabled to kidnap children and do terrible things to them in the back of vans, etc. In this way I felt better than Charlie, because I didn’t pretend to be disabled in order to kidnap children.
“I don’t believe in monogamy,” she said. “That’s one thing about Chicago, everyone here is a serial monogamist. It always ends badly.”
“It doesn’t always end badly.”
“Either someone gets hurt, or eventually someone dies. Those are the only options, in monogamy.”
She wanted to be tied up, so I tied her up. She told me her last boyfriend was an Eagle Scout, knew dozens and dozens of knots. She showed me how to loop the ropes around her wrists over and over to distribute the pressure evenly, to maintain circulation when the ropes were taut. She wanted to be tied up tight, “to pull everything straight.” It reminded her of the hospital. “So many people worrying over you,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”
“Don’t,” she said, through her teeth. “Don’t be so fucking timid. It’s in a cast. It’s protected. You’re not going to hurt me.”
There is a sort of noise that is movement, even without sound. There were more machines in our house than we could count. All of our machines were perfectly silent, so much so that at times it was possible to imagine that they were not machines at all, but rather the ghosts of machines; but our house was nevertheless filled with the noise of movement. Karen kept examining the machines for where their names were printed on them, so that we would know what to call them. Finally she gave up and we started to give them names, which we were never able to remember, because they did not respond to names anyhow. They were programmed instead to respond to certain very specific visual and auditory stimuli, and since we didn’t know how they were programmed or who did the programming, we always lived with a sort of anxiety that came from not knowing exactly which of our own movements was meaningful, what things they were responding to, what things they ignored. Certain machines would respond to a stimulus weeks or months after that stimulus occurred, or so it seemed to us. That possibility existed in any case.
Karen from time to time would take a machine as a lover, and I would have to listen to them from the next room, the sounds she made during love, screaming, whimpering, the machine silent but nonetheless, in my mind, a terrifying noise of movement. Karen, I soon learned, was more open to the machines, would exchange parts of herself for parts of them. I saw my lover trade herself to them piece by piece because I couldn’t love her enough for her to matter. The machines could make her matter by giving her new parts of herself, things she could be prouder of.
Sometimes I would ask to watch them fuck and, depending on which of the machines Karen had taken for her lover, sometimes they would let me. Karen and I talked about the sort of trust it took, for us to be together and for her to take lovers, and how the times that she let me watch her with her lover were representative of that trust. I thought about Karen and Charlie and the names that he called her, and I wondered if she still saw him. I was afraid to ask. I started to think of her with the names she’d told me that Charlie called her. I did not call her these out loud, it was nothing sexual between us, these names, they were a function rather of the interactions between Karen’s cunt and her lover, whichever of them it was. Or else they were a function of the interactions between what happened between Karen’s cunt and her lover, and my own red mind, that is, a second-level function.
I wrote down interactions between Karen’s cunt and her lovers and my red mind, and I tried to sort out the function that corresponded to these interactions. Other lovers from my past, or people who I had not managed to make lovers, women who I wanted to fuck but was never able to figure out, sent me text messages. A woman that I had been in love with before Karen sent me an email and it took me a moment to recognize her name, to remember that she was married. Violence filled up my mind and took the place of Karen’s cunt, or the interactions between Karen’s cunt and her lovers, or the second-level function that described the interaction between those interactions and my mind. I spent mornings in bed, fantasizing about things that terrified me when I finally came.
And so I was no longer concerned about trust or what that meant, because trust no longer seemed as important as the things that I was fantasizing about each morning before I got out of bed. Karen by this time no longer slept in the bed with me, but stayed every night in one of the other rooms with her lover or lovers. I discussed with myself about the souls of the machines and what that might signify. I thought that perhaps the soul itself might be a machine, or a series of machines, things that made our muscles go in certain ways that we later called by the name “will” or “I want.” I practiced thinking in this way: I want a series of motions from the muscles of Karen, motions that would take her away from her lover and put me into her arms. I tried to think about observing her as a body moved by a machine or a series of machines that made up the soul, a natural phenomena, no more subject to sin or guilt than a snowstorm or an automobile accident. Finally after many tries it was possible to view myself in these terms as well.
Thus I found myself suddenly in a sort of freedom that would have once been terrifying.