When my skin cracks over my vertebrae, my girlfriend seems delighted. She checks the window first to see if it was fitted properly, but after Leanna rocks it back and forth in its frame to check for leaks, it seems looser than before. Every day, the cold wind rattles and pulls a current of dry air into the frigid outside. It is hungry, and as it demands hot air to swallow, the dryness washes over my exterior. Stretching and tugging my outer membrane, it draws up wells of moisture to the surface and drinks it up, only to be drawn out of the broken window and replaced anew.
I wake up stiff each morning, my shoulders hunched halfway up my neck, my muscles hardened halfway to rigor mortis from shivering through the night. To return to homeostasis — although I fear that standard has shifted irreparably towards increasing pain — I lie on top of a portable, electric massager. An accidentally apt gift from an ex I no longer speak to. I keep it under my neck, then under my spine, moving it up and down every few minutes until I regain movement with cracks like icebergs leaving glaciers. The release is bliss. It is pain blooming where it had once been locked underneath stiffness. I move the massager to my mid back, then lower, until I can sit up in bed.
I do not require this ritual every morning. I wish I could predict when these mornings will occur, wish that the dates might appear in the stars or the cards or the daily crossword. Sometimes I can sense it the night before when the pain hums up and down my neck, keeping me awake. But any specifics of long-term divination elude me still, like all magic should. And like all magic, there is a price to pay for the solution.
The heat of the massager that seeps into the stiffness of my muscles would chafe the most glowing complexion. But mine is already dried and stretched, so it scrapes and tears, picking at the cracks and easing the rawness open. From the first unicellular lifeforms, we have had something to separate us from the outside world, whether a single cell wall or an organ stretched thin over a body. It protects us from exposure, allows us to maintain a balance of temperature and hydration. I was not made to be open like this.
I ask Leanna to rub coconut oil into my back. I have heard this can help heal, help lock in moisture. I lift my shirt over my head, tie my hair up, lie on my stomach on the cool, refreshing bed sheets. I rest my chin on the bed, then turn my cheek to it to ease the strain on my neck. Leanna straddles my lower back and twists open the jar of coconut oil, reaching three fingers in and pulling out enough to fill her palm. She rubs it between her hands until it melts, then lays her hands on my back, running them over the cracks, her palms warm from rubbing. I wonder if the edges of my skin reunite under her hands, or if they have become too dried and hardened to receive a healing touch.
As she runs the palms of her hands down my the sides of my back, stretching the peeling edges apart, she whispers secrets into me, then pushes her fingers back up, careful not to snag her fingernails as she seals her confessions into me. Her grandmother poisoned her first, third, and fourth husbands on their honeymoons. The second died of a heart attack on their wedding night. Leanna stole the ring her grandmother wore on each of her honeymoons. Just in case, she tells me. Just in case of what, I ask, but she has moved on to the next secret. Her uncle burned down his brother-in-law’s apartment, with him inside, after finding out what that man did to his sister. His sister doesn’t know to this day, and she’ll die not knowing, if it’s the last thing he does.
When she finishes, she sits back, wipes hands on thighs, on tops of shoulders or back of neck if the excess oil needs more surface to sink into. She moves to the other side of the bed and lets me sit up, but before I do, I curve my back, first concave, then convex, joints snapping as mobility returns against the creeping, petrifying cold. She hands me the jar of coconut oil, and I close it, lest the oil on her hands make the lid too slick to remove the next time. Since winter began, her hands have had white patches between her fingers, and I worry what I’ll find if she splits open too.
Kimberly Rooney 高小荣 is a Chinese-American adoptee from Jiangsu Province. They now live in Pittsburgh, PA, and their writing has appeared in The Offing, Jellyfish Review, and Chestnut Review, among others. You can find them at kimrooney writes or on Twitter @kimlypso.