She Makes Them Stiff
by Jillian Bost
From the days of her infancy, Elizabeth learned not to touch. Don’t touch the stove, don’t touch the nasty neighbor’s bitey Chihuahua, don’t touch your mother’s ruby necklace.
When she touched, the cat hissed, the baby wailed, the father left.
Her mother allowed embraces on the crispy cake occasions of birthdays or bare branch Christmases, though she kept her hands on Elizabeth’s elbows, restricting her, her bony hands like shackles on the girl’s arms. Elizabeth could only pat the air frantically, a bird trying to keep aloft, until she could reach her mother’s sides and skim the thick patterns of the dress that separated the two of them.
As her limbs lengthened with age, in her womanhood Elizabeth longed for the feel of a man, that mysterious creature who made her belly squirm, and squirm lower, too. Her mother had told her, sharp as an ice pick, to forget them.
“If you touch them, they’ll go all stiff, like a statue. You’ll freeze them up, or they’ll run. You don’t want that, do you, girl? Remember your father?”
But the fidgeting in her belly, the yearning, the craving did not die, and so she skulked, because she could not charm, until one day she spotted her unwitting quarry in the park.
Her stomach wriggled. She held the man, so pale, slothlike, and boneless in her gaze, and slid over to him.
He stared at her, eyes boggled, and swallowed hard.
Elizabeth exhaled. “Can I h-h-hug you?”
The man’s mouth flopped like a fish. “I don’t—I don’t know you.”
She considered this. “Please?” she offered.
He eyed her, then nodded. He paled further.
Her heart swooned with warmth, and she moved in like a bat, pressing her arms, her hands, all of her body against him.
The man moaned, and stiffened like a statue, and Elizabeth withdrew, pulsing with shame and scandal.
She had failed him. Herself. Everyone.
When she entered the house, her mother’s look covered her in ice, as if she’d peered into Elizabeth’s spider web soul and seen her shame. Elizabeth hung her head and slunk to her room, hearing her mother’s tutting echo in her ears.
She made friends with the raindrops sliding down her open window, but each died in her hand, and though her tears widened the pools, they sank each other in fear.
One day, her mother loomed over her bed on a morning of grey soup clouds. “I suppose you’ll have to do something to support yourself, won’t you? You can’t live off my charity forever.”
So Elizabeth learned to apply makeup to those who could not flee: those who lay in boxes, eyes closed so they could not fear her. She was happy painting shadows and colors to their faces, murmuring, soothing, letting them know they were not alone, or as good as alone if they wanted to be, since it was only her, after all.
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Jillian Bost is a writer, editor, and avid reader. When not doing any of those things, she enjoys drinking green tea, and petting cats.