In college, my only friend was a long-limbed boy named Kaleb. He had a habit of rearranging other people’s things.
Sometimes I caught him in the act. I’d watch him move the books on my shelf so that some were vertical, others horizontal. If I asked why, he’d say something like “I can’t believe you didn’t notice how miserable they were.”
Other times I’d discover his work after the fact. I’d look up and find that he’d spun the postcards on my wall into a fractal or that he’d organized the food in my mini fridge by density. When I asked when he’d done it, he’d shrug. “We both know you’re not particularly present.”
It was true. I had a habit of disintegrating. I drifted nebulously like a cloud—changing volume, changing shape. I bumped into people on the way to classes. Whenever a door closed, parts of me got left behind.
If I had to guess why Kaleb hung out with me, I would say it was because he could rearrange me too. If he told me a dress wasn’t flattering, I’d get rid of it. I’d wear whatever he picked out. If the next week, he wanted to pierce the auricle of my ear, I’d guzzle vodka, grit my teeth, and present my profile.
And when Saturday night rolled around, I accompanied Kaleb to whichever gay club he chose. I hoisted myself up into a cage five feet off the ground and imagined that the bars could contain me. Inside those bars, there was just room enough for one body to dance. Two bodies and what you were doing was something else. Kaleb said that dancing like I did, a skinny girl alone in a cage, made me look tragic. Every Saturday night, I spooled myself inside the music until I was wrapped so tight in its sticky web, my heart knocked against my ribs.
We drank before we went out—tequila, tequila, and more tequila. I sweated the alcohol off dancing so that I was screeching sober by the end of the night.
Kaleb usually found a boy in leather pants to yoke himself to. Their rhinestone collars would shimmer in the club’s harsh red lights, and pressed together, they’d look like a red-winged blackbird on the hinge of flying away.
But sometimes Kaleb would push through the gyrating bodies to make his way toward me. He’d say, “Come down,” and I’d lower myself from the platform, and he’d lace his fingers through mine and lure me between bodies until I was engulfed by heat. Then, just as I felt myself expanding, rising, he’d put his hot hands on my face and reel me in until he was kissing me on the lips, his tongue in my mouth.
He kissed me like this in his dorm room too sometimes, when we’d been talking about the boys who’d broken Kaleb’s heart. He’d pin me on the floor, and my chest would become as compact as the contents of a suitcase.
After, Kaleb would sit back and laugh. “You think I’m a good kisser?” Or “Aren’t my lips the perfect combination of soft and hard?” Or “Did I make you wet, Ellen, honey? Come on, you can tell me?”
At the club, no matter how the boy Kaleb had picked up that night twisted and turned in the dark, always when the strobe light caught him again, the expression on his face was the same, as though he wanted to pry me open like an egg, see what was in there.
The hospital smell of baby powder spraying out of vents, the techno beat poking at the soles of my combat boots, Kaleb’s tongue poking at my teeth: these forces felt like they were all that was keeping me from scattering all the way out to Earth’s exosphere, where particles are still bound by Earth’s gravity but too ethereal to collide.