“The Hole”

We lie clothed together in my bed, her head resting gently on my stomach, when she tells me she doesn’t like the hole. The one in my chest. I’ve always called it a hole, but it’s really more of a dent: a fist-sized concavity where my sternum should be.

She says she hates seeing me without a shirt on, she hates catching glimpses of it during sex. Touching it causes her to shudder with revulsion. It makes me look weirdly emaciated, she says, like a third-world child of some kind. She thinks that it’s weird and hates that I don’t. “Can’t you get it fixed?” she asks.

And suddenly I’m nine and at swimming lessons, and the whole class is staring at my chest, and I’m looking back at their chests like “What’s up?” and finally realizing “Oh no, they don’t have the hole.” I am reclined shirtless in front of the TV with my younger brother, rough carpet fibers scratching at my back, and we are dipping chips in the salsa we have poured into the hole. I am spending countless hours in the tub, letting the hole slowly and then quickly fill up with water, putting my hands inside of it to flatten out the space.

Then I’m in high school, a rich kid’s party senior year. I lie shirtless on a table in front of a crowd. A girl whose name, I have just learned, is Katie, straddles my chest and sucks cheap beer from the hole. My classmates, many of whom did not know who I was a few hours ago, chant my name. Three weeks later, I’m losing my virginity and the girl, who is not Katie, stops midway through and asks, eyes down toward my chest, if it hurts me ever. She probes it gently with her fingers, and instead of starting up again, we talk about our lives, the way that teenagers do, for hours. She is married two years later.

I am in college. The hole appears in every fun fact the first day of classes and in all the late-night dorm room “stupid human trick” displays. Sometimes, walking between classes, strangers call out to me, “Hey, Chest Guy!” I grin and wave.

I am at the doctor’s. He presses his fat fingers against the sides of the hole and tells me we don’t have to do anything about it, for now. “But we have to monitor it, check it every year,” he says. “One broken rib could kill you.” He cautions against contact sports. I think, Fuck him. I play rugby well into college, in intramural and rec leagues, until the day I’m on the bottom end of a pile-up and my face and upper body are mashed into moist grass and I feel fully, with a clarity that comes only from pain, that I have a body, that it has a shape and texture, and I get up from the pile and walk off the field and never play again.

So I lie. I tell her there’s nothing doctors can do, a lie that lasts as long as it takes for her to perform the most cursory online search. She learns that there are surgical options, ways of flattening the hole. She takes wild conversational turns to bring up the surgeries I could have, the ways I could be healed. Our life together takes on the quality of an un-funny sitcom.

When she leaves me—because when in my life have I ever been the one to leave anyone?—I step outside alone and take air into my lungs. My lungs, two delicate little flaps of tissue, expand, and they draw closer to the hole. They have never known any other way to breathe.

I walk circles around my apartment block and look into the faces of men walking past me. Do they have holes too, I want to ask them. In bathrooms, I lift up my shirt before mirrors and put my hand to my chest. It feels tender to the touch: my ribs, bowing inward towards my heart, to form a lack.

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About William Hallal

Billy Hallal was born in Cleveland, Ohio. <span class="\"bio\"">He writes fiction and, occasionally, nonfiction.</span> His work has appeared in <em>The Normal School</em> and the anthology <em>Across Town: Stories of Columbus</em>. He works as a camp counselor, an adjunct instructor, and a coach for his high school\'s speech and debate team. He is revising a first novel about a kid detective who is bad at being a kid detective.