The porcelain bowl is cool against his clammy cheek. He shifts, and his skin squeaks against the smooth surface. The sound and the pull of flesh makes him wince, but the white side of the toilet is a relief as he presses his forehead against it.
His body is curled in on itself. He is lying so close to the floor that his nose stings with the mixture of bathroom cleaner and stale bowels. His eye pulses like a heartbeat, the skin there already stretched from the swelling. The tang of iron is subtle against his tongue.
He thinks about everyone in class right now, and wonders if someone will come in, see him through the crack in the bathroom stall. He wonders if they would stop and ask him if he is alright or if they would ignore his sneakers sticking out of the space beneath the swinging door, do their business as quickly as possible, and then leave. He wonders if their conscience would be free of guilt or if they would wonder about him later, maybe while they’re eating dinner, chewing the end of a pencil while their eyes glaze over a math equation.
No one comes, and no bell rings out through the halls. It’s the middle of class, the only time he allows himself to use the bathroom. It is the only time he feels safe.
But he had been wrong. It isn’t safe for him here, either. In the girl’s bathroom, the worst thing that happens is distrustful stares, hair flips, and side-eyes. Here, the men’s room had led to violence.
He truly doesn’t belong in either.
With both palms on the dirty floor, he pushes himself to his feet. His ribcage groans like the trunk of an aging oak. He grits his teeth. It almost feels like being kicked all over again. Outside of the stall, he finds his backpack tossed carelessly under a sink, pages of notebook paper strewn haphazardly across the tiles. As he bends to retrieve it, he keeps his eyes angled away from the row of mirrors.
He has a choice to make; he can either go to the school nurse with some lame excuse (maybe he fell down the stairs again), or he can ditch school altogether and make the short walk home. The latter includes the promise of an empty house and a chance to take a warm shower, an irresistible temptation against the pain of his aching bones.
He turns away from the row of urinals and pushes against the door, eyes avoiding the blue human outline pressed into its wooden surface.
At home, there is nothing to pierce the quiet. Whenever he comes home from school, he feels as if he’s sneaking in. Closing the front door is a little too loud, and the sound of his sneakers against the wooden stairs is a little too sharp. It’s a relief when he is greeted by a cat. The ginger tom rubs against his leg with a yowl, leaving cat hair clinging to his dark jeans. He appeases the animal with a quick rub to the head before he pushes open the door to his room.
His bedroom isn’t so much messy as it’s just full of stuff. Every surface has something on it: an old cup still half full of soda, a stack of books he is required to read in English, a half-solved Rubik cube beside a figurine of a roaring T-Rex. Clothes hang from the chair at his desk and cover his dresser in a heap. The bookshelf has more odds-and-ends on it than books. His walls are the most striking, covered completely in scraps of paper, photos, and drawings. It hides the hideous baby blue wall color underneath.
The tiny bathroom is starkly different from his bedroom. Lit with the afternoon sun, everything is cast in an almost unbearably white glow. Before he dares to look himself in the mirror, he draws the blinds over the pane of glass. Even in the newfound gloom, he despises what he sees. His lashes curve delicately over two emerald eyes, or they would if one wasn’t swollen shut beneath bruised flesh. His lips are unblemished except for the bottom corner, where it splits in an angry line. The cut makes his already plush lips seem fuller.
Staring through himself, his one good eye avoids the rest of the defining features of his face; the sharp curve of his jaw line—too feminine; his raised cheekbones—all off.
He turns away to start the shower and waits for the steam to start billowing to the ceiling before shedding his layers of clothes. From here on out, he avoids his reflection in the mirror.
As he pulls his shirt over his head, his body twinges painfully. The extension of his arms reveals the ace bandage wrapped around his torso. The compression of it makes the soreness of his ribs worse. In one swift motion, he removes the tiny aluminum clips and lets the wrap fall away.
The pressure off his chest is almost worth revealing what is underneath, and he can feel his lungs breath a sigh of relief. Even so, he avoids touching himself as he peels off the rest of his clothes and steps into the running water.
The tension drains from his muscles as the hot water scathes his back. The sound of it is like drumming, the beat rocking him into a calmness he hadn’t been able to grasp since before the day’s incident.
With your eyes closed and the sound of water roaring in your ears, it’s easy to believe you are someone else. It’s easy to believe you are not standing in your shower with your narrow arms hanging at your sides and your hips curved gracefully against the onslaught of steam and spray. It’s easy to not feel the weight of your breasts on your chest.
With your eyes closed, it’s easy to believe this body is not a cage, and you are not a stranger to your own appearance, and it doesn’t cross your mind every day what you would do to change it.
Originally published in the Spring 2016 edition of The Helix magazine.