How to Disfigure a Body

By Calley Nelson

With the exception of the hand towels, Edith and Mark’s mom kept a neat house. Every Sunday, she’d crouch down and slide ratty bath towels around the just mopped wood floors, dewy and smelling of fresh pine. She’d scrape Mark’s salty and crusted remains from the corner behind the toilet with steel wool. Emptying the trash, she’d find the cigarette butts he tried burning us with wadded up in toilet paper. I imagine that each week she’d let out a very heavy sigh and laugh. She had four older brothers and knew everything there was to know about boys. “They were wild at Mark’s age,” she said, “but they got the trouble out of the way early, I think. They all have kids.” I never met Edith’s uncles, though, so I don’t think they could have been that terrific. Too busy being family men I guess. Edith inherited her mom’s perfectionism, but not her sympathy or forgiveness. We were wild when we were young, but now we are angry, too. I hate Mark. I hate Edith’s uncles. I hate Edith’s mother, too– even though she’s holed up in a nursing home right now, pooping her guts out in a toilet bowl that’s never cleaned.

When I met Edith in grade school, I’d watch her comb through the grass for anything that crawled or slithered and could be crushed with a flat edge. Watching insects run circles underneath a rock’s shadow was euphoric. Shards of mulch were used as daggers. Other times she’d rub ants in her palms until they were just dirt beneath her nails, her face pinched as if she were constantly staring into a sun, as if she could see a star I couldn’t. She scared me and everyone around her, and I loved her for it, even back then.

Edith showed me all the different ways you could kill bugs, insects and small amphibians. Our executions were ritualistic and nuanced. I let her use my glasses to burn lady bugs to a char, then we’d spread the ashes across the schoolyard. She was pretty set on being an exterminator for a bit there, and she’s looking for a career change now.

Edith’s older brother Mark was always hanging around the mall where we liked to watch movies. His companionship more forced upon us than anything, particularly when my boobs started to grow in. Mark was five years older than us and apathetic as fuck. Masturbating and chain-smoking were his only hobbies, as far as I know. Edith and I would call him cummy tummy and he would get all mad and try to burn our wrists with his torch lighter. One time he rubbed his dick on me at Batman. I laughed in his face when the movie went silent and everyone started at him with his pale dick glowing in the fuzz of the projector so Edith and I just screamed and ran out of the theater. I guess he was pretty embarrassed so he never did it to me again. It seemed like the slightest movements, closing of the blinds, the sweat on a glass of Kool-Aid, finding a stretched out sock beneath the couch, set his hormones spinning. When we watched American Idol, he’d run to the bathroom at commercial breaks for a quick smoke-and-tug. I was too much of a germophobe to touch the family’s hand towels because I knew Mark just rinsed his hands for two seconds and then wiped. He still tried to touch me with them anyway.

I shared a bus stop with Timothy Smith, who peed his pants in gym class once and enjoyed flicking his eyelids up into slimy red curtains so he looked like a zombie. He was the kind of kid who sprinted toward whoever had the soccer ball and kicked them in the shins. I hated him.

“My dad says that your brother’s a gangster and your mom’s a whore and that’s why you are so rich,” he told me in class.

I didn’t really know exactly what gangster or whore meant, but later I went to the library and looked it up on the computer.

“Your mom is sexy so she can be a whore. You’re too fat to be a whore but too dumb to do anything else.”

At recess, Edith was my savior.

She sat behind me and must have heard what he said to me, or maybe she just wanted to just throw him around, but after that we were friends.

Edith grabbed Timothy by his bigger ear.

“Ew, gross, don’t touch me with your bug juice,” he whined, jumping away from her.

Unfazed, she dragged him out the school doors to the side of the building and pinned him in the grass with one knee. She pushed dirt in his mouth and stuffed one worm in his small ear, and two in his large ear. We watched his eyes widen as the worms buried themselves into his sweet, sticky ear canals. I imagined them crawling out through his eyelids.

Of course, 10-year-old me cried like the world had ended when I got home. I understood what fat and dumb meant, and I poked at my belly in the mirror before bed, watching it rise and fall with my breath. I imagined I was breathing out fire and that the exhaust would carry out my window and into Timothy’s.

I wore my hair in long braids on each side of my head, with a third coiled high in the back. I fidgeted with my clothes and hair but didn’t attract the attention I was looking for. The cool girls dismissed my expensive velvet zip-up hoodies, as if I was one of their darker skinned imposters.

My parents were the only Spanish-speaking doctors in the neighborhood for a while and didn’t have a lot of free time to take us out exploring. I had moved from Paraguay around age ten, and though I knew English, I didn’t want to speak it– it sounded like I was chewing a wad of bubblegum every time I tried. If a teacher asked me a question, I would try to speak as softly as possible. I didn’t want anyone to think I was not American.

I wanted to be an American girl in an American clique. I wanted a swathe of girls that shielded me at all times, who would laugh at the boys who picked their noses and babble about Lizzie Maguire, stickers, crimped hair and Limited Too. I wanted to be surrounded by their exciting, secretive chatter. I watched them pass notes written in gel pens and signed with sparkly tiger stickers. I watched them trade Smackers lipstick at the lunch table. I wanted the kind of friends they had, people who were always happy to see, always leaning against your shoulder to tell you a secret.

Edith just yelled.

Didn’t find out until just today that Mark’s mother was almost right about the family man part — at 27, he became celibate, every ounce of sexual tension and energy gone. In his words, he rubbed out so much he got bored with it, found Jesus, and took on an enviable, simple life, working as a grape picker in Napa Valley.

His vineyard stretches five acres from the foot of a dusty resort to the side of a mountain, and near the mountain is a cottage where Mark and all the grape pickers live. The top level is stacked with bed bunks and wool throw blankets that were left in the back of a rusty pick-up truck and smelled like it. The pickers would boast about how they got the smell out with lemon juice, rancid wine, baking soda and grape seed oil. According to Mark, someone even had some magic soap that would burn your skin right off.

When Mark first started, he traded fifty bucks for a bag full of the magic soap because the stench kept him tossing at night and his bunkmate kept telling him he was nasty, and to stop rolling around and making the bed creak. The soap was useless, though. Mark says he can’t tell if the smell is in his head, wrapping itself around his dreams, the foulness imprinted by a much higher power than himself. I told him that sounded melodramatic to me, but whatever helps him sleep at night, I guess. After he got used to the smell of himself or the blanket, or the whole rotting vineyard, he said he got pretty comfortable there, that he wouldn’t have left California if I hadn’t called him, no way: five years since he had talked to his parents or Edith, six years had passed since he had stepped foot in Florida— it had been peaceful for a while, he said. I don’t know, I have a hard time believing he’s no longer a perv, even though he says that God’s forgiven him.

About a year ago, I succumbed to getting a Facebook profile. I was curious about the people I used to know, and I was lonely. I was traveling a lot for work and didn’t have many friends after college, so I reached out to Edith and we decided to meet up.

Her broad shoulders stuck out like a street sign. She had accumulated a lot of muscle mass since I saw her last. I was comforted by how tight she held me when we hugged.

By the time I sat down, she had already ordered two piss-hot beers. I appreciated the gesture, but I took a sip of mine and didn’t touch it again.

We caught up.

She told me about how she started taking some funky elixir and it really boosted her weight lifting.

I asked about her family.

She and Mark had a falling out, but they were trying to get back on good terms again, since Mark had found religion in college and ended up dropping out of school to pursue his faith in Napa Valley. They hadn’t seen each other yet, but they tried to talk to each other every two weeks. I told her I couldn’t picture her brother as an adult and she didn’t even crack a smile.

Then, she asked me if I drank.

I told her the truth, that no, I didn’t drink, sometimes mixed drinks, but not beer.

She laughed at me and suggested we leave the bar, that it was such a silly thing to have a first date at a bar where you had to scream over the music, anyway.

“Why didn’t you just tell me you didn’t like beer? It’s a three dollar beer, you could have just ordered something else? If you like to dance, let’s go to a club. Anywhere you want. You pick.” She winked at me, then chugged my beer in three throaty swallows.

A year later I’m sitting in the audience of the largest weight lifting tournament in the Western hemisphere as Edith straddles her bench like she’s stepping into her favorite thong. The family to my right is screaming, wearing neon and camouflage trucker hats, trying not to spill their peanuts.

On stage with Edith is Florida’s fan favorite, Lenni Lewis. Edith and I hate him. He’s a red-headed ripped dude who wears a straw cowboy hat and diamond earrings everywhere he goes. Really likes young girls, according to him, as long as they are legal. It was news for a day, and then people forgot about it. “Their mothers are the only ones who have a problem,” he said in an interview.

It was going to be a long night. Between matches, I planned on finding some coffee. I needed to get out of the stadium. The whole place smelled like menthol Newports and wet hay, the musk of the men who vibe with Lenni, with their oversized t-shirts, sweaty and clinging to the railing. They get popcorn with extra salt and butter all over your lap and don’t hand you a napkin, and their kids have something crusty around their lips at all times. Fresh air would have to wait– this match against Lenni was the most important to Edith. She had been talking about it for weeks.

“The crazy thing is, Lenni doesn’t even believe in god. He’s some rich kid from Miami, catering to the Florida fan base. He scares me. I have no idea who he actually is.”

He struts to the bench, places his hat underneath him, flex-waves his biceps, then prays. The crowd goes wild and starts stomping their feet on the rafters, the whole theater shaking. If Lenni couldn’t bench 530 in three reps, then Edith would be declared the winner of the bench press division. She’d be making enough money for us to buy a trailer and move to Atlanta. Our lives could be different but simple. Unfortunately, he pushed the bar up like it was nothing, then pretended to struggle through the next two reps, the crowd hushed as the referee counted. Three….two…….. ONE!

Fans pounded their chests and roared as Lenni dismounted the bench, shaking his hands above his head in prayer. He scooped up his hat with a flexed bicep and swaggered off the stage.

It was Edith’s turn. Her fans were just as loud as Lenni’s. She grunted and extended her elbows straight and the crowd cheered raucously.

As she pressed the meaty part of her palms into the metal bar, her arms trembled, and then suddenly, her veins began to flare.

The crowd stilled as Edith’s Nike’s lifted from the stage. Her body was inflating like a life raft, carrying the bar into the lights like a life-size silver trophy. In that moment it seemed like Edith had found a strength that no one thought she had. She was someone who needed to be taken seriously or else. It was as if all of her training had finally paid off, all of that perfectionism channeled into something magical, something hard-earned and unbreakable.

She clenched the bar elbows and wrists bent, the glossy weights dangling at half-mast as her body pulsed like a pale heart, preparing for the final push upward.

Then, she let go.

The bar fell on her chest.

We screamed in unison.

I jumped up and over a family and tore down the steps to the stage to signal the referee. There was a group of men in suits talking hurriedly on the right side of the stage while a team of medics rolled Edith, puffy and deflated, onto two stretchers pushed together. Edith’s purple spandex was torn in places where her muscles had expanded, and her collarbone protruded from her neck like a loose shoulder pad. It seemed wrong that so many people could see one of the strongest women ever weaken so quickly.

I had a strong urge to protect her, just jump up on the stage and wheel her away from all of the leering eyes.

“She just popped like a balloon!”

“Did you see how she was floating off the bench?”

“Of course she was on steroids, ain’t no woman looking like that naturally.”

“Wow, I hope she’s OK.”

The crowd was abuzz with speculation. All the lights turned on in the theater.

“Everyone please exit the theater,” a voice echoed from a loud speaker.

I reached and yanked a referee’s black-and-white-striped sleeve.

“No back stage access,” he said.

“Wait!” I yelled, running after the ref. I wanted to pass out so that he would have to take me to the hospital too.

I dodged a pack of children with bowls of soggy popcorn, knocked a guy’s mirrored designer sunglasses off his face with a stray elbow and kneed a dad in the butt since he wouldn’t move out of my way. As soon as I saw a flash of his back and white stripes in front of me, I rushed forward and clenched his upper arm.

“Where’s she going? Which hospital?”

He tried to brush me off and slip into the men’s bathroom, but I dug my nails deep into his meaty arm. I needed to know that Edith was okay, that we’d wake up together in the same bed the next morning and grumble over whose turn it was to make coffee. I wanted her breath on my neck, my drool on her chest, the dog curled up under the bed, but Edith was smashed to pieces in front of all of the Lenni wannabes of the world, and there was no intimacy there.

“Lady, please. Edith is in shock. She asked that fans and media respect her privacy.”

“She’s speaking? I highly doubt that,” I told him, buying some time to dig through my purse.

“Lady if you don’t let go of me…”

“Look! I can show you a picture of us. That’s me and her, see?”

I swiped through my photos, landing on one with our faces scrunched together in the frame with her dog, Woman, between us, her grey face wet and droopy as we held both her ears up for a selfie.

“Miss, please.”

“You didn’t even look!”

I leaned against the water fountain, feeling faint. The florescent lights were making me sick. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the blood on the stage and Edith’s flimsy collarbone.  There was so much blood and there would be so many more bruises.

“Please, I need to see her. Doesn’t she have an emergency contact somewhere? I’m her emergency contact.”

“No, ma’am. She’s always said she didn’t need one. Too cocky for an emergency contact even,” he murmured under his disgusting peanut breath. I hated him.

“That’s illegal, you know,” I told him.

“Lady, please. I will call security.”

I grabbed him tighter.

“Then I will sue you. Tell me.”

He leaned in so close that I could lick the sweat from his upper lip.

“I don’t think you understand. We don’t know what happened yet, but this isn’t anything you want to see, especially if you are actually her girlfriend. Edith overdosed.”

“So what if she did?” I spat at him. “Tell me the hospital or I’ll make sure you’re jobless”

I watched him think for a second, then he ushered me up the stage, behind the curtain, through the back door to the parking lot. “She’s at the memorial hospital on East Lane,” he said, then slammed the metal door behind me. Just like that.

When I found my car, I plugged my dead phone into the charger and shook it impatiently until it turned on.

I had to call Edith’s family, but I didn’t know what to tell them, especially her parents. So, I called Mark. It rang a few times then went to voicemail.

Someone rapped on the side window. It was Lenni in his cowboy hat and maroon robe. I rolled down the window and he stuck his orange mustache in.

“What can I do?” he asked.

The doctors initially thought that Edith was suffering from a rare but severe allergic reaction. It ended up being way worse- she had taken eight of those miracle pills before the tournament and overdosed. When I got to the hospital, her left leg had shriveled, and her right looked like it had been thrown into a tank of aggressive jellyfish. I brought her a soft blanket from home to cover them.

Edith would need a prosthetic leg.

“So she won’t really recover then,” I asked the doctor in private.

“Depends how you look at it,” he said.

They didn’t know at that point just how things would shake out, but she would have to take rigorous physical therapy, and absolutely no weight lifting.

When Mark came to visit, Edith started bawling.

“You,” she said, pointing at him as he walked through the door. “We need to talk.”

He hadn’t brought anything to the hospital, never called me back either, just showed up unannounced three days later, wearing dirty work boots and overalls in one hundred degree weather. Lenni was also there for the second time, and had brought Edith several boxes of chocolate truffles she couldn’t eat yet. Lenni’s kindness made me nervous, but it seemed sincere, and there wasn’t anyone around to put on a show for, except for me and maybe the doctors.

“Who’s this fella?” Lenni chimed in.

Before Mark arrived, Lenni and I were watching Shark Tank with Edith. There was a guy trying to sell his custom cat drawings. We tried to feed her some of the chocolates but she just spit them out.

Mark looked shrunken, like he was trying to decide whether he should leave.

“Edith,” he stammered. “I’m sorry.”

“What am I missing?” Lenni barked. “You want me to kick this guy’s ass, Edith?”

I gave Lenni a dirty look.


“Is this why you are doing all this Christian bullshit? You think you’re powerful because you can force people to do things, huh? You get a rise out of it.”

His face turned red, his lip quivered.

She spit the little saliva she had at him.

“You need to leave,” I told him. I held her head, stroked her hair, pulled it out of a ponytail and slid the elastic on my wrist.

He started at me as if he just remembered I was there.

“I mean it. You aren’t welcome here.”

“Yeah get out, you perv,” Lenni barked. “Edith, I’m going to beat him up, don’t worry.”

Mark collapsed on the floor.

“Please, don’t tell mom or dad it would ruin them. I want to be saved. I’m trying. I want to be better.”

I pressed the nurse call button on the side of Edith’s bed. Edith’s breathing was getting shallower and her muscles were tightening into hard knots. I felt her shoulder clench.

“Hey man, you heard the girl. Leave,” Lenni said.

“If I could I would rape you right now. I will let mom and dad know what happened once I’m out of here. I don’t want them to live with the illusion that you are some saint. Go get some therapy, because God’s not on your side.

Oh I remember what you did, but I won’t talk to you or anyone about it. I’m not giving you that power over me. What’s done is done and I want you to leave before I make you. I haven’t seen you in years. You only want something to do with me when I’m weak. You are sick. I’m glad you don’t have a wife or kids because they’d be fucked.”

“That’s it,” Lenni growled. He stood up and threw a fist at Mark’s jaw. There was a loud crack and Edith gasped. Her heart monitor started beeping frantically and a panicked nurse rushed in and inserted an IV into Edith’s arm. A few other nurses and Lenni peeled Mark from the floor. He was sweaty and pale, and his jaw was already greying from the punch.

“I can take him out,” Lenni said to the nurses. “We need to issue a restraining order on this guy, for sure.”

Mark started thrashing, but he couldn’t talk. His jaw was dislocated and his words rolled out of his mouth without form.

Lenni patted Mark on the back, and escorted him to security.

“What a guy,” Edith growled, her eyes fluttering into a drug-induced sleep.

When Edith was in the hospital, I sorted the specifics out with Mark at a Starbucks. He cried in his latte and told me exactly what he did to her, how often, in detail and too loudly. It felt like the whole coffee shop was frowning at us.

“Edith isn’t going to forgive you. It’s not up to you anymore,” I told him, dizzy with power.

FavoriteLoadingSave This Story
Calley Nelson

Calley Nelson / About Author

> More posts by Calley Nelson