“Ollie, stop it. You’re rubbing yourself again. Stop it.”
This was how it began. Age six, barely weaned off the pacifier and there was little Ollie in his train-patterned pajamas, lying face-down beneath a baby blanket that ought to have been retired two years ago. He was short, so ostensibly he was covered, but his black hair stuck out from beneath the blanket and his buttocks jutted into the air; it hardly took any great powers of deduction to know what his hands were doing under there.
“Just at night, in your bedroom,” his father told him, “and just over your PJ’s, okay?”
Ollie nodded okay but ignored them. It was more satisfying to do in the living room because the couch armrest had less give to it and was more ideally shaped for humping than his bed upstairs. Plus, he figured that as long as he did it under the blanket, no one could tell what was happening.
Ollie’s parents were at pains throughout the first fifteen years of Ollie’s life to properly socialize their second son. He screamed and threw fits when they took him to preschool, had to be forced onto the bus to first grade, and withdrew completely during middle school to play video games alone in the basement. Once in a while, he had one friend, Chase, who’d come over and lurk around, but there was something unsettling about him. On optimistic days Ollie’s parents figured that one friend was enough. But whenever they asked, Ollie affected the starkest and most taciturn misery. They couldn’t press him too hard, either, because by then Ollie was already on antidepressants and liable to go off if he got upset, break his stuff or his fingers, slam doors or black out. Their three other sons and one daughter—scattered from ages six to seventeen, none so difficult as Ollie—would cower and make themselves very, very quiet when this happened. Ollie’s parents would feel alone in the house. At times, it was like having a ghost upstairs.
One summer when Ollie was eleven it’d been particularly bad, the other kids playing invisible in the living room while the middle child waged a solitary war against the rest of the world from his bedroom. Twice that summer, Ollie had broken his fingers with his bedroom door. The second time, his mother was standing in the hallway when he did it and heard the splintery crack. She didn’t know if it was the door or her kid or her spirit. Now, his whole family winced when they heard his door slam.
Once Ollie started high school—now an angry bundle of nerves more easily attributed to teenagerhood than madness—things got a little easier. Instead of yelling, Ollie stuck post-it notes to his bedroom door on the mornings he didn’t want to go to school and his parents left him alone. By November of his first year, it had reached the point at which Ollie’s father wouldn’t even knock on those occasions. Ollie, always awake, heard the creak in the hallway as his dad approached the door, saw the note, and then retreated.
At approximately the same time, Ollie’s parents decided that they no longer trusted Ollie’s one friend. Over the summer Chase had dropped almost forty pounds and grown his hair out. To his brothers and sister, “anorexic” became Chase’s primary adjective. “He counts his food,” Ollie’s mother said. “Like, I ate six french fries and three strawberries.” His sister said, “He’s weird,” then shivered and shook her head, and Ollie sensed agreement from the rest of his family.
At school, they actually didn’t hang out much. Chase started carrying a skateboard around with him everywhere he went. Ollie sometimes saw Chase in the parking lot practicing rudimentary skate tricks with his new outcast friendset. When Ollie stopped by, Chase barely acknowledged him.
Chase had recently stopped wearing socks, so his newly skinny legs went bare into his sneakers. Ollie liked to watch his ankles twist and flex as he tried to stay on the skateboard. But Chase wasn’t very good, and never managed it for long. The best part was the frantic little shuffle his feet did as he bailed out. Chase acted hard, but he scraped and bled easy.
Outside of school, Ollie and Chase found themselves pushed together fairly often by Chase’s mother, who believed that Ollie had some kind of positive influence on her son, while in fact, Ollie had no kind of influence whatsoever. The dinner-and-movie outings she orchestrated for them (and always chauffeured) felt like an act; Ollie and Chase no longer had much in common. When his mother was away in the bathroom (her breaks were frequent, she was trying to foster something false between them), Chase would make fun of her. “You know, Harriet wears a thong. A red one.” Chase called his mother by her first name. She only half-protested when she noticed.
While thinking of Chase and his calves and his uncovered, bony ankles, his feet and his viciousness, Ollie was better with his hands. At night, in his bedroom, he honed the manual techniques he’d been practicing for years. Beneath the comforter, he lay on his stomach, clenched his fists and shoved his hands down to his crotch, kneading up and down with his knuckles. He let his breath out slow, shallow and unsteady. He often fell asleep in this position. The sheets were always dry by the time he woke up.
Once on one of their dates, when Chase went to the bathroom of the Max & Erma’s, Ollie followed, stood behind him against the wall while Chase used the urinal. Chase was wearing a white wifebeater. Ollie watched his jutting shoulderblades. “I didn’t want to be left sitting alone with your mom,” Ollie said. He knew Chase would like hearing this.
Facing away, Chase finished urinating and shook out his penis, then tucked it into his jeans. He turned around zipping up. “You know I haven’t fingered Tink yet because of you, right?”
Ollie stood there, at a loss. Tink was Chase’s favored female acquaintance. They went to the same school, and Ollie saw her around sometimes, but he’d never really met her. Ollie didn’t know what Chase was talking about. His heart pounded. “Because of me?”
Chase came up and put his hand on Ollie’s shoulder. As far as Ollie knew, this was the first time Chase had ever touched him. The feeling was such that Ollie didn’t even consider the dick-germs on Chase’s fingers. Not until later.
Chase sighed, as world-weary and experienced as someone could be at age fifteen. “Yeah, Ollie. I have to be a good role model for you, don’t I?”
In March of his freshman year Chase got arrested for shoplifting and Ollie’s parents found out and forbid Ollie to see him outside of school. Ollie yelled and cried and finally shut himself alone in his room. This was okay with his parents. Ollie didn’t have a cellphone or a computer; in there, he could communicate with no one.
That evening, while the rest of his family was downstairs, in retaliation Ollie crept out of his room and put a post-it note on his parents’ bed telling them that he was gay.
When his parents came upstairs and found the note, they quietly breached his bedroom door to check on their most troubled son. Ollie pretended to be asleep. His mother whispered that she hoped he found someone nice, boy or girl. Ollie heard skepticism in her voice. He heard, “Not Chase.” He sensed his father in the doorway, unusually speechless.
After his parents had gone, infuriated by their lack of a hysterical response, Ollie climbed out of his bed and went to the door. He eased it open—it rattled if you pulled too hard—and wrapped the fingers of his left hand around the wooden frame. Gripping the knob, Ollie pressed the door closed, exerting more pressure as he felt his hand swell beneath it. He pushed his full weight into the door. He bit his lip and pushed harder. He imagined the door warping around the shape of his hand. He felt his fingers crunch and break. He moaned once, not loud enough for anyone to hear.
Mouth open, tears in his eyes, Ollie pulled the door back open and withdrew his left hand. He splayed his fingers in the air, held them rigid, like this could realign the bones. He collapsed on his back into his bed. He used the still-good hand to pull the covers over him.
Then, grasping the knuckles of his broken fingers, Ollie tried to force his left hand into a fist. Starting at the base, using his right palm, he bent his fingers down joint by joint, gradual and unrelenting. He screamed as he did so—a silent, awful scream, it seemed as if he were trying to swallow the entire earth. He thought his lips might split, he had his mouth so wide.
When the tips of his fingers grazed the palm, Ollie writhed onto his side, his knees bent towards his chest. His body shuddered with the pain. The headboard dug into the back of his neck. His balled hands met his legs in his lap. A strand of spit fell to the sheet, his forehead bloomed sweat. He rolled stiffly onto his stomach. He let out as little breath as possible. He shut his eyes all the way.
Ollie considered his confession to his parents. He imagined turning Chase around at the urinal and taking his cock into his mouth. He pressed his clenched fists into his crotch over his boxers and began to rub up and down, gingerly at first, then harder, the frictional method. He imagined fucking Chase in a stall. Chase’s arms and legs and chest were hairless. He was barefoot, and those ankles. Ollie cried from the pain. He bared his teeth against the sheets.
Over the sound of his breathing and his sheets and the fabric of his boxers, Ollie barely heard the click of bone as he broke his fingers further. He kept going, always harder. He imagined Chase sucking him off, Ollie throwing his head back and closing his eyes. Ollie thrusting forward. At the end, he felt a spasm, felt two bones displace one another, dampness. And at the end, he screamed. Aloud, this time.
Nowadays, occasionally one of his friends or a potential partner will ask him about his fingers, which he can’t make into a real fist and will never completely straighten out again. Rubbing the back of his left hand self-consciously, Ollie cites smashing them one by one with a hammer during his adolescence, says he misunderstood the definition of double-jointed, calls it love.