Luke Wortley

I know my ribs by the way I curve inward. My deltoids are desperate for looser sleeves.

          I will eat honey and the bees with it, the stingers floating and landing and scratching the throat like stolen scotch. First I coat the stomach with the flesh of a clementine. I refuse grains of all length.

          Numbers flash between a caliper’s vice. This is commitment to sacrifice. Deprivation is an art.

          Everyone calls us wrestlers. They try to look away in the twilight of locker-room baying and can’t help but gawk at definition of stomach, the clear delineation between torso and hips, bulbs planted between thighs, hanging nervously. I feel the bark of bile cleaving my chest.

          Before, my father, the lawyer, slammed ham-steaks on the hotplate and pushed grits with every meal. When I joined the team, my heart palpitated over too many boys and girls actually living in their skin. The doctors clucked over my pericardium. When I got home, my father, the lawyer, dug through old files pecked out on a typewriter. I tried to stretch my skin over the habits of others. I sucked on thumbs of tobacco, dipped and spat. When he finally rose up from his desk, I was thin as a wedding veil, waist tightened to accommodate new forms of denial, pectorals flattened to gravestones. My friends and teammates ask me what it was like to have a heart work so hard. In response, I only talk of how low I can go.

          I love my weight class, and I love the pause of everything when I retch. Love the rippled backs of my teeth, the heat behind my ears. There is a sun the shape of a coyote in my sternum. The right pressure will split it into roadkill.

          Fourteen of us, otherwise known as Varsity. One-hundred-three thru two-seventy-five. Sacred numbers wisping in the bottom of trash cans. Tongue webs hiding the last of liquid ounces. Fourteen boys with cursive bones tangling in painted circles. Fourteen sidewinders, all upper body and bile.

          I am the mean one who grinds beak-like joints into the backs of opponents. All skeletal memory and black as wings flutter on the edge of my vision. In my spare time, I drag compass needles across my wrists. I can go lower. Can always define more.

          Once, during practice, I shot the most beautiful double-leg on my best friend and jackhammered us both into the mat, eyes swimming in twilight. There was so little water my brain crashed against my skull, recoiled into the spreading warmth of anger. Teeth rattled. But my body kept going in darkness. Fingers bent their way onto his wrists, rolling them between his cast-iron stomach into the ether of his hips where I reached again with my other hand. In the end, I was told that I let out a yell that rent the nests of throat muscle outward as a murder of crows left my mouth, circled the gym, and descended on my unconscious form. In the ambulance, I cannot say my friend’s name, cannot see my father’s hands, the two IVs crackling saline into my arms.

          Then a lifetime of never knowing the same fit of my hands in that craggy Adonis belt.

          I lost my ranking and my spot on the team but kept the number on the scale. Kept the wanting. So I got a job at a chain steakhouse walking through the scent of bread. There is so much blood on every plate. I let my palms be burned by those plates.

          During lunch period, I still suit up in double sweats, unfurl calisthenics in the showers on full blast. Water pools into six different drains that gurgle like a dying coyote. Water licks pounds into swirling memory as I slouch over the toilet and force the issue again with a curled finger stoking the coals in the back of my throat.

          Though injured and out for my senior season, I am flexible as a sea lion, tight as cords around an altar boy’s waist, strong as opium. Can still flip like a tumbleweed, cheat a hydration test on the right day with, even a clear cup.

          I never recover. The coyote and the birds and the orange zest seep from my rotting breath as I run my hands over my stomach, skipping over all that hard work as though trying to flatten a lake. There is no container too small for me, I think. I will learn words that nobody understands. Emaciated. Propitiatory. Corpulent.

          I watch the rest of them on match day as my hair falls out, drops like pine needles. I keep torqueing myself in lonely rooms, watching my tendons pile in the corner like palm fronds. And when the season is over, I sway down the hallway like a young ghost.

          I will grow up to be a writer and reject diagnosis even though I know the words. I will prostrate myself on the altar of concavity. I will get crow and coyote tattoos on my fading breastbone and keep myself sharp as a stick-up in lakewater. I will birth lumberjacks in my stomach and bid them hack until I can see the promising poke of their axes. I will search until I find a man with drum-tight skin stretching over his collar bone and lunar hip bones where my hands fit. To make it all worthwhile, to complete the cycle, I will wring out the last bit of air. I will lay myself on a table, give blood to free me of my excess. There is always more to lose.


Luke Wortley is a writer living in Indianapolis, Indiana. His fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in monkeybicycle, Hobart, Best Microfictions, Pithead Chapel, The Florida Review, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He also has a chapbook entitled PURGE coming out later this year (2022) that centers on disordered eating, male bodies, body dysmorphia, and the intersection of those things with closeted bisexuality. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeWortley) or visit https://www.lukewortley.com/

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