When he runs his finger down my spine, I don’t feel like bamboo. He doesn’t whisper ankylosing spondylitis in my ear, and I don’t find the name between the bed sheets, tangled up between our legs. But it’s started slipping out more now. Just the way he holds me at night, the way he’s so careful that his bones won’t grate against mine.
I drop a book in the stairwell, and he says, you look tired. I’m spending all my fatigue now, I say, so it’ll be gone later. He picks the book up and doesn’t run a finger down my spine that night. It could be worse, he says, like neurological complications and cardiac lesions. I guess I’m just lucky, I say, and he says, stop. What, I say, and he says, you know exactly what.
My boyfriend is funny like that, hiding the name and the symptoms in little places he thinks I won’t find. That’s why I love him—he makes me forget everything except his warm palms, lets me trace his life line and lets me say, that’s pretty long. Then I show him the line that’s supposed to be the Ring of Solomon, right by his index finger. He has one, and I don’t. I tell him, you’re so perfect that maybe one day I should just fuse right into you.
Crackle-frapple-Snapple and for my birthday he gives me one hundred bottle caps. One for each week we’ve been together, he says, and I pop the Snapple caps in and out. The tin airwaves bounce against my eardrums and beat out a rhythm. Maybe an African folk-dance, I say. What? His nose scrunches. Sounds like my bones, I say, and he says, stop.
We drive to Disney World that weekend. I’ve never been. We live in Atlanta, he says. It’s so close. I nod and we drive and we listen to techno because I once said it was good. Now I just hear the drums and in my lap I have my Snapple caps, all one hundred and there goes my bone. Which bone, he asks, and I say, it was a joke. Do you have aspirin, I say, and he says, wasn’t it a joke.
There’s aspirin in the trunk, in his suitcase, because he knew but he forgot to put it up front. Sorry, he says. I’ll pull into the next rest area. Fifteen miles of rattling smooth tarmac, and I count my bottle caps again, just to make sure they’re all there. Eighty-three, eighty-four, eighty-five and he says, we’re here. Eighty-six, I say, eighty-seven, eighty-eight, and he says, I’ll just get it.
One hundred and he’s back in the car and he hands me the aspirin bottle. I want to stretch my legs, I say. He drums his fingers on the wheel and says, okay. Take your time. Three aspirin and a fourth for good luck and I walk towards the bathroom. A cat sleeping in the shade of a tree stirs as I come near. It blinks and stands up, arching its spine in a yawn. Then it pads away nonchalantly, but I can tell from the way it holds its bones so tight and straight that it doesn’t trust me.
I don’t have to go, so in the bathroom I just wash my hands and look at myself in the mirror and think about what a nice face I have. There’s a crack in the mirror, running wide. I partition myself. Yes, what a terribly nice face.
Then a woman comes out of one of the stalls and looks at me real long and serious-like. Driving home, she asks, as if it’s any of her business, but I smile and say, no. Disney World.
I’m wearing jeans and a sweater that’s too big because it’s not mine. My smell’s not mine either—I used his Axe in the shower this morning, rubbed it into my skin as if it could make the inflammation go down. Then I stood in the shower for another ten minutes, ice-cold water pounding against my chest while I did my breathing exercises, trying to expand my ribs. Afterwards, I counted them, my ribs, just to make sure they were all still there. No one loses ribs, he said when I told him, and I sat down and counted them again.
You should check your ribs before they disappear, I tell the woman in the restroom, still smiling broadly. Make sure you count them twice. I’m gone before she can reply.
Back at the car and the aspirin is starting to kick in and I slam the door real hard. Here’s a confession, I say. I used your body wash this morning. Just don’t slam the door, he says, and laughs as if he doesn’t mean it. Doesn’t it smell good, he says, and I shake my head and figure he can’t see anyway because his eyes are on the road again and I say, hmm. Have you seen the new commercial with the astronaut in it, he says, and blinks right. He’s always using the blinkers, and no one here does.
We pass a truck on our left, an eighteen-wheeler with big blue lettering on it that says, Only the Best Deals! Lots of small script too but I’m too tired to read it all.
You mean the Axe one where the girl always falls for the astronaut, I say, instead of the fireman or lifeguard. He says, yeah that one. It’s great. I tilt my head to one side and twitch my shoulders in a semblance of a shrug. Can we listen to some RAM.
He puts on Daft Punk for me, and I sing to all the songs and make techno noises in the back of my throat where the phlegm usually catches. I guess this is why he thinks I like techno, but I swear it’s only DP. They make all my hot spots go cold for a few minutes, and that’s something.
I wish I could beat box, I say, and the rest of the four hundred and forty miles dissipate into the air. I watch them take to the sky like migrating birds, and I swallow two more aspirin before we get there. Don’t take too many, he says, but even he can hear my spine creak when I move. Like the tectonic plates of the Earth, I say. If you fall in between when they shift, you’ll be crushed. Isn’t that a proposed solution to nuclear waste, he says. Don’t worry, I say. It was a joke. My spine’s fusing so soon it won’t be able to shift anyway. What a funny joke, he says.
Outside, the world is fusing too. The soft shades of blue are going purplegrayblack, but not really black because even out here, where there’s just swamp and forest and the grass along the highway, even out here there’s light pollution somehow. I only see a few stars. I wanted more. I wanted a whole sky.
We pass lots of signs that read Disney World, and I say, do you have a lighter. I look in the glove compartment and pull out a pack of cigarettes. Thanks for buying Pall Malls, I say. They’re my favorite. I rattle the box. I don’t have a lighter, he says, and you shouldn’t smoke. I put an unlit cigarette between my lips and make brooding faces into the car visor mirror. The dim lighting throws me into ghostly shadows.
He almost misses the exit for our hotel, and it isn’t anything fancy. Across from it, there’s a mall and a sea of empty parking spaces. I want to park there, but he thinks I’m just being dumb because we can park right by our room’s door and we do. It’s not a very good spot, I tell him, and he carries my bag inside. I try to take his bag, but he catches my hand. Don’t break my bones, I say, and he says, that’s not even a symptom. He says it just like that and I want to hit him. I can carry my own bag, I say instead. He laughs and says, too late.
The room has a queen-sized bed and a TV and a bathroom. I lie down on the bed and stare at the ceiling and count the spots of mold. They’re small colonies, dime-sized and scattered, and I bet most people never see them. I bet most people just see the poster of the Disney Castle on the far wall. Kids must really love that stuff.
After dinner, I sit on the bed and practice breathing while he watches TV. I’m afraid sometimes that I might forget how to breathe, I say, and he says, don’t be so melodramatic. The doctor doesn’t tell you to practice, I say, because she knows you won’t forget. He says, this is why you shouldn’t smoke.
The next day we go to Disney World. The parking lot is already pretty full even though we’re early, so we park far away and he says, Saturdays are like that here. At least we can walk now, I say, but he points at the shuttle bus. I don’t want to walk, he says, and looks at my spine.
It’s not bamboo yet, I say, and when it is, I’ll feed it to the pandas. I start walking towards the Magic Kingdom, and he follows. Originally, I wanted to go to Epcot, but he said this was better. I think he meant tamer. I wonder if Disney has pandas.
Right by the entrance there’s a flower and shrubbery display of Mickey Mouse with a sign that says, Let the Memories Begin! and with a clock tower behind it that’s supposed to look very pretty when the sky is all blue. Today the sky is all blue. It makes me squint.
We spend the morning taking pictures with all the different Disney characters. He brought his camera and won’t let me take any of the pictures. Now it’ll just be a photo album of me, I say, and he says, of course not. He hands the camera to a nearby man in khakis and a Bermuda shirt and asks him to take our picture. That’s one, I say.
Don’t you think Bermuda shirts are ugly, I say while the man is still in earshot. I hope we never move down here. Or to Hawaii. I heard Hawaii’s even worse.
He rolls his eyes at me as the Bermuda man walks away. You’re the one who wanted the picture, he says, and I say, I prefer Bermuda fish. I prefer sharks, he says, and tugs at the edges of his button-down to straighten it. At least it’s short-sleeved, but sometimes I think he takes himself too seriously. Button-downs don’t belong in Disney World. I tried to tell him that back in Atlanta, when we were packing, but he said he liked feeling clean and fresh. As crisp as a bed sheet, he said, and I said, not a bed sheet after sex.
We get pictures with a Tigger who’s too happy and a Peter Pan who’s too tired and then Mickey and Minnie even though they have a big crowd around them by the fountain where we stop. For ice cream, he says, but he means to rest, and I say, ice cream will make me sick. So just a picture and now Goofy and Pluto and I’m hungry for lunch.
Let’s get burgers, I say, and he frowns. Won’t that make you sick. I’m not sick, I say, and he says, that’s not what I meant. You’re so nice, I say, that it’s making me sick.
We eat outside in the sun, and my eyes water a little because everything is so bright. The sun is reflecting off of the buildings in flashes. It would make anyone’s eyes water. He wants to sit in the shade, so I tell him, it would make anyone’s eyes water, it really would. Are your eyes red or in pain or sensitive to light, he says. Is your vision skewed. I say, you’re skewed.
To our left, there’s a group of middle-school kids sitting at a table. They’re fighting over the shade, and I point them out to him. He likes kids, but I don’t. They make me look old, but thirty’s still good and young, and at thirty, people shouldn’t have to count the ligaments in their spines. You’re always counting, he says. Maybe you should stop.
One boy’s elbow knocks over his friend’s French fries, and the other kid kicks him in the shin, but the fries are still on the ground. As if that solved anything. Look at them shoving, I say. What a waste of food. He says, you haven’t even eaten your burger, and I say, what’s your point. Let’s go to Space Mountain, I say, and he says, you should finish your food. Instead, I offer it to the trashcan, and that makes me feel normal. There are a lot of fat people at Disney, but there are a lot of skinny people too. It just looks like there are more fat people, because they take up more space, but I can always find the skinny ones, the ones that look like me, on the outside anyways.
I don’t think you should go, he says. Well, don’t come with me, I say, and he bites his lower lip. Go walk around, I continue before his lip can free itself of his teeth. Maybe you’ll get lucky this time and find someone who’s not dying.
He sighs impatiently. You’re not dying. I laugh, and I can see the building from here. It’s gray and white and looks like a UFO. I read about it online before we drove down. The best ride in the Magic Kingdom, and it’ll be dark enough inside for me to forget. The plummets will make my stomach lurch forward and crouch on the tip of my tongue, but I’ll think about astronauts and Martians and rockets to the moon and nothing else.
That’s how you act, I say, and he tells me to shut up. Next to us, the kids are still fighting and now there’s a small band of street performers starting to set up across the square. One guy is taking out a set of knives and someone else has the torches, and I wonder if anyone will still be able to see them burn in the daylight.
Do you ever listen to yourself, I say.
I said shut up, he says, glaring. The kids are quiet now, watching.
I’m going to Space Mountain, I say.
Fine. Have fun throwing up, he says, and I hate him for arguing with me so loudly that the kids stare, the fat people too. At Disney World, people don’t stare at you. At Disney World, everything’s supposed to be okay.
I won’t throw up, I say.
I’ll come, he says.
I’m not dying, I say. This fucking disease isn’t fucking fatal.
Some mothers are looking at me scandalized. The kids are gaping, their little mouths full of little white teeth and their jaws open. Sometimes, when I wake up, I can’t open my jaw like that. It can be debilitating, my doctor says as her list of my symptoms rattles through every bone, but luckily it’s nothing fatal.
My boyfriend’s just sitting there, staring at his half-eaten burger. He’s such a hypocrite. And I’m up now, standing and with my hands on the back of my chair to take the weight off my heels. I hate him even more for being right about something like that, for saying we’d better not walk too much and for massaging his overbearing love into my heels the night before, and none of that even worked and I bet it just kills him. I bet it just kills him to watch me walk, because he hasn’t helped at all. His love hasn’t helped at all, but here he is, trying to push it down my throat.
Don’t come, I say, and I leave and he stands there and I don’t look back but I know exactly what he’s doing, and he’s not watching.
He’s searching the ground for pieces of me, maybe for two fused vertebrae or a desirable chunk of chest pain or even the possibility of vision loss. If he finds them, he’ll come running after, through the bobbing heads crowned with Mickey Mouse ears and past the statue of Donald Duck. He’ll catch my arm and offer me another aspirin or something stronger like naproxen, which I know he keeps in his wallet for emergencies. Or maybe he’ll offer me a new joint, a whole set ripped from his own body, and I’ll think I need it, of course I will, because look at those kids over there, those girls with their supple spines and carefree smiles.