Some time after her third birthday, Maria’s parents noticed her tongue poking lazily out of the corner of her mouth, like a French bulldog’s sometimes does. Her father held her chin in his hand, his own head pulled back, eyes narrowed, and turned her face back and forth.
“Stop it, daddy,” Maria said with a light lisp.
“You’re hurting her, George. Stop.” Her mother said. “It’s only the tip.” She cocked her head at her daughter and brushed her hand over her cheek. “It’s just fine.”
But they made a doctor’s appointment.
Maria was in the ninetieth percentile for height, just under seventy-five in weight, and her head size was a nearly perfect ninety-eight percent. They had nothing to worry about, the doctor said.
It was true. She was bright eyed, articulate, and didn’t squeeze the cat too hard when she cuddled him.
Maria’s mother, a librarian, read Maria fairy tales about ogres and witches and animals who spoke. She said that all of the earth’s creatures were different and special, including her.
Her father, an engineer, designed systems for waste disposal at poultry processing plants, which Maria knew from her father’s repetitive explanations, meant uncollected blood, solubilized fat, urine and feces. His primary purpose was to detect anomalies in the system.
“Sometimes you don’t want anomalies in systems,” her father told her, “and other times, anomalies are what makes something absolutely perfect.”
He smiled when he said this, and she believed him.
As Maria grew older, her mouth managed to make accommodations for the oversized muscle, something she allowed to curl up and rest lazily behind her bottom teeth, like a sleeping snake or the tentacle of an octopus. She learned to breathe around that bulge. How to breathe deeply. Her lisp was hardly detectable by the time she was thirteen, and what was left of it had become something others found charming.
When Maria was fifteen, her best friend Shelly made out with one of the line-backers of their high school football team underneath the bleachers, after the Friday night game. The air was smoky and dark. Maria followed everyone else to the parking lot and stood under one of the remaining street lights, bouncing on her toes with her arms wrapped tightly around her chest to keep warm. She remembered having to layer her clothes underneath her Halloween costume a few years earlier when she and Shelly dressed as phones they made out of giant card-board boxes they spray painted silver and white. It had been Shelly’s idea, but Shelly said they were too old to trick-or-treat now.
The next time there was a home game, Shelly said it was time Maria made out with someone too, and she knew just who. Their friend Samantha, who played flute with the band at home games, knew that Joey Peterson, a short trumpet-player with big brown eyes, liked Maria.
Maria took off her thick knit beanie with the giant red pom as she followed Shelly, Carl the line-backer, and Joey under the bleachers. Even though it was too dark to see anything, she held the shameful hat her mother had knit for her when she was twelve behind her back. Shelly and Carl wandered to the far end where they couldn’t be seen, and Joey turned to her.
He took the bill of his baseball cap and turned it around backward.
“Hey.” He smiled.
She could see his white teeth and the whites of his eyes in the sliver of moonlight that had found them between slats of metal. Above them someone jumped, piercing the air with a tinny, hollow screech.
Joey stepped forward, placing his small hand on her cheek and opened his mouth as if preparing to eat her. Maria swallowed laughter as he dove up, pressing his soft lips against hers. She gasped as a charge ran down her neck and up her arms. The wet lump of his tongue pushed on her. He had a grip around her waist with the hand that wasn’t attached to her face, like one of those sticky jellied hands she used to throw at the wall as a child.
Maria breathed through her nose and unfurled her unique appendage into Joey’s mouth. It took up too much space, overflowing the tops of his back teeth, dangling down his throat. She opened her eyes and saw his staring back at her as she retracted her tongue. He closed his eyes and came at her again with his open, too wet mouth, and this time she was careful to put only a little bit in at a time. She let him lick small, slow circles around the tip of her tongue until the electric charge came back warming not only her arms, but the entire back of her skull. As the warm buzz spread throughout her body, her tongue became swollen, denser. It pulsed like the eye tick she sometimes woke up with in the morning. A blanket of papillae rose, like a thousand little erections on its surface. Again, she filled his mouth, and this time each individual papilla opened up, like flowers to the sun. A host of suction cups which attached to the pink flesh inside his cheeks and the matching gums under his teeth.
Joey coughed and pushed her away so hard that she stumbled backward.
“What the fuck?”
She squeezed her beanie tightly.
“Sorry,” she shrugged, looking down.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said and turned.
Joey never tried to kiss Maria after that, and she didn’t try to kiss anyone else. When she and Shelly started going to parties and drinking their sophomore year, Maria made a few attempts with some of the awkward skater boys she thought might be more understanding than the jocks Shelly went for. But after a couple of beers that thing inside her mouth took on a life of its own. The boys pulled away from her, shaking their heads as Joey had. Then she begun to notice guys in the hall at school, and at other gatherings giving her quick, furtive looks as she passed them by.
She wanted to explain to Shelly what was going on. They were in Shelly’s basement eating Twizzlers and watching animal planet.
Shelly howled and slapped her leg as the narrator explained how a male honey bee drone’s dick explodes inside the queen after fertilization. Maria tried to imagine what an explosion down there might feel like.
“And then he dies,” Shelly screamed. “Can you imagine? I’d have to make my way through the whole football team!”
Maria looked at her, and Shelly shoved her in the shoulder. “Just kidding. I’m not that big of a whore.”
Then she smoothed out the blanket they were sitting under.
“You haven’t done it yet, have you?”
Maria shook her head and looked across the room as her stomach grew queasy. I’m not even sure I have the kissing part down, she tried to tell Shelly through ESP. But Shelly shrugged and shook her head and took a giant bite of Twizzler.
“You’re not missing much. I think it’s supposed to get better in your twenties.”
When Maria went away to college her sophomore year, she met Nate at a kegger. She saw him across the room slouching his long torso over the beer-pong game he was lazily enthralled in. Dark, gelled spikes of hair caught a faint glint from the subdued overhead light. She recognized him from her Psychology 205 class, and when he looked up briefly from his game, she smiled.
Alone, on a stained couch on the front porch, she and Nate talked about how fascinating human interaction was. She told him how interested she was in mental illness and disabilities. Maria used to watch the town crazies and homeless people at the library where her mother worked. She wanted to help people like that someday.
When she stared into Nate’s amber-brown eyes, they sparkled, reminding her of her old dog’s soulful eyes.
She wanted to tell Nate that she loved him.
They kissed that night right on top of an old beer stain, and when her tongue came out, Nate flinched at first. Maria pulled back and berated herself silently, preparing to be left alone on the couch. But he took her chin in his hand and leaned forward slowly. Maria told herself “slowly” in her head, over and over, so that she almost was not even present for the kiss, but she finally managed to gain some control over that beastly protuberance.
Back in Nate’s room she found herself wanting to go further, to explore the capabilities of what had laid dormant for so long inside her mouth. They both undressed. Carefully, she unwound her tongue, that extension of her innermost being, and dragged is steadily over nearly every inch of his body, landing for the longest time on his steely, if thin, dick, like it was a long, cherry-flavored flag pole. She grew and hardened slightly. She concentrated on slowly. As each papilla blossomed and sucked onto his flesh, he cried out a little, but when she breathed out and relaxed, each little sucker released a bit too. She was able to slide, before another suck and pull.
When she was done Nate said, “I think I love you,” and her heart flared as she giggled.
His attention was a drug. It was power. And she had a bottomless account with which to attain it.
Just before Christmas break, Maria met Nick at the local bar where all the students hung out, and they accepted her fake ID. She was on her way to the bathroom when a guy with buzzed hair and tattoos almost hit her with the back of his pool stick. When she came out, he was watching her. Maria could see that underneath his snug fitting black tee-shirt he was more built than most of the boys she went to class with. He kept his eyes on her, and once she stepped past him, he said, “Hey.”
When she turned, he asked her name. He said it back to her, “Maria,” and his deep, gravelly voice rooted her to the floor. It was like no one had ever called her by her true name before, or even saw her, and she blushed. His voice scared her, but she wanted to hear more words come out of his mouth.
She asked his name before continuing to her table of friends, and she noted that it began with an “N,” and wondered if that meant something. Maybe boys whose names started with “N” were particularly attracted to her.
She thought that she must’ve made a mistake about her feelings for Nate when she followed Nick out of the bar that night.
Nick was twenty-five. He had a room to himself in a house. In his room there was an electric guitar, a chess set, and books on a shelf whose names she couldn’t make out in the dark after four beers and the shot of whisky she’d taken with him. His mattress sat without a frame in the middle of the room.
When she pulled out her tongue he said, “Holy shit.”
Walking back to campus the next day, she imagined sitting on Nick’s front porch playing chess and talking about the scholarly books she imagined had been on his shelf. He’d mentioned working on cars. She pictured the two of them in the future surrounded by a small collection of rare, glistening sports cars. They would take them on winding country roads, and even though she was normally terrified of going fast in any manner, she knew her shrill screams would enamor him as he squeezed her thigh and stepped on the gas.
Her head grew lighter as she walked, like a helium balloon, so that by the time she reached her dorm, her feet were barely touching the ground.
Nick did not call Maria all week, and she’d begun losing sleep. On Friday her roommate offered her a Xanax after class, but she said, “No thanks,” and instead sucked violently on a lollipop.
That night she met her friends at the same bar. Nick was there, and they went back to his house.
A few weeks after the new year, Maria had still not broken up with Nate. In addition to Nate and Nick, she had begun making out, sometimes going further, with other guys. None of their names started with N, but they distracted her from her obsession with Nick and her reluctance to honestly consider Nate. They seemed drawn to her the way she was to pink cotton candy as a child, and she often found herself compelled to say, “I love you.” It seemed like she had them under her thumb, so why not level the playing field. It gave her a thrill to be so vulnerable, to let someone know they had trapped her and she was willing prey.
One morning, however, she found herself pounding her head against the wall, remembering that the night before she’d been in love with a biology major from Maine with metallic breath and toenails that scratched the tops of her feet when he moved over her. Why did she have to say those three idiotic words, fling them around like confetti, draping every guy in her over enthusiasm.
Nate finally caught her making out with someone else at a party and broke up with her. They continued hooking up, though not as often.
After sex one night with Nick, as she lay between the crook of his arm and his chest avoiding the urge to bury her nose in his salty, grimy-sweet skin, she casually said, “I finally broke up with Nate.”
“Congratulations,” he responded before climbing out of bed to pee.
Nick loved Maria’s freakish tongue as much as every guy did. When he wanted her to bring is out, really bring it out, because she had become so adept at controlling it she could choose to keep it restrained like a normal person’s, he said, “Show me your magic,” and Maria thought he meant, “You are magic. You are my magic.”
When he said those words, Maria felt powerful again.
Finally she could no longer contain herself and told Nick she loved him. When he only said back, “Show me your magic,” she understood this as “I love you too.”
It was mid-spring, and Maria’s intimate sessions with Nate were growing scarce. One day she saw him standing with his hand up against a wall, hovering over another girl.
That afternoon when she arrived back at her empty room, she flopped down on her bed and began scratching at her legs between the ankles and the knees. Her shins had become suddenly enflamed with the desire to be clawed. She told herself she didn’t care that Nate was with another girl. She didn’t really. But her stomach pulled back at the word’s Nick would not say, and what that meant. She didn’t really have him. She didn’t have Nate anymore either.
As Maria scratched her legs, she thought that her power might have weakened. Maybe it was fading away. Something felt different between her and Nick. She thought about guys like the biology major and scraped harder. Desire was such a tricky thing.
Maria scratched the length of the flat bone of her shin in long, deep strokes. She dug her nails into the flesh behind the backs of her ankles. The harder she dug, the more the boys dissolved from her mind. She scratched both legs at the same time, and then she focused on them individually. She cried out in pleasure as her nails raked across her skin.
After, she remembered scraping her nails down a small toy chalkboard as a child. That terrible, dry screech seemed to emit a black shadow from underneath her fingernails. Once, her father walked into the room with his face twisted and scolded, “What are you doing?”
Scratching was not something you were supposed to do, yet Maria couldn’t help herself.
In the evening she went to the bar where she met Nick even though it was Thursday, and they only ever hooked up on Friday. But he was there, and she went home with him, and with no more than one beer in her belly, she felt drunker and freer than she had in months. In the morning when she was pulling up her skirt, Nick narrowed his eyes at her from where he was sitting on the foot of the bed.
“What the fuck happened to your legs?”
Maria looked down. Her skin looked like little cars had been peeling out, leaving bubble gum pink and red tracks dotted with little scabs up and down her lower legs.
“Oh,” she placed her hands over her shins and looked at him, shrugging. “I guess I scratched them.”
She finished dressing quickly, and said she had to get to class.
In the shower that night the itching feeling returned more intensely, like a baby screaming that she had to shut up. The itching was somehow more urgent, the scratching more satisfying now, under the hot water. She had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. The more she dragged her nails across her skin, the better she felt. Like stars exploding out from her legs, leaving the rest of her body tingling.
The weather was warm, so she dressed in linen pants or old, light-weight sweats that hid her legs.
On Tuesday she vowed not to scratch any more, in hopes that they would clear up by the time she saw Nick on Friday. She tried slapping them, twisting them in her hands like she and her friends had done to each other’s arms as children. She flicked her nails over them lightly and applied cream. They began to heal. But after a few days, she would start in again.
Maria stopped hooking up with other boys. She was busy with finals, and to be honest, growing bored.
At the end of finals week, Nick told Maria that he would miss her when she went home for the summer. He looked deep into her eyes and she thought he really meant it.
“You should come visit me,” she said. “It’s only a three-hour drive. We could get a hotel room.”
“Yeah.” His eyebrows raised as he nodded slowly. A small suck in Maria’s belly told her the thing her mind and heart did not want to know.
When Maria arrived home in mid-June, she’d forgotten how much she missed her mother, and let herself linger in a hug. Her parents took her out to dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant, and she told them about all of her classes, and her friends, but not about any guys. They did not ask about Nate, whom she had mentioned over Christmas break.
That night, back in her childhood bed, she felt embryonic and safe. She forgot all about her legs and considered summer jobs she could apply to, and which high-school friends she would call the next day.
Dreams were beginning to creep into Maria’s head when she rolled over and the coarse bedsheet brushed across her calf, charging it like a lightning bolt.
This was no surface itch. This was beyond one hundred of the worst mosquito bites. Maria’s legs burned deep within, begging for her nails to dig into the flesh, to scrape out and release what was inside. She imagined the exterior of her legs as she scratched, first the dusty layer of dead white skin cells that gathered and flaked off, then the pink flesh underneath, and finally the red. She imagined the gnarly raised bumps and slices that would appear from the sharp edges of her unclipped nails. But she knew the skin was just a surface thing, would never be deep enough. She fantasized about scraping her sinewy muscle free of skin, and then digging her bone out of the bondage of muscle, and finally chiseling right into the bone, into the marrow. She wasn’t going to attempt to stop any more. She would continue to scratch until she reached the source.