My first visible self was skeletal. An ultrasound exposed the echoes of my floating bones. The screen showed the topography of the ethereal, the mercurial sweep of stratocumulus shadows over windblown seas. My mother recalls watching sound waves cast shifting images, mapping the supple curve of spine, tiny spindles of rib cage, long bones forming to supplant cartilage.
I was a vertebrate mystery, a moving picture in black and white with a rapid-fire heart. Did she pray then? Holding her breath, the hot dryness of nerves upon her tongue, listening to the pulsing, and waiting in the darkness to see what I would become. The pliable configuration of my bones underwater suggested possibilities—a frog, a bird, a dinosaur.
To share their good news, my parents gave my dad’s mother, Loretta, a photo album called “Our Grandchild.” She found the gift confounding at first, impractical, but then a tear slipped down the side of her nose, prompting her to pull a crumpled tissue from the pocket of her sweater when she realized the promise of photos not yet taken.
I filled the album sooner than expected, born six weeks early. Still in a state of flexion, my four-pound body warmed in a glass case under blue lights. I was a convex curve upon my mother’s forearms, the firm parallels of radius and ulna. Her hands cupped my head, because my neck could not yet bear its burden.
Crisscross, applesauce, spiders crawling up your back, spiders crawling down your back. Cool breeze, tight squeeze. Now you’ve got the shivers. A snapshot [End Page 1] shows a minister sprinkling holy water upon the still-soft crown of my head, murmuring sacred words while my parents and grandparents look on. When I began crawling, the pressures of locomotion eased my spine into three elongated curves.
A chain of tickles, in grade school we sat cross-legged all in a row, rhyming fingertips across backs and doubling over in fits of giggles.
At my grandmother’s house, I perched on the wooden armrest of her recliner with my back toward her. She settled into its ribbed chenille upholstery and the soft pillows that cushioned her rheumatic joints. I unclasped the metal hooks of family photo albums and paged through photographs in plastic sleeves, prompting her for stories. As she spoke her history, and mine, she counted down my bones.
She commenced at the top of my neck and traced the knobby buttons of my vertebrae one at a time, interlocking protrusions, winged like the silhouettes of seagulls in flight. She read my spine like some women pray rosaries or read palms. Her words were calcium. My spine was a rocky range cresting above the smooth planes of my back; her arthritic fingers flew from peak to peak fortifying, an act of faith, a quiet blessing.
Sometimes while I ate breakfast, I read school science supply catalogs between bites of cereal, picturing myself in high school, seated on a lab stool and adjusting a Bunsen burner. My mother brought home stacks of these catalogs each year during an annual sales project. We laughed at images of her coworkers posing as teachers and high school students. I licked my thumb and searched the pages of product descriptions for a picture of her wearing a white lab coat and eye protection. Elated when I finally spied her, my mother, the executive assistant with highlighted hair mushrooming above the green elastic band of her safety goggles, whose petite frame helped her pass as a student. I noticed the focus of her eyes, attentive to the test tube in her hands, and imagined the science teachers who would flip these pages, mark the product numbers down on a purchase form, and mail their orders to my mother.
I studied the image of a life-sized skeleton, supported by a metal rod and made mobile by swiveling casters. The description of the 67-inch body promised [End Page 2] a jaw-dropping, spring-mounted mandible and 206 individually articulating bones. I bounced my jawbone up and down between slurped bites of milk and Cheerios...