by Joe Baumann
Tobias Smallworthy stabbed himself in the eyeballs at Ada Warner’s annual kegger. He was perched on a leather sofa in the living room—the first of two living rooms, actually, both of which smelled of vanilla and Pine-Sol—while the hostess herself sat next to him. He’d been begged, pleaded, dared, and with Ada there he couldn’t say no. So when Glen Rosenberg ran in from the kitchen with a pair of forks, Tobias had no choice but to do it.
Not that it would hurt; these parlor tricks never did. And his vision would be fine, too, his vitreous humor, irises, and corneas all perfectly intact as the metal tines squelched out. He had to leave the forks in long enough for the girls in the room to scream and drop their drinks on the hardwood floor, the football players groaning and gagging and laughing and then hooting and slapping Tobias on the back, treating him like he was one of them and not just a gangly motherfucker whose limbs were too long and spindly to put on any serious muscle no matter how many pull-ups he did on the chin-up bar his father had installed for him in his bedroom door frame.
Ada Warner squeezed Tobias’ arm and asked in her husky smoker’s voice if he wanted to sit on the back porch on the wooden swing her father had hand-built years ago. Tobias nodded, trying not to look too much like a lapping, excited dog, and one of the linebackers slouched against the wall whistled a lazy catcall as Tobias and Ada marched out of the room. The partiers in the dining room and kitchen didn’t seem to notice them, and because a chill had descended into the late fall sky, they sat alone on the deck that overlooked the private lake behind Ada’s house.
Ada Warner confused Tobias. She was willowy and tall, her skin gold from laying all summer on the very porch he found himself with her now. The captain of the cheerleaders, she had long made it a point to only date boys who were not on any of the school’s athletic teams; the mathletes apparently didn’t count, as she’d reportedly snagged the virginity of Oliver Trenton, the captain, last year. Except for when she was smiling with bubbly vigor at crowds of fans at football games—go Hawkeyes!—Ada’s voice was low and even and sounded eternally uninterested in everything around her. Her blue eyes were sleepy, heavy-lidded and deep-set on a face that was all triangular cheekbones and crisp lines. She smelled like cedar from so many days lying on the deck, as if her own sweat and skin had been traded for the oils in the wood.
Tobias knew that the air was crisp like fresh mountain water not because he could feel it but because he understood the concept of cold. He’d seen his older sister come inside shivering after a five-mile jog, staying in shape through the winter for the first meets of the cross country season. His father and mother’s noses turned Rudolph red when they took turns de-icing the car after blizzards, and now Ada Warner was rubbing her hands against her arms and leaning toward Tobias for warmth.
“How do you do it?” she said. “What’s the secret?”
“No secret, really.”
“Are you like one of those Shaolin monks who can teach themselves not to feel pain?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I heard one of them figured out how to walk on water.”
Tobias draped his arm up along the back of the porch swing, inviting her to snuggle. He could feel the pressure of her body against his; he wasn’t totally numb to all sensation—he could taste food, for example (he loved his mother’s hamburgers; his father’s Brussel sprout casserole not so much), and he often felt the heat of embarrassment in his cheeks, like the time he was called upon in freshman algebra to complete a problem at the board while suffering an out-of-nowhere erection. He was sure everyone in the room could see it despite his attempts to adjust himself before he walked to the board, hand conspicuously punched into his left pocket. And when he and his sister, as children, had playfully wrestled in the basement—she was bigger than him by at least ten pounds even though they were only eleven months apart—he could feel the pressure of her buttocks on his chest when she sat on him in victory.
But often Tobias felt half full. He could hear the whisper of Ada’s exhaling and smell the funk of cheap beer as she breathed against his earlobe, a yeasty scent that reminded him of the boys’ locker room, where a vat of jock straps stank up the place during football season. But he couldn’t feel the warmth coming out of Ada’s mouth. He could only imagine the stickiness of her lips and the electricity of her fingers against his jaw.
Ada sighed. “This is my favorite time of year.” She gripped at his sweater and leaned on his shoulder. “You?”
“I don’t know,” Tobias said, willing his voice not to crack. “I kind of like summer.
“Mmm,” Ada said. “But so hot and sticky.”
He loved the extremes of heat and humidity of July and August, how they finally allowed him to feel something other than a moderate buzz on his skin. Snow barely tingled, and although his cheeks would chap and his lips go blue if he spent too much time sledding or marching through the white banks pushed up by plows, he could never feel. But the slobbering heat of summer! Like a dog’s breath covering your every inch. Even though Tobias only felt a moderate billowing warmth while everyone around him seemed to be roasting in a fiery oven, he still yearned for that stickiness, the sweet something of his skin baking, his body broiling.
Before he could speak, a pair of numbskull football players half-fell through the door to the back porch, giggling at one another as they came stomping over. Ada stood, the space where she’d been holding herself again Tobias suddenly gassy and vacuous.
“Ada!” one of them shrieked, his eyes wild and glossy. “Jennie just yakked on the dining room table. There’s vom everywhere.”
“What should we do?” the other one wailed, as if instead of puke they had discovered a mutilated body.
“God damn it,” Ada said. “They’re called paper towels, assholes. Jennie better be scrubbing that shit off as we speak. That table is unfinished birch wood and my parents will kill me if it’s covered in a puke stain.
And then she was gone, stomping inside, the football players following her like a pair of devoted mutts.
Tobias sniffled. When he was three years old, he fell from a swing in the park near his house and a thick woodchip jammed itself through the soft flesh of his hand, causing a strange penetrating sensation but no blood or injury when he extracted. Although Tobias was impervious to cuts, punctures, scrapes, external pain of any sort, his body made up for it with amplified illness: colds were snotty deluges, his nose pouring out mucous with bloody vigor; he was born jaundiced and, according to his parents, was the color of carrot juice when his mother squeezed him out. Sneezes came in blistering, bursting droves that lasted for several minutes and left him dizzy.
Inside the house someone fiddled with the sound system and a heavy rap song buzzed the bay windows behind him. He heard laughter, the clamor of voices, some group chant celebrating a keg stand or beer bong. The door to the back porch remained closed, the fall night quiet. Tobias ran his hand along the edge of the swing, then looked at his fingertips: tiny slivers were caught in the whirls and deltas and loops. He had no one to pluck them out.