The problem started when he couldn’t feel his fingers. He thought it was the weather, the cold, but it was something else. His fingertips were white.
“They look flat,” I told him. I picked up his hand, drawing the fingers closer to my eyes: they were harder than flesh, as if the skin had calcified, salt bodies rising out of the Dead Sea. I tapped a few fingers with my own. They were like a buttery marble that could be scraped and spread. I tapped his pointer finger with the nail of my thumb, pressing in lightly. “Does that hurt?”
He shook his head, giving me a grimace, fear widening his features like an empty headline. His breath was heavy. His eyes became full.
“It must be the weather,” I told him, squeezing his hands in mine, turning them over to kiss his palms. “A little numbness is normal this time of year. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
We went to the hospital. I drove him and waited in the lobby, ripping through magazines to find any image to replace the white fingertips. A snowy vista, a coconut cake, the shaggy hair of an aging man: anything to take the image, anything to absorb it. His whiteness kept fingering my brain, poking the back of my eyes. I imagined his fingerprints disappearing, eventually rubbing off on my skin. His touching me would become foreign.
There must have been a problem with his diet, the doctors told him. An imbalanced diet can contribute to poor circulation and numbness, both of which can desaturate the skin, causing a paleness. It could be diabetes. He waved pills at me as we drove home from the pharmacy. “My diet is fine,” he said. “I don’t have diabetes.” He whispered the words to himself over and over again as the cold sun set. He didn’t have diabetes. He was right about that.
He started wearing gloves. I didn’t notice them at first, but they became more apparent as warm weather approached. “I just don’t want to look at them,” he explained. Understandable, I admitted, but it all became so bizarre when he wore them to bed. They were black leather and felt like the bare stomach of a dog on my chest every night. He wrapped his arms around me and I too became clutched, gloved. There was a comic, dormant kinkiness that was untouched between us.
Then came the shirts and the socks. Long sleeves, at all times, increasingly odd as spring was firmly upon us. The socks weren’t as strange since he always had cold feet, something I’d joked about since we first met.
That stopped. The gloves, the shirts, the socks wrapped him in himself, containing his body as he stored himself away from the world. He resonated a strange warmth, becoming a soft radiator. After weeks of this, after being “so cold” for so long, I confronted the normalizing and demanded an answer in bed. What was the problem? If you won’t be yourself with me, you won’t be yourself with anyone. What are you hiding?
He froze, his back fused to the headboard. A socked foot twisted around the hem of flannel pajama pants. These, too, were new. We always slept in our underwear.
“I’m cold,” he shrugged.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not lying,” he said. He sniffed away the tips of teardrops.
“If you aren’t telling me your problems, I know you’re not telling anyone.” I put one hand on his shoulder and the other on his sternum, pressing into his bony chest. “You have to tell me.” Then I was sniffing. We hugged. His face was smooth, no stubble against my neck. “We’ve been through worse. We’ll get through this.”
He nodded his head. He was fully sobbing.
I grabbed his gloved hands and squeezed. “We’ve gotten through worse,” I repeated.
He pulled away, staring at gloved palms before hiding them in one big fist, a hand within a hand. “I don’t want to.”
“Please.” I placed my hands over his. “I promise you’ll feel better. We don’t keep any secrets from each other.” I lowered my head to his, settling into his eyes. “Remember?” I noticed his twinkle was missing. The glacial blue of his eyes had faded, melting down his cheeks. The way we looked at each other, my favorite part of his body, was turning white too.
He stared beyond me. There was the briefest nod and he tugged off a glove at the fingers. He covered the tips with his other hand before making a fist. He shook his head. “I don’t want to,” he said. He had become a child before me. “Please.” He looked up at me. “Don’t make me.”
I was scared. I didn’t want to see them. I didn’t want the image of him to decay any more, but I knew that he would do this for me, he would push me to open my body to him, to share in the tragedy as it unfolded. This would bring us together, he would say. I grabbed his confidence and reached for the sleeved forearm of his ungloved hand. I held the ungloved hand until his grip loosened, the fist readying to bloom in my palm. He closed his eyes, tears dropping into his lap. “Show me,” I told him. He nodded, revealing tan hands ending at white tips. Like the ocean receding from the land, his skin—his flesh—was pulling away from the underlying skeletal system. There was no blood, there were no wounds. It was all so clean, like the dark brown tip of a sharpened pencil, a speck of irregularity that made all the difference. It was like he was starting to turn to chalk.
I dropped the hand and covered my mouth, trying to swallow the shriek before it jumped out of me. He withdrew, pulling his knees to his chest and rocking.
“We—” I began, blinking, lost in our bed. “—We have to do something.” He was trembling, far away from the world, in emotions. I was not helping. “We have to tell someone,” I said. I leapt out of bed and he told me to stop, that he’d made calls, he’d talked to people, that no one knew what was happening. Save for seeing a doctor himself, he hadn’t found an answer—and he refused to see a doctor.
“I’m turning to bone,” he sobbed. “My hands, my feet. I can’t feel them.”
I placed a hand on his shoulder. He seemed so much smaller than I remembered. I may have been imagining, my mind projecting this small problem onto his entire body. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m gonna die. I know it.”
We didn’t tell anyone for months. No friends, no family. We took vacation days, we worked from home, we did nothing but wait in our house, watching, looking for what his body would do next. We anticipated a time when his skin would creep back over the exposed interior, the wrongness of him righted as if pushing a rewind button. That didn’t happen. As the heaviest and hottest parts of summer bore down, his hands were bare. His feet, to the tarsals, were revealed. He could still move his hands and feet in uncanny gesticulations that reminded of living skeletons, of Halloween come early. He was still alive, unpained, just beginning to become unfleshed.
He said it didn’t hurt. He told me repeatedly. His tears of increasing rarity only came when something beloved—the tip of my name tattooed on his forearm, a childhood scar on his heel—disappeared, exeunting as the understudying bone replaced it. There was no sensation to these parts, but the emotional loss filled in his blanks. I would inspect him in these moments, assuring that everything was fine. He was unchanged. Just a little different looking. We all die. This was expected, in a way. We said this but never meet eyes as we tried our best to ignore the reality. I patted the bones. I poked them. I draped them in a wet cloth, to keep them hydrated. The soft, firm whiteness was beautiful, almost inviting in their novelty. I was careful not to chip at them, to take any part of him away despite the childlike temptation to spread him, to see if he could write in white on the sidewalk or break him between my teeth.
We mostly sat around these days. I tried to work but idled at my computer, telecommuting in failure. He lost his job, forced to resign after refusing to come in, getting severance and sick leave in solidarity. They wanted him to get better but they couldn’t sustain him without a valid medical justification. Friends felt the same. We staved them off until many of them abandoned us in our distance. They wanted to help, they offered dinners, only for us to demure their kindness. We ate and drank and participated in life at a minimum from within our home. Everything was normal, albeit lonely and on a tighter budget, until he was confronted with his fading body. Then, he’d lose it.
“I’m disappearing,” he cried. “What is happening to me?”
This was just the new normal, I said. We will work through it. Our thoughts evolved though. The death was less scary than the living. We wanted to think it was going to stop at the forearms, at the ankles, that his bones would become cute accessories for fall. We’d show his skeletal hands to children all October. That was a fantasy. His body continued on and we were left with questions that were more searing than we were prepared for. What would happen when his face went? Would he be able to talk? Would he be able to eat? What about his legs? Would he eventually be unable to walk? What about his… parts? When he was unable to go, what would happen to his waste? If he was still here, without any of the senses, without any marks of humanity, was he still alive? Would he ever die?
The holidays stared us down, answerless, from weeks away, the closing of the year a dark drain we slid toward. He was in a catatonia, a flatness. I cried at his feet, begging for him to do something. I craved help, for a support system, for anyone else to speak to or to share this with. We were isolated. I was becoming nothing too.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt. We will be okay.” I looked up at his face, meeting his entirely white eyes. I wanted their brightness to consume me.
His concession was that we’d tell our families after refusing holiday invites, after nearly a year away from them. We explained our silence and our reluctance, defining the many distances we had kept within the year. We explained the bones for what felt like the first time, as if we had just discovered this problem in sharing it with others. This new context brought new fears, both obvious and not.
For example: his parents were horrified and disturbed. They wanted us to keep our distance, to never see them again, to not “spread” what we had to anyone. This was anticipated, a sour validation of our living with bones. This was how we felt we would have reacted if we encountered others with this problem. This was what we assumed a normal reaction would be.
Then there were my parents. They gave us support. They admonished our stubbornness. I admonished their insensitivity and told them we needed time. We would reach out once we knew that everything was okay. I wanted them but I wanted him more. As the slightest of brightness shone on our lives, his ball sockets were revealed. Perhaps they would have insisted more, had gotten on planes and in cars, if I were the one turning to bone. Instead, they respected our wishes and stayed at a reasonable distance.
He spent most of his time in the living room, seated upright, never moving, as to not become dust from the friction of unmuscled bone moving on unmuscled bone. He explained that he was trying to see all he could out the window before his eyes disappeared. He had me play music from when we dated, from his college days, from his childhood. He was trying to lock them in his skull. I read him books and, sometimes, we watched an old movie. We looked at a lot of pictures. He no longer ate food since it would end up unprocessed in his lap. He was balding. A small white cap revealed itself on his crown.
“I want to experience my life before it’s gone,” he told me, his voice starting to wheeze. “That’s all I have left.”
I tried to convince him to travel, to leave the house, to make this wish more robust. “For us,” I explained.
He shook his head no. “I’ll break.”
As a new year came, as we were deep in winter, his late stages set in and he lived under a blanket. His face became a trace, the outline for a more detailed sketch that would never be filled in. I examined him daily to find his lungs, his beating heart, his chest escaping at the ribs.
I knew what would come next. It was obvious: he would slow to a stop. Parts of him would disappear until he was strictly skeletal and, even then, maybe that would disappear. He would seem permanently undressed, stripped to his most basic. It was devastating, but it was the inevitable ending, what we had been waiting for, our questions about his destination finally answered. But there were surprises to be found here, involuntary twitches and spasms in parts of his body that I had resigned to senselessness. Perhaps the death he was experiencing was different, a locking into life instead of a locking out of life. Perhaps he would remain, haunting what was under the skin. I would have him forever as a physicalized feeling.
“Don’t move me,” he began his final monologue, his breath and words becoming soft clicks in a fading, dry gurgle. I watched his face, staring at the holes in his cheeks, trying to read his teeth. I held his hands, the bones worn from my holding them for months. If any part of his bones would disappear, it would be his hands from my touch. “Leave me here.” He couldn’t see me, he couldn’t hear me, but I told him I would. I squeezed his hand so faintly as he squeezed back with an intensity I hadn’t felt in months, as if he had stored up all his power to grasp me despite lost senses. He sputtered a last cough into a laugh. “Like a plant.” We giggled and cried. The shine of his deflating brain glistened in winter light. “I’ll be here.” He squeezed my hand, tight, the pulsing beat of his disappearing heart into my palm. “Love,” he said. “You.”
I squeezed back, opposite the pulse, giving him my own. The words stumbled out of my mouth as an echo—“Love you, too.”—and I sat there with his bones as he kept squeezing and squeezing and squeezing. I didn’t want to let him go. I watched him for hours. His grip sustained, flat but full. I watched and waited for him to disappear, as if he would. But he was still there, squeezing my hand, just bones with less and less flesh.
I let go of him after two days of staring at what was his body, in his chair, looking over the front of the house, out to the street, down the hill, into town, to valleys of the faded green beyond. I slept and cried and slept and cried. I called family to let them know.
For weeks, I would wake up covered in sweat and race to check on his body, the bones, to find him in his chair, waiting for me to join him in his ongoing wake. These weeks faded to months, to a comfortable indefinite of my stumbling upon his body in shock, every encounter a resetting of the surprise that he was neither here nor there, as if I forgot this happens to everyone in a way.
It always seemed like he was sending me signals through his bones. I’d find his hand still pulsing slowly, grasping, a suggestion that he was somewhere, traveling within. Sometimes both of his hands pulsed in sequence. Sometimes a hand pulsed to a beat that was opposed by the other. Sometimes bony toes tapped against the hardwood floor. Sometimes an arm raised. Once, he stood.
I treat the bones like they are a complete body. I speak to them and show them things. I play them music. I treat them as I treat everyone else because, after all, we have bones in us as well. What’s different is that his bones feel like they are a channel, this strange machine that I hope will return his flesh like leaves and flowers after a long winter. Sometimes I squint and pretend that the blur of eyelashes, eyelids, and tears are his body returning to me. That never works.
I have my time with him. I sit with him when I wake up and before I go to sleep. I hold his hands and he holds me back. I put his vacant squeezes to use. Wherever he is wandering, he pauses for me, taking a break from ticking and counting and tapping to acknowledge me. I remind him again and again that he isn’t doing any of this alone. He is keeping time in his own way, and I am keeping time in mine.
I have resumed life as best I can. I started to work as I once had, outside of the house, away from the bones. I moved him to a bedroom so he wouldn’t get hurt or so no one would hurt him. He is like a pet fish now, impossible to understand but wholly present, vacantly available in an abstract world we may never know. I clean up any white dust that comes off of him, collecting him in clear jars that I stack on shelves around him. Someday, he will be gone. All the bones will be gone. I am as gentle as I can be until then.
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles who has been published by Playboy, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Queen Mob’s, Eater, Popsugar, Los Angeles Magazine, and more. He loves dogs, champagne, and short shorts. You can find him at @1234KYLE5678.